TOURISM. THE KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR FOR MUSHERS?

Ask the average person what he or she knows about the sport of mushing and the misconceptions you’ll hear will last for as long as you are willing to listen.This phenomenon stems partly from how the sport is portrayed in books and movies and partly from the idea that most people have of the place in the world that a dog should occupy; namely, that of a pet. While the former leads to more romantic misconceptions like the visual expectations regularly ascribed to purebred Huskies, the latter leads to more humanistic misunderstandings concerning the dog and its well-being. Questions like “do the dogs actually enjoy doing this?” are representative of such misunderstandings. It is the hope of the dog sledding community that both types of falsehoods will be stamped out. However, the resolution of the latter concern should demand more immediate attention, particularly if the dog sledding community cares at all about its reputation, development, and future.So what are the most plausible means of initiating a better understanding and establishing a more favorable image of the sport in the public eye? The answer lies in tourism. It was with these concerns in mind that Robert Murphy founded Alaska Excursions, a company that offers more than just a sled ride, but the value of an educational experience as well.“There is no question that people are enamored by sled dogs,” says Murphy. In fact, when he started operating in 1995 in Skagway, AK the demand was so great he ended up having to shut down the following year because so many tourists were being turned away. This strained the business’ relationship with the cruise ships. Since then, his business has been steadily growing to become what it is today: a company that accommodates thousands of tourists from all over the world each season.Alaska Excursions runs six-person carts pulled by sixteen dogs on an old road built in 1886, carved out of rock at the foot of a mountain. Murphy purchased this Native allotment beside the Dyea Tidal Flats in 1998 and has been running tours on a mile-long loop ever since. Granted, a mile-long sled ride is relatively short, but length is not the purpose of the offered experience. Murphy says that he views one of his main objectives as “gaining positive publicity for the sport on a nationwide level.” In particular, he hopes to persuade those who might be adverse to mushing that it is a legitimate sport. With this consideration in mind, a significant portion of the tour is dedicated to a kennel talk. The talks are given by one of Murphy’s experienced mushers such as Jeramie Matrishon, who has been running dogs both recreationally and competitively for the past decade.Matrishon has been working for Alaska Excursions for a couple of years, but only brought his own dogs to the job this recent summer when he saw what a good financial deal it was. In addition to compensation for leasing the dogs, Murphy’s company provides kennel maintenance by staff members, dog food for five months, and a place to keep the dogs happy during the summer months. Skagway/Dyea provides a good climate during the warmer part of the year, as the coast is typically cooler than the interior of Alaska during the summer. It is in Skagway that Matrishon encounters and responds to the general public’s perception of the sport on a daily basis. Matrishon sees the issue of spectators questioning whether or not the dogs actually enjoy running as a matter of primary concern for the mushing community. As he quickly discovered while working with the public, many people believe that the dogs have no choice in the matter. Many come for the ride with a great amount of sympathy for the animals and the notion that they are somehow forced to run. But as every member of the mushing community will attest, you cannot push a rope. Matrishon likes working for Alaska Excursions because it gives him the opportunity to take people who are on the fence about their view of the sport and show them that the dogs actually enjoy it. “This becomes immediately obvious to the tourists when they step off the van and are greeted by sixty-four barking dogs,” Matrishon says. Dogs lunging with such fervor and excitement are only seen at one other time, as Matrishon tells people, “When they’re fed.”To revisit an earlier subject, what exactly is the value of a more positive view of the sport in the public eye? That is, why should the dog sledding community even care?Matrishon for one, as well as a great many others, feel such misunderstandings are what holds the sport back. He thinks that a better understanding and reception will lead to more public focus, which can provide certain benefits. These benefits are likely to include an improved reception for the musher on a personal level, more respect, more money, improvements within the sport, and better care for the dogs. As far as the racing community is concerned, better public awareness will lead to the understanding that dog sledding is not just a hobby, but a sport as well. While it may not be an Olympic sport, (yet, anyway), its participants consist of people with as much passion for what they do as any other athlete has for his or her respective sport. And just as with any other sport, if you love it enough, you’ll do anything possible to make it happen.With more people paying attention to mushing, this passion will lead to more real outcomes for a greater number of participants in the sport. This may come through sponsorship in racing, or in the affordability of owning and operating a kennel. Even with thirty-one dogs, (a relatively small kennel size), sponsorship is important to fund both Matrishon’s racing and the maintenance of his kennel. Working for Alaska Excursions offers yet another benefit in this regard, as it increases the fiscal support of people who are actively viewing, participating, and learning about the sport. Matrishon has found a fair number of sponsors this way, and he is always eager to hand out business cards or direct people to his website (www.furrymoonkennels.com). In fact, Murphy himself is sponsoring Matrishon, along with any other second-year employees who plan on racing competitively in the winter months.In addition to the benefits derived from an improved understanding of the sport, Murphy’s company offers a place for the dogs to stay fit during the summer months. All of his mushers will agree that this makes for noticeable improvement in the dogs during fall training. They are also in better spirits in the summer months, Furthermore, the company offers employment for both novices and veterans interested in dog sledding, with positions for mushers, handlers, and CDL & 4X4 drivers.In conclusion, it seems that tourism has beneficial effects on the sport for all parties involved. Besides offering a training ground for both the musher and his or her dogs, tourism provides the best means for educating the public and bringing about positive improvements within the sport. With these improvements and public support, the possibilities for dog sledding are endless.Jake Hays, a recent dog sledding enthusiast, moved to Southeast Alaska in May of 2007 to work as a handler for Alaska Excursions. Originally from New England, he grew up outside Providence and studied at Connecticut College, receiving his BA in Philosophy in 2006.

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