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Meet Alden West
Musher, Guide & Yukon Quest Racer

Page 1

Name:
Kennel Name:
Birthplace:
Home Town:
Occupation:
Alden West
Dog Patch Kennel
Berkeley, California
Fairbanks, Alaska
Musher/Guide

[click on any photo on this page to see a larger version]

~more photos~

Introduction

By education I am an attorney - driving dogs is my rehab program. I was born in Berkeley andAldo with Kiana & Apollo raised in Northern California half a century ago. I think I must have been contracted Type "A" Personality Disorder as a teen. Most of my life I've been racing someone or something - first it was ski racing during high school and college then cars & sailboats later on. Now it's dogs.

I went to undergraduate school at UC Berkeley and graduated from law school in Oregon. After school I practiced law for awhile, did some time as a corporate counsel and then started a computer business in Silicon Valley. A few years ago I had an opportunity to sell the computer business and decided that the time had come to make a change so I moved to Alaska determined to make mushing a way of life. I chose Fairbanks because to me it personifies Alaska. The vast expanse of wilderness in the Alaskan interior is what 'The Last Frontier' is all about. I chose to settle in Fairbanks because there simply isn't a better place on the planet for running dogs. It's also the home of the Yukon Quest so it made sense to be close to the action.

For about as long as my feeble mind can remember, I've wanted to run the Yukon Quest. I feel like I'm getting close to achieving that goal now. I ran the Yukon Quest 250 in 2001 as a qualifier. In 2002 I entered the long Quest but one thing after another went wrong for me. Sometimes I think we get so caught up in the excitement of race day and seeing the teams on the trail that we overlook just how difficult it is to prepare a team to do a marathon distance race. The time spent training the dogs, the logistics of preparing all the necessary equipment, the time and cost of preparing food drops - it is a massive undertaking spanning 7 or 8 months. Quite literally it's a full time job. Then there's the expense of it all. Veterinary expense alone last year was a killer. I wound up withdrawing from the long race and entered the 250 again so that I could run the northern end of the trail. It was certainly frustrating to find myself doing the 250 again but now I feel like I am much better prepared for the challenges of the Quest trail in 2003.

Background

What is your primary sled dog activity or area of interest?
Dogs aren't a hobby for me - they're my life, my passion. First off, sled dogs are my business. I run a dogsled excursion business here in Fairbanks (Aurora Adventures). I teach people to drive a team and then we head out into the bush for a few days - driving dogs and camping out - to see the scenery and the wildlife; to experience the solitude. So the dogs are my business partners. I guess you could say the tour business is my vocation; racing dogs is my avocation. At that end of the spectrum, distance racing is what appeals to me. It's more or less just an extension of what I do for a living. On a personal level, racing is a way to challenge myself; for the dogs, it's an opportunity to see just how much they can accomplish.

How long have you been involved with sled dogs?
I've been involved with dogs of one sort or another nearly all my adult life. I got my first sled dog about 15 years ago - a great big hard headed, mouthy Malamute named Tuk. His whine has mellowed with age but he's still with me. What sparked your initial interest in sled dogs? I suppose like so many others, I read Jack London as a kid and his romantic notion of sled dogs was lurking beneath the surface all those years when I'd put on a suit and go to work every day. On a more practical level, I used to do a lot of winter mountaineering and ice climbing. I first used dogs to haul pulks to carry our climbing gear. One dog was so much fun & such a huge help I thought to myself ' Just think what I could do with TWO dogs!' One soon became two, two became four … you can see where that sort of thinking led me. I woke up one day, looked out the window and began counting tails … oops - there were forty dogs outside! What's up with that?

If you remember your very first time behind a team of dogs, tell us about it.
Oh, do I EVER! I was living in California at the time and heard about a low key, casual freight race being held in a small mountain town in conjunction with their winter carnival. I decided to enter. I didn't even own a sled so I borrowed one. I owned 3 Mals at the time so I borrowed 3 more because 6 seemed like a respectable number for a dog team. I had never been on a sled before, but with snow about a 3 or 4 hour drive from home this wasn't something one did on a whim with an hour to spare after work some evening. I planned to drive up to the mountains a couple days before the race to try out the sled & get the hang of it.

