It’s the middle of the night, in the middle of Alaska, in the middle of winter. Samantha LaLonde ’17 BS is hurtling through the woods. It’s negative 30. The night is so dark all she can see from her headlamp are the active legs and tails of a dozen Alaskan huskies, pulling her through the pines. She’s thinking, “Why am I doing this? My hands are freezing.” But there’s an energy, a bond, a unity that’s magical and healing. And there’s a finish line just a few hundred miles ahead.
This was her first dog sled race, the Willow 300, a qualifier for the Iditarod. Although she had never raced before, and had just moved to Alaska to work as a dog handler the previous year, she finished in 16th place, out of 32 teams. And can’t wait to do it all again.
During the 300-mile race, she stopped dogs four times, explaining that it’s typical to rest dogs as much as you’re running them. “You want them to rest as much as they can, so the first thing I did is lay straw down and took their harness and booties off. Then I made them a hot meal by cutting up frozen meat and boiling it in water. After that I inspected the dogs, feeling their wrists and back legs, and massaging them, and wrapped any sore spots. Then it was time to take care of myself. I have become a part of the team.”
LaLonde added, “It’s crazy how fast time passes when you’re on the sled. At first I was giddy and super excited. Then what really helped me pass time and continue on was just watching the dogs, even though I was going through beautiful terrain—just watching their little legs and gait. I had headphones and a phone for photos, but I never used them. It helped to not have distractions— for the dog’s health and well-being.”
While that wellness, and training, are key components of her job at ATAO Kennel (Adventure. Truth. Accountability. Onward.) in Two Rivers, Alaska, where she cares for 24 dogs, she has discovered that it’s a reciprocal relationship.
On trail runs, she said, they have good days and bad days. There might be a tangle in a team. There may be personality fights. Maybe a bad injury. Sam herself may be having a down day. “I discovered that I need to get through this because they need it. I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety. The dogs are so helpful with that. Their attitudes are always happy. The dogs could read that I was tired or cranky. I wanted to go on a run, to make myself feel better. But realized I was bringing the bad energy. Now I always bring a smile. I’ve noticed a big change in myself since I’ve started working with them. I’ve learned to be strong and know I have the capabilities to get through it,” she said. Whatever it may be – including encountering a physical challenge, such as a bear, wolf or moose around a bend.
Working alongside these “athletes” with names like HeMan, PopTart, Sundance, Mad Max and Furiosa (“beautiful derp”), it’s hard to feel negative for long, especially when puppies are added to the mix.
The kennel’s owner, Will Troshynski, is also dedicated to “taking an honest look at accomplishing your dreams while struggling with depression.” He maintains a blog about mushing, boxing, and running to cope with mental illness. Sam said “he has graciously taken me under his wing and has been teaching me everything I need to know about this team and the world of racing.”
Last winter, he competed in and completed his first Iditarod – which was a slightly shortened 800 mile race due to Covid.
Troshynski hasn’t been the only one putting their faith in LaLonde, who was an outdoor recreation leadership and management major. “All of my outdoor rec profs were incredible, but Scott Jordan was not only a great professor, he was a good friend, if you needed help or just needed to talk.”
“It was very emotional for me, to see the dogs run off on their rookie Iditarod, and then come back all excited, acting like, ‘Let’s do more!’”
A Farmington Hills, Michigan, native, Sam fell in love with Marquette immediately, and in her freshman year she and a friend spontaneously decided to volunteer for the UP 200 dog sled race in Marquette. She now dreams of competing in that event someday. But first, she has signed up to race in her last two qualifiers —the Copper Basin 300 and the Yukon Quest 200—in order to compete in the Iditarod in 2023.
In the meantime, she is not only supporting canines, her Howling Shores Racing organization seeks “to cultivate a safe community that empowers, educates and encourages women and lgbtqi+ individuals in the outdoors by sharing resources, and simply building a community of badass ladies, no matter age, life experience or background.”
In addressing concerns she often hears from people about the sport of sled dog racing, she says, “I’ve had a lot of conversations about that. These dogs are family. They are treated better than any house pet. Being around them, people would see they truly love to run and be out there with their best friends and favorite people. Just thinking about their happiness at the starting line gives me goosebumps. That’s what they were bred and born to do.”
It seems it may be the same for Sam.
Written by Rebecca Tavernini '11 MA
Photographs by Scott Crady '19 BFA
More Wildcat Mushers
One can’t talk about dog sledding without talking about Dallas Seavey, who in March won a record-tying fifth championship in the preeminent Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Seavey had made Iditarod history twice before: in 2005, when he became the youngest musher to run the race; and in 2012, when he became the youngest to win it. Seavey spent a year training at NMU’s U.S. Olympic Education Center as a Greco-Roman wrestler and was on the 2005 Junior World team.
Liza Dietzen ’15 BFA is the owner of Team Evergreen Kennel in northern Wisconsin. As student at NMU she competed in her first race. A few races later, she is qualified to run the Iditarod, but is currently focusing on shorter distance races, giving dogsled rides at TreeTops Resort in Gaylord, Michigan, and pursuing other canine-athlete sports. Another adventure began for her at NMU when she met Derek Weaver ’16 BS. He proposed to her at the finish line of the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon last year. They married this summer on the rolling fields where their dogs run.