Everything You Want to Know About Dog Mushing (Sarah Varland, amateur musher and author)

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Alaska dog mushing sarah varland author humans outside podcast

Curious about dog mushing? You’re in good company. Dog racing, known as mushing, is one of the many sports that draws tourists and lures enthusiasts to live in Alaska. But not everyone who mushes is a pro-racer tackling the Iditarod or keeping a huge yard of sled dogs. The north and Alaska are full of amateur racers who take on the sport because they both love dogs and the time in nature running a sled and dog teams brings.

In this episode Sarah Varland, an author, high school English teacher and amateur musher gives us the inside scoop on dog mushing, why she loves it and how it connects her to the world. Listen now.

Some of the good stuff:

[3:49] Sarah Varland’s favorite outdoor space

[4:53] How Sarah became someone who likes to go outside

[6:59] About Sarah’s writing and how going outside impacts it

[9:26] The basics of dog mushing and dog racing

[12:28] How Sarah got into dog racing

[14:36] What is mushing like?

[17:11] Is there “flow” when mushing?

[19:04] Top secret musher math

[23:05] What do sled dogs actually look like?

[24:41] What happens when a dog doesn’t want to work or pull?

[26:41] Is mushing and dog racing cruel to the dogs?

[29:22] What does dog racing cost?

[30:35] What dog mushing teaches Sarah about herself

[35:45] What dog mushing teaches Sarah about her faith?

[39:03] How to learn more about mushing if you’re interested or want to try it

[41:08] Sarah’s favorite outdoor moment

Connect with this episode:

Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

Amy Bushatz: No matter who you are or where you go, heading outside even for a few minutes is always worth it. I’m your host, Amy Bushatz, and here at Humans Outside, we’re using the Humans Outside 365 Challenge to build a life around spending time in nature while hearing from fascinating outdoor minded. As a journalist for 19 years, I’ve let curiosity be my guide. After my husband’s injuries from military service, we started looking for a better way to live. That’s why we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if an outdoor focused life was the answer. Since September, 2017, I’ve personally spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single. No matter what to explore, how nature can change my life.

Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same? Let’s go.

One of my favorite things about living in a place with very challenging weather is the incredible enthusiasm with which people embrace the sports and adventures they’ve chosen and the way they push along with them anyone who is willing to join. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that you learn that the only way to pull through harsh weather events or the days of literal darkness is to surround yourself with a light brought by community and the companionship of other humans.

And what better place and way to do that than by gathering like-minded friends around you for an activity outside that you enjoy? And so when you get into sports or activities here in Alaska, I’ve noticed that you don’t ever do so alone. That’s because there’s always a group of people around you to offer you their advice or help you learn what you’re doing so that you can share what they love.

It’s that way with skiing. It’s that way with running. I’ve seen it in winter cycling known as fat biking, and I’ve seen it in the groups of people who love to mush dogs. Along with their knowledge and know how shared to help you get started, they bring a contagious passion for what they do. A few winners ago, back in season three in 2021, I brought you a conversation with Kristy and Anna Berrington, identical twin dog racers who annually participate in the Iditarod race.

But when you only talk about the Iditarod, which is about 950 miles over several days, you miss the idea that dog racing and the love of these dogs and the winter landscape that comes along with it isn’t just for the pros. It’s also enjoyed by recreational users all over the north. It’s a sport that takes incredible dedication, not just because caring for the dogs is a year round commitment, but because, whew, my Lord, is it cold out there.

And today we have one such enthusiast to share her love of the sport. Sarah Varland is a personal friend of mine here in Palmer. She’s a high school English teacher, she’s a published author. She’s a mom and she’s an amateur musher with a yard of dogs, two sons who love it too. And of course, her husband John, who makes it possible by not giving the dogs away in the night or something.

Today Sarah is going to talk to us about what makes Mushing special, how a person gets into it, and why the sport that’s a curiosity for many is a lifestyle that brings her joy and connection to the outside. She’s also gonna try to convince me to get a bunch of dogs, but it’s not gonna work because I can just come visit hers.

Sarah, welcome to Humans Outside.

Sarah Varland: Hey Amy. Thanks for having me.

Amy Bushatz: Okay, so, you and I are actually not that far apart right now. You’re at your house a couple of miles away from me, and that’s fun because I don’t get to do that with podcast guests very often. So we always start our podcast episodes asking our guests to describe their favorite outdoor space so we can imagine that we’re hanging out with you somewhere that you love while we’re having this conversation.

So, if that were true, where are we with you today?

Sarah Varland: So probably with me today, there are so many good mushing trails around here to pick from, but you’re probably with me down in Chugiak at the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association Trails. They’re out near Beach Lake and it’s a narrow trail through the woods lined with spruce trees, usually covered with snow this timeof year, it sort of feels like you’ve fallen into a winter wonderland or Narnia, and it’s quiet out there. It’s just you and the dogs and the swish of the runners on the snow.

Amy Bushatz: And when we say runners, we mean the bottom of your sled, not the runners of my ilk who are actually running. Right?

Sarah Varland: That is very true. They’re kinda like skis on the bottom of the sled that you stand on.

Amy Bushatz: Very good. And I’m familiar with those trails because I have actually, speaking of running, done a race out there or two before in the summertime. So very different landscape than where you are from mushing, but same sort of some sort of region. Okay. So first, before we talk about dog racing and dogs, how did you find yourself in Alaska and how did you become somebody who likes to go outside?

Sarah Varland: So I used to live in Alaska when I was a kid and I loved it up here. I wasn’t as outdoorsy as a kid, but when I was an adult, we lived in Georgia. We just kind of needed a change in our lives and my husband and I were trying to figure out what was next, and my parents were moving back to Alaska and they said, Hey, wanna come?

And we said sure. So we moved back up here in 2014. I wasn’t super outdoorsy at the time but I was struggling with a lot of anxiety issues just due to things that had happened in my life and I kind of, I mean, it’s hard not to stumble into the outside in Alaska on purpose or on accident. And I kind of got into hiking and learned how much being outside made me feel small in a good way and put my problems in perspective.

And then it just became something that I sought out because of how much it seemed to help me heal and how it made me feel.

Amy Bushatz: So that’s relatable because that’s exactly what we did. And you and I actually met at a community run. That I started going to because I was looking for more ways to spend outside time outside in Alaska. And what I especially love about meeting you at a community run is you run, but you would not necessarily call yourself a runner per se. Am I right on that?

Sarah Varland: Definitely correct. I’m not a real runner. I just like pretend a mile or two now and then.

Amy Bushatz: But you’re out there at these events because you like the community, you like the friendship. And I mean, the same reason that I was going to those at the time, looking for ways to spend more time outside with people in our adorable little town.

Sarah Varland: Definitely. Especially in the winter when, as you said, it’s hard to find something. You need to find something to do outside in order to just embrace the weather.

Amy Bushatz: Exactly. Okay, so some people listening to this might know you from your writing. I mentioned in the introduction that you’re an author that’s sort of like minimizing of how much you’re an author. I mean, You know, you publish one book, you’re an author, but you have not published one book. You’re a fairly well-known author. So tell us about your books. Tell us about your writing and about how your own outdoor interests influence what you write. Because they really do.

Sarah Varland: They definitely influence my writing. I think my husband gets nervous every time I give a character in a book, a new outdoor hobby, because nine times outta 10, that means I’m going to try it. More often than not, though, I give them a hobby that I already have to some degree. I love dog mushing. I’ve written books with dog mushers. We like to do a little like bouldering, rock climbing on little rocks in Hatcher Pass. I’ve added that into a book. The books have been really fun to kind of incorporate my outdoor interests. I think that’s part of what makes them unique is that it’s so easy as a writer to sit at your computer and just eat snacks, or maybe that’s just me. But these books help me to get outside and keep doing things because it’s hard to write adventure and things like that if you’re never going out and having it.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. I recently read your book that featured character of the name Piper who was climbing and I was laughing to myself because I know how into rock climbing you were for a little while there and I was like, aha ah, yes.

Sarah Varland: Yes, definitely. That is why Piper ended up climbing cuz I was like, Hey, I can incorporate this sport I love and describe it to people.

Amy Bushatz: So funny. No, but I totally, I feel that because I’m here doing this podcast, talking about going outside, which is something that I love and of course my own experiences color the questions I ask and the people I invite on the podcast, present company, perfect example and that kind of thing.

So that is super, super relatable. But I, okay, so I have gone dog mushing. We’re gonna call it one time because there was a time that I went to one of those things where you know, get to ride on the back of this like a tourist thing. Okay. But I went to this outdoor woman thing once and they had like a dog mushing class and I did that.

And you rode your own, you know, drove your own sled. I’m using totally the wrong dog mushing verbiage. I know that. You drove your own sled. You know, harness the dogs the whole nine yards. It was very cool and it was a great experience. It was in the middle of nowhere as dog mushing often is.

Okay. So I’m gonna use the wrong words though cuz I have very limited experience with this. But that’s why we have you. So for those who aren’t familiar with the sport, which is everyone including me, and also because it’s really not that well known or understood outside of the, outside of the northern part of the continent even.

What is mushing? What are dog races like? Do you only mush when you’re racing? Give us the whole like spiel.

Sarah Varland: Okay, so at its most basic level, I’m gonna turn out to mansplain. Dog mushing is hooking dogs, usually huskies of some sort, some kind of sled dogs up to a sled and putting harnesses on them and they pull you on the sled.

What this involves, like starting at the beginning, if I were gonna go out running, which I’m hoping to do later today, you would take your sled and you would tie it up with a quick release so that the dogs can’t pull you away. Cuz you can’t just tell a sled dog team to stay. It’s not super effective.