As luck would have it, my truck broke down the week before the race and I didn't get it back from the shop until Friday afternoon. The race was Saturday morning. I was undaunted. No problem, no worries. How hard can it be? If I can handle a couple hundred horsepower in a race car I can certainly handle a half dozen dogs, right? It won't be a big deal. No big deal? I found out different. Six hundred pounds of Malamute - 3 of whom had never met the others - was a bit more than I had bargained for. At the time it seemed like a good idea to borrow some dogs but 6 dogs = 24 canine teeth. I hadn't done the math. They also had a LOT more horsepower than I had bargained for.

It was bad enough trying to hustle them all up to the starting chute. That was a real comedy. They had volunteers to help teams get to the starting chute. All the other teams had ample assistance but when my turn came around everyone just stood back out of harm's way. I tried to convince myself that it was because they all thought I looked like I knew what I was doing. In truth I think it was because of all the snarling and growling. Somehow I got them into the chute but then a scrap broke out. I got that sorted out, took off and then promptly tipped the sled over in the first turn. I managed to hang on to the sled and fortunately the dogs stopped right away. (They had more enthusiasm for snarling at each other than they did for running.) About the time I got the sled upright the next team came whizzing past and that motivated them. I think they were trying to catch the other team so they could start a war. I just held on for dear life until it was over.

Who have been your mentors?
Curtis Erhart and Bill Taylor are my neighbors here in Fairbanks. They have both been very helpful to me. They are both sprinters so they're involved in a different style of racing but they know so much about dogs. Whenever I have a problem I can't sort out, Curtis is the first person I talk to. Bill is the second.

Kennel Management

Dog Lot

What size kennel do you operate?
Typically I carry about 30 adults during the summer and that goes up to about 40 during the winter. All together, including adults, yearlings and pups I have a total of about 60 dogs here right now.

What type of tether/bowl system do you use?
The tethers are chains on posts and I use loose stainless bowls. I've experimented with bowls attached to the houses so that the bowls would always be easy to locate but anything left in the bowl freezes and that's a pain. The bigger problem I encountered was that the chains would hang up on the bowls as the dogs spin around their houses. I gave up on that idea and now I just have lots of extra bowls in the yard. 60 bowls for 40 dogs seems about the right ratio. I'm also a bit fanatical about keeping the bowls clean so at times when the doglot is a mess - during breakup and fall rainy season - I'm washing bowls daily.

What are the most important considerations in housing sled dogs?
The dogs like to be clean. It's also a health consideration. I prefer a dirt base in the doglot rather than gravel. The drawbacks to gravel are the heat during the summer and rock eaters. Dirt is much cooler for the dogs and I don't spend a king's ransom having rocks removed from their intestines. Besides, dirt is free; gravel costs money. Instead of gravel I use a lot of sawdust and wood chips. That keeps things looking tidy, minimizes the mud when things are wet and the dogs seem to enjoy the sawdust. The drawback is that sawdust can become a breeding ground for bacteria, especially when it's warm and wet. Keep it clean.

The dogs also like to have ample fresh straw in their houses. Through the course of the winter I use about one to one and a half bales per dog. Having fresh straw keeps them warm which helps on the food bill. Buying straw is a whole lot cheaper than buying food. Here in Alaska breakup creates a huge mess in the spring. It only lasts a couple of weeks but during that time it's next to impossible to keep the straw dry in their houses. I'm in the process of putting pallets underneath every house to elevate them and help keep the straw dry.

Give us an overview of your feeding program.
The dogs get baited water in the morning and food in the afternoon. Pups get fed twice daily and lactating bitches are fed 2 to 3 times daily plus all the water they can swallow. It's amazing how giving lots of water helps them hold their weight while they're nursing.

The diet consists of a high grade commercial kibble supplemented with meat and fat during the winter. Dogs are carnivores so I look for a food with good meat when selecting a kibble. It takes about 60 to 90 days for a dog to adjust to a change in diet so that they can fully metabolize the nutrients. For that reason I begin feeding meat in July so that by October they are able to get the most from it. It's warm enough during July and August that they don't need very much - just enough for them to begin to adapt to digesting raw meat. During the fall the amount of meat increases gradually as temperatures drop and training miles increase.

