Note: All photos in this post were provided by Teresa and Chris.
A few years ago, Minnesota natives Teresa and Chris moved over 3,000 miles across the country to Healy, Alaska. Healy’s rather famous neighbor is Denali National Park, which houses Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, and six million acres of wilderness.
The town is home to around 1,100 people, with associations (and jobs) split quite evenly between the Park and the coal mine. It’s also adjacent to protected wilderness and state land. Unsurprisingly, favorite pastimes of residents include trapping, hunting, snowmobiling and dog mushing.
Alaska is rather infamous for its brutal winters. When asked how she survives, Teresa’s advice is to wear “warm gloves, a warm hat and warm boots.” Sled dog cuddles probably help, too.
But for her, the arctic is her preferred climate. She has even made peace with the short winter days. “The darkness doesn’t bother me; there actually is light, just a very different kind. The sun might not come up for awhile, but the stars are brighter, the moon is radiant, and the sunrises and sunsets last for hours and hours.”
Teresa is the Marketing and Sales Coordinator for Camp Denali North Face Lodge, located in the heart of the Park. The picture below is actually the view from her office. In the summer, Chris works for the National Park Service; in the winter, he works with his pack of sled dogs, often hauling freight or guiding tours.
Chris has been a musher for 10 years. He has run dogs in places most people only ever see through pictures – the Northwest Passage, the Geographic North Pole, northeast Greenland, and Svalbard, Norway. Healy offered not only the perfect climate for raising sled dogs, but also a community of fellow mushers.
Chris and Teresa’s dog yard is currently home to 15 dogs, two who are retired. Chris describes their breeds as a “mixture of Canadian Inuit, Polar Husky and a wee bit of village dog.” The yard is narrow which “facilitates better group dynamics. Any four dogs in the yard can touch, play and wrestle with each other at any time. This means that any drama can be worked out in the off-season. It also makes for a gauntlet of dog hugs when trying to do chores.”
For dogs born into the pack, their first year is spent running loose in the yard, becoming familiar with the pack hierarchy, as well as simply having the chance to play like any puppy should. Around nine months, they begin some light work. Since the dogs are built for arctic weather, their activity level declines significantly during the warmer months. Their calorie intake is cut in half to maintain their weight, they are brushed constantly and work on unleashed runs.
Winter training is when the dogs shine. The first run takes place in mid-September, when temperatures are back down to the mid-30s. Early runs are short, with a focus on commands and discipline, rather than distance. As training progresses, the focus switches to endurance by adding weight to the sled and miles to the trail.
A typical winter training day starts at 7 a.m. After their breakfast (about a pound of frozen meat that is high in fat and protein), and an hour or so to digest, the work begins. Chris explains their routine:
“Once I enter the yard with their harnesses they erupt into a controlled chaos. Imagine a border collie and their favorite stick. I get the team harnessed (between 10 and 12 dogs depending on the day) and start cutting dogs loose two at a time to be clipped onto the gang line. My team has become pretty good at being loose during launch, but there are still a few that feel the need to blow off some steam by running laps around the yard before being clipped in. When everybody is hooked up, I pull the anchor and we attain Mach 3 as we leave the yard. Even after 10 years of running dogs, I still find the launch both exciting and terrifying.”
Teresa, who was introduced to dog mushing by Chris, vividly remembers her first solo run. While she was initially nervous and worried something might happen to the dogs, those feelings soon disappeared.
“Once we launched and they got their jollies out, it was so therapeutic. Just traveling along with hard-working and lovable dogs. It was so rewarding to be on the runners and have the dogs working for me. It’s what they do best, and it was something very special to be a part of.”
Teresa and Chris also have a “pet” dog, a rescued Pitbull mix named Tank. He often plays and wrestles with Warpig, the pack’s main leader. Chris credits Tank’s small size and goofy nature for making him the perfect playmate. Fortunately, he is also quite fond of the snow and enjoys diving head first into drifts. The video below shows his introduction to the pack.
While picking a favorite dog might seem like an impossible task, Chris is partial to Mittens. At birth, she was stuck in the womb and Chris helped her out; they have been attached ever since. And while, he has “never had a female (human or dog) cause as much hassle, heartache and strife as Mittens…when it’s 30 below zero, dark, blowing snow and the trail is gone; Mittens comes to the rescue.”