In their blood

Mushing is more than a sport in Arctic regions — it’s history

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2006


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  At left, Shane Strausbaugh of Sterling mushes to the finish of the 13-kilometer junior coed dogsled race. Photos by M. Scott Moon

Beth Callis, Alyn Charlie and Sophia Daniels are framed by flags as they stand on the winner's podium after the 13-kilometer junior coed dogsled race at Soldotna Municipal Airport. A white fox on the Northwest Territories flag calls attention to the role fur trapping plays in the region.

Photos by M. Scott Moon

The Arctic Winter Games has both athletic and cultural components. In some venues, the two components are one and the same.

“It’s part of my culture, which is great,” said Rebecca Baxter of Team Northwest Territories after driving her team to a gold ulu in the juvenile five-dog, 10-kilometer race Wednesday on the Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association trails by the Soldotna Airport.

Baxter, who joked that she is 12 years old but 10 in America with the exchange rate, is from Inuvik, a city in the far northern part of the territory. She is of Gwich’in heritage, and explained that sled dogs were a very important part of her ancestors’ way of life.

“That’s how they used to transport things, by running dogs,” Baxter said.

Baxter’s whole family is involved in the sport. Her father, Mike, first put her on a sled at age 5, and her older brother, Jason, 17, has helped her learn the sport.


At left, Shane Strausbaugh of Sterling mushes to the finish of the 13-kilometer junior coed dogsled race.

Photos by M. Scott Moon

Baxter said she started slow.

“We grabbed my house dog, a German shepherd,” Baxter said of her first experiences on the runners, learning to steer the sled. “We started off with one dog, and got faster.”

Baxter said hockey and indoor soccer are the most popular sports in her region, but sled dog racing isn’t too far behind. Baxter said she might go out for hockey next year because she likes to “go fast.” She said the only time she had to hit the brakes on the trail Wednesday was when a pair of moose trotted across her path.

“I slowed down and they ran right across the trail,” Baxter said.

To qualify for the Games, Baxter said, she had to first win regional and then territorial competitions.

Yukon Territory’s Charmaine Christiansen, a 17-year-old junior musher out of Dawson City, followed a similar path to qualify for the Arctic Winter Games.

“This is my first time (at the Games). I tried out two years ago, but the team I had didn’t really compare to those hounds,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen said mushing was a part of her heritage as her paternal and maternal grandfathers were trappers.

“My mom used to ride in the sled, and my dad used to go out with his dad,” she said.

Christiansen got her first taste of the sport at age 8 or 9, when a neighbor asked one of her older siblings to take out a team. While her older sister wasn’t taken with the sport, Christiansen asked if she could give it a try and was immediately hooked. She got her first four dogs from a cousin in Tok, and now has a kennel of 32 dogs.

“About half are pups. They’re my dogs for next year,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen said she has one more year of competitive mushing, then she’ll think about selling her team, though her dad is thinking about trapping next season.

“You never know. They say mushing never gets out of your blood,” Christiansen said.

A pair of mushers representing Alaska also were “born into the sport,” having been introduced to it by their mother. Junior musher Beth Callis, 16, and juvenile Gracie Callis, 12, have each been running dogs since they were old enough to stand on the runners. Beth Callis competed in the Games at Fort McMurray in 2004 and said it was exciting to see some of the same mushers.

“There’s a little more camaraderie at the Arctic Winter Games than at a normal dog race. It’s a smaller pool of people that are running,” Callis said.

Both sisters won silver ulus in Wednesday’s competition.

Up next for the mushers is the team races, which start at 10:30 a.m. today at the trails on Funny River Road.

“It’s a terrific event. Without these juniors, we don’t have older mushers,” said Mike Baxter.

Wednesday results: Dog mushing

·Juvenile coed, 10K-5 dogs

Gold: Rebecca Jean Baxter, Northwest Territories

Silver: Gracie K. Callis, Alaska

Bronze: Benjamin L. Kinvig, Yukon

· Junior coed, 13K-7 dogs

Gold: Alyn B. Charlie, Northwest Territories

Silver: Beth H. Callis, Alaska

Bronze: Sophia Daniels, Yukon

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