Culture mushes in the north
A recent Biola graduate participates in the Alaskan Iditarod behind-the-scenes for the first time. | Courtesy of Amanda Otto
Tongues loll and mouths pant as the running dogs come to a stop before the checkpoint. Snow melts beneath the sled as the runners come to a complete stop — the thousand-mile dog sledding goliath of a race known as the Iditarod is in progress with the journey coming to a rapid end.
An ingrained part of Alaskan culture
Amanda Otto, Biola alum as of December 2016, applied for an internship in Alaska in hopes of completing the mandatory credits necessary to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Little did she know, the experience would be life-changing and an experience she would never forget.
Working for a dog kennel called the Wolf’s Den and occasionally performing tours with a company called DogGoneIt Tours, Otto trains closely with many dogs who will likely be competitors in the annual Alaskan tradition of dog racing. Though some people see the race as cruel, Otto stresses how anyone training with them knows they are happiest and most fulfilled when running with a sled and team.
“Dog sledding is a huge part of Alaskan culture. There are probably some people in Alaska that know nothing about dog sledding, but predominantly it’s a big deal. [It is] very much ingrained into the culture here. [It is] how a lot of people got around back in the day, before we had cars and whatnot,” Otto said.
Otto’s co-worker Thomas Rosenbloom is the reason she got involved in the race at all, helping out his team at one of the first checkpoints and sending the team off at the competition’s ceremonial start on Saturday, March 4.
“Obviously, I was stoked to be able to help Thomas be a part of the Iditarod,” Otto said. “We don’t have any communication with him while he’s out there. We have a GPS tracker, so online you can see where he is as far as checkpoints and throughout the race, but right now we’re back to the grind here at the kennel, running puppy teams and taking care of the others.”
a character-building experience
There are roughly 90 dogs in the Wolf’s Den, and Otto herself has learned the ropes of leading a team — she explained how yelling “gee” at the dogs means “turn right,” and “haw” means “turn left.” However, as exciting as running the team has been for her, she points out that most reasons people participate in the race are not what one would expect.
“It’s not a claim-to-fame-thing, it’s the time you get to spend and learn. Just being out in the middle of God’s creation, being with your dog team, learning how to do things you might not necessarily need to know in the workforce — but it’s a character-building experience, and that’s one of the things I’ve really loved being around here: not having to feel pressure to check things off the list,” Otto said.
Interestingly, the best part of engaging in the competition and living in Alaska for Otto has been the positive culture shock she has been subject to since working there over the summer.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure, especially in our culture, in southern California where there’s a certain age where you have to accomplish certain things,” Otto said. “I think one thing I have learned from the short time I’ve been in Alaska is seeing the love of a slower pace of life than I think a lot of people have.”