Featured in the Sept/Oct 2007 Issue of Mushing Magazine:SCHOOL OF FISHAs I looked down into the icy waters of the Bering Sea, only 15 miles from the Russian border, I could see a dark form rising from the depths. The winch pulling in the line strained against the huge fish which was tenaciously fighting back, trying to return to her resting place on the bottom of this remote ocean. Jackpot! A 200 lb. halibut! But instead of killing this fish to eat or to sell commercially, I carefully hoisted her onto the deck of the fishing vessel, attached a satellite tag to her, and released her. Now she may live another year and that the tag can help us slowly unravel the secret lives of these magnificent fish. Here, one might ask, “What does this have to do with mushing?” Mushing and skijoring are enigmatic pursuits, considering that the participants in our sports are employed in a variety of fields and have a wide range of recreational interests outside of dogs, yet most of us know more about the structural integrity of the poop of our fellow mushers’ teams than their outside lives. Here is the story of my life outside of skijoring and mushing, with a brief mention of my involvement with sled dogs. I am a Fishery Biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This consists of two duties: teaching and research. For teaching, I instruct four fisheries courses: Introduction to Fisheries, Fisheries Management, Fishes of Alaska, and Fish Biology.For research, I study the migration and behavior of Pacific halibut in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands to better describe their population structure. Halibut are one of the most valuable groundfish resources in the north Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. However, there are large gaps in our knowledge of halibut biology, specifically winter spawning locations and migration patterns of halibut in the Bering Sea. This information is fundamental to effective management plans for sport and commercial fisheries, which in turn maximizes the amount of fish n’ chips we can have for lunch.To study halibut biology, I use a novel technology called Pop-up Archival Transmitting (PAT) tags. The PAT tag, which is externally attached to a fish, measures and records temperature, depth and ambient light intensity every minute. On a user-programmable date, the tag releases from the fish, floats to the surface of the ocean, and transmits the stored data to weather satellites. This data is then sent to me via e-mail from the company that maintains the weather satellites. After I receive the raw data, longitude and latitude for each day the tag was attached to the halibut can be calculated from the stored ambient light data. Latitude can be estimated from day length (i.e. days get longer in more northerly locations) and longitude can be calculated by the difference between local noon of the tag and noon at Greenwich Mean Time. The tag can store data taken every minute for two years. PAT tags have provided unparalleled insight into the movement and behavior of halibut in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Halibut experience water temperatures from 0.5°C to 13.5°C (32.5°F to 56.0°F) while living at depths ranging from the surface of the ocean to over 1,000 m (3,330 ft). Some halibut remain in the exact same location at which they were tagged for up to a year, while others migrate up to 1,200 km (750 miles) in only two months. Halibut research has also allowed me to travel around Alaska, visit some of the most remote villages on earth, and fish for halibut for up to two months out of the year. But as any Alaskan can attest to, work is not the only pursuit in this state. In fact, I believe that the endless recreational opportunities in this incredible place actually hinder most progress in one’s pursuit of making a dollar. It was these recreational activities that lured me to the Last Frontier five years ago and initially sparked my interest in sled dogs. Here is how it happened.I was working as a Research Technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA. I was studying giant bluefin tuna in the Atlantic Ocean using PAT tags. This job was an attempt to placate my obsession with tuna fishing, which I acquired as a teenager growing up near the coast of Maine. While living in California, a researcher in Anchorage, AK asked if I would help start a similar halibut tagging project. Never to turn down an adventure, especially when it involves travel to a new place, I obliged and spent two months in Anchorage and Seward, AK researching effective methods of tagging halibut. What more could I ask for? After these methods turned out successful, the researcher offered me financial support for graduate school! I looked into graduate schools in San Diego, Seattle and Fairbanks. The thought of living in a crowded city sent a shiver down my spine, so I briefly researched life in Fairbanks, mainly cost of living and recreation. Without a second thought, I decided to attend graduate school in Fairbanks. The most difficult part of recreation in Alaska is deciding which activities to do. Living on a graduate student budget, my wife Susan and I opted for mainly non-motorized activities, including running, hiking, canoeing, and rafting. Building on an athletic foundation built as a high school runner, a collegiate rower, and daily mountain runs in coastal California, I started running in simple road races in Fairbanks. However, in my constant search for adventure, I began straying further and further from the road, both on foot and in boats, dragging Susan along with me. Fortunately for me, other Alaskans share my interests AND want to test their mettle against others. To achieve this, there are several atypical races in this state including a triathlon organized by Two Rivers Dog Mushing Association that involves a kayak leg instead of swimming, and a 100 km wilderness race near the infamous Eagle Summit area of the Yukon Quest, where the participants can choose his/her means of travel, as long as it is non-motorized (see sidebar). I have tried to participate in every atypical race the interior Alaska