Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Iditarod facts

There's a thread going on that turned into a dialogue about the Iditarod Race, mostly against it, on a new fb friend's page. I'd like to share my comment that I added:

Hi- I'm getting in here late. Nan, you and I just became fb friends last night. Laura suggested it to me, and had nothing but good things to say about you. You invited me to this discussion this morning and I have found my way here.

So many things we all agree on. I live in Alaska and much of my background has had to do with sled dogs. I've never raced the Iditarod, but have worked for people who did, and still have many friends who have or do. I have raced in some sprint races, but mostly we had sled dogs for the pure pleasure of enjoying their company in the winter for outdoor "recreational" mushing, as it is called.

I can tell you, and it doesn't matter to me whether you believe me or not, that when a dog dies on the Iditarod Trail, the grief is heartwrenching. Mushers have spent years training their dogs and have developed a bond with their dogs like no other.

Dog care and health are the most important thing in these peoples' lives. It is such a way of life that it can be said that it IS their life. Any other things that come up in their life are just minor in comparison. When I first came to Alaska as a single woman in 1988, I first worked for a husky kennel with 110 dogs. I became acquainted with Joe Reddington, called "the Father of the Iditarod" for starting the race. He had mushed dogs for so many years, his knowledge of them was incomparable. He lived and breathed dogs, and I learned a lot from him. (just a note here, if I get cut off, I'll just go to the next "comment" to continue.)

When I was working at that kennel (not Joe's) the dogs were more important than people. I found that out when I was taking a big, rambunctious dog from a top tier of a two tier dog box on the truck. This big white dog came shooting out of that box like a rocket. I was always told to never let go of the dog, so I kept ahold of him and we both hit the ground and rolled part way down a hill together. The owners raced over to where we were and asked if the dog was alright. This always stuck with me, see, because they didn't ask if I was alright, they asked if the dog was alright.

I cooked the dogs' food, and believe me, they eat better than most people. It often made me hungry smelling their food cooking. I've taken dogs from their dog houses, or I should say their area around thier dog houses, to be harnessed up at the sled. Some of those bigger dogs were so excited at the thought of getting to run with the sled, it was almost impossible to handle them. But I was always told not to discipline them because it might curb their enthusiasm.

My main job was shoveling their poo and keeping their areas clean. I often thought of myself as being a servant to "man's servant" in that respect, and it was very humbling. Their houses are kept off the ground, so as not to conduct the cold of the ground, and kept filled with straw for insulation. Sled dogs are perfectly suited to their Alaskan environment, and have a heavy undercoat and many more hairs per square inch than other breeds of dogs. They enjoy the cold! They can stand much more cold than heat. They get up to 10,000 calories of high quality food a day when they're racing.

Yes, they are on chains in their "area," but the chains are on swivels and allow the dogs a circle with a radius of at least 10 feet. I've seen ordinary owners chain their lone dogs up for their whole life, and that is what breaks my heart. Not the sled dogs who lead an active life with much attention, affection, and social contact with their nearby team mates.

Like Laura, I won't argue anybody's misconceptions about the Iditarod because I don't have to. I already know the truth. So thank you for reading this far. Remember, we're on the same side when it comes to animal welfare.

Lee Smith

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ghost Ship of Seldovia Bay comes to life.

For four years the old Alaska ferry Chilkat has sat in Seldovia Bay, unattended, a mystery. But these days she sports strings of lights against the night sky, signaling to people in Seldovia that she is gradually coming back to life, a very new life. As John Enge, one of those aboard the Chilkat now relates, an idea was born to take the tired ship into a new future as a cod fish processor.

A plan was formed among the group to establish a "mother ship" for the cod jigging fishermen who work out of Kodiak. Enge tells how a lot of fishing jobs were lost in Alaska when IFQs, or Individual Fishing Quotas, were instituted, and how Alaska has only one remaining fishery left that isn't privatized. That is the cod jigging fishery for Pacific, or true, cod as it's also known. The group working on the Chilkat wants to see the cod jigging fishermen get a decent price for their fish, so a plan has developed to do everything possible to make that a reality.

But they also want the fishery to be a sustainable one, unlike the injuries done by giant trawlers, which in areas of the east coast of Canada and America have already depleted the resource.

Enge has a good handle on the history of fishing before trawlers, and how for hundreds of years fishermen did it the old way and the cod were always there. He believes there is still time to turn it around for at least a segment of Alaska, the cod jiggers who go out in small boats and fish with line in contrast to the trawlers who drag miles of nets and waste tons of bycatch fish.

Saving lost time

Here we have a viable plan for the small fisherman to make a go of a family enterprise. Currently the cod jiggers lose a lot of valuable time taking their catch back into Kodiak to be processed, and getting back out to the fishing grounds. With the Chilkat taking on its new roll, they can upload their fish to it and also come aboard for a short rest and relaxation, with a shower and a good meal and be back out fishing right away.

The "processing" of the fish that takes place on the Chilkat will be the salting method, so no costly energy will be used for refrigeration. To get the cod aboard, a block and tackle system run by hand will be employed. Both of these methods will ensure more dollars to the fishermen. The Chilkat will run the salted cod to Kodiak for shipping to points around the globe.

According to Enge, North America is almost the only place in the world where there is no market for salted cod. He told of the Atlantic coast of Europe and Africa that import salted cod and provide a good market, along with some Asian countries. Salted means no refrigeration is needed from the processor to the customer, thus ensuring a good product. The group plans to market their cod as "Reel Cod," as in caught with reel and also being the true cod, not imposters.

Right now, though, the work is on the ship, where the crew of six is living somewhat more comfortably this week.

What intrigued me, though, was the logistics of the project. I had many questions. For instance, how do they get their supplies onboard, as the ship is anchored out in the bay? I was told that a former owner put a large door in the side that is about six feet above the water, and local Seldovia people have been providing a taxi service.

I then asked about the water situation and found out that for the time being, they are bringing in cases of bottled water until the huge tanks for water storage can be cleaned and come online. They have a desalinator for sea water on order. The cooking aboard is what Enge calls "field cooking," done by his son Jesse. They just progressed from cooking on the wood stove to using an oil stove. As Enge spoke to me by phone, his son was trying out a new bread recipe he's found online.

What about fuel?

What about fuel for the big generator, I wondered? Enge told me that there is a double tank aboard that has several hundreds of gallons of fuel in it yet, and that is being filtered into usable quantities to provide for heat and cooking. The ship's lounge has been turned into a comfortable living area.

Last week the area experienced an intensive storm with wind of hurricane force, but the Chilkat's giant anchor held her steady. The skiff was blown away but later found and recovered before it could be blown further out to sea and lost. Enge just called with the latest news: The ship's flag had been raised. It was raised it in honor of the three veterans aboard, and to show the world this is an American ship.

Lee Anne Smith lives between Wasilla and Big Lake and recently signed on as publicist for the crew work down on the Chilkat. "I may be paid in all the fish I can eat, but I believe in this project," she said.