ALASKA – BBC article

The following article was posted on the BBC website on the 24 December 2018. It was written by film maker Tom Martienssen who is also my climbing partner on the next Everest expedition.

The  reason for forming it as a blog is so the students and teachers who are following the journey of Expedition 8848 can access it around the world. Paige Drobny

Image copyright TOM MARTIENSSEN

The centuries-old tradition of husky racing is alive and well in the US state of Alaska. But a changing climate means the competition season for these canine athletes is shrinking, writes Tom Martienssen.

A cold snap whips between the trees, making the most of a clear patch of ice.

It was a lake in summer, now it’s a smooth sheet of white.

The sled whispers through the snow, broken only by the panting of eight dogs working in harmony, pulling Paige Drobny on her custom-build race-sled, built by her husband and fellow racer, Cody Strathe.

This is Alaska, not far from the city of Fairbanks. Dog sled racing is huge here – the local breakfast diner features a life-size model of a racer and the bars are adorned with men and women snow-beaten and sleep-deprived, surrounded by their loyal huskies.

Anywhere outside the US and it would be considered a national sport. And in some ways, Alaska does feel like its own nation, mysterious and remote. Only a little more than one person per square mile on average, according to the US Census.

Paige with TisdaleImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN
Image captionTisdale shows appreciation for Paige

Cody and Paige are well into their training for the season’s biggest races. The Iditarod and Yukon Quest are 1,000 miles (1,600km) each and famed for their difficulty.

It’s no mean feat for humans, but these dogs are quite special.

“They are like the athletes, they’re the Super bowl or World Cup athletes of the dog sled world and we run them because that’s what they love to do.”

During a full day the dogs are burning up to 10,000 calories.

To keep them in top form they’re treated like high-performing sportsmen. A high-protein, high-fat diet coupled with daily massages and physiotherapy routines preserves their health. And the love from their owners and companions keeps them motivated.

HuskiesImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN
Image caption Some will run 50-75 miles before needing to rest

But in recent years it’s been difficult here. The smooth, deep snow required to run the dogs at full strength is late to arrive.

John Gaedeke has lived in Alaska his entire life and runs high-end holidays in the mountains to the North of the state. Mountain sports, dog sledding and running snow-mobiles are par for the course, but he’s seen big changes in recent years.

“Safe winter travel occurs later each year, in some communities rivers may never freeze,” he says.

“Our trails across frozen tundra are developing sink holes as the ice lenses below the tussocks melt and deform. The shorter winters mean hotter, longer summers with more wildfire danger, which only makes the problem worse.”

SunriseImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN

For Cody and Paige this boils down to one thing – rougher trails, later training schedules and less time for the sport they love.

Beating through the trails, John at the reins of our battle-weary snow-mobile we’re reminded again and again of the increasing difficulty a lack of snow causes in this part of the world. A beeping from the control panel alerts us to a lack of snow beneath the tracks, overheating the engine and all but thwarting our attempts to catch up with the dog teams.

Headlights illuminate a string of dogs in front of Cody’s truck. The jutting frozen branches pierce the side of the trail.

A husky by nightImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN

The frozen tundra is an inhospitable place at the best of times but tonight it’s akin to a Stephen King book cover.

“Currently we have some snow but it’s not enough snow to run a big team safely,” says Cody.

“We have to have enough snow to cover all the bumps that throw the sled around and we don’t want a dog to step in a hole and cause a shoulder injury or something.” Without sufficient snow to run a full dog team safely, they attach the dogs to the front of the truck, using the vehicle’s brakes to keep them under control.

Huskies at nightImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN

But this new configuration makes Cody feel distant from the huskies he adores.

“They still love it, they get to run outside and smell the smells but it’s not as interactive for the musher [driver], when you’ve got a windshield between you.

Husky at nightImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN

“It’s more like running dogs on a treadmill, so it’s a great training tool but not the kind of thing you want to do every day”.

They feed off the energy of the musher, normally clinging on to the back of the sledge. The pitch of Paige’s voice helps keep the dogs excited but Cody has to raise his two octaves to encourage them up to race speed.

Snowy scene from AlaskaImage copyrightTOM MARTIENSSEN

Cody leans out the window into the darkness to shout commands, Ha for left, Ji for right. This has become the only way to train the dogs at the strength they require for the races.

Fourteen sled-dogs is the minimum to be competitive. Cody tells us they’ve even taught the dogs to stay to the right of the track to prevent incidents with oncoming traffic.

Squid Acres Kennel, named after Paige’s PHD thesis on squid, is at the top of its game Paige and Cody started it because of a love of dogs, but they quickly fell into competition and now often finish within the top few teams. It’s a tradition dating back hundreds of years. A reliable form of travel, now becoming more difficult.

A dog team travels from Alaska into British Columbia in 1900Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionA dog team travels from Alaska into British Columbia in 1900

Many people move to Alaska to escape the modern, busy world. But now it seems the world they escaped is changing centuries-old traditions – far away from the big cities.

