Don’t get carried away! Musher Iditarod tells stories of the trail

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Blair Braverman is Associate Editor-in-Chief of Outside Magazine. She also appeared on the Discovery Naked and Afraid reality show, in which she and a partner were left in a remote area of ​​South Africa without clothing, food or water for three weeks. // Harper Collins, Nathaniel Wilder

Blair Braverman, an adventurer and sled dog runner who completed the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod Alaska race in 2019, has some tips for aspiring mushers. Rule # 1, she says, is never to let go of the sled or the dogs.

“People have this idea that if you let go – if you fall off the sled or if the sled tips over and let go – the dogs will be waiting for you,” Braverman says. “But, in fact, they’ll just be happier [without you]because they can run even faster, and they will go on and you will be left completely alone in the mountains without even your supplies that are in the sled. “

Braverman says the first time she drove a sled she tipped over seven times. Once she was dragged a quarter mile, bouncing on her stomach, struggling to hold on until she could straighten the sled.

“You’re just covered in snow, just snow stuck all over your face,” she said. “Eventually the dogs will either slow down because they come up to a climb or something or, if you have a good bond with them, they’ll figure out you’re in trouble and they’ll slow down to kind of let you back down. “

In his new book, Dogs on the track, which she co-wrote with her husband and running partner, Quince Mountain, Braverman describes a year in the life of their dogs. The book focuses less on running and more on what it takes to keep dogs healthy, happy, and working together.

“Before people see sled dogs in action, the question they always ask me is, ‘How do you run dogs? “She says.” And as soon as they see them in action, the question changes and they start asking, ‘How do I get them to stop?’ “

Braverman’s previous memoirs are Welcome to the fucking ice cube.


Interview highlights

How she got into dog sledding

I grew up in Northern California, Davis, and I had a mom who was obsessed with Alaska. She had all these Alaskan books on her shelf and I would sit there and leaf through them on the hottest summer days and somehow imagine what that might be like. And so, when I was 18, I moved to the Norwegian Arctic to attend a folk school, which is a one-year non-university boarding school where students study something that brings them joy. … In this case, I went to a school with about 40 students in a village of about 40 people and learned dog sledding. And it was very secluded and they pushed us down. We were there spending nights alone, in 30 [degrees] below [Fahrenheit], and it was amazing. It shaped my life.

On how many dogs she has

I’ll tell you a secret: you never ask a musher how many dogs he has because you’ll never get a clear answer. You won’t have a number. You will have a roundabout hour-long conversation on the subject: “Well, we have so many retirees and we have so many puppies and we are raising a few dogs, and one of our dogs is with a friend and the families of. home are only here. for a little while. “You’ll just get stories and not a number. And the secret is to ask a musher,” How many dogs do you feed? That’s how you get a number.

We currently have 24 dogs at home. They are a lot of work and a lot of love. We spend an incredible amount of our time in our lives working with dogs and taking care of dogs. And it is a great pleasure and a lot of effort. For example, for food, we just got a bunch of bear fat from the taxidermist here in town and we cut it out on a bandsaw to make little pieces that we’re going to feed them all over. winter when they want a little fat or a snack. They eat croquettes. They eat butter. They eat fish. They eat a lot of wild meat.

About Alaskan Huskies, the breed of athletic dogs that race sled

Most people imagine huskies and they imagine Siberian huskies which are kind of beautiful and very fluffy, and they all have beautiful masks. And nowadays, most mushers actually work with some kind of husky called an Alaskan husky. And what he is is a very fast, very enthusiastic kind of dog that does well in cold weather.

One way to think about this is that a long time ago in the far north people started to breed the most beautiful dogs to the most beautiful dogs, and these became Siberian huskies. And others bred the fastest, most athletic dogs, and these became Alaskan huskies. So they have a similar heritage, but they have drifted away from each other a bit. And so Alaskan huskies are interesting, because they were never bred to a standard of appearance. They were only bred to a standard of health and athleticism. And so they come in all colors, they come in beautiful patterns, and their ears can be straight or drooping, and they have curly or straight tails. Some of our dogs are yellow and some of them look like black labs to people. And some of them think they’re German Shepherds, but they’re all actually the same kind of dog – and what they are, he’s an ultra, very efficient runner, basically.

