Cody Strathe was interviewed on July 11, 2011 by Robert Drozda, Marla Statscewich and Katrin Simon Sakurai at his workshop in Ester, Alaska. Cody owns
Dog Paddle Designs, where he builds custom dog sleds, kayaks and accessories. With a degree in Natural Resources, Cody first came to Alaska as a backcountry guide and later studied archeology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With a love of the outdoors, he and his wife eventually became interested in dog mushing and going on camping trips by dog team. In 2006, Cody built his first dog sled for his wife, based on information from the Internet. In this interview, Cody talks about building customized modern dog sleds out of durable and strong materials like plastic, aluminum, laminated wood strips, Kevlar, and carbon fibers. He also points out specific features on different sleds and demonstrates some of the steps in the construction process. Cody also mentions how their dog team is spending the summer working with tourists on a glacier in South East Alaska. This recording has been edited from the original.
Click to section:
Coming to Alaska
Getting interested in building kayaks and paddles
Graduate school in Fairbanks
Getting involved in dog mushing
Building his first dog sled
Other sled builders who have inspired him
Building custom and traditional-style dog sleds
Differences in materials used to build traditional and modern sleds
Describes his dog kennel, raising dogs, and how they get ready for a race
Sled design and construction
Personal innovations in sled design
Sled runner construction
Changes in the types of brakes used on dog sleds
Using laminate strips and composite fabrics to make the sled stronger
Dog sleds with seats on the back
Aluminum sled runners
Forming and bending sled runners
Strengthening sled runners with composite materials
Steaming wood for a kayak cockpit
Collapsible dog sled
Prices of sleds
Challenges of being as a sled builder
Unusual dog sled designs
Differences between sprint and distance racing dog sleds
Use of dogs for summer tourism
ROBERT DROZDA: Today is July 11, 2011 and we're here with Cody Strathe in front of his workshop. And we're going to be talking with Cody today about sled building, mostly modern innovations in sled building, have a little bit of show and tell. And let's see, Marla Statscewich is here and Katrin Simon Sakurai and we're ready to go. But before we get into the sled building, Cody, maybe you can just provide a little bit of personal background history. How you came to Alaska, that sort of thing. CODY STRATHE: Ok. Well, I came from Wisconsin and I went to college for Natural Resources down there and came to Alaska to be a guide for the summer right after I graduated from college. And spent a summer on the Kenai Peninsula and just fell in love with Alaska. ROBERT DROZDA: What year was that? CODY STRATHE: That was in 2001. And then I spent a summer there working doing canoe guiding and mountain bike guiding and went back to Wisconsin for the winter and then decided that wasn't going to work. So, I found a job at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and moved right back up as soon as possible. And then I worked there for four years. And while I was in Seward, that's where I got into kayak building, skin frame kayak building. And spent a lot of time while I was there meeting people in Alaska who'd built kayaks and checking out different museums where there were kayaks. And just reading like crazy and started building them and paddling them while I was there. And even before that it was always a dream that some day I was going to have a shop and I was going to build snowshoes and dog sleds and kayaks, so -- and paddles. So that's kind of how I got that whole thing started. And then after a while in Seward I decided I wanted to go to grad school for archeology. And came to Fairbanks and spent a few years doing fieldwork here in the Arctic and getting my Master's Degree. And then we found sled dogs and everything changed. So got into building dog sleds, because I knew how to build things and it's a lot of the same techniques. And now that's what our life revolves is dog mushing so that's kind of how I ended up in the dog sled building business. ROBERT DROZDA: Where did you do your fieldwork? CODY STRATHE: I did fieldwork out of Kotzebue, Cape Krusenstern National Monument. And I did fieldwork in Gates of the Arctic, up on the Noatak and a bunch of the rivers in Gates of the Arctic. And I've done fieldwork in Kenai Fjords National Park and done a lot of lab work on stuff from Katmai. Kind of big broad -- ROBERT DROZDA: Seen a lot of beautiful country? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, yeah, yeah definitely. ROBERT DROZDA: Well, so that's a little bit of how you got into mushing. How did it really happen? When did you get your first dog and -- CODY STRATHE: Well, we had talked about it for a long time. My wife and I, Paige. And we decided that some day we were going to get sled dogs. And I thought it would be the kind of thing you'd do when you retire. It seems like the kind of -- it seemed because we were into climbing and skiing and all these things that were extreme or whatever. We thought that mushing was more of a relaxed traveling kind of thing that you do when you're old. It's good we didn't wait until we were old though because it's pretty -- it's pretty demanding. But we got into it. I built a sled for my wife. We had two dogs already and we were skijoring. And I built the sled for my wife and I said maybe we could get a couple more dogs, so we could both skijor and then we could hook up a sled. And I went away for Christmas and when I came back we had three more dogs suddenly. My wife had found three more dogs in the couple days I was gone. And we had fun with those dogs and then we quickly realized that three more dogs wasn't enough and we just got more and more and more. We started doing a lot of camping trips throughout Alaska, up in the Arctic and Whites Mountains and stuff and just, just fell in love with it and so that's kind of how that got going. ROBERT DROZDA: Cody, you actually built a dog sled before you had a dog team? CODY STRATHE: Yes. ROBERT DROZDA: That's unusual. CODY STRATHE: It is and I actually I didn't even bother -- I had lots of friends who had dog teams and dog sleds, but I didn't even bother to look at theirs. I just a picture off the Internet and it was a traditional style lashed together, basket sled, the picture I got. And I'd been building kayaks, which was the same technique, so I thought oh, it'll be no problem. But I didn't think about the fact that a sled has to be built to fit the rider. So I built the sled for my wife and when she stood on it for the first time it came up to her chest, the handlebar. It was very tall and not quite properly built. But I learned a lot from that first sled. It's actually a chair on our friend's deck now. It doesn't get pulled behind dogs any more, but yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. That kind of gets to another question that I had thought about beforehand. After that then, were there particular sled builders that you sought out or wanted to model your design after or something like that, mentor? CODY STRATHE: You know, there's never really been anybody I wanted to model my sleds after but you can always learn. You learn amazing things from everybody. So I try to -- anybody who builds sleds or kayaks I try to see what they do, how they do things, check out their shops, check out the jigs. In this type of woodworking there's all kinds of different jigs for bending and doing different tricks to the wood that help you become way more efficient. So I just always like to check those out. I've been in the shops of Dave Klumb here in town. He's a great sled builder. Builds a more traditional style sled -- seeing how he does things. Also, Tim White, who's the guy who in the 70's and 80's did a lot of innovation in dog sled building. I spent a month as a handler for another guy, but his dogs were at Tim White's house. So I got to see how he builds all kinds of different things. He's the guy who invented the quick change runner, plastic, as well as the aluminum Matrix runners. ROBERT DROZDA: He's Outside, right? CODY STRATHE: He's in Minnesota.
ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. CODY STRATHE: Yeah. So I got to kind of see how that worked. And there was another sled builder while I was there who -- Sawtooth Mountain Sleds. His name is Odin Jorgenson. So I checked out his shop and how he does things. And then also while I was there I visited another guy in Wisconsin. I can't remember his name now, but he was the guy who had all kinds of crazy runner jigs that I kind of learned some interesting things from, as well. And then there's a man up in Eureka, Alaska by Manley Hot Springs named Ed Salter. Who was a big musher in the 80's and used to build all the sleds for Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson and a lot of the -- DeeDee Jonrowe. Folks who were winning 10, 15 years ago on the Iditarod. So I got to see how he built the nice traditional racing sled, so -- ROBERT DROZDA: Is that still up there? CODY STRATHE: Yep, he's still there, yeah. He would be a good contact for you guys. ROBERT DROZDA: So, now, you do a lot of commission work or -- ? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, I do custom sleds mostly. So, people contact me and we get a bunch of measurements from them and try to build a sled that's set to their body size, body weight and what type of mushing they're doing. Mostly, race sleds just from the standpoint that I can charge a lot more for race sleds. People are willing to pay a lot more for a quality race sled than your average Goldstream musher. So, but I build sleds for everybody, it just depends, but I, yes, so they'll contact me. We'll measure them out, find out what they need and then build a sled that fits exactly what they want. So, we do all kinds of weird different things for each musher. ROBERT DROZDA: Yeah, so, you've had some innovations I guess coming directly from the musher? Like I want this -- CODY STRATHE: Yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: -- and how can we do this sort of work? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, I mean folks kind of tell me like oh, I've had problems with this in the past with this sled, you know, and so mainly it's -- There aren't a ton of innovations. I had some weird handles that I've built for people so they can do different things, different types of seats that fit on the sled so they can take a break while they're doing these long runs and races like the Iditarod or Yukon Quest. A lot has to do more with size. Like I've got this cooler that has to fit in the sled a certain direction so we have to like build the sled around the cooler. Or when I stand my knees get tired because the stance is too wide. I want my stance to be this wide so we kind of engineer the whole sled around just certain particulars that help them be happy on the trail. ROBERT DROZDA: If somebody came to you and wanted a more traditional kind of sled, you'd go for that too? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, definitely. I built quite a few traditional basket-type sleds and actually I just was contacted by a guy who just wanted one that just looked like a 1900 sled. He just wanted it for show. He wanted me to make it look old and be like kind of a perfect replica. So that's -- yeah, we do that as well. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. So comparing the two kinds of sleds in materials and just, you know, how are they different? CODY STRATHE: Well, from material stance the -- what we're calling the traditional sleds all wood. There are some of the newer basket sleds that we can probably still use some of the plastic parts but the wood is great. And if you use the right type of wood and you got the right type of grain, it can be really strong and last a long period of time. But everything breaks and wood breaks pretty easy when it hits things. So that's why some of the newer sleds have gone to using plastic for the brush bows and handle bows because they're stronger, flex easier and don't crack as easy at really cold temperatures. Yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: So those pieces that are really bent -- CODY STRATHE: Right. ROBERT DROZDA: -- are the ones that are weaker? CODY STRATHE: Yes, I mean that grain -- when you bend it, the wood always still has some tension and some memory of the way it's supposed to be. And so if you hit something hard enough, especially at 20, 30, 40 below Fahrenheit, it's going to crack and break and plastic will at some point as well, but not as easily as the wood. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. I wonder, you know, as a sort of a mental set with training in anthropology and archeology does that come into play in your building kayaks and sleds? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, I mean kind of. It kind of came into -- I kind of had a realization at some point because I used to be all, like when I started I was really into everything had to be wood, everything had to be lashed, everything had to be this, what I thought of as traditional. But as I became an archeologist and was doing fieldwork and I was seeing that over the last hundred years tradition really means that people what the were really -- the tradition really was that people were looking for the best materials possible and the most efficient way to get the job done. And so I kind of changed my mindset and said okay, well, the best materials possible aren't always birch wood that we have here at hand. Sometimes they're white ash or hickory or whatever type of wood that I can order and get. It's available to me now so that I should use that and also more efficient. I used to use all hand tools and knives and things like that and that's not that efficient when you're doing a business. So now I use power tools like crazy. So I think I've kind of -- Saw that and it made me feel better about the way I could be more efficient. ROBERT DROZDA: Yeah. Adaptation is traditional? CODY STRATHE: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. You have to use the best materials possible to get the best product, so -- Yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: Describe your kennel. CODY STRATHE: Ok. Well, my wife and I we've got a kennel here that we -- We started out with, like I said before, a handful of dogs and as we got more, we got some dogs from the shelter, from the Second Chance League, and from hand-me-downs from other mushers. And we started doing camping trips and that was a lot of fun. We had a few puppies and as we had the puppies and raised them and trained them, we saw a huge difference between the dogs that we had raised and the dogs that we had gotten from others. The dogs that we had raised respect us a whole lot more and would do amazing things for us where the other dogs were definitely project dogs and they were fun, but more difficult to deal with. So we've gotten more dogs, but we have gone into more raising our own dogs. We still have some of the originals here and some of the originals we actually found homes for with my parents and other friends so they can skijor and just kind of be pets. But now we have 45 dogs. Twenty-five of them this summer are actually on the glacier in Skagway with a friend of ours doing tours, so they get to run all summer and burn off energy. A lot of the young dogs are up there and we are -- we've started racing the last couple of years. So we still do our camping trips and expeditions, but we've started doing races such as the Gin Gin 200, Copper Basin 300, Yukon Quest 300. And have really fallen in love with the racing aspect of it and probably not as much of the racing it's just the everyday training and really just in order to do a race like that you have to spend 10 hours a day with your dogs and that's -- that's pretty awesome. So we've embraced the whole lifestyle now and my wife Paige is actually going to run the Yukon Quest 1000 mile race this year. So that's kind of the trajectory we're on at the moment is trying that for a while. And yeah, we'll be doing this for at least the next 15 to 20 years because of the amount of dogs we have and they're going to be with us until the end, so -- So we're in it for a while, you know. ROBERT DROZDA: What do you do in July to prepare for the Yukon Quest? CODY STRATHE: Right now, on July 4th it was rainy and cool so we ran a team with the four-wheeler, but it's usually too warm here in Fairbanks to do that throughout the summer. So most of the things we're doing now is just trying to get as much work done around the kennel and the business so that when winter comes we don't have to do as much work, but we can spend more time running and training the dogs. So, it's really about getting ready for winter so we can let everything else go. ROBERT DROZDA: Before we start talking about your sled and your building work here I just wanted to follow-up with outside we were talking about, you know, getting ready for races and what you're doing. So here at your kennel you're able to run your dogs right from your house? CODY STRATHE: Yes, yeah, we have trails right out our kennel and we're able to hook up a team of 12, 14 dogs if you want to and run basically as far as you want to go. We're right on one of the old mail trails that went from Fairbanks to Manley Hot Springs. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. CODY STRATHE: It's about a mile behind our house. We can link into that trail and we can go out to Minto Flats, which we usually set up a training camp out there, a wall tent, so we can take breaks with our dogs and rest and stay warm. And then we can continue on to Nenana or down the Tanana to Manley Hot Springs. We can go to Minto, old Minto. Once you get on the river though you can go anywhere, so that's kind of nice. ROBERT DROZDA: Sounds like paradise. Ok, well let's turn our attention to the actual sleds and so we have an example of a sled here. And why don't you just talk about your sled. CODY STRATHE: Ok. ROBERT DROZDA: Cody and -- CODY STRATHE: Well, like I was saying before I started to use a little bit different materials as my ideas of tradition have changed over time. What I'm trying to do with sleds now is I'm trying to make sleds that are super strong, as light as possible while still being super strong. And my main clientele, like I said, is people who are doing either major expeditions or a thousand mile races. So these people don't want to have to worry about their sled breaking. If it breaks on the trail it's going to be a major headache and, you know, where if you're around home and you break your sleds, it's only five miles to get home. It's not a big deal, but when you're a hundred miles from the next place and they might not have the materials you need to fix it when you get there anyway, you don't want your sled to break. So what I've gone to doing, while still using some of the traditional elements, is I still like to use wood. I don't want to get away from wood completely like a lot of the sled builders have. There's a lot of aluminum sleds on a fully plastic aluminum type sleds, out there. And they just -- they kind of -- they're not -- they're ugly. I don't know how to say it, but I don't like them. ROBERT DROZDA: Performance wise you don't see a big difference? CODY STRATHE: Performance wise they're okay, but aluminum tends not to flex as well as wood. Aluminum tends to break when it flexes really badly. So there's one good reason. Aluminum is pretty strong so it doesn't break very easily, but when it breaks, it blows out and it causes lots of problems when aluminum does break. Wood is kind of nice because when if it does break usually you can -- you can rig it back together, hold it back together, screw it back together. It's easier to deal with when it breaks. So that's why I've gone to using some of the traditional wood methods and then just putting some new composite fabrics over them. And then epoxy coating to then strengthen them up. So on this sled what you see is I've got runners, which are actually bent wood inside and I'll show you how I do that in a little bit, but they're actually laminates -- laminate strips of white ash wood glued together on a form so that they become the runner shape. And then they are wrapped by a carbon fiber and Kevlar composite fabric and then coated with epoxy. And then that gives this like sock that goes all the way around it and if that wood was to fail, which at some point it could, this sock -- this fabric that's super strong will hold that altogether still like a splint so that the musher could then limp in to wherever they're headed without having to deal with a broken runner on the trail is the idea. ROBERT DROZDA: Is that your innovation? CODY STRATHE: No, there are other folks who have done this. Right now there's at least one other commercial manufacturer who's making sleds but he's new as well. So we're both kind of starting out. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. CODY STRATHE: Doing that, but no, I didn't invent it, but I'm definitely embracing it and going on with it. One of the other things with these new sleds is that like the old sleds -- the old sleds were lashed. And what lashing allows is lots of movement. So when you hit something, the shock -- if the sled hits something and is allowed to move, then it won't break. If it is something that is stiff and hits something really hard, it is more likely to break. So the old sleds are lashed and they hit a tree, pieces would move, sometimes they'd pop out of place, but you were able to come back in and that kept things from breaking as easy. Well, with the new sleds we have used bolts and bolts aren't as good in that way, because they're through a piece of wood. And if you hit it hard enough, it could pop out, break, which is why I've double reinforced this with fiberglass and carbon fiber here at this piece. But the main thing in order to keep things from breaking and keep your sled moving smoothly is to make it attached in as few as places as possible so that things slide, flex, and in that way if you hit a tree, this bed moves and flexes, the runner bounces and won't break as easy. Also, like I just said a second ago, it makes things move more efficiently if there's less connection points. So if you think about like a boat in the water if you're going over waves -- you all have ridden a boat and as you go over waves, you slam down the other side. Well, the skin frame kayaks they're all lashed together, because as they go over waves they actually flex with those waves and it was more efficient movement and they weren't losing that energy when they were slapping. They just kind of move through the waves. Well, the same thing with the dog sled if you're on a super stiff sled and you are on a trail with lots of bumps you go bang, bang, boom, bang, but if it flexes, you got all these different points on the sled where it can flex and move and it just rides real smoothly over the bumps. And so that's what I'm trying to do with these sleds. Is make them kind of flexible enough that they can of just kind of smooth -- smoothly ride right along, but strong enough that they're not going to break when they hit things. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. So some similarities there between kayak manufacturing and sled manufacturing? CODY STRATHE: Definitely, yeah, I mean, especially in the old traditional sleds where everything was mortise and tenon together and lashed. So by mortise and tenon I mean they actually would have like on the runner there would be a hole and then the stanchions -- these are stanchions -- it would fit down into that and then that all would be lashed together to hold it together. That's the way the entire skin frame kayaks are built. ROBERT DROZDA: We saw a good example of that with Bill -- Bill Demoski's sled. CODY STRATHE: Okay. Okay. Yep, so that's one of the major similarities between the boats and -- or the sleds and the boats. Another one is just, like I was talking about with that -- you want that efficiency during movement, that flexibility to allow it to move smoothly, which is nice for the rider because they are not getting banged around. It's nice for the dogs because all that energy that's coming from the sled also goes up the gang line and goes to each one of the dogs' harnesses so they're feeling that as well. And the more banging around on the dogs the more you are going to wear your dogs out -- tire them and possibly injure them. So, you don't want those things to happen. ROBERT DROZDA: Ok. Some other things about the design on the sled here? I mean, one thing that strikes me is on sleds I'm used to seeing you've got your integrated handlebar and there's -- there's a stanchion here and this really sleek going back like that. CODY STRATHE: Yes, so this -- this is a design that's been kind of altered from a design called the Easy Rider sled design. Which was supposedly invented by Charlie Boulding, who was a local guy that lives out in Minto Flats on the Tanana River. He has run the Quest a bunch. And the story was that he was running his traditional sled. Had his stanchions straight down like this, usually there's several stanchions. A lot of times there's a driving bow that would go all the way up to the front of the runner. And then there'd be several vertical stanchions along the side. Well, what happened was he broke one of the back stanchions. One of the straight up and down vertical stanchion and then his sled was tracking funny. So supposedly he broke the other one is the way I've heard the story. And then suddenly he realized that he had more steering control. Because of what happens when you've got your stanchions running up to the front of the runner right here right where it curves is you like to get control of the front of the sled. But then you can actually then steer the front of the sled. So you as you go around trees and stuff you just move your handlebar and makes the steering easier, way easier than some of the other sleds where the stanchions are vertical you had to use your feet, and your body a lot and it's a way different style of driving. They're all steerable but very differently. So that's what this is all about. And then another thing with that Easy Rider style is that this back stanchion doesn't hold this stiff. It actually is allowed to pivot so that as you go over things, it allows more flexibility in the runners and sled so that it can be more efficient. ROBERT DROZDA: So Charlie being a real bush man probably went wow, that's great. CODY STRATHE: Yeah. Yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: And who coined the name for the sled, the Easy Rider? CODY STRATHE: You know I don't know if he named that or someone else or what. That's for that design -- came from originally. There's been a lot of changes over time so -- ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. Okay. And earlier you referred to this as a raised toboggan. CODY STRATHE: Yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: Talk about that a little bit. CODY STRATHE: Well, in the -- you know I'm not a huge sled historian, but I know that in the fur trade a lot of the dog teams that they used they actually would pull like old wooden toboggans where actually the -- the wood -- The bottom of the sled was actually just wood, bent wood slats like toboggans kids ride. And then in the 70's a guy named Tim White, big sled innovator, decided that for Iditarod -- and the trails in bad condition a lot of the time so they actually took plastic sheet is one of the first sleds that uses the plastic sheet like this. And they put it on top of the runners so that it was just barely off the snow and they called that a toboggan sled. And so then for the last 20 years people have been using toboggan sleds. They're great for camping trips. They're great for going off where there's no -- no trail. They're great for early season when the trails are really rough, 'cause they can bang around and they're good -- good all around sled for carrying a lot of weight. But that was the toboggan sled. And then people realized that that plastic's kind of nice. People started putting plastic on the bottom of their basket sleds to protect their basket. It will allow snow and sticks and stuff to just slide under there. And then people realized that it's getting kind of bulky. Why don't we get rid of the slats. Get rid of the basket on the sled and just put plastic as a basket. And so that over time was called the raised toboggan, because it was raised up. And there are no longer slats in this style sled like you'd find in the more traditional basket sleds. MARLA STATSCEWICH: So how much weight can this sled carry? CODY STRATHE: Oh, this sled can easily carry three to four hundred pounds. It's better to have less. I wouldn't go over that in this sled. The toboggan sleds are the ones where they're actually down on the ground and they're stiffer. They can haul a lot more weight. What happens when you have a super flexible sled and you put a lot of weight in it is you lose a lot of that control then because the weight suddenly is doing its own thing to the sled and making the runners go different directions than you want them to. And then also the flexibility in the runners you want them to be stiffer. So, out on the porch I've got two large toboggan sleds. One's a freight sled that we use for caribou hunting that it can put easily a thousand pounds in that sled. And it's stiff enough that even with all that weight in there you can still -- on a side hill you can kind of lift on the stanchion and it will keep the sled from sliding down the hill. So there are times that you want stiff sleds and there are times that you want super flexible sleds. And for just cruising around or racing you want a flexible sled. ROBERT DROZDA: Can you describe the runner, how you put the runners together -- CODY STRATHE: Yeah.
ROBERT DROZDA: -- on this? CODY STRATHE: So up until I think the 80's -- 1980's people were using steel on their runners for the actual base here that you would slide on the snow. Steel was great because it lasted a long time, but it didn't glide as nice as some plastics. So, once UHMW - Ultra High Molecular Weight - plastic kind of started being used, they realized that it slides really nicely on snow. So at first what people started doing was just screwing the plastic onto the runners. And then over time like Tim White, like I mentioned, came up with what's called Quick Change Runner plastic (QCR), they call it. And he actually made a little metal rail that this UHMW plastic that he routed a little groove in -- it would like slide over that. So, then on a race or anywhere if your plastic broke or wore out, you could slide off the old plastic and slide on new plastic. Over time the Quick Change Runner plastic isn't that quick any more. And so there've been other innovations where they've come up with different types of runner plastic that slide on and off easily. Tim White also came up with aluminum runners, which are actually aluminum channel which is bent and there are some behind you there. And they made this plastic that slides right into that aluminum channel. So, now all the racers have been using aluminum runners for the last 10 years at least. And they all are used to this plastic design. So, on my runners what I've done is made a plastic rail. So this is UHMW plastic and this screws onto the bottom of the runner. And then it has a groove routed in it. I got a special router bit made that's the same shape as the runner plastic that racers can buy. Then that just slides right in. So, that plastic can just slide right on and off as it wears out and works pretty good. There's different colors of plastic and the different colors are much like ski wax. The different colors are for different conditions, different temperatures. Some of them have different abrasion resistance. So, if -- and they also make thicker plastics. This one here is an inch and three-quarters wide and this one here is an inch and a quarter. So, if you were in -- you got a big heavy snowfall, these inch and a quarter runners you're gonna sink down in that snow. So, then you can put on inch and three quarter and then you've got wider runners. You got more floatation like a powder ski for downhill skiing. So that's kind of the -- ROBERT DROZDA: So, the yellow would overlap a little bit? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, stick out the sides a little bit. And then kind of the idea is it will hold your sled up in snow a little more. But, if you're on a good packed groomed trail, then you want the narrower runner because it's going to have less resistance on snow and glide faster. ROBERT DROZDA: Let's talk a little bit about the brake and if, you know, can talk about changes in the brake, we can do that as well. CODY STRATHE: Over time? ROBERT DROZDA: Yeah. CODY STRATHE: Yeah, a lot of the traditional basket sleds had a single brake that came off of the bottom of the basket. It would come back and then it would have just a claw in the middle so there'd be this metal claw that would go down. On the original sleds, I believe, they didn't even have brakes. People just used their heels and their feet and dogs that actually listened. And over time the way the brake has kind of evolved on most sleds is it has a aluminum brake bar. It attaches off the runners, off of the rear stanchion area, goes around. It's on a bungee. So when you step on it, it goes down and comes back up off the snow. And then they usually have carbide tips now, similar to what's on the Yukon, a snowmachine track to get grip. And so when you press that down, especially on ice, it'll -- it will pretty much stop you instantly. And then along with the brakes what people use, especially since they've started running really big teams. And a lot of the race dogs are not trained like bush dogs used to be where they knew commands to stop and stay and stay there as long as the musher wanted. Now dogs are harness baying and crazy and excited most of the time, not everybody's, but we need to slow them down. And especially distance dogs, they're not sprint dogs. They're not trained to run that fast and when they run that fast, what happens is they get injuries. So, what a lot of the sleds have now is what is called a drag mat or stomp pad. And this allows you to control your speed and keep things slower, a lot more resistance. So, this is actually just a piece of snowmachine track that's been put on here and I actually heard that Bill Cotter supposedly came up with that idea of using snowmachine track to drag behind the sled to slow things down. And so that's what that is and then if you want to speed up, you flip it up, get it out of the way, you don't have that resistance. And you can let it drag and it has a certain amount of resistance. And if you want to really slow them down, you stand on it with one foot and if you want to really, really slow them down, you stand on it with both feet and pull up on your handlebars and then there's the brake. So, that's kind of how you slow them down. And then of course, when you want to stop, there's the snow hook that you just put in the ground. There are still some dog teams out there that actual listen. We've got a few of those dogs. What else would you like to know about? ROBERT DROZDA: Maybe you can talk a little bit about the process of -- CODY STRATHE: Sure. ROBERT DROZDA: Was it a plastic or a resin? CODY STRATHE: Yeah. So these stanchions here -- the way I do it to make them as strong as possible -- when I first started building sleds and a lot of the old traditional sleds the wood is just a single piece of wood, carved down, usually either white ash, hickory or here in Alaska there are a lot of birch sleds, because birch is the hardest wood that we have available here. But just a single piece of wood can fail pretty easily if the grain's not perfect and even if the grain is perfect. But when it hits, breaks, it breaks along a grain pattern. So what I typically do is to make it stronger right off the bat is I make laminate strips. So I will glue three strips of wood together with alternating grains so that the grains are different patterns. And they're glued together and then already that's stronger than just a normal piece of wood. Because if one of those grain patterns fails, it's got two other grain patterns that are different to help hold that together. And then on top of that with these stanchions what I've done is add a layer of fiberglass, which is a tube that goes around the entire stanchion. And then that's coated with epoxy. Same thing they use on boats to make boat holds and all kinds of different fiberglass type materials. And then what I've done at the lower portion because this -- with these two connection points with bolts, like I said before bolts are kind of a bad idea for sled building, because when they hit things that's a failure point. So what I've done here is over this triple laminated piece of stanchion here with fiberglass over it then I've put a piece of carbon fiber cloth over that as well which is then also epoxied. So then that's even another layer of protection here to make that super strong. Now these different composite fabrics all have different flexibility levels. On the runners the fabric is actually a carbon fiber and Kevlar composite where they're weaved together. And the reason I do that is because carbon fiber is super strong, but it's also super stiff. And when things are super stiff, they break. So you want that flexibility. Kevlar is more flexible and it's also got more abrasion resistance. And the runners are going to be getting abraded quite a bit on rocks and trees and whatever, so that's why I use those. I also built a lot of stanchions. If you want them to be smaller and lighter, I've built some sleds for some folks from the Iditarod this year that wanted -- they were more worried about weight than anything else. And so on that sled -- this is actually a piece of stanchion from one of those sleds where I used three layers. And he wanted birch, because birch is a lighter wood than ash. So there are three layers of ash glued together there. Then there's a sleeve of carbon fiber over it, which was epoxied and then there's another sleeve of carbon fiber over it. So it's got two layers of carbon fiber over three. You can't even bend that thing. So it's super strong, super stiff and stiff is fine for stanchions. Because when you move the handle bow you want it to move your runners and help steer. If your stanchions are flexible, then you're just going to have this big noodle you can't control. So that's why -- ROBERT DROZDA: So your runners become an extension of your arms. CODY STRATHE: Right, yes, exactly. ROBERT DROZDA: Seeing lots of sleds like with seats or things you can sit on and then you drag behind you, you build those as well? CODY STRATHE: I do. I don't have it on this sled, but I've got one on the sled outside. And so it's just a little pole that -- on my sleds I attach it right back here and it comes off. It's got like a little platform, a little rope comes off and you can just sit back down on your sled and just relax. It kind of changes the way the sled rides. One of the neat things about the way it changes the way the sled rides is it lifts -- because it's back here and the whole sled's kind of attached, it lifts the front of the runners up. So if you're on a flat surface like a lake or just a super straight flat trail, it actually speeds up the sled. So, and like I was saying before, you want to keep your dogs slow most of the time, but towards the end of a really long run your dogs are moving really slow anyway and if you can sit down and lift that up, it can actually help your dogs out. ROBERT DROZDA: So explain this sled to us, Cody. CODY STRATHE: This is a pretty similar sled. This is one of the first ones I built. It's not built as beefy with the composites. It's not as protected to make sure things don't break. So this one's actually hickory stanchions. It's single piece. You can do that with hickory. It's a lot stronger wood. It doesn't seem to break as easy as some of the others, so -- But this was actually a sled that I built for my wife a few years ago, and it has seen a lot of abuse and probably seen four or five thousand miles of trail. What I brought it in here for was to show you a seat. I put these on a lot of sleds now, because in long races people need to rest. And of course, you want your dogs to rest, but our dogs do get to rest when they get to a checkpoint, but the musher doesn't usually. The musher has to then take care of the dogs. So the musher needs to rest while the dogs are running, so that when they get to the checkpoint then the musher can do his job and take good care of the dogs and get them fed. Take care of all the aches and pains and things. So these sleds allow a musher to sit down, take a load off, let their back relax as you're going down the trail. One of the interesting things about some of these seats like this one is that it allows the front of the sled to lift up. And I don't know if you can see that with the camera, but it allows the front to lift up off the ground and then there's less resistance. So later on when the dogs have been running a long time and their speed has slowed down, this allows you to actually pick up a mile or two per hour of speed. And take a little resistance off the dogs. Another thing you can do when you're sitting like this -- because you're sitting here pretty good is a lot of folks using ski poles now to help the dogs as well. You can actually get more force out of ski poles than you can out of just kicking with one leg. So you can sit down and use two ski poles, and you can really increase the speed and take the resistance off the dogs. There's a lot of sleds out there now called a Tail Dragger sled, where it's actually the seat is built up off the runners and it's always there. And it allows more storage as well. I don't