Mary Shields was interviewed on May 9, 2011 by William Schneider and Marla Statscewich at Mary's home in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Mary talks about learning to drive a dog team, doing back country travel by dog team, training dogs, running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, camping with dogs, mushing in Siberia, and her tourism business. For more about Mary Shields and her dog team adventures, see Sled Dog Trails by Mary Shields (Fairbanks, AK: Pyrola Publishing Company, 1984).
Digital Asset Information
Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska
Date of Interview: May 9, 2011
Narrator(s): Mary Shields
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Marla Statscewich
Videographer: Marla Statscewich
Transcriber: Carol McCue
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Personal background and coming to Alaska
Living in the Alaska wilderness and first using dogs
Coming to live in Fairbanks
Starting to run a dog team
First traveling and camping with dogs
Running the 1974 Iditarod Sled Dog Race
Driving the dogs back down the trail from Nome
Flying dogs back to Fairbanks
Camping trips around Alaska with dog teams
Running the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race
Establishing a remote cabin
Mushing to Yakutsk in Siberia
Returning to Alaska from Siberia
Getting started in dog team tourism with the Riverboat Discovery tour
Starting her own dog team tourism business
Inspiring other people
Describing the tour she gives to people of her dogs and dog yard
Describing the tour she gave for Riverboat Discovery
The role of dog mushing in connecting with the wilderness
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
BILL SCHNEIDER: All right. Today is May 9th, 2011, and my name is Bill Schneider, Marla Statscewich is here, too, and we have the pleasure of talking with Mary Shields today, so this is a real pleasure to be able to spend more time with you.
MARY SHIELDS: It's nice to have you here.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So thanks for -- thanks for taking the time. Let's start by having you talk a little bit about your personal background and where you were brought up, and then we'll get you up to Alaska.
MARY SHIELDS: Okay. I grew up outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it was a typical Midwestern background, loved it there. Went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, loved it there.
Was a sailor back there because the campus is right on Lake Mendota and I loved sailing. And I saw my first dog team go across the lake in the wintertime, and it was Ray Banes there on sabbatical.
I didn't think anything of it, it was neat, it was a dog team, but I didn't think it had any connection with me. And then between my sophomore and junior year I got a job in Alaska working for the Campfire Girls out of Anchorage teaching swimming lessons out in the villages.
We had day camps all over the place. Came up, fell in love with the place, went back, finished college, graduated, came back, and then I stayed for good. BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh hum.
MARY SHIELDS: And hope to spend the rest of my life here, for good.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh hum. When you were growing up did your parents live an outdoor life?
MARY SHIELDS: No. We lived a Suburban life. My father was a principal, my mother was a teacher, and we had -- my uncles had a farm up in Middle -- Central Wisconsin and we'd go there in the summer. And I loved walking.
They had work horses there instead of a tractor, and I got to walk with big work horses down to the watering trough. And my mother was scared to death I was going to get stomped on, but I just loved it.
And then when they blew bubbles in the water tank, I'd jump up and get scared, but I just loved the horses. Afraid of the cows, afraid of the chickens. They had cats on the farm but no dogs.
And we had a dog for a house pet for about two weeks, and there was just too much traffic around our house and we had to give him away -- give him away, so I'm making up for lost time now, nine dogs.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So when you -- when you came up to Alaska, where did you -- where were you first living?
MARY SHIELDS: We based out of Anchorage and we just went from village to village and did day camps for a week here, two weeks there, a week here, and then we ended up in Fairbanks.
So when the rest of the camp staff left at the end of the summer, I was here, so this is where I, just by luck, started living.
And I went to the University of Alaska here for a couple more years, just taking -- this was the mid 60s, and I was taking ecology and education classes.
And finally it dawned on me, I'd spent my whole life in college, and I didn't come to Alaska to spend the rest of my life in college, and I wanted to go live out in the wilderness and build a log cabin.
And the conductor on the railroad -- the Parks Highway had not been built at the time, so you'd take the railroad to get down to Denali Park.
And the conductor had heard this plan to build a cabin, and he told me about a little abandoned cabin halfway between Fairbanks and Anchorage, he said, no one had lived in that cabin for years, I could move in if I wanted to.
That was all it took. I packed up some groceries, hopped on the train, and sure enough, halfway to Anchorage, the train rolled to a stop, the conductor pointed down the trail, and there at the end of the trail was a very rustic little cabin.
When I opened the door for the first time, porcupines scrambled to the back corner of the cabin. But I escorted them out the door and made it my home.
And then in October of that year, my friends, Mike and Sally Jones, who lived in Fairbanks, they had lived up on the Ambler River in the '60s and had had a dog team, and they came down, I think, to see if I was still alive.
And they saw me dragging in dead trees and bringing in pails of water from the creek, and they suggested a few sled dogs would be good company,
they'd help with the chores, and it just so happened they had three sled dogs back in Fairbanks.
So they went back to Fairbanks on the next northbound train; the very next southbound train, the engineer blew the whistle, the baggage car opened up, and out came three huskies, three harnesses, an old sled, a mountain of Purina Dog Chow.
And the only instructions that came with this little beginner kit was a letter taped on the sled that said something basic like, "Dear Mary: There's nothing to it, just put the dogs in front of the sled." And basically, that's all there is to it. And I've been doing it ever since.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How long did you stay there?
MARY SHIELDS: I just stayed there one winter. Then I ran out of money, and -- in January I ran out of money, and I went down to Valdez and worked as a nurse's aide for a month.
And then I came back and stayed at the little cabin until June. I went up to Denali Park for my first cross country camping trip on the month of March,
and I went as far as 23 miles out in Denali Park, which felt like I had gone to the North Pole, I was so excited, and had a wonderful time.