On the topic of food, I don't tolerate fussy eaters. Whether at home in the doglot, out on the trail during a tour with clients or during a race, the stresses on sled dogs are much too great for them to be skipping meals. They eat what they are fed, when they are fed. Period. When I feed I expect my dogs to dive into the bowl head-first and not come up for air until it's empty. By the time I've moved to the next dog in line if I see anything other than the dog's heels sticking out of his bowl I take the bowl away and give it to the next dog in line. They aren't keen on watching as their neighbor polishes off their food. News travels fast in a doglot so it doesn't take long for them all to understand that I'm serious about it and I mean business.

Summarize your basic kennel management style.
I've been accused of spoiling my dogs. Most of them take turns having indoor privileges for a few hours in the evening. I want to establish a bond … develop a friendship with my dogs. It's a matter of mutual, reciprocal trust and respect. With this many dogs it takes a LOT of time but I want each and every one of them to feel like they are the special one. They're trained with positive reinforcement and motivated with lots of affection. Physical discipline of any kind is very rarely used. I don't want to be a couple hundred miles from the nearest road with a team that's been trained through fear. One day they would discover that they have the upper hand. It would be a long walk home.

The Dogs

What breed(s) do you work with?
All my working dogs now are Alaskan Huskies. Most are from Erhart, Taylor and Champaine bloodlines.

NikeWhat physical characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
First and foremost, I want dogs that are terrific athletes. I think impeccable conformation is the key to that. If the dog has the wrong angles it will never be a match for a dog with all the parts in all the right places. All my dogs come from sprint bloodlines because I think that's where you find the best athletes. A sprint dog simply cannot perform at the levels demanded unless it has that basic athleticism. I look for large sprinters. Substantial dogs. My race dogs are mainly in the 50 to 65 pound range, 24 to 26" at the withers, give or take with long legs and well proportioned backs. Powerful hindquarters are important because I like a dog with a big jump. I also insist on smoothly gaited dogs. I want to see all the legs moving in the right direction - no eggbeaters or windmills. It's so much more efficient and in a long race it makes a difference. It's essential that they be able to transition readily between a trot and a lope. Distance racing has become so competitive these days that the dogs aren't just trotting for a thousand miles - they spend a lot of time loping. Good, tight feet are important, but with recent developments in bootie design, pads are not so crucial as they used to be. My gender preference is males. Both because of their size and because whenever you've got females in your team it's inevitable that they'll all come into season during your big race. The females begin flirting like little sluts and all the males start acting stupid. You're left standing there at the side of the trail wringing your hands and watching a canine orgy while the other mushers chuckle at your predicament as they pass on by.

What mental or emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
I like dogs with heart. Crazy dogs. It takes a lot of effort to tone it down and focus that energy so that it's productive, but the very best dogs are those that are a little crazy.

Tell us about an all time favorite dog or two.
Speaking of crazy - that's Star. I got him a few years ago from a musher who was at his wits end. Star is a big dog - a sixty-pounder. And he's crazy. Simply NUTS. The fellow who had him always ran him in wheel due to his size. But he was such a handful and so disruptive the guy had gotten to the point he never would run him. Even in wheel Star would spin and twist and scrap with other dogs and made a mess of things. I got him for free. When I tried him in my team it was more of the same. If ever I'd seen a dog that was unmanageable, this was the dog. Pure chaos. So big and so strong and so crazy that it was all I could do to hustle him from his chain to the gangline. Took an army of strong men and a few young boys to hold him down until you were ready to pull the hook and get under way. Once under way, he was awesome. He just couldn't get enough of it. He always wanted to run faster, faster, faster … pull harder harder, harder. I don't know what came over me but one day I decided to try him in lead. That's all it took. Once he was up front, he settled down. He was still crazy, but he became focused. The dog is so smart that it only took him about 3 runs and he had all this gee-haw nonsense figured out: "Gee" means speed up and turn right, "Haw" means speed up and go left. "Whoa" means dig in and speed up because the old guy on the runners is trying to rain on our parade. He's turned into an absolutely awesome dog. Best gee-haw leader I've ever had. With him up front I could write my name on a lake with the sled tracks. In cursive. He's a bit old now, and he's slowed down, but he's still the dog I use for training leaders and pups. He sets the example and instills that fanatical drive into the rest of the team. He's a great leader trainer, too. He's so big that he can really muscle another dog around - even the big ones. More than one novice leader has been rolled if they weren't paying proper attention when I hollered "Gee!"


More on Page 2 of Interview

~more photos~


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