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Mush!

I can’t believe that no one has written about going mushing.

Last week Tara, Zach, and I joined a local KNOM volunteer on one of his tri-weekly dog runs. He’s training for Iditarod qualifiers, and is starting to get into full season runs. He owns three dog teams: one for himself, one that belongs to his daughter for the Junior Iditarod, and a team of Greenlandic dogs that they race as a hobby. The dogs are kept chained to outside posts, where they won’t overheat, and are each given a doghouse and a bowl for food. It is clear that these dogs are not house pets – indeed, they tend to destroy the houses that they are kept in – but athletes. They consume upwards of 10,000 calories per day and are pure muscle.

The view from the four-wheeler

The view from the four-wheeler

To train his team, he hooks the dogs to the front of his four-wheeler and drives between seven and ten miles per hour for twenty miles. The dogs run through all kinds of rough terrain, including through water, up the surrounding mountains, and through an asphalt mine. They wear reflectors on their harnesses so that when they cross a highway – which they did several times – they are visible to oncoming traffic.  There is no way to predict the conditions of the Iditarod or qualifying trails, so the dogs have to be used to all kinds of environments to race effectively.  He coaches them the whole time, calling them by name to praise their focus or get them back in line.

I was not familiar with the Iditarod before applying to KNOM – somehow I missed that essential part of the standard middle school curriculum – so I didn’t appreciate the effort that goes into the race. Mushing, especially mushing through the mud as we were, is a messy business. By the end of the run, we were all freezing, covered in mud, and we smelled like a pack of wet and stinky dogs. I felt like I had personally run five miles, even though I had just sat in the four-wheeler for the entire trip. This sport is much more intense than anything you can play in open gym. It requires total devotion to a team that is not even of your species, and consumes more hours per week than a part time job. I haven’t gotten an exact figure on how much it costs to keep and race a team through the qualifiers and the Iditarod, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is astronomically expensive (the cost of the booties alone!).

Like everything else in Alaska, sport is more concentrated, more intense, and much higher-stakes than in the Lower 48. It costs much more money and takes much more time, and demands much more energy. Alaska is not a place for the feint of heart. I hope to build up even half the stamina of the people I’ve met here.