I just had three dogs and the sled, and by then I had a litter of puppies riding in the cardboard box on the sled, so we had quite a menagerie with us.
And spent about a week out in the park and knew I wanted to do more of that. It was just wonderful to be out in that wide open country and with a dog team that could take me somewhere. And the Park Service at that time let me use the ranger's cabin at Savage River, so I had a little base place.
And then, at the end of the -- end of spring in June, I came back to Fairbanks and worked as a waitress, I think, to make some money, and gathered up -- went to the university some more, gathered up some dogs here and there, and started my own dog team.
And I've just been gathering dogs ever since, and loving it more and more every year.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Where did you live in Fairbanks when you arrived here?
MARY SHIELDS: I lived out on a old homestead, the Lawlor's homestead west of the university. And they had a little wannagan they called it, their freezer was in it and it was attached to their garage, it was maybe 8 by 10, but it was free -- well, basically free.
I just had to baby sit on Sunday morning. They had nine kids. A new baby, so I baby sat the baby when the rest of them went to church.
And that was my rent, so that was a good deal. And just a nice family to spend my first winter with, too. They made me feel very welcome.
And later on, just a few years ago, they came by to visit, and Joe said, "How you were so green, we never thought you'd make it through the first winter." He never had said that to me back then, but that's what they thought about how green I was at doing everything.
And it was true, I didn't know how to live in the North at that time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So what happened next spring? Did you stay there?
MARY SHIELDS: The next spring I stayed in Fairbanks, I think I had a job as a teacher's aide at University Park School.
And I had the one -- one of those puppies from down on the railroad tracks, name was Cabbage, that was my first dog that I raised myself, and I brought him back.
And he'd go back and forth to the university with me. And we passed Roger Burggraf's house every day and he had a great big kennel of Malemutes out in back, and I just thought, ah, that must be a dog team.
And one day I just stopped and knocked on his door and asked if he needed any help training the dogs because he was a vice president of the bank and didn't have much time to run dogs, I figured.
And he said, "Oh, yeah, maybe so."
He pointed out one dog and he said, "Take this dog and run her down to Ballaine Lake, and then turn around and come back." And I didn't realize what a test that was.
That dog never turned around at Ballaine Lake, it always wanted to go past Ballaine Lake. But I got her to turn around and brought her back, and when he saw that I did that, he said, "Okay. You can run my dogs."
So he let me run teams of his dogs. And then got a puppy from one of his friends and got another dog. Finally I had four or five dogs of my own and just ran my own dogs.
And met a friend that liked to go camping in the spring, and we started travelling out on the Tanana Flats, and went over Thanksgiving out there when it was frozen up good enough.
And then in the spring, when you're up at the university, you look out over the Flats, and it just looks like you can get right out to the mountains easily, it looks so easy.
Clear cut -- Clear -- Clear Creek Buttes are right out there, and on the map there was a trail from there.
So in the spring we decided to try to get out to Wood River and then go over the pass to the Yanert. Sure enough, we made it. And that was the first long distance, really long trip.
And I just had a short little child sled, the basket was maybe 4 feet long, and the first day out the runners broke on it because I had a -- you know, two weeks worth of supplies piled onto it, and we had to come back and we borrowed a sled from John Verbeek,
who lived right on the Tanana River, or we repaired it or something at his house, and turned around and went back out, and got all the way that time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Who were you travelling with?
MARY SHIELDS: I was travelling with a fellow I met up at the university, John Manthei. And he just had a small team, too, but was kind of starting out mushing. We both were kind of beginners, but...
BILL SCHNEIDER: And you made it all the way over to Wood River?
MARY SHIELDS: I made it to Wood River, and then over Dean Creek and into the Yanert, too, and then came out to the highway and got a ride home from there. Yeah.
And it was exciting up above treeline, it was windy, and there was a little shelter cabin up there that sometimes blew upside down, I heard, but it was right side up when we got there.
And then lots of overflow in the canyon coming down to the Yanert,and traveled on blue ice for a long time.
And then the Yanert had lots of open waters, it was probably late -- mid -- mid March to late March by the time we got to the Yanert, so that was my first experience with the deep overflow.
But just beautiful being in the mountains and seeing new country. And you could look back at, you know, the hill where the university was, and it was fun to see Fairbanks from a different perspective.
And just kind of curious about what the country looks out -- a little bit farther out than I had ever been before, and got to see new places.
And then we just continued going on these trips. The next winter we went to Tanana to visit a friend who was a doctor in the Public Health Service in Tanana. And we decided to go for Christmas.
We were invited to come for Christmas, and we learned the hard way December is not the time to go travelling. The trails weren't in, we had to snowshoe and break trail a lot of the way.
The days were short so you were in the tent many hours; and it was dark, and cold. And then we got to Tanana, we stayed for a few weeks,and when we turned around to come back, our trail was all drifted in and we were on snowshoes again.
But then I heard about this thousand mile Iditarod race where someone else broke out the trail, and that sounded like a real good deal after doing all that snowshoeing.
So when I got back to Fairbanks, I called up the Iditarod and said, "I'd like to go on that race." And they said, "Well, who are you?" And I was a nobody.
And they said, "Well, how many dogs do you have?" And I had six dogs, but you needed eight dogs to enter the race. So I said, "Well, I can round up two more dogs."
And I bought two more dogs from Guy Blankenship, a musher in Fairbanks, and had my eight necessary dogs. And borrowed a truck and we drove down to Anchorage.
And we took off right at the Tudor track in Anchorage right downtown and made a lap around the grandstand, and then we just took off through the suburbs of Anchorage. We didn't have a restart or anything like they do now.
