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Meet the Musher: Thom Swan and the Hedlund Husky Part I

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I'm a large, hairless allegedly intelligent primate in Two Rivers, Alaska with 21 sled dogs, 2 cautious cats, a very nervous house rabbit and the most patient wife on the planet. I'm an amateur historian and long time student of the Canadian fur-trade between the years 1763 and 1850.

I had been interested in sled dogs and mushing almost from the moment I discovered the literary works of Jack London and poetry of Robert Service when I was about 12 years old. When I moved to Alaska in 1992, I began following the big races and began skijoring with my pointing Labrador Retriever, Shunka (the Wander Dog). I also did a lot of winter camping using historical equipment and methods during that time and trained Shunka, and later pet dogs to haul my camp gear on a toboggan in the same fashion as Canadian mushers during the heyday of the historical fur trade.

In 2005, I was asked to judge the historical authenticity of mushers in the Chena Hot Springs Centennial Reenactment Race. That year my second wife died and some of my neighbors got together and decided to introduce me to mushing at a more serious level. I founded my Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs Kennel with the goal of having historical types of sled dogs capable of accurately experiencing and demonstrating historical mushing methods commonly used between 1763 and 1963, when these traditional types of dogs were being replaced by relatively reliable snowmachines.

Traditional types of huskies were already hard to find, and when I read an article about the Hedlund Husky, a line that was created by Native mushers Rose and Nels Hedlund at their homestead at Lake Illiamna, I was taken by their similarity to the descriptions of 18th and 19th century Native sled dogs.  I got a pair of Hedlund Husky / Foresberg cross puppies from Kyle Belleque in Kotzebue and instantly fell in love with them. Today I'm a member of the Hedlund Husky Preservation Project and more than half the dogs in my kennel are Hedlund Huskies or Hedlund crosses.

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Aside from my youthful fiction-inspired daydreams, much of the blame for my involvement with mushing goes to Mike Green. Mike was boarding and training up a team of young dogs for a local long distance racer, and asked me to follow him on a snowmachine during a training run. A few miles into the run he stopped and asked me to come up and step on the brake to "hold the team." Once I was comfortable standing there with a dumb look on my face, Mike simply said "Don't let go,” pulled the hook and sent me on my way.  I guess it was the 'sink or swim' approach to teaching a newbie. I really didn't have much of clue what to do with a team of 8 of eager, young, race-ready dogs, but once I got over the heebie-jeebies I realized I was having the most fun I'd ever had while wearing clothing. 

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus on historical types of dogs. My first two sled dogs were actually the two pet dogs my late wife and I had adopted from the Fairbanks North Star Borough shelter - a Saint Bernard / Alaskan husky mix named Chinook and an Anatolian Shepherd / Alaskan husky mix named Seamus. My next two were also from the shelter. A musher (I've never learned who) had suffered some major medical issues and had to move to town. He was able to rehome all but three of his dogs, which he surrendered to the borough shelter. All were those wonderful big, tough traditional types of dogs and I adopted two of them. Daisy was an amazing leader and her son, Sheenjek, remains the most magnificent heritage type sled dog that I have ever seen.

As I said, I got my Hedlund / Forsberg twins, Rose and Nels from Kyle Belleque the next year, and also inherited the finest lead dog I've ever driven from a musher who had to move to the Lower-48.  Torus was brilliant and impeccably trained. He taught me more about mushing dogs than any human I've ever encountered, and his progeny have been the mainstay of my team ever since.

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All of my dogs were chosen or bred to work. That's a given for any dog musher. The second criteria I use in selecting dogs for my kennel is their resemblance to sled dogs described in 18th and 19th century fur-trade documents. The first thing most folks notice about them is that they are considerably bigger than modern racing Alaskan Huskies and of course they have thick, double-thickness coats and really tough feet. Compared to racing dogs, they are very “easy keepers.”

I prefer very intelligent dogs, which I measure as problem-solving ability. Although they are sometimes difficult to manage (bloody escape artists), I like dogs that are willing to perform behaviors when asked, but reserve the right to refuse if it's in their best interest to do so.

Ultimately, once I've examined, measured, studied everything I can think of about a prospective Stardancer dog, the final decision is a matter of gut instinct. It's an intuitive thing that I can't really explain.  For those who don't understand no explanation is possible and to those who do understand, none is necessary.

Our training regimen starts the moment a puppy is whelped or a new dog introduced to the kennel.  Every interaction with a dog is a training experience, no matter how informal it may be. Our formal sled-related training season starts as soon as temperatures drop below +50 degrees F (10 C) in late August or early September. We do a lot of short, uphill runs with the four-wheeler mostly to help them get their brains back into the game. During fall we do a lot of gee/haw work and a lot of hook-ups. I don't have good access to longer trails until a creek between my place the most of the trail system freezes over. As soon as that happens, we can start working less on strength and focus on endurance, covering more miles with each run. 

Once there is enough snow on the ground to run on sleds, training and working are the same thing.  It just merges into the process of running the dogs. As I mentioned before, every interaction is a training experience.

This year I plan to truck the team and equipment to trailheads where I can get them onto longer trails earlier in the season. I also want to get them onto busier training trails as I am bringing along some young leaders that need to learn how to pass and be passed by other teams in both directions.

In the past I've had them out on multi-day camping trips, using only historically authentic equipment and methods. We travel all day, set up a nice, comfortable camp for the night, and then do it again and again. I really enjoy that type of back-country touring.

The last couple of years, I've been contracting as a guide to a local tour operator. On those days we do several 4 mile and 7 mile out-and-back runs, covering up to 30 miles each day with 2 passengers in the sled. That's good work for traditional freighting types of dogs as two adult passengers (our typical load) weigh anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds (136 to 226 kg).  Running tours also helps generate some income to help pay for the dog-food and veterinary care bills.

In the off season, we try to keep them occupied. Summer is tough on sled dogs, and particularly so on these big ol', heavily-furred heritage types.  They have very busy brains and if we don't give them something to keep those brains occupied, they'll come up with ideas of their own.

When the temperatures are moderate, I like to unhook groups of 6 to 8 dogs to play “run-amok” in the yard. I have a good amount of extra fenced-in space so they can run free without me worrying about escapees. I also spend a lot of time doing one-on-one behavior training. I'm a reasonably competent clicker trainer and nearly all of my dogs have a nice repertoire of cued behaviors.

Even when the weather is too hot to safely play “run-amok” I can help enrich their down-time with some nose work.  For example, rather than feeding them in a bowl or pan, I may scatter their kibble-ration around each dog's confinement area so he or she has to sniff out and hunt down the food. If they are looking particularly bored I may walk through the yard with a can of air-freshener, cheap perfume or cologne, or pretty much anything that is safe and has with an unusual scent to mull over. I think the key to enriching the environment of sled dogs during the off-season is to try to think from a dog's perspective and be creative.

As for memorable experiences, stepping into a hole and rupturing the quadriceps tendon my left knee was certainly memorable, though I don't think that's what you are looking for in the question. I'll certainly never forget the moment Mike Green pulled that snowhook and told me to just hang on.

Putting a 6 to 8 month old puppy into a team for his or her very first training run is always memorable - it never ceases to amaze and delight me to see a pup that's never been in harness before run like an old professional, and they do so each and every time. It's the result of over 4,000 years of selective breeding.

As an historical re-enactor, I seek out those timeless moments when past, present and future seem to merge together, and dog mushing is filled with such moments. I think the most memorable experience is the entire experience and it can't really be easily divided or broken down into a list of individual occurrences.

My advice to other mushers? Don't allow yourself to become complacent and NEVER stop learning.

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