You, they love to run. They don’t want to stay. You hook this lead up, you would have a line, a gang line that you hook the dogs to on their individual lines. You hook them all up, you tell them you’re ready. You say, all right, or let’s go, or mush the word changes. You let your quick release go and they just start running, pulling you down the trail.

Um, This is something that almost no one does, just doing races. I guess every now and then a kid who does dog mushing might only mush during a race. It’s pretty common in the youth sports up here for a kid to borrow dogs from someone, and especially when they’re like five years old running one dog. A race may be the only time they’re actually on a sled, but for most people there are a lot of hours that go into training the dogs running on trails before you can race.

So this is done on a sled In the winter, in the fall, we’ll actually hook them up to a four-wheeler and like give it enough gas that they’re not pulling the whole four-wheeler, but so that they can run in a team like that even when we don’t have snow.

Amy Bushatz: Because you’re essentially practicing that concept and dogs are not unlike any other animal, including humans, you have to keep up the habit.

Sarah Varland: Yeah. Yeah. And they’re not really practicing the running. A lot of times people will ask me how I train the dogs to run and you just don’t there, there’s no really in the running is the incentive itself. If I take a husky, which I’ve done many times, and I put a harness on it, when it’s, you know, old enough to harness train people kind of vary in their opinions, nine months, a year, somewhere in there, put a harness. It just runs. It just pulls. That’s what they do naturally. So when we’re training them, what we’re training is to run in a team nicely. Just like sometimes people annoy you and you’re like, Hey, don’t run so close to me. We train them to run nicely and be nice to each other, not yell at their neighbors.

We’re training them to listen to our commands, to be able to tell them haw and they go left or gee and they go right or even um, to ask for a little bit more speed. That’s really easy to do when you’re hooked up to the four. because you ask for more speed and then give it more gas so they’re not having to pull as hard so they can run faster. Cuz that’s what they want and they’re like, ah, we went faster. So you’re training those kinds of things. The actual drive to run is something that’s amazed me as we’ve gotten into mushing that’s just there already. They love to run. I’ve never had to try to convince a dog to run. They do that on purpose. I have to convince them to stop.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. How did you personally get into this? Just woke up one day and said, I think I’ll crush dogs and have a bajillion in my yard.

Sarah Varland: So I blame my parents when we lived in Alaska.

Amy Bushatz: As one does. As one does.

Sarah Varland: Yes.

Um, My parents read me books that are popular for kids up here. Kiana’s Iditarod, Danger, the Dog Yard Cat – Alaskan Classics. They took me to the Iditarods that I could watch. I used to run out in the trail when the musher had mushers had passed and collect the dog booties, the little socks that fell off their feet.

And so I kind of got into it that way. Then in 2015, when I was homeschooling my oldest son, who was five at the time, I just randomly was scrolling Facebook, saw some random musher in Knik which is a town not far from here, and I said, Hey, could I take my son out to you, maybe you could do like a little class for him, teach him about the sport and you know, we can scoop some dog poop in exchange. Most mushers will do many things for you if you offer to scoop some dog poop for them. And she said, sure. How about he borrows one of my dogs and races? And of course I’m like, oh, this would be fun. If you ask my oldest son how we got into mushing, he will say it was him. This is not true. I was living through my son. Sorry, sorry kid. So we got into it that way. And as you kind of implied earlier, I feel like outdoors people are pushers in the best way. We love our sports and we want other people to love them too. And so from there it escalated to this musher was like, how about you borrow some dogs and run and then.

Someone said, here’s a free puppy and two more free puppies. Here’s a free sled. And people just kept giving us things until we were so thoroughly sucked into the sport. And now it’s our job to try to suck other people in, too.

Amy Bushatz: Which you will not accomplish with me today. Although you and I have talked sidebar a couple times about how you might accomplish that, but no. So , if I wanna come ride a dog or whatever, I’ll come over to your house. So it’s all, it’s fine. Okay. So how long are you out with the dogs when you go out? What’s the temperature like? What are the conditions like? You described sort of Narnia earlier. I think we can all imagine what you mean by that. It’s kind of this magical situation. But what is the experience of mushing like?

Sarah Varland: So the experience of mushing really differs depending on, as you said, if you’re a professional or if you’re recreational. But also there are kind of two main types of mushing. You have the distance mushers, like the Berringtons who you talked to. And then the sprint mushers who do much shorter races. Sprint, mushers, it’s all usually complete in one day. They get to go home, take a hot shower, sleep in their own bed. So Sprint mushing, you’re out there in the woods for a lot less time. You’re not spending the night, you’re not really stopping on the trail for you or the dogs to eat snacks. Some distance mushers run many more miles. I can’t remember the distance Fur Rondy, it’s 20, 20ish miles. I’d have to look that up. But I’m only running four to six miles when I run. So that’s taking, you know, under 20 minutes to do that. To do the well, to do four miles. I don’t remember how many six takes, but somewhere in that neighborhood, like 15 to 25 minutes. Not out there for a super long time. Sometimes kind of hot when you’re dog mushing. If you’ve downhill skied before, or especially cross-country skied, you know that you have to be careful not to wear too many layers, because when you’re working hard, you start to be like, why do I have on this jacket? I’m hot. Sometimes mushing is like that.