And somewhere we crossed a bridge or went through someone's front yard or something, and a fellow hollered out, "You better turn around now, you'll never make it to Nome."
And I knew, if for no other reason, I was going to make it to Nome, just to show that fellow, so he never knew how encouraging his comments were. And then out on the trail it was a much more relaxed pace than it is today.
We traveled pretty much on the same schedule, go for a few hours, rest for a few hours, go for a few hours, rest for a few hours, but it took me 28 days to get to Nome. So -- and now they do it in less than 9 days, so a much slower pace.
But the nice thing was when we came through a checkpoint or a village, we were welcome to go home with people and spend, you know, a couple hours in someone's house and have a meal, and they'd fill your Thermos up with coffee.
Sometimes they'd chase a child out of bed and give you a bed to take a rest on. And it was really wonderful to get to meet the people and hear their stories a little bit, too.
And they were curious to see the dogs coming through. And we were all kind of learning how to do it. None of us had ever gone a thousand miles before, so we were all learning.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What year was that?
MARY SHIELDS: That was 1974, the second year they had the race.
And when we got to McGrath, some of the dogs started having sore feet. And we didn't really know much about booties, hardly anyone had any boots for the dogs, and bless their hearts, the women in Anchorage started sewing dog boots.
And they didn't know exactly what they were making. Some of the boots were like this, like little mukluks.
And my lead dogs was Cabbage, and I had a great big plastic bag full of black and white striped feather ticking boots with little green cabbages embroidered on them came.
And we didn't have Velcro then, so they had rolls of black electrician's tape that was kind of stretchy.
So there we had dogs that had never had a boot on their foot, it was 20 below, and we were trying to tape them on, and the tape kept sticking to itself, and it was quite a comedy of errors, but we finally figured out how to put the boots on, and it helped some of the dogs that needed the help.
And when I got to Nulato, just downstream -- well, upstream from McGrath, I pulled up on the bank and I was running, like, 25 out of 49 teams that started the race, but when I came up on the bank, there was a lot of cheering going on.
And I knew nobody cheers for number 25th place, so I didn't know what was happening.
And I got my dogs tied out and I fed them and got them bedded down, and then I asked one of the checkers what the cheering was about, and that's where I learned there was a lot of gambling going on.
And the men were betting at which checkpoint the two women on the race would drop out. Lolly Medley was also on the race.
And every time we made it to another checkpoint the women were raking in the money because they were betting that we'd make it all the way to Nome.
And that was the first point that I realized other people had some investment in this team getting to Nome, too, so it kind of felt like there were women riding on my sled with me and I wasn't out there all by myself, so that was kind of nice.
And Lolly and I usually ended up in the same checkpoint about the same time, but we had different schedules. She would go a little bit slower and then rest less, and then go a little slower and rest less.
And my dogs had a slightly faster pace, and then I would rest more in the checkpoint.
So we'd pass each other and have a cup of tea out of a Thermos, and eventually get to the same place approximately the same time.
And then toward the end of the race when we got to Safety, there wasn't anyone within hours behind us, so we figured, well, let's just -- we were tired by that point, so let's just rest and look good when we go into Nome, let the dogs rest up.
And I was naive. This was the first race I'd ever been on and I didn't realize how much psychology went into it, so I went to sleep, and when I woke up hours later, lo and behold, nobody else was there.
Lolly was a little more sophisticated in racing and she was long gone. And that kind of made me mad, so I took off after her.
And it was dark, it was probably midnight or something when I left, and I didn't turn my headlight on because I didn't want her to see me, if I could ever catch up with her, I didn't know how far ahead of me she was.
And then I -- the trail was on the pack ice down below the bluff, and I lost the trail at one time and went up on the bluff and then I couldn't find the trail up there so I went back down on the ice.
And then when I got close to Nome, I could see the lights of Nome, and there was a road that must have come from Nome out to Safety, and there was -- seemed to be cars at the end of the road, and I figured I'd go up there and see how much farther it was or something, and when I got up there everyone said, "Welcome, Lolly, you've made it to Nome."
And I said, "I'm not Lolly, this is Mary." And then someone pointed out there was a headlamp way out behind me on the ice, and somewhere in the dark we had crossed paths with each other.
And we've talked about it afterwards and never figured out where that was; but I just kept going and didn't let her catch up with me, and she finished a half an hour behind me so we were pretty close in finishing the race together.
And then when we got to Nome, Nome made quite a big deal of it. They turned the fire siren on, and hundreds of people came out. This was about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning by the time we got there, and they gave us a wonderful welcome.
And I waited until Lolly came in, and then they gave us the bridal suite in the hotel, and they had bottles of champagne and baskets of fruit. And I had carried a journal with me the whole way that I was going to write, you know, entries every night.
And my first entry in the journal said, "Here I am in the bathtub in Nome," and I fell asleep in the bathtub, so that was what --
But the neat thing is when I came into Nome, there's a finish chute, and then there were women along the finish line and they were -- either it was hanging or they had a banner in their hands that they were waving back and forth.
And I couldn't read it until I got right in the finish chute, and I should have known what it was going to say, it said, "You've come a long way, baby."
And that was quite appropriate after a thousand miles, so it was just a wonderful adventure in my life. So I stayed in Nome a few days, they had a banquet.
And then everyone else was just loading up and flying home, but I called back -- to John back in Fairbanks, and he said, "The snow is melting back here." And I like winter best and I don't like spring coming any earlier than necessary.
So I went down and checked with the dogs, found they were getting a little frisky, they had recuperated, and we decided we'd mush back as far as we could get.
So we turned around and took off, and the radio station out of Nome radioed ahead that we were coming, and the checkers saved leftover dog food and gave it to me as I went, so I had plenty of supplies.
