Development hinders urban mushing life

Posted: Friday, January 23, 2004

ANCHORAGE If it weren't for dogs, Jenny Zimmerman's husband once joked, the couple would have a decent life.

But Zimmerman, who loves all 10 of her hairy canines as if they were babies, is stubborn about sled dogs. It's true they gobble up income, she said, but to her mind, a mushing life is a grand life.

Zimmerman, author of ''A Naturalist's Guide to Chugach State Park,'' came to Alaska in part for a lifestyle that includes dogs, sleds, woods and a snow-covered trail all of which she can see from the kitchen window of her home smack in the middle of Anchorage.

Her Airport Heights property a 50-by 175-foot lot is next to the Chester Creek greenbelt.

Zimmerman has kept a dog team chained in her back yard for a dozen years.

''I've always had dogs,'' said Zimmerman. Mushing ''is one way to have all the dogs I want and have them do something useful.''

While Zimmerman no longer mushes in town, there was a time when she ran dogs from a staging area in Arctic Valley on a circuitous tour of Ship Creek Pass, the Powerline Trail, Glen Alps, Tudor Road and along city trails right into her own back yard a distance of 28 miles.

But Zimmerman is one of a dwindling breed of urban mushers. Keeping a dog team within the municipal boundaries is proving more difficult as new housing encroaches on dog lots and as the city's dog nuisance laws become more defined.

An updated ordinance may be the final straw for some mushers in a battle that's been building in Anchorage for years.

Under Title 17, which addresses animal control, dogs kept within the municipality are allowed no more than a seven-minute barking spree during the day and five minutes at night. Mushers' dogs are allowed 20 minutes of barking when feeding or being loaded.

Not only does the new ordinance place a time limit on persistent barking, it also includes fines that can reach hundreds of dollars for repeat offenses.

Ultimately, the city can remove a dog because of its barking, said Lucius Burns, lead enforcement officer for the Anchorage Animal Care and Control Center. His department has issued at least one forfeiture.

In 2003, Animal Control received 1,395 complaints about barking dogs, he said. Anyone who keeps more than three dogs in the city must obtain a kennel license, so mushers can be identified in that way. But there are no statistics for evaluating how many complaints were about kennel owners.

The stricter ordinance proved too much for longtime musher Linda Chamberlain, who has moved her dogs out of Anchorage. She calculated she could face hundreds of dollars in fines if sustained barking triggered complaints. The change, which essentially removes her from the city's mushing community, is isolating to her. She lamented what she characterized as a growth issue in Anchorage, an inevitable conflict that could eventually spell the demise of an important piece of the city's history.

Alaska's dog lore is one reason Harold and Julie Capps moved here from Oregon. The couple figured they'd found the perfect dog haven when they settled on 2 1/2 acres in Chugiak. They joined a mushing association, worked on trails and became part of the mushing community.

The couple acquired two dog teams, a total of 18 mostly Siberian huskies they consider pets for life. Since their rural property falls within the municipality's boundaries, they versed themselves on Title 17.

One of their first moves was visiting neighbors. They let people know they were dog mushers and passed around their home phone number. They asked neighbors to call if there was a problem.

The couple also spent about $3,000 on a chain link fence that encircles their dog lot, which is just a few feet from their bedroom window. The fence would keep out moose and corral dogs that broke their chains. And they spent $250 debarking one of their shriller canines, notorious for riling the other dogs.

Finally, the Cappses say they constantly reinforce the quiet command with their dogs. So far, their precautions have worked. They say they've had no complaints. Still, they worry the dogs may have barked in their absence. The Cappses might relax if they moved farther from Anchorage, but both work in the city and would not consider a longer commute. Harold is a board member for the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association, established in 1950.

Mushers, he said, are frustrated by what they view as an intolerance of dogs. What most galls them is the idea that a neighborhood newcomer can cause problems for a musher who has kept a dog lot for decades. That's like moving in next to the airport and then complaining about the noise, Julie Capps said.

Unfortunately, the municipality cannot have a different set of laws for longtime mushers, said Beth Wallan, a spokeswoman for Animal Control. There is no grandfather clause in the ordinance. The barking limits were approved by the Anchorage Assembly and are meant to reflect what most people would consider a reasonable neighborhood disturbance.

Jenny Zimmerman, the Airport Heights musher, believes herself fortunate to live in a tight-knit neighborhood where people throw block parties and don't mind her dogs. If her team takes a barking spell in the middle of the night, neighbors might call and rib her, but they don't file a complaint.

And anyway, Zimmerman is probably already sitting ''bolt upright in bed.''

When the musher has trained new or young dogs, she has kept a baby monitor in her bedroom, an electronic ear on the dog lot. Zimmerman mushes her dogs two to three times a week, trucking them to Chugiak's Beach Lake trails. She has no intention of moving her dogs out of the city.

Mary Ellen Shea has kept a dog team off Rabbit Creek Road since the 1970s. She's a recreational musher now, but she finished 55th in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1992. In the early 1990s, Shea hooked dogs to a stripped-down four-wheeler and trained them for the Iditarod at Campbell Airstrip.

You couldn't do that today, she said. People are more sensitive to land use issues, and an ATV, motorless or not, would draw ire on the trails. Shea said she laments what she sees as a lack of tolerance for mushing, the official state sport.

''A lot of people come to Anchorage and they want to see a dog team,'' Shea said. ''If that doesn't stay part of what our legacy is, I think it's a huge cultural loss.''

Sandi Gerjevic is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News

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