Interior Alaska musher Pat Moore didn’t know how he was going to feed his more than 30 sled dogs after Dec. 1, when he predicted kibble would run out — food he and her daughter managed to buy after selling household goods, arts and crafts and scraping together the last of their money.
Moore lives in Tanana, a small community on the Yukon River, and he feeds his sled dogs chum salmon to get through the long winters.
Although mushing has declined with the rise of snowmobiling, thousands of sled dogs and many teams still live in communities in the Yukon River watershed, where mushers struggle to find ways to feed their dogs. after disastrous salmon runs this year.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has halted subsistence fishing for fall chum salmon in parts of the Yukon River, and Moore has been cut entirely from fishing for the main food ingredient of his dogs.
But help has recently arrived for Moore and other area dog mushers.
Over the past week, nearly 40,000 pounds of protein-rich dog food, donated by Purina, has arrived by cargo plane to mushers in Tanana and Fort Yukon. The donation was prompted by the efforts of Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, who is also married to the acting mayor of Anchorage.
Now Moore said he thinks he might have enough food for his dogs to survive April.
After several mushers contacted the commission about their plight and asked for help on social media, Quinn-Davidson organized an online effort to help them. So far, the campaign has raised over $32,000 plus Purina’s donation of 39,000 books.
However, Quinn-Davidson and regional experts fear that is not enough. The poor salmon run this year isn’t just affecting mushers, who are often integral to the subsistence economy of entire communities.
“It’s a tradition, a culture that’s been passed down for years, and without being able to feed those dogs this winter, there are mushers who are going to have to sell them or give them away, or worse,” Quinn-Davidson said.
A bad year for salmon
Normally, each year, Moore cuts and hangs about 1,200 salmon on a rack. These last his dogs from April to around July 1st.
He also catches between 2,000 and 3,500 fish and “cashes” them, fermenting them outside until they freeze. Then he “stacks them like firewood,” he said.
“They stink in heaven,” he said, “but dogs love them.”
These are the fish that usually last his dogs all winter. He also mixes in other ingredients — to the tune of 3,000 pounds of kibble, 3 gallons of extra oils, and 1 ton of red meat over the course of a year — but their primary diet is fish.
This year, there is none.
It’s a widespread problem throughout the Yukon River region, affecting the entire community, said Alida Trainor, subsistence resource specialist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The region has seen declining returns of king salmon, a primary source of human food, for more than a decade, Trainor said.
The king salmon run has also been poor this year, but the summer and fall chum salmon runs generally help make up the difference. The coupling this year of a king salmon accident with a chum salmon accident is unprecedented, Trainor said.
“It was a double whammy. They got hit twice,” Trainor said. ‘subsistence economy’.
People use dogs for other subsistence activities throughout the year, such as trapping, hunting, and gathering firewood. Their mushers also have the equipment, time and processing ability to catch and share fish with other families in their communities. Families often rely on mushers for salmon and other subsistence goods.
“If the mushers are struggling, everyone is struggling,” Trainor said.
Trainor said efforts to declare a fall buddy race a disaster are underway, but it’s a slow process. Historically, only commercial fishermen have been compensated for their lost income, which does little to help subsistence communities “struggling under the pressure of collapsing salmon runs”, she said.
Mushers still in need
For David Walker, mushing is a way of life – and a superior form of transportation – that has slowly slipped from prevalence in the village of Holy Cross, where he lives.
Sled dogs communicate with mushers, alerting them to nearby animals when their ears perk up, he said. And as long as they’re well fed, they can run when a snowmobile won’t, he said.
“It’s just a better way to travel,” Walker said. “You really get to know yourself around the dogs. No noise from snowmobile engines.
He is currently awaiting a donation of food purchased through Quinn-Davidson’s fundraising efforts. Walker usually has freezers full of leftover fish to last his dogs through the winter, but for now he’s relying on whatever dog food he can afford to buy online. However, it’s not as nutritious and high in calories as his dogs need: they need the good calories from salmon to run really hard, he said.
Quinn-Davidson uses the money raised to purchase and ship dog food to remote communities and mushers like Walker. Cargo is the most expensive part – it costs nearly $5,000 to ship 100 bags of dog food to Huslia.
About 500 dogs so far in Tanana, Fort Yukon, Huslia, Circle, Holy Cross and Old Crow in the Yukon Territory will receive donations, Quinn-Davidson said.
But she is getting more and more requests from mushers in need and has a continuous list of people to help. A musher told her they would have to withdraw their retirement funds to winterize their dogs, she said.
In Tanana, Moore and her daughter are now trying to sell most of their dogs, including her racing team. Keeping them has become too difficult and Moore is getting older, he said.
“I figure I’m not going to miss it, but I think I probably will miss it,” Moore said.
Moore recalls previous years when the salmon runs crashed. They crossed it then, but there were more mushers and strength in numbers, he said.
“I don’t think this is the end of the culture of dog teams in this area,” said Trainor, a livelihoods resource specialist. “It’s just a really awful low point, and hopefully people can pull themselves together and get out of this as best they can.”