We continued on up the Parks Highway a few miles and came to the area where the 2015 fire had been. Black matchsticks that had once been spruce and deciduous trees stood stark over ground still bare and dry. It was not pretty. We took a side road and drove to the west, into the heart of the burned area. Soon we saw where many of the mushers who lived out there were busily rebuilding, The ground is still raw and barren. Dogs are staked by their neat little houses with no shade so they dig deep holes and tunnels to find coolness when the sun shines,.It was overcast and sprinkling off and on that day. Unfinished houses, barns and other buildings stand, some just frames and trusses, others with siding in place but unpainted. It was not pretty but there was something affirming about the spirit and determination expressed in every bit of work. Phoenix-like, the community rises again and most of those people will continue to raise, train and run their dogs because that is their life.
We passed the Jonrowe place. At the ITC on Saturday Deedee had been joking about her deep tan. "There is no shade," she said. "Whatever I do outside is out in the sun. There's no shade." A short ways farther, we came to Jan Steves and Bob Chlupach's place. The house is nearing completion and a shed, also with raw outer walls, stands between the two dog yards. "His" are on one side and "hers" on the other. Although Bob apparently does not race now, he still trains and runs dogs and works with aspiring mushers of which Jan was one when they met a few years back. She was cleaning up the dog yard when we arrived and that was when I took the one picture. I then got too involved in talking and listening to take more. Maybe next time.
|Jan Steves in her dog yard|
It was very encouraging to me to hear some of what Bob had to say. He raced back in the first two decades and although he did not win he is still well respected in the mushing community and served for thirty years on the ITC rules committee. He cannot get back on now; perhaps some deem him too reactionary! However he is in full agreement on the 'carrying' issue and chided me for backing down on the Idita-Support page. I explained I did not want to alienate too many folks and was not sure for awhile that I was actually right.
Jan simply lights up when she talks about her dogs, about the feeling of racing through a snowy landscape, all alone except for your team and the beauty of the night. It has been a dream brought to life for her to come to Alaska and get involved with it. She's had a lot of personal issues besides being burned out --and they did not have insurance although they do now--but she is not about to give up racing and has entered for the 2017 Iditarod, did so on the 25th. Even after the very serious injuries she received in the accident early in the 2016 race, she is determined to musher up and go at it again. She's finished once and wants very much to do so again and start improving her record. You can bet I am rooting for her! She's now one of my heroines too.
They both agreed that I should not have any trouble finding a place to work for however long I can commit to doing so this fall. Kennels always need help and the middle and lower tier mushers cannot afford to pay much but are grateful for any support and help they can get. Running the qualifying and either of the two big races is hugely expensive and even if you win, until you amass some strong sponsors to help sustain you, you cannot exist on the prizes paid. For most if not almost all, the whole project truly is a labor of love.
Normally I am not at all in favor of dogs on chains. However this is pretty standard with the sled dogs. Each one has its own little house lined with straw for warmth and cushioning. They have their own food and water dishes and each is staked to a post a few feet from the house but with plenty of length to go in, romp around and dig! In every bunch there will be some that do not get along and others that share close bonds. If all were not restrained, there would be fights, sometimes serious.And if they were allowed to run loose some would be lost, chasing game or getting into other harm. About the only alternative, a separate chain link pen for each dog, would be terribly expensive. Anyway most dogs run daily for exercise and conditioning, are taken for a walk, or let out with a few friends while the musher watches and voice-controls them. They are not neglected or ignored! Many pets should be so fortunate.. Mother dogs with puppies are usually kept in a pen until weaning time and young puppies are often kept together for several months too.
At any rate, time flew by as we talked and drank coffee and I left feeling like I had more new friends. It was a very good experience and helpful as well. Bob has already made some suggestions that will improve my book and I think I can count on them for a recommendation when I start seeking a position for fall.
Helen and I took the afternoon to drive down below Palmer and Wasilla to the Eklutna area. It is a native settlement which also included Russians in the 1800s. Quite picturesque. However we drove up to Eklutna Lake, which supplies water for Anchorage. It is fed by a glacier which can no longer be reached by car since the road was closed and removed some years back. It was a beautiful place, very peaceful and quiet despite there being some people up boating, fishing and playing along the edges of the lake. I continue to be in awe of the natural beauty of Alaska, its astounding mountains which dwarf even our Rockies and so much water! You could almost be in New England, around the Great Lakes or in the northwestern states of the lower 48 but everything is just bigger and more, on the grandest scale!
Coming back to Palmer, we took the back road to avoid a traffic jam due to construction and rush hour traffic and Helen pointed out a few more things to me as we went along. I would have hated even more to see it end and say goodbye but there is no question that I will be back. Unless I pass away or become incapacitated much sooner than I expect there will be many more trips. I look forward to them all.
|Lake Eklutna, glacier out of sight to the right.|
|Mtns on north side of Lake Eklutna|