Sometimes mushing, I went a couple weeks ago and it was probably negative 25 on the frozen swamp where I was, and I accidentally closed my eyes too far. I was squinting in the sun and my eyelashes froze and I couldn’t get that eye to open back up all the way. I had to pull my goggles down and kind of thaw out my my eyelashes so that I could see again. And so then I just kind of, I couldn’t see, well in the goggles. I didn’t want to wear them. I just had to pull them down to thaw my eyes and then I’d pull them back up. So some days it’s really cold like that, but it’s still just sort of magical being out there alone with your dogs in the middle of nowhere.

Amy Bushatz: When you’re out there alone like that, are you -Okay, so when I’m running by myself, this is, I’m trying to maybe, understand the experience of that. When I’m running by myself, you get in a state that’s called flow, okay, where you’re just kind of doing the activity you are, it’s almost rote, but also you feel, almost an adrenaline rush, sort of, and you can think, and your brain seems to be working better and you’re feeling more creative and sort of things are happening, right?

The clogs in the pipes seem to be going away. This is why I like to run, because I like being in that moment and it’s so, it feels so very good for my mental health. Is that similar to what you’re experiencing out there?

Sarah Varland: Yeah, I would say that’s really similar. I was thinking about how to explain it to you, and when you’re downhill skiing and you have all that adrenaline and then you get on the lift and it’s just kind of this time of quiet, it’s almost like that, but backwards before a race or even before any run, the dogs are so excited that they’re barking, they’re making noise.

You’re, you’re hurrying to get everyone hooked up. As soon as you start to go, there’s just this quiet and this calm, and it’s an interesting, I like how you described it as a flow state because I, it is interesting how you kind of just zoom in on yourself in the moment. Any like, anxiety before the race any nervousness in my experience is gone once I’m out there and it’s just I’m focused on me and the dogs. I almost have to zoom out in order to appreciate the view and to notice the trees. Or the other day I had a gorgeous view of Denali because it was sunny. That was awesome. But it is kind of a flow state where you’re just out there and you’re not really thinking anymore. You’re just kind of being, I think it’s a great way to be fully immersed in the moment and just a mindfulness that doesn’t take work. Sometimes I refer to it as like my yoga feels sort of like yoga, standing on the back of a dog sled and going through the woods like that, because it very much is that flow state. That’s a great way to explain it, amy.

Amy Bushatz: So you say a mindfulness that doesn’t take work, except the only time you’re not working is when you’re in that state, because the rest of the time taking ,mushing and being into this and having your own dogs and all of the commitments is a ton of work. I mean, we’re talking being a home to how many dogs do you have now?

Sarah Varland: Oh, I don’t know that we can put that on the internet, I have 10.

Amy Bushatz: 10. Surely John has counted them recently, so I’m not worried about that.

Sarah Varland: So only eight really count.

Amy Bushatz: Really. And how is it that the other two don’t count specifically?

Sarah Varland: Listen, any musher will tell you I barely have any dogs. That’s the thing with being a recreational musher. My musher friends are like eight sled dogs. You’re so cute. And my non musher friends are like eight dogs. What is wrong with you? So it’s a funny number to have.

Amy Bushatz: Hey humans, just a quick break to remind you that if you wanna build your own outdoor habit, the Humans Outside 365 Challenge is a great way to get started. Cool and exclusive Challenge swag, including a finisher, metal, and decal is waiting for you. All you need to do is visit humansoutside.com/challenge. Don’t get left out. Go to humansoutside.com/challenge to learn more now. Okay, back to the show.

Okay, so how do these eight glorious sled dogs live? Describe how you keep them. Because anybody who owns any dogs is gonna be like, oh my God, I cannot believe somebody has eight dogs. Okay. But that’s not how sled dogs are cared for in the way that people might be imagining. So describe to us where, how the dogs live, how that whole, the situation, describe it.

Sarah Varland: First of all it is kind of a lot of dogs. Every now and then, we have a handful of them that come into the house, like four or five, and we’ll look around and we’re like, this is a large number of dogs.

Amy Bushatz: I’m imagining that scene in a Christmas Story where all of the bloodhounds come in and steal their Turkey. Have you seen this movie? Okay. It’s like the, there’s like quirky music going on and then they all leave and the dad’s like, oh, the dogs!

Sarah Varland: I lost a stick of butter yesterday to a sled dog who jumped up with his paws on the counter to take my butter and eat it. The dogs, most of them live outside most of the time. This is actually because it’s better for them. We keep our house somewhere around 68 degrees, 70 degrees. When the sled dogs are inside, they’re like so hot in here.

They love being outside. They have houses with straw in them in the winter, so they’re really well insulated. They can stay warm in the house if they want more often than not, we’ll find them kind of draped halfway out of the house when they’re sleeping, just to stay a little cooler because they just thrive in the cold temperatures.

They live outside. They have yards that are big enough for them to run around in. But then we also take them out to run them during the winter to dog mush with them. Or in the fall we dog mush with bikes. It’s called dry land mushing, but they also like to just go out. I have one dog in particular who really likes to go to the lake and just lay on the dock and hang out with us.

I have another dog who likes to ride around in the car with us. She thinks that’s a pretty fun activity. I laugh sometimes about people’s, some people have the perception of sled dogs that maybe they’re not all that comfortable. Um, More than once I have turned the seat coolers on for a dog in the summer and looked over at the sled dog curled up on the leather seats in the car with the the cooler’s on the seat. I’m like, rough life you live there, sled dog. But they love to sleep on the couch. They love to lay on us. I think sometimes that they’re like hearkening back to the puppy piles of their youth because they’ll just lay on us awkwardly. I’ve one dog pancake who just drapes across you.

But yeah, they, some of ’em live in the house, some live outside, but they just, it, they have a life, a lot like a normal dog. It does involve a lot of work for us. There’s the poop scooping, the feeding, like you talked about. It’s kind of a full body workout. The care for them, which is good because standing on the runners as easy as it looks, is sort of a full body workout too. So the care for them is sort of preparation for the musher. It all kind of works altogether like that.

Amy Bushatz: Earlier you described them as Huskies. People might be imagining the husky dog that I always thought of before we moved here to Alaska, which is actually a Siberian husky, you know, blue eyes, poofy, the whole, you know, hair in your house, the whole nine yards. That does not accurately describe this dog whatsoever. Okay, so what does an Alaskan Husky look like?

Sarah Varland: That’s, That’s a great question cuz you’re right, most people do picture the siberians. And when we first got into mushing, we went to this musher’s house and the dogs kind of looked like. I guess maybe labs. And I’m like what is it though?

Like what breeds are in it? She’s like, it’s an Alaskan Husky. Like, tell me the breeds. And she’s like, it’s an Alaskan husky. They’re not an official like breed. They’re basically an intentional mixed breed dog. They look completely different. I have one that’s brown and looks almost like a German Shepherd. I have one that’s white spotted with blue eyes and looks like a tiny dalmatian whose spots are too big.

Alaskan huskies are intentionally bred to pull. Sometimes they’ve got Siberian mixed in. Sometimes they have German shorthair pointer mixed in. And actually, I run Alaskan Huskies. There are many sprint rushers mushers who run euro hounds or just purebred German short hair pointers. But the important thing is they’re dogs that have the drive to pull. So if you see one on the street, you might think lab. I have one that looks just like a yellow lab, Um, that’s probably the most common. But the thing that unites them is that drive to pull that’s been bred into them for years.

Amy Bushatz: And what happens when you have a hus, you happen upon an Alaskan husky in your pack. Do we call them a pack group? What? What’s the –

Sarah Varland: yeah, we can pull ’em a pack.

Amy Bushatz: Okay. So what happens when you have a husky that does not want to pull? Because I’m sure that this, I mean, you train, you know police train dogs and find that they are not that interested in sniffing things. Right. Even though all indications pointed towards sniffing. Big fan. Okay. What happens when you have a dog that’s like, er, not my jam.

Sarah Varland: So it kind of depends on how old they are. I’ve trained a couple different huskies who somewhere around one, when we first put them in a harness, they were like, It’s fine.

I think I’d rather trot along beside you and the bike. And I actually my lead dog now, when I was first teaching her, they’re supposed to go out in front of the bike and pull it and she kept just coming back to me like, hi, mom, what we doing? This is such a nice little trot. And I’m like, oh, dear. I broke her.

Sometimes if they’re young, it’s a matter of they’re young, they don’t want to do it yet, and that’s fine. And so you’ll circle back later. Give them another try. So far with all the dogs I’ve trained, they have loved it later, maybe a year and a half, two years old. Most mushers if somebody’s in this, especially professionally, they have the capacity, they have people on waiting lists to get huskies, and if they see that a dog is really not wanting to pull, they’ll find a pet home for it and somebody will adopt that dog, maybe take it on hikes with them, they’ll find a home that’s high activity, but that doesn’t require mushing because one thing that I really always try to explain to people is you absolutely cannot make a dog pull or make a dog run if they don’t want to, they stop. So if you’re a musher and you have a dog who does not want to run either, it just becomes a house dog with you and just a pet. Or a lot of times people will find other homes for them.

