Alaskan dogs brighten our "no dogs" vacation

Dog withdrawal can be a frightening thing. . . .

"No dog" vacation?

Rick and I were privileged to vacation in Alaska this year. We have talked about this trip and planned it since before we were married, but things happened, and the time was never right. Last summer we made the decision to “just go” and “no dogs.”

Our trip to Newfoundland in 1997 influenced both decisions. Newfoundland was wonderful, and the dogs fared and behaved well, but the journey was very long, time-consuming, and difficult. If the trip to Newfoundland took a month and the roads were that bad, we imagined a drive to Alaska! We decided to fly and to enjoy a real vacation from walking, grooming, feeding, cleaning up after, and medicating dogs. As we departed, we were so dedicated to this plan, that we even planned to avoid the very large dog show in Fairbanks; and not even to visit the many mushing kennels where sled dog racers keep their dogs.

We left Redi and Spirit, our Newfoundlands, in the capable hands of Alisha, our neighbor who owns and shows Jack Russell Terriers, and we were off on our “No Dogs” vacation. This did not last long. The jet cut over a week’s worth of driving down to five-and-one-half hours, and for the first two days, I was so immersed in the luxury of the cruise ship that I did not miss the poop cleaning, feeding, walking, medicating, etc. at all. Tuesday morning brought us to Ketchikan, our first port of call; I raced down the gangplank to the pay phones on the docks to call Alisha. Redi and Spirit were fine.

Ketchikan is first city on Alaska’s lower pan handle to welcome the tourists of today, and it was first to greet the first pioneers rushing north when gold was discovered. We visited Creek Street, or the “Street of Negotiable Affections” as it was known in the gold rush days. We toured Dolly’s House Museum, home of Dolly Austin, Ketchikan’s most infamous madam. Dolly was built like a football player, worked until she was almost 70, and died around 1950.

The first dog

What did this odd little museum have to do with dogs? Well, Dolly loved little dogs. In the center of the museum, a glass case displayed little dog sweaters, leashes, dog licenses and tags, photos of Dolly with various dogs, and AKC registration papers. She usually kept about six dogs, including Affenpinschers, Maltese, and Pomeranians. I wondered why she would have such odd, exotic, breeds in such a cold place in the middle of nowhere and how many tourists viewing this display case ever heard of an Affenpinscher. Dolly could afford rare show dogs; but where could she show them?

More dogs

Our next port of call was Juneau, the state capitol. During the 1930s, a Bull Terrier named Patsy Ann lived on the city’s ship docks. She belonged to no one. Every time a ship came into port and docked, every person who disembarked got a big greeting from Patsy Ann. All the crew members knew her and fed her tidbits at her greetings, and Patsy Ann actually developed a weight problem. Today a huge bronze statue of Patsy Ann sits on the docks so she can continue to greet passengers as they depart the cruise ships.

We did see an American Staffordshire Terrier in Juneau, waiting patiently in the cab of a parked truck. The climate and area seemed ideal for Newfoundlands, but the only Newf we saw on the trip was jumping into its owner’s car at the airport in Fairbanks as we were about to leave.

When we visited the heavily Russian-influenced city of Sitka, our ship held a Russian Fair. Because the Russians once owned Alaska, their influence remains everywhere. One popular item is those Russian stacking dolls, the wooden containers that nest inside each other from large to very small. They are usually painted like people. They were for sale at most of the gift shops in varying sizes and prices and were painted like everyone from the post man to football players. I just couldn’t resist the Russian stacking dogs; they did not offer a Newf or American Staffordshire Terrier, so I bought a set with a tiny Scotty, inside a Leonberger, inside a Boxer, inside a Bernese Mountain Dog, inside a Chinese Crested – the largest of the set.

Stray dogs

On the way to Denali National Park, we spent the night at Talkeetna, the base camp where expeditions prepare to climb Mt. McKinley. Rick and I had neither the time nor the stamina to go mountain climbing and did not want to spend $300-$600 per person on a sight-seeing flight around Mt. McKinley so we took the free shuttle into the heart of town, where they had a few overpriced but fair pub-type restaurants.

As we walked the narrow streets I couldn’t help but notice the number of stray dogs. There were dogs everywhere, most with no owner anywhere nearby. Most of these dogs did have on collars and tags, but they roamed the streets, passed each other on the walkways, and wandered up to be petted by the tourists. A mongrel looking dog wandered into the restaurant where we had dinner, begged at a couple of tables, then wandered out. Later, another member of our tour group who ate in a different restaurant up the street reported a similar incident involving a German Shepherd.

I commented to Rick that there seemed to be no leash law, and that all these dogs seemed to get along and stay out of trouble. Back home, under these conditions, there would be dog fights, property damage, people being bitten, and numerous complaints. Maybe, the dogs back home were corrupted by big city life, or not as well behaved; or the people complained more?

That evening, Rick, who had to pick up a local newspaper whenever he could, said “look at this article.” It was a letter to the editor by a three-year resident of Talkeetna. She wrote that her male dog has been attacked five times in the past five months by the stray dogs. He was attacked twice while she walked him, twice in the same day, and in his own front yard. One time he was attacked by a pack of four of these dogs, and she had to shoot two of them. She said she’s afraid to allow her 12-year-old son walk the dog down the street and that she wears a sidearm whenever she walks her dog. She ended her letter saying that she feared that if something isn’t done, some tourist will be bitten or mauled while trying to pose for a photo with some wolf dog or that she will be forced to shoot somebody’s dog on Main Street in front of a busload of Japanese tourists!

