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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dog sledding with champions

Know who Mitch Seavey is? Since 1995, eight times he’s placed in the top 20 in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He won in 2004. Last September I trained some of his dogs.

Well, OK. I didn’t train them, per se, but I was part of their training. I sat on a wheeled, six-seater “sled” that a team of 12 dogs pulled around the Seavey training grounds.

After dropping Mark at the docks in downtown Seward, Alaska, for his deep-sea fishing trip, I arrived at Seavey’s site 20 minutes early. It’s back a gravel drive. Two small wood-slatted shacks sit in a clearing, behind which is a dense, green forest—like a jungle. Such lush vegetation isn’t what I had pictured for Alaska, even in September. The barking coming from the jungle is quite raucous, and intriguing: pure eagerness without a hint of malice or suspicion, making me—and all the other guests who are there early—want to tramp through the jungle to get to the dogs.

Soon enough, a young man gathers the 23 of us waiting guests and splits us into three groups and we follow on the short path back to the barking. The dogs are not barking for us but are voicing their willingness to pull to the drivers unhitching dogs that hauled the last batches of guests around.

On a quarter of an acre, by my estimate, are 86 dogs and their shelters. Each dog is chained to the upper, short end of a pivoting metal rod that stands about four feet tall, allowing them to run around their own house. The houses are simply plastic 55-gallon drums laid on their sides and propped on lengths of 2-x-4’s at both ends to keep them off the ground. Most dogs are active, trotting around their drums, watching the lucky dogs getting hitched to pull, wishing they were going too. Dogs close enough to the action are standing at attention, ears perked, tails high but still, seemingly so interested in the activity of the driver connecting the harnessed dogs to the main pull.

The driver explains that he’s pairing inexperienced dogs next to veteran dogs so that the newbees can learn from them. He also explains that mutts make the best sled dogs. We guests had in mind the sturdy huskies. The mutts look like they have a bit of husky in them, but they appear quite more lean, similar to how muscular sprinters compare to long-distance runners.

As the driver puts each dog into its harness, it’s obvious which are veterans: They flip their front legs, one at a time, into the harness as the driver holds it out. We can imagine them thinking, “OK. I’m in. Fasten this thing and let’s get going. COME ON!”

Other dogs are hesitant, not knowing what to do, and the driver must pick up each front leg and guide it through. The dogs, once in their harnesses, either pull the driver to the sled or are easily led. One, however, seems frightened about the prospect of pulling: ears down, curved back, tail between his legs. Once hooked next to his experienced partner, he seems to loosen up.

The driver takes his spot behind us and, before ordering the dogs to leave, tells us the harnessed dogs that are barking are fairly new to this. The experienced dogs know to conserve their energy.

A tangle of trails leads deeper into the forest, and the 11 dogs deftly follow their leader’s last-second commands: “ha” for left turns, “ghee” for right. Some inexperienced dogs jump the main pull—so that they and their partner are pulling from the same side— and we stop every 3 or 4 minutes so that our driver can correct that. Others have an odd, sideways gait that he says they grow out of.

The ride lasts 20 minutes before the tour continues on to the puppies. Just 18 days old, they don’t have much personality and would rather stay by their mom than be handled. Bummer.

A small stage is next to the puppy area, and upturned pieces of wood serve as audience seating. Most of us stake a stump and watch Robin model gear. Robin, a champion lead dog, has this cushy job now because her paw was injured in a collision with a moose—though she runs occasionally with a young lead dog for training.

You know how some dogs, usually small ones, proudly wear sweaters and hats while others seem embarrassed? Robin was in between, depending on what she was modeling. She was good with the booties and the torso wrap worn to keep dogs warm during the race. But the hat made her hang her head and show her big puppy-dog eyes—literally! The hat was a joke. Racing dogs don’t wear hats. Male dogs do wear wraps to keep their penises warm though.

A driver takes 15,000 booties for 16 dogs to be in the Iditarod. That many wear out in 1000 miles. The booties cannot be made of more durable material because dogs sweat from their paw pads.