has to offer, including mountain running races, Fairbanks’ notoriously difficult Equinox Marathon, and the previously mentioned triathlon and 100 km wilderness race. The pursuit of adventure via non-mechanized transportation is exactly what initially sparked my interest in sled dogs, however, I squarely place the blame on Jeff and Sarah Conn for my involvement in skijoring and mushing! During our first year in Fairbanks, two events transpired that set the stage for our involvement in skijoring. First, Susan and I purchased skate skis, a requisite piece of gear for maintaining one’s sanity in Interior Alaska during the winter. Second, I started looking for a companion dog to accompany us on our travels around Alaska. Seasoned Alaskan friends recommended getting a sled dog because they can hold up to the rigors of an active lifestyle. Enter Jeff and Sarah Conn. After searching high and low, I was told to contact Jeff and Sarah because they had an easy going, two year old pointer-cross that was not making their open class team and would probably make a nice pet. Susan and I took this dog home and immediately fell in love with him, so much so, that we got his sister a week later. Little did we know what we were getting into. Several people suggested skijoring with our new canine companions to exercise them when we did not feel like jogging in the frigid Alaskan winter. So with my new skate skis on my feet, and my new dogs attached to a bungee line, we blazed out across the tundra of Alaska for the first time. You know the rest of the story. Now, I am a skijorer who dabbles in 6 and 8 dog mushing, as well as shorter open class races, mostly in Fairbanks, Alaska. My wife and I own five dogs that we mainly use for skijoring, but will occasionally put into a team for racing. We have a third adult dog from Arleigh Reynolds, and we are currently raising and training two greyster pups from the Czech Republic. We have remained friends with the Conns and last winter I raced their “A-minus Team” (I hesitate to call it a B Team). Our sled dogs are both working and companion animals that have won Limited North American Championships, were top North American finishers at World Championships and have even competed in a two week stage race in Europe. And just in case you are still wondering, our dogs have well-formed stools. HOT SPRINGS 100Two nights before the Hot Springs 100, a famous endurance athlete, Rocky Reifenstuhl, told me there are two types of “fun.” “Type I fun” is outwardly fun, like a leisurely game of golf or a pleasant paddle down a river. “Type II fun” is the sinister cousin of the first, an activity that makes most people wonder why anyone would undertake such a seemingly absurd task, an activity that makes the participant question his or her sanity, an activity that spawns a vow by the athlete to never do such an idiotic deed again, until just past the finish line, when the activity suddenly and mysteriously transforms into fun. Rocky told me to prepare for some serious Type II fun.The Hot Springs 100 is a wilderness “trek” (I’ll use this term for insurance purposes) connecting Interior Alaska’s two developed hot springs: Chena Hot Springs and Circle Hot Springs. The only rules established by the trek organizer were: “1. No pack animals, 2. Carry out what you carry in, and 3. No internal combustion engines, except for what God gave you.” The start and finish are approximately 100 km apart as the crow flies, but the total travel distance varies with a person’s chosen route and means of travel. Fifteen brave souls signed up to hike, run and/or float in creek bottoms, ridge tops, and rivers. For the sake of speed, I opted to travel solo with minimal weight in my pack. I pared my gear and food down to a featherweight 13 lbs. This included a quart of water, an ample supply of junk food, and some waterproof clothing in case of inclement weather. The route I chose was perhaps the shortest possible between the hot springs. Out of Chena Hot Springs, I followed a rolling ridge towards Far Mountain, overlooking some spectacular scenery. After approximately 15 miles, the serious work began. The ridgeline dropped below tree line and I bushwhacked for hours through a series of alder forests, shrubs, old burns and tundra tussocks. To increase the “challenge,” the mosquitoes decided to end their siestas as the cool of evening descended, and they came out in full force. Add to this the paranoia developed by not having bear spray or a firearm in the constant presence of bear tracks, and you have a true Alaska wilderness trek.Despite the challenges, I made a good pace, crossing Birch Creek, the halfway point, after approximately 12 hours of hiking. I headed up the ridge across the river and followed it through the cool dawn hours of the next day. By 7 am the next morning, I was exhausted, but I was well past the halfway point and on pace to set a new course record, so my spirits were high. I forded Harrison Creek to an old mining road that would lead me to the finish line, where much to my dismay, I spotted fresh tracks made by someone’s running shoes. Another competitor was ahead of me. There was only one thing to do: RUN! For the next few miles, I jogged up a steep gravel mining road as the sun began to blaze and potable water all but disappeared. Just as I began to wonder if I could catch the person in front of me, I spotted my fellow competitor, Jim Lokken, at the top of a steep grade. Being gentlemen participants, we briskly walked the remainder of the course together. During these last few miles, I was extremely fatigued from walking and running nearly 70 miles non-stop through the Alaska Bush, seriously dehydrated from not drinking water for the last six hours of the trek, and my feet were a catastrophe of blisters, mud and blood. I swore up and down I would never undertake such a foolish activity again. But upon arrival at Circle Hot Springs nearly 25 hours after starting, I collapsed on the side of the dusty road and immediately started planning next year’s trek. I guess that is the Type II fun about which Rocky spoke.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,