It’s a quintessential Alaska activity and sport — but arguably nowhere in the state is it more embedded in the local culture than in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. But mushing, dog sledding and racing dog teams is more than just a hobby. For most mushers it’s a lifestyle, and many people move to the state just to take a crack at it.
But if you live in the Valley and are interested in giving mushing a try, it can be hard to know where to start. Mushing lessons aren’t a standard offering. Schools don’t typically have dog sled teams. So how do you break into the sport?
For those wanting to give it a try, winter — prime mushing season for obvious reasons — is the perfect time. And getting into it is pretty straight forward, said Scott Maruskie, a longtime sprint-distance musher and vice president of the Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association. All you have to do, he said, is ask a current musher to teach you.
“Find a musher that is involved in it and is willing to take you under their wing and let the kids get involved from the ground up, and that includes going out and scooping the poop and feeding the dogs and taking care of them,” he said.
Just how you go about that isn’t as hard as it might sound, said Sarah Varland, an amateur musher in Palmer whose two sons, ages 8 and 10, are also learning to mush. Varland contacted Willow-based musher Meredith Mapes through Facebook a few years ago when Mapes posted a note offering to let kids come learn about sled dogs in exchange for scooping some dog poop.
“I thought it would be cool to bring [my son] out and they could scoop some poop and then the end,” she said. “And then [Mapes] said ‘well, he could do some races.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Varland and her sons now compete in sprint races, and her husband, John Varland, a pastor at a local church, has done dryland cart racing in the off-season. The family has six dogs in their Palmer home kennel.
Maruskie, who has helped mentor the Varlands, said he recommends a more old-school approach to meeting mushers: attending races and simply getting to know the community. Kids and adults can then volunteer at kennels and work to get to know the sport just like the Varlands have.
“The main thing to do is to go out and build it from the ground up,” he said.
But finding someone to help you learn the sport is only the first step. Mushing, he said, truly is a lifestyle and not just because of the large number of dogs you must care for year-round to regularly take part. Buying and owning those dogs and mushing equipment, including your sled, kennel boxes, hay for dog bedding and high-quality food, is a major financial investment. Maruskie estimates he spends $1,000 monthly just feeding his 16 dogs.
“I feed meat in the winter time that goes with the kibble, and there’s a significant financial investment in it,” he said. “It’s really an addiction after a while. I think it’s the love of the animals — that’s the real reason.”
Kids and adults looking to break in can borrow dogs from seasoned mushers when first getting started. But eventually you’ll want to start building your own team, Varland and Maruskie said. While Maruskie cautioned against simply accepting gifted puppies and dogs, noting that people tend to give up animals they don’t want on their own teams, Varland said her family has accepted free dogs from mushers they trust.
“I think it depends on how seriously you’re taking it,” she said. “We were willing to take the risk that ours might be ‘meh,’ and it turned out great.”
Without that relationship with a trusted source for dogs, she said agreed new mushers should consider purchasing dogs.
“If you wake up tomorrow and say ‘I want sled dogs,’ I would not recommend someone just go get a few puppies and see what happens,” she said.
But buying dogs is another major cost, Maruskie cautioned. A puppy with a strong racing lineage could cost $800 to $1,000, he said, and a trained adult dog could cost $3,000 to $4,000. Borough residents with more than four dogs also require a kennel license.
Still, Maruskie said what mushing has brought to his life and the lives of his now-grown children has been well worth it
“What mushing does, especially with the kids and even with adults, is it teaches them a couple of different things,” he said. “One is compassion and how to take care of animals. … And the other thing is it teaches you dedication and devotion. Whether it’s at your job or going to school and going to college, it teaches you responsibility and the need to be devoted and dedicated to something. .... What you put into it is what you get out of it.”