I love the show and regret that I have to cut it a couple minutes short because I have tickets to Fox Island for lunch and kayaking this afternoon. I can’t miss the boat.

An easy drive south our first day in Alaska

We spend most of our first day in Alaska driving south on the Seward Hwy. Just south of Anchorage, the highway runs between ocean to the west and mountains to the east. These mountains are not snow-covered, but to the north we see mountains blanketed with snow. They seem to emerge from the middle of the sea.
Each several-mile segment along the highway offers a hiking opportunity. Mark and I stop for a short hike along a Boy Scout rock trail.

Obviously, few people take the trail; the tall mountain weeds are thick and tough to get through in some areas. We forge our way in and hike to a spot overlooking the highway we just traveled. Up a little dried mud path, past some boulders and young trees, we climb and scramble and slip over rocks: my favorite type of hiking. But the afternoon is wearing on and we have far to go yet.

At Beluga Point we see no whales breeching, but one traveler whose scope is trained to the east lets us look through it to see a mountain goat and her two kids, just white specks to my naked eye. A Harley rider from Michigan, who’s riding north, tells us the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Park, just a little further south, is worth a visit.

We pay $10 apiece to drive through. A small caribou herd grazes; a stinky porcupine roots around; a black bear is being bored; moose, adults and youngsters, lie lined up along the fence; and an owl, an elk and an eagle do what they do. The lone action in the park is in the grizzly-bear encampment.

The three bears have 18 acres to roam, but lucky for us, two, a brother and sister, are hanging out at the homestead: a little cabin with a pond out front. She’s sunning herself behind the cabin, belly-down on a huge log, chin out, eyes closed, limbs dangling. It’s like the entrance fee pays for tranquilizers for all animals except Brother Bear. He’s playing in the pond. We can see a stump barely sticking up from the water, and he is just to the side of it jumping on all four paws on what we assume to be a branch he’s trying to break off. He’s enjoying himself and putting on quite a show. But we have far to go yet.

I drive to give Mark and break, and soon we’re right behind a tour bus. Great. Seriously, great because it slows us down and I can enjoy the scenery. (Mark’s resting.)

Mountains abut both side of the highway, and the glaciers among them are more plentiful the further south we’ve come. From what I see in my side mirror, the ride north is going to be even more spectacular.

Are circuitous routes an airline industry ploy?

It’s never made sense to me why a flight costs less the more legs to it there are. Mark and I weathered two layovers on a recent trip to Anchorage, Alaska: one in Atlanta, one in Seattle. Making two stops cost $100 per person less than making only one stop. The cost of a direct flight was so prohibitive that had we chosen that route, only one of us would have made the trip. It was that expensive.

Why flying multiple layovers doesn’t make sense—

1. The more layovers, the more chances the airline has to lose the bag.

2. We got drinks and snacks on each leg, sometimes twice, and though the expense of 15 peanuts and a Coke is minimal, the cost multiplied by a million travelers adds up.

3. Flying the close-to 450-pounds that equals Mark, me and our luggage to superfluous airports has to carry a cost.

4. We earned frequent flier miles for each leg of the trip. The more free travel earned, the less profit for the airline, I would think.

5. Personnel had to check us in—scan our boarding passes—each time we got on a plane. Baggage handlers had to unload and route our checked bag (one great big bag for the both of us). It’s my understanding that airlines charge a (what I call) annoyance fee for each bag checked and prefer folks

o make reservations online

o use the Internet to precheck-in up to 24 hours prior to flight

o collect their boarding passes and baggage claim numbers from kiosks at the airport

All this, I presume, is so that use of employees is minimized. So why program in multiple legs of a trip and the resulting overuse of personnel when a direct—or more direct—flight would minimize that employ?

Where is the efficiency in this? What’s the advantage? Honestly, I can think of no reason that every effort isn’t made on the part of the airlines to get folks to fly direct. It seems like such a money saver, but I’m surely missing something. They wouldn’t prefer we take multiple flights to reach our destinations simply to inconvenience us. Would they? If anyone can enlighten me, I’d love to hear from you. libbi@elizabethevansfryer.com. I will share thoughts in a future article.