People think sled dogs have to be big and strong because they think of the sport as pulling, but it’s really more like running. When people measured how much weight a sled dog pulls in the kind of events we do in the type of training we do, each dog actually pulls only about five pounds at a time, once that the sled sets in motion, so what are they are ultra marathon runners and they are quite small and they are quite skinny. If you can imagine what a human ultramarathon looks like, then translate that into the form of a dog in a way.

On the role of the lead dog, who runs ahead of the canine team

People think of the lead dog as “the alpha”, like a truly bossy dog, and the lead dog can be bossy, but generally what you look for in a lead dog is a dog that likes open trails. . They are very independent. They love to see a trail and hike it and make the decisions for themselves about where to go. And they really have a close connection with you, the musher. …

The way I imagine it is if you imagine kindergarten kids walking around and there is a teacher on each side and all the kids are holding hands in a line and the teacher on each side has them. keep from running down the road or doing anything completely ridiculous, my lead dog, Pepe, and I are those teachers at either end of the line when we are mushing. She and I are in cahoots to make all the other chaotic, energetic dogs go in the right direction or in the same direction, without chasing squirrels, things like that.

She very rarely disagrees with me, but when she does, she’s right. What she does very, very well is find trails when they’re buried in snow and when we’re in storms or rough conditions, she really thrives in that kind of challenge because she loves to use her brain and will zigzag across the trail and use her paws and nose to figure out exactly where we need to go. And under conditions like that, I’m not going to question her at all.

Why mid-distance runs (200-400 mi.) Are relaxing compared to a 200 mi run. the adventure alone

If I want to do a 200-mi. adventure with my dogs which they are physically quite capable of, and just leaving home, need to spend so much time finding a trail. I need to figure out if and how I am going to cross freeways. How will I get dog food to different points on the trail? What if I need a vet? How can I get a vet on call if a dog has an emergency?

There are all these things that I think about that are so complicated. And if you sign up for a 200-mi. race, these things are all taken care of. It’s like a nice trail that is maintained and you get a map and the dogs are excited because they are surrounded by other dog teams which they don’t often get a chance to do and they like other dogs. And there are checkpoints and your food will be waiting for you at the checkpoints, your kibble and your meat for you to prepare. And there are always vets out there who are volunteers who just want to answer any question you might have and it’s incredibly safe that way. And if you disappear into the wild, someone will notice, and it’s so relaxing. It’s such a relaxing way to have an adventure with your dogs. And that was the thing that didn’t click for me before I did it myself. I thought, “Oh, it’s just about trying to win.” And in fact, it’s actually about having a structure to come together with the community and have an adventure.

On what happens to the energy of dogs during the Iditarod

They start off with a completely chaotic energy and enthusiasm, and they become calmer over the course of the three days. You might notice some fatigue and then they start to get stronger again. Scientists who do a lot of research on sled dogs have called this “flipping a metabolic switch.” In fact, their metabolism changes in very interesting ways where they are able to repair their muscles while they are in motion. So scientists are taking blood samples to try to understand how this happens and how, for example, we could help humans achieve this kind of sporting feat. But as a musher, you just feel it in the energy of your team. You can see that they are starting to adjust to the trail in a really interesting way and their fatigue actually decreases at some point.

On his response to criticism of the Iditarod and dog sledding from animal rights activists

If someone does not treat their animals humanely, there should be no place for them in this sport. Something that I feel very, very strongly. There is no place for that. The goal of this sport is to be with dogs who do something they love. And if someone doesn’t have their dog’s best interests at heart, I don’t want to be in community with them. I think running can be an amazingly positive thing for dogs, and that’s the only reason I would want to do it. And the community of mushers that I love and believe in and which means so much to me and to the sport feel all these values ​​very, very strongly.

I saw more companion dogs that I cared about than sled dogs. But of course I’m not going to say that it doesn’t happen, but I think it’s the job of the institutions within sport to make sure there isn’t a place for it.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To find out more, visit Fresh Air.
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