Sometimes, Raven Vinter prefers not to know where the sled dogs come from.
When a rescued animal arrives at the Sled Dog Sanctuary, Vinter's 40-acre property south of Talkeetna, each dog is given a new name. That way, it's less likely the dog will be recognized in Alaska's relatively small mushing community. With past names and associations washed away, Vinter focuses instead on giving the dog a fresh start.
Touring her property just off the Parks Highway, Vinter, originally from California, explained how she ended up living amid dozens of sled dogs in the Alaska wilderness.
"I always wanted to help and make an impact," Vinter said. That desire has culminated in the 39-year-old dedicating her livelihood to rehabilitating Alaska's abandoned huskies.
As both a musher and animal rescuer, Vinter strikes a delicate balance in a sport often targeted by animal rights activists. Vinter is wholly committed to the mushing lifestyle; she also says that even within the mushing world, "There's always the bad apples."
There are stories of mushers choosing four or five dogs in the spring and taking them to an animal shelter, because the musher decided those dogs weren't worth the feeding bill. Vinter called it the "breakup drop-off."
Sometimes, though, a musher is simply unable to take care of the dogs any longer. Maybe there's a medical emergency. Maybe they couldn't afford it anymore. Maybe the dog has behavioral problems.
Every story is different, so Vinter stays out of it. "We just stay completely neutral," Vinter said. "Once the dog is here, that's our focus."
Feeding the dogs first
Vinter has been rescuing dogs since 2002, when she was living in Fairbanks and volunteering at the borough animal shelter. Hoping to expand her rescue facility, she bought the property in 2009 — an undeveloped swath of dense Southcentral forest — and moved there in 2012 with her partner James Langston. The couple live in a tan yurt just yards from the dogs' pens. They live without running water, hauling it instead, and relying on an outhouse.
"It's pretty easy for us to make do with not so much," Vinter said.
Vinter, who is also an artist, gets by on donations to the sanctuary and income from her artwork. Some months are leaner than others, but even during those times, the dogs' well-being is paramount.
"They get fed first, and then we get, you know, what we can," Vinter said.
Vinter grew up in California. She worked in a pet store in her youth, and people would drop kittens off at the shop, which she said is probably what spurred her desire to help rescued animals. She moved to Interior Alaska in the 1990s, following her sister who had been deployed to the state as a member of the military.
Vinter never had a sense of dog mushing until she moved to Alaska. While living in North Pole, she realized one day: "There's too much land here. I've gotta find a way to see more of it."
Enter dog mushing. She found her first dog sled — a makeshift contraption made of ski poles and plywood — at a Fairbanks transfer station. Later, she bought a real sled. "I got it and it was like a Porsche," she laughed.
At that time she had three dogs, and "only two of them wanted to (mush)," she said. As she got more involved in the sport, she wanted to travel longer and longer distances. So she got a few more dogs. Then a few more.
Then she started rescuing. At first, she rescued just a handful of dogs. But she realized she could be doing more — she could make animal rescue her life. The Sled Dog Sanctuary officially became a nonprofit in 2011.
In mid-May, 35 dogs were staying at the sanctuary. Three dogs had been adopted the month before. She doesn't push adoptions on anybody — it has to be the right fit between animal and owner, she said. Some dogs will likely stay at the sanctuary their whole lives. Others will be adopted when the timing is right.
The sanctuary has two main dog lots. In the front yard, there's the "introductory lot," where dogs stay when they first arrive. Vinter pointed out one particularly noisy dog, Cedar, who was barking nonstop. That dog needed some socialization, Vinter explained. She had deliberately picked two quieter, mellow dogs to be housed closest to Cedar, so the dog learns to relax.
As Vinter approached the second lot, the dogs inside erupted into a howl. An ethereal, wolf-like cry rose up through the birch woods, only to cease abruptly as she opened the gate, returning the forest to stillness and silence.
Vinter pointed to different dogs, describing their habits and personality. There was Odin, a large black husky who began to dig into the Earth once Vinter stepped into the pen. His obsessive digging habit has actually offered better drainage in the lot — just move him from place to place, where the ground needs to be dug out, she said.
There's Rain, who likes to dig up roots. She's also placed strategically in the lot, and has helped to clear out the soil. There were friendly dogs who love affection, and there were shy dogs that have "never seen anybody but the musher they were born with," Vinter said.
"They pretty much all have their own stories," Vinter said.
Dogs are dropped off with a variety of needs. Some have medical issues, others behavioral issues. Some have high metabolisms and are "not cost effective" for mushers, Vinter said. Regardless of their pasts, and specific issues they bring along when they arrive at the sanctuary, rehabilitation means breaking away from those traumas. That means providing basic needs — food, warmth, exercise, affection. And when dogs see other happy dogs, that helps, too, Vinter said.
For Vinter, it's about taking an animal away from the past and into the present. "They're not connected to their past. They want to live life in the moment," Vinter said.
"It's just like people. If you've been through trauma … the biggest thing is: how can you get back to that peace?" Vinter said.
'Where are they going to go?'
Some dogs get stuck in their trauma, and take a long time to rehabilitate. Vinter has started working with a therapist with a background in canine therapy to help these dogs.
"We're really trying to help … where there's something in their head they just can't let go," Vinter said.
Others bounce back quickly — like Zephyr, a three-legged husky who is the inspiration for a children's book that Vinter is creating.
The 6-year-old husky came to the sanctuary after suffering an accident, and having his back left leg amputated. "We were going to retire him," Vinter said, "and he decided he didn't want to be retired."
Zephyr "absolutely went ballistic" when the other dogs went for a run, so they hitched him up to the dog sled. They figured he'd run a few miles and call it good, she said.
"Well that couple miles went to 10, went to 20 … he pulls, he leads. Yeah, he's pretty amazing," Vinter said.
While walking the property, Zephyr, who is allowed to roam off-leash, bounded up and down the trail, his back leg propelling him forward as he zipped between trees and over brush.
For Vinter, giving dogs that happiness is what makes her work so satisfying. The best part is after a run, she said, when the dogs are "smiling" and tired.
"They do their howl, and then for the rest of the night it's just nothing but peace and quiet, and everybody is happy as little clams because they got to do what sled dogs you know, are born to do, just go out and run their little hearts out," Vinter said.
For all the joy it brings, though, it's not easy. "There are some days you wake up and think, this is such a big deal, I don't know if I can do this," Vinter said.
But then she visits with the dogs and thinks: "if I don't do this, where are they going to go?"
She credits volunteer groups with helping care for the dogs. There's Alaskan Wild Women, Challenge Alaska, and FOCUS Outreach, which have all helped out. Arctic Paws Yummy Chummies, an Anchorage-based dog food company, which also donates treats. A veterinarian with Golden Pond vet service donates time to the dogs, as well.
For all the work it takes, Vinter focuses on taking it day by day. And "every day there's always something that tells us we're making a difference," she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Vinter had worked with Hope Community Resources. This is incorrect; Vinter has worked with FOCUS Outreach.