Q&A: After five years in Alaska, Sweet Briar grad Alison Lifka gets ready for Iditarod

Alison Lifka
Alison Lifka with two puppies

No bones about it: Alison Lifka has a giant appetite for adventure. It’s why she moved to Alaska three days after graduating from Sweet Briar College in 2013. And it’s why she’s now training for the Iditarod — the world’s “last great race.”

Lifka, who was born in Ohio and grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, says a lot of her fierce spirit comes from her four years at Sweet Briar, where she studied environmental science. “Sweet Briar molded my current character. Entering college, I was a shy, quiet student,” she recalls. “While determined with a strong work ethic, I was easily intimidated and wasn’t very confident in my skills. I still tend toward quiet and reserved, but now there is a steel edge and resiliency to my quiet determinedness. This is very much thanks to Sweet Briar. My professors, soccer coaches and peers taught me the value of the strength of women and pride in doing something not quite the norm. In the sport of racing sled dogs, where the gender of the competitor doesn’t matter, I have found a niche that Sweet Briar helped prepare me for.”

Magazine story LifkaIn 2014, we wrote about Lifka’s move to Alaska in the Sweet Briar Magazine. Little did we know we’d be checking in with her four years later because she was going to do something as extraordinary and (awe-) inspiring as the Iditarod, so yes: We wanted to know everything. Lucky for us, Lifka told us a lot about how she ended up in Alaska, what made her want to race in the Iditarod (here’s her profile), and how she’s getting herself and her 22 huskies ready for it.

(The Q&A below is edited for length and clarity.)

Q: What made you want to move to Alaska, and what was your first job there?

A: I moved to Alaska three days after graduating from Sweet Briar for multiple, mostly subconscious reasons. I believe the strongest motivation stemmed from an internal struggle with the concept of settling into a predestined career — and the desire for adventure and living more in sync with the outdoors. The lure of the romanticized notion of Alaska as the Last Frontier appealed to me. Also, I really love winter and what better place to experience true winter than the great white north? I spent my first summer working as a sea kayaking guide in the town of Whittier in Prince William Sound. A fellow alumna and close friend, Mary Rora Alexander ’12, helped me secure this job and we worked together that summer.

Q: How did you end up working with sled dogs?

A: In my last month as a kayak guide, I gave a tour to a friend of a sled dog musher. At the time, I wanted to work with sled dogs, but didn’t know how. This musher’s friend put me in contact with the musher, Lev Shvarts, who was looking for help training his dog team that winter to compete in his first Iditarod.

Q: Has the Iditarod been a lifelong dream of yours?

A: After my first winter, I found a summer job working as a sled dog tour guide on a glacier in southeast Alaska. From then on, I worked in the winter as a “dog handler” for Iditarod racing kennels and spent my summers as a mushing guide on the Norris Glacier. After two winters working for Lev, I transitioned kennels and began working for Linwood Fiedler. There, I was given my first opportunity to race in mid-distance sled dog races.

Before racing, I had a vague desire to eventually run the Iditarod, but it was a bit like a fantasy, not very solid or fleshed out. Other mushers encouraged me to try, but I had no real notion or plan of actually making it happen. Yet, when I ran my first race, I ran it as an Iditarod qualifier. To run in Iditarod, you have to run and receive good marks on three mid-distance races before even signing up for Iditarod.

Northern Lights 300
Lifka racing in the Northern Lights 300

That first race, the Northern Lights 300, cemented my love for the sport. I wasn’t particularly competitive, but I enjoyed traveling across vast spans of the back-country by dog team. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow mushers. Most of all, I enjoyed watching my dog team. In training, the dogs and I generally run on the same network of trails and fall into a pattern. But out on the race, they came alive in a way I had never seen before. They were competitive and driven. I was holding them back in my inexperience at running dogs for 300 miles in a race setting. When we crossed the finish line, I wasn’t proud of myself — I was proud of the dogs. After that experience, the dogs and I trusted each other even more to get each other through thick and thin.

Last winter, I completed my final two qualifiers and got permission to run a younger group of dogs from Linwood’s kennel in the next Iditarod. My group of dogs consists of 22 dogs, 11 of which are 2-year-olds. This means that my team won’t be going for any records. Instead, we will be running the Iditarod trail as a training run for the young guys. They are too young physically and mentally to compete seriously in the race, so we will be taking a slow pace and enjoy each other’s company for 12 days in the beautiful, harsh back-country of Alaska.

Husky

Q: How important is trust and relationship-building with your dogs? How do you care for them?

A musher’s world revolves around the dogs. From the moment I wake to nearly the moment I go to bed, I am caring for and spending time with my huskies. The bond between musher and dogs is essential. I need to trust them to work hard, be honest in harness, and get me back home no matter what. The dogs need me to be fair and care for all their needs — food, water, shelter and social interactions. The longer we work together, the stronger the bond. Having a dog team’s trust and trusting my dog team is crucial when attempting an endeavor such as Iditarod.

I don’t generally sit down and strategize about how I’m going to earn a dog team’s trust, but the amount of care a musher puts into their team shows. Examples of common care practices for a dog team include providing a high nutritional diet, exercise and health care. The majority of the sled dogs’ diet is meat and a high quality dry commercial feed. We feed mostly beef and fish, mainly salmon.

