When I started the Paws for Adventure business in 1998 I spent a lot of time thinking about an appropriate name, one that represented my philosophies about life and one that told the world what we’re all about. Every year I try to come up with a personal dog mushing “endeavor” to keep me true to my name and keep me on track with personal philosophies.
Paws for Adventure is a play on words reminding everyone, especially me, to remember to “pause” for adventure in life. Starting out with a few paws and a prayer in 1998, Paws for Adventure started a mushing school. A ‘Mushing School’ was most appropriate as I wanted to spend more time sharing the art of dogsledding with people. I had given rides for other companies, what one friend called ‘the McDonald’s of dogmushing’. Beverly Tolmie and her business Awl Alaskan Adventures was a successful dogsled ride business on Cleary Summit in the late 90’s. My first dog tour experiences were with her outfit located at Fairbanks Creek Lodge near Skiland. Later I was hired by friends Asger Hoyem and Clay Rumph who ran the Chena Hot Springs Dogsled Ride concession. As a third team for their business, I ran a huge 14 ft. freight sled with 4 or 5 people in the basket. These first adventures as a dogsled tour guide opened my eyes to a different way of life. I got to do what I loved and made a living (well sort of, I usually kept 2 or 3 jobs in the summer to feed the dogs until it was winter and I could do tours again). It was a rocky road, I was never going to make it to the Fortune 500 list, but I made enough money to make me want to do it again next season. My tongue–in-cheek motto became, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space”.
Paws’ first location was at Chena Hot Springs Resort, Bernie and Connie Karl, helped me build a kennel and a ‘practice track’ for my mushing school guests, and offered a captive audience for my new venture. For the first 2 years of Paws business, we offered the Mushing School tour only. Dave Klumb at Laughing Husky, sold me all the parts to 4 dogsleds and taught me how to build one from the many pieces, replace parts, etc…I remember him cautioning me, “Are you sure you want to start a dogsledding business? How are you going to make money?” I assured him I had a plan and set my sights on a prosperous future. Lee Tenhoff of Nomad Shelters delivered our 1st yurt which became our ‘office’ and my home for many years. Lee even blessed the place with a mandolin ceremony after the set up was complete. I’ve moved that yurt a few times thru the years, ever grateful for its solid construction and unique living environment. It has stood as an unique Paws’ monument since I started the business – interestingly, yurts have become a popular dogsled tour accessory structure.
As the business grew, I realized Paws was bigger than I could effectively handle alone. Many friends came to the rescue, made a couple of bucks, and shared in the wonderful adventures with Paws’ guests. Kristen Smith Hanson was my first snowmachine driver/ handler who helped me herd dogteams in mushing school in the first couple of years at Chena. Chris Burrow, Laura Ganis, Kohei Kawaguchi and Masako were some of my fantastic dog helpers early on – taking on the many tasks of keeping a dog lot and guests happy and healthy. Logan Ricketts, a longtime fishing/rafting guide and good friend helped me with my business plan and boosted my confidence in the tourism business with his ‘there’s nothing you can’t do’ attitude. Jim Smith built doghouses for me inside his small cabin along the Chena – I heard he was now living out his days up on the Kantishna with his ‘little black bitch’ (pet Schiperke). Mok Kumagai helped me with a video translating how-to-drive-a-dogsled from English to Japanese so I could successfully train my 95% Japanese client-base on the art of dogsledding. I took a semester of Introductory Japanese at UAF to help with communication. Honestly, I learned about as many Japanese words as most of my Japanese guests knew in English – but it was fun attempting the language and providing entertainment for my guests with my mispronounciations.
Aliy Zirkle, Jessica Hendricks and Judy Currier, all mid and long distance racing friends have added some excellent recruits to our Paws team thru the years. Aliy’s focused yet sweet sled dogs have added a hearty, disciplined, and happy element to our team. Early on, a core group of her dogs became a cornerstone of our operation. We also enjoyed sharing time with some of her yearlings before they went on to make their names in the big time Iditarod trail. Jessica’s tough-as-nails recruits became some of the breeding stock for our kennel. Judy’s big happy dogs provided some solid strength and energy to our team. About 2/3 of our lot is in some way related to the dogs in each of these kennels. A hard-working, full-of -heart, people-loving gang of professional canine athletes.