And on the way back, I could just take my time and really visit with people. In Elim they took me up to a hot springs, which was wonderful.
And I could really kind of be a little bit more polite to the hospitality I was getting, I wasn't in such a hurry.
And when I took off across from Elim over to Unalakleet, it was about middle of the afternoon, and there was a wind coming from shore, but I saw a trail going out across the pack ice over to Unalakleet.
And the trail on the race had stayed right along the shore up Shaktoolik, up to Koyuk and around, and this was my chance to actually get out on the pack ice, so I wanted to try that.
And I had this long scarf a friend had knit me, it was about -- oh, must have been 10 feet long, and it was flapping around in the wind. So I stopped my team, and I turned my back to the wind and the dogs.
And I was tying this scarf around my face, and I was talking to it, telling it to stay where I put it, and when I turned around, there was my dog team about a half a mile out ahead of me, they thought I had been talking to them.
And I called to Cabbage, I called them to come back to me, but the wind was in my face and just blowing my words over my shoulder, and he couldn't hear me.
But all of a sudden he seemed to notice I wasn't there, and he did a come haw, brought the whole team back to me, I just sat down on the ice and we had a great, big group hug.
I was very happy to see those dogs.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I guess so.
MARY SHIELDS: And that kind of was a wake up call that maybe this wasn't such a good idea, it was getting close to sunset, and I decided I'd make camp and then continue in the morning so I could see what I was doing.
And it was one of the most memorable camps I've ever had. I just slept on the sled and tied the dogs around the sled, and right at sunset a great, big orange sun just fell into the Bering Sea out to the west; at the very same time a pink full moon came up in the east.
So for about two minutes the world was just in perfect balance with these globes on either side.
As soon as the sun set, the wind died down and the stars came out and we had a peaceful night and continued in the morning, but I'll never forget that camp and those dogs that came back to get me.
That was wonderful. So -- and then since then, I've -- I only went on the Iditarod that one time, that was plenty, I liked to go to new places.
I liked to go on camping trips more than the racing, but Fairbanks started the Yukon Quest race, and of course, I had to try that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So you got back from the Iditarod, and --
MARY SHIELDS: Well, I got to McGrath, and then I flew from McGrath back to Fairbanks. I didn't get to mush all the way back. No, Galena. I got to Galena.
And it was time to get off the Yukon, the water was running on the edges and the geese were landing, and I just pulled up the bank, and turns out I pulled up onto the Air Force landing strip.
And I could see Alaska Airlines just across the landing strip, so I just made my way across, and all of a sudden over a loudspeaker said a booming voice, "Stop where you are, turn around and report to the commandant's office," or something.
And I got to the Air Force office and they chewed me out for trying to mush across the airstrip. And I asked them if they had any room on one of their airplanes to ride back to Fairbanks, but they didn't.
And then I didn't know how I was going to, you know, carry the dogs on the airplane, but Carl Huntington, who had run -- won the race that year, he lived in Galena, and he had heard all this commotion over the air lines that a dog team was there or something.
And he came over to see what was going on, and he had a big plywood box that he had shipped his dog team in, and it just had a lot of air holes in it.
And you just put the dogs in kind of like an egg crate, and then there's a plywood lid, and the dogs that rode on top. And they just put that, the dogs and sled, in front of the division between the freight and the passengers.
And when we took off from Galena all my dogs were howling in the front, and I was kind of howling along with them in the back, and it was kind of neat.
And we landed in Fairbanks and got a ride home and it was great. But I didn't really want to go back and do the Iditarod again, I wanted to see new country. And for the next 10 years, I just went on camping trips.
John and I traveled all over Alaska and went new places. We took a little wall tent and made comfortable camps over the years, learned a good system for being safe and comfortable out there, and taking good care of the dogs and ourself, and just loved it.
And then in 1984, Fairbanks started their own long distance race, and that went from Fairbanks a thousand miles over to Whitehorse. And so I thought I'd try that.
It was convenient to start right in Fairbanks, and I thought I'd try the Yukon Quest in 1984.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Before you tell us about that, mention some of the trips that you and John took in that interim.
MARY SHIELDS: Oh. Well, my favorite trip, the longest trip was six weeks long, and we started on the Denali Highway at the Cantwell end, and went down to Paxson, and then we came back up to Tangle Lakes and the headwaters of the Delta River, and then came down on all that icy Delta River down to the town of Delta,
and then we went past Delta and went up the Goodpaster River, and then we went over a pass into the Salcha River, and went upstream on the Salcha River and over a pass to big Windy Hot Springs.
We loved hot springs because you didn't have to melt snow for the dogs, you can soak in a hot tub, just a natural tub in the rocks, and it was wonderful.
And then we came back down the Salcha River, got there in the middle of April, I think. And it was the longest trip, so that was my favorite trip.
But we went -- well, we went through Denali Park a couple of times. All the way out to Lake Minchumina once, then over to Telida and Nicholai, and then back up the Yukon to Ruby.
And I had a teaching job, a substitute job for six weeks in Ruby, and John went back to Fairbanks, and then I continued up to Manley in the spring, and then got a ride home from Manley.
That was pushing my luck a little bit. Some -- two of the creeks I had to cross were wide open. And luckily, Cabbage was half Black Labrador, and he just splashed in, and I just hung on to the back of the sled and flutter kicked across, and no problem.
So it was good having some Labrador blood in the team. And oh, what other places did we go. I should have thought --
BILL SCHNEIDER: These are some of the places that are outlined in your book.
MARY SHIELDS: Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
MARY SHIELDS: "Sled Dog Trails" kind of talks about different camping trips we went on.
Went to Dawson before it was a race, we went up on the Forty Mile River to the Yukon and then up to Dawson, and then came back down the Yukon River to -- all the way to Eagle Summit, and back over the Steese Highway, and back to Fairbanks.
It was -- quite often we'd get caught in the spring with roads being plowed, roads that had a trail on them in the winter, and then you'd see the plows coming out, and the last 10 or 15 miles would be tricky because you didn't have good trails.
Where else did we go. Out on Minto Flats, that was kind of kind of convenient, over to -- oh, we went up through the White Mountains to Victoria Creek, and up over the pass to Livengood, and then back through New Minto and across Minto Flats and then back over Murphy Dome.
And found Tolovana Hot Springs, which wasn't developed at the time, it was just kind of a hidden hot springs out there, and had a wonderful time there. And -- where else did we go.
I should read "Sled Dog Trails," and then I would know where we went.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, that's quite a bit of travelling. That's great.
MARY SHIELDS: Well, every year we would probably go 800 to a thousand miles and got to see a lot of country. We just mailed dog food out through the Post Office.
We could carry about 10 days worth of supplies at a time, so we'd plan the route, and then mail dog food ahead; and then just as long as we could get from one village to the next where there was a Post Office,
just run the dogs right up to the Post Office and pick up our mail and pack up the sleds and go for another 10 days, and another 10 days, and another 10 days.
And all too soon we were home and spring was over. But it was probably my favorite thing in the world to do. March is my favorite month in the year.
It's just sunny and warm and the trails are good usually most of March, and it's not real cold at night, it still stays fairly warm. And I just can't think of anyplace else I'd rather be in March than out on the trail and seeing new country.
And you've trained those dogs all winter, it's kind of the celebration of winter to be out there. And the dogs like seeing new trails, too. They are getting kind of tired of the home trails and they are glad to be out exploring, too.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So then you decided on the Quest?
MARY SHIELDS: Yeah. In 1984, they had the race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
And it was a little different than the Iditarod in that it only had 8 checkpoints at the time, so you were carrying quite heavy loads, compared to 25 checkpoints on the Iditarod.
And I've always had large dogs, more like the freight dogs that used to carry the mail. So having heavy loads in the sled was kind of an advantage to me because my big dogs didn't have any problem carrying the load.
So I figured this was a race that I could be a little more competitive in, but I only had 8 dogs on my team, where the -- the limit was 14 dogs, so I didn't have as much power as some of the other teams.
But we always made it to the finish line, and I was real happy with how the dogs did. You know, we didn't have a real fast pace to our team, but we just kept going and going and going and always got there.
And new villages to see and some old friends, people we had met on the trip to Dawson before, we got to see them, and that was fun.
And Whitehorse and Dawson just have that wonderful Canadian old time historic feel to them, just wonderful communities. It was great to spend time there.
The Yukon Quest changes directions every other year; on the odd years, it starts in Whitehorse and comes back to Fairbanks, and when it's going from east to west, it's kind of retracing the gold mine, the gold miners trail from the Klondike into the Interior of Alaska.
So it kind of kept the history alive and it brought the two countries together. We're neighbors, and a lot of people made good friends with Canadians, and vice versa, so it had a nice, international feel to it that I liked.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And did you do that two years?
MARY SHIELDS: I did three years, actually. '84, '86, and '88.
I figured it was easiest for me to start on the Fairbanks end and go to Whitehorse than to drive all the way to Whitehorse and then come back from that direction, so I always started on this side.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. And then in the interim, had you established Schimmelpfennig?
MARY SHIELDS: Oh, in 1974 when we came back from the -- when I came back from the Iditarod John had already been working out at some open country land that we had staked west of Fairbanks, and when I got back, my dogs were in good shape, and my dogs hauled those logs in from the other side of the creek.
We had a little sled that we could put the butt end of the log up on and then the tail end of the log just dragged behind, and the dogs hauled all those logs back.
My job was to peel the bark off the logs, and it's just a small cabin, 14 by 14, so in the spring the cabin went up, and we didn't get the roof on, but just let it air out and dry out a little bit and then went back in the summer and put the roof on.
And that -- we call it Schimmelpfennig Creek. The creek didn't have any name, so John just picked a name that -- Schimmelpfennig is a word his family just used to use, it was a friend of their family, Oscar Schimmelpfennig.
And then it's just a wonderful little retreat. It's only about 28 miles due west of Fairbanks as the raven flies, but on the trail you can get to within -- back then you could get to within about 12 miles of it.
And we mushed everything in for the cabin with the dogs.
And every year we'd build another building, a sauna and a storage shed and a cache and a workshop and a -- all the doghouses were little log doghouses.
And every spring we'd just add another building to it, and it looks like a little compound now when you go to it.
It's just kind of a little village out in the middle of the forest, but -- it's not that far away, but you can get to it easily and it feels like you're away from town when you're there. So in the winter I try to get out there every week, if I can, and just spend at least a overnight or as much time as I can there.
Just kind of my salvation to get out there and get away from town, and I love being out there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And you've continued to maintain that place and -- MARY SHIELDS: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- it's been a good opportunity to share with other people, too.
MARY SHIELDS: Yeah. It's had many, many visitors. People can ski out or mush out, and it's wonderful to have people, friends come out and share it with me. And yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, a couple other things we should touch on. On the racing, there was -- there was some additional races you did. The Russian -- the Russian Far East?
MARY SHIELDS: Well, I went on a shorter race, a 300 mile up in the Brooks Range, the Coldfoot Race.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, you did that.
MARY SHIELDS: That started in Coldfoot and went over to Anaktuvuk, and then down to -- went to Coldfoot, Wiseman, Anaktuvuk, Bettles, and then back to Coldfoot. And that was kind of fun.
