A universal language

Young mushers’ character, devotion ring through

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2007

My stomach started to growl as I sat in a little rural train station somewhere in the German countryside, waiting for a local train to carry me the remainder of the way to my first Army duty station years ago.

I had received orders after arriving in Frankfurt, to go to the bahnhof downtown, take the main line, express train toward Nuremberg and transfer in this little town to a train that would take me to Wertheim am Main, my ultimate destination.

Fresh out of German language school in California, I felt confident I could manage to find my way, even without the omnipresent motherly lead of my first sergeant.

Perpetually hungry as any 20-year-old, I went up to the lone clerk at the little train station ticket counter and asked if the candy machine on the wall accepted American coins, as I had not yet converted any money to Deutsche Marks.

The teenage girl gave me somewhat of a puzzled look, reached down beneath the counter and handed me a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint chewing gum.

Figuring I must have said something wrong, I repeated my question about American coins. I knew the Mark was the same size as a quarter, and at the time, they were pretty close in value.

Looking even more puzzled, the clerk slowly reached down and without a word, produced yet another pack of Wrigley’s spearmint chewing gum.

So much for my 24 weeks of sitting in German classes at least 40 hours a week in preparation for becoming a German translator for the Army.

I politely handed the girl a one-dollar bill, took the gum and went back to my bench to wait for the train while chewing a lot of gum.

What I learned the next day was that I had been dropped off in rural northern Bavaria, where the Bavarian version of the spoken language is about as different from the high German I had been taught as classic Latin is from the Spanish spoken in back alley cantinas in Tijuana.

Last weekend, that memory came flashing back to me as I bounced along in a dog sled being driven through the Sterling woods by a musher-in-training, who was wearing a field jacket with a German flag logo on the shoulder.

“That’s a German army jacket, isn’t it?” I asked Andreas Strowzki, in my best school-taught Deutsch.

Preferring to use only his first name, Andreas answered affirmatively, but then rattled off another paragraph in German that I understood about as well as the train station clerk understood me many years earlier.

Andreas, who was volunteering at the Seavey Racing Team kennels just off the Sterling Highway at Montana Street, had arrived in Alaska two weeks ago from Munich — the heart of Bavaria.

I was doomed.

I thought it best to just keep my German to myself and take in the splendor of the snow-covered spruce trees passing by on both sides as our team of five four-legged athletes pulled us along effortlessly.

Andreas must have sensed my mental unease, as he asked often — in English — if I was OK.

Assuring him all was fine, I just sat listening to the tinkling of the dogs’ harnesses and watching the tiny bits of snow being kicked up from 20 paws as we kept up with my wife and her musher, Kristi Bowskill-Bolin, a few yards ahead.

Kristi, we learned, was also a new arrival in Alaska, visiting from Canada. She got here Dec. 1.

With Kristi’s expert handling of their team, and our dogs reacting unhesitatingly to Andreas’ nearly inaudible commands of “hike,” “haw,” “gee,” and “whoa,” I thought for sure these two had handled sled dogs for years.

I didn’t even consider asking Andreas what the commands would be in Bavarian.

As we traveled farther out on the trails, heading mainly east from Sterling, my linguistics confidence did grow somewhat as I offered a few more questions in German to my driver.

We talked about the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in the Bavarian Alps, where I took my first downhill ski lesson. We talked about how much we like the snow — or did he say he didn’t like it? And, of course, we talked about the dogs.

As new as these two volunteer handlers were to sled dog touring, their skills, knowledge and obvious love for dogs belied their amateur standing.

Right from the start, Kristi moved among the 154 or so dogs in the Seavey kennel, knowing full well which dogs would be best suited for the ride at hand. She was working somewhat from a crib sheet — perhaps prepared for her by Iditarod musher Danny Seavey, who runs the tour business in Sterling.

Being a couple of weeks her junior, at least in terms of mushing, Andreas followed Kristi’s lead, swapping out gang lines, positioning lead dogs and wheel dogs as directed, all the time concerned about the comfort of the customers.

Would I be warm enough? Did I need hand warmers? Would I mind keeping my camera inside my jacket except when I wanted to actually take photos? He asked all these things while keeping to the task at hand of harnessing the excited canines.

Out on the trail, Kristi invited my wife to join her on the back of the sled, obviously realizing my wife’s passion for dog sleds.

Andreas — perhaps wondering just what language I was trying to speak — let me sit in relative silence, serenely taking in the nine or so miles of wintry landscape.

Once back to the warming house at the edge of the dog yard, Andreas was quick to offer us hot chocolate or coffee ... and hot cider, once I translated what it was. He and Kristi even brought in a couple of 8-week-old pups to entertain us with their endless curiosity.

As my wife and I are coming to realize, the sport of dog mushing is teeming with conscientious people who love what they do as much as they love the dogs that let them do it.

We’ve seen it a number of times at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, we saw it in the folks at the less famed Tustumena 200 race last winter, and we saw it last spring when some Kasilof friends took us dog sledding on the trails around Soldotna airport and it was most evident during our New Year’s Eve adventure with the Seaveys’ crew.

Regardless if they’re relative newcomers to the sport as Kristi and Andreas, or veteran pro Iditarod mushers, it’s the kind of dedication to dogs and sport that makes them winners whether they come to the finish line first or not.

Prosit! (Cheers!)

Phil Hermanek is a Peninsula Clarion reporter. He can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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