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Some decades ago, before the villagers of Alaska abandoned their trusty dog teams for faster transportation, a bush pilot landed his large ski plane on a frozen river with a load of freight for a small community. As he taxied, his landing gear suddenly sank into deep overflow hidden beneath the snow. Slush instantly froze onto the skis, immobilizing the plane. The engine could
not budge it. (And you thought that a dogsled in overflow was bad!) Out came the villagers with their dogs. Two teams of forty dogs each were hooked up, one team on each ski, and they towed the hapless craft ignominiously to safety.
Ironically, airplanes ultimately replaced dog teams as the preferred means of long-distance transportation in the North, while snow machines took over travel closer to home. As mushing evolved from a method of transportation into a sport, most sled dogs became smaller, racier, thinner-coated, and more mentally intense. In some areas, however, working sled dogs still patter down the trails of the north, doing chores, moving freight or tourists, bringing hunters out onto the sea ice, and providing serious transportation on traplines and in remote areas.
Most working dogs weigh 50 to 90 pounds, with some ranging over 100 pounds. Like their racing counterparts, working dogs must be tough, sound, and fairly matched to their teammates in speed. Rhythm, gaits, speeds, uniformity, and many other factors important to racing are much less critical, while a calm temperament, pulling ability and tough feet really pay
off. Dogs that work in extreme weather or are asked to camp out must be well-furred to prevent frostbite, hypothermia and weight-loss, without being so shaggy that theyoverheat easily. Decide what you want the dogs to do in advance of building your team. Mushers heading into the backcountry need good trailbreakers that can also handle brush, ice, water, and uneven footing,
and leaders that can make their own trails through open, trackless areas.
Unlike racing and recreational teams, the working team often runs whether it is beneficial for the dogs or not. Depending on how much is asked of the dogs, they may or may not need a top-notch diet, but fine-tuning of their diet and condition is rarely required. They don't need to be as lean as race dogs; slower speeds reduce their risk of injury and a little extra fat gives them more endurance and warmth during demanding treks. Neutering and spaying non-breeding dogs really pays off, especially since they eat less-a big benefit if they need to haul several days' rations of their own food.
WORKING FOR WAGES
Working teams still patrol certain areas of the north. Alaska's Denali National Park maintains a government-paid team used for patrolling the backcountry, opening trails for recreational use, making contact with backcountry users, hauling supplies to remote sites and helping researchers. In addition to logging about 1,200 miles during winter patrols lasting up to six weeks, the dogs participate in summer demonstrations for the 40,000 people who visit the kennel.
The Sirius Sled Patrol from Denmark, twelve carefully-selected men living an extremely isolated life, patrols the Northeast Greenland National Park by dog team, guarding it against illegal activities. Using traditional Greenlandic sleds pulled by ninety-pound Greenland (Inuit) dogs, six teams travel from January through early summer, covering up to 2,400 miles
throughout an area three times the size of Denmark. Polar bears pose a constant threat, but winter storms present the greatest danger. One musher froze to death a short distance from the base when caught by a blizzard. Another drifted over a hundred miles on an ice floe that broke off the shorefast ice, and although a helicopter finally rescued him, his team was lost. According to an
article in Issue 4, 2006, of Iceland Review, the work is considered so dangerous that each man carries not only a pistol for bear protection, but amphetamines and morphine so if he loses his team he can either attempt a forced long march home-or make the prospect of freezing to death less painful!
Some tourist businesses hire mushers and their teams, primarily for offering sled rides for a fee. For instance, large-scale summer glacier tour operators in Alaska hire them to give tourists a brief taste of mushing. Employment of this nature reduces your investment in equipment, advertising, and insurance, but also limits your independence. The work is demanding and repetitive and often boring for the dogs, making your ability to keep your dogs happy essential.
DOG TEAM FOR HIRE
From the gold-rush days at the turn of the twentieth century until airplanes took over the mail routes in the 1930s and 1940s, "dog punchers" found employment by moving passengers, freight, and mail across much of Alaska, Canada, and parts of the northern United States. These days, finding a steady income with a dog team is considerably more difficult. Instead of freighting life's necessities, modern mushers must rely on special situations to provide work for their team. A musher and his team can hire out to a concessionaire in the tourist industry or, for a considerable investment, establish his or her own business and hire out directly to clients. Even when charging thousands of dollars for multiple-day trips or ten dollars per pound for freight, operators sometimes barely cover kennel costs. Many agree that the rewards come not in monetary form but in being out with the dogs and sharing a sport that they love.
Before starting a business, check applicable laws covering dogs, concessions, and the land that you want to travel through. Public areas may require insurance, concession fees, special permits or have other restrictions, or they may not even allow dogs. Some limit businesses to those with a concession for a specific area. Crossing private land requires permission from the
landowners. On all trails, you must treat skiers, snow machiners, and other users courteously. Your business does not give you title to the trail.
Remember, too, that this is a business, and if you do not operate it as such you could get into serious trouble. After dealing with advertising, bookkeeping, insurance, uncooperative or unhappy clients, bad help and countless other headaches, sledding may seem like the smallest part of your work!
