A half-rotted birch shattered when I grasped hold of it to pull myself up a steep side hill. I was on snowshoes, and the frozen “pop!” should have warned me—I stood as still as a stump while the top of the tree fell on my upturned face. I felt like Alaska had cold-cocked me. Staring down at crimson crystals on my glove, I caught my breath as the bitter cold began to numb the pain.
My land survey had been going pretty well, until then. Like a pond at 40-below, my plans felt solid enough to hold my weight, and I retraced my snowshoe tracks along a brush-choked streambed to find my truck. In the cab I sat alone, dabbing blood off my face and pondering my absurd vision of buying this tract of land from a Native corporation. I had little money, and my work crew would include my wife, a five-year-old and two teenage sons (with a few of their rowdy friends). How could our ragtag bunch possibly build a viable historical park out of brush and trees?
In the next few weeks the Native corporation and I agreed on a purchase price, and I invested everything my family had to build Mush a Dog Team Gold Rush Park on an undeveloped 20-acre parcel that bordered miles of pristine timberland.
In May my three boys, my wife, and I began chopping trails through tangled alders, willow, and devil’s club. We mapped out a route along ridges and down steep hills for our dog teams to haul clients. We laid corduroy roads over marshes and constructed cabins with our plentiful birch and spruce logs.
I studied Alaska history and adopted mushing techniques used by turn-of-the-century dog sled drivers, and replicated roadhouses, tent camps, and supply depots of that era. At each vista and picture stop we sunk posts for securing our impatient sled dog teams. Friends and family set up a warm-up cabin complete with kitchen and gift shop, and we bought parkas from local thrift stores to keep our riders warm as they rode in the sleds.
In less than a year we opened Mush a Dog Team Gold Rush Park. Our brochure (that we handed out along 4th Avenue in Anchorage) advertised, “Dog sled rides! In the tradition of the freighters on the Iditarod gold trails.”
Clients trickled into our adventure park the first winter, and we barely kept afloat financially. But the next season the trickle turned to a river of guests. Word spread among flight crews and airline passengers from Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa.
When travelers landed in Anchorage for holidays or business, concierges and tour agencies recommended that they see the “real Alaska” just 20 minutes from downtown Anchorage. We won awards for our educational tours, and schools brought students to experience hands-on Alaska history.
Our sled-dog park became our family’s treasure and tribulation for 10 years. One season my son snapped his leg on a weekend at Alyeska Ski Resort—suddenly we were down one musher in our busy season! We limped through that winter; it took him a year to recover.
Another season I fell across the sled handlebar, breaking my ribs. (I twinge at the painful memory of pushing uphill with the team and a sled-full of passengers—while answering questions.)
Like fishermen and farmers my family studied temperatures and weather patterns. Ice fog, warm chinook winds, or deep freezes ordered how we cared for our dogs and which trails to take each day.
If snow piled higher than car fenders, tour companies in town canceled appointments until municipal plows cleared the roads. Some of our worst memories include a SNOWLESS winter when we had to close operations altogether. We found part-time jobs to survive.
When snow conditions were good, business boomed, especially during holidays, Fur Rondy, and Iditarod celebrations. Busloads of jovial travelers and local folks crowded into our gift cabin or at a bonfire, waiting for scheduled dog sled rides. More than once, customers enhanced their Alaskan experience by pushing their 40-foot Gray Line of Alaska tour bus, until its tires grabbed traction in our icy, sloped parking lot.
At dusk we waved to our last happy clients. With headlamps blazing, the boys and I mixed vitamins in buckets of gourmet dog food to feed 40 furry family members. My wife filled our bowls too—with moose burger stews or macaroni and cheese with caribou sausage. In the evenings I replaced broken sled runners or basket parts while Mom schooled our boys in history, math and English.
Sometimes freezing “overflow” from the creek layered trails while our dog teams slept. In the dawn moonlight I would inspect the trails before clients arrived, then return home to holler through a vent to my teenagers upstairs, “Up and at ’em! We’re burnin’ daylight!”
Groans and growls answered my orders—and they rolled out of warm beds to help me hack out a trail through the ice, the width of our sled runners. Customers were waiting for a safe Alaskan adventure, and we had bills to pay!
After years of winter tours, we created a summer program replicating a working gold miners’ camp. Guests rode a dog-powered tram on narrow-gauge railroad tracks reminiscent of the husky-powered carts that gold miners used near Nome. After rides, we offered self-guided historical tours and gold panning at the creek.
Trains, airplanes, and automobiles ultimately crowded out sled dog teams in Alaska, and subdivisions began crowding us the same way. In 2001 we drove our dog teams on one final, exhilarating run. Our season of mushing had ended, and we found homes for our huskies.
Could anyone have conceived a more challenging yet fulfilling decade for a family living on the Last Frontier?
My wife and I grew close, working in tandem morning to night. Our sons learned to push forward, no matter how impassible a trail appeared. Subzero adversity shaped us into an enduring team, and we still run trails of innovation together.
The three boys married smart, powerful women, and today our tug-lines are hitched to 12 grandchildren. It seems that my wife and I add sections to our family gang-line almost every year.
To any family breaking trail on seemingly impossible dreams: Stick together and don’t give up!
Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the LORD. (Psalm 128:1-4)