Willow mushers say harassment linked to one local critic

WASILLA -- Tales of musher harassment in Willow surfaced this week prior to passage of a new Matanuska-Susitna Borough ordinance to regulate sled dogs and kennels.

Stories circulated of trees dropped on trails or dog teams, threatening messages at the post office and dog-spooking rifle shots fired into the air.

Numerous people on Friday said it's all coming from one person -- a relative newcomer who moved into an area popular with dog teams off West Sharen Drive five or six years ago.

The person has not been charged with anything criminal, according to Alaska State Troopers; because of this, Alaska Dispatch News is not naming him.

Under the new ordinance, people caught interfering with licensed mushing kennels or dog teams face fines from $100 to $500.

Assembly member Vern Halter, a Willow dog musher and kennel operator, sponsored the ordinance and said the interference section came in response to the Willow harassment.

The ordinance provides much-needed reassurance, said Terry Morache, a 49-year-old Willow musher and a member of the borough Animal Care and Regulation Board.


Morache said she avoids trails in the Sharen Drive area because of three incidents involving the man. Several years ago, she said, he intentionally dropped a tree on another person's dog team, injuring one animal that was later euthanized. Two winters ago, he made a trail-blocking snow berm along the Parks Highway. Last winter, he dropped a tree across a trail in front of her team.

The U.S. Coast Guard veteran said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and craves solitude and quiet.

"I am so afraid of running in the area where this man lives that I avoid it," Morache said. "I fear for my dogs. I fear for myself."

Troopers did get reports of someone blocking mushing trails over time, but the incidents were "deemed noncriminal," spokesperson Megan Peters said. That doesn't mean somebody can block a trail; it's just that these particular reports didn't meet criminal statutes, maybe because of lack of evidence or other factors, Peters said.

Troopers won't be enforcing the new musher interference rule because it falls under borough code, she said.

'It's always been a mushing neighborhood'

It's no secret that Willow is populated by dog teams. The Willow Dog Mushers Association -- a nonprofit with enough members to sway local votes -- printed a T-shirt that says "Willow, Alaska. Home to more sled dogs than people."

Some big-name dog drivers own kennels in the area of Sharen Drive, including DeeDee Jonrowe and Bob Chlupach.

"It's always been a mushing neighborhood," said Justin High, who owns a 16-dog kennel with his wife, Jaimee.

The harassment started after the person moved into the neighborhood, several Willow-based mushers say.

High said the man accused of making trouble moved into a property that sits at the intersection of two trails. He started blocking a cutoff trail on a public easement before moving on to other trails, none on his property, sometimes on blind curves, High said.

Someone blocked a trail with an old van. He's seen the man make obscene gestures and described anti-Iditarod signs posted on a building on the man's property.

He's not the only mushing opponent in the community, said Donna Quante, a former Willow Dog Mushers Association president who moved to Pennsylvania last year.

"Everybody says, 'You mushers are taking over,' " Quante said. "I couldn't buy a house on a lake because they have covenants. ... We buy where we're allowed to buy."

That said, the man knew mushers -- about 10 in all -- lived in his subdivision or the next one over, Quante said.

"I'm not saying all mushers in Willow are wonderful. They're not," she said. "But he picked on the wrong people."

The new ordinance, approved Wednesday by the Mat-Su Assembly, makes it a violation to interfere with licensed mushing facilities or dog teams engaged in "lawful mushing activity" anywhere in the borough, excluding the cities of Palmer, Wasilla and Houston. It's apparently the first such municipal ordinance in the country.

The Knik-Fairview area outside Wasilla adopted a special mushing and recreation district in 2008 to address conflicts between residents and dog teams at that historic sled dog stronghold.


The Knik district doesn't regulate musher interference, but it does address the problem of people moving into the neighborhood only to complain about sled dogs next door, according to Berkeley Tilton, a former Knik-Fairview Community Council president.

"We wanted everybody to understand this is an area that is very mushing friendly," Tilton said.

He said nobody has complained about sled dogs to the council in the six years since the district was created.

Contact Zaz Hollander at

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at