We’ve been really lucky that all the ones that we’ve had have wanted to run in some capacity. Some don’t like to run alone. Some of them require a teammate next to them just for company. Some people are like, I don’t wanna run through the woods alone. But so far all of them have wanted to pull and that’s been really nice.

Amy Bushatz: You alluded to this just a moment ago, but there is a, maybe misconception or idea that dog mushing is cruel to the dogs, that you’re making dogs pull you through the wilderness in negative 20, and that does not sound very nice to many humans. Okay. So in from your perspective, is dog racing cruel? And what do you say when people ask you that?

Sarah Varland: Oh, it’s definitely not. I think that people ask that question most of the time from a goodhearted perspective. People love dogs, dog lovers don’t want to think of a dog being made to do something they don’t want to do or to be uncomfortable. But one thing I think, especially as Americans that we’ve forgotten is that dogs are, to be honest with you, I like my dogs more than I like some people, but dogs aren’t people. They have different needs and my sled dogs would not appreciate just sitting inside all day. Um, I don’t know if you know, if you’re an exercise person, which I know you are. Our mental health would just suffer if we sat on the couch all day.

There’s some people who are cool with that, but I know if you and I did, we would lose our minds. Sled dogs are like that, and so I think the biggest thing when people worry about that is if they can watch a dog sled race. You know, you can usually watch the start of races if you live somewhere up north like this.

If you’re far away, you could watch maybe the start of the Iditarod online. Butseeing the dogs and hearing their yips, Uh, my parents tried to come watch a dog race once and they got back in the car. They were like, this is so loud, because the dogs are all just excitedly yipping. Um, you can see when you hook them up, some of them jump straight up and down, like, you can see their excitement and they love to do it. They just love being out there. Like I said, the run is the reward in and of itself. And I think the kind of the biggest misconception is what I said earlier that you pointed out is that you just can’t make a dog pull. No musher also wants dog that like on their team that doesn’t want to pull.

First of all, cuz most of us are dog people. We love the dogs. , but also just because it’s really ineffective. You’re only as fast as your slowest dog. It would be better to run six dogs and they all want to pull than to run eight or 10 dogs with some that were like, nah, I don’t think so. So I think really just seeing it is the best way to kind of dispel those rumors and like being open-minded and seeing how much they have a passion for it. Seeing how proud they are of themselves after they’re done. There’s a balance. You know, we take our dogs for a run and then they do love to come home and just curl up on the couch. But if they sit for too long on the couch, we can start to see their mental health kind of deteriorate. They start getting cranky with each other. They just, they feel off if they’re not getting that exercise. And it’s cool when you can see that and understand that it’s really the most loving thing to do for them is to let them do what they’re made to do.

Amy Bushatz: Hmm. How much does uh, keeping the yard of dogs cost and Kristy and Anna talked about, just how expensive this is.

But of course they have more dogs than eight. And they’re doing this on a professional level, so they’re their feed and stuff I’m sure is a little bit different than yours, but, you laugh. Okay. So how much does that, does dog racing cost?

Sarah Varland: You know, it’s pretty expensive as a sport goes. I tried to tell myself for a while that it was like a gym membership, but that’s really not true unless it’s like a lot of gym memberships it’s in the hundreds. I was trying to figure this out. I don’t have an exact number, but I was talking to my husband, I’m like, it’s kind of like a car payment every month. Then he’s like a really nice car where he’s like a nice. So it’s still a big commitment. It’s not, you know, we’re not paying in the thousands a month range like professionals would be, but it’s like, it’s hundreds a month. So it’s still pretty expensive, even though I don’t have an exact number. Yeah, that’s the only bummer if only the dogs could figure out how to pay for their own food. No, I’m just kidding.

Amy Bushatz: I mean that would be helpful for all sorts of reasons. Think what other things they could pay for. Just an idea. Okay.

I would love to know you, we talked a little bit about flow, we talked about the silence and that experience out there. I would love to know what you have learned about yourself while mushing, cuz we, whatever sport we’re doing outside, we have inside lives, we’re talking to each other inside. I have a full-time job inside. When I go outside, I learn things about myself that influences my inside life. So what do you learn about yourself out there?

Sarah Varland: So many things. One of the things I learn is that I am more capable than I sometimes feel like I am. I, I don’t know why the things that we love to do are sometimes scary, even though they’re enjoyable.

And during fall training this year, when we had the dogs hooked up to a four-wheeler and we would go run them, the only time we could get out there, it was usually getting dark in the woods. And I would take my kids out with me on the four-wheeler we’re running dogs, and one of them was like, why do we do this when it’s scary? And I’m like, because it’s scary. There’s something really good for humans, I think about going outside in places that make you a little nervous to show you that you can do it and that you’re braver than you think you are. All of those things sound so cliche, but I think it’s true. The biggest thing I’ve gained is seeing that I’m more capable than I think.

