The dogs are howling and so are the humans. A green tandem sled suddenly whips into view, sending a spray of snow into the frigid air. The ten Alaskan Huskies come to a reluctant stop as the anchor is planted.
“It was awesome, awesome, awesome!” Barbara Dannenhauer shouts as she jumps off the dogsled. Breathless and giddy, she tries to describe the experience.
“I felt like I was in heaven … It was a white paradise,” Dannenhauer exclaims.
Dannenhauer and a small group of friends are meeting with Musher Christine Roalofs at the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association (CDMA) trailhead in Chugiak, AK.
Dannenhauer traveled 32 hours from her home in South Africa for her first mushing experience.
“This four miles was worth it,” she asserts.
Susann Baumanns’ reaction was a little more subdued than her friend’s.
“I was like this,” the German tourist demonstrates, her jaw slack. “With my mouth hanging open the whole time.”
When the women begin speaking in German, Roalofs, gets the gist of the animated conversation.
“The best part is sharing my dogs,” Roalofs says with a grin, removing her enormous mitts and the enclosed hand warmers.
During the week, Roalofs, age 50, is a pediatric dentist in Anchorage. She travels to remote Alaskan villages once or twice a month to provide dental services.
“A lot of dentists have a sailboat. I have a dog team,” says Roalofs.
After the run, Roalofs places a bowl in front of every husky. She uses a gigantic ladle to pour home-made soup over organic dog kibble. (Roalofs describes herself as a “non-traditional feeder.”) She greets each dog by name, rubbing their coats and allowing them to lick her face. Sinatra, named for his intense blue eyes, looks into her face with absolute adoration.
“The dogs are so loving. If you just take care of them, they’ll take care of you,” Roalofs says.
She started mushing in 2007. After doing some in-kind work for a dental patient, the patient’s father took her mushing and gave her three dogs. It didn’t take long for Roalofs to become addicted. She ran the Iditarod in 2015 and is hoping to make another attempt in 2019.
“It’s quiet. It gives me focus,” Roalofs says about the sport. She maintains her 27 sled dogs at her east Anchorage home. She estimates that keeping the dogs costs $20,000 in a non-Iditarod year and $40,000 in an Iditarod year.
“Mushing is a lifestyle, not a hobby,” Roalofs points out.
Tom Schonberger, 49, of Chugiak agrees. A dozen thickly coated Siberian Huskies pad around his tidy living room and kitchen. The back door and windows are covered in paw prints. The arrival of a stranger has started a small commotion.
“That’s enough,” Schonberger says as he claps his hands. The dogs’ barking immediately stops.
One dog isn’t following the house rules.
“Go outside with your brothers,” Schonberger orders, shooing the offender to the fenced yard.
Schonberger got his first husky in 1988. In 2000, the Air Force stationed Schonberger in Alaska, where he immediately started meeting other husky owners.
“It just got bad from there. Once you get hooked, you don’t get unhooked,” Schonberger says.
[quote]He and his wife, Mary, now run the TouchMeNot Siberians kennel. They show and breed Siberian Huskies. There is a wait list for their dogs but the couple decided to keep the operation small. Anyone who buys a TouchMeNot dog must provide references and pass a sort of background check.[/quote]
Schonberger has a motto.
“Be a responsible breeder. Know what you’re doing,” Schonberger said. “The goal is for the dog not to come back.”
Schonberger, who has been mushing since 2000, is planning on running the 2018 Iditarod. He laughs and says he wants to “see what Mother Nature and the State of Alaska can throw at me.”
He puts on a knit hat and a well-used work jacket then heads out to the kennel. Wood shavings cover the ground and each fenced area has a low-slung, snug shelter made out of wood.
The dogs greet Schonberger with licks and nuzzles as they jump over each other to partake in the rambunctious attention fest.
“We love our dogs. We’ll do whatever it takes for our dogs,” Schonberger says.
He can’t estimate how much time he spends caring for the canines.
“I don’t even know. It’s just part of the routine,” he says.
Running a kennel requires a lot of cleaning. In the winter, that cleaning entails scraping up frozen dog waste. Schonberger doesn’t mind.
“You get a beer, you get some tunes out there,” he says.
Schonberger is worried about some of the negative media that surrounds the sport.
“Every group has a bad apple,” he points out.
Mushing is nothing like how “Disney portrays it” Schonberger says. There are no whips, no reigns – just voice commands, the shifting of the mushers’ weight and a foot brake.
Schonberger’s dogs get excited when they see the harnesses or hear the dog trailer start up.
“You can’t make a dog do something they don’t want to do,” he says.
Editor’s Note: Melinda Munson is a member of the ECHO News staff. She and husband, Paul, have been in the Chugiak area for about three years. We appreciate her fresh eyes looking at this community she and her family now calls home.