If you were one of the 46,117 visitors who came to the kennels this summer, you know what it's like. There's a general feeling of chaos as hundreds of people mill around the dogs before one of the demonstrations given at 10:00 am, 2:00 pm, and 4:00 pm every day from early June to Labor Day weekend.
The dogs lounge lazily in the sun, ignoring the visitors passing by on the other side of the ropes or vying for their attention. Interpretive signs, historic sleds, and other information are put on display in the sled room to entertain and educate. The summer kennels staff are busily answering questions, providing directions, and making sure the demonstrations run smoothly - from fitting the dogs into historic leather harnesses to making sure visitors are safely tucked into the stands to watch the show.
Most would be tempted to think that once Labor Day passes, and with it the last of the summer demonstrations, the chaos would subside. In a sense this is true, as most visitors have returned home and most of the summer park staff has left with them. But for us here at the kennels, there is a different kind of chaos setting in. We just can't wait for winter.
Fall is a pretty short season here in interior Alaska, and while we're waiting for enough snowflakes to fall and cover our trails, it is the perfect time to get work done. All summer gear needs to be cleaned and stored, while all winter gear is pulled out and looked over for repairs. The heavy, bulky leather harnesses are replaced by sleek nylon ones. The historic, all-wood, basket-style summer sled is cleaned, varnished, and stored away while all the toboggan-style winter sleds are pulled out to be taken apart and repaired. As for the dogs, summer vacation is over and ATV training is in full swing.
ATV training is a good bit of work in and of itself. Here's what a typical day looks like when we take the dogs out for a run. We feed the dogs in the morning like usual, do an extensive health check to make sure every dog is fit to run, load all the dogs in the dog box, load the ATVs onto the trailer, drive the whole ensemble to the destination of the day, unload the ATVs and dogs and gear, run the dogs, reload the dogs and ATVs, drive back to the kennels, unload the dogs again, feed the dogs, and go home. Not much time for even a snack in there.
This may seem like a hectic schedule that never lets up. It may seem like we're always in one training or another, constantly waiting for the day we can hop on a sled. But when it really comes down to it, the kennels staff would not trade it for anything. The chaos can get overwhelming, but if there is one thing I've learned from mushing it is to always be thinking on your feet. Every day (and season) is different, with new challenges and hurdles to overcome, but also with new discoveries and joys to be had.
Now that the snow has come, the ATVs have been put away and the dog sleds are out and on the trails. So if you are one of the many people to have visited us in the crazy summer days, wherever you've returned home to, keep in mind that we're still here busily keeping the tradition alive all year long. Stay tuned for our winter stories here on this blog.