There’s not a lot of backup when you’re out there with a dog team. It’s you and the dogs, which means that if the lines the dogs are attached with get tangles I’m the only one who can stop the sled and go untangle the lines. I can’t ask someone for help. You only can depend on yourself and the dogs, and I think that’s really empowering to be able to see that yes, you can handle it and the things that you’ve trained for and the dogs have trained for, when you see that come to fruition, I think it’s just really one of those moments that makes you be like, Hey, we can do this. And I have more than once gone out to take care of the dogs and come inside and told my husband how much better. I feel about my capabilities and then clean to the whole kitchen because I feel better about myself. I feel like I can handle life, and so I think that’s what it’s done for me, though I’m sure it’s different for everybody who does it.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah that’s really relatable, I think for people who do spend time outside in any capacity, because going outside is inherently uncomfortable. Right. Like there will be times that it’s very comfortable and there are places that you can live that it’s mostly comfortable. But if you have an outdoor habit that you keep every day, it’s gonna be uncomfortable sometimes. And that discomfort reminds you that you can be uncomfortable and live to tell about it in other circumstances.

And you know, you talked about the physicality of mushing and how the strength that that takes and just organizing the dogs and the strength and mental preparation that takes, but mushing can also actually be dangerous. There’s of course, the human, other human factor of danger present no matter where we go or what we do.

But for a musher, you can encounter a moose on the trail, for example, and that doesn’t always turn out so good. There are stories out of Alaska, even within the last year of dog teams encountering, so what I would characterize as very grumpy moose on the trail. Yeah. And having a really sort of dangerous situation because of that.

Sarah Varland: Yes, that’s definitely the thing, at least in my experience, that’s kind of the scary thing that’s in most dog musher’s minds. A moose encounter is up there with , and people who live outside the north, it’s hard to put a moose in perspective. It is so much bigger than a horse in a way that I can’t even explain.

So yes, I think that’s worst case scenario. And like all outdoor pursuits, it’s kind of weighing the risks thing. We don’t wanna go outside and just be foolish. If I see a lot of times I’ll have my husband in the fall when we can ride the four-wheelers on the trail. I’ll have him run out on the four-wheeler first and make sure there’s no angry moose currently standing in the trail.

Because if we can avoid those things, it’s good to. But then, yes, when we’re out there, we’re just keeping our eyes open, being careful. My oldest son had an encounter. , I think it was two moose in a trail when he was mushing in a race last winter in Anchorage. He had to just stop his dog team and watch the moose until they wandered away.

And so I think a lot of mushers do have those encounters. I had one friend get knocked over by a moose. A friend last year had a moose jump over her entire dog team kind of reindeer style, don’t know Santa has moose now, but it was a really strange experience. But yeah, moose I would say are one of the biggest dangers that we watch out for.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Moose don’t love dogs so much. Not really. Just any dogs. Sled dogs, house dogs. Dogs in general, not fans. They will stomp on your dog. Moose, the longer they are alive in the winter, the more grumpy they get because imagine being cold for six months but not having any snacks. Very bad, and.

Sarah Varland: Moose the other day about this, he was up against my dog fence eating a tree. And I told him that I respected his need for a snack, but I needed him to back up off because he was too close to my dogs.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. And we encounter, I mean, I’m not racing dogs, but I’m out with my dogs on a walk and there was a moose on our normal trail yesterday and we had to decide to change. I mean, it’s not like we’ll just go anyway. It’s the moose is there and we are leaving. Right. Or we are waiting it out. Y ou don’t just be like, okay, well we’ll just drive by that and see how it goes. That’s a bad idea.

Sarah Varland: No, no.

Amy Bushatz: Guys don’t do that.

Sarah Varland: Yeah. Zero stars do not.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. So, okay. So you and I are both people of faith. Your husband John is actually a lead pastor at a church here near where we both live. I’m wondering how mush, what mushing rather, has taught you about your faith.

Sarah Varland: Ooh, that’s such a good question. It’s really taught me a lot about my faith. I think kind of related to being out there by myself. Part of it has been realizing that I’m not out there by myself. I’m out there with God, but it does force me to trust that belief that I have in a bigger way than usual. I also think there are just some really interesting parallels. My favorite one, and I searched all over on the internet to find this, but I can only find it when I’m not looking. If you’re familiar with Psalm 23, it’s uh, a chunk of the Bible where it compares God to a shepherd taking care of sheep and what that looks like and how God is a good shepherd.

I read once a poem someone had written about God being a good musher and putting it in those perspectives, like to be like, okay, God takes care of us. You know, if I were a sled dog, God takes care of me by checking my paws and making sure that they’re soft and they’re not getting cuts. God takes care of me by giving me snacks when I need them.

Just an interesting parallel, not that a musher feels like they’re God, at least I don’t, but of the way that God takes care of us, the way that we take care of these dogs. I also think as a person of faith my beliefs would involve feeling like God wants me to take care of things in the world to be a good steward.