Exercise is somewhat self-explanatory; they are sled dogs and they love to run. We give them an outlet in the form of running as a team pulling a sled with a musher clutching on for dear life. If we are unable to run them in a team because it is too warm or because they are on “vacation” from mushing, we find other outlets for all their boundless energy. Mainly we take them on free runs (human rides an ATV and dogs run along free with the machine) or put them in a free run (big pen the dogs can run around in). Finally, the last key in having a healthy, happy dog team is making sure their bodies are physically healthy.

Dog teamDogs get sick and hurt, whether they are a pet or a working sled dog, so I am on constant alert. Common ailments and injuries can be cared for in the kennel, but chronic or more serious ailments are taken to the “local” vet an hour away in the nearest big town. Just like with human sports teams, my huskies need proper conditioning and care to prevent sports injuries. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, one of my canine athletes gets an injury from running. Generally, these aren’t major injuries and can be stretched and massaged during rehabilitation. Other injuries require a dog sitting out and healing for weeks or months at a time before slowly rehabilitating them. It is a lot like human sports medicine, except the patients are furry and have four legs. The running of the dogs is the fun part, but the behind-the-scenes care of the team is, in my opinion, what makes the dog team.

Q: How are you training for the Iditarod? What does a typical day look like?

In late September, my team and I began our training. We start slowly at first and build up their conditioning. We don’t have snow until November to December, so until we get snow, I hook up my dog team to an ATV. My goal is that by February, they can run 40 to 50 miles continuously with only short meat snack breaks. By comparison, competitive race teams happily run 50 to 80 miles continuously. To achieve this requires a training schedule. Typically, we train on a three days on, two days off, day on, day off schedule.

Lifka Denali
Lifka during a backpacking trip in Denali National Park

Every day, we get up before the sun and feed our dogs. Their breakfast consists of a watery meat soup with varying amounts of kibble added, depending on the nutritional requirements of the individual dog. While they are digesting their breakfast, we clean up their areas. After that we either take care of kennel chores, take care of any dogs needing extra TLC, and/or go for a run with a team.

The distance and type of dog run vary depending on the training schedule. Right now, miles are low (5 miles) and focus is on just getting the dogs moving and working as a team. As the fall progresses into winter, the focus will shift to conditioning (higher miles, pulling strength and recovery time). My team and I will also begin going on camping trips to get the dogs used to sleeping and eating away from home.

On days we do spend at home, our days typically end by feeding dogs their dinner around 6-8 p.m. before getting our own dinner. The dogs’ dinner consists of a thick meat mash mixed with kibble. The meat in the winter is usually high in fat, but additionally we feed fat mixed with fish, almost like a dessert at the end of their main meal. Dogs process and use fat more efficiently than humans, and it is a necessity in feeding a working sled dog team in the cold winters.

Skijoring
Lifka has fun skijoring with her dogs.

Before going to bed, if it is extremely cold outside (think 20 to 40 degrees below 0), we bring the dogs into what my boss has coined the “dog hotels.” The dog hotels are outbuildings with individual cubbies for the dogs to sleep in. These dogs are double-coated arctic breed dogs that typically would rather be out in the snow than inside by a fire, but these dog hotels are much appreciated by them.

In addition to training the dogs, I have to keep myself in shape. Mushers view this aspect of training in varying amounts of importance. For me, keeping myself in good physical condition ensures that I will be able to care for and help my team (running up hills, running alongside the team, ski poling) for the entire trail. Right now, this just equates to hauling heavy feed buckets around and going for human foot runs.

Q: What are your expectations going into the race?

Iditarod FB post
It’s Facebook-official: Lifka is among 40 mushers to sign up for the 2019 Iditarod.

A: Looking forward to March and the start of Iditarod, I still get the jitters and a surreal feeling. I don’t think I will truly believe it is happening until the starting gun is fired figuratively. My goal for the race is to run 14 happy, healthy huskies 1,000 miles, with them just getting stronger and more confident as the miles pass.

Q: The Iditarod is a big deal. What are your plans beyond that?

A: Looking even further ahead, everything gets hazier. I have been living the seasonal lifestyle for the past five years and a lot of that involves going with the flow. Eventually, I would like to return to my field of study, environmental science, but hopefully in a field position. Until that day, I plan on leaping at interesting and adventurous opportunities — whether that’s working in Denali National Park’s sled dog kennel or abroad for a few years. Ultimately, I plan on sled dogs always being a part of my life, but the goal is to eventually own a team of my own. Right now, my kennel consists of one, Bear, a 9-year-old Alaskan husky that I adopted, who is also the namesake of my team this winter, Bear Necessities Mushing and Racing.

Learn more about Lifka’s team at www.bearnecessitiesmushing.com. You can also follow her on Instagram: @bear_necessities_mushing


We love checking in with our recent grads to see what they’re up to! This is the third in a series of profiles featuring Sweet Briar’s young alumnae across various disciplines and job fields.


After completing the Iditarod in 32nd place, Alison Lifka visited Sweet Briar College on April 3, 2019, to talk about her incredible experience. You can watch a video of her talk below: