The 49th state offers a variety of terrain and options for any musher. Whether it’s cold and flat, warm and hilly, snowy or icy, Alaska’s varied terrain and unpredictable weather has something for any dog musher. And that’s what lures and keeps mushers here decade after decade. From Iditarod champions and hopefuls, to sprint mushing’s fastest teams and hundreds of recreational and tour kennels in between, Alaska is home to world’s densest population of dog drivers.So where is the best place to live and mush in Alaska? Well, that depends on who you ask.Dog mushing is Alaska’s state sport and has a long and checkered past. Used as a primary mode of transport, it became formally competitive in the early 1900s with the All Alaska Sweepstakes, a 408-mile event from Nome to Candle and back. Alaska Natives and transient miners raced in the villages in the two decades before then, betting on the fastest, strongest teams, but the Sweepstakes was the catalyst for today’s modern races.Today there are thousands of miles of dog-friendly trails in the state used for racing, recreation, hunting and travel.Arguably, one of the most historically significant trails in Alaska is the Iditarod trail. These days the 1,000-mile race trail runs from Willow to Nome but around the turn of the last century, the trail was used as a mail and supply route and began in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula.“Some of the toughest parts of that trail were on the Kenai Peninsula,” said Linda Chamberlain, a researcher, author and musher based outside of Homer. “Heavy snowfall, blow holes on Kenai Lake and glaciations made this stretch fantastically challenging.”Though many of the feeder trails from that original Iditarod trail still exist, the main trail was eventually replaced with a railroad and road system.Today, mushers on the Kenai Peninsula still deal with heavy snowfall and inclement weather, though ever-changing climate behavior has significantly changed the winters even in the last two decades.About 15 miles past Homer, up East End Road, is a small congregation of mushers including long-time dog driver Jack Berry. Berry, who started running dogs in 1988 in Homer, has competed in six Iditarods and six Yukon Quests but now has turned his focus to open-class sprint racing.Berry was instrumental in bushwhacking old seismographic routes and blazing what are now destination trails for dog mushing and snowmachining in the Caribou Hills, a multi-use winter wonderland with a myriad of trails, a variety of terrain and notoriously challenging weather. Most of the trails are maintained these days by snowmachine clubs based out of Homer and Ninilchik.As far as Berry is concerned the Caribou Hills offers the best long-distance training in the state.“The trails here are more conducive to toughening up dogs for tough races like the (Yukon) Quest,” Berry said. Berry was also quick to note that though training in this part of Alaska is often associated with warm weather, it’s easier for a dog team to go from warm training to cold racing then for dogs to train in cold weather and then travel to a warmer clime for a race.“If you’re always training in warmer weather it’s not as hard transferring over to cold,” Berry said.The Caribou Hills offer tough climbs, steep descents, overflow and wind, in other words, a little bit of everything with the exception of extreme cold. Though, it’s not uncommon to see 20 or 30 below at least a couple times during the winter. There are a few downfalls to living with sled dogs in Berry’s neck of woods. Fall training is extremely challenging and most mushers who are looking to race wind up trucking their dogs to add miles.For about five years now, Berry has focused his dog mushing career on sprint racing. He made the switch to be able to spend more time with his daughter. And while the Homer area might be great for distance training, it is challenging for sprint training, Berry said. Swamps which house bottomless mud pits don’t freeze until November making speed training difficult. But it wasn’t always like this, he noted.Less than 10 years ago, Berry said you could be on a dog sled by mid-October but these days, good snow doesn’t come until Thanksgiving or later. The wind is a constant battle in the Caribou Hills area for putting in groomed trails as it can wipe them out completely before you get home and hook up your first dog, Berry said.Most mushers who use the Caribou Hills depend on snowmachiners to break open trails once the snow does come because of the sheer volume of precipitation. The relationship between the snowmachine clubs and dog drivers is a good one, Berry said.Further up the Sterling Highway in the Kasilof, Clam Gulch area is another, bigger cluster of dog drivers, which like anywhere else in the state, includes Iditarod and Quest veterans, mid-distance enthusiasts and recreational mushers.Colleen and Joseph Robertia have lived in Kasilof for eight years. They landed there after quickly realizing city life in Anchorage wasn’t for them and soon after moving to rural Alaska, they were captivated with dog mushing and began Rogues Gallery Kennel a few years later.“The upside is it’s never too cold to train here; the downside is it can often be too warm to train,” said Colleen, an Iditarod and Yukon Quest veteran.“Early in the season our runs take place at about 5 AM, before work. In a perfect summer we can get in a short run with a team in the morning and still have the day warm up enough to take the dogs swimming in the evening. Heading into winter is exciting, but since our falls and winters are so variable, there’s also a bit of unknown. Some mushers have a very prescribed existence to their season. We definitely can’t, because every winter is different. We’ve had it snow as early as September and as late as January, and there are often numerous freeze-thaw cycles throughout the season,” Colleen explained.Living in coastal Alaska offers beach training, which is great for toughening up dogs’ feet and making for an honest pulling, tough brood, she added.“Usually by mid/late fall we are able to truck the dogs up to the Caribou Hills, which is our main playground for the winter. Early in the winter it’s the best place to be. Snowmachines aren’t allowed there yet so it’s still pure, innocent, and peaceful. Respected by the musher and not yet conquered by the snowmachiner it’s very safe for the dogs,” she said.Like anywhere else in the state, Kasilof is becoming more populated each year, which means people are buying land and trails are being closed off. In a good year, the Robertias can train out of their yard but usually wind up trucking to more secluded spots to avoid dog-team traffic.On the Peninsula, there are options for commercial dog food (Homer Hounds in Homer and the Kasilof Mercantile in Kasilof sells a variety of commercial kibble and meat)Though prices are a little more because of shipping, some mushers choose to ship their own food down from Anchorage, Wasilla or Fairbanks. Fish is abundant and readily available on the Peninsula and is the meat of choice for many.Kennels sprinkle the landscape from Kasilof to Sterling, past Anchorage to Eagle River and Chugiak. Knik, Wasilla, Big Lake and Willow make up one of the state’s largest contingents of mushers, perhaps only second to the Fairbanks area. With great access to hundreds of miles of trails that span all the way to Nome, and a few well- maintained sprint tracks with a maze of challenging trails in between, this area offers mushers endless possibilities. In Wasilla, there are a few different options for commercial dog food and supplies, including Underdog Feeds and Animal Food Warehouse, with independent dog-food vendors scattered throughout the area.The Mat-Su Borough is also host to many races throughout the season and because of its central location within the state and relatively tame weather is a popular choice for mushers to set up shop.Land for mushers is affordable with great access, not to mention great views of Denali and the Alaska Range, which is why it’s home to many mushing legends and champions: the Redingtons in Knik; Martin Buser in Big Lake and Egil Ellis in Willow, just to name a few.Already established racers in Europe, champions Egil Ellis and his wife Helen Lundberg moved to Willow from Sweden in 2001. They chose Willow after finding a nice piece of property with great training possibilities, Lundberg and Ellis said.“Our fall training is done mostly on our own trails and gravel roads around the neighborhood. For early winter training we go to Hatcher Pass or Nancy Lake Road,” they said. Snow comes near the end of November, they said, but be prepared to meet a lot of teams out there as Willow is a hot spot for dog drivers.Trucking the dogs is part of their winter regime to give the dogs variation in their training. The Aurora sprint track in Big Lake and the Montana Creek track near the Talkeetna cutoff are both about 40-minutes away in opposite directions but both are useful assets.On the other side of Hatcher Pass, down the Glenn Highway to the Tok Cutoff, nestled just outside of Chistochina in the Copper River Valley, lives Heidi Sutter and Darrin Lee. They run a modest racing kennel and pride themselves on finishing the most grueling of mid-distance races even with a small pool of less than 20 dogs to choose from.After handling together in 2000 on the Copper Basin 300, Sutter and Lee took note of the village of Chistochina and eventually moved there in 2004Sutter and Lee are the only distance team in town with three other sprint kennels making up the town’s mushing population.With trails out of the yard and the ground freezing early, the possibilities there are endless. There is a groomed sprint track nearby which is on Native land and requires all non-members to get a permit, but other than that there are no restrictions to where a dog team can go. There are few other kennels in the area, so don’t expect to meet any other teams.As with anywhere in the state, hunters arrive in fall which can make extra obstacles for the dogs and leave ATV trails a little rutted out. In winter, trails are kept opened by trappers and as with snowmachiners, the relationship with mushers is symbiotic and necessary for most.“We have maintained a good and friendly relationship with both the local trappers and with those from out of town,” said Sutter. “Usually they are the only folks we see on the trail and they are very polite. They pull over and stop their machines. More often than not we stop alongside them and have a brief chat about trail conditions and where trapping trails have been put in off the main trail.”Because of the seclusion on the trails around Chistochina, Lee and Sutter set up tent camps which they utilize all winter for training. One of the main trails they run on is the Copper Basin 300 trail, a notoriously challenging route.“Having the camp set up at different places allows for us to do a mix of longer runs and shorter runs without coming home, but having a warm place to sleep, and is good practice for dogs in terms of running off straw,” said Sutter.And though they don’t need to truck dogs to train at any time of year due to the abundance and variety of trails out of their yard, this summer, the duo took their team to Maclaren River Lodge where they lived and worked for several weeks. Running dogs on the Denali Highway offered more miles earlier in the season.Commercial dog food and meat is available in both Fairbanks and Wasilla. A fair drive, yes, but cheaper than in previous years when they lived off the road system. However, when the couple spent their days in Holy Cross, a Yukon River village in the western Interior, the dogs lived on mostly fish and scraps, a ritual still practiced by village mushers.There are abundant mid-distance races close to home for Sutter and Lee and though temperatures are often cold, living away from other kennels is the big draw for them.Dealing with the cold is common in the Interior but this region is home to the majority of Alaska’s mushers despite frequent spells of 40 below and colder.Cool climes in the Paxson/Denali Highway area keep Iditarod musher Zoya Denure running dogs all summer. She and husband John Schandelmeier, a well-respected dog man, spend their winters in Paxson and summers at their home on the Maclaren River about 40 miles down the Denali Highway.“The big advantage of winter training on the Denali is the ability to do long runs under a variety of conditions,” Denure said.Like others in small Interior communities, Denure enjoys the solitude of Paxson in the winter but said getting dog food and supplies is a bit more of a hassle.“We have a big trailer and can haul quite a lot per trip,” she said. “Sometimes when you think you need something, it is too far to go get it (so) you find you can do without or make it yourself.”“Paxson weather is a little harsher than Fairbanks,” she said. “This is a windy place (with) more snow that most of the Interior. We are cold earlier in the fall and much later in the spring.”She added that the only established trail is the highway itself in the winter, so a lot of time is spent breaking and maintaining a trail system off the highway, much of which are Schandelmeier’s trapline trails. Coupled with lots of overflow, both frozen and not, and wind, running dogs in and around Paxson is nothing short of an adventure.At the other end of the Denali Highway is Cantwell, then heading North on the Parks Highway is Healy and Nenana, all of which are home to several kennels, competitive and recreational. Fairbanks is perhaps the Mecca of dog mushing and home to hundreds of kennels. The largest congregation is northeast of the city in Two Rivers.Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore, competitive distance and mid-distance mushers and guides, have their home-base in Two Rivers, but travel around during the winter for races and tours. And while Two Rivers offers endless trails with a variety of terrain and conditions, ample races and the chorus of howls from nearby mushing neighbors, it’s the untouched terrain that has grabbed their attention.In past years, after the Iditarod in March, Zirkle and Moore pack up their dogs and some clients and head north. Until 2010 the duo ran multi-day trips in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with guests and though he’s run dogs all over the 49th state, ANWR is one of Moore’s favorite spots.“The terrain looks like it did 10,000 years ago; completely untouched,” Moore said. “For us, being up there is relaxation after a busy season; with or without clients. We see a lot of wildlife and not a lot of people.”Permits are necessary to take groups into the refuge and there are no snowmachines permitted so all the trails Moore and Zirkle use, they put in themselves with dogs teams and snowshoes.Back down in Fairbanks, follow the Steese Highway to the Elliot past Fox and you’ll find another cluster of Iditarod and Yukon Quest greats.“I think we’re very lucky,” said Iditarod veteran Ken Anderson. “I’ve looked all around the state and this is one of the best places for training dogs. The winter season is dependable; it comes early and stays late.”Snow accumulation is a big question mark in Anderson’s neck of the woods, but, he said, at least they’re not digging out from huge snowstorms every single day.In 2007, Iditarod champ Lance Mackey made the move from Kasilof to the hills north of Fairbanks for, among other reasons, colder temperatures and easier access to mushing provisions.But, said Anderson, while the ground does freeze early, being higher in elevation makes for slightly more bearable dog-running weather. Last winter, when it was 5 below at his house, it was 50 below down in Fairbanks, he said.“In a lot of these races we see cold weather and you have to learn how to deal with it as far as the caloric demands of the dogs, the use of dog coats—we get a lot of practice dealing with cold weather here.”And while he lives in the hills, the Chena River and Jeff Studdert sprint track are a short drive away when he’s looking for flatter, speedier training runs.Of course living north of Fairbanks also means plenty of trips to the White Mountains National Recreation Area, a one-million acre wonderland with 250-miles of maintained trails and cozy cabins to stop and rest at. It is an asset utilized by serious mushers, novices and weekend warriors and offers hills, water and wind along with breathtaking scenery and easy access points.Though there has been a slight influx of dog mushers in the Murphy Dome area since Anderson and his wife Gwen Holdmann moved there 15 years ago, there is very little private property for sale now, so he’s not worried about overcrowding.Fairbanks offers a couple different options for commercial dog food, including Coldspot Feeds, and has great variety of local mushing-gear designers, producers and suppliers. It also has a great number of mushing-friendly vets, some of whom still make house calls to large kennels.Heading up the Elliot Highway past the White Mountains to the Livengood turnoff you’ll soon wind up in Eureka, a small community in the Yukon-Koyukuk Borough.For Brent Sass, a Quest musher and mushing guide, this winter will be his fourth in Eureka training dogs.“Why Eureka? Because it offers everything!” Sass said. “It has every type of trail—wide open flats covered with three-foot tussocks; lots of overflow; tight, woodsy trails; big, big climbs both steep and long; road-grade summits; crazy steep downhills; rivers both big and small and on top of that there are several small villages that we go through which are perfect for checkpoint training.”The weather is comparable to that of Fairbanks with more snow, added Sass.But more than great trails and perfect weather for all kinds of training, Sass said the best thing about packing up dozens of dogs and tons of supplies is the lifestyle itself.“We live, eat, sleep and breath dogs,” he said.Sass, his three handlers and a total of 110 dogs are up there until spring and will leave for the Yukon Quest in February. When he and his crew aren’t running dog teams they are out opening up trails, trapping and cutting firewood.There are a couple of other kennels in the area and plenty of old time dog drivers in the surrounding villages to offer advice and assistance when they can, Sass said.“The people we are surrounded by out here are one of the main reasons that I make Eureka the best place live and train dogs,” he said.Getting supplies in for such a large operation is the only drawback, said Sass, but it’s also part of the challenge and satellite internet has made that chore much easier recently.“The bottom line is Eureka allows me to focus and it provides me with the perfect mix of dogs, people and wilderness. There’s a reason why so many champions lived and trained in Eureka.”West of Eureka, and completely off the road system on the Bering Sea coast is the town of Nome, home of the famous burled arch that signifies the end of Iditarod. It’s also home to many dog mushers.“For me, it was and always has been strictly recreational, although I think I’d prefer to call it adventure mushing,” said Sue Steinacher who moved to Nome from Fairbanks with her dogs in 1985. One such adventure took Steinacher to the former Soviet Union on a two-week excursion via dog team.Despite the treeless expanse around Nome, Steinacher said, if you have a good command leader, you can go anywhere across the hard-packed ice and snow. There is a boreal forest about 70 miles east of Nome but Steinacher always loved running dogs across the sea ice.“Many Alaskan’s perception of Nome is that it’s all flat country, but we have wonderful low mountains that start just one to two miles inland from the coast and offer some spectacular scenery. Of course, the wind is a high issue on the coast, and extended periods of terrible weather, so you move quickly when you can and hunker down when it’s bad,” she said.Besides the weather, one of the biggest challenges of having dogs in Nome is that you cannot keep them inside the city limits and, she said, there are few options for living outside the city. Most mushers live several miles away from their dog lots and though it’s no longer a concern as she doesn’t have sled dogs anymore, it was hard not having the security of living with your team, she said.Extreme weather plagues the coastal town each winter, burying dog houses and making daily chores exhausting, but the expanse of the country and the kindness of the people made it more than worth it, Steinacher said.And while getting supplies into the town could be a costly undertaking, members of the Nome Kennel Club would organize a dog food barge to Nome once a year to help local mushers afford commercial food.Every community offers its own unique perks and challenge, and for most there’s no question that Alaska is the best place to live and mush. And this is just tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Dog mushers can be found in every corner of the state from Bethel to Tok, and Aniak to Eagle, there are kennels large and small, races, fans and tour operators in every nook and cranny.There are amazing resources for anyone contemplating a move to Alaska: from old-timers willing to share their stories and knowledge to websites, shops and even realtors that specialize in finding that right piece of property. Land varies widely in price around the state depending on location but is readily available in most any location and with a quick search on a number of websites (,,,, the right spot can be found.The hardest part will be choosing between all the beautiful locations Alaska has to offer. •


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