AngiePen (angiepen) wrote,

Trip Report 3 -- Skagway

Today was Skagway, a little town that has about 700 people in the winter and 1000 in the summer according to our guide, who was one of the extra 300 who came up to work the tourist trade in the summer. The entire town depends upon tourism, mostly from cruise ships, and if the ships stopped calling here the town would die. There's literally no other work in town, unless you're one of the handful of teachers (one school, K-12, one hundred and some students), the librarian, one of the... I think it was three nurses who work at the health center (no doctor), or one of the cops (three patrol cars, I'm assuming one per shift). There's also (in the off season) a bar, a grocery store, a hardware store, and one or two other businesses, but everything else in town is some sort of shop or service which caters to the tourist trade, and they make their year's worth of income between April and September.

Living here's expensive, too, because as elsewhere in Alaska, pretty much everything has to be shipped in. Liz (our tour guide, who drove us up to the musher's camp we visited) said that she'd just graduated from college (again, for Brits and Aussies and such, think university) in Massachusetts and wanted to see Alaska before starting a regular job, so she bought a plane ticket up here with no place to stay and no idea what she'd do when she got here. She loves it, although I have a feeling that has something to do with her being lucky enough to have found a house to stay in, which is very fortunate because she said there are no apartments or anything to rent.

Most of the tourist season temps stay at a campground we drove past, where there are RVs (trailers and campers and such) and tents. For about $700 a month you can rent a trailer, which includes neither food nor utilities. If you have your own trailer or camper or whatever you can rent a space for $400/month. If you don't mind staying in a two-man tent, you can rent one of those for $250/month. In all cases you have to buy your own food, pay for electricity and laundry and such.

Liz said that when she and some others got this house, they had no water for the first month. They went down to the campground to take showers. You can get a minute and a half of hot water for a quarter. She usually spent seventy-five cents on a shower. Every now and then she splurged and spent a dollar. She says you learn how to go fast because when your time runs out the shower suddenly turns into this blast of ice-water. [shiver]

Anyway, Jim and I went up to a musher's camp, where a bunch of mushers bring their dogs for the summer and do rides and stuff for tourists. I don't know how many mushers there were, but each team was sixteen dogs (that's how many you're allowed to start the Iditarod with) and there were LOTS of dogs. :D There isn't any snow so they had these steel-pipe sledges on wheels, with quite comfortable seats (with seat belts!) and they loaded us up six at a time and we went charging up a hill and down a short trail. Up at the top, they switched to another dog team and we turned around and went back down. I guess this is the equivalent of wind-sprint training for the dogs [grin] because they were going like crazy but only for a short time.

There are a couple of things you notice about the dogs. One is that they're not the classic husky -- Jim and I watched this year's Iditarod on TV and noticed it there, too. One of the mushers said that most of the teams are "Alaskan huskies" now -- basically mutts. They've been breeding in some hounds, and some other dogs like German shepherds. They're looking for strength of course, but mainly they want a willingness to pull.

And that's the second thing you notice -- these dogs are just insane about running and pulling! LOL! At the various places where you might stop they have these anchored tethers that they can attach the dogs to, using some of those rounded-off-rectangular attacher-thingies like mountain climbers use -- anyone know what those are called? Anyway, when you stop, they attach the dogs to one of the anchors before they detach the sledge, which has disk breaks BTW. And when they put a new team on, they attach them to the sledge before they detach the anchor tether. :P The dogs are lunging and trying to pull the entire time -- if they managed to slip, they'd be GONE before anyone could catch them, seriously. While the main musher is doing the transfer, there's another musher on back of the sledge just hanging out -- I assumed it's so there'd be someone driving if the dogs got away before the main guy hopped on. Imagine if they got the dogs hooked up to the sledge and the brakes slipped or something -- that's it, we'd be halfway back to Juneau, overland, before the dogs even slowed down. :P

And the dogs do NOT like to be passed. At all. While we were hitching up at the top of the hill, another team went by and our dogs went insane! This second team was fresh, hadn't run at all yet today, and they were pulling so hard while they were being hitched up that the musher was having a hard time with the transfer. The poor guy was trying to untie this knot but the dogs kept a constant tension and he kept dropping it, and even when he hung on he was trying to get these knots untied but they were like concrete and it took him several minutes to get the thing untied, and the whole time the dogs are pulling and lunging and jumping over each other, occasionally getting tangled up in their harness 'cause they were so excited they weren't paying attention to what they were doing and we'd get two dogs on the same side of the center line and one would get a paw tangled in the other dog's harness and then some other team would go tearing by and you've got sixteen INSANE DOGS!!! who'd give their next ten meals to be able to go chase them and pass them and show them that they're faster if only their dad would let them RUUUUUUUNNNNN!!!!! ROFL!

Anyway, that was fun. :P After we stopped we hung out for a bit and got to go down and pet all the dogs in the team and tell them what good doggies they were and how pretty they were and how fast they were. I got lots of kisses back. :D Then we went down to this little outdoor auditorium-type place, really small, with a cover (although it didn't rain today, yay!) and benches. I wish I could remember the guy's name, but he was a musher and he talked to us about mushing and their equipment, and a bit about the Iditarod, which he'd run these last couple of years. He said he came in fifteenth once, which is VERY respectable. They usually get about eighty-some teams starting, and fifty to sixty finish.

He said it costs $1800 to enter, and in return the race folks provide the mushers with a bunch of really nice white canvas sacks they can pack their supplies in. :P We all thought that was very generous. [snicker] Seriously, though, when you figure what it costs to run the race, with everything to set up and flying supplies to each of the twenty checkpoints (the mushers provide all their own gear and food and fuel (for camp stoves) and stuff -- they can't carry it all so it's flown ahead to the checkpoints to wait for them) and providing vets at each checkpoint and judges and record-keepers and whatever all else, all of whom have to be flown from checkpoint to checkpoint 'cause there aren't any roads along the route, I can understand why it costs so much.

Then there's the gear. I knew the dogs wore booties while they run, but I didn't know they went through so many! He showed us one of the booties and said they cost eighty cents each. He goes through about a thousand of them over the course of the race. [blinkblink] The aluminum runners of the sled are covered with plastic strips, which come in three different kinds which are used for different surfaces. Not all of the route is actually covered with snow or ice -- it depends on the weather -- so they'll find themselves going over miles of rock or dirt or rocky dirt and it just chews through the runner covers like mad so they have to carry a bunch of them along and replace them as they wear out. Even going over snow and ice wears out the runner covers.

He carries this big double-boiler thing which has something like a piepan at the bottom of the outside pot, which is where he puts his liquid fuel. Then he puts water or snow in the smaller pot, which fits into the bigger one and he uses that to melt the snow and heat the water. He uses the hot water to melt the frozen meat -- horse, beef and fish, plus beef and lamb fat -- which is most of what he feeds the dogs. When the meat's thawed, although not actually cooked, he takes that out and adds a bunch of a really high-grade dog kibble, which he lets soak into the blood-water. The meat and fat and warm kibble are what the dogs eat six to eight times a day. He says that in one day of racing, one dog will burn up ten to fifteen thousand calories. [boggle]

After stopping, though, and before feeding the dogs, he goes down the line and takes their booties off and checks each foot, looking for injuries or strains, and putting an ointment onto each foot, up in the webbing. Then he goes back over the line and checks their ankles, legs, shoulders -- pretty much every square inch of every dog he goes over looking for signs of injuries or strains or anything else that might be wrong. This takes a while with sixteen dogs, and he does it all before the dogs eat, which is before HE eats. He preps all his meals in advance and vacuum-seals them so all he has to do is heat them up. He said you want to make really good food, stuff that makes you feel good to be eating it, 'cause sometimes that's the only motivation you have to go on, knowing that you've got a really great meal coming up.

