Talkeetna, Alaska is a little town, 15 miles down a dead end road off the Parks Highway and is mostly known as a launching point for Denali expeditions and flight seeing. Most of the visitors to Talkeetna arrive by train or tour bus, then spend the day walking around town visiting the shops, restaurants and bars, all of which are plentiful. Kind of like a beatnik DisneyWorld that serves beer. Talkeetna is one of my favorite places in Alaska. One of the more fun things a tourist can do here is drink and dance at the Fairview until 3am, take a tour with Gerald Sousa’s Sun Dog Kennels, we did both.GS: Jerry, how long have you been operating a sled dog tour business?JS: We started with a guiding service in 1992, and we added the sled dog touring component about 8 years ago.GS: Were you born and raised in Alaska?JS: No I was born in California. I moved up here in my teens to live with my uncle. I wasn’t what you would call a problem child, but was heading in that direction. They shipped me up to Talkeetna where I couldn’t get into much trouble. There wasn’t much here back then. GS: How and why did you incorporate dogs into servicing the tourist industry?JS: My wife Kathleen is the one who brought the dogs in. She started it all. She was a successful sprint musher for a long time, and I was always interested in Iditarod, so we ended going in that direction. Our first distance dogs mixed her sprint lines with Buser’s. Now we have added some of Gebhardt’s Governor line into the mix. We are not too caught up in breeding the perfect racing dog to win the Iditarod with. We don’t have to win the Iditarod, it would be nice if we could someday, but most likely it is not going to happen. We are not dependent on race winnings to make a living, so we don’t have to go through a lot of dogs. Our dogs stay with us for a long time. The first litter we had together is still running the tours today. GS: How has your business changed over the years?JS: When we first started we weren’t linked up with the cruise industry yet. They weren’t even visiting Talkeetna yet. When the cruise industry started bringing people to Talkeetna, we had more opportunities. GS: How does the cruise industry bring tourists to Talkeetna?JS: They use the train or bus to bring them directly to their local hotels.GS: Have you seen any difference in tourism to Talkeetna because of higher fuel prices this year?JS: Some of the industry is up, some is down from last year. I think the average tourist might even lean toward a cruise rather than a cross country drive in their SUV. The cost of fuel is amortized across all the passengers on board. Also, the value of the dollar might keep American tourists at home while encouraging foreign tourists to finally take that trip to Alaska. We are definitely seeing more foreigners this year. Many of this year’s visitors also paid for their trip last year, so we’re not really seeing any decline yet.GS: If most of your clients are from the cruise ships, do they come to Talkeetna just for your tour, or are they here for other things also?JS: Most are stopping in Talkeetna to see the village, or go flight seeing around McKinley. As you know this is the main hub for sight seeing flights to Denali. When they are here, before or after their flights, they can stop in here and see what dog sledding is all about. It’s an opportunity for us to share the experience of mushing and in a good light, talk about Iditarod.GS: Do you advertise with the individual cruise lines?JS: No, we pay each cruise line a hefty commission for each tour they sell for us. We are one of their vendors.GS: For aspiring mushers who quickly figure out that it costs a lot of money to maintain a dog team and want to get into touring to make some extra cash to offset the expenses of a kennel, do you have any suggestions?JS: Be careful what you wish for. When you turn your hobby into your work you may not have the time to enjoy your hobby any more, because now it is a full time job. However, when I think about it, I wake up every morning and get to run dogs here from my house. I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to set up a camp on a glacier or anything. It is kind of a dream come true. Location is of paramount importance. If you are even 20-30 miles from a tourist hub, you will have to work harder to get enough clients to keep the business running. There are a couple of people who are off the beaten path that have been successful at it, like Martin Buser and Vern Halter. They have to work a lot harder to get clients than I do or Jeff King does, for example. A new sled dog tour operator needs, among other things, to get involved with local communities and local chambers of commerce, B&B organizations and such. Those venues can be used effectively to promote your business.GS: Most of the mushers I know got into, and continue to, run dogs because of the sheer enjoyment of it. Has being a musher for a living, changed any of that enjoyment?JS: Sometimes I wake up cranky and I’m thinking about what aspect of the tour I can improve upon, or what went wrong yesterday, or the things I have to do today. But all of that disappears the moment I get on the back of the cart. The enjoyment never goes away. Part of that is because of the spirit of the dogs. Everyday is a brand new day for them. They are always totally excited everytime we hook them up.GS: Do you spend money on printed material to hand out, or for tourist offices?JS: The whole industry is geared around the “Rack Card” either trifold or flat. There was one individual in town that spent a lot of money to print up a special oversize brochure that was different to everyone else’s. Now he is realizing that it really should fit in the slot with the other cards or the merchants don’t have a way to display them. You have to be aware of what others are doing in the same market. When your in business, any business, your success or failure is going to depend on how you manage your expenses.GS: Your tour consists of a wheeled cart ride, a kennel visit, and an indoor talk. What aspect do you think the visitors enjoy the most.JS: I’ve never really thought about that. They really enjoy the ride part, but we offer a tour in the afternoon when we don’t do the ride due to warmer temperatures, and everyone loves that tour also. Most who come here have pets at home, and I think they try to make a connection between the dogs here and their own pets.GS: Do you use your Iditarod racing dogs for the tours?JS: We’ve been told that we probably should separate them, but we don’t. We don’t have enough dogs to do that. We’ve never had a large enough kennel to afford to do that. It goes back to economics, all the dogs here work for their keep. We use the older non-racing dogs to train the younger pups and so on. GS: How did you enjoy racing Iditarod this year?JS: Well I was 31st. It wasn’t one of our strongest showings, but not one of our worst. We did well, but I made a monumental error in strategy. Driver error. Sometimes it goes smooth, but the thing about Iditarod is you don’t get a second chance.GS: Since you do use the same dogs for touring and racing, do you give them any time off in the season after touring and before specific race training?JS: Yes, I like to go hunting, so they get 2 weeks off during that time. GS: Do you have any plans for the future with your touring business, any changes?JS: I want to incorporate some training and exercise wheels, both the vertical and horizontal types. I’m actually looking for a set of plans to build one from. That would be a great article for you to do.GS: We’re working on it. I really enjoyed just watching the dogs trot around on my wheel when I had it. They move so fluidly and graceful. I also learned a lot about their personalities by how they approached the work. I bet it would be fun for the visitors to watch also.JS: We look at the tour rides that the dogs are doing, and after reading Arleigh Reynold’s article in your last issue, we are starting to think that it might not be the best exercise for them to be doing. It is not depleting their conditioning, but I’m not sure it is giving them maximum benefit. We could incorporate the wheel into the show, both for conditioning of the race dogs and for something that the visitors can witness also. We would interface it right into the visitor tour. GS: Well thanks for the time to talk to me today, best of luck with the tours.JS: Thanks, anytime.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,