Digital Asset Information
Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska
Date of Interview: Jun 8, 2011
Narrator(s): Kathy Lenniger
Interviewer(s): Marla Statscewich, Bill Schneider
Transcriber: Carol McCue
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Coming to Alaska
Getting involved with dog mushing
Her first wilderness trip with dogs
Getting 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
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
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.