PAXSON -- It's raining in the Alaska Range. There's a possibility of snow. Leaves are beginning to turn to the brilliant reds and yellows of late fall.These are the signs that that make Alaska's mushing community stir.
Sled dogs that train all summer now begin to run on a more purposeful schedule. Kennel owners are on the telephone making arrangements for winter feed.
Winter feed, in many cases, means salmon. Salmon used to be the base food of the working sled dog. The bulk of the sled dogs in Alaska used to live along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers or their tributaries. There were also dogs along the western coast, and they too ate mostly fish.
Without salmon, there might be very few Alaskan huskies. The mixed-breed dog that most of us label as "huskies" was developed, for all practical purposes, along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers. Residents of those river systems had dogs of their own but the breed that is the basis of today's racing sled dog was a product of the Gold Rush era.
The rush to the Klondike gave way to gold on the beaches of Nome. Prospectors who headed there from Dawson needed transportation and supplies. They turned to dogs as the superior means of winter travel. However, there weren't enough dogs available for the mass influx of miners. Enterprising businessmen pulled dogs from wherever they could find them. Many came form the streets of Seattle.
As the gold on the beaches of Nome diminished, the need for dogs lessened. As the years passed, many of the working teams became concentrated on larger river systems, used on traplines and to haul wood and water. The Yukon and Koyukuk rivers, in particular, had enough salmon to provide a reliable winter food source.
Hardy breed develops
However, dog food was in short supply during poor salmon years. Most fish taken were needed for human consumption. Only the very best dogs that could work hard on little feed were kept. Over a few decades, a resilient, hardy breed developed.
As dog racing began to take a center stage in some of Alaska's larger cities, dogs from the Yukon migrated to the race scene. Village teams began doing very well in "big-city" venues. Top dogs were purchased by serious racers who lived away from the rivers, could purchase commercial food and had the means to support a big kennel.
The breed began to specialize in speed, while retaining their developed toughness. The Alaskan husky is still an evolving breed as the sport of sled dog racing continues to evolve too. Racing dogs eat high-powered commercial feeds, chicken, beef -- and salmon.
Hatchery carcasses an option
Teams along the rivers still depend on fish for a big portion of their feed. Commercial dog food is very expensive to ship to the villages, but salmon is there for the taking -- even though it requires considerable work to catch and preserve.
Salmon are recognized as one of the more valuable sources of protein, but availability and cost quickly become huge factors if one lives in a town without access to a good fish source. Most commercially caught fish are priced well beyond the scope of mushers.
Salmon hatchery carcasses are available to some, but freezer facilities are at a premium when attempting to handle a large number of fish. The art of drying salmon has been lost on many present-day mushers. Others who know how to preserve salmon don't have the time required to put up enough fish to feed a large kennel.
But salmon are available to mushers through a variety of sources away from the river systems. Hatchery carcasses can be obtained at some of the coastal facilities. Salmon processors also may have old fish or fish waste that can be picked up cheaply -- or free.
There are also locations where the carcasses of spawned out fish can be picked from the river bars, though this tends to be labor intensive and messy, with the quality of the fish flesh quite suspect. There are a few other sources. Limited quantities of salmon and whitefish can be purchased at times throughout the winter. But not many fish are cheap, running between 50 cents and $1 per pound.
Chum run picking up
For a dog breed that developed on fish, salmon remains one of the most important and sought-after feeds. The fall chum and coho runs to the Yukon have picked up to near average after a slow start, with 460,000 chums past the sonar at Pilot Station. That's about 23 percent less than last year.
The teams along the Yukon should be able to put up enough salmon for local needs. If the run to the Tanana River materializes at its expected strength, there may be a few extra fish for the Interior teams.
The heavy, cold rain continues in the Alaska Range. The feel of snow is in the air. Sled dogs have had their first meals of pink salmon and seem ready to run.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing