A title card says "Onward & other directions, episode 1: is this recording." A graphic of a dog in the mountains looking curiously at the ground.

Episode 1: Is This Recording?

In which Will explains mushing, his journey to Iditarod, and why the audio of the first recording on the trail is so bad. Also in which you learn which dogs will join the team on their first ever Iditarod. On the way, Will and the team embark on the final training run before the race, and Will digs in more into his own journey as a trans guy and how he got into mushing at all. Rogue is naughty.

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Onward and Other Directions

Episode 1: Is This Recording?

[guitar strumming]

Is this recording?

Just kidding. I know this is recording, because right now I’m sitting in front of a microphone plugged into a computer. But, for a few times each day during the first half of March, I spent a lot of time digging my phone out from a lot of layers, protecting it with one hand, and hitting the red button on the voice memos app. After I listened back to all of that audio, it seemed the most common thing I said to start off was “Is this recording?”

The reason it was so hard to tell is that I was in the middle of running my first Iditarod.

My fingers were freezing, the temperatures got down to the negative 50s, and it is pretty hard to negotiate seven-plus layers, with or without gloves. So, I think it makes sense that it’s pretty much the first thing out of my mouth every time.

Over the ten days of the 2021 Iditarod Sled Dog Race, I made 17 recordings. Some are almost two hours long; some are just a few minutes. I recorded my thoughts and my plans; I recorded silly conversations between me and the dogs; I recounted stories that had just happened. 

I took audio of myself going through some of the infamous obstacles of the race. I recorded myself falling asleep and talking utter nonsense for MILES. And…my plan is to share that experience with you.

But, maybe we should back up a minute, before we go ONWARD…

*****

If you’re listening to this, most likely you know what mushing is. You know who I am; you know what the Iditarod is. But, just in case someone wanders this way who doesn’t know much about mushing or about my team — ATAO Kennel — I thought I’d record a primer episode, so to speak.

If you are already an ATAO Buddy or you’ve been following mushing for years, this one might be kind of old hat. You might be more into skipping it and moving straight to the start of the race. Totally do it!

But, if you have no idea who I am, what ATAO stands for, what “mushing” actually is, or why someone would be wild enough to travel 800 miles with a pack of dogs, this one’s for you!

And, I mean, if you might enjoy hearing someone go on and on about mushing, you’re in the right place.

*****

My name is Will Troshynski. I am a trans guy who mushes sled dogs. I can’t really talk about myself without talking about mushing, so let’s start there.

In super basic terms, sled dog mushing is a group of dogs, pulling a sled, usually with a human riding on the sled in some fashion. Mushing isn’t just restricted to sleds. Dog mushing, of any sort, is the ambitious idea of connecting usually between 2-16 dogs to some sort of transport. And, then, amazingly, letting them pull you!

People do this with all sorts of things — wagons, go carts, skateboards, scooters, cars (with or without engines inside)… For some reason, the idea of letting your rowdy and excited canine best buddies drag you along the ground, touches off something that is just deep inside of us. That desire has certainly sparked some ill-advised adventures! And it’s also created some MAGIC.

Part of the magic — the part that I know the best — is sled dog mushing. Modern dog sleds are a fairly lightweight construction. They have two runners that slide over snow or ice, basically like skis. There’s a basket that your gear goes into, and then there’s a place for you to stand and a place for you to hold onto. And you REALLY want to hold on. The thing about mushing of any kind, is that you better be prepared for a RIDE!

If you know dogs, you know that they love to run. I mean, yes, we all know some canine couch potatoes. But most dogs — from the littlest chihuahua to the biggest mastiff — LOVE. TO. RUN. Whether it’s chasing someone or feeling the wind in their fur, running and dogs are “a thing.”

When a sled dog and a harness come together, it is something beautiful. Think about your dog getting ready for her walk, and then amp it up by like a thousand. And instead of asking a dog to stay nicely by your heel, imaging letting them go, hitting the end of the leash, and then, with the  power of a bunch of their friends, being able to move the pack — together. She’s in her ELEMENT. She’s going further, faster, and evermore towards the next thing, to sniff and see and experience.

When a group of dogs comes together to run, there’s an energy to it that is — it’s spiritual. There’s a connection to it. The human hanging onto the sled gets the privilege of being the water boy to nature’s most amazing team.

Are there dogs who don’t want to run? [Scoff] Of course there are! Dogs, like humans, are individuals, and they all have different personalities. Huskies tend to REALLY want to run, to understate it. But every now and then, you’ll meet a husky who plainly and clearly says, “No thank you. I am good.” So what happens to that dog? Well, they make themselves a super comfy spot on the couch.

Huskies who aren’t into running most typically become a house pet. They either become the pet of a musher — I know several in our neighborhood — or they are able to become pets in a house anywhere around the world. Some of those huskies might prefer fetch or they might not just like running in a group. And so they’d be really good for like ski-jor, which is when one husky pulls you by your skis — and notice I’m saying “YOUR” because I am not good at skiing. 

Sled dogs, though, are sled dogs, because 99.9 percent of them are all in for running. It’s what they think about day and night. When they dream, they have running dreams. If you give them a choice of activities, they pick running. And that is over ANYthing else — eating, sleeping, whatever — they would prefer to run. Pull out a harness, and a sled dog goes wild! A walk around the block is NOT enough for these dogs.

And when you get a group of these dogs together and they realize that they have the power to pull a thing, they don’t really care if you are attached or not. They will pull it. They will run. They will keep running. It’s a thing. That’s why the number one rule in mushing is DON’T LET GO OF THE SLED! If you do let go of the sled, say goodbye. ‘Cause the team’s going to keep going until someone comes along to catch the sled and put the brake or the anchor in. It’s like their genes switch on to this age-old practice. They just want more trail, more running. It’s the same feeling as when they howl together. It’s tuning in to this ancient part of themselves

And it makes sense, because dog mushing has been around for a really long time. Some anthropologists argue that mushing may have been around for as long as domesticated dogs and Arctic living have coincided. Which also makes perfect sense. The practice of sled dog mushing was originated by native communities in the Arctic, around the world. For thousands of years, it was the prime mode of transport in those areas during the winter time. When settlers colonized the Arctic regions, they also colonized the practice of mushing

And that’s it’s whole, own subject. There’s a lot of work to pay back the debt of appropriated knowledge, not just systemically, but for myself, personally. I live and mush dogs primarily on Tanana/Dena’i land, and I’m working to learn more about the roots of the sport that I am part of colonizing.

French colonizers on Inuit, Nunavik, Cree and other Native peoples’ lands, were supposedly the first White settlers to learn to mush in North America. And the word “mush” comes from the French word “marcher” (which I am definitely not saying right, but means something like “walk” or “go”). Mushing persisted throughout the Arctic reasons as long it there was winter and not machines. During the Gold Rush, miners were so eager to have their dogs pull their gear that they infamously stole pet dogs right out of peoples’ yards. And that’s the genesis for “Call of the Wild,” if you haven’t read it. (Don’t see it. It looks really bad! Sorry, Harrison Ford. So “not good.”)

Supposedly, the mixing of all the different breeds of these stolen dogs with the northern breeds — like the Siberian huskies or Inuit huskies — ultimately created the dog called the “Alaskan husky.” So, there are different kinds of sled dogs. What you imagine when you first think of sled dogs and what you see in a lot of the media, is probably a fluffy, black-and-white dog with big blue eyes. That’s usually a Siberian husky or a Malamute. Siberian huskies and Malamutes are older breeds of sled dogs. Neither of them is as common any more. Siberians do run in races, but the most common sled dog these days — in both sprint racing and distance racing — is the Alaskan husky.

We call them “purebred Alaskan mutts,” because they’re a mix. Alaskan huskies have a lot of different things within their breeds. Basically, whatever wants to RUN MORE. They have a lot of the northern breeds — Siberians, Samoyed, Inuit huskies, even a little wolf. They also have Greyhound, German Shorthaired Pointer, even Shiba Inu, and a lot of other really strange things. I can’t remember it all. There was a breakdown of what their genetics are supposed to be recently, and it’s pretty wild.

The Alaskan husky is a recognized breed now all on its own. But it’s unusual. If you look at two Alaskan huskies sitting next to each other, you might laugh at the idea they’re the same breed.  They could look wildly different from each other, because they’re not bred for looks at all; they’re bred for performance. So it’s the markers of performance that are actually genetically close enough to denote their specific breed. So you could have a dog who has super short hair and floppy ears, next to a dog with long luxurious fur and pointy ears, and both of them are Alaskan huskies, but they look amazingly different. And, the thing that makes them so similar is that they both can complete something like a 1,000 mile race, and do it in fine form.

There were recent studies that came out that showed that two different Alaskan huskies, like that, who look so different, they can share as much, or more, genetic similarity to each other, as two different beagles, say, who are clearly and distinctly both beagles. So, genes are wild. And sled dogs are wilder.

The sled dogs in my kennel are all Alaskan huskies. Alaskans are my favorite dog, for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is how cheerful and friendly they are. I’ll tell you a lot more about my ATAO teammates later and through the course of all of these recordings. But, with the idea of the Alaskan husky in mind, let’s go back just a little bit more, and talk about where mushing as a sport came from.

*****

Up until the mid-1900s, people in Alaska — both the Native communities and the White settlers — used sled dogs to transport mail, cargo, and themselves all over. Famously, there was a relay from Fairbanks to Nome by a series of mushers handing off a diphtheria serum, which saved many of the children in Nome during an outbreak in 1925. There’s a lot of stories from that — Balto, hopefully maybe you’ve heard of Togo now, and a lot of the legends from that time.

But, pretty soon after this, something else made it’s appearance on the Arctic scene — the Iron Dog, or, as you may know it, the snowmobile (what we call in Alaska the “snow machine.” I’m going to refer to them as snow machines from here on out, so if I’m saying that, know that I mean “snowmobile” if that’s what you’re more familiar with.)

Snow machines started to take over as the primary method of transportation in the Arctic and mushing started to disappear. So, the story goes, that Joe Redington Sr. saw this happening and wanted to do something that would bring sled dogs back to the fore. To not let mushing fade away into memory, and to not let the dogs fade away, either. He recognized, as a musher, that there’s this spark — that spirituality that I talked about — and that was worth preserving. So Joe put together this, frankly, ridiculous idea — an epic race. A 1,000-mile race that would go from Anchorage to Nome, crossing the Alaska Range, the Yukon River, and the brutal western coastline of Alaska.

When the first teams ran this race in 1973, they had NO IDEA if they would even make it. It took weeks for the teams to make their way to Nome. They didn’t have food supplies, the way we do now. They didn’t have trail markers. They really didn’t have any of the types of technology used in mushing today. They sort-of had headlamps. Some of the folks who ran that first Iditarod are actually still around, and you can ask them about the experience if you want, which is pretty amazing. There are a lot of laughs, and a lot of harrowing tales. It’s a wild story!

Now, it’s almost 50 years later, and the Iditarod has been running every year since. It normally runs from Willow to Nome now. Willow is a town that’s a bit further north and a little less populated than Anchorage, so it’s a little easier to take off from. But, typically, they do a ceremonial start in Anchorage every year, which you’ll hear me talking about in the episodes coming up, because, sadly, this year (with the pandemic in full swing) the ceremonial start was cancelled, AND the race altered course and did something totally new. It ran from Willow to the halfway point. And then it turned around and ran back. A big part of the reason for doing this was to avoid some of the Native communities along the route who have been isolating and trying to preserve their communities from the pandemic. It would be terrible if mushing brought that into their communities. And so that change was made in the interests of that.

Incidentally, this was MY first Iditarod. And it was definitely memorable! And it should have been, because it took me 20 years to get to the starting line.

*****

I grew up in Alaska, and I wanted to mush sled dogs since I could understand what mushing even was. I was lucky enough to learn to mush with Martin Buser, who is a four-time Iditarod champion. I went on to work with various mushers around the state of Alaska as a handler, which is kind-of like a “mushing apprentice.” I met a lot of dogs; I ran a lot of mid-distance races, so that’s, that’s what we call, usually a 300-mile race is a mid-distance race. And I scooped a lot of poop! Along the way, I learned about how to raise dogs, how to foster a positive pack, and how I’d want to structure my own sled dog team.

I went to college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I met some of my best friends in the world there and ended up living in Minnesota for a total of about ten years all-told. But I couldn’t stifle the desire to return to Alaska and to mushing. Some winters I did come back to Alaska and mush, working as a handler, like I said. I went back and forth between Alaska and Minnesota, never really fully ready to commit to my deepest hope, which I was also terrified of. It was to start my own kennel, and to raise and train my own pack of dogs. I didn’t want to run Iditarod until I could do it with MY PACK, because I couldn’t bear the idea of having such an amazing adventure and such a connected adventure and then having to say goodbye to the dogs at the end of it, as I, a handler, would move on to a different place.

In 2017, my spouse, Shawn (who uses they/them pronouns) and I moved up from Minneapolis to Fairbanks, Alaska, which has a great mushing community and a lot more consistent cold weather than further south in Alaska, which is where I grew up. I took the plunge and started my kennel (or, in other words, my team) with a group of puppies from my mentor Martin, as well as two old-lady dogs, Bonnie and Hooch, and a few dogs who had run just a little — Egret, Annie, Nala, and Ophelia. I formed a game plan that I would run Iditarod within the next five years. My plan was to grow and learn with my pups. We’d work together, race together, and become a TEAM, a pack. In 2021 we would finally run Iditarod.

I didn’t think I could put together the funding, much the less pull off the feats of organization, training, and time that preparing for a 1,000-mile race requires. But, I swallowed my terror and I just kept going. The motto of my kennel became “Onward.” In fact, ATAO (which is spelled A-T-A-O) stands for our philosophy on whole: Adventure, Truth, Accountability, Onward. We do our best to uphold that every day, and it’s not easy. I can’t say that we’re 100 percent great at it — we try. The dogs in the ATAO pack are goofy, strange, shy, sweet, they are grumpy, they are individuals. And to me, they are my family and my best friends.

ATAO is made up of 24 sled dogs and three pet dogs. The sled dogs are Alaskan huskies. They are Bonnie, Hooch, Annie, Nala, Cassidy, Aurora, Belle, Emmy, Ophelia, Furiosa, Sundance, Marnie, Mungry, Max, Zenny, Lincoln, Rogue, Rey, Rebel, Egret, Astro, Cowboy, HeMan, and Poptart. The pet dogs are Huckleberry (who is my naughty herding mix) and Oliver and Mo, who are Shawn’s dogs. Oliver is a herding dog, too, but he is slightly less naughty than Huck. Mo is a 190-pound Mastiff. I could spend hours telling you about every single dog, but for now, if you want to learn more about any of them, you can visit ataokennel.com and check out our team page and learn more about the dogs.

Of the 24 dogs I listed there, only 16 were in the race pool for this season. Bonnie and Hooch are each 13 years old, and they’re happily retired. They rule the roost and they have the choice of dog beds in the house. And they also like to run around barking at everybody else. Egret just retired this season. She actually trained with the team, but she started showing at the end of the season that she wasn’t as interested in going on the longer runs. And if a dog doesn’t want to run, they don’t run. Mushing’s not about making anybody run. Egret now practices being on the couch, but she still spends a lot of her time doing WILD zoomies around the yard and running with the younger dogs. She also enjoys testing out everybody else’s doghouse, just to make sure that it’s not better than hers.

The younger dogs are Astro, Cowboy, HeMan, and Poptart. They are all less than a year old, so they’re too young to be on the Iditarod team. So they spend a lot of time playing with each other and being told what is what by the old ladies. Max is the other dog who’s not in the racing pool. He loves to run, but he tends to overheat once the run gets up to a certain mileage. Instead of long-distance running, he’s a great helper to the pups. He facilitates their play time — he’s actually maybe one of the most playful, so maybe they facilitate him! — and he also teaches them the proper way to be a sled dog.

So, we have 16 dogs left of that group. I had to choose 14, which is the official starting number of dogs in an Iditarod team. So I had to select who wouldn’t go with me. It was a tough decision. Here’s some audio from my last run, my last training run, before Iditarod. (Luckily, most of the audio from the race itself is way better quality. But this should give you an example of what kind of rambling you’re in for, if you choose to come along on this oral adventure with us.)

*****

[Sound of runners on snow, wind blowing throughout]

Part of the run is making the final choice about who the 14 will be. So, two dogs have to stay home. I think I finally have decided that it’s probably going to be Mungry and Link who stay home, my two yearlings.

[Silly Yoda voice: Yes, I’m talkin’ about you, hmm. Yes, good dog!]

So, yearlings, as you might suspect, are dogs who are a year old, and they can definitely run a big race like the Iditarod, but you typically want to do it at a really nice, slow, easy pace so you don’t add a lot of strain on them, since they are young. And, so, these two dogs are definitely…yeah, they’re impressive. They both have completed two 200-mile races this year. They both did excellently. Their brother…

[dog barks, Will says “hey”] 

Their brother, Maverick, from all reports, is also really impressive. So I definitely think they have what it takes, but with everybody looking really great, I think that the best choice is going to be to let those two be done with their season, and get to just play and hang out with their half-siblings, who are about eight months old — Mungry and Link are about a year and a half — so I think that is…I think they’re gonna stay at home. Which is sad. I’ve really bonded to them. They are the first dogs I ever personally, like, whelped.

I caught them, um, when they came out so basically I’ve been with them their whole lives. It’s kind-of wild!

*****

As you can hear, I finally decided to leave Mungry and Link at home. They are each only one year old. Since all of the dogs were in great health, it was most logical to leave them behind for this race. They will definitely be with me next year.

There are a lot of other factors going into the race. The night before the race, I was furiously packing, sewing, and doing otherwise really random last-minute things to try to be ready for the starting time. I’d already been in high-stress mode for a long time, because I was trying desperately to finish building my sled before the start (which is NOT advisable). My normal sled was wearing down, and I knew that I had to build something or buy something to get me safely down the trail. I wanted to build it, because that’s been part of my dream for a long time. And even though I’d never done it before, I decided that was the route I was going to go. Unfortunately for poor Shawn, the living room turned into a disaster zone, because I don’t have a shop or anything like that.

So, while I was preparing for Iditarod, there was all kinds of things that ended up strewn about the living room. First, we gathered and prepared the supplies that had to be mailed out to each of the checkpoints, or stops, along the way. Checkpoints are manned by race volunteers and often provide everything from food to shelter for humans. And they also hold your drop bags, so that’s the plastic-like, kind-of poly bags that you mail out ahead of time. They’re full of dog food, meat, blankets, snacks — anything else you’re going to need along the route. We sent about 1,500 pounds out.

Organizing and preparing the drop bags is a HUGE hurdle. The moment we finished that hurdle, I started building my sled. And the reason it was so late, that I started building my sled, was that it was super difficult to get supplies for the sled mailed up from the lower 48. We get it from a small company who manufactures them down in the Midwest. And they were awesome to work with, but with the pandemic, it was really difficult to get all that stuff up. I finally got the supplies I needed, and as soon as there was a tiny bit of room spared from the drop bag project, I dove in with my sled. Over the course of 12 days, I didn’t really have time to panic about how soon the Iditarod was — I had to finish the sled, dammit! I knew that part of that was a way to distract myself from worrying, but it still worked, even though I knew at the time “Oh, I’m distracting myself.”

By the time the start rolled around, not only was my sled built and tested, but I was strangely calm. I stayed calm. Not really being able to register that this was The Iditarod. That after 20 years of work and waffling, I was doing it. In fact, I have finished the race. Sorry — it’s a spoiler — but it still hasn’t hit me that I have done it. Maybe I will register that a bit more after I listen back to the complete tapes here.

*****

I’m going to be releasing one of these episodes a week. Most of the time I recorded one recording per run. I skipped a couple runs, and there are a couple runs I recorded more than once on. I hope you’re going to have fun going with me down the trail. I’m not sure if this is going to be “listenable” or not — I really hope it is. But thanks for taking the time to listen to this so far. I can’t wait to share our journey with you, and how we overcame the obstacles of the Iditarod, both external and internal.

As we like to say at ATAO, Onward!

*****

Oh, hey, you’re still here. Hi! So…I recorded some audio on the very last run before the Iditarod. You heard some of it just earlier. On the run, I talk about my choice of which dogs to bring on the race (that’s the part you heard before), more about how I got into mushing, and thoughts about what the race was going to be like. Unfortunately (as you also probably heard), the recording for that was not very great. I spent most of that run crinkling cloth against the mic. I think I was testing out a new parka. Anyway…I worked with a sound editor to clean it up, but ultimately I still wasn’t that thrilled with how it ended up. Nevertheless, it does exist, so, should you want to listen to it, keep going with this episode. If you don’t want to listen to crinkly rambling, please fast forward through all of this, or just skip to the next episode, the first one on the trail. If you’re interested in enduring such abrasive sounds, here’s the full audio of that recording. I promise the ones on the race are WAY BETTER. Okay, this time for real…Onward!

*****

 [Sounds of runners on snow, wind blowing, etc. throughout]

Alright! Well, I guess I’m recording. So, this is the last run before the Iditarod. I’ve got 16 of our dogs here.

[Gee, gee!]

I guess I should introduce myself, huh? My name is Will. I am going to be a rookie in this year’s Iditarod. These guys have all been training really hard and they’re ready for the race this year. I’ve been working towards Iditarod… Oh, man— literally since I was seven years old when my family moved up to Alaska. I told our principal that “Oh, I’m gonna mush sled dogs. You can come babysit me and watch me mush sled dogs!” I didn’t realize at the time that it’s actually…like not everybody in Alaska mushes. In fact, most people have never even been on a dog sled. It’s not just, you move up to Alaska and VOILA, there you go. You kinda have to find your way in. I was lucky in that my mom is a teacher, and she ended up teaching with the wife of a famous sled dog musher, Martin Buser, who is — at this time, before Iditarod, a four-time Iditarod champ — who knows? Maybe this year will be number five?

And, yeah, I ended up getting…well, we became really close to the family, and Martin took me under his wing. I asked him if he would train me to run the Jr. Iditarod, and he did, when I was a freshman in high school. I got to work at his kennel. Half of the week I lived at the kennel; half of the week I lived at home. Mushing dogs, was doing my homework and trying to navigate the world of being a kid in high school. But mostly what I cared about was mushing dogs. I ran my first Jr. Iditarod — it’ll be exactly 20 years ago. Well, I guess actually it’s been exactly 20 years ago this past weekend. The Jr. Iditarod goes the weekend before the Iditarod, so…WILD…yeah! It was a long time ago.

Yeah…so, and ever since then I’ve been just hooked, and I’ve been planning to run the Iditarod. I mean, basically since I got to step on the runners of a sled…You know, I hoped it would happen a lot sooner. I really wanted to mush when I got done with high school. I mean, I really wanted to run the Iditarod, but my parents really wanted me to go to college. So I took a little four-year break and went to college in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

[Good dogs!]

We just crossed a road, by the way. Yeah, so I went to school in Saint Paul, and I studied Theater and English, which is really lucrative, as you might guess. And…yeah, then I returned to Alaska and handled for a couple different people over all of the state. And I got to learn a bunch of different styles of mushing, which was really cool. And that whole time I was kind of debating  if I wanted to start my own sled dog kennel. So, you know, have my own group of dogs that I would be caring for. Having a sled dog kennel means that you are, you are kind of a bunch of different things at once. You are a parent for the dogs…it’s like people who’ve had dogs, you’re taking care of them, but you’re also the coach. You’re the team, you know, physical therapist and first responder for any kind of sorenesses or injuries, and illnesses…you know, you’re the person who’s with them 24/7, 365.

Sled dog mushing is not a sport in the normal vein of “sport,” where you have a season and then you kind of go away. It’s much more of a lifestyle, and these dogs are my family. You know, these are my best friends. Like, legitimately. They are the faces I dream about, and they are the creatures who are most familiar to me. They’re my people. And, yeah! I’m really excited and also kind of terrified to be taking a little “dog walk” with them across Alaska pretty soon. So…

My brain is definitely not comprehending that we’re going to be on Iditarod shortly. It’s not really processing that at all. Yeah. I don’t know how to explain when I’ll be able to start processing that. I’m nervous. It’s gonna be a different Iditarod because of the pandemic this year, or this past year. There’s been some significant changes to the race. They…the race normally goes from Willow, Alaska, to Nome, Alaska, which crosses the Alaska Range, it crosses the interior of Alaska, and then it ends up on the coast of Alaska, so you kind of hit all these different environments. But this year it’s going to go to the checkpoint of Iditarod — it’s in the interior of Alaska — so, we’ll go over the mountains, go to the checkpoint of Iditarod, and then turn around and come back to Willow, go back over the mountains again. And then part of the reason for that, I believe, is so that we are limiting the exposure to the various villages that are normally part of the race route.

We will still be going — not through, but near some of the villages that are typically checkpoints. That’s been a sort-of tricky thing to navigate, to make sure that…you know…just wanting to know that the communities, the Alaskan Natives that live there, have been…had a good amount of input in whether or not they want the race to come by, or not. And then working with them to ensure that we don’t expose them to the pandemic. And Iditarod is doing a lot of things to try to maintain the quote-unquote-bubble. And it’s either going to work or it’s, like, not going to work. And I think by the end of it we’ll know. I really hope that it does work. You know, I hope that everybody is…kind of sticks to the protocols and the rules. You know, we’ve been asked…

[You guys wanna take a little break?

Easy there. Whoa! Good dogs!]

It’s a beautiful day out. The dogs are dunking themselves in some snow here, and eating snow. That’s one of the ways they cool down. But in a second you’re gonna hear— they’re gonna start barking, cuz they don’t want to rest for too long. My leader, Belle, is rolling around. She loves to roll in the snow. It’s one of her favorite things. Kinda looks like a tiny pony rolling in the snow. Not very pony shaped, but more shaped like a sausage. A fast sausage!

[You can hear them start to make some noise; they want to get going.

You guys ready? Oh, okay Mungry, sorry buddy! You guys ready? All right, Mungry!

Mungry was gonna have a little roll, but he decided he was gonna jump back up.]

Yeah, so we’ve got Covid protocols, we’ve been…we’ve been required to take tests ourselves…and now starting yesterday we were tested by Iditarod. We’ll be tested again the day of the start, which is on Sunday. Today is Friday. And then we will be tested in the middle of the race. And at any point, if we get a positive test, we’ll be re-tested to make sure there’s not a false positive, and then if it’s a true positive then we are withdrawn from the race and we are required to quarantine. And then, if we need to be like moved to medical care. 

I hope that the plans in place are going to be sufficient to protect everyone along the trail, and, of course, the people in the race.

But, most of all, I definitely want to make sure that the communities along the trail are not just safe, but also sort of like active participants in the plan. I actually reached out to a couple different contacts in the villages along the way, and was able to talk to a few people — including a health worker in the village of Nikolai — and she is a really kind and positive person and she was really excited for the race to come through. And what she said was that the community was actually mostly sad that they couldn’t visit with the people. I think Iditarod coming through, in some cases, seems to be like a little exciting event for people along the route. I don’t think that is a universal experience for all of the communities.

You know, after all, this is definitely…the sport is…yeah…it has definitely appropriated a way of life that was originated here by the First Peoples. And the race takes place largely on Tanana land and other Alaskan Natives’ land. I mean, naturally all of this is their land. So, yeah, I think there could be some frustration with that. I’m hoping to do more work to try to pay more respect to the tradition of the sport and to the people who originated it. The indigenous folks not just here but across Russia and northern Europe as well.

Yeah, I have investigating to do myself, and a lot of work to do myself, to try to better the sport in relationship to that, and also to hopefully not detract from the communities along the way but give back. As I can. Yeah.

So, aside from Mungry and Link, we have a group of mostly 3 to 5 year olds. [barking] The 3-year-olds are kind of a main core of the team. They are dogs who I raised from puppies. I didn’t have them…I didn’t whelp them. They were not born at our kennel. Oh, see I was like on the way to the way to do my introductions and I got derailed. But that’s an important thing to know about me. So, I was diagnosed with ADHD pretty recently. And I’ve also struggled with mental health issues, basically since I was a teen. Maybe even longer. But, particularly, depression has been a real big factor in my life. And one of my goals, one of my missions, is to try to spread some awareness about that, especially for young people. So, you know, that’s something I’m constantly working at to see what I can do to work with local organizations, and, again spread awareness and maybe share what needs to be said. 

Another thing about me…I don’t really remember…Oh, yeah I did mention it. Wow, this is going to be exciting. Another thing about me — I’m actually a trans person, I’m a trans guy. I use he/him pronouns. I started my medical and social transition…well, it’s about two years ago. It’s two years ago in April. I didn’t originally plan to do this. Like, I definitely thought about it for a LONG time, but I had kind of intended to hold back on doing that until I could kind of do it more privately. I mean, you know, being a musher, you’re not like famous or anything, but, you know, there’s an exposure, you kind of have a little bit of a social media following and whatnot.

Honestly, my social media following that, especially on Twitter, but in all…we have, you know, Facebook and other areas; we have a Patreon and we have a lot of people on that. We call them our Buddies. I mean, those folks — not only have they made it possible for me to run Iditarod, but they, you know, they showed me a side of mushing spectatorship that I just didn’t think existed, which is kind of a little bit more, well, it’s open-minded for queer folks, particularly. And being able to be accepted just as a queer person, was HUGE! And then, you know, I did finally feel comfortable to come out as a trans person and begin my medical transition, which has been huge. I finally feel like I am, well, ME. Like, it’s like you’ve been wearing ill-fitting outfits  for your whole life, and all of a sudden somebody gives you something that fits. And it’s like the biggest relief. So, I’m really grateful that I have been able to do that.

[Dog barks. Will: Hey! Roguey!]

But, yeah, and that’s all been thanks to the folks who follow us, who follow our kennel. Which, by the way, our kennel is called “ATAO.” So, that’s A-T-A-O. The reason that it’s called ATAO is…it kinda stands for our motto. It’s Adventure! Truth! Accountability! Onward! Yeah. Maybe I’ll put an insert back at the beginning of this, so that’s a little more logical. Yeah, the folks who follow ATAO have made it possible for me to run Iditarod, but for me to do it as myself, and that’s pretty massive.

So…yeah, the other dogs who are here with us on the team. Our ATAO followers know them well. Like I said, the 3-year-olds have been with us since they were puppies, and…

[Yoda voice talking nonsense to dogs]

Except for Zenny. Zenny we got when she was two. And she’s been with us now for a year. She’s definitely fitting in as part of the pack. But the other 3-year-olds, who’ve been with us since they were puppies…So we have a couple of different litters. And litters, we usually name a litter in a theme, so we can kind of tell who are the siblings of each other. So we have the Star Wars litter, which includes Rogue (who you heard me talking to a little bit ago) Rogue, Rey, and Rebel. They have a theme-within-a-theme with the reflection of the “R.” That was a Shawn idea. (Shawn is my spouse, and they came up with it…that was a big theme.)

And then we have sisters Sundance and Cassidy. They came as a duo. Then we have Furiosa, who came with her brother Mad Max, but Max is not going to be doing distance racing. He loves to run, and he helps us with short races or short runs, but he just isn’t kinda cut out for the longer distances. He gets really hot, and that affects him when he goes kind of above a certain mileage. He’s helping us train our younger dogs. He’s a great…he’s a great and goofy boy!

So those are the 3-year-olds. And Zenny, who I mentioned, is kind of her own, her own critter — she doesn’t have any siblings at the kennel. But my 4-year-olds are Ophelia — who was the very first puppy who I got. So I’ve had her the longest, except for her mom, Hooch. Hooch is the kennel matriarch, but Hooch is pretty old now. She’s 13. She’s…she doesn’t run in long distances any more. She still loves to run, and she loves to chase all the other dogs around. She’s got some grandkids at the kennel, and she chases them around and chews them out. Otherwise she spends a lot of time on the couch or carrying around dog toys, trying to find places to bury them. Those are some of her favorite things.

Ophelia is her daughter, and Ophelia is a GREAT dog. She has been the mother to two litters — so she’s Mungry and Link’s mom, and she’s just an awesome dog. I love her. She’s my special girl. But she is kind of a funny character, because we work really hard to make sure all of our dogs are really well socialized, and we do something called “free playing,” which is kinda like when you take dogs off-leash at the dog park, but we have our own dog park, we are our own dog park. They just run around and play with each other, but there’s a couple who don’t get to do that as much, or at least not in the group. Ophelia gets to play fetch by herself, or maybe play with a select couple dogs. But she actually really does not like dogs. I think she’s not a dog person. So, yeah, she’s funny that way. She’s great at working with other dogs, but she is just not a fan of hanging out with them. She prefers not so… She does love being on the couch, or the bed and snuggling. She’s a big fan of humans. Loves people. But not such a big fan of dogs.

One of our other 4-year-olds is Nala. Nala came from the kennel of a friend. And she is [unintelligible] She is the only sled dog who I’ve ever met who is really good at fetch. She LOVES fetch. I mentioned that Ophelia plays fetch, and she does, but she’s like okay with it, but sometimes she just prefers to run around with the ball. Nala is on point with fetch. She goes and gets the ball, she brings it back to you, it’s like it’s her favorite thing in the world. Except for running, because, yeah, all of these dogs just want to run. They go bananas for it. So, yeah. Nala and Ophelia are both really good leaders. And, yeah, interesting characters. Did I miss any of our 4-year-olds? No, I don’t think so.

I think all the rest of our group here are five. So we have some experienced 5-year-olds, which is great to have on the team. So, I’ll start with the sisters, Aurora and Belle. And Aurora and Belle came from Martin Buser, my mentor, the person who I learned how to mush from. They actually came as a wedding present.

[dog barks. Will: Roguey! Rogue! Sometimes Rogue, if she doesn’t think we’re going fast enough, likes to yell at her running partner, as though it’s that dog’s fault, which it is not. Haha!]

But, yeah, Aurora and Belle came from Martin Buser. They are GREAT leaders. And, yeah, were a wedding present when Shawn and I got married in…2019? Oh, I’m going to get in trouble for not remembering that. But yeah, they’re really fantastic leaders. Belle is leading right now. She’s super smart. We’re thinking about maybe her be a mama, that would be pretty cool. Yeah, her sister Aurora is also awesome. Aurora is spayed. It’s really important to us that we spay and neuter the majority of our dogs. Part of our kennel mission…

[Dog barks. Will: Excuse me, Roguey!]

Part of our kennel mission is to keep a small kennel, because…well, first of all, it’s the way that we can give each dog the most dedicated attention. We think that we can really — the dogs can flourish and will show you some pretty amazing capabilities with investment.

So, that is a big part of why we have a small kennel. And also, because, we’re a small operation. We’re uh… Myself, I am the main musher. We do have a handler that’s here, it’s  Sam, Samantha. She’s awesome. But that’s not a very big operation. And I work full-time. It’s one thing if you are doing dog mushing — I mean, as I said, it’s a 365-day-a-year thing, but keeping a dog is expensive, and you have to keep a dog somehow, if you’re a “quote unquote a professional musher,” then somehow you’re making money from, either you’re a winner and you have sponsorships, or you’re involved in tourism that also involves the dogs, or some other way that the dogs are bringing in funds, but I am just…you know, I do my job. I’m able to work from home. I’ve been working remotely since before it was cool. And so that allows me to be around the dogs, and take care of them, and do all the things, which is free play in the summer, and do all that kinda fun stuff, but also make money so that we can pay for…

…Yeah, so, our small kennel has a lot of spayed and neutered dogs. We only keep a very select few intact who we may breed. We are not like, breeding, you know, a lot of litters. So far we’ve had two litters. We may have one more this year, and we’ll see about one more after that, but we’re, again, limiting the number of dogs that we are going to be looking after. Because we believe that every dog deserves as much as we can give them.

So, Aurora is spayed. And Belle her sister is not. And we may be interested in having her be a mama this year. So, among our other 5-year-olds is Annie. Annie came to us from a kennel that I had previously worked at. And she came to us not necessarily as a leader, but she’s really shy. And we put a lot of time and work in with her. And I really bonded to her. She is my buddy, for sure. During the the free play she’ll just usually follow me around. And, yeah, she is a FANTASTIC leader. She is probably one of my core leaders. And, yeah, she is a dog I rely on to have to get us down the trails, because she never wants to stop. She’s got this very forward-oriented drive and it’s pretty cool. She’s also a real sweetheart who LOVES to go in the house. She’s pretty funny though, because…Most of the dogs immediately go to the couch, they love the couch, because it’s like “the place.” But Annie is not about the couch life. I’ve been working with her to try to get her comfortable to even go on the couch. But she’s not really having that. So that’s gonna definitely be a spring and summer project, to work at that and get her to the point where she’ll be cool with the couch. I mean, she’s okay with the bed, but for some reason the couch is like not her thing. So that’s a spring project, for sure.

And another 5-year-old we have is the awesome Marnie. Marnie is…Marnie comes from a kennel of a friend, another friend. She’s actually related to Ophelia. They’re cousins. And she is…she hasn’t led for me yet. But I think she does have that potential; I haven’t put her up front yet. I mean, we may give that a thought, even during this race, sometimes it’s a good environment to try that. She’s just a rock of a team dog. She is steady and strong and she’s also really good at getting the team amped up, and that’s a really good benefit.

And then finally we have — I think finally? Did I get through everybody? Yeah, I think I did! — Finally we have Emmy. Emmy came to us as a 4-year-old, and as a fantastic leader, who is the only dog who has run Iditarod. She’s run at least part of Iditarod twice, really great, she’s truly a phenomenal dog. She’s also one of the most shy dogs I’ve ever met in my life. It’s taken a couple… it’s taken basically a year to get her to come out of her shell with us, and we’re definitely starting to bond and to become buddies. And part of the reason she ended up with us, the musher, who was retiring from mushing, wanted to find a space for her where she would get the attention and investment as a shy dog that she would need to flourish. And, you know, I’ve taken in a few shy dogs.

A dog who’s not in this racing pool is Egret. She’s another 5-year-old. She’s just…she had a shoulder soreness that took her out of the racing pool right now. A great dog, but yet another really shy dog. I really, really like working with shy dogs. Like there’s something very rewarding about earning their trust and their…yeah, you know, their sense of belonging. It’s so cool. One thing that happened with Egret, was we went on a free walk outside of our home. We went down to this pond that we go to do free walks, and I let all the dogs out of the truck. And Egret — this was the first time I think I was free-running her, because I had been taking her on a leash, because she was so shy and she was still kind of learning who we were, and all that stuff. I think at that time we had had her for about three months. So I let her, like off-leash, and she saw the trails! And we were like on/near one of the mushing trails, and she just HOOFED IT! Running down the trail as fast as she possibly could go.

And I was like “NO!!!” So then I was, like, posting on Facebook, and I got all the dogs back in the truck, and I was telling everybody I knew, “She’s going this way” and I phoned the people at the kennel she had come from and said “She’s running toward your kennel!” So I knew to go look for her, I needed to take all the dogs back home. So I rushed back with the dog truck, and when I pulled into the driveway, there was Egret! She had run back home, not to the place she had originally come from, but to OUR home. And that was such a big deal to me. I was like “Oh, my God. You know your way home, and you know this is HOME!” That was like, oh…it was a terrifying moment of feeling like “Ah, she’s gone!” but it was also really awesome that she knew what home was. And that we were home. That was a really, really cool moment.

So like I said, there’s a couple shy ones in our group, like Annie, Egret, Emmy, and I really like working with those dogs. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I think just being able to just provide that safe ground. And knowing that, if you’re just patient and give them faith, that they can feel comfortable. And I’ve actually been drawn to shy dogs since I started mushing with Martin. There was this dog named Elias, who was one of the yearlings I worked with, and, you know, I mean dogs have very different personalities. You can see dogs in the same litter, who have had the exact same experiences growing up, and yet, you’ll see a real big difference in their personalities. So, Elias was part of this group of “mountain” dogs, who were like Logan and K2 and Elias and Hunter — Ah, such good dogs! Those guys were all part of my first Jr. Iditarod team. But Elias was really, REALLY shy. He was kind-of had like a blocky build I would say, around his face. Really pretty. I was like, this last dog with some, like…you see this a lot on sled dogs, who are mostly Alaskan huskies — if you look up what that is. It’s very different looking than Balto, and what you think Balto looked like. But, yeah, Elias was a black dog, and he had some spots over his eyebrows, he had eyebrow spots, and some other white markings on, like, his chin and his stomach. But the white marking area…

[A dog barks. 

Will: Roguey! Be polite. You know what, that person doesn’t even want to be by you.

Will chatters to the dogs in his “dog talking voice.”

Will: …You’re stuck under the line! … And Roguey is being rude about it. Roguey! You can be polite! …You’re free. All you gotta do is— See that— Oh, see! Now you’re… You guys getting some snow? Kind of a warm day isn’t it? Belle! Eh! Line out! Good dogs.

Crunching footsteps in snow.

Will: Belle-Belle! You guys ready? All right!]

So, yeah, where Elias had white markings, he almost looked a little bit blue, which was really cool. But he was so shy. He wouldn’t come up to anybody and…yeah, again, the same exact environment and experience, he just probably processed something, especially as a young puppy. So kind-of the stage of puppyhood where experiences can kind-of become really formative for the dogs. So if something scares them within this age range — and I forget, I think it’s like between, I wanna say like 8 and 12 weeks or something — that can really sit with them, and, again, kind-of form a lot of their resulting personalities. Or at least that’s what some people think.

So, anyway, Elias, he was pretty shy. And I just loved him from the beginning. And again, I don’t know what it is about shy dogs…So I would actually just sit with him, in his spot, like at his house. And he would not, he would be like “I am not interested in being by you, human.” And I would sit with him. Not like asking him for anything, just being in the vicinity. And I’m a 14-year-old kid. I mean, I don’t know what I was doing. But I kind-of like gave him space, and…but was also there. And also ignoring him. That’s like a really, kind-of important thing for dogs. It’s like, one of the best things you can do if a dog is kind-of worried about you is to ignore them. Because attention can mean an intention to interact, and they may not want whatever that interaction is, right? So I would just sit there, kind-of turned away from him, and just being there. And I let him come to me, you know? Like, really slowly and really testily. And then once he did come near, I didn’t pet him or scratch his ears or anything. I just let him sniff me, and, you know, see that…slowly start to trust that I was a safe presence. And over the years that I worked with that team, I built up that trust with Elias. And there’s…there was actually a picture of me in the Anchorage paper on that first Jr. Iditarod petting Elias at one of the checkpoints, and I have this huge smile on. It’s one of my favorite pictures. It’s so cool. But, yeah, that’s the first shy dog I worked with, and I really loved it. So I have a fondness for my shy Elias.

So, yeah, that’s the key. I mean, obviously I could talk about them for hours and hours. Who knows if anybody wants to hear that. But it’s kinda nice for me to talk. So I thought I’d, yeah, maybe use this as a way to tell my story and kind-of mark down my story as I go along the trail on my very first race. Hopefully, you know, have something to remember it all by and maybe share it in a way that is as in-the-moment, or as with-the-moment as you really can be

Yeah, I…Sorry…I’m so lucky to be here! To be doing THE THING! It can be hard to remember that, because it takes a lot of work. And, especially with my own dogs. And obviously you can tell how much I care about them, and how rewarding it is to be with them. There’s also a lot of pressure and worry involved, in a different way. And sometimes that squeezes out the…like I kind of forget about being where I am and being joyful about that.

It’s good to be mushing on this really beautiful morning, on the very last run before Iditarod. Hah! The next time I mush on these trails I will have completed the Iditarod!

[Silly Yoda voice: And you guys will have, too! Yeah! Oh, you’ll be such tough dogs. Haha!]

I don’t even know if this is still recording, so I guess we’ll find that out soon.

[Silly Yoda voice: Good girls! Come on Belle-Belle. Hoo-hoo-hoo! Good girl!]

Oh, that is what I say when the dogs pee. I don’t know why. I started saying that during this past Copper Basin 300. Sounds silly.

[Runners swooshing and clanking along the trail]

What a weird thing to do, huh? It’s a funny…it’s a very bizarre sport that not very many people do. Yeah, I’m really lucky to do it. Well, I think we’re going to be doing some exciting new trails on the Iditarod. New trails for us, just advancing, and going down the trail. Getting to be with my dogs. That’s pretty cool. All right. I will see if this recorded everything, and next time I talk to you, I think I’ll be on the Iditarod trail! Our motto — one of our mottos at the kennel is Onward! So — That’s what we always close things out with. So… Until next time, Onward!

[Runners swooshing, Will talking nonsense to dogs, music]

Yeah, I think this is gonna be an explicit podcast, because sometimes when you fall down you gotta swear.

[More nonsense to dogs]

Stay on the trail friends. Onward.

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Follow Will Troshynski:
Will loves dog mushing, boxing, writing, and hiking. He spends his off time reading as much as possible and going to the movies.
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