have one here now, but I do build those as well. And so that's a completely different style of sled where there's this whole seat thing back here the musher sits down on. It doesn't lift the front of the sled off, because it's built on its own separate thing. But those are pretty popular for a lot of the folks who are winning the Quest and Iditarod all have those. And they swear that because they're able to rest while the dogs are running they have more energy when they get to the checkpoint to take care of the dogs. It's not just that they're lazy. ROBERT DROZDA: Although I've heard them called old man sleds. CODY STRATHE: Yeah. Lance Mackey swears he won't drive one. Another thing that's different about the sled is that these are aluminum runners. These are called Rex Runners. They're very similar to the Matrax Runners that Tim White created. And so they are actually a channel on the top and the bottom. And they're real easy for amateur sled builders to use. And they're really easy for me to sell, because people can fix and replace them themselves. They know how to deal with these runners. There's brackets. There's a little t-nut that slides back and forth in this channel. And then the runner plastic's made to slide in the other channel. The only problem with these is that when they break, and they always do at some point, they're really hard to deal with on the trail. You can't really splice them back together. So that's one of the problems. And they tend to break right back here at this major stress point or right up here at this stress point. ROBERT DROZDA: Are there one or two companies manufacturing these? CODY STRATHE: Yes, yes. So Rex Runners are manufactured by a company called Prairie Built Sleds in North Dakota. And they're a company -- they make nice sleds as well, but everything is aluminum. And they're quite expensive. And then the Matrax Runners, Tim White still sells those as well. So those are the two -- I think maybe there's one other company called SnapFit Runners, but nobody really uses those that I know of. But yeah aluminum's popular. ROBERT DROZDA: Okay, we've moved upstairs in Cody's shop and going from the completed sleds and looking at some of the components. So what you got there, Cody? CODY STRATHE: Well, right here I'm in the process of just finishing a runner that was glued. So like I was saying before I glue my wood -- ash together in strips onto a form and it gets clamped on the form with wood glue and waterproof wood glue in between. It sits for 24 hours on this bend on the form and then when it pops off, which you'll see here in a second, is a completed runner. This runner here is really short. It's actually for some little sleds that I've build that are for two to three dogs, which I can show you here in a minute. What I do -- as I was talking about with the stanchions before, the wood -- We glue several pieces of wood together alternating grain patterns. It makes them stronger and also it -- when you glue it, it stays uniform with the shape of this jig that I've glued it to. A lot of people have steam bent jigs, which steam bending is a good way to bend wood as well where you put it in a steam box and the steam actually loosens the cellulose fibers and allows them to kind of morph and change and bend. But what happens when you release stuff off of a jig thats been steam bent is they tend to have more memory of the way the grain originally was and it bounces back. So a lot of times when you steam bend runners, they don't match. They both have just a little bit different bend. And on old sleds it wasn't that big a deal. I mean it works, but when you have runners that don't exactly match, the sled doesn't track properly. And tracking is where it goes straight, is what I mean when I say tracking. So you want your sled to move efficiently straight down the trail, not taking you into trees and causing more resistance for the dogs. So I'll pop all these off the jig. And I use wax paper on a jig, because the wood glue won't stick to that. Clean it off and you have a glued dog sled runner. Now it's almost ready to use, but what has to happen is it has to be cleaned up. I run it through a planer to get it nice and smooth and get rid of the glue and sand it up and make it nice. On some sleds I'll use a runner just straight wood, if it's a traditional sled or just a little bit cheaper sled. Wooden runners hold up for a long time, but just like everything else they break at some point as well. If you want to reinforce them, like we do on the race sleds, then what happens is we add these composite materials. So here are some runners that were actually finished. And cleaned up. And this is what the carbon Kevlar material looks like. It comes in a big roll. It's kind of like a tube sock. So what we would do is actually slide that over the runner. And this is just an example so its small piece. And it would go over the entire runner. And then it would get stretched tight. And then it gets epoxied with an epoxy resin. And then what we do is we put a heat shrink tube over it. It's this rubber tube and -- you can just grab the end and pull it up here. It looks like this. And this heat shrink tube slides up over the entire runner. Over this after it's been epoxied. Then we run a heat gun over this and it shrinks down tight. So that puts constant pressure over the entire length of the runner. And then that way it keeps it all nice and tight as that epoxy cures. And then we go back and cut this off the runner. And then we have the nice smooth finished runner like we saw on the sled downstairs. And we also have the different other types of materials such as the fiberglass, which we saw in the stanchions and the carbon fiber. It all comes in rolls and all slides over that same way, uses the same technique. And the fiberglass is kind of neat. What I like about the fiberglass is it turns clear when it's epoxied so you can still see the wood in there, which I like. Yeah, adds a nice touch. And so that's kind of the basic step of runner building. If you were to build say like a freight sled, we would put more plies of ash together. So that it would be thicker and also built wider runners up to two to three inch wide runners on these jigs. So it just depends what kind of sled we're building. And then we go from there, the amount of wood. Also, on a lot of these runners I've gone to using more laminates, thinner laminates, but more of them to get the same thickness of runner. That creates even more strength. There's more different grain patterns and more glue lines and that makes it stronger in the end doing it that way. ROBERT DROZDA: This Kevlar wrap -- the tubes and sled runners is a pretty specialized use of that stuff. What -- what's it used for otherwise? Where do you get it? CODY STRATHE: I get it from a company out on the East Coast. It's used for a number of things. It's really quite popular in paddle building. A lot of model rocket people use it now for their shafts. You can build bicycles out of this stuff. Basically, all you need is either like a form to put it in or some what people use is like -- they use like a foam core. They'll make like a model of something out of foam so it's super light and then they wrap it. You can either get it in sleeves or you can just get it in like a tape or a cloth and then you can just wrap that cloth around and epoxy it. And then as that epoxy strengthens that all these little fibers are then now stiff and strong as can be, and then that kind of holds that form. So, yeah, it's used for all kinds of crazy stuff. ROBERT DROZDA: Yeah, it's super light and strong. CODY STRATHE: Yeah, super light and super strong. ROBERT DROZDA: Ok, what else we got up here? CODY STRATHE: Well, we've got a variance of different forms. This form here was actually built for making -- bending a brush bow for a big freight sled. And so a lot of the newer sleds have a plastic brush bow. That's the piece on the front of the sled that hits trees and bumps things and tries to protect the rest of the sled. On the older sleds they were actually made from wood. So, that's what this form was and it's the same concept. I put several strips of wood together -- glued together and that makes the shape of the brush bow. This form -- up here, I'll grab it and back up for you. This is actually for kayaks, but it's the same idea. This is how I made the cockpit combing, the part where you sit in the cockpit of the kayak -- thin strips. And these, because the bend is so tight, I have to steam bend them as well as making them really thin, because otherwise they'll crack. So you bend those all around and when you steam bend stuff you can't glue it right away. You have to steam bend it, and then let that steam kind of dry out of the wood. So you clamp it to your foam, let the wood dry, and then you go back and then put glue in and clamp it. And let it cure. MARLA STATSCEWICH: So, do you have a steamer? CODY STRATHE: I do. It's just a piece of metal pipe with a cap on the end. And then I hook it to an MSR stove. With a little cook pot underneath it so -- ROBERT DROZDA: Boiling water? CODY STRATHE: Yeah, it just boils the water. It's got a little funnel so that the steam goes up into that pipe, and you just set the wood in there for a period of time, usually 10 to 15 minutes. I let it soak in water first, so it's got water in it. And then as it sits in there that steam just makes the wood kind of turn into a noodle. For kayaks, all the ribs are steam bent. ROBERT DROZDA: Nice. So you also have this little collapsible sled behind us. Am I jumping ahead or let's talk about that? CODY STRATHE: Sure. So, this is kind of a sled design that I came up that -- I was saying before I -- We started out with just a few dogs, and found that it was really hard to do the kind of camping trips we wanted to do with skijoring, because we'd have all our box of line and our bacon and whatever in our backpack. And so our backpack was quite large and we'd be going on camping trips with two dogs and it was a lot of work for the dogs and a lot of work for us. And I couldn't figure out why we needed to have a big pack on our back. So I came up with a little sled that you can put your pack in. Just throw your backpack on there and strap it on and then it's easy enough that just a couple dogs can pull it. And so then you can actually help push it and you have more control on hills. And so the idea of these sleds is that people with just two or three dogs can use it. And it's kind of a mix of some of the older style construction, simpler construction to help make it cheaper, more affordable for people. So it's got just straight wooden runners on there that I bent, and just showed you a second ago. It's the -- kind of the toboggan style I was talking about earlier that Tim White came up with. But much much smaller and then I made it flexible. The other toboggans I was talking about are stiff so you can haul a big load, but if you're not hauling a load you can keep more flexible and then it allows some steering for the rider, which is kind of nice. And then I made this sled as well, so that you can just pull out a couple pins and then the whole sled -- fold down relatively flat. There's another pin here on both sides of this -- folds down. And then someone can slide this in the back of their car for transport or storage. So, yeah, these have become pretty popular with folks. There's a musher around here who's doing expeditions in the Brooks Range with clients. And so, he's started to use them and so, yeah, they're working out pretty good so far. ROBERT DROZDA: That's a good idea. Using them with clients like that, because it can control that two or three dogs. CODY STRATHE: Yeah, and actually he had done trips before. It was like a Norwegian school and he had done trips where part of the group was on a -- had a whole team and the other part was just skijoring with a couple dogs. And up there they ran into some really crazy conditions with overflow and all kinds of stuff. And so the musher -- the skijorers and them were getting soaked. And so they decided it was better to have something like this, because then they could wear normal boots, and they could have their gear in a dry bag. And so it worked out really good this past year for them. They ran up to Iniakuk Lodge out in the Brooks Range. ROBERT DROZDA: So what does one of these sleds run? CODY STRATHE: One of these sleds -- I've tried to make them more affordable for folks. But still all the materials -- the plastic has really gone up in price with the prices of oil. So a sheet of UHMW plastic, a 4 x 8 sheet of plastic, ends up costing about two hundred some dollars when I buy twelve at a time. And the thicker plastics for handlebars and stuff are even more -- three to four hundred dollars a sheet for this plastic. So the price of the sleds adds up pretty quick and then with my time adds up as well. So a sled like this is about $700 complete ready to go. Some of the more fancier sleds, the custom sleds, I kind of set pricing up so that they pay for certain options. A certain option costs so much, but the sleds --certain sled size and design has a certain base price. And so as they add more and more options, the price jumps up and up and I think about the average sled price for race style sleds I build is about $2,000. But some of the fancier sleds, the one down there on the table we were just looking at. That's about a $3,000 sled. Ánd then built some as much as about thirty-five hundred. That's about the max at the moment. ROBERT DROZDA: The Ferrari? CODY STRATHE: The Ferrari, yeah. So yeah, that's kind of how I do the pricing on sleds. ROBERT DROZDA: Great. Marla, any questions? Katrin? Maybe I'll finish up -- I just generally if you can talk about, you know, what's your biggest challenge as a sled builder? CODY STRATHE: The biggest challenge is making -- because I like to make sleds custom for people the biggest challenge is finding what makes everyone happy. Everyone's got a completely different idea of what's right and what they like in the size and all these things. And so, what I think is a great sled isn't necessarily what my customer's gonna think is a great sled. And so that's always the challenge is just trying to make a sled that fits everybody. Fits their body right, fits what they're doing right and they like. So far I haven't had too many unhappy customers, so hopefully we can keep it that way. But -- ROBERT DROZDA: Have you had any wacky ideas that you just decided no, you really can't do that? CODY STRATHE: Yeah I mean, yeah, I've had some really weird ones. There was a woman and I still haven't figured out if she was serious or not. But she wanted a sled that had like this big protective thing. She had been in an accident. She wanted this big like cab like built around so that she was protected. And I said that sounds kind of complicated, maybe you could find someone else to do that one. But, yeah, there're some wacky ideas and I definitely, you know, I'll tell people that I'll build them whatever they want, but I will let them know if I don't think it's going to work. But, you know, some people still -- still have this certain thing they want and I'll still -- still do it but I'll definitely let them know that I don't think this is going to work and this is why. And I don't want you coming back to me afterwards if you don't like that. I've told you, but I will definitely still build it for you if that's what you really want, so -- MARLA STATSCEWICH: So I guess I have a question about -- so you were saying these are mid and long distance race sleds? CODY STRATHE: Not this one, but the other ones. MARLA STATSCEWICH: But the other ones. And then so what's the difference between these sleds and like, a sprint race sled? CODY STRATHE: The sprint race sleds are not made to carry anything really. Sprint sled -- the basket is really short and basically the only thing they ever put in there is a dog during the race. So, a lot of the sprint sleds barely even have any slats. They have a bag that the dog will fit in that has enough support to hold the dog, but otherwise there's no support. Those sleds are made to go fast and the modern sprint sled the runners on most modern sprint sleds aren't even wood any more. They're usually some kind of composite ski. It's very similar to a skate ski and they're waxed. They don't even have -- most of them don't even have interchangeable plastic any more. They just have wax coating and they do that. And then the runners are really long, while they still have a short bed they still have really long runners so that they have good speed and control. So, they're made to go really fast and steer, where these sleds are made to go -- where the distance sleds are made to go a long distance. It's nice that they can steer on funky trails, but at the same time they really just need to be able to go straight, smooth, efficiently for the long haul. MARLA STATSCEWICH: Ok. And there are -- you don't make sprint sleds because of -- CODY STRATHE: I do once in a while, but I don't ride sprint sleds. I'm not a sprint musher, so if someone came to me and said this is the design I want I can build that for them, but I'm not designing sprint sleds, because I don't know enough about it. MARLA STATSCEWICH: I see. Ok. CODY STRATHE: But yeah, it's a lot of the same technology, same materials, so I can definitely build them. I'm just -- I'm not going to design one and market it, so -- MARLA STATSCEWICH: Not your passion? CODY STRATHE: Yeah. MARLA STATSCEWICH: Great. That was it for my questions. ROBERT DROZDA: Yeah, this may be one last one. I want to shift gear a little bit and talk about -- you said you had roughly half your dogs are up on the glacier out of Skagway. CODY STRATHE: Uh-huh. ROBERT DROZDA: Is this the first time you've done that with your dogs and -- CODY STRATHE: Yes. ROBERT DROZDA: -- what's your impression -- oh, so you don't really know? CODY STRATHE: Well, we actually -- Paige just went up -- my wife just went up to the glacier last week. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. CODY STRATHE: And visited the dogs and ran them all. And what she saw was that they -- well, first of all our friend -- a friend of ours who helped us all winter, you know, their dogs is the one -- the musher who's taking care of them and running them up there. So that was -- ROBERT DROZDA: This is someone you trust? CODY STRATHE: Yes, someone we trust. She's actually going to be our handler this coming winter, so we trusted her and knew that they would be taken good care of. And they're with a company who has a really good reputation. They feed Momentum dog food, which is really a high class expensive dog food, so we know they're getting good nutrition. And when Paige went up there and saw the dogs run, they're all happy, excited. Another cool thing is we've been -- because Paige is going to be running the Yukon Quest she already made some little postcards and we gave to the musher to hand out to all the tourists who rode with our dogs. That says how they can go to our website and they can go to our Facebook page and whatever. And so now we're getting all these people who went on a ride with our dogs, and they have all these great memories, all these great pictures, and it was the best day of their life. And so they send us these pictures of our dogs all cuddled up with them, and the dogs are all happy. And so it's great because here we're busy, and summertime sucks. It's hot. The dogs can't do anything and there they have a job. They have a purpose, at least. And it sounds like they're having a good time. ROBERT DROZDA: Yeah. CODY STRATHE: So, so far it has been great as long as you can trust the people who are taking care of them. ROBERT DROZDA: Uh-huh. CODY STRATHE: So. ROBERT DROZDA: Cool. CODY STRATHE: Yeah. ROBERT DROZDA: All right, great I think that's it, Cody. CODY STRATHE: Thank you. ROBERT DROZDA: Thanks very much. MARLA STATSCEWICH: Yeah, thanks a lot Cody.
Effie Kokrine was interviewed on February 10, 1987 by William Schneider, Sue Will and Doris Southall in Fairbanks, Alaska. Effie grew up in Tanana, Alaska when dog teams were the dominant form of transportation. Her father, Johnny Folger, ran a leg of the diphtheria serum run between Minto and Tanana. She helped care for her father's team and soon learned to drive her own team. She and her husband, Andrew Kokrine moved to Fairbanks in 1949, where she got involved in dog racing. She ran in the Women's Division of the Open North American Sled Dog Race from 1949 - 1965, and helped found the Junior Dog Musher's Association. In this interview, she talks about growing up in Tanana and their use of dog teams, dog team mail carriers, positions of dogs in the team, training and disciplining dogs, choosing dogs for a team, feeding and caring for dogs, getting involved in dog racing and specific incidents in races, equipment and gear, junior dog mushing, the trail to Wiseman, breaking trail and use of gee poles, keeping dogs in Fairbanks, her favorite dogs, and the importance of having trust between dog and musher.