In 2001 Paws moved to “Henry’s field” at 3 mile Chena Hot Springs Rd. (just behind where Hot Springs Gas is now). I met this farmer, Henry Gettinger, in his hayfields cutting hay one day when I stopped by to inquire about the use of his field for my dogsled business. His response was, “Well, I can’t seem to make any money in these fields, maybe you can!”. I had met another wonderful human being in my dogsled journey in Henry Gettinger, a man who worked hard for a living and did it because he loved it.
Once I decided to take on giving rides and offer tours to larger tour groups, not only did I need help with my dogs, but realized it was necessary to enlist other dogteams and dog drivers. Heather Scannell became my ‘right-hand-woman’ and good friend thru the years every-ready to help me proceed with a wacky new adventure, bust out a new trail, entertain overnight guests, chase down a loose dogteam or take over when I needed a break. A fantastic stream of dogteams and drivers came to my aide to help Paws’ provide a professional exceptional tour package. To mention a few: Jessica Hendricks/ Tom Lesatz of Iron Dog Kennel, Dede Schreirer and her Copper Basin kennel, Kathy Lenniger of Sleddog Adventures, John Hoegberg of Heavy Horse Farm (also gave horse drawn carriage rides), Duff McEnteer (a local recreational musher and builder), and Judy Currier (La-ra-ke Kennels) have at one time or another been a part of our terrific adventure team. Adele Wiejaczka’s 2-dog skijor team of ‘Sierra’ and ‘Spry’ have joined the Paws kennel while their mom (who was a tour dog driver for Paws for 3 years) tends to her Live Large Design graphic arts business in Anchorage. Adele created our wonderful website. Mushers Torben Metzner, John Larisson, Ryne Olson and Maliko Ubl have also been part of our team. You’ll find Ryne training her Ryno Kennel team up for the big races like the Yukon Quest, and Maliko in some mid-distance races as she is handling for an Iditarod racing kennel out of Willow, AK.
We enjoy our Business, but we’re not just about business. I realized early on, to keep me happy and living up to my name, I actually needed to PAUSE for Adventure, put myself out there where I learned something new. Adventure is many things to many people, but to me it’s a challenge beyond MY ordinary. Early on Paws and friends took some 300+ mile journeys across wilderness Alaska which taught me a lot about planning and expediting long distance adventure. In one particular trip, I travelled with a partner from South Cushman to Healy through Blair Lakes, Wood River and Quartz/ Dean passes…broke deep snowy trails with snowshoes and dogteams, swam dogs thru feet of overflow, negotiated established and non-established trails with a compass and map (before the GPS became a popular app) and did a lot of ‘character building’ when things were not going as planned. In another adventure I travelled from Nenana to Bettles (thru Manley, Tanana and Allakaket). This adventure taught me about running dogs in warm weather, taking care of dog feet, and trusting the locals and your lead dog. We left about 2 weeks too late in the season that year and encountered little or no snow for large expanses of the trail. Travelling over hummocks on wet ground is a good recipe for tearing up dog feet. I learned to never leave without a good supply of booties and ointment. And that it’s easier to prevent foot damage than nurse it. In Tanana, some expert dog men offered up supplies we neglected to pack or didn’t bring enough of and provided much needed knowledge of the trail. Stan Zuray, Pat Moore and Bill Fliris were invaluable resources for trail knowledge and foot care and hesitantly sent us on our way to Allakaket. Here’s where trusting my lead dog ‘Boo’ came into play – for one reason or another, her sense of direction and trail finding were way more keen than ours. The trail between Tanana and Allakaket was devoid of snow and showed merely a ribbon of snow here or there where a snowmachine track had packed down the trail and the snow was slower to melt. As a former race trail, it had lost popularity, but was used (very infrequently) by trappers. There were a few tripod trail markers still in place but we couldn’t see the next marker in the wide expanse of tundra. Boo seemed to find the way, led us to the next tripod and found appropriate creek crossings. She basically followed an invisible trail and never gave up on making the destination. The Ray Mountains were absolutely gorgeous, but the feeling we were stuck in the middle of a vast wilderness loomed larger. There was humor in knowing there was never going to be a Walmart there!
