Over my years as a handler, I got to learn from a pretty impressive variety of mushers. It was a lot of years and a lot of mushers. I think probably more than your average person who wants to have their own kennel. You could say I was carefully taking my time and absorbing a wide range of knowledge… Or you could say I was being kind of dumb to keep returning to handling. Either way, I did learn a lot, and what I learned brought me to ATAO and to what I want my dog pack and my mushing career to look like.
ATAO originally meant “All the Doors are Open”, and there’s a long convoluted story about where that came from (and how / why I forgot a letter), but that’s not really important here. What ATAO has morphed into is “Adventure. Truth. Accountability. Onward.”
The adventure part seems pretty straight forward. When I was a kid, adventure was what I longed for. I kept waiting for adventure to *happen* to me. Then I realized, I had to make adventure happen. And I did, when I started running dogs as a Jr. Musher. I never looked back. And I realized, too, that the scope of adventure encompasses a lot more than just epic travels in the woods. Adventure can be a lot of things, including the battles you can have with your own brain. Which brings me to…
Truth. Truth is about being honest and transparent with reality. Part of my reality is dealing with mental health issues. When I was a teen, it seemed like talking about mental health wasn’t acceptable in society, and that meant that I didn’t share what I was dealing with. I want to change that convention. A lot of people deal with mental health issues. Including people aiming to run Iditarod. Including people who DO run Iditarod. If I can be an example to one young person struggling, who maybe can recognize that speaking openly about their own issues is okay, then whatever I’m doing here is worthwhile.
Accountability is partially about being away that I’m really, really lucky to get to do what I do, and that I need to give back. To people, to my community– In whatever ways I can. That is why I’m trying to work with Fairbanks Wellness Coalition. I’m hoping to figure out even more I can do to be accountable to my own privilege and luck to be living a mushing life. Accountability is also about taking care of myself and taking care of the dogs. These things go hand in hand. It’s a lot harder to take care of myself because of my brain struggles, but I know that in order to take care of the dogs, I have to take care of myself. For me, this makes be be accountable, both to myself and to my buddies. It’s not always easy, but it’s always important.
Onward is our kennel mantra. That’s because if mushing taught me nothing else, it taught me to go forward. Even when things are difficult or dark or cold, you keep moving, you keep doing the next steps. This is something I try to bring into my own life every day. It also circles back to the idea of adventure– Because going onward is not just grinding forward. It’s also moving positively towards the adventure that life can be. It is the idea that there is more ahead and that we have to keep going to get there.
The unspoken, underlying element to all of this is my small team of dogs. What the Onward mantra of ATAO doesn’t explicitly say is that the way I have my kennel is specific and intentional. I was really lucky to get my mushing start with Martin Buser. I saw the absolute best in dog care. With ATAO I strive to continue that tradition.
I also believe in a small kennel. This is probably the biggest tenant of how ATAO is physically set up. A small kennel means that I can focus on each individual dog as much as possible. It means my dogs and I feel like family and know that we are all home.
I have been working on updating the dogs’ profiles on the website here. It means going through thousands of photos and reliving, over and over, the past year where most of my dogs went from goofy little pups to becoming “real dogs.” Each of the pups has bloomed into a full and expansive personality, as rich, to me, as any human. I know their faces so well that sometimes I dream in dog body language, specifically in the language of each of their faces and bodies. They are my beloveds, my pack. I love them so much.
The acronym that is ATAO is about how we as the pack will go forth and do stuff. And that’s all well and good. But the real truth, at the bottom of it all, is just that I’ve fallen in love with fourteen dogs and there’s no going back. I want to run Iditarod with them because I know it’s going to be awesome. Like conquering a big mountain or race or other adventure with your best friend would be awesome. There’s nothing as bonding as teamwork, to me. And this is my team.
So I guess that’s my real manifesto. Hug your dogs. Give them everything. And then, of course–