Tom and I started the educational segment of the documentary a couple of months ago in the heat of Africa. We then headed to a school in New Jersey, USA and a then a special school in my home town of Coventry in the UK. This was the final piece where we would observe the culture and daily lives of students in Fairbanks, Alaska. At just under 200 miles south of the the arctic circle it’s a very cold and very snowy place, what I LOVE! But first a slight detour to another passion of mine – dogs.
My first experience of Alaska was 10 years ago when I met with two great mushers, Cody Strathe and his wife Paige. I was filming for a schools program I had created to inspire students in the UK to highlight the amazing relationship between musher and dogs. Alaska was new to me then and my only objective was the dogs. When I saw the area where they lived; the culture around dog mushing and how close the dogs and mushers were, the short films came together naturally. I left for home knowing there was a bigger story to tell.
Squid Acres Kennel is around 40 minutes outside of Fairbanks. A wooded forest area in the wilds where Cody, Paige and their 55 dogs call home. This secluded area has nothing but a couple of wooden lodges which, I was amazed to discover, were hand built by both Cody and Paige. When times were tough and their skills were lacking they turned to Google for construction advice. Literally building their home from the ground upwards – a life changing experience. The wooden building constructed above the the dogs kennel area serves as a home and the other is a workshop, both made from trees in their local area. Cody builds custom dogsleds for other mushers through his company, DogPaddle Designs, he also builds custom handcrafted paddles and wooden boats. Cody’s creative side was born after his father bought him an electric hand jigsaw for cutting wood and designing – he was 6 years old.
Over the years Cody and Paige have broken trails through the woods and into the open areas around them, over frozen lakes and around mountains to run their dogs. The dogs are taken out on sledge runs every single day where they run from 5-8 hours or more… At first this practice of running them for so long struck me as a little strange and perhaps harmful to the dogs, but it quickly became apparent this was not the case – actually, quite the opposite! I saw for myself how much the dogs love the freedom of running! In fact, if the dogs are given a couple of days rest they are literally jumping up and down to get back out. Running is clearly in their nature and what they hunger for.
Cody and Paige know their dogs very, very well – all their individual, quirky characters and also their nature, strengths, intelligence, personality traits and temperance. This deep knowledge and understanding allows them to work out the position of each dog in the team so the pack performs to it’s optimum and natural strength in a race. Picking a team for 1000 mile races like The Yukon Quest or the Iditarod is like selecting a premiership football team. Positioning the dogs in the correct running order is important but the relationship of the pack leader to the musher is vital. Pack leaders are highly skilled and intelligent dogs. Some say the bond between a musher and their lead dog is almost telepathic.
I must mention one last thing before I end this instalment. I went into Squid Acres Kennel knowing how much these dogs are loved. However, there has been some negative press in dog racing over the years that I feel I must address.
The press are prone to picking up a success story and finding a negative angle – even with Everest. This can be a good thing, of course, as controversy leads to investigation. Every angle should be covered to allow for adjustment of actions and justice. The heart of the story is this; the bond between a musher and their dogs is incredible. Dogs are not fooled, even a subtle change in demeanour can be picked up by these highly intelligent, socially aware animals. If there were any impropriety that connection would be lost before crossing any start line.
These dogs are simply adored by their owners and running is something they crave. The only way they can be kept happy is by running them out in natures wilds. No walk in the park or jog on the beach would be enough. Dogs aim to please their owners and these dogs do that by pulling sledges with their musher while in their natural canine pecking order – with the leader at the front. Cody and Paige have given up everything to build a life based around dogs. They have designed their perfect life away from Fairbanks, a major city (although quiet) away from urban society. They swapped that for a bucolic relationship with the environment. They are able to sustain their alternative lifestyle through complete immersion – something I envied.
Their way of life only reinforces my belief that, while we live in cities and feel like we’re the ones affected by climate change it’s easy to assume it’s out of our control or being handled elsewhere? No. Places like this should be seen and visited to understand how people are truly connected to their environments. There was meant to be deep snow while we were filming but there was hardly any. Vehicles were often used to run the dogs instead. The snow is disappearing. The seasons are getting shorter and that affects everything from crops, wildlife, landscapes and the people who make their lives here – even to the way the land is shaped through seasonal changes. It’s these people who rely on and work with nature who understand best how important seasons and migrations are. These environmental issues are affecting communities everyday and impacting the way they live in these wonderful, natural places. Alaska is a pure way of life and it was beautiful to experience it with Cody and Paige… and 55 dogs!