Building up a good business requires an investment of several years' work, an effective advertising campaign, and the ability to run an outfit that is both reliable and exciting enough to build a good customer base so clients spread the word. Working for an experienced, well-run guide business for a year or more before starting your own can give you invaluable experience and helps you determine if this is something you really want to pursue on your own.
The Tourist Team
From five-minute sled rides to extended back country expeditions, and from the Yukon to Iceland's ice caps, mushing outfitters have experienced a boom in popularity. Some racing kennels offer short rides on wheeled rigs, getting paid while doing summer conditioning. If you intend to race competitively, you may need to warp the demands of your business to fit the
training needs of your team. In the July/August 2001 issue of Mushing Magazine, Linwood Fiedler explains that he gives his dogs a month off after providing summer tourist rides on a glacier, partly because the dogs have become too muscle-bound for racing.
The going rate of hire for a dog team varies, but it always sounds steep! In order to make a profit, your fees must cover not only immediate feeding and care of clients and dogs, but also the year-round cost of your kennel, vet bills, gear, advertising, hired help, insurance, cold weather clothing for clients, winter tents or cabins (guests must be pampered or they won't be back), and countless other investments. Each trip requires precise planning and preparation in advance-right down to which dogs will best fill each position in every team. Have some alternatives in mind in case of extreme weather, lack of snow, dog problems, guests that can't handle the trip after all, and other unexpected twists in the action. Because hauling passengers, gear, and a week's supply of dog food may not be realistic, long excursions may require support from extra dog teams or snow machines, or you will need to cache supplies in advance.
Clients ride in your sled, or follow the guide with their own sled and small team. You must match the team and trip to the client's abilities. Most clients can handle four well-trained dogs on day trips, but six dogs per sled may be needed for longer trips, with the guide running a larger team. Larger teams become exponentially more difficult for novices to handle, but clients
with some experience might want a couple more dogs on an extended expedition when their sled must carry a load. For groups of more than two or three people, a second guide and team following behind helps keep everything on track. If you suspect that the client's enthusiasm surpasses his or her skills, play it safe. Sometimes dogs that don't pull hard pay off here, so you
can give a demanding client more dogs but no more power. Be prepared to handle with grace, and without patronizing, people who are smart, dumb, rude, insensitive, too brave, too timid, obnoxious, unthinking, or ignorant.
If you cannot cheerfully handle all kinds of people, you are in the wrong business.
(Past experience in the tourism industry proves very helpful.) Commercial ventures involving clients must be insured-a skyrocketing cost, unfortunately-and customers must sign a statement of non-liability.
While this might not stand up in court if negligence on your part can be proven, it can help in the event of a lawsuit. You must be experienced in people handling, dog driving (with at least several serious years' experience), wilderness camping, survival, and first aid in addition to having a sound business plan. Cell or satellite phones are essential for emergencies-a lack
of communications could be seen as negligence. You must have an intimate knowledge of the land you travel through, the vagaries of local weather, and the ability to catch a seemingly-endless string of loose teams that have bucked off their riders! These responsibilities cannot be taken too seriously.
The Dogs. Dogs used with clients must be friendly, happy, gentle, well trained,
properly conditioned and cared for impeccably. They need to accept being handled and fussed over by many different people, including those who know nothing about dogs and who behave in shockingly inappropriate ways. In many cases, you will be exposing clients to dog mushing for the first time, which puts their impression of the sport (and perhaps its very future) into your hands. Fifty- to seventy-pound dogs offer enough power without being too big for most clients to handle, but it is possible to use larger dogs if they are gentle and easy to control. Avoid dogs that fight, which will leave guests with a terrible impression, especially if force must be used to break
them up. Any dog with a history of snapping at or biting people poses a huge liability concern. A racing attitude and speed can actually be a hindrance if a non-musher drives the team; however, many dogs from racing kennels are used in the tourist industry, especially if the client simply rides in the sled.
Look for endurance and a good attitude. You will need to squeeze the most runs you can out of each dog during the paying season, particularly if you do extended back-to-back tours.
Fully train and condition your dogs before clients arrive so you can keep discipline to a minimum in front of your guests. Training dogs to walk on a leash, lie down in harness and stay on command, or to stand nicely lined out, helps reduce chaos. Do this kind of training well in advance. (Start working on this when the dogs are tired after a run, not when they are full of beans and vinegar!) You'll need enough dogs to fulfill all your advertised activities, plus a few additional ones to trade out any tired or injured ones.
Cross-back harnesses are functional, easy to use, and resist tangles, but nearly any working-style harnesses will suffice. Medium-sized, well-behaved sleds (as recommended for novices and recreational mushers in Chapter 3) prove easier for clients to handle than small, squirrelly, or very large ones. Toboggan sleds work well, although some passengers have trouble climbing out of them unless provided with a low seat. Except for brief trips, provide
warm quilts or sleeping bags for passengers to wrap up in, and make sure they all wear adequate winter clothing.