OTHER LIVES: JON LITTLE, KERRIE WILLIAMS

Intro:Mushing is a very time intensive sport. We all know how it can consume our constant thoughts, not to mention free time. At times it may not seem like it, but most of us do have a “life” outside of the sport. In this new department, to be featured in every issue, we explore the “other lives” of mushers. In this issue we bring you two stories of what some mushers are doing for the summer. If you have, or know of someone, who has an interesting occupation or hobby besides sled dogs, please let us know. From experience we know that Mushing’s readers are a great and varied bunch, and we look forward to seeing the “split personalities” of those in our sport....... G.S.Other Lives - Jon Little, by Joseph RobertiaGetting Ahead in SummerThere’s an old saying that “one person’s trash is another’s treasure,” and that couldn’t be any more true for Jon Little, a musher from Kasilof, AK. who has competed in both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races, as well as numerous other mid-distance races around the state annually. Dudded-up in his summer attire of waterproof bibbed overalls, rubber gloves and a sweatshirt with blood and slime up to his elbows, Little doesn’t look out of place in the “slime line” at the Pacific Star Seafoods processors in Kenai, AK., but he’s not one of their seasonal workers. Rather, Little is there for his warm weather ritual — collecting fish heads to feed to his 20-plus hungry huskies waiting at the kennel back home. “It’s a great resource, but if you have a lot of pride, it’s probably not for you. It’s garbage after all, so you’re only one step above a seagull,” he said in regard to collecting heads last summer. Little is humble, though, and said he doesn’t mind the dirty deed, since his furry friends benefit from it. “The dogs love it. It’s a great summer treat for them,” he said. With moves reminiscent to the I Love Lucy episode where she’s overworked in a candy factory, Little nabs fish heads off a conveyor as quickly as he can before they fall into a huge industrial grinder, eventually being pumped back out into the Kenai River. This may sound disgusting to some, but Little said the task has actually gotten easier over the years. He explained the processing line was newly upgraded in 2005. In the past, heads were not separated from guts and other fish waste, and all of this material came together via a chute outside the processor building. “This new way is much easier,” he said, compared to sorting fish waste in the rain, or worse yet, in the heat while contending with flies like he did in the past. However, he did it because salmon was — and still is — a huge staple in the sled dog diet of most Kenai Peninsula mushers, and many others throughout Alaska with close access to salmon spawning rivers and streams. Little said the dogs relish the savory fish and more importantly, it’s good for them. A fact that Alaskan Native mushers have known for hundreds of years, but that nutritional experts have only recently begun to shed light. “I’ve never done an analysis on it or anything, but I believe they are loaded with nutrition. As gross as it sounds, the eyeballs, brains and cheeks are concentrated with protein, fat and other nutrients,” he said. Numerous scientific studies have shown salmon are loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals and Omega-three fatty acids. Foods rich in this “good fat” have become a staple ingredient in many high-quality commercial dog feeds due to their health benefits, some of which Little has observed firsthand from feeding the heads. “The heads seem good for their skin and coats. The dogs will get nice and shiny after just a couple of weeks of feeding them,” he said. Omega-three fatty acids have also been linked to fighting cancer, as well as bone and joint disease in dogs.Little was quick to point out that he doesn’t feed the heads raw, though. Although virtually absent in Alaska, there is a condition known as “salmon poisoning” which can occur from feeding raw salmon. It is caused by a bacterial-like organism (Neorickettsia helminthoeca) that lives in little flukes which parasitize salmon in the Pacific Northwest region. As such, this could be a concern for mushers living in coastal areas from British Columbia south to Northern California. Salmon poisoning is very serious and often fatal, so even though it hasn’t been a problem in Alaska, Little doesn’t take any chances. He freezes all his fish prior to feeding. “Freezing them hard — for 15 days or more, is partly to kill any parasites, but also because the dogs seem to love it more than eating it raw,” he said. Little takes the heads home and packages them in selected amounts — one or two for every dog in the kennel, and then freezes them in a large 18-cubic feet freezer. Then, when he’s ready to use them, he just takes them out, bangs them with an axe a few times to loosen