Click to section:
The first dog Effie remembers
Using loose leaders with a dog team
The importance of dogs in a team taking commands, and the role of the swing dog
What to look for in a puppy that tells you it will make a good team dog
Taking care of the dogs' health
Feeding the dogs
Dog team mail carriers
How she got into running the North American Sled Dog Race
A particularly surprising outcome of a race
Training the dogs
Talking about Whitey, one of her good lead dogs
Effie's last sled dog race
Women in the sled dog races
Gear and equipment
Junior dog mushing and benefits of dog mushing for kids
Family history and connections with dog mushing
Dog team mail carrier route to Wiseman
Use of gee poles to help control a heavy sled
Her husband, Andrew Kokrine, working as a dog team mail carrier
Keeping dogs in town and use of boarding kennels
Moving to Fairbanks
Effie's favorite dog
Picking names for dogs
Talking to your dogs when in a passing situation
Passing moose on the trail
The importance of trust between a musher and their dogs
Disciplining and training dogs
Advice for mushers of today
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is February 10th. EFFIE KOKRINE: 10th. BILL SCHNEIDER: 1987. And we have the pleasure today of doing an interview with Effie Kokrine. I'm Bill Schneider, and with me today is Doris Southall and Sue Will. And we're going to talk a little about your history and involvement in dog mushing. And so it's a pleasure, and I appreciate you coming out here, even though we made you walk all around the building and all. EFFIE KOKRINE: Took me away from my world. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. But nice to have you here. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: And just for those people that are listening, this is a -- a follow up on an earlier interview that was done as part of the Chinook series, so we'll be talking about a few other things and also picking up on some of those good stories, too. So thanks for coming. And Sue, why don't you start off. SUE WILL: Well, you said that you were telling Bill the story about the first dog you remember. EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, the first dog that I remember when I was, oh, say, about seven years old was because he was forever giving us a bad time. He was an old dog that my father just kept as a retired pet because he -- he was just a likeable dog. And so as I was telling Bill, he was probably the father of all our strange dogs we had at that time. But he was old and we couldn't afford to keep pets, but he stayed along as -- run along like a loose leader and everything, so... And when he was getting older, my father used to go out and drive dogs or something, go out, haul wood and things, and he would leave him home. So every time he left him home, no matter how good he was tied, he used to get loose. So it was my brother and I forever going out after him and dragging him back. So I remember him the most because many times my mother tell us, now, you go out and look for Tonnish (phonetic). And Tonnish is an Indian name and it's short for Quitonnish (phonetic). And Quitonnish in Indian means he's going to live. And, you know, in Indians, you know, you -- when you talk, a lot of your words is backwards. Like you make a sentence and it will be reversed. And when -- a lot of the dogs's names was named Indian names, same as kids and people. So he -- this is, well, this is dog is going to Quitonnish, that means this dog will live. So his name became Quitonnish, and then he was known like Tonnish to everybody. And he was always Tonnish. But my mother said his real name was Quitonnish. SUE WILL: Did you have -- did many of you guys have loose leaders when you started out? EFFIE KOKRINE: Not in a family life, not in our daily life. But my husband, and not only him, the others that used to carry mail out in the blizzard, out in the cold with no trails, no Sno Go's, over mountains, loose leader was very important because he was the leader and he was understanding of -- of his master, like you could wave and whistle and something, and he'll -- he'll understand. SUE WILL: He's like a lab or a heel trial dog is today in a way. EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah, but...
SUE WILL: (indiscernible) EFFIE KOKRINE: It was -- he was a dog that's been over the trail before, and once a dog's been over the trail, like from Tanana, when my husband used to drive dogs over towards Wiseman, once a month they'd make that trip where there was no trail from, you know, day to day in the mountains, it's just swept clean. And that dog would follow that same trail, and then he'd go ahead and the dogs would follow him. And if he'd break off the trail, well, he can find his footing and get back on. And then if you want his attention, you'll whistle and you'll go like this, you know, and he'll -- he'll understand you, and the dogs all in the back follow him, and he was very important. But as our daily life, our just like hauling wood or running to town or something, a loose dog was never necessary. SUE WILL: So the loose leader had to know hand signals? EFFIE KOKRINE: Hand signals, uh hum. SUE WILL: And voice signals. EFFIE KOKRINE: And he has to be a dog that's been, like, over the trail before, and they can almost -- SUE WILL: One you can really trust. EFFIE KOKRINE: -- crossing the lake, they can just go right across and find the exact spot on the other side where they're supposed to go in. And they were just -- your dogs was your -- almost your life because you depend on them for so much; that is, if you lived out in the country. SUE WILL: Did you -- did most of the team dogs know commands? Did the leaders in the team know commands? EFFIE KOKRINE: The leaders in the team are the leaders because they take a command, and the swing dogs take just as good command as the leader because when the leader go, like, jump, you know, one way or the other, well, they are right there to -- to bring up the rest of the team, so they are just as important. The swing dogs are just as important to the team as the leader because you have two swing dogs that's not going to obey the leader, what good is the leader because they can just pull him around, jerk him around. But if they just all take commands, so your swing dogs is almost as good as the leader, which a lot of times they are your extra leaders. SUE WILL: Also, I've heard a lot of people say that for, like, when people were freighting or carrying the mail that the wheel dogs were so important because when you went around a sharp corner or a tree, you know, the wheel dog had to be able to -- to not cut a corner like a lot of our racing dogs do today, but to pull ahead and then follow the leaders around. EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, I don't know about that part, whether they actually pull it around the corner and anything, but then the wheel dog, in pulling the load, does take more of a beating. So we used to -- well, the bumbest dog in the team automatically went in the back because you can control him more. Like, if he wants to be lazy and don't want to pull, then you have a easier time to -- SUE WILL: Tell him he better move it. EFFIE KOKRINE: -- to get the message across that -- and then we used to always take a bigger dog, you know, a big -- a heavier dog, because they do take a lot of abuse of -- they are the ones with the sled behind them. So as for knowing how to go around corners, I don't know, but I know they were always the -- SUE WILL: Heaviest and the orneriest. EFFIE KOKRINE: Or -- and then I think it's a -- it was a hard work because they are the ones with the sled behind them, where the others, the dogs move along with them, you know, with the motion and everything of every little hump or bump or little curve, where the back ones, they got the sled that's coming behind them. SUE WILL: Okay. My next question is what do you look for in pups? How did you decide which ones in a litter to keep or did you just try them all? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. Well, when we were -- in the olden days when we had to ration our dog food and then we controlled our breeding of our dogs, too. We always had -- my father always had one female, or maybe two in reserve so that if this one gets old, well, we have this other one that is special. But as soon as the pups are born we got rid of them, the ones that we don't need. And my father used to always -- I'm going to use my father as an example because that's my earliest recollection. We used to save, like, two every litter like when we had -- then that way the dogs don't get old at one time. And we still have enough, like nine dogs for our freight team -- I mean, our living, like we move from camp to camp, or we go to Tanana and go back to home which is 16 miles away from town where we lived, we trapped and everything there, so our transportation, we always had enough. But you just -- so one dog get old, you always have this other one to take its place so that they don't all get old together and you don't have all young dogs together. You keep them rotating in the right age. And we used to look for the pups, if you wanted to keep only two or four, we always look for pups with the black feet. And the white feet, we say, well, we don't keep them because they say they got tender feet; and for cold weather, or running through different conditions, their feet is not as strong as a dog with black feet. SUE WILL: Uh hum. I've heard that. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. And then it's not true, but then when the puppy is born, too, you pick them up by the nape of the neck and give them a little shake, and if they squeal, well, that's a sissy, you don't want that, but I don't believe that, you know. So anyway. SUE WILL: So you practiced in a way like selective breeding for the dogs. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. SUE WILL: Did you do anything special for worming them or anything like that? EFFIE KOKRINE: Long time ago we didn't know anything about worms. We don't have them. SUE WILL: Did you use kerosene or gas -- grass? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, if they did, I don't -- I just -- it wasn't my thing. And they always said the dogs ate grass if they needed it. SUE WILL: Which seems to be true. EFFIE KOKRINE: And then one thing, too, like eating hair, like moose hair or something, they says it causes worms, so we never did use it. And we always cooked our dog food, we never gave them just raw food. We always had it cooked, our feed. The only time we gave them raw food, like when we were in fish camp sometimes we'd give them raw -- the heads only, but not the meat. SUE WILL: You were talking before about what you had for available dog food, how you limited your dog team to what was available then. Can you talk about -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, we had no commercial dog food long time ago. The only thing we had was what we -- what we got off the country because, like, we went fishing all summer long, we weren't limited, we didn't -- they didn't tell us, okay, you fish today, you fish tomorrow. We fish as we needed, and dried all our food, dog fish. And then in the falltime, we froze a lot of food, fresh -- fresh whitefish and stuff, you just put them up to freeze. And even if they soured a little bit, it didn't hurt the dogs because they were dropping, they were sour, but it didn't hurt the dogs. And then we had a lot of dry fish, and then a lot of the dry fish we used to sell to the stores in exchange, like, for food, so someone else that don't have enough dog food will be able to purchase it. And then we used to get rolled oats to put in our dog food because that's -- we had no commercial dog food to put in it, so we did use rolled oats. And some people have used rice, but it's -- most of my memory was rolled oats, a hundred pounds a sack of rolled oats, and then you'd mix that up. And then in the falltime, you'd take -- we used to buy all our gasoline with five gallon cans, but you rinse that out and you put the fish eggs in there. And you just put that away, and even that soured. You take a little of that fish eggs and you cream your dog food with it as you're cooking it. The dry fish is good for the dogs to eat dry when you're travelling or if you can't cook or something, but if you're home, your own home, then you still cook the dog food because they need the juice, then you throw a chunk of this frozen fish eggs in there and it richens and creams the deal. And in the springtime when you're travelling long ways, like we used to go to Stevens Village or someplace, and we were light on dog food, even if you take little fish eggs and mix it with water and water them with that, they still get a lot of food value and energy to -- you know, to go with less food. So when we travelled, we used to go trapping and things, we used to go from Tanana and up to Stevens Village and go up into the Flats to -- to spring camp. Survival. Of course, the dogs eat the muskrat, too, then when you have enough muskrat, or whatever you have. SUE WILL: Did you ever accompany your husband when he went up to Wiseman and any of those? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. That's before I knew him. SUE WILL: Okay. And he was doing the mail carrier? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah, he carried mail for his father -- his father had the contract, and he carried the mail for him. But that was, like I say, before my time. But it was still being done my time him and I got married, it was still being done, but it was getting more like the airplanes and things was starting to do the work. SUE WILL: Yeah. Did you know of any women who did any of that? EFFIE KOKRINE: I don't know of anyone that actually took the mail run, but I know of a woman that helped quite a bit. That's Katherine Mayo, you know Freddie Mayo and Clyde Mayo's mother. She wasn't Katherine Mayo then, she was -- they were living down at Kallands. SUE WILL: Oh, I know where that -- EFFIE KOKRINE: And I know she helped. Now, whether -- it wasn't on her contract to do it, but you helped whenever you can. And I know my father said she used to put on snowshoes and go up and break out the mail trail, so that's when the mail team is coming down, they can hit her trail and walk -- you know, come in because we used to have more severe weather those days. And I'm pretty sure my Andrew was telling me one time that she did make a run, but that's the only woman I know. They had roadhouse there where the mail carriers used to stop overnight, and she had to have the wood and -- I mean, the water and everything all ready for the dogs to be watered and everything and then they -- they house the mail carrier for the night. And so she played a very important part in those days because she was living with her mother, which her mother couldn't get around and do things, but Katherine was a young woman and she done all the work. Uh huh. But she's -- she was a tough -- tough one in those days. To snowshoe out a trail in a blizzard and in heavy snow and stuff, just... SUE WILL: I want to switch to something a little different now. EFFIE KOKRINE: Okay. SUE WILL: Unless you have something you can think of asking. On the other tape you talked about running your first race, the Tanana, and then you talked briefly about the North American Race. Why did you -- something I didn't find out was why did you run that North American, that first North American that you ran? Just because you had -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Because my husband told me to. The first North American I ran was the first year after we moved to Fairbanks. And I didn't know no -- the racetrack or didn't know any of the dog mushers or anything. I met Libby Westcott and them, you know, just briefly, but I didn't know my way around or anything in Fairbanks. And all of a sudden he came home one day and he said, "You're going to run the women's race." "Now, where am I going?" SUE WILL: But you liked it because you did it after that. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. Well, then, he just said, "Follow the trail and let the dogs lead the way." You know. And then when you hit the river, and then such and such a place you turn around." Then we started under the Cushman Bridge and we went up the Noyes Slough, and we went up the bank or something around under the railroad track or something, and you zigzagged around down way, down until you hit the -- go under another bridge or something. SUE WILL: It's pretty much the same. EFFIE KOKRINE: And the only thing I could remember, though, is I was going through the woods, then all of a sudden here comes the river. Okay. When you hit the river, I know you're supposed to go up the river. And in those days, you had no trail. There was a dog trail. You know, someone had run the dogs through there. We had no trail to follow, but there was probably a sign or something. But anyway, when you hit that river is when you go back up the Chena River, which I did. And I don't remember coming in or anything, but I remember making that turn after you once hit the river, and I thought, "Oh, I'm home." SUE WILL: Which was your favorite race? EFFIE KOKRINE: There is no favorite. SUE WILL: There isn't, huh? EFFIE KOKRINE: Huh uh. Because every one is -- was a -- a run in its own. Maybe the most shocking one would probably when I won the three -- the year that I won my third year. That probably would be the most surprising. SUE WILL: Why? EFFIE KOKRINE: Because I didn't think I was going to do it. Because it just came as such a shock, a surprise. Because I was number four starting that day. And that was second day of running or three days of running, I can't remember. Anyway, I was number four, and I had no idea whatsoever. All I wanted was to make sure Whitey -- I had Andrew's little Whitey, which did not like to obey me. He was strictly Andrew's dog, and he'll run for me, he won't get into mischief, but he wouldn't give me his heart. So I was just going along, coming down the hill at the KFAR up there on Farmers Loop Road, just after I head into the brushes, here's a dog team ahead of me. They are having a tangle. I was shocked, so I went around it, and I looked up and here's two more teams ahead of me having the same problem. So Whitey right there, you know, okay, he's trained instinct. He just went right around this first dog team, and their dogs is anxious to go, and they were, you know, well, all just wanting to go, but he wanted to show off then. That's the only time I could say that dog knew what he was doing. He went right around that one; and the next two, he went right around. And Libby Westcott was the third team I passed just, "Come on, Effie! Come out your whip!" You never pull out your whip or anything in the races because that's courtesy to the others. And she goes, "Come on, go!" And I was, like, shocked. I still didn't realize what was going on. And so I just kept pushing, and she was behind me all the way through, she said, "Go ahead, go ahead! Use your whip!" I don't use a whip when I'm driving. I use the rattler, noisemaker, or a chain in my hand, like a piece of broken chain. And you just hold it in your hand like -- you make a noise with it. But then -- but the best thing I liked was I always carried a little sticks in my hand, in my chain bag. And -- like, I'd take a little stick, a little bit like that, and then I'd hit it on the side of the sled, and just like make rhythm. And I seemed to find that more comforting and I don't have to use my voice or something, and then I sing or you know. So I just, "Come on! Come on! Let's go!" And I just came in. And like I say, Whitey, really, I take my hat off to him that day because the starting of the race, he just -- he was just doing his own thing. He'd look around and just run along, and I'd coax him and talk to him, and he was not giving me anything except staying ahead. So that -- I think that was the most surprised race. SUE WILL: How many dogs did you have in the team? EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, probably -- I don't take only seven or eight if I can. I avoid nine. Nine is a good number, like two or three day race, because you can always drop one, but I'm more comfortable with eight. SUE WILL: Did you generally have a single leader or a double leader? EFFIE KOKRINE: Mostly a single leader if I can, but double leaders is really good, too. I always feel like they give each other confidence, especially passing a team or something, if one is a little shy or something, that one is, you know, just going. But then the worst situation I got into is single lead, seemed to be what I had at the time, when I did get into where I was a little, you know, what am I going to do? Feeling. So you have a good leader, a single leader is good, but I always feel like a double leader give each other a level path along the way. SUE WILL: Did Andrew pretty much train the dogs or did you share training in the dogs? EFFIE KOKRINE: Before he used to do all the driving, but then when we got to Fairbanks, there's a lot of times while he was working, I used to take the dogs out at the Chena River. SUE WILL: Did you do anything special for training of them? Did you hit specific problem areas, or did you train puppies -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, I think -- well, the puppies, that was my -- I used to, you know, play around with the puppies quite a bit, but the main part of training which I did was just hardening them up. Give them the running time, the mileage. And then when it comes to training, then he wasn't working by, like, March and stuff, so he used to take over. That's in Fairbanks, you know. SUE WILL: Did he break the puppies? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, with puppies, we always played with them and, you know, put them in harness and play around with them, so by the time they know what it's about, they know the feel of the harness. Now, going up the hill, you know -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Are you talking about Whitey? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. Okay. This is off, isn't it? BILL SCHNEIDER: No, it's on now. EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, right now? Well, do you want me to talk about Whitey some more? BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure. EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, the part that made me feel, oh, my God, can't you do any better than that, was we used to haul the dogs to the starting line with truck. And now -- now -- excuse me. You know, who'd think anything of it. Here I was going up towards the college, and you got up to the -- to the -- up on the hill there. That -- anyway, you know what I mean, that Yankovich Crossing. Anyway. And he was just running along and not paying any attention. And then he was looking around at all these cars parked along the way and he spotted Andrew in the truck way up there on the hill. So he says, well, I don't have to run, so he was just -- oh. He was just -- just trotting along until we made that loop way down and we come back and we were passing right where Andrew's truck was. Of course, you know that, you shouldn't have been there. And then after we passed there, he decided, well, I might as well get home. And then, boy, he took off. Like we learned then for whatever truck Andrew, you know, delivered the dogs to the starting chute, keep away from there. Especially as long as I had Whitey. But before that I had sort of my own leader, too, so. Yeah. He had to. He was -- had a personality that was sort of comical, but he knew what he was doing. SUE WILL: How long did you have him? EFFIE KOKRINE: I -- we didn't have him too long because we bought him from a guy in Stevens Village. And he sent him over in airplane and said, "Well, you know, this white dog is the leader." So when we got him, Andrew wasn't sure which one was which, so he just put old Whitey in the lead. And we lived in Graehl, so he took up, there was no Hamilton Acres, so we used to drive the dogs up that way. And he put Whitey in the lead, and he was an ugly old humpback thing, but he was the biggest and he looked like he was strong. And he went all right. And he worked beautiful with Andrew after that, but right off the bat he was sort of hesitant and wasn't, like, sure of what he was doing. But we didn't know until way afterwards that we had the wrong dog in the lead. But he never did get out of the leader after that. He stayed there until we got rid of all our dogs. And he always had the lead since then, but it was so funny because he wasn't even a leader. But Andrew looked at him and he thought, you look like you have more of the -- you know, the go power than the other one. Because the other white one was sort of slim and smaller. So, well, he went in the back and Whitey went ahead, and no wonder when he started -- always we had to pass the old schoolhouse, Nordale schoolhouse in that area we used to go, and he was just like acting like he wasn't sure of himself. But it's all right. He was all right. SUE WILL: What was the last race you ran? EFFIE KOKRINE: The last race I ran? SUE WILL: Uh hum. EFFIE KOKRINE: Was in 1965 when I tipped over, coming in the chute, day after that big blizzard we had, and the Sno-Go went over the trail, but this one place the Sno-Go had gone off the trail and then got back on. Well, when I hit that spot where the Sno-Go got off because I was coming in first, and I tipped over. And just right after the problem I had, and I -- I didn't have the strength in my hands to get up, so I just -- SUE WILL: That's a pretty long racing career you've had. EFFIE KOKRINE: 15 years -- in 16 years time, I -- I ran 15 times. Even I did not have dogs a lot of times, I just borrowed, pick a team here, pick a team there, or whoever would let me have the dogs for the -- for the day, or you know. I just used to run because I love it. Not to run, not to win, just to be in it, just to participate. I still have that feeling. SUE WILL: I have another question in relation to that. How is -- what kind of competition was there between you women when you were running the Women's North American? Sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie. EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, a long time ago it was -- they had a women's race. Women didn't mix with the men, you know. They had a women's race, and we had some pretty good mushers that was familiar with their dogs and that has done it before me. And so they were -- there were some good women mushers, but we didn't make the time they are making now. Our road conditions were different, and there was a lot of skill and power and handling of your team. Because there is always someone in the team that did not know how to handle their dogs and was not able to handle their dogs. I run into several places during the races that I had to stop and help somebody. And one time I tied myself to the sled with the tree, before we had ice hooks, I tied myself to a tree to help another woman, and I couldn't get out. I came in second to the last that year, but I was stuck. I couldn't untie myself because my arms could not reach the -- where the snap was hooked to the line and holding the sled back. And they want to go, and I was trying to hold back, but I done that to help another woman that was in trouble. Her dogs got tangled, and there's a dog that was just laying there hollering, and if you didn't correct that right away, there could be a dog fight. Because any time a dog is hollering in pain, the towline had gotten around a younger dog and she couldn't control it, she had too many dogs. So I went a little ahead and then I tied -- I passed her. So I tied the dogs up and I ran back and I unsnapped her lines and released this dog that was hollering, because if you want trouble, that's one way to start trouble is having a dog in pain. That's animal in the dogs that just automatically turn on each other. Maybe they are trying to help, but they don't know how to help. SUE WILL: Uhm. You were saying that you didn't have snow hooks then, that you tied your dogs up -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. SUE WILL: -- to a tree, available tree. So that means you could only have as many dogs as you could actually -- EFFIE KOKRINE: That you could handle and hold. Uh hum. And on the Yukon River, long time ago when we used to drive dogs, we used to tip our sled over and, like, stick the nose in the side of this road enough so that you can run up there. And after the time I start handling the dogs, I always had one in the team that we raised in the house. And when she was a pup, and she understood me and she was my dog. And she'd lay down when I'd get up and have to do anything because that's another leader of Andrew's that didn't like to obey me; he liked to, you know, play around. She'd just lay down until I get up there and do my thing and get back. And it was -- it was really -- you had to be alert, you had to be fast, and it was just a different thing. We had no snow hook, especially on the river when you have no trees or no nothing, you're just on the river, Yukon River, that's where we used to drive dogs before we came to Fairbanks. SUE WILL: Did you make your harnesses? I know most of your -- I mean the sleds, manmade sleds -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah, we made our own sleds, we made our own harness, and our towlines, and whether your working towline or your working harness. Long time ago we used to have nothing but collar harness for working, and then we'd change the style to more comfort and lighter weight, and the best harness to work in. There is another harness that they used to have before they called Siwash harness, but then that was made where it was cutting under the arm, so they styled the harness to what they have today where it fits the body over the shoulders and snug over the hip without any, like, underarm rub. And then the neck lines and everything had to be for the comfort of the dog, without being a hindrance to step over the neck line. You know, long enough for the comfort of their movements, but not where it hung where the dog would step over it. And -- and for racing, there should always be enough space between the two dogs so that it will be comfortable, not put them too close together where there's -- they are just too clustered up, then they don't have the freedom and the -- to probably see an object or a stick or something, too, because you have to... SUE WILL: Did they put bells or anything, tassels or anything on the harness? EFFIE KOKRINE: We used to have tassels on for harness just for decoration, but for bells, when we were younger, we used to put them on, on holidays. Like Christmastime, you were coming to town for the holidays and things, and coming into town, you'd hear a dog team coming with bells on it, but that's the only time. Uh hum. SUE WILL: Did you use booties? EFFIE KOKRINE: Depends on the weather. That depends on the weather. And we used to use booties in towards spring because we used to run dogs and travel around until the ice is not safe to travel on anymore, and the snow conditions and everything; but in the springtime, when you're travelling in the spring or going anywhere, you'd have this thaw. And on the river there would be sand blowing all the time -- all the time where the sand would be over the -- the snow where it freeze at night, and it's just hard and irritate the dogs. We used to use dog -- dog booties. SUE WILL: Did you ever use dog blankets or anything like that? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. We did used to have -- if we had to travel any length of place, where -- like we were going to Tanana for the holiday or Christmas or something, and you have to have a female with -- with nursing, we used to have a blanket for a breast -- breast blanket. SUE WILL: That just fit under the harness? EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. Just fit under -- it just -- you tie it up like -- you wouldn't fit it to the harness. We -- we just had it so it tied in the back and around the neck and between the legs so that it'd protect their -- the breast. But that was only if you had to travel; otherwise, you left the female home, which hardly too many people raise pups in the winter. The summertime food is more -- you have more to feed the pups, so that wasn't too often that you had a female with breast, unless if you may have happened to just have pups, and -- but then we didn't save the pups either in the summer -- in the wintertime. SUE WILL: The last couple years you've gotten real active in the junior dog mushing. What have you been doing with that? EFFIE KOKRINE: Last couple of years? SUE WILL: Well -- EFFIE KOKRINE: We've been involved in the junior dog mushing, me, my family, my kids, or someone, for 30 years. SUE WILL: I didn't realize that it was that long. EFFIE KOKRINE: Thirty-one -- Well, this year it will be 32 years since the juniors started being active. And that was way back when they first started, like Jackie Landreu was still around, and she had a son, and Despain. So they just got together and they took one of my boys and a couple of their boys and went down to this Rendezvous. There was a place like a bar thing with a big back open, and they used to have their dog mushers's banquet and stuff there, so they all went back there one time and let the kids run. So the next year they started, like, a junior racing. So one of my boys was in one of the first junior activities, and then went through all my kids, and now it's going through all my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. So last year, there was seven of my children or great grandchildren involved in the junior dog races, but this year I think it's going to be less than that now. So... But that was the year that -- and I don't have a good picture of it. BILL SCHNEIDER: So you've been involved in that for 30 years? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, it's -- if it's not me directly, it's my kids. And my son in law has been advisory, doing their advisor, and then my kids are always in there working with them and they are always in there, and like the timekeepers and all that. And even when I wasn't active, actually, I was active as the road marshal or something. And my one daughter that never raced, she was always out there road marshaling with me. So one way or the other, we're always involved. And Jeff Studdert used to have the honorary chair during the junior dog mushes, and now -- I'm not bragging, but now they give me the honorary chair, so I'm always at the banquets. I mean, I try always. I don't say always. I try always to be at the banquet, but this year I'm going to miss it. And my -- my son in law right now is a senior advisor for the juniors. And my daughter and daughter in law and them are all the timekeepers and everything, so... SUE WILL: So that's why all your children are into dog mushing or have been into dog mushing off and on. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. Well, I encourage them. That's a very good past time for kids because it teaches them to handle their dog and handle themselves, and it's -- it's a good leg work. Skiing is good, but with the dog and you, you're building your body. And contact with dogs is a comfortable thing. It's they understand you and they like you and they -- it gives you great pleasure to be able to work together. I know our dogs has always enjoyed being handled. SUE WILL: Well, I'm about at a hold point for the moment. BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us a little about your family's history. EFFIE KOKRINE: In the family history, the dog mushing has not been much because a long time ago they didn't have races like they do. But in springtime, they always had a little get together on the 17th of March, was a big day. And they used to have little races, but most people had just working dogs then. But then in 1925, when the serum run was made to Nome, my father was one of them that ran his section. I think he went up to -- I don't know where he went to, from Tanana up, wherever he was met, like, from Minto or someplace he was met, then he picked up the serum and then he took it to Tanana; and then from Tanana, then they switched drivers so that their dogs wouldn't have -- tire out so everybody just -- you know, just like a relay. So my father was the one that brought it into Tanana. SUE WILL: Effie, what was your maiden name? EFFIE KOKRINE: Folger. My father's name was Johnny Folger, and his -- his father was a prospector that came into the country in 1800. And there is a Folger place named, too, down there where he -- he covered quite a bit of Alaska, I guess, before. SUE WILL: Yeah, I've run across the name. EFFIE KOKRINE: And two kids didn't stop him. But my name is Folger, and my mother's father was Huntington. So I'm related to Jim and Sidney Huntington, too. So -- so we have -- SUE WILL: So you'd go for the dog mushing traditions? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. Well, it was our life. That was your life, same as a car is to you, the dog mushing was just the thing. In summertime, we used to hook up dogs and go up the river. You'd tie the -- hook the dogs up and put a big towline on there and you could -- they used to tow the boats up the river before they had engines, motorboats. And so dogs was a very important part of a person's life. You could tow around a sandbar. Of course, you couldn't do it too good on Tanana River, but on the Yukon River and you get a good sandbar, the dogs just run, in summer and they can tow the boat. SUE WILL: So you pretty much grew up around the Tanana area? EFFIE KOKRINE: I was raised on the Tanana area, but later on I -- we were on the Yukon River. BILL SCHNEIDER: You were mentioning about running the mail up to Wiseman. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? That was your father? EFFIE KOKRINE: No. My husband, when he was -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Your husband. EFFIE KOKRINE: -- when he was 17 years old, he was considered those days a man. And then he started running the dog -- the mail team up there for -- for his dad, he took over. BILL SCHNEIDER: His dad was named? EFFIE KOKRINE: Andrew Kokrine, Senior. And the Kokrine Hills, the Kokrine Mountains is for that Kokrine, yeah. They're all -- my father in law's father had a store there, that's where the Kokrine name came from, he had a little trading post. So my name is connected in a lot of the progress made in Alaska. BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you been on that trail up to Wiseman? EFFIE KOKRINE: Only as far as the 36 mile. That's 36 mile behind Tanana. We went up there one year to trap beaver in the Tozi River, was a relief cabin, the mail cabin there on the river, so we stayed there one winter. And we had to cross some of those mountains. I would say where you need a -- you need a -- a trained loose leader. And boy, it's just -- just mountain with nothing on it except the posts. They have the trail markers. Years ago they put, like, trail markers, they put three sticks together and put a tripod on the old -- on the trail. So that when you're crossing the mountain, you can at least have some landmark of some kind. And so I did cross the 14 mountains -- 14 Mile Mountains, so I know what it's like, only it's such a short way. But when you're running to Wiseman was a very tough trip because the weather was so cold sometimes. And you carried your -- the dog food you're going to use for the month's trip, and you have to carry some and leave one at -- some here at this mail cabin. You can either hang it up inside of the relief cabin or, you know, hang it up some way. And then coming back, then you depend on that dog food being there. And was just a -- it was a real -- it took a man, and you had to be strong and tough, you had to have tough dogs. And your equipment, your harness had to be heavy. Heavy equipment so that they don't way -- wear out or fray because you've got a load, you've got all the -- Then they had to be responsible also for carrying money. (Pause in recording.) BILL SCHNEIDER: You were saying it took a whole month. EFFIE KOKRINE: They used to make a trip one month, every month we made a trip. And that's allowing plenty of time to go over to Wiseman and stop in all the places and come back. Then you rest your dogs a little while or, you know, switch dogs around, take another one that's not tired, and then start again. SUE WILL: Where did they stop on the way up and back? EFFIE KOKRINE: They had relief cabin all along the route. They had the little log cabins, you know, built all along there. I don't remember what the first relief cabin on the Tanana was, but I've been there, too. And it's far enough where you can make, like, 10 miles a day or 12 miles a day because you had a heavy load. You had all your food, your equipment, your clothing, your dog food, and everything, and plus the mail. And then coming back, like, if you brought a bunch of fur, fox skins, and whatever, then you have all that to haul back, too, although it's a light -- a lighter trip coming back if you don't have that much dog food and stuff to carry. And then on the side, they used to take, like, beads; beads, sewing beads and stuff, and sell that along the way, too, if you want to do, but that's -- that's on your own. That's got nothing to do with U.S. mail. That is strictly on your own. So, well, he used to do that, too. I mean my husband did, in his little four years time. And then his brother, Tony Kokrine, which was never, you know, really known, he's -- he's made the trip with his brother, too. And then if two people go, then they can take two sleds, and the lighter sled can break the trail for the main heavy, heavy trail. That was the best way to travel if two people went because the one with the lighter sled and the lighter weight, not the mail, could go ahead and break the trail where the working team can follow and have a trail to follow. Because sometimes, it used to drift so bad and no snow and all, like. The winters were just different. Sometimes the mail carrier had to walk ahead of the dogs with the snowshoes to break the trail out. So you had to have dogs that you could trust behind you and also ahead. SUE WILL: Did they use gee poles? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yes. Towards spring days, they had the gee poles, and that's like when the snow start melting on one side and stuff, and the trail started to get sidings and stuff, that's when the gee pole was handy. Then you could either run ahead of the sled with snowshoes on. Or if it's a better condition, then you can put skis on and guide it. And they had another one that -- oh, they had, like, a surf board. SUE WILL: Ouija board. EFFIE KOKRINE: Ouija board. Yeah. Then you could use that also. Which was heavier to carry, where the skis was the lighter. I tried that one time myself coming down from the Tanana River in springtime, my stepfather told me to get on gee pole when I was a, you know, younger person, and that takes a lot of leg work. Boy, you have to guide the sled, you know, keep from falling off the old sled tracks. Like I said, in those days we didn't have no Sno-Go trails, we had a sled track to follow, and that was our roads, our trails. And to keep the sled on, it's -- you have to be strong to do that. SUE WILL: What did they do with hills? Did they rough block the runners or turn logs -- EFFIE KOKRINE: To -- to going down the hills, rough log them. Uh hum. Because coming down any hills or creeks. But that wasn't used too often. That wasn't practiced too often. SUE WILL: Did they ever let dogs loose coming down hills or were most of the dogs (inaudible)? EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh. Sometimes going downhill, and if you have a big load and you're scared, you could turn some dogs loose, but then -- then you can also just undo their back line. You undo their back line so they are not pulling. And the sled goes on their own. And if you have a long rope, like if you were hauling something heavy and you were going down into a creek, then you have a big snubbing line, then you can, you know, help release it, but that's something that hasn't been practiced too much. It's something that you just -- you don't do every day. It's just, you know, something that depends on where you are. SUE WILL: So your husband ran the mail route for four years. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. SUE WILL: Between Tanana. EFFIE KOKRINE: From when he was 17 to 21. By that time, they stopped. BILL SCHNEIDER: Is that when airplanes came in? EFFIE KOKRINE: I suppose so. And then -- but from Tanana up through they used to have horses, too, but then the horses quit, dog team came over, and then the airplanes. BILL SCHNEIDER: I wonder what the pay was back in those days for running that mail route? EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, probably a couple hundred dollars. It wasn't much. It was a lot, you know, to the people then, but it wasn't much. SUE WILL: Did they -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Just make expenses, and all you would do -- concerned about is having something to eat and just, you know. You never had enough money, you just went from day to day. And if you made money there, then you'd have to buy maybe new harness, and you might even have to buy a new sled in one trip or something. So it's just -- just a survival thing. SUE WILL: Did very many of the mail carriers board their dogs at fish camps? EFFIE KOKRINE: I suppose they did, but a lot of people had their own. SUE WILL: So most people you know were at fish camp in the summer with their dogs. EFFIE KOKRINE: Andrew's uncle used to have a bunch of dogs, but I suppose he did board his out because he lived in town as far as I could remember. So some people might have, but most of them had their own because you can put a fish wheel in anyplace and get your own dog food. SUE WILL: When you came to town, you kept your dogs because you were in a place where you could keep your dogs, but I understood that there was several people that had boarding kennels in town in the early days and that a lot of the racing teams were kept in those boarding kennels. Do you know where some of those were? EFFIE KOKRINE: No, I don't think we ever had any problems like boarding kennels. Like you went to town -- if someone came to Tanana, there's always a place someplace where you can put your dogs. But if you wanted someone to watch them, I suppose you could, but I just -- just don't -- my life was not into all that stuff, you know, like wondering what people did because, you know, in that time, too, I was still pretty young. SUE WILL: What about in Fairbanks? EFFIE KOKRINE: When we first came to Fairbanks, that was a hard time because we had no place to put our dogs. We had our dogs, like, for a couple weeks way up down there at the city dump when we first came to Fairbanks because we had no -- we didn't know anybody or anything. And then after that, we moved to Graehl, then we had our dogs up on the bank, which there was nothing, no Hamilton Acres, nothing, just -- Graehl was just -- just really an extension of Fairbanks, you know, thepoorer section. But I loved it. And we had our dogs up on the bank. And then after that, we got rid of our dogs because Graehl was growing, and then we moved out to seven and a half mile there, and then we started up another batch for the kids, so my kids can be -- have junior dogs. And then we moved back to Fairbanks into town again, and we weren't supposed to, but we had about seven or eight dogs, and we kept them right in our yard, where I'm still living now and I still have dogs in my yard. But I -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me -- let me ask you a question to back up again. Why did you move to Fairbanks in the first time? Was that '49, you said? EFFIE KOKRINE: 1949 we moved to Fairbanks because we just could not make a living in trapping. The trapping was no good, and the fishing, you just couldn't make it on fishing anymore. And my husband came up two years before that and worked in Fairbanks during the summer, and he joined the Carpenters Union. So Ladd Field was just building up, so there was a living to be made. And then our schooling situation in Tanana was just a small little school, so for the future of our kids, if they wanted to go to high school or anything, then we just moved up to Fairbanks for the -- for the work and the schooling, and I've never left. Oh, I've left just for visit and stuff, but Fairbanks is my home now. And I don't know. And Graehl, Graehl is my home. So my kids all grew up here, and this is their home, and that's the only life they know. They don't know the life of hunting and trapping and stuff that I grew up with, that I accept -- we accept as our everyday life, like we haul water and cut wood. And we used to go out and trap snares -- I mean, set snares and stuff any time. Here in Fairbanks, you don't do that. You live off the store, which spoils the kids. You turn on hot water, you turn on water, well, the kids don't get out and haul water or pack ice. The kids are not working to be important in the home anymore because all they do is touch buttons. BILL SCHNEIDER: Over the years, what's your favorite dog, then? EFFIE KOKRINE: My favorite dog. Well, there's -- in every litter, every year, you have a -- one, you know, I mean, the dogs are important, but one time we were -- my husband was freighting gas -- oil down to Galena during the -- you know, during about 19 -- early '40s, and George Jimmie, he was a known dog musher in those days, they had a dog on a beach with a litter of pups. And my little boy went over there and he was just, "Oh, I want a puppy." You know. And so when we were leaving there, after we lunched at that camp, he said, "Take one of the females." So we picked the little dog named -- I mean, little female. And that's the one that grew up in the house, and she -- she just grew up with the kids. And when I started driving her, she's ended up my leader. And even when she was an adult, she used to come in the house. And when she had pups, I put her in the lead and run her six pups behind her. And so she became, you know, very important to me because she was my leader, and she was the one that, you know, during the race and I had trouble with the other, she would lay down until I say all right. And then after we moved to Fairbanks here, she finally had to be put away. SUE WILL: What was her name? EFFIE KOKRINE: Her name was Jip (phonetic). She had an Indian name. SUE WILL: What does her Indian name mean? EFFIE KOKRINE: Her Indian name meant a girl, Sołt'aanh is a girl. Sołt'aanh is a girl. And so we cut it down to Doldah (phonetic) because my little girl at that time couldn't say Sołt'aanh. She kept calling her Doldah. So they grew up together like, you know, as Doldah. So, she was Doldah. SUE WILL: How do you pick names for your dogs? EFFIE KOKRINE: How do you pick names for the kid? SUE WILL: I don't know. EFFIE KOKRINE: You just look at them -- you look at them and the name just comes to you. I mean, you know, okay, this is spot, he's got a spot. This is gray, he's sort of gray, or red or -- SUE WILL: I always ask that question because everybody does -- a lot of people do it differently. EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. And if you have a dozen, I suppose you could say 1, 2, 3, 4, or something like that, you know. A lot of people name dogs after -- you know, somebody else. Like Jean Briar (phonetic), in New Hampshire, she had a dog named Effie. Yeah. And she had a dog named George. SUE WILL: I know a lot of George's. Right now there's a lot of Roxies around, too. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. And it all depends on the person, you know, what kind of names you like for yours. But I always like to have a simple name. Like right now my son has a dog named Chief. Chief is a very poor name for a leader, a dog, because if you're going around the bend and you're meeting somebody and you say Chief, how do you know you're saying Chief or gee? And the dog can get confused. So you always have to keep that in mind when you're naming the dog that it's not going to be a name that's going to throw the dog. But then, of course -- I didn't tell my son this, though. But then my husband told me that before, he had -- he learned the hard way. He had a dog named Chief in the lead, and one time he hollered Chief, or something, and the dog jumped gee. And maybe he shouldn't have done that, you know. So it's -- and when you're passing a team, I always call my leader. And I talk to the leader, like when you're passing the team or in a bad place, you're talking to your leader. All right, like, Chick. I had a dog named Chicken. Okay, Chicken. Okay, Chicken. Okay, you know. Okay. Chick, Chick, Chick, you know. Then she knows she's building confidence from me, from my voice. She's doing right. SUE WILL: So you're talking them all the way by when you're going past the moose or whatever the situation is? EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. Yeah. All right. All right. You know, like you're passing a moose. You know, just, all right all right. And come on, Chick, just go. And that's another dog that I had that I really liked. And that was my own dog that was given to me in Tanana. And she made a lot of chicken tracks for me. SUE WILL: Did you ever have any bad encounters with moose or anything? EFFIE KOKRINE: Not me myself, no. Huh uh. SUE WILL: You lucked out. EFFIE KOKRINE: Yeah. But one of the dogs that we gave away later on did. Got kicked in the stomach with one. But I don't want to, either. I've passed a lot of moose, I've seen a lot of moose on the trails, but I've never been close to one. The only time was when I was junior -- or race -- race marshal for the juniors, I ran into a couple on the road, but I just hollered and clapped my hands and then everything, you know, they say please. But she just walked, two of them, they just walked off the road because the juniors are coming, you know, and I wanted them off the trail. But I've been lucky, very lucky. BILL SCHNEIDER: Doris, what have we forgotten? DORIS SOUTHALL: I think that we've covered everything very well. I've been very interested. I've never heard a dog musher talk before. SUE WILL: Dog mushers can talk nonstop. EFFIE KOKRINE: Oh, there's so much to -- you know, you're using your dogs to -- there's so much you have to understand about them and they have to understand about you. But the best of all, I think, is having your -- your dog trust you. You have to have your dog trust you and not be afraid of you. Because if he's afraid of you, in emergency he might move -- make the wrong move. He's got to depend on you for his -- he's our strength and you're their brains, really, except we're working through them. A companionship. SUE WILL: George Attla has made a comment that the dogs never do wrong, only the musher does wrong. Like you were saying about you're the brains. EFFIE KOKRINE: Uh hum. And they know danger, and they know when they are doing wrong. And you have to correct them like a kid, you know. Then a lot of dogs will try to get away with something. They'll -- they'll try to get away with things that they know they shouldn't, then you have to correct them and let them know that you're the boss then. SUE WILL: So when you discipline your dogs do you use your voice or shake them up or -- EFFIE KOKRINE: Use your voice, and if you have to, you go to slap them. You can slap them, and you can hit them on the rump or anything, you know. And let them know that you mean business. And you could even hit them. Not beat them up, but you can hit them. Let them know that you are the boss. And then if you have one that snaps or, you know, wants to cause trouble, you don't want him. That's a dog that you get rid of. SUE WILL: When you train your leaders, do you put them with older leaders to train them or do you train them separately? EFFIE KOKRINE: Well, if you have an older leader to go ahead, that's when he comes in the swing until you can trust him to go up to double lead. And then after you're running double lead, then you can put the other one back and let them go ahead. Whatever. There's a lot of different ways you can train a leader. And if you just have a couple dogs, you automatically hook them up, and the one that works the best ahead is the one that stays ahead. It's the dogs themselves, they will show you what they could do after you give them an honors in running. You can tell a good dog that's going to be obedient and hard working and not fool around. You can have a dog that want to pee against every little stick. Well, he's not to be up there. Because he's setting example for the ones behind all the time. SUE WILL: With your pups, did you run them loose when they were young when you lived out in the Bush? EFFIE KOKRINE: If you had to. If you had to. Like if you was hauling wood or something and you had pups in the yard, they can run behind you, or like not when you're trapping. Because there's traps all over the roads, you know. And if you're going to -- like I say, you live out of town, you have to go to town for your supplies, you have to go in, then if you have pups, they automatically run loose. And if you want to just drive dogs, you have pups, you can let them run loose, but not in town you can't do that; but living out in the country, you did. And the dogs understand what you're doing. You go out there and start working on the sled and things, and they know it's time to go, and then the other dogs see it. And if you have one dog that's sort of lazy and doesn't want to -- want to be a worker, you leave him home. If you don't want to get rid of him -- of course, he's grown now, you've got two years of food in him, and you want him to -- and he's, you know, a goof and don't want to, you leave him home two or three times and take the other dogs. And then when he gets in the harness he's going to want to go. Because the jealousy of being -- you know, he's being left behind. Okay. He wants to go, he's got to behave himself. I never keep a mean dog in the team. He's not worth it. BILL SCHNEIDER: What would you give as advice for the mushers today based on your experience? EFFIE KOKRINE: Goodness. Everybody has got their own technique. They all know more than I do. But to give advice, there's no way you can give advice unless someone asks you, you know, just what the advice is. Because I don't know, everybody is different, everybody's dogs are different, they act different, they train them different, they handle them different. Just -- I just don't know. I can't say. Uh hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: Sue, do you want to add anything else? SUE WILL: I think that you've given me a lot of good advice that I can use. Just in -- (Indiscernible.) EFFIE KOKRINE: But then, like I say, everybody has their own way, and their dogs are used to the way they are being handled and the way they're disciplined. SUE WILL: I think mush -- a lot of mushers starting out, though, you know, what -- the kinds of things you're talking about and saying in terms of the dog has to have faith in you and that sort of thing, are the types of advice that they don't really know. And you've got years of experience of handling the -- EFFIE KOKRINE: And they know your voice when you're happy and they could tell by your voice when you mean business, you know, and so they understand quite a bit. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, thanks for taking the time to come out here, and I think it's been a good interview and we've learned quite a bit. EFFIE KOKRINE: My poor brain.
Kathy Lenniger was interviewed on June 8, 2011 by William Schneider and Marla Statscewich at Kathy's home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Kathy owns
Sled Dog Adventures, where she leads guided sled dog trips into Alaska's wilderness. In this interview, Kathy talks about how she got involved with dog mushing, caring for a dog team, operating a sled dog tour business, types of clients on her trips, pros and cons of tourism, preparing clients for trips, and her love of dog mushing and Alaska's wilderness. Image Gallery
Click to section:
Coming to Alaska
Getting involved with dog mushing
Her first wilderness trip with dogs
Gettiing into dog team tourism
Living in a cabin in Nenana and traveling in the Wrangell Mountains
Fixing up the Tolovana Roadhouse to use for dog sled tours
Advertising their new dog sled tour business
The tour operation at Tolovana Roadhouse
Breaking trail for the client trips
A difficult guest
Running a dog sled tour to Lake Minchumina
Hiring other mushers to help with her current sled dog tour operation
Short tour trips near Fairbanks
Challenges clients face
The rewards of working with people
Food on the trips
Difficulties with clients
Equipment provided to clients
Insurance required for a guiding business
Tolovana Trail from Nenana to Old Minto
Status of Tolovana Lodge
Summer work with horses
Future outlook for dog sled tourism
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is June 8th, 2011. I'm Bill Schneider, and Marla Statscewich is here, too, and we have the pleasure of doing an interview today with Kathy Lenniger. And we're at her home out here in the Goldstream Valley. And so I appreciate you taking the time to do this. KATHY LENNIGER: Oh. You're most welcome. BILL SCHNEIDER: And maybe we'll start a little bit by tell me about your background, where you grew up, and who your folks were, and so on. KATHY LENNIGER: Okay. I was born in New York City, and I lived there until I was probably about 8. And the one thing I remember is that I was attracted to -- to, in the summertime, pieces of grass, and you didn't see much of it. And I remember everything was gray, and then there'd be little blocks of grass and maybe a tree, and I just always had to sit there or be a part of that grass. My parents moved to Connecticut and I -- and I loved it. I grew up in a very beautiful place in the hills of Connecticut. I wasn't allowed to have animals because my father's father had raised Cocker Spaniels, and he had to take care of them when he was a kid, and so I was -- he didn't want any dogs in the house. So I finally got one when I was about 12. But I always wanted a horse. I wanted -- I always wanted to be surrounded by lots of animals, and it was not going to happen in suburban Connecticut. So I eventually moved out after going to college in New Jersey. I had majored in psychology, and I had the opportunity to work in a state mental institution for a few months, and that's when I realized I had majored in the wrong subject. So I ended up -- I worked for a year there, and then I had an opportunity to come out West. And I -- actually, I hitchhiked across Canada and spent three months going across into all the national parks, camping out. I had never done that before. So I -- I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And then when I came to the Rocky Mountains, I was in such awe, and I knew I could never go back to the East Coast, ever, and I haven't. So I ended up living in Seattle for a few years and waitressing. I couldn't think of any other way to make a living. And one day somebody came into the restaurant with a backpack and they sat in my section. So I asked where they were from, and they said, "Well, Alaska." And I said, "Well, I've always wanted to go there." But the Alaska in my mind was a place where people wore red flannel shirts and lived in cabins and everybody was healthy because they were splitting wood all day, and they were, you know, singing with the wolves in the evening. I was -- it was very unrealistic. Well, to make a long story short, he ended up offering me his cabin in a place called Nenana for a year. He was going to the East Coast to see his father. And he said, "I'll rent you a little cabin in a place called Nenana" -- this was in 1975 -- "for a year." And he said, "The rent is $35 a month, and there is wood heat, no running water." I mean, I didn't know anything about that kind of a life. So I just thought, now, that's different. That's going to teach me something. But I didn't think I'd last that long because I really didn't like cold weather. So I came up here in March of 1975 and I ended up going to this cabin and I ended up absolutely loving it. For the first time in my life I didn't wonder what life was all about. I knew I had to walk into the woods, cut down trees, drag them home, saw -- you know, saw them up, split them, haul water. I mean, my days were so full. And I lived with a Athabascan family across the way, and I -- they took me in. I learned how to, you know, tan hides. I learned how to -- I learned how to do everything. You know, I didn't -- I had no idea people lived like this. So I absolutely loved it. And it was then that next winter I saw -- I was in my cabin and I saw a dog team go by. I had never seen anything like that. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. And so it went by my cabin, and pretty soon somebody asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. And I said, "You bet." So I went for a ride, and then they let me stand on the runners. It was a gal named Barbara Carson, and she -- we had an eight dog team. And when I stood on the runners and she sat in the basket, like, my whole life changed. And I thought, this is so exciting. And then pretty soon one of the teachers in town who had a lot of dogs and didn't have time to run them he -- he said, "Hey, would you like to run my dogs?" And I said, "Well, sure, but I really don't know anything." He said, "That's okay, you'll figure it out." So I had a lot of trial and error, and a lot of error, but I absolutely loved it. It was fascinating to me. So anyway, that sort of began everything. And by 1980, I had gotten involved with somebody who had sled dogs, and we headed off into the Wrangell Mountains, and that's where I really learned how to be a dog driver. You know, it was wild, it was crazy, it was -- we didn't -- I remember we didn't have a normal sled, we had to use a snow machine sled, a metal one, and so there was no brake. And this was before anybody had thought of using snow machine tracks, so all I had were my feet. And, you know, up and down mountains. I remember going through creeks with these dogs chasing herds of caribou, you know, and I had no way to stop. And anyway, it was very exciting. You know, I loved it. Absolutely loved it. So myself and this person parted company, and he took the males and I took the females. And so, you know, through that, I had to -- I learned how to fish because that's how I fed them. So then I had to buy a boat and motor, and that's sitting out in my yard right now, my original boat. And so I bought nets and went out into the river, and I -- they taught me how to fish. So -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Was this back in Nenana? KATHY LENNIGER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I spent 26 years there. I mean, I loved it. I just -- I -- I had a life. So I drove dogs since 1980, all winter, every winter. And then when I met Doug Bowers, he wanted to renovate the -- which we didn't know it was the Tolovana Roadhouse at the time, he wanted to work to start a sled dog tour business. And in 1982 I had gone to Jackson, Wyoming, with my friend to set up a sled dog tour business, and I didn't think I'd like it because I didn't want to be around a lot of people and I just couldn't imagine anything worse than that. But I -- I went along, and I loved it. I met so many neat, wonderful people. And one day somebody said to me, "You are so lucky to get paid to do what you love." And, like, that had really been an unusual thing. I had a painting business, I had -- you know, I did a lot of different things for money, but I drove dogs for fun. So all of a sudden I thought, wow, you know, I think, boy, I'd like to be a guide. And so it was three years later I met Doug. And this sled dog tour business was a -- it was being started by one of the Weyerhaeuser heirs, so there was a lot of money involved. We outfitted the clients, we drove -- I drove a ten dog team with a big basket sled and we took people up -- you know, in -- Jackson, Wyoming, it's a beautiful place. We took them up into the mountains. And we had one guide come along and he had nothing -- he carried the lunch, and he would whip out a linen tablecloth, roast beef, salad, champagne, you know, that's -- that's how we fed them. It was very cool. anyway, I really loved it. And so I didn't know how to do it on my -- I couldn't figure out how to start it on my own. And when I met Doug, it was perfect, because that's what he wanted to do but he had no experience. And I said, "Well, I've got experience," so that's how we started the whole thing with Tolovana. In a nutshell. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. That's good. Maybe a couple details we'll back up on. Whose cabin was that in Nenana where you stayed? KATHY LENNIGER: Whose cabin? BILL SCHNEIDER: When you first went to Nenana, yeah. KATHY LENNIGER: You want his name? BILL SCHNEIDER: If -- if that's okay. KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah. His name is Matt. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. KATHY LENNIGER: And he still lives there. And it's -- and, you know, he came back and he lives there. He still lives in that same cabin. And it's funny because I -- I very rarely see him, but if I do, I say hello, but I thought, he changed my life. You know how that is, you know, people change the whole course of your life. And it wasn't about them, it was them putting you on another course. So I'm forever grateful that he came into the restaurant that day after getting off the ferry and was heading off to New Hampshire and he sat in my section. Whoever would have thought. BILL SCHNEIDER: That's amazing. And there was an Athabascan family that lived next door? KATHY LENNIGER: Yes. Uh hum. Uh hum. Yeah. Yep. There was a gal who was married to -- well, he became the mayor at one time, and then her mom who has now passed on, she was one of the elders, Ma Diner -- Dinah,and she lived right across the street in a little cabin with one of her kids and several of her grandkids in a little one room cabin. So -- BILL SCHNEIDER: And where in the Wrangells did you go? KATHY LENNIGER: Ptarmigan Lake. BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh huh. Wow, that's great.
KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So we've got you to this discovery of this Tolovana Roadhouse. KATHY LENNIGER: Right. Doug was the one -- I had -- actually, I went -- in 1976, I canoed from Nenana to Manley with somebody I met, and we stopped there. And, you know, I don't -- I'll never forget stopping there because it was such a huge place, and we camped right there. And I walked all around and I thought, what is the story of this place? Three, four years -- three years later, I had a friend visit me. And we canoed down the river and we stopped there. Same scenario, you know, we were going to Manley. And she said, "You know, this would make a really cool lodge." You know, I'll never forget that. And I remember thinking, yeah, I guess it would. Well, whoever would have thought that 5 years later I would be involved, that would be the course of my life for the next 12 years was renovating Tolovana. So... BILL SCHNEIDER: And that was a big job. KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah. Yeah. It was very big because then Doug and I, we had children at the time, and then that -- so I -- I couldn't really help with the physical part of it. You know, I would -- I would decorate and things like that, but Doug had to do all the heavy work because I had a baby. And then I had another one six years later. So, you know, he was gone a lot working on it. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. And did you have clients at that point? KATHY LENNIGER: We started in 1985 with dog mushing clients. We did. He had -- there was a roof over part -- well, he had -- the first thing he did was put a roof on it, so it was structurally okay to take guests. So we -- that's when we started. And at that time, you know, I don't think -- was there an Internet at that time? I don't think so. So we did -- we had ads in, I remember, Outside Magazine. You know, it was very expensive, so we could only afford to have an ad here and there, but we got some guests. Then they told their friends, and then pretty soon -- we got our most business from an article, I have it in my books over there, Alaska Airlines Magazine, we'd taken out a travel writer, and we had a big write up in September, and we were totally booked by the end of September. So that was well worth while taking out. His name was Mike Steer. And it was -- I have the years over there, but he wrote a big article about Tolovana. And then we also were in the News Miner. There was a writer from New York City, I forget her name, but she went out on a trip. And -- and then we've had a German writer, too, he wrote about us, so you know, through the years. BILL SCHNEIDER: Who was your first guest? KATHY LENNIGER: It was this couple, I can't remember their names, but they were -- they were great. And I made parkas, you know, we bought sleeping bags, we -- you know, we did -- you know, I mean, I made bread, I did every -- all the food had to be just perfect, you know, so nothing -- I made everything. So -- but they were a wonderful couple, and I think they were from Iowa. BILL SCHNEIDER: Explain to us how all that worked. You were out there at Tolovana Roadhouse without, really, communication, right? KATHY LENNIGER: Well, you know, we have the house in Nenana. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, so you were --
KATHY LENNIGER: So -- right on the trail system. So everything revolved around the house in Nenana, my cabin, when I -- before I met Doug. And then Tolovana was 55 miles down the trail. And so, no, we didn't have communication because that was before cell phones. We did decide to have homing pigeons, and that was -- because then Doug could take homing pigeons out there because they were -- they -- they home back to where they're born. So they were born in Nenana. So he could take a homing -- homing pigeons, and he had to take at least two because a hawk could pick them off. In fact, the hawks ended up picking off all but one through the years, so -- but -- and we tried that for communication; but other than that, you know, you didn't have any communication. BILL SCHNEIDER: But how did it work if someone would write to you and say they wanted to come? KATHY LENNIGER: Oh, because we -- letters and the telephone because everything centered around Nenana. BILL SCHNEIDER: And they would arrive in Nenana? KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah. They'd arrive in Fairbanks, we'd go pick them up. I'd pick them up. We'd do a training run, and then off they would go. And by then I had a baby. By 1986 my son was born, so I was not going anywhere. I did day rides in Nenana, and then Doug would take people off on five day trips to -- two days to get to the roadhouse, two days there, and then one day coming back. BILL SCHNEIDER: Wow. KATHY LENNIGER: 55 miles. BILL SCHNEIDER: And so where would they camp? Halfway? KATHY LENNIGER: We put a camp in right around Old Minto. A wall tent camp with a wood stove. BILL SCHNEIDER: And then he would have all the food out there that you had prepared? KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah, I would. He would take it all out with him. BILL SCHNEIDER: And how many dogs would these clients run? KATHY LENNIGER: They ran anywhere from five to six. Sometimes if we had a very small, small person, they might take out four. But our sleds were loaded. You know, we didn't use snow machine support, it was a regular expedition, so they had to have a loaded sled. So they needed at least four dogs, but normally six dogs. Yeah. And occasionally eight. If it was longer trips, then it would be an eight dog team. BILL SCHNEIDER: What about breaking trail? KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah, Doug did -- Doug did a lot of work breaking trail. Remember in '90 and '91 when we had, like, 16 feet of snow? That was hard. And I know, you know, it was so deep that the snow machine would get stuck. You know, I'd feel bad for him. I mean, it was hard, hard work. Really hard work. BILL SCHNEIDER: Wow. KATHY LENNIGER: And 55 miles is a long way. And then if the wind blew, you know, through those open areas, if the wind blew, then you had two or three feet of snow, then you easily could have -- you know, but we had good leaders. And those leaders, you know, they knew, getting to Tolovana, they were -- they had a place to sleep and they were fed, and then coming back home, they'd go through anything, you know. They'd break trail. I've -- I've had some incredible leaders through the years that have broken trail where I couldn't see it at all. I didn't know where it was, but they knew exactly where it was because they -- you know, they wanted to get home. BILL SCHNEIDER: And you mentioned that they would come back in the 55 miles in a day? KATHY LENNIGER: Yep. You know, the dogs can do that in about -- you know, on a good day they can do that in four to five hours, easy. You know, they're -- they're -- you know, they move. And we'd stop around Old Minto, you know, with them. So -- and as the kids got older, as Lucas got older, then I -- I could go on some of the trips, too, when he got to be, like, five years old and then when he was six. And then Maya was born and then I was back at home. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, what happened after that? You stayed in the touring business -- KATHY LENNIGER: I did. BILL SCHNEIDER: -- after Tolovana. KATHY LENNIGER: Doug got -- you know, it was, I think, a little bit overwhelming to him. And all of our -- most of our guests have been absolutely wonderful, except he had one woman who, unbeknownst to us, thought that she was going to be losing weight on this trip, so she didn't want to eat, and the temperature dropped to 45 below. And she didn't want to eat. And they were -- they were going on a two week trip to Tanana and back. And it was more than -- he tried to talk her out of it, but she was persistent and she insisted that's what she wanted to do. She was in her mid fifties. And he told me that the first night on the trail, you know, they were camping before they got to Tolovana, and you know, 45 below is cold. And she pulled out a bag of makeup, like nail polish and lipstick and stuff, and she was rather upset that it was frozen. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, jeez. KATHY LENNIGER: And he was a little surprised that she had it on this trip. So that -- yeah, after that, he just said, "I just can't do this anymore." But that was only one out of many, many, many great people, but I think it was all the trail, putting in all that trail. That is a lot of work. A lot of work. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, absolutely. KATHY LENNIGER: Especially between Old Minto and Tolovana. You know, there -- he was the only one putting it in; nobody else was putting it in. BILL SCHNEIDER: And as you say, lots of open spots. KATHY LENNIGER: Yes. Yeah, yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: So you continued, though, with -- KATHY LENNIGER: Uh hum. Uh hum. BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about that. KATHY LENNIGER: Well, in 1997, my daughter was five, and we had guests coming from Holland, and they wanted to go out to Lake Minchumina. And we had never been out there by dogs, and so by then, I had been home for a long time, for, like, 12 years. I did day rides at the house, but I hadn't done any overnight trips, and so I said I wanted to do this trip to Lake Minchumina. I don't know what I was thinking because I took three men, 24 dogs, and no guide, nobody to help me. And I lost 15 pounds in five days from working. I mean, I couldn't even eat. I worked -- this is -- I worked so hard that I wasn't hungry. And so I really got an idea of when -- you know, when dogs really work hard, sometimes they won't eat. I totally understand that now. And it was fine. You know, it's not like I was going to fade away or anything, but I really worked hard. And then we had hired somebody to put a trail in, because there was no trail. Only in parts of it. And he had put the trail in two days before, but I had to make sure I found that trail. If it snowed or the wind blew, the dogs didn't know the trail. I might not find the trail, and of course, I couldn't let them know that. But -- so it was a -- it was huge, you know, that -- but it turned out, everything went okay. And I know somebody said, "Well, you know, just look for Denali." You know, I go, "Well, if it's overcast and snowing, I'm not going to know where Denali is." And this is before GPS's or anything like that. So anyway, I made it and we had a great time, and that's when I thought, well, I want to continue doing this. So Doug and I parted company that year, and I kept the dogs because, you know, they're -- they're my canine family. We raised all of them. So -- and that's what I did. I just continued doing it. And I hired other people to help me, and I still do today. I -- I only have 18 dogs now, 18 sled dogs, that's plenty. So I have a lot of friends that are awesome dog mushers, and I hire them to help me and I pay them well. So it works out well for both of us. BILL SCHNEIDER: How does that -- how does that work? Yeah. Give us an example of how that might work. KATHY LENNIGER: You mean on a trip?