Mushers in a race live in a pretty much constant state of sleep deprivation. Because of all the chores they have to do while they're stopped they have very little time for sleep. If they're lucky they'll get two or maybe three hours per night, and he said it's not at all unusual for a musher to go two or three days straight with no sleep at all, and he's experienced hallucinations on the trail because of sleep deprivation.

One interesting thing is that the dogs perform best when it's cold, around -10F to -20F, so the mushers will usually race through the night and sleep during "the heat of the day," which means like 20F above zero. It's warm enough, though, that a team of dogs going all-out could very easily overheat, so they don't like racing while the sun is up if they can help it. They have these plastic (don't know exactly what they're made of) coats they put on the dogs when it's really cold, but they have to be careful to stay aware of the temperature while the dogs have their coats on because it's very easy for them to get too hot while wearing them.

Anyway, the Iditarod runs in March of every year, and they show it on cable. I don't remember what channel we saw it on -- something like the Northern Something Channel, something really obscure, but it's a great race to watch and worth hunting for.

After that, Liz took us over to meet some puppies. :D There were two litters, one about three weeks old and one only two days old. We got to hold and pass around the older pups, and they were completely adorable. <3 <3 <3 She picked up one of the infants and let us look, but he was too small to hold. The mothers were very cool about it, keeping an eye on us but not making a fuss; the mother of the older pups, all of which were out and being cuddled, didn't even leave her little house, although she stood up and watched us all the whole time.

After that we just wandered around and met as many of the other dogs as we could. Each dog has a house with a flat roof, and they're often crashed out on top of it. Each dog wears a collar attached to a long chain which is fastened to a tall metal stake in the ground. They have a couple of meters of chain, enough to walk around and stuff. This doesn't sound like a lot, but these are working sled dogs and they get TONS of exercise every day. Most of the dogs we saw by their houses were more interested in sleeping, getting some skritchies and then sleeping some more.

There was a pervasive smell of dog shit all over the camp, but I hardly ever saw any. With dozens and dozens (maybe hundreds? I don't know) of dogs I don't imagine you can do anything about the smell, but the place was extremely clean; I saw mushers wandering by with shovels a few times and I imagine cleaning up after the dogs is pretty much a full-time chore.

Oh! Liz told us that a while back, some lady from a cruise ship actually tried to steal a puppy!! :( Idiot. She hid it under her sweatshirt and got it all the way back to the ship, but the guy driving her shuttle noticed something weird and reported it back to the camp. Yeah, they were missing a puppy, so they sent someone down to the ship to get it back. Can you imagine, though? [eyeroll] Stupid bitch. I mean, like she could hide the fact that she had a puppy on the ship anyway! [facepalm]

And then it was time to go back. :( We got off the van in town and did a bit of shopping, then walked back. It was funny -- I wore trousers and a polo shirt today. I brought a pullover sweater and the zippered cardigan I mentioned before, and my hat. I put on my cardigan when we got into the sledge, since I figured the wind-chill factor would make it a bit nippy, but it was never all that cold. I finally took it off again back in town and never put it on again, and never did zip it up. All these other people were bundled up like they were about to trek to the North Pole, with ski jackets and fur hats and hoods and scarves and stuff, and I'm strolling along in my light pants and short sleeves. :P We walked back to the ship, which took about fifteen or twenty minutes, including a couple of stops to check out some really cool-looking mushrooms in the grass next to the sidewalk, and that was that.

Tomorrow we're sailing up Tracy Arm, at the head of which is another glacier, and the hope is that we'll be able to see it calving, although of course there's no knowing. We're not actually getting off the ship, though -- just sailing up to watch the glacier for a bit and then sailing on, so it's sort of a sea day. :D

Later, all! [wave]

Tags: dogs, travel

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