Flying out of Chicago on an assignment one evening, I had been reading a copy of Anne LaBastille's "Woodswoman," in which she described her move to the Adirondacks and the time spent independently building her log cabin, accompanied by her German shepherds. Encouraged and inspired by her lifestyle, a seed was planted for my own eventual move to a peaceful and more private world of log cabin living with dogs and wildlife.
In 1994 I invited my family along on a first dog sledding adventure in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. I had been wondering if dog sled teams might be a training metaphor for leadership and team building in the corporate sector. The more I learned the more I realized it was certainly a powerful venue and with the help of a skilled musher, I began to design some training materials. In the process I noted that legendary Susan Butcher had dogs for sale and leaping on the idea, I called her in Fairbanks. She did indeed have dogs for sale and after some discussion we settled on my acquiring a retiring Iditarod, an experienced command leader named Scuba.
In October of 1994 Susan called me to set up the flight details and told me that Scuba was actually bred, inquiring if I still wanted her and if so, I would have a ready made team. Being a lifetime dog lover, I immediately said 'yes.' When I arrived in Milwaukee with my son to pick her up there was a note on the crate,
"Julie, she is farther along than we thought. Watch her." We took her for a walk and her belly did not seem extended so I took her on the last 100-mile leg of our journey. We had hastily put a pen together for our new arrivals and were met by our two dogs and our cat. Scuba immediately took to marking her pen boundaries, fully accepting of the Husky cross, Charlie, and fully rejecting the golden retriever, Champ.
The cat took to a tree high above the pen. It wasn't long before Scuba gave birth to her pups, nine of them. As each one appeared I excitedly called the very patient Susan and she gave me good guidance on how to best care for them. Basically she said, "Leave her alone, she knows what's she's doing." It was my introduction to the incredible Alaskan husky.
I didn't know at the time, but this was the beginning of a wonderful mentoring relationship with Susan. I was a complete novice in the sled dog world and she patiently, over eleven years, until she died of leukemia, sent me dogs and coached me in their care. After her death, her husband sent me two more dogs.
As a fledgling kennel, we eventually got into racing, giving these one time 1,000-mile racing dogs a chance to continue their lifestyle at a slower pace in their retirement. Ultimately I would meet Aliy Zirkle, first and only woman to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and also would receive retirees from her. She coached me and took me dog sled camping along the Chena River in thirty below temps. Little did I know in 1994 what a providential change in my lifestyle would occur.
There are many stories from seventeen years with these wonderful dogs. We continue today, at age 70, with 25 dogs who are in various stages of retirement. We still have four of Susan's dogs and one of Aliy's, having tenderly buried numerous others after their retiring years of service with us, including Liller, Skinny, Martin and Sulatna.
Our title, "In Gentler Valleys Roaming" comes from the Robert Service poem "L'Envoi." In a sort of paraphrase as we read it, we think of these stalwart dogs who have come from racing and running thousands of miles across the Alaskan wilderness to the gentler world of Wisconsin. Always we wonder about their thoughts of life in the Alaskan Bush. We are humbled by their experience, their loyalty and their ability to teach and even laugh at us.
L"ENVOI, ROBERT SERVICE, COLLECTED POEMS
"And so, dear friends, in gentler valleys roaming,
Perhaps when on the printed page you look,
Your fancies by the firelight may go homing
To that lone land that haply you forsook,
And if perchance you hear the silence calling,
The frozen music of star yearning heights,
Or, dreaming, see the seines of silver trawling
Across the sky's abyss on vasty nights,
You may recall that sweep of savage splendor,
That land that measures each man (and dog) at his worth,
And feel in mmeory, half fierce, half tender,
The brotherhood of men (and dogs) that know the North."