Alaskan Huskies

We did see a couple of Alaskan Malamutes on our tour, but the most popular dog by far is the Alaskan Husky. These are the dogs that compete in and win sled dog races, including the Iditarod. They are not really considered to be a true breed yet, but, by my observations, they are getting there fast. Most of the mushers we talked to insist that they are not a breed, and that they breed the dogs that do the job the best, but that’s how most breeds came to be.

Alaskan Huskies look like a cross between a Border Collie and a Siberian Husky. The larger dogs do the heavy draft work, and the smaller dogs for lighter jobs and racing.

Mushing is the state sport, and it is hard to leave Alaska without witnessing a mushing demonstration. There are worn mushing trails alongside every roadway. The fact that it was 80 degrees and there wasn’t a speck of snow did nothing to deter these determined mushers. Around Cincinnati we have some avid mushers, but they use carts or put wheels on the bottoms of their sleds to practice in the warmer seasons. None of those wimpy wheels for these Alaskan mushers; they demonstrate right on the pea gravel.

Our tour included a two day stay at Denali National Park. Denali’s big attraction is Mt. McKinley, but it is a very unique park. Denali is larger than six million acres. In the summer it is full of tourists and mountain climbers. During the long winter months, the rangers patrol most of the park by dog sled. For a while they switched to using snowmobiles, but they soon discovered that if a snowmobile breaks down, they could be stranded in the middle of nowhere waiting for a part. When a member of a dog sled team gets hurt or sick, the ranger could simply put it in the sled and depend on the rest of the team to get back to civilization.

In addition, the dogs were a whole lot more popular with the tourists. The park and rangers have an entire dog mushing, breeding, and training program. Every afternoon they offer a mushing demonstration and tour of the kennels, and this is a very popular attraction.

We joined several bus loads of tourists to see this demonstration. Before we walked down a long gravel path to tour the kennels and pet the huskies, a ranger gave an orientation talk to our group. He told us we could pet the dogs, but if one of them jumped on us, or nipped at us, we were supposed to correct it and say “No!”

I asked him if heartworm was a problem since the mosquitoes – the state bird of Alaska – were so bad. Mosquitoes are huge up there, and are clearly some different species than the scrawny little mosquitoes we have at home. I really did wonder if heartworm had made its way this far north and if this different species of mosquito even carried it.

The answer I got surprised me; the ranger replied, “We don’t have any problems with heartworm because we don’t allow the public to bring their pet dogs back into the kennel area.” Then he went into some totally disconnected dissertation on mosquitoes.

Dog to dog isn’t how heartworm is transmitted, so I figured that he didn’t know much about it because it isn’t a problem in the state. Later I learned that this ranger was one of the many people who come up to Alaska to work during the tourist season, then go home to the lower 48 for the winter, so he was not necessarily knowledgeable about the subject.

The last day of our trip, we took a small plane to a real Athabaskan village just north of the Arctic circle. Richard, a native Athabaskan and resident of the village was our host and guide. He is also a professional musher and showed us his dozen or so dogs. He told that heartworm is now a problem in Alaska and that it cost him a large amount of money each year to have the dogs tested and to give them heartworm preventative. Imagine that: Heartworm is even a problem north of the Arctic Circle!

We walked down the path to mingle with the Huskies. Most mushers keep their dogs chained to individual dog houses. Denali had very fancy log dog houses with each dog’s name painted and engraved over its doorway. Thus we were able to talk to each dog by name.

Trailbreaker Kennels

In Fairbanks we were scheduled to take a tour down the Tawana River on a stern-wheeler river boat. Being from Cincinnati where the Ohio River is the big attraction and we have a whole fleet of stern wheelers constantly offering everything from river tours to dinner cruises, the prospect of this tour did not impress me. However, it turned out to be a lovely experience. Every couple of hundred feet, they staged some attraction on the shore for the boat passengers. One of these stops was at Susan Butcher’s Trailbreaker Kennels. Susan has won the Iditarod four times. She has always been an idol of mine, and I was excited at the prospect of meeting her in person. However, she was not at home – she was down in the “lower 48” giving birth to her second child.

We did get to see her impressive kennels where she houses more than 100 Alaskan Huskies and has a host of apprentices and students living there helping to run the kennel. Most of these Huskies were running loose together on the shore. She also had some unique training equipment, including a “Doggie-go-Round, a large carousel that could exercise about 18 dogs at once. The dogs could be harnessed and put in the slots to run in a circle; each slot had a built-in dog house so that if a dog got tired, he could jump in the dog house and rest.

Later on the river we stopped at a camp where they housed many of the past Iditarod champions. We met Jessie Ryan, an upcoming musher from Minnesota, who put these dogs through another mushing demonstration for us. Again, there was no snow or sled on wheels; the demonstration was done right on the pea gravel. Rick asked Jessie about the fact that the Alaskan Huskies were beginning to look uniform and if they were becoming a breed. She said they don’t care about breeding a dog that looks uniform, only about breeding dogs that work well.

So, our “vacation from the dogs” turned into “anything but.” Redi and Spirit had been well cared for and were fine. Even though I was the one who phoned home three times to check on them, Rick is the one saying we will never take a vacation like this again without the dogs because we missed them too much.

Ozzie Foreman

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