By this time next month, Andrew Brown will be on top of the world — or close to it anyway.
The 23-year-old Phoenix Lake-area resident and Sonora High School grad is moving to the Arctic Circle to embark on a crash course in the art of training sled dogs for one of the most grueling races in the world — Alaska’s 1,100-mile Iditarod.
He will join a professional dog-sled team next month and train Alaskan huskies to pull a 400-pound sled across endless expanses of snow and ice.
“It’s like driving an 18-wheeler backwards,” he said. “It’s a tough job.”
On Oct. 1, he will board a plane bound for a frigid coastal outpost called Kotzebue, Alaska. The town lies 40 miles across the chilly side of the Arctic Circle and is only accessible by airplane (or a stout team of sled dogs, of course). There, he will fill a supporting role on a winning Iditarod team, and has ambitions to one day be a world-class “musher.”
Brown is a self-described “free spirit” whose only experience with a 9-to-5 job was a two-week stint working at Little Caesars Pizza.
He has worked in a number of outdoor professions around the Mother Lode, including work as a dockhand at Pinecrest Lake Resort, as a snow cat driver and white water rafting guide.
Lately, he has been working as a sled dog trainer for a resort in Truckee that takes customers on short sled dog trips.
He always had a knack for training dogs growing up, but never looked at them as a potential career until about three years ago, when he bought an aging Alaskan husky named Martina.
“She’s unlike any dog I’ve ever seen, and she had the spirit and demeanor to match,” he said. “She came with a harness, so that made me think of getting into some kind of sled dog sport.”
He has since added three more dogs to his burgeoning team: Jekyll, Cancan and a puppy named Alligator.
Unlike their more photogenic Siberian cousins, Alaskan huskies are bred for their ability to pull a sled and not for their looks. Under their fluffy black and white winter coats they are lean and built like canine marathon runners.
“These are the strongest pound-for-pound animals in the world,” said musher John Baker, 2011 Iditarod champion who hired Brown to train more than 50 of the world’s top sled dogs.
Baker, who set the Iditarod speed record with a time of eight days and 18 hours, said that Brown will help run the dogs and train them to handle a wide range of challenging situations in the Alaskan wilderness.
Brown will work in one of the most isolated parts of the world, cut off from roads and socked in by ice for six months out of the year. It’s a place where the average winter temperatures hover around zero degrees and the sun stays down for 20-days at a time. Basic necessities have to be flown in or carried on a barge. A gallon of milk costs $15 and a 20-pound bag of Puppy Chow costs $80.
“There will definitely be a lot of things he will have to adjust to, but his enthusiasm spoke for itself,” Baker said. “With that kind of enthusiasm, you can’t go wrong.”
Brown said he doesn’t plan to race in the Iditarod himself this year, but instead will run the 440-mile Kobuk sled dog race either this year or next. Eventually, he hopes to build his own dog team to tackle the granddaddy of all sled dog races, which stretches from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod begins in March and traces an historic Inupiat trail used for hundreds of years.
“That’s my ultimate goal — that’s why I got into the sport,” Brown said.
He said training a good sled dog isn’t so much about power as it is about stamina. Each animal in the typical 16-dog Iditarod team only has to pull about 5 pounds of lateral weight across the landscape, but they have to do it for 12-hours a day through blizzards, snow drifts and in stinging headwinds.
The only spoken commands he teaches the dogs are “gee” to turn right and “haw” to turn left. The rest comes from the subtle unspoken bond shared between the musher and his dog team.
“The dogs instinctively know what to do,” he said. “They pick up on your attitude. They can tell when I’ve been having a bad day and it shows in how they pull.”
In fact, the dogs are so eager to run that they will continue to pull the sled even if the musher has fallen off, abandoning him without supplies necessary for survival.
“That’s every musher’s greatest nightmare,” Brown said.
Brown has never been to Alaska before and said he expects the 2,800-mile move to be an adjustment, but he is looking forward to exploring a new opportunity.
Unfortunately, he will not be able to bring his own dogs with him when he moves. Dogs that have grown accustomed to California’s more-mild climate won’t adjust well to persistent cold weather in the Arctic, and the cost of getting them up there is prohibitive, he said. The animals will be left with family members or sold to other sled dog enthusiasts.
He said he will miss his family in Tuolumne County and that they have been supportive of his extraordinary lifestyle. He has two siblings, a brother and a sister, and his mother works at Avalon Senior Center in Sonora.
“I’m a little nervous like anyone in their right mind would be,” he said. “But I’m kind of a free spirit, and I want to see where this takes me.”