And it’s a neat way to work that out every day by taking care of the dogs and being like, this is me taking care of something I believe God created. And trying to do a good job taking care of that the way that I should. So it’s taught me a lot of things. It’s taught me so much more than that. But of course, this is one of those questions that when I think about it, I’m like, lots of things. I don’t know what, but it’s definitely taught me a lot.

Amy Bushatz: I appreciate the moments that I’m outside in the stillness that you described, where I feel context and a, I dunno, sizing, right? Like I am small. Everything else is big. And it gives you a sense of your place in the world. And I think for people of faith, that place in the world is compared to God and how you roll up in context of that. There’s something relatable there, even if you’re not a person of faith of your place in the world, be it with a higher power or with the earth itself. But I think that as humans, we have a draw, innate draw to understand that or to search that out.

And you see that in the Psalms, you know, maybe not necessarily Psalm 23, which lots of people may be familiar with. Like, it’s the one that they read, quote unquote in movies at funerals. Okay. That’s Psalm 23. Yep. People, everyone should just have it in their brain sort of automatically from that, you might be picturing like people dressed in black and crying. Okay. That’s why. But the Psalms talks about that a lot because the Psalm writer, who’s typically David, spent a lot of time in the wilderness with sheep being alone and understanding his context in the great scheme of the world and the wilderness. And that’s just a super, I think, relatable human draw to have that context and that is something that we achieve by being out in nature.

Sarah Varland: I think that’s, that makes a lot of sense.

Amy Bushatz: Okay. Mushing, huge commitment. You’re not gonna trick me to do it, but eh, let’s say someone else wants to do it. How do you get started? Why should someone try it? Like what’s the first step?

Sarah Varland: Oh, you should definitely try it, Amy. Um, No, really, everybody I think that owns a dog has the capacity to at least try to enjoy it, I think. There’s some dogs who, if you put a running harness on, , we’ll still just be like, no, thank you. Um, But there are a lot of dogs even that aren’t Huskies that will pull. And so at the dryland races where we have a dog and a harness, with a rope line behind it, hooked up to a bike. There’s a little antenna that keeps the line from going in the wheel. We’ll see karelian bear dogs at those races. I saw some kind of German Shepherd like dog at one of those races, Australian Shepherds.

A lot of those sporty dogs can get into it without the commitment that having a whole team of dogs requires. So I would say bikejoring is the most accessible way, especially if people don’t have snow. Skijoring, if you cross-country skis, you wear kind of a belt around your waist and hook the dog up to pull you that way.

Any of those one dog sports are really accessible. The only warning I would give people is it’s really fun. And then you’ll think, what if I had two dogs? What if you had three? But it’s really fun and it’s definitely worth trying. I’ve had two friends in the last six months that I have had hooked up to dogs and I’m like ha I’m winning them over.

Amy Bushatz: No. The answer is no. Also. My husband does not want dogs. No, because you’ve seen my dogs. One of them is Chloe, who is an old lady now. I had to literally hoist her legs back, hind legs out of a snow drift yesterday. She will not be pulling anyone anywhere. Sure. And the other one is Sam, who is a 10 pound poodle mix. Whose primary goal in life is to sleep as close to you as human I guess canine possible. And that’s mostly and eat sweet potatoes off the floor. Oddly, he loves sweet potatoes. I don’t know. So, okay, we close our episodes, hearing our guest favorite outdoor moment. You know, we’ve been talk, we’ve been sort of describing where you go when you mush, but I’d love you to walk us out describing just an outdoor moment or scene that you just love so that we can picture ourselves there with you.

Sarah Varland: I think an outdoor moment with the dogs that I’ve had recently that I really loved, that I kind of hinted at earlier was a recent race I did up in Montana Creek, and it had been a chaotic start. We were kind of running behind. I got on the back of the sled standing on the runners holding the little bar, and we got out there and I went into that flow state. Everything was calm and peaceful. And then I was freezing. It was negative 25. And then I noticed Denali in the distance and, you know, largest mountain in North America, absolutely gorgeous. It likes to stay hidden in the clouds. And on this particular day, like I said, I’d been a little cranky. I had frostbitten myself the week before, so I was a little anxious about that. And I saw Denali come into view with the blue sky behind it, and I thought, I am seeing Denali from the back of a dog sled like this is amazing that I get to do this. And it just reminded me of the privilege of getting to do this sport. But also just the privilege of being outside and being in a place where I can see these things and that, yes, sometimes we have to have some discomfort to get there, but it’s always worth it. I’ve never gone to the trouble of getting out and wished that I had stayed home.

Amy Bushatz: Totally relatable. Thank you, Sarah, so much for joining us on Humans Outside Today. This was a really fun conversation and we couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

Sarah Varland: Thanks. It was fun talking to you.

Amy Bushatz: Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside. Help me out by leading a five star rating or review wherever you get your podcasts. It really does help other listeners find the podcast. Now go get outside. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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