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. KATHY LENNIGER: I have one gal that's been working for me for 10 years, her name is Dee Dee, and she fishes in the summer out of Valdez. So she comes up here in sometimes December with all of her dogs, she has about 18 dogs, and you know, whenever I get rides, she comes along and helps me. We do multi day trips together. We just went into the Wrangells this early April for, like, the first time we went into -- off the Nabesna Road to a place called Copper Lake. We started out from the Sportsman's Paradise Lodge. Unbelievably beautiful country. And we had two guys, one from South Africa and one from Australia, they had grown up together. And we had the best time. It was so beautiful. And we got out to Copper Lake and we had a cabin there, which was very exciting. And we did a day trip that following day, and then we came back in on the third day. So it was so much fun. And, you know, I totally trust Dee Dee, she's very competent. And I pay her very well because she trains her dogs, she feeds them, she provides, you know, equipment if I -- if I need it, you know. And so it's a great working relationship. And I have other people that I work with, as well. Sometimes I'll get a group of six or eight, and I have a three hour tour that I really love doing, and I go out to the Flats, and so I need other people to help me. I'll take two people, but I like to drive 10 to 12 dogs and take a second sled behind me, and then we just go way out there. BILL SCHNEIDER: Where do you go out on the Flats? KATHY LENNIGER: I don't know the name of it. I just go off of Chena Pump Campground, across the river, and there's a trail. BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh. KATHY LENNIGER: And you just go way out there. There's one big lake that I go to, and we do about 25, almost 30 miles on those three hour tours. You know, we can cover a lot of -- a lot of country. And, you know, there's always wolf tracks, you know, moose tracks, sometimes lynx. You know, it's so close to Fairbanks but it's wild. You know, I love it. In fact, last winter there was an unfortunate moose accident that must have happened maybe in November. A moose went through the ice. And, you know, the lake is -- it's shallow in -- in a lot of parts of it. He couldn't get out. And so he died in that lake, and just the top of his head was visible. And, you know, the predators would come and had eaten away parts of him, but there was just this head. So it was kind of right in the trail, and we would drive the dog team over it, and it's not things that people see every day. BILL SCHNEIDER: How about other trails you take? KATHY LENNIGER: I go into the White Mountains a lot. I go to my old trails outside of Nenana, the Old Mail Trail. But my favorite is off of Chena Pump Campground, I do a lot of rides off of that because I love being out on that river. And there's a lot of diversity there and you can go to so many different places. So I do half hour rides, one hour rides there, and then a mushing school, and then two and three hour rides, as well. And more. You know, I'm willing to do different things if people want. BILL SCHNEIDER: Let's stop for a second. (Recording paused.) BILL SCHNEIDER: So tell us about some of the -- your favorite clients. KATHY LENNIGER: Gosh, you know, there've been so many through the years. One of the early clients that I remember, who I really liked, was a fellow from England, and he used to shoe the Queen's horses. And at that time, I had a horse that had a foot problem, and he showed me exactly how to -- how to fix it, and he was great. He came back for two trips. And just -- just lots of fun. You know, tourism is wonderful because people are on vacation and they're in a good mood. And so, you know, you just want to keep all that going, you know. And with dog mushing and when they come for multi day trips, you know, it's challenging for a lot of people. They -- it's not like going off somewhere horseback riding where even if you've never done it, you have an idea of what it's all about. People have no idea what this is about, for the most part. I think a lot of people think -- they're surprised the dogs are so small. They think the dogs are going to be gigantic, like a hundred pounds, and just waddle down the trail. And they're shocked to see how fast they are and how powerful they are. So that's always an eye opener for a lot of people. And having to have quick reflexes, too. You know, because they can -- you know, they won't stop and wait for you. You know, they'll run off if they can, just because they -- they want to run, they're trained to run. You know, we don't really train them -- they can't back up, that's for sure. So the people are -- people who are athletic have an easier time, because they have a body language, and so riding the sled is a lot, lot easier for them. And people that have maybe sat in an office most of their life and not really done anything physical, it's harder for them, for sure. But in all the years I've done this, I have -- I've had -- everybody says it's like the best thing that they've ever done in their life, which really makes me want to cry that I've been able to provide that for people. It's really beautiful. I love sharing what these dogs can do, and then up -- you know, up in Alaska, how beautiful the country is. But they have a -- a new respect for what it takes to drive a team of dogs. It's one thing if you're on a straightaway, but then when you start making corners, you're going up and down hills, and then it's totally different. So, you know, there's -- I remember one gal who came and did a five day trip from Lake Minchumina. And in fact, she had a very hard time physically, and she actually had to ride in the basket with my guide. And I hooked up her team to my sled and drove 11 dogs back from -- on a five day trip to Nenana from Lake Minchumina. And I thought she'd be upset, and that, you know, she was going to have, you know, a really bad time. And anyway, when she got back to where she was from, she wrote to me and said that it had changed her life. And that in her little hometown she was considered like a hero for going on a five day trip across Alaska. And she wanted to come back and try it again, but this time she was determined to stay on the runners. And she did. She came back a few years later, we went into the White Mountains for three days, we made a camp, and she drove a five dog team up and down those hills, and I was really proud of her. So that, you know, makes me feel great that she was able to -- to -- to see life differently, or to see herself differently by coming up here and doing that. So... BILL SCHNEIDER: So it was kind of that sense of achievement KATHY LENNIGER: Right. BILL SCHNEIDER: -- that she felt. KATHY LENNIGER: Trying something brand new. You know. And I've been doing this for so long. I remember going sea kayaking with my daughter a couple years ago, and I was a little nervous. I thought, I've never been sea kayaking, what if this happens and that happens, and actually, I did just fine; but I could appreciate doing something totally different and, you know, wondering how you're going to do. BILL SCHNEIDER: Any other memorable positive experiences? KATHY LENNIGER: Lots of -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Those are great ones you mentioned. KATHY LENNIGER: They are. You know, I have people that, you know, we're lifelong friends, so we e-mail each other, we're on Facebook together, people that have been back several times. I had one guy from California, he did three trips with me, we just had -- we had a blast. You know, and they were -- by the third time they know what they're doing, and so I can take them different places and, you know, we just have an enjoyable time. You know, like my job is to make sure people have a good time, so you know, I can do that. BILL SCHNEIDER: What do you feed them? KATHY LENNIGER: The dogs? On a trip? BILL SCHNEIDER: No, the people. KATHY LENNIGER: Oh, the people. I -- I spend a lot of time making really good food because that's -- you know, when you're outside. I will accommodate any diet, vegan, vegetarian, I serve a lot of seafood. I'll make Thai food, I -- you know, whatever. I like to vary it so my guide doesn't get bored with my cooking, but, you know, we have really good food. BILL SCHNEIDER: And you do all the cooking? KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us a little bit about the worst client. We heard about Doug's worst client. KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah, Doug's worst client. You know -- you know, the only time I -- I can think of somebody, and I really loved her, she was great, but we were -- we were out in -- we were heading to Chena -- Tolovana Hot Springs, and we went off the -- up from the Murphy Dome, and it was deep snow. And I remember we made camp and we had just gotten into our sleeping bags, and she said to me -- I was so tired, you know, and she said to me, "I just had a case of diarrhea." And all I could think of, was -- I didn't know what to do. You know, it's like, "Well, you know, there's some paper towels over there." I mean, I didn't know what to do, so she had to deal with that. BILL SCHNEIDER: And when you got her cleaned up and -- KATHY LENNIGER: Well, she did it. Yeah. Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: But if it was cold, that could be a problem -- KATHY LENNIGER: It was.
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- sleeping in a sleeping bag. KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah, I know. She -- it was okay. She managed with a bunch of paper towels, but that was -- and then I had a family out. They were great, but their 18 year old son did not -- when you do multi day trips, and a lot of people have never used the Great Outdoors as a bathroom, you know, there's no Porta Potties out there. And so that's surprising to some people, they have a hard time with that, but you know, I -- I don't know what to say except that you just have to learn how to do it. BILL SCHNEIDER: How do you prepare people for trips? Like someone writes to you and says, I want to do this trip, how much preparation do you give them for what they'll be facing? KATHY LENNIGER: Quite a bit. I send them a book on dog mushing. I send them written instructions on how to drive dogs. I, you know, prepare them as to what they might see. You know, because I do -- I also work with kids, I do a lot of substitute teaching, I'm familiar with different learning styles, you know, auditory, kinesthetic, visual. So I try to prepare people in every aspect, and then when they come here, they have a two hour mushing school, and that's when we go over everything. Physically, they come out with me and they're sitting in the basket; and then coming back, I sit in the basket and they're driving the dogs, and that way they are attached to -- you know, we're attached and I can explain to them, you know, like you want to brake here, or move your weight over to the side here, or brake when you go down a hill. Things like that. Because I'm real particular about the dogs, too. I don't want anybody hurting them, I don't want their shoulders being jerked on, or anything like that, so it's important that everybody knows, you know, how to do it for their sake and for the dogs's sake. BILL SCHNEIDER: And what about preparing them for, say, a camping trip? Do you tell them what they maybe need in the way of -- KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah, they get a gear list, and I go over everything before we go out, and make sure they have everything, and then I have everything myself. I like people to participate in the trips. You know, we have to go out, we have to saw wood for a campfire, make a -- you know, we have to make beds for the dogs. You know, depending on where we're going, if there's a lot of snow, we've got to be -- you know, we have to tromp around in the snow and flatten things out. I bring snowshoes. Occasionally people might want to go snowshoeing, you know, after dinner or something like that. So... BILL SCHNEIDER: What do you generally find in terms of their participation in those activities? KATHY LENNIGER: Oh, most people are pretty happy to do it. BILL SCHNEIDER: Really? KATHY LENNIGER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, they -- most people come up here to do something that is total -- is totally different, they've never done before, so they want to be a part of everything. You know, and they usually, they love dogs; otherwise, they'd be going on snow machine trips. So they want to know -- they want -- you know, they have their own team, they want -- they want to feed their dogs, they -- you know, they hook them up. I -- I take photos of them on the way -- all along the way, and then I make a certificate of them. A certificate of accomplishment that they get. And I write down their dogs's names so they can remember their dogs because, you know, they're -- they're pretty amazing, these animals, so that's why we're out there. BILL SCHNEIDER: Just a little bit about the kennel here. What does it take to run your kennel and to do a tour business? KATHY LENNIGER: Well, I have a lot of stuff. I have a lot of sleds. I don't know how many I have, maybe six. I have a lot of gear. I have probably 60 harnesses, I have ice hooks and every kind of camping thing, stakeout chains, you know, dog dishes. I make coats for them in case it's cold out on the trail, so they can sleep in coats. I just have a lot of -- I have a lot of stuff that I've been collecting through the years. I provide all out -- arctic outerwear for my guests, so I made the parkas years ago. So I made all those. And I -- I make neck gators. I have fur hats that I make, beaver mitts. I don't -- I buy the boots. BILL SCHNEIDER: Wow. KATHY LENNIGER: So, you know, and in the summertime, I'll go around to garage sales, see people that are leaving, and I can pick up sometimes a -- You know, because I have to have a wide variety. You know, there's some big people out there and -- and some small ones. I -- and there's some big feet, too. I mean, I had one guy that had size 15 feet, but fortunately, he brought his own boots because I -- you know, I don't have anything that big. BILL SCHNEIDER: What about insurance? KATHY LENNIGER: I have insurance. In the beginning, when we started at Tolovana, we couldn't find insurance. There were very few people doing that. So we ran without insurance, we just had people sign a waiver. And then for some reason, insurance became affordable, so we could cover the whole lodge with us -- we -- boat activities in the summer for a very reasonable price. I think in the beginning we were told that only Lloyds of London would insure us for, like, $5,000, this was back in the mid '80s, and you know, we decided that -- I felt comfortable enough doing what I did, I didn't think I was -- anybody was going to be injured. Although it's funny, the insurance companies, the only thing they're worried about are people freezing to death and dog bites. You know, I've never had a dog bite. They are -- you know, they're not -- there's no reason for them to ever get a dog bite, the dogs don't bite. And nobody's going to freeze to death. You know, I mean, I'd certainly -- it's not like we're out there at a hundred below. I mean, I'm prepared for 60 below, but those are the -- we've even -- we even offered to take insurance agents out on a trip so they could see that what we do is really just fine, and they didn't want to do it. BILL SCHNEIDER: That's curious. KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah. So now I'm just -- we're all thrown into the guide business, so... I have insurance, yeah. Except for people freezing to death. They omit that. BILL SCHNEIDER: But you're able to take care of that one. KATHY LENNIGER: Yeah, I'm -- I'm pretty comfortable they won't freeze to death. I'm not going to leave them anywhere. BILL SCHNEIDER: That's great. Marla, do you have any questions? MARLA STATSCEWICH: I have a question about the Tolovana. When you were going from Nenana to Tolovana, on that trail, was that a trail that you guys -- was that an established trail at some point in time? KATHY LENNIGER: Right. It was the Old Mail Trail that went from Nenana to Old Minto. And then it had continued on, but the trail to Tolovana had -- was not well used. In fact, a lot of it had been overgrown, because people just had not gone out there because nobody was out there. MARLA STATSCEWICH: Right. KATHY LENNIGER: So Doug did a lot of brush cutting and, you know, got the trail in pretty good working order. But it followed the old telegraph line. So we did see -- you know, there were places where you could still see old telegraph line and those little glass insulators. In fact, I remember one time he found a dead bull moose that had gotten caught in the telegraph line. Whenever I could, I -- on the trail, I would, you know, cut it and get it out of the way. It's a hazard. MARLA STATSCEWICH: And then what happened to the Tolovana Lodge? KATHY LENNIGER: Well, Doug sold it. A couple of years ago there was an ice jam, and he had been living out there with his wife Becky. And it was in the springtime, and he wasn't there, he was working in Nenana, and the ice came up, like, four feet, and it -- they just lost so much of what they -- like their garden. The lodge is still there, but they had -- they just couldn't go back, so they sold it. MARLA STATSCEWICH: Okay. KATHY LENNIGER: So. Yeah. And so now it's being -- it's being used, it'll be used for dog sled trips and snow machines, as well. MARLA STATSCEWICH: And then what do you do now in the summer? KATHY LENNIGER: I work with horses. I do horseback trips, I do trail rides, and occasional pack trips. I work for the Heavy Horse Farm. MARLA STATSCEWICH: What's that? KATHY LENNIGER: Pardon?
MARLA STATSCEWICH: What's that? KATHY LENNIGER: It's a farm here in town. A friend of mine owns it, and I work with his horses. Yes, we have seven Draft Crosses. In fact, I have an all day ride on Friday. We're going to go up through the burn, the mountain -- the Moose Mountain burn, right through the middle of it. So it'll be -- that's my main trail for all day rides, so that'll be interesting. I haven't been up there. It'ill be a different landscape because it burned on both sides of that trail. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I wonder if there's still -- we're -- what we're talking about is a forest fire that we had here, what, a week ago? KATHY LENNIGER: It was a couple weeks ago.
BILL SCHNEIDER: A couple weeks ago, and it endangered Fairbanks. KATHY LENNIGER: And here. I was ready to evacuate. I had my dog boxes put back on my truck, ready to load the dogs. My truck hooked up to my horse trailer, and -- and all my photos in the back seat of my big truck. It was that close. It was unbelievable. It was only, like, a half mile from Mary's house. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, maybe one more question before we -- KATHY LENNIGER: Sure.
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- we look at some pictures and all. What does the future look like for tourism and the tourist business as far as dog mushing goes? KATHY LENNIGER: You know, I think it looks -- I think it looks very good. It's not something where I don't have thousands of people come, and so I just have a few people. I only -- I only go on a couple of trips every year, so I just need a few people. And I do a lot of rides, and multi hour trips where -- and I have mushing schools where people learn to drive their own dog team. It's -- you know, every year it's been a little bit different, but there's always -- there'll always be people with money and enough people to be able to do it because it is -- it's very costly for -- for me to keep these dogs. I might charge a lot, but the price of dog food goes up every year, and I actually basically break even. That's why I do a lot of other things to make money. But I love doing it, and you know, it's a good thing to do, so that's why I continue doing it. But I also think as the world becomes more urbanized, more and more people are really seeking a connection with the earth and with animals, and working with animals that they just don't get anymore. And I think that -- so I have people from around the world that say this has been a lifelong dream, and they -- they wanted to do it. You know, the bucket list. I have a lot of people that say this is on their bucket list. And so, you know, that's the way I feel about riding elephants in Africa, that's what I want -- that's what I'd like to do some day. So, yeah, you know, I -- I keep things very small, and so my expenses are down, and so I -- every year there seems to be -- there's plenty of guests to support me and the dog mushers I hire, and you know, the few other people that do this, as well. BILL SCHNEIDER: Thanks. That's a -- that's a great spot to stop.