Sowing the seeds of love for mushing

Haley Evans and Casto have a special bond

Nome musher Stephanie Johnson has taken budding musher, 12-year-old Haley Evans, under her wing and is teaching her the ropes in all aspects of keeping and caring for a dog team.

Johnson’s kennel named “Almost Heaven Huskies”, consisting of 26 sled dogs, is located about seven miles west of the city of Nome on the Snake River.  Johnson, a mental health therapist by occupation moved to Nome in 2005 and began helping a co-worker with his dogs.  “I caught the bug and began mushing dogs,” she said. Maintaining a kennel in northwest Alaska, outside of city limits entails lots of work and 100 percent dedication. In the summer, Nome mushers, including Johnson, face the unusual problem of musk oxen that oftentimes wander into dog yards and have attacked sled dogs in the past. Johnson has a large fenced-in yard that keeps the musk oxen out. “It’s also used an exercise pen where each evening the dogs can free run for exercise and socialization.  Free running the dogs is one of my favorite parts of being a kennel owner,” Johnson said.      

In the winter, the weather can be a real challenge in Western Alaska due to its unpredictable nature. “Each year we face back-to-back blizzards that totally remove the trail.  The trail systems are developed and maintained by the mushers meaning we look for good snow not windblown bare tundra, stake the trail and maintain it making trail management and maintenance, a huge part of our job as mushers.  Very often, we develop, stake and groom a trail one day and the next day, a ground storm or blizzard may remove that trail,” Johnson said.

How did the relationship with Haley form?

When the Johnsons moved to the Snake River area in 2010, the children of the neighboring Evans family took interest to the new dog team in the neighborhood. “Haley was the youngest child and was three-years-old when I moved to the neighborhood,” said Johnson.  The older children would ask to visit the dogs and sometimes Haley would join them. “I started visiting Stephanie when I was 3,” said Haley. “I went over to her place with my brother and I helped her put straw in the dog houses. In the past four years I have been helping her more and more because I am stronger and I really love the dogs.”

Now at 12-years-old, Haley is still a constant at Johnson’s kennel.  On most days, after school, she will call Johnson to ask if she can visit to help feed or run the dogs.  “She loves the dogs and knows each dog very well.  She is like a sponge when it comes to soaking up the information about the dogs.  She knows most of the dog’s birthdates, the positions they run and can tell you each of their positive traits and their quirks.  She is also very interested in the health of the dogs.  I purchased several kids veterinary medicine activity books that teach basic animal husbandry and anatomy and physiology for her to read and do the corresponding activities.  She also accompanies me to veterinarian appointments and assists me with worming and vaccinating the dogs.  When chores are done, we sometimes watch an episode of “Dr. Oakley, the Yukon Vet,” says Johnson.   

While kids in a dog yard can be a liability, Johnson set certain rules: “Even though Haley has been with me for years, she is not allowed in the lot without an adult either myself, my husband Lance or one of her parents.  She is not allowed to use the fish cutting saw or light the propane cooker.  She loves feeding the dogs and helping me clean the lot in the evenings.  She is never allowed to run the dogs without me.  She also needs permission from her parents to visit and to go on training runs whether it is on a sled or the 4-wheeler,” said Johnson.

With clearly established rules, the two are having an understanding and go about their chores together. “Haley helps me prepare food for the dogs, she helps clean the lot and make sure they always have dry houses. We also turn the houses periodically depending on the direction the wind is blowing.  We never want the opening of the houses facing the direction of the wind.  Nome’s wind can be brutal.  When she asks if a certain dog house needs more straw or if the straw feels damp, I ask her to make a decision on whether or not she would be comfortable in the house if she were a dog,” says Johnson. Asked if she minds the less glamorous jobs of feeding and scooping, Haley says, “I think those things are really fun.” In detail she describes the routine of feeding. “Feeding has a lot of steps,” Haley explains. “We boil water in a big large pot and we cut up three to four big fish and let it  boil, and then we get kibble soaking in water while the fish cooks, and then we add the fish to  the kibble and add snow if it’s too hot and grab a ladle and go around the dog lot and feed  them. Some of them need more or less liquid if they need more or less hydration. To take care of them, we check their houses for enough straw, we make sure they are healthy, we check their paws after running, and we make sure they are hydrated.”

