MARY SHIELDS: ALASKAN KENNEL TOUR

It’s another warm spring day in Fairbanks, Alaska as Mary Shields walks out her cabin to greet a mini-busload of guests fresh off the plane and ready to start their Alaskan vacation. All are eager to meet this living legend and to learn about her history and mushing lifestyle. As each person steps out of the vehicle Mary is there to greet them with a warm smile, a friendly handshake and a warmness surrounding her that automatically makes all feel they have met a very good friend. This is the type of tour many long for, personal, unique and far beyond the common packages where guests are shuttled through various stations, time always the pressing factor, as well as your almighty dollar. Once arriving at Mary’s you forget you’ve signed up for any sort of tour. Once off the bus it feels like you’ve accepted a personal invitation into her home, served with generous helpings of Alaskan hospitality. There is no pressure of time here, just Mary, her dogs and the beautiful quiet nature that surrounds her home. The garden is the first delight to greet her guests. Mary explains how her raised garden beds help keep the soil warm, how she keeps the local moose out with a high fence and how the squirrels raid a few of her choice crops only to transplant them in other areas of her garden. There is a calm easy feeling as she talks about her life side by side with her wild neighbors. Most would see these interactions as pests determined to undo her hard work but to Mary this is the beauty of life. You can feel her joy and gratitude at being given the chance to live so closely within nature as she explains other details of her garden. Mary then leads her guests down the hill to a small dog yard. The sled dogs grow a bit restless knowing the routine of a group visitation of welcome strangers with outstretched hands eager to pet and interact with dogs, much like the ones they have at home. All guests are invited into the dog yard to see the life of a sled dog up close and personal. Some dogs jump on the roof of their log houses eager to be pet, others stretch out noses, sniffing foreign smells from lands they know nothing about, the curiosity intense in their eyes as their minds work to understand what life is like outside their Alaskan home. Mary introduces each dog by name and the connection she has with them is instantly clear, these aren’t just dogs, they are her family, friends and the continuing generations of best friends long since past. They know her, love her, travel down the miles of trail and share their life’s adventures as one. The snow has long gone but you can still see the team spirit alive and well within their eyes and those of their musher. As her guests are ushered out of the yard and directed to a viewing platform just outside of the fence, Mary lets each dog off their tie-out so they can run free and play together while the talk continues about the Alaskan Husky breed, their traits and characteristics. Sled dog OJ bounces on Big Boy as the two tussle about in play while the others prefer to stretch their legs in the open areas of their forest playground. It is a joy to watch them fly around the pen and see the delight in their eyes as they stretch their lean muscles. If you look closely you can almost see the harnesses on their back, snow flying from their feet, miles passing behind them, always thinking of winter and the job they so love to do. Clifford jumps up on a dog house right in front of Mary as she continues to talk to her guests about the sport of mushing and the history behind her sled dogs. She casually strokes his fur as the two of them connect in unspoken ways. The bond is clearly seen, one that has developed over many years and many miles on the trail together. Before long it is time for the dogs to be tied back to their houses so the tour can continue. Mary reaches deep in her pockets for biscuits as the energy of the yard changes ever so slightly to a calm anticipated excitement for the treats to come. Mary explains that she lets each of her dogs choose the house they would like to be on so no one develops a possession over bones that might find their way to a particular spot. Two dogs hop on the same house eager to get their treat first but Mary calmly explains to the younger, in a soft quiet voice, that he needs to find his own house if he is to get his treat. As he jumps down and chooses another Mary follows after him and clips his collar to his tie out, his eye never leaving the biscuit in her hand until it is given as his reward for a job well done. Traveling back up the hill rests a small wall tent, an old basket sled, dog cooker, harnesses, ganglines and benches set in a campfire circle. All are invited to sit as Mary explains the details of the gear, her camping routine and how much work it is to drive and care for a dog team. She talks about the times she would love to sit and read or write about her journey after a long day on the trail but in reality, after all the chores are done and the dogs are cared for, it’s all a musher can do to stay awake long enough to hear the dogs howl themselves to sleep. It’s tough work but you can see by the glint in Mary’s eye, and the connection she has with her dogs, that it is well worth every moment. As the outside portion of the talk draws to a close the group is invited into Mary’s personal home, a quiet beautiful log cabin that reflects her love of nature and dog mushing on every shelf, wall and window. Art from Donna Gates and Jon Van Zyle lovingly hang along the walls, many with personal messages from the artist to Mary herself. Her home is the definition of Alaskan hospitality. It is impossible not to feel at ease here. Guests explore the cabin, sit where they please and enjoy the sunlight as it streams in through the windows reflecting on the massive logs. Everywhere you turn you are in the company of flourishing house plants or wild flowers transplanted from the land around her home. Mary’s love for nature follows her where ever she goes. She explains how she peeled the bark herself from the cabin’s logs many years ago and as you pass by an old wood fired cook-stove you begin to wonder how much history silently lies within these cabin walls. One could sit for days listening to the stories of Mary’s life and never grow tired of hearing the diversity of her many adventures. As you sit down to homemade cookies and cool limeade on the deck she goes through the final portion of her talk and explains that not only was she the first woman to complete the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, as well as finishing three Yukon Quests, but she also shared many adventures outside of racing. One particular adventure took place on the Hope ’91 route from Alaska to Russia with a handful of other mushers. With only their dog teams for transportation and support they traveled the unknown to a land they knew little about. Half way through their journey the sea opened up and blocked their path. Unwilling to turn back they arranged a lift for dog teams and mushers from an Aeroflight across the open water to a safer trail. As they continued their travels they soon found themselves on the Russian coast and greeted warmly by the communities there. “The hospitality of the Russian people was like nothing I had experienced before,” she explained. “Even though we were unable to speak their language we all left as good friends.” The connection she made with one Chuckchi musher on that journey was so strong that he gave her the reindeer skin parka right off his back, a silent gesture in gratitude of their friendship. Mary offered the only thing that would compare and pulled off her own blue parka as a return gift. That same reindeer parka hangs high on the wall of her cabin today. Now too old and fragile to wear, the memory of the trip and her journey across the Bering Sea rests well within that reindeer skin. “I like to think that somewhere, far, far from here, Vladimir is also sharing the tale of his adventure and how he came to have my own parka. Perhaps it is hanging high on his cabin wall as he gathers his friends around to tell the same story I shared with you.” Mary has written four children’s books and one about her personal life living and working with sled dogs, but being there, talking with her face to face is an experience one simply cannot purchase in a gift shop. Mary’s tour may be one of the last unique personal tours in the world of mushing that hasn’t been over commercialized by the tourist trade. If you find yourself in Fairbanks, Alaska be sure to contact Mary Shields and sign up for her tour. It’s a visit you won’t soon forget! • Miriam Cooper – Where Spirits Walk Kennel, North Pole, AK

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