HOUSTON — My arrival at Homestretch Kennel causes a commotion. Between the yips and yowls of nearly 70 sled dogs, there are shouts of "Mom! Can you help me?" coming from somewhere in the yard. Two sleds are tied to the kennel's truck, ganglines snaking across the ground, and the kids who drive them are busy with morning chores as I pull up.
Homestretch Kennel is home to the Smyth family — Ramey Smyth; his wife, Becca Moore; and their three kids, 10-year-old Ava, 6-year-old Banyan, and Coral, who's pushing 5 months.
Nestled among 15 acres of spruce forest near Houston, the kennel is located on land Ramey's father, Iditarod pioneer Bud, settled as a young man. The property is remote, scenic and the perfect place to raise children with an appreciation of the outdoors and the partnerships humankind has forged with it.
I first met the Smyth kids several years ago during Iditarod season. Ramey is a well-known distance musher, with 21 Iditarod starts and nine top-10 finishes. Moore ran the Iditarod twice, in 2015 and 2016, so Ava and Banyan have grown up surrounded by dogs.
‘Lifelong love of nature’
Ava and Banyan have been mushing with their parents since birth and have reached the stage where they can take dogs for a spin around the property's extensive trail system without adult supervision.
I asked the children about their impressions of mushing and races like the Iditarod now that they are off on their own, and Banyan had an answer right away.
"I like the distance races because I get to be with nature longer," he said.
I pressed him a bit.
"It's fun," he shrugged. "I think I can do Iditarod some day," looking at me like I was missing the point, and perhaps I was. After all, the outdoors, when part of your daily life, becomes as natural as breathing.
Ava was a little more pragmatic about the realities of taking dogs onto the trail, at least right now.
"It can be a hassle," she said, rolling her eyes. "Sometimes things get tangled up."
But, she added with a glint in those same 10-year-old eyes, "It's pretty exciting."
Both kids raced locally this winter, matching their two- and three-dog teams against other young mushers, but that's not a major focus for the family, at least for now.
Smyth and Moore want their kids to be comfortable in the outdoors, part of the reason they live where they live. After a few years of driving Ava nearly 100 miles a day to and from classes, Moore homeschools, finding more opportunity for hands-on learning right on the property. Smyth is a log home craftsman, and both parents feel a deep connection to nature and the outdoors. They want their kids to experience it, too. Mushing is an extension of that.
Ride through the trees
Eager to show off their skills, Ava and Banyan hustle to their dog yard, affectionately known by the family as "The Blue Kennel," and sort out dogs to be harnessed for the day's ride. Banyan has settled on Walrus and Honey. Ava collars Furry, Agnes and Flower.
As happens in most kennels when some dogs are chosen and others are not, a few minutes of deafening cacophony ensues as Moore helps the kids harness the teams. Sled dogs are strong, and while Ava can wrangle her trio without much assistance, Banyan's dogs are raring to go, the black-and-white Walrus leaping higher than his young handler's head in anticipation of the word "Go."
Finally, everything is more or less ready and I stand back as Moore releases the rope securing both sleds to the Homestretch Kennel truck. Ava heads into the woods first, straddling the runners confidently, and Banyan follows, his chin barely reaching the handlebar of the wooden sled. All is quiet.
Moore and I, accompanied by a sleeping Coral, make our way up the sloping driveway to meet the kids midway through their trip. I ask her how much reconnaissance was necessary once the kids were old enough to mush solo. While many of us remember the first time our parents let us ride bikes to the park unaccompanied, navigating a dog sled through Alaska wilderness without mom or dad along is a significant accomplishment.
"I think we prepped them pretty well," Moore says as we park ourselves at the trail's junction. "The kids and I skied the loop together and took a look at the turns, the terrain and the potential tricky spots."
Sometimes they take longer than she expects, due to soft snow, stubborn dogs and the occasional moose, but Moore also knows this is part of the learning process.
"It was hard the first time," Moore tells me as we both glance at our phones to gauge the time it takes to travel a few miles via dogsled. "But everything has uncertainty, and I think they're getting way more out of this experience than the risks involved."
As the big sister, Ava takes ultimate responsibility for her brother while looping around the 5-mile course, but Moore emphasizes teamwork. This is evidenced by a delay in the kids' return — with different dogs in harness than they started with, frustration noticeable on Ava's face. Walrus, it seems, has a thing for Honey, and wouldn't leave her alone, so Ava and Banyan solved the problem by switching Furry to Banyan's team and hitching the lovesick Walrus with Agnes and Flower.
The two stop their teams for a minute to rest the panting dogs, then continue with a wave back to the yard, arriving a few minutes after we do. Ava takes charge, jamming the sled's snow hook into the ground, unharnessing dogs, patting and praising as she goes along. Banyan helps Moore take care of his two dogs, then wanders off to see what's happening over by the woodshed. Coral wakes up with a howl that mixes with the dogs'. Everybody's hungry after a busy morning.
Smyth comes over to say hello and hug Ava, telling her that some days are easier than others when it comes to dogs. Fresh from mushing a team of flighty yearlings earlier in the day, he knows better than all of us what it takes to maintain the fine balance between work and play.
Smyth and Moore are not actively encouraging their children to pursue a career in sled dog racing, leaving it up to their son and daughter to decide. Banyan says he's sure he'll always live in the forest and mush dogs. Ava, on the other hand, has different plans.
"I'll keep a few dogs for skijoring," she says, "But I want to be a marine biologist and family doctor in remote Alaska. Probably Nome."
With that, Ava trudges off to feed her dogs. Banyan hops on a bike and slides back toward the woodshed, where he's helping shovel out snow that's piled up all winter. Coral shrieks and Moore takes her inside. Smyth grins and throws his arms wide.
"This is how you do it, every day, to raise up great kids." he says.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go travel guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a family travel and outdoor recreation resource.