Through time spent doing chores and having free-run fun and bonding time in the dog yard, Haley learned that keeping a dog team more than just time on the runners.

“I learn to watch each dog every day and take care of them. I learn about why she has to give vaccination and worm the dogs on a schedule. I learn that we always check feet for hurts and under their arms for harness rub after they run. I also learn that they need to be loved and kept comfortable in their houses,” says Haley.

However, she’s been allowed to run her own team with Johnson as well. “The first time I drove my own sled, Stephanie was on the snowmachine ahead of me and I was  following her so she could help me if needed. I was 10-years-old. It was a 3-dog team.  Stephanie tells me to treat every dog run like it is my first so I am always a little bit nervous.  I have a checklist in my mind from choosing the dogs to take, putting harnesses on, setting up the sled, hooking the dogs up and then taking off. I know if I do not follow my checklist, something can go wrong. We practice remembering our checklist,” Haley explained.

Asides from the help, Johnson says, she enjoys the companionship and comic relief that Haley brings. “She likes to join me on 4-wheeler runs in the fall and when time goes slow and trails become monotonous, she makes up games of “Eye spy on the tundra” or “Jow many dog steps” to a certain point.  She is very creative.”

What is the most important for kids or new mushers to learn about sled dogs and sled dog keeping?

“I think it is important for kids to realize that these amazing creatures are fully dependent on us and that their care is our responsibility even if we are tired, not feeling well or have times where they would rather do something else that may be more fun than feeding dogs or cleaning the lot,” said Johnson.  “They need to understand that it cannot be something we do “sometimes”, because the care has to be consistent and a priority every single day. I grew up on a farm with cows, sheep, pigs and horses so that responsibility was second nature to me.  

“Haley is very caring and gives the dogs a lot of love.  We often talk about the human-dog connection and how socialization and bonding is an integral parting of owning sled dogs.  We talk about each personality and how they are different than the next dog and what they contribute to the team.  Understanding your sled dog or pet is important just as feeding, watering and keeping the area clean is important.” 

And how does Johnson thinks mentoring a kid helps in perpetuating the lifestyle of sled dog mushing and keeping?

“I believe educating a young person to properly care for an animal teaches many lessons that include being compassionate, mindful of the dog’s health and overall well-being, understanding vaccinations and the repercussions if those routine health needs are not met, and learning proper diet and nutrition,” Johnson said.  “These lessons can transfer to other areas of their life as they develop.  Haley is very astute and often notices a scratch or bump, a sore foot or if a dog is not eating before I do.  When this happens, I praise her for caring and paying attention to the details of the dog and she beams with pride.

“These days we spend so much time connecting virtually that we often lose sight of connecting emotionally whether it be with a dog or another person.  Caring for animals requires a certain level of emotional connection and as that develops, so does trust and commitment.  

“If a young person learns to treat animals with respect by providing for their needs, they will most likely grow to be respectful and mindful of others in their life. This positive approach can build a solid base as youth make choices regarding their education, choosing social circles and future career choices.

“As a result of strong and confident character, young folks can learn to set goals for future paths in their life.  I see the passion Haley has for the sport but more importantly for each one of my dogs.  She is learning the foundation of dog care and mushing but more importantly confidence as a young lady and whether she chooses to have a recreational team, sets her sights on the Iditarod or decides to stop mushing to pursue another passion, her dedication and love of my team today is immeasurable and I am honored to be her mentor,” said Johnson.

And what are Haley’s plans? Does she want to have a dog team of her own? “Yes, I do,” was the response. “I’ve always liked playing outside and playing with the dogs. Mushing gets me outside with dogs.”