Dog Day Afternoon

Linda Burton posting from Juneau, Alaska – “Excuse me, but what exactly is a musher?” I tentatively asked after our instructor wanted to know if there were any questions. Grandson Sam and I were sitting on wooden benches in the “Pre-lim” tent, getting our instructions on how to behave around the dogs. It was Sled Dog Summer Camp for us; a chance to meet the puppies and the grown-up dogs that spend their summer training to pull a racing sled. “I’m a musher,” smiled our instructor; “a musher is the person who drives the dog sled.” A musher, ah. Austin Barr was talking; he’s spending his summer in Sheep Creek Dog Camp, high in the Alaska mountains above Gastineau Channel; living in a tent with a fake wooden front designed to look like an old mining camp; working with other mushers training the 120 high-energy Alaskan huskies we see outside the tent So how did this former Californian wind up here?

“It was the housing market,” Austin laughed. “I was a carpenter and when the bottom fell out, I decided it was time to look at another way of life. I’d always had an interest in Alaska. And I’ve always liked dogs. I was pretty good at training my own pets. It just fell together and here I am.” Austin’s mushing career began as a handler here at Sheep Creek two years ago. “I’m assembling my own team now,” he explained. “We’re learning the ropes together.”

Enough talk, we were eager to get outside; Sam is a dog lover too. (His dog Kramer came into the household as a pup the same summer he was born; they’ve grown up together.) Someone had pulled the dog cart into place and started the process of placing the dogs in position to be harnessed; I was surprised at their apparent calm demeanor, though a bit of feistiness showed through. Austin walked down the line speaking to each of the dogs; the fondness they had for each other apparent. There was Hester and Barack and Moe. We met Sky and Tonga; Willow and Wolverine. Austin explained how he studied their habits, movements, and strengths in each day of training; he watched how they worked together. “I’m looking for a leader,” he said. “A dog that has good instincts.”

As the dogs were being snapped into place, we began to get into the cart; Sam jumped into the front seat, I sat down just behind. When the dogs were ready, Austin hopped to the driver’s position on the back of the cart and sure enough, the next word we heard was “Mush!” Yapping in obvious delight, the dogs pulled together as one, and the cart circled round the drive, then down the road we went. This was fun! Austin and the dogs worked together effortlessly; when they veered towards a side road he commanded “Straight” and they followed his direction. When he wanted them to make a turn, he used the “Gee” and “Haw” commands; I recognized those signals for right and left that my grandfather used years ago when plowing with the mule.

Sam’s Photo

It was a smooth ride through the high mountain forest behind the happy dogs. The cart we were in was specifically designed to hold a group of people without being too heavy for the dogs; it allows them to stay in training and build muscle when there is no snow. We coasted along, I couldn’t say how fast, slowing a bit on the uphill climb; flying on the downhill slopes. And then we came to a puddle. The dogs stopped right there. They began playing like children; they lapped the water, they splatted belly flat, they rolled over with feet in the air. Hilarious! Sam laughed, I laughed, everyone on the cart was laughing; and believe it or not, it sounded as though one of the dogs was laughing too. “That’s Hester,” Austin told us. “She loves to play. I let them stop here every day for break time. Since they are built for snow and ice even the cool temperatures we have here in the mountains are almost too warm for them.”

A jaunty ride back in; time to walk the line and thank the dogs for a wonderful ride. Austin walked ahead, advising which dog would be most receptive to our attentions. I was amazed to see that as each dog was released from its harness, it went straight to the square-box house marked with its name. “They know their food and water is waiting,” their feeder laughed.

Hot chocolate for us; into the tent for more talk about dogs, and racing, and that most popular sporting event in all of Alaska, the Iditarod. But it’s only one of many dog sled racing opportunities. “I’m aiming for the Yukon Quest in 2016,” Austin grinned. The Yukon Quest, he explained, is considered the most difficult race of all. The thousand-mile course follows the route of the historic 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush, mail delivery, and transportation routes between Fairbanks, Dawson City, and Whitehorse. Sam climbed onto the sled stored in the corner of the tent. “You’ll really ride on one of these for a thousand miles?” he said. “You bet,” Austin answered, “at sixty below!”

A visit to the puppies next, the tail-wagging frisky 6-monthers that have already begun a simple form of training; the 6-weekers, that just wanted to nuzzle close; and the newborn, whose mother reluctantly agreed to let us see, never taking her eyes off her pup. Too cute. Which one of these little snuggle babies will grow up to race across ice and snow to fame and glory someday?