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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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Leah Fetterley, North Ridge Ranch Dogsledding

Hello! My name is Leah Fetterley and I own and operate North Ridge Ranch Dogsledding in Huntsville, Ontario with my husband, Brad Fetterley. I had my first dogsledding experience while attending Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I was in the Outdoor Recreation, Parks & Tourism program, and I participated in a 10 day dogsledding expedition with Outward Bound.

This experience was a total turning point in my life. Magnus was the sled dog I was responsible for on the trip, and we spent a 24 hour solo experience together while out. He was an incredibly special dog and I will remember him forever.  I have always loved dogs, but this experience allowed me to form a greater appreciation and respect for the bond that humans and dogs can have while enjoying the great outdoors and being physically active together in the winter. The co-dependency and teamwork is like nothing else, and at the end of that experience I knew it was something I needed more of in my life. 

Leah and Magnus

Leah and Magnus

After graduating, I started to look at dogsled touring companies I could work as a guide for, so I could spend my days with the dogs and expand my experiences and knowledge. Winterdance Dogsled Tours in Haliburton is where I found my happy place and developed my passion for sled dogs.

After awhile I moved to Huntsville to explore new grounds and shortly after met up with Brad. Brad had a dogsled touring business, and our mutual love and respect for sled dogs is what ignited our connection and now the rest is history.

Leah and Brad with their daughter, Brea, and some of their canine family members. Photo by Evelyn Barkey

Leah and Brad with their daughter, Brea, and some of their canine family members. Photo by Evelyn Barkey

We have 68 sled dogs in our touring kennel, so our teams are always changing, but they are all Alaskan Huskies, and most have been born and raised at our kennel. We have also adopted a bunch in the past few years to help diversify our lines when some mushers have been retiring. The dogs all have unique characteristics and personalities, strengths and struggles, but the one common denominator that they all share is they are a part of our chosen family and have our unwavering love and respect.  

The characteristic I enjoy most about our dogs is their spirit.  Sled dogs are kind of like super-natural beings whose drive and desire to pull is like no other.  The excitement and joy they get from doing their job is inspiring. I always say, “If humans had half the work ethic of a sled dog, the world would be a different place.”

Leah with some of her dogs

Leah with some of her dogs

We live on 500 acres of wilderness, with our 4 yr old daughter and 68 sled dogs (ages 6 months to 15 years). In the winter we share our lifestyle and love for the dogs with guests that join us for tours, and the rest of the year is for family time, enjoying and caring for the dogs, renovating and building.

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When preparing for the winter we start with short runs to get the dogs used to running as a team again and then slowly build their strength and endurance to meet the needs of the various tours.  We are always changing up running positions and partners to keep things fresh and diverse for the dogs.  Diversity and fun is key for our touring dogs and helps to keep them enthusiastic throughout the winter.

Tours. Photo by Kaitylnn Paquette

Tours. Photo by Kaitylnn Paquette

We offer half day and 1 hour tours with our dogs, which run approximately 10 kilometers for the 1 hour and 20 kilometers for the half day.  In the winter we run all our tours daily from mid-December to the end of March. We offer 2 tours a day, and we have the 1 hour tour and the half day tour that is approximately 2 hours of running time. 

Our run schedule changes throughout the winter, but generally Monday to Friday we run a 1 hour and half day tour and on weekends we run 2 half day tours.  We monitor which dogs run each tour daily so we can ensure they are running within their abilities and have adequate time off.  Our kennel has running dogs that range from 1 year to 10 years old, so some dogs only run one 1 hour tour, where some can run 2 half days per day.  Trail time for the dogs is all based on their individual abilities and desires and the needs of each tour.

Our business is only four months of the year, but our commitment is year round. Sled dogs require daily care, attention and exercise to help develop and maintain them into the amazing athletes and friends that they are. In the off-season we focus on relaxation and fun, so our kennel basically turns into a dog park.  We do a lot of free-running during the cooler parts of the day, and they chill out and relax during the rest of the day. We spend a lot of time in the kennel cleaning, feeding, watering and renovating in the off-season so we get lots of one-on-one time with the dogs to hang out and build up our relationships with them outside of dogsledding.

My most memorable experience while dogsledding is a little embarrassing, but certainly memorable! I was taking out a tour a few years ago with my 2 year old daughter as a passenger on my sled.  The customer sled behind me was having some coordination and balance issues while driving his sled.  Unfortunately at the top a fairly steep and meandering downhill, the man behind me tipped over!  I double hooked my sled down, told my daughter I would be right back and ran up the hill to help the customer, while encouraging him not to let go of his sled.  He did a great job holding on….until I got there.  

Literally as soon as my hand touch the sled he let go and there I was, off to the races, being dragged down a hard, fast hill.  This happened about 2 kilometers into the tour, so the 6 dog team was ready to GO, with Timber (probably the strongest and most motivated sled dog in our kennel) in wheel.  I had a hold of the side stanchion and was “super-manning” it on my belly.  My concern at the time was to NOT hit my sled that had my daughter in it – mission accomplished – but just barely!  I can only imagine what my daughter, Brea, was thinking as she watched her mom drag past her and around the corner out of sight.

I was able to right the sled and get it stopped just before the bottom of the hill, but not before my snow pants, long johns and underwear were around my ankles (I now ONLY wear snow pants with suspenders) and I had this beautiful burning snow-rash on my thigh.  Thankfully all the dogs were unharmed (I imagine they actually took great joy in the experience), and the customers were fine and got back onto the sled. My snow hooks held and my “calm” team with Brea in the sled were contentedly waiting for me as I frantically ran back up the hill for them.  Phew!  I hope this never happens again, but I guess this is what memories are made of??

Timber, the “pants remover”

Timber, the “pants remover”

My advice to new mushers is, as long as the good days outweigh the bad days, keep calm and mush on.  Mushers are uniquely blessed by their choice in lifestyle and this can easily be forgotten. Remember to pause and look around your dog yard and pause your thoughts out on the trail sometimes to take it all in. Remember and realize how truly special sled dogs and our sport is. The dogs truly are the best co-workers and our chosen family. Their beauty, athleticism, desire and drive is unmatched only to their quirky, unique and loving personalities. Oh and NEVER LET GO OF YOUR SLED :)

Leah and team. Photo by Kaitylnn Paquette

Leah and team. Photo by Kaitylnn Paquette

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Iditarod.com/edu/

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Iditarod.com/edu/

This year a new website, iditarod.com/edu, presents a new home for Iditarod educational content, with the support of teachers around the world, and the partnership of ExxonMobil. This new site gives educators, students, and parents easy access to lesson plans, videos, race information, and other key resources.

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Sled Dog Info Social Media

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Sled Dog Info Social Media

There are many ways to connect, network, and find information in the wonderful world of sled dogs, and social media gives us several great ways to connect with others, seek resources, and share our own knowledge and experiences.

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