The relationship between man and dog predates our rising temperatures.

And the thought of losing the frozen tundra that fostered that special bond is as terrifying as the looming, vast forests Cody trains in.

A dog’s life, Alaska

Tom and I started the educational segment of the documentary a couple of months ago in the heat of Africa. We then headed to a school in New Jersey, USA and a then a special school in my home town of Coventry in the UK. This was the final piece where we would observe the culture and daily lives of students in Fairbanks, Alaska. At just under 200 miles south of the the arctic circle it’s a very cold and very snowy place, what I LOVE! But first a slight detour to another passion of mine – dogs.

Copy of _Even if something is left undone,everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn._ (2)My first experience of Alaska was 10 years ago when I met with two great mushers, Cody Strathe and his wife Paige. I was filming for a schools program I had created to inspire students in the UK to highlight the amazing relationship between musher and dogs. Alaska was new to me then and my only objective was the dogs. When I saw the area where they lived; the culture around dog mushing and how close the dogs and mushers were, the short films came together naturally. I left for home knowing there was a bigger story to tell.

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Squid Acres Kennel is around 40 minutes outside of Fairbanks. A wooded forest area in the wilds where Cody, Paige and their 55 dogs call home. This secluded area has nothing but a couple of wooden lodges which, I was amazed to discover, were hand built by both Cody and Paige. When times were tough and their skills were lacking they turned to Google for construction advice. Literally building their home from the ground upwards – a life changing experience. The wooden building constructed above the the dogs kennel area serves as a home and the other is a workshop, both made from trees in their local area. Cody builds custom dogsleds for other mushers through his company, DogPaddle Designs, he also builds custom handcrafted paddles and wooden boats. Cody’s creative side was born after his father bought him an electric hand jigsaw for cutting wood and designing – he was 6 years old.

Over the years Cody and Paige have broken trails through the woods and into the open areas around them, over frozen lakes and around mountains to run their dogs. The dogs are taken out on sledge runs every single day where they run from 5-8 hours or more… At first this practice of running them for so long struck me as a little strange and perhaps harmful to the dogs, but it quickly became apparent this was not the case – actually, quite the opposite! I saw for myself how much the dogs love the freedom of running! In fact, if the dogs are given a couple of days rest they are literally jumping up and down to get back out. Running is clearly in their nature and what they hunger for.

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Cody and Paige know their dogs very, very well – all their individual, quirky characters and also their nature, strengths, intelligence, personality traits and temperance. This deep knowledge and understanding allows them to work out the position of each dog in the team so the pack performs to it’s optimum and natural strength in a race. Picking a team for 1000 mile races like The Yukon Quest or the Iditarod is like selecting a premiership football team. Positioning the dogs in the correct running order is important but the relationship of the pack leader to the musher is vital. Pack leaders are highly skilled and intelligent dogs. Some say the bond between a musher and their lead dog is almost telepathic.

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I must mention one last thing before I end this instalment. I went into Squid Acres Kennel knowing how much these dogs are loved. However, there has been some negative press in dog racing over the years that I feel I must address.

The press are prone to picking up a success story and finding a negative angle – even with Everest. This can be a good thing, of course, as controversy leads to investigation. Every angle should be covered to allow for adjustment of actions and justice. The heart of the story is this; the bond between a musher and their dogs is incredible. Dogs are not fooled, even a subtle change in demeanour can be picked up by these highly intelligent, socially aware animals. If there were any impropriety that connection would be lost before crossing any start line.

These dogs are simply adored by their owners and running is something they crave. The only way they can be kept happy is by running them out in natures wilds. No walk in the park or jog on the beach would be enough. Dogs aim to please their owners and these dogs do that by pulling sledges with their musher while in their natural canine pecking order – with the leader at the front. Cody and Paige have given up everything to build a life based around dogs. They have designed their perfect life away from Fairbanks, a major city (although quiet) away from urban society. They swapped that for a bucolic relationship with the environment. They are able to sustain their alternative lifestyle through complete immersion – something I envied.

familyshotTheir way of life only reinforces my belief that, while we live in cities and feel like we’re the ones affected by climate change it’s easy to assume it’s out of our control or being handled elsewhere? No. Places like this should be seen and visited to understand how people are truly connected to their environments. There was meant to be deep snow while we were filming but there was hardly any. Vehicles were often used to run the dogs instead. The snow is disappearing. The seasons are getting shorter and that affects everything from crops, wildlife, landscapes and the people who make their lives here – even to the way the land is shaped through seasonal changes. It’s these people who rely on and work with nature who understand best how important seasons and migrations are. These environmental issues are affecting communities everyday and impacting the way they live in these wonderful, natural places. Alaska is a pure way of life and it was beautiful to experience it with Cody and Paige… and 55 dogs!

 

All picture credits to Tom Martienssen – more information here