Running with the big dogs

| April 2, 2014

Alison Lifka ’13 on the banks of the Matanuska River

Alison Lifka ’13 has always been fascinated by dog driving. She just never quite knew how one becomes a “musher” — until last winter, when she worked as a dog handler for Lev Shvarts, an Iditarod rookie, in Willow, Alaska.

It was there she met the owner of Alaska Heli-Mush, the company she’ll be working for as a musher this summer.

“[He] trains his Iditarod team on the same trail system as us,” Lifka says. “Over the winter, I heard what a great operation he runs in the summer down in Juneau and decided to apply.”

After graduating from Sweet Briar with a major in environmental science and a minor in biology, the North Carolina native knew she wanted to work outside, and she wanted to go to Alaska.

Lifka running her 10-sled dog team, led by Envy (left) and Wrath. “Litters are generally named based on themes,” she says. “The theme of [this one] was the seven deadly sins.”

When the opportunity came to lead kayaking tours with Alaska Sea Kayakers, Lifka jumped on it. Between May and September, she gave two to three kayak tours a day in Passage Canal and Blackstone Bay, both part of Prince William Sound.

One day while giving tours, she met a friend of Shvarts’ who was visiting Alaska. The two started talking about sled dogs, and he told her about the dog handler job.

“It was just lucky happenstance,” she says.

Beginning in May, Lifka will be leading dog sled tours on Norris Glacier near Juneau for Heli-Mush. She’ll also be in charge of feeding her dog team and treating any injuries or illnesses, responsibilities she is well prepared for through her job as a dog handler.

“I [helped] with the general operation and maintenance of a thirty-sled dog kennel and ran the dogs anywhere from ten to sixty miles a day,” she says.

“I am most excited about being able to continue to work with sled dogs through the summer months, especially since I’ll be working with the same team of dogs I worked with this past winter. Also, I am excited to be part of the community up on the glacier.”

The position is seasonal and will run all summer. In the winter, Lifka plans to return to Willow and her previous job as a dog handler.

“Life as a dog handler is fairly simple,” she says. “You live to take care of the dogs: feed them, clean up after them, and run them.”

While there is some stress involved in being a dog handler — such as injuries or illnesses in the dogs, running into wildlife, and being able to take care of yourself in a harsh environment — Lifka finds it mostly relaxing.

“Most of my day is spent on the runners watching the dogs with only my thoughts to keep me company,” she says. “While that may seem lonely, you’ve got the dogs, and it’s a beautiful — if forbidding — country we travel through.”

Lifka out in the frozen swamp with her dog team; Denali (Mount McKinley) is on the horizon.

Working as a dog driver and tour guide this summer will be quite different.

“I [will] have all the company in the world, as people come up to the glacier to experience what it is like to run dogs,” she explains. “It will be a nice contrast to the silent, thoughtful winter. That is what I like about Alaska and my job working with dogs: The winters are for me to train and work with sled dogs, and the summers are for passing that love onto other people.”

Alaska, she adds, has taught her a lot in just one year: about herself, about sled dogs, and about “enjoying life for what I do and not about the money I make.”

Lifka doesn’t have a concrete plan for her future — at least not yet. For the time being, she wants to continue driving dogs, which means giving tours in Juneau in the summer and retreating to the solitude of Willow for the winter months.

But there are other ideas swirling around in her head.

“At some point I’d like to take a year off and through-hike the Appalachian Trail,” she says. “I also enjoy working as a field technician, and I may want to eventually pursue getting qualified as a Wilderness EMT — [I’m] currently qualified as a Wilderness First Responder.”

“I’m living my life one step at a time and jumping at each new exciting opportunity.”

Janika Carey

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Category: Alumnae and Development, Biology, Environmental Science