Interview with a Musher
Dog sledding isn’t talked about very much these days and some only think of it in terms of the Iditarod race. But dog sledding is still around. Mushing duo Hannah and Jeremias Kinnunen-Levy opened their dog sledding company, Northern Soul Journeys in Norrbotten, Swedish Lapland, in 2018. Hannah was gracious enough to answer some questions about mushing and training their sled dogs.
How did you get into mushing?
I grew up in Connecticut and was raised by two New Yorkers. Needless to say, it wasn't my parents who got me into dog mushing. After returning home from University in London, I was working in Brooklyn but was very unhappy. Wanting to do something outdoors, I searched for seasonal jobs in the US and took a summer job in Alaska working with sled dogs. That was the beginning of the end.
How do you choose your sled dogs?
I guess you mean when we buy or breed them. In which case, we look for a dog who has thick fur. We prefer a dog with a proportional frame (so not too long in the leg, or too long in the back). We like dogs that have a smooth and fast trot. Arguably even more important is their personality. We want dogs that aren't interested in aggressive behavior, often referred to as 'the diplomat dog'. They're not only great for raising puppies, but also for helping some of our more overenthusiastic dogs learn to take it easy.
Are good sled dogs born or made?
I think just as with humans, it's a combination of nature and nurture. It's one thing to have the world's best sled dog, but if you don't train they'll never reach their full potential.
What makes a good sled dog?
For us, it's a happy dog who loves to run. We use the words training and work when talking about dog mushing, but it's important to remember that that's not how the dogs see it. For them it's fun, it's playing, it's fulfilling. Just like a herding dog will happily try and herd the playing children together, a sled dog will happily drive with their whole body into their harness. It is what makes them who they are, we the humans are just there to keep it organized and fun, and of course, have fun with them.
What is the average career length of a sled dog?
We will rely on our dogs to run until they are about 10 years old. However, their career is not over. We still run them for as long as they want to, just fewer times a week, and for shorter distances. Keeping them in training keeps them healthy and happy. However, running in their harness is just one aspect of their career. The old dogs are critical for keeping the pack structure. They help us train puppies without getting too mad, and to help keep the other dogs in check. For us, it begins the day they're born and ends the day they pass onto the next world.
What are the signs that a dog’s sled career is over?
If they don't have the same excitement when they see a harness, or if they're struggling to keep up with the team, it's a sign that they need to slow down their training. That being said, it means I as the musher need to adjust their training to suit their needs. They still might want to train, just not as hard. Maybe just a few kilometers to keep them fit and happy.
For what purposes do you use your sled dogs?
We use our dogs for recreational purposes, however, we want to be able to spend as much time with them as possible. So, we supplement the costs by running tours with guests from around the world. We take them out for short tours in our local area. In this way, we are able to work with the dogs full time. I always say I want to try racing, but more for the experience, than to be competitive. We'll see if I ever do.
Sled dogs are known for their endurance. How fast and how long do your dogs usually run in one stretch?
Interestingly, there is a huge variety of types of sled dogs, everything from sprint to distance to the ultra-marathon. In each type of sport, you'll see different speeds and distances traveled. Because we are on the more recreational side of things, we don't find ourselves running the distances that you might see in races such as the Iditarod. We usually run about 40 km at once, but sometimes up to 60 km, with speeds averaging about 14 km an hour.
Do you view your sled dogs as pets, just animals, or something else?
Something else might be the best way to describe it. We believe that dogs need a purpose to feel fulfilled. That purpose might be a companion, security, or sled dog. Since our dogs have been bred to drive sleds for thousands of years, for us, that is their purpose. Our dogs are still our babies. Yeah, they have jobs, but they still come inside to cuddle on the sofa and sometimes sleep in the bed. They love playtime and love to have lots of butt scratches.
What’s been your most memorable trip?
Last winter I took a solo trip in the Swedish mountains with 8 of our dogs. I was so proud of myself, and the dogs during that entire trip. I was proud of myself for being able to navigate the trail and manage the team. The dogs worked so hard to get up the mountains while I struggled to run behind the sled. lt more bonded to my dogs. It was such a fun experience which I can't wait to do again!
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Written by: Lynn Moynahan