Thru the early years, I spent a lot of time exploring the Chena River Valley along the Yukon Quest trail and introduced many guests to the beautiful Angel Creek Valley. I frequently hit up long-time friend Steve Verbanac (owner of Angel Creek Lodge) to break trail for me. He helped me find some secret spots he had used for trapline trails in the past, kept an eye on camps for me, and provided good hospitality at the end of the tour for our guests. And, I always felt safe knowing we could call on him if we needed help on the trail – his backyard and playground. For several years we set up camps in the Middle Fork and/or West Fork valleys – out of the way, real-Alaska places to visit within a short drive from Fairbanks.
A featured multi-day trip of Paws for many years took us to the Maclaren River Valley via Paxson, AK to Maclaren Lodge on the Denali Hwy. This awesome country mostly above treeline offered some spectacular views of the backside of Denali. In winter months the Denali Hwy is a non-maintained roadway/ trail making it a playground for dogsledders and snowmachiners. Our usual destination from the Paxson end of the Denali Hwy is Maclaren River Lodge, run by Alan and Susie Echols. These hard-working wonderful people have hosted many a Paws guest with smiles, excellent food and good cheer. Not to mention, a warm and welcome oasis after the 42 mile travel from Paxson Lodge. Unfortunately, Paxson Lodge, the former jump-off spot for snowmachine and dogsled travelers, closed this year leaving us without a place to keep our vehicles safe and ‘plugged in’ and without a burger and a beer at the end of the trail. We have also made Maclaren a destination for early and late season ‘staff’ and spring-break trips – keeping us ‘pausing‘ for adventure. Spring Break 2011 found us exploring Lake Louise area, starting at Wolverine Lodge we travelled the canyon to Maclaren with a couple of dogteams, a snowmachine and a skijorer with a 4-dog team – I’m really surprised Adele kept all her limbs intact, JT didn’t drop the snowmachine through one of the ice bridges and Dave,( my husband now/boyfriend at the time) didn’t decide I was whacked. I always seem to find willing participants when I’m scheming on another adventure.
I’ll have to save more adventure stories for later as I need to get to the point of this post. I’m scheming on another adventure. Since Dave has ‘for better or worse’ joined me on this ‘edge’, when I decided I ‘Needed’ to go to Nome for my 50th birthday, he jumped on-board to help make it happen for me. Fueled with my everburning desire for adventure, schooled by Alaskan wilderness adventure including its corresponding misadventure, and ruled by my heart, I have set my sights on Nome. With a select few of my canine buddies and Dave as my co-adventurer we plan to take the famed Serum Run trail from Nenana to Nome. Early on Dave opted for the iron dog over the sled dog, so the relationship works out well. He’ll take the Skandic and Siglin sled loaded with our supplies and together we will bumble our way to Nome. Right now as plans continue to gel… we’re on taking our 2015 Season’s final Tolovana Tour from Nenana to Tolovana to Manley on 3/19/15, ditching the guests on the side of the road, I joke, sending them back home in the capable hands of our great handler team and continuing on to Tanana, Ruby, Galena , Nulato, Kaltag, , Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, White Mtn., Safety and NOME! In my mind, this will be a celebration of my life experiences thus far with sled dogs and another Alaskan wilderness adventure to places I have not been.
No, sorry, I’m not taking anyone else on this adventure…being selfish this time (you’ll thank me later for that). I’ll keep you posted with stories from the trail and consider the feasibility for future guest trips – I’ll be thinking of all of you who have shared mushing adventure with me. My awesome crew here at the mushing site (Kevin, Chase, Riley and Jessica) will be here taking care of day tours while I’m off adventuring. I’ll tell you more about these guys in the next post. Happy Trails!