the heads and gives each dog one once a day. “They’re perfect bite-sized breakfasts,” he said, adding that then he just follows up later in the day with a high-quality kibble and water for their dinners. Also, Little said you can’t beat the price, since the processor provides the heads free of charge. As to what the processor thinks of the musher’s periodic visits, Kricket Stephenson, a quality controller at Pacific Star Seafoods said it’s not entirely uncommon. “Once in a while mushers come in, but many like to wait for things we’re giving away,” Stephenson said, referring to low grade whole-bodied fish or fillets that don’t appeal to buyers and thus sometimes become available to mushers late in the season. However, Stephenson said Little’s not of this sort. “Jon doesn’t mind working for it. I’ve seen him in slime up to his elbows digging for fish heads on the dock out back,” she said. Stephenson also is an all-around sled dog enthusiast who enjoys watching and photographing mushing the rest of the year when she’s not involved in fish processing work, and as such, said she enjoys contributing to the sport. “I like helping them out and helping the dogs. I tell everybody — back where I’m from in Washington — that our fish heads go up the Iditarod and they are just blown away,” she said. eOther Lives: Kerri WilliamsFish Wheels on the TananaThe fall has never been complete without the hanging of salmon for the dogs. There is nothing quite like being covered with salmon slime, roe and fish guts.As our summer winds down, I have just returned from running sled dogs on the Denver Glacier in Skagway, Alaska. My mind is focuses on seeing Dexter, (my husband) and the rest of the dogs who did not venture to the glacier with me. Throughout the summer, Dex has been keeping me up to date on his progress of building a fish-wheel to put on the Tanana River. It has had its share of mishaps from the boat breaking down and floating back to Nenana, to being on the wrong side of the river (the fish mainly run on one side of the river). These were all learning experiences. So when I got home, the wheel was actually in the river about 4 miles upstream from Nenana. Dexter, Jason and myself ventured out there, in the boat that works well, as long as it is only going forward, there is no reverse, and it leaks like a sieve. Without too much, we got the wheel to spin, but it was not deep enough to be useful.We decided to barge the whole raft across the river to a good looking spot with lots of current. Everyone we had spoken to had said, “You need to barge the wheel around to different spots, as the river changes daily.” That certainly sounded easy enough, but to give an impression of just how big the wheel/raft is; the logs which the wheel rests on are 40 feet long and about 10-12 inches in diameter, and there are 7 of these logs. The raft is around 15 feet wide and the baskets are approximately nine feet deep and 6 feet wide. To say this wheel is huge is to put it mildly.Dex and I decided the best way to barge the wheel would be to pull it. We have always pulled other items to move them, so why should this be different? We hooked up the ropes and headed out into the current. Bad idea, as soon as we hit the current we had no control what so ever, not only was the wheel tons heavier, but our boat was way under-powered and was spinning out of control downstream towards Nenana. Our comments cannot be printed here as this is a family magazine. We kept backing up the boat to try to try to direct the wheel towards the other bank. Well, we got near the bank and unhooked the raft before it hit the shore and it began cart-wheeling downstream towards us. We had no way to stop its momentum. Accidentally, Dex gunned the motor and we hit the wheel/raft, and rather than shooting through the basket, we slowed the momentum and we actually gained control as we pushed the whole mass towards the shore. We got the wheel pushed (why didn’t we think of that in the first place?) onto the shore and tied it off. Phew!!Our new location proved to be ideal for the wheel to spin in a circle, similar to a hamster wheel. Meanwhile, we had become the talk of the town, “Did you see those guys spinning downstream-haw, haw, what were they thinking?” Well after watching the wheel spin for a whole day, we were trying to figure out why there no fish being caught in our basket (we did catch a whitefish but it fell back into the river, not the holding box). We decided to talk to some experts, the guys who have been doing this for years.Rick Mackey is not only a famous dog racer (Yukon Quest and Iditarod Champion) but also a commercial fisherman. We stopped at his fishwheel on our way home. Fish were just flopping into his basket one after another. He told us our wheel looked good but there were no fish on that side of the river. They tend to stay on one side of the river when they are running. That meant another