Contributed By: Anna Sofia KeilParticipant, Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals
For a moment everything was white and cold and I saw the crowns of majestic trees above my head. At least until a Snowmobile whizzed by and left a white cloud behind it. It was one of these moments that made me realize I really was in Alaska.
I fell in love with this special place when I first arrived here. With the wildness, the wideness and the locals’ unique mentality. In Alaska everything is slightly different. It is likely that you´ll see a Moose crossing the street in the middle of a town, in the wintertime you have to get up two hours before you start your day in order to plug in your car because temperatures can drop to negative 40 degrees and since life can be challenging, people help each other a lot.
Through my volunteer work, monitoring Beluga whales at the Kenai bluffs, I got to know one of the local dog mushers. We met at Kaladi brother’s café, which is a local coffee shop and known as THE place to meet people in Alaska, and talked about this unique sport and opportunities to volunteer.
Later in the day I drove my little, blue Chevy Malibu up to Cohoe, where the dog kennel is located. It turned out to be a beautiful place, in the middle of the forest, at the Cohoe beach. The challenging part was finding the way to Cohoe without a phone signal. All I had to find the kennel was a piece of paper with instructions which turns to take and how many miles to go.
When I finally made it to the kennel, we immediately started getting the dog team ready for a run. In the pack, the dogs get really excited, which makes it an adventure to handle them. Dog mushing is a very special, unpredictable sport. Every training is different, due to weather conditions, level of training and the behavior of the four legged athletes.
One team usually consists of 12 dogs, in Alaska most of the time Alaska Husky’s, which run in pairs on the left and on the right or the “Gangline”. Two of them are “Leaders”, which are the most experienced dogs and trained to react to voice signals. Young dogs run further behind in order for them to learn from the older dogs. It is important to know and accommodate the individual needs of every single dog in order to avoid complications. The Musher stands on the sled, which he steers by shifting his body weight and giving the lead dogs voice signals.
Most Mushers are training towards participating at the Iditarod race, which is the longest Sled Dog race in the world which has been held in Alaska every year since its inception in the year 1973. It runs more than 1850 km from Anchorage to Nome, partly following the historic Iditarod Trail. The race is held to commemorate a 1925 dog sled expedition that brought vaccine to Nome to combat an outbreak of diphtheria.
My duties at the dog kennel include chores at the kennel, taking care of the dogs and assistance in training. My personal highlight is it to run the dogs through Alaska’s wilderness and enjoy the beautiful landscape from this unique perspective. Sometimes I find myself in a snowbank on the side of the trail because the dogs are really fast and I can´t always catch up with them when jumping onto the sled. Sometimes the whole team waits for a single dog that lost its little snow booties. And if it weren’t for the fact that the ice-cold wind was constantly beating in my face, I would sometimes cry with happiness. Because I can hardly believe how beautiful Alaska is, how proud these four-legged champions are, how small I am in this huge country and how lucky I am to be in this special place right now.
The true heroes of the Iditarod are the dogs that saved the lives of many in 1925 by bringing much-needed medicine all the way to Nome. The dogs that still bring humans and their canine companions together today and are the heart soul of the Iditarod which is an important social event here in Alaska.
Through my work with the dogs, I have studied novels such as “Wolf’s Blood” and “Call of the Wilderness” by Jack London with a different attitude. And I’m beginning to understand how the author inspired by the spirit of that country and shared it with the world. For me, the spirit of Alaska is its vastness, the mentality of the people and the belief that team spirit can withstand icy challenges.