And then in 1991, I decided I wanted to mush to Yakutsk, which was Fairbanks' sister city over in the Soviet Union.
And it was hard to communicate back and forth, and I tried to get permission, and get some maps and stuff.
And finally late in February, I got permission to make the trip, but it was going to cost $3,000 just to get the paperwork done. And I couldn't afford $3,000.
And then I heard about this Hope '91 Race, it was 1991 and it was in hope of making good friends with our neighbors across the Bering Strait.
And I called Leo Rasmuson up in Nome, he was one of the organizers, and I just said, "Can you tell me a little bit more about this race? I'd really love to see Siberia." And he said, "Well, I'll call you back in a couple of days."
So he talked it over to other -- with other people that were organizing the race, and they invited me to join the ranks of the mushers that went across.
It was a Communist country at that time, and people were unsure whether it was a safe thing to do, whether we'd come back; or if a dog got sick, would we ever get the dog back, or it was -- we were quite, you know, suspicious back in the Cold War, and fearful of the Soviets.
And not everyone wanted to go on this race, but sounded like a good deal to me. And we ended up with seven mushers leaving Nome on April 4th, 1991.
And we went up the coast up through Teller and over to Wales, Alaska. And we could look across the Bering Strait when it was clear and see the mountains over there, it was only 60 miles across, Little Diomede and Big Diomede Island are out in the middle.
And we were really hoping to be able to mush across, but it's the narrowest place in the Bering Strait, and the channels are strong there, the wind is strong there, and the ice just doesn't set up all the way across.
Some years it does and you can ski or mush across, but that year there was a lot of open water.
So we waited in Wales for four days,just hoping that ice would consolidate, but the ice didn't cooperate. But Aeroflot, the Russian airlines, did. They sent over some big helicopters, and they just opened up the belly of the helicopters and we drove the dog teams on right in harness.
Each helicopter could carry two dog teams. We were packed with dog food all around the dog teams. And as soon as we got up in the air, the dogs just went to sleep, there was so much vibration and noise.
It just took 20 minutes to buzz across, we landed, they opened up the belly of the helicopters, and we just drove the dog teams off right in harness.
And of course, there were no trees on that side, nothing to tie to once we got off the airplane -- or the helicopters, but they had a lot of soldiers stationed out there, and they kind of held the dogs.
And they were very serious young soldiers with those great, big coats on and the hats on and rifles over their shoulders, and they were very serious; but then after you were on the ground a little bit, they came over and wanted their picture taken with you, and they were -- you know, they were just 19 year old, 20 year old kids, and it was really cute.
And then we went down the coast of Siberia. We went a total of 1200 miles. Went through Provideniya, ended up in Anadyr early in May.
And when we went through a village, if we happened to come through a village late in the afternoon or the evening, we were invited to stay for the night. And we -- a family would take each musher home and provide a warm place to stay and provide a meal for us.
And life was hard in Siberia at that time, the people had a very hard life, and yet they were some of the most hospitable people I've ever met.
Sometimes they'd give you -- usually it was just a two room apartment, and sometimes they'd give you the couch that turned into the bed, and they'd go stay with their brother in another apartment house somewhere.
And they'd serve you a meal of pickled fish and sometimes reindeer meat and canned fruit that they had put up. And they'd use every doily, every piece of china they had to make the table just look elegant for the food they had. Really were wonderful people.
When we went across on the helicopters, we went through customs, and we were supposed to turn in all our U.S. money, but I kept some behind so I could leave some behind at the homes that I stayed in because U.S. money was worth a lot on the black market, and I just tucked it somewhere where I knew they'd find it after I left.
And really appreciated their hospitality. And on the Russian side we had seven Chukchi mushers join the race. They used their dog teams to herd reindeer out on the tundra.
And they were raising the reindeer for meat, and then they used the reindeer hides for the mushers's clothing. And it was like going back in time 200 years.
Their dog sleds were made out of driftwood, their harnesses are made out of seal skin with little ivory toggles to hold things together. It was just like something you'd see in the museum.
But it works beautifully, it works as good as our modern stuff does. So we were learning from them, and they were quite interested in seeing our more modern equipment, the polypropylene ropes and the brass snaps.
And the Thermos bottles were a big hit, they couldn't believe Thermos bottles because when they were out herding the reindeer herds around, they would have to stop and make a fire to get a hot drink, so the Thermos bottles were a big hit.
So I traveled with Vladimir from Provideniya on. We didn't speak the same language, we really couldn't communicate in words, but if we needed help, we knew how to express that to each other.
And we became pretty good friends travelling that last 500 miles together.
And then when we got to Anadyr the community had a big potluck dinner, and they did Native dancing for us, which is very much like Inupiaq dancing here in Alaska, but slightly different, it was fun to see the little differences.
And we stayed a few days. It was spring, they were having their spring festivals. And people were coming from the surrounding villages to come to town, and they had little folk -- folk orchestras playing in the streets, and little vendors serving up dumplings and things. It was really quite a wonderful time to be there.
And then when it was time to return to Alaska, Aeroflot flew us back to Nome on airplanes this time, where they could fit more teams in each trip than they could on a helicopter.
And just as I was ready to board the airplane, Vladimir came over to say one last good bye, and then he took off his outer reindeer parka and gave it to me as a gift to bring home. So I took off my modern blue parkas and gave those to him.
And he was excited to have something blue and different to take home, and I was honored to have a reindeer parka, and it's hanging on the wall over there.
They wore two reindeer parkas, one with the reindeer fur turned toward their skin, their body, and the other with the reindeer fur facing out. And they didn't carry a sleeping bag, they didn't carry a tent.
If they got caught in bad weather, they just pulled their arms in the sleeves and hunkered down in those parkas, made a tent over them. And for hundreds of years the system has worked just fine.
So I've tested the parka in the coldest weather, and it's warmer than a big down parka, but it's -- it's heavy, doesn't have any zippers in it. I like to dress in layers so I can adjust for the temperature.
And the dogs think I'm a big grizzly bear when I come out in it because it has a little bit of a smell to it, but it's a very warm parka and it's fun just to remember my friend Vladimir, and I hope he likes the blue parka, as well.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So how far was that?
MARY SHIELDS: They called it 1200 miles from Nome up to Wales, and then from Lewellen down to Anadyr, 1200 miles all together. I think it took us five weeks to go. Started in early April, got there middle of May or so.
And Kate Persons from Kotzebue was the winner of that race. And everyone in Russia called her Katie.
She was quite the -- everyone's heartthrob, they all love Katie, and she just had her big smile on every where she went and was a wonderful champion on the race. She was really fun.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Is she still mushing dogs?
MARY SHIELDS: I think she works with Fish and Game in Nome, and I think she has a few dogs left, but I don't know. I think they are travelling more now and not mushing as much.
But we went 1200 miles together on that race, so it was fun to get to see her out on the trail. And I'm a big admirer of hers, she's quite the musher.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, now you're involved in some tourism.
MARY SHIELDS: Yeah. I had this wonderful dog team that I played with all winter, and then had to work in the summer to buy the dog food and pay the bills and worked in various jobs.
I was working in Fish and Game for six or seven years, and I just hated leaving my dogs in the morning, they were just tied up to a doghouse all day, and I'd come home and be with them at night, and I just wanted to do something where I could be with my dogs all day long.
So I approached the Binkley family here in Fairbanks that run a tourism tour called the Riverboat Discovery, and I asked them if they would be interested in having a little dog team demonstration. And they were just moving their camp.
They had -- used to land at Howard Luke's camp down on the Tanana, and the river was shifting channels and they couldn't land on that side of the river anymore because it was getting so shallow. So they created another camp on the north side of the river.
And they were kind of looking for new things to do there, and they said, "Well, we'll try a dog demonstration." Fourth of July was coming up so I had some time off at Fish and Game, so they said, "Well, let's try it."
And it seemed to be successful, and I did it every day for the next 120 years for 11 -- 120 days of summer for the next 11 years. Felt like 120 years.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you did it for 11 years?
MARY SHIELDS: 11 years, yeah. And I just loved it. You meet people from all over the world that are curious about the dogs, and you get to be a star all of a sudden where you just were a nobody musher, and you know, they can kind of introduce you as if you were someone important.
And it was just fun to share something I loved with people. And I did it for 11 years, and then I kind of wanted to do something a little more in depth. They had lots of wonderful activities they did at this camp.
They had people explaining trapping and skin sewing, Dixie Alexander did -- showed how to cut salmon and beadwork and stuff. And I knew some people, there were some people that wanted to learn a little more about dog mushing.
I only got to talk to them for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. So in 1995, I started my own tour at my home in Goldstream Valley. And I just was trying to do a more personal version to a smaller group, you know, 20 people at a time versus 6 or 700 at a time.
And I've done that ever since, really have enjoyed doing that on that level. And I get to use my dogs as all -- all year long with my life, making my living in the summer, and then playing with them and going on trips in the wintertime.
And I kind of used the dog sledding as a means to try to speak about something more important than just dog sledding, although dog sledding is certainly important, but dog sledding has given me an opportunity for a life style that I might not have been able to live any other way,
close to nature, doing my own chores for myself with the dog team, and gave me kind of an independent life that I really value.
And being out in nature is my going to church, it's the most important thing to me, and I feel very at home out there. And so it's nice to kind of share that with people that are -- most people are living quite a different life and are much busier and are in a hurry.
And I like to think this couple hours they are here at my home, they might see a different option in life and slow down and might reconsider their own lives, not that I have all the answers, I'm not trying to tell them how to live, but maybe just some example of a life that I think is a wonderful option.
And try to encourage people to take good care of the land. And we're so lucky to live here in Alaska where we have this wild country to take care of.
And most of the people who come on my tour are from other states or other countries, and they don't have this opportunity anymore where they live, but they have in their own way little things they can do to make life in their communities a little bit wilder or more natural.
And I think it's important in this day and age when life is so fast and so stressful, I think our species needs an opportunity to find some peace and comfort in nature, and it's the salvation for people.
And I want to just encourage that, and inspire people to pay attention to what's around them and take good care of it and --
Well, for me, dog sledding has given that life to me, and now I feel like I want to pay witness to that or give something back to that life that's given me so much satisfaction.
So in my writing, I've written six books and I made a show for Public Television,and things I can create, I want to honor that life style and just make that life style an option. I don't see young people choosing that anymore.
And I understand people are busy with their computers and their careers and trying to make a living in this economy, but I want to be sure that option is available and people know that they could try it just for a year or something and see what satisfaction is there.
So I intend to -- as I get older and can't really do, I'm 66 now, and I just got a brand new knee.
And hopefully I'll be mushing for a -- I was going to mush until I was 60, so I've already broken my own rules, but with a new knee, maybe I can go another 10 or 15 years, who knows.
But I would like to honor that life style in any way I can, and just keep it alive so it's an option for people in the future.
So that's how I intend to stay connected with dog sledding when I -- maybe when I can't physically do it, I will somehow be able to continue doing the tours or write books or do something that will just keep it alive for other people.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And I suppose you have examples of people who are inspired by what you've done and what you've written about and the way it has --
MARY SHIELDS: Well, I meet a lot of young people that say they came to Alaska because they -- that old book, that first book I wrote back in 1984, "Sled Dog Trails," made the rounds. You know, we sold cases of them a day on the riverboat.
Now if you go on Amazon, there's million of them for sale for 50 cents all over the -- you know, the people that turned them in.
But a lot of people read it and did kind of encourage people to come try that, or they've told me that it had, so I think --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Or -- or living vicariously through it.
MARY SHIELDS: Well, yeah. Some people like to know someone's living that life style; but they don't want to do it but they like to know it was.
But there are some people, at least, that came to Alaska and tried mushing and, you know, just to some degree wanted to try that.
And it -- like I say, in "Sled Dog Trails," it doesn't have to be a life with a dog team, it just has to be something you find that you love to do passionately. I really think that's important to just keep trying things until you find what really you're meant to do.
I guess follow your bliss. I grew up with that. And now I like to say I'm going to name my next lead dog Bliss because I'm going to be following my Bliss for the next 10 years.
But I think it's -- for all I know, we get one life, and it's important to find what you want to do and make sure you have that satisfaction in your life.
And then -- then you don't have any resentments or bitterness when it's over with, you've done what you want to do. And to me, our time's our most valuable thing.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. Marla, do you have any questions?
MARLA STATSCEWICH: I do, actually. For somebody who -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Speak up a little bit.
MARLA STATSCEWICH: For someone who has never seen how you would do a tour in the summertime, can you describe that? MARY SHIELDS: Sure.
MARLA STATSCEWICH: You're not using a sled in the summer, right? MARY SHIELDS: No. MARLA STATSCEWICH: There's no snow, so --
MARY SHIELDS: I'm not taking people for dog sled rides in the summer, although they call up in June and July and want to go for a dog sled ride; but of course, we don't have snow here, it can be 90 degrees in Fairbanks in the middle of the summer.
But I just want them to come to my home, come down and meet the dogs, come in and pet the dogs so they can really see what wonderful creatures they are.
Some people have a misunderstanding that the sled dogs are vicious animals,or that it's really cruel to make them pull sleds.
And I don't want to tell them, I want them to see by being with the dogs to see that the dogs love doing this, and that the dogs are well treated, and they have big hearts and they love taking me for a ride, and I love taking care of them so we can go for a ride.
And it's really a teamwork together. We both take care of each other. So they come in and they pet dogs and take pictures with them.
And then I have my guests go outside the fence and I turn the dogs loose so they can just run around, and they completely upstage me every day.
And then I kind of explain the breed and the -- a little bit of the history of how they've been used in Alaska. How we train them. Every musher you talk to has different answers to these questions.
I try to train using positive reinforcement,encouraging the dogs to do the right thing because they want to please you more than anything in the world. So if I can communicate to them, then they will do what I ask them to do.
But that -- the tricky thing is communicating so they really know what you want to do. So if you can get past that step, then it gets easier.
And we're always breeding our best dogs with somebody else's best dogs, and by now it's really a natural selection, it's really an instinct these dogs have to pull sleds. They love to do it. So it makes my job of training quite easy.
And the old dogs help train the younger dogs, so it's wonderful. I just had two puppies last winter that have just been delightful, they've been so full of fun and just kind of took to it naturally, love being in the team.
And you know, I didn't expect them to pull real hard the first year, I just wanted them to like being out there and get the logistics straightened out, and next winter I'll expect a little more work out of them, but I think they are going to be great dogs.
And then after we've played with the dogs, I have my winter camp set up, and we sit around kind of like we're around a campfire on some benches, and I just explain how I got started and what it's like out on the winter trail, and show them the equipment we use on the -- on camping trips.
And all of the outside stuff takes about an hour. And then we come in the house and have brownies and coffee and lemonade, and just sit around the dining room table, like we are now.
And I explain the difference between camping and racing, kind of go through the routine on a long distance race, which is quite different than the luxurious pace on a camping trip.
And I show a few minutes of the show I made for Public Television, and encourage my guests to ask questions, make it as interactive as possible. And just share what I love with people.
And when they leave I get hugs from people, so they come as strangers and leave as friends, so something's working right, I think. So...
MARLA STATSCEWICH: That's right. And then so when you were working for the Binkleys, what did you do?
MARY SHIELDS: When I worked for the Binkleys, the riverboat would tie up at this little Old Chena Village they called it on the north bank of the Tanana River just below the mouth of the Chena River.
And I'd have my team ready to roar out of the dog yard, and I'd go in a circle a couple of times and then go back to the dog yard.
MARLA STATSCEWICH: And were you on a four wheeler or --
MARY SHIELDS: No, I was just on my sled. And on hot days we would sponge down the dogs to cool them off, and they would put straw on the trail to make it slide a little bit better, but there was one corner I tipped over a million times on because it was a pretty tight corner.
And then when the people came off the boat and toured around the Old Chena Village, the dog yard was one of the stops they made, and then I gave a little talk and had the dogs running around in a little roped off area, just answered questions and told different stories about dog mushing with them.
MARLA STATSCEWICH: Great.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, this has been great. Thank you, Mary.
And I think I've always been just terribly impressed with how much you're comfortable out in the country, and how much dog mushing has been a way to make that connection.
MARY SHIELDS: Yeah. Dog mushing has been the --the key to being out there and being comfortable. And you can always get into the woods where there's dry firewood, and if you can make a fire, you're safe.
You know, drop me off in Chicago after dark and I'd be scared to death, but drop me off out in the woods and I am comfortable.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So thanks for taking the time to do this.
MARY SHIELDS: Well, thanks for coming out. It was nice to talk with you, Bill.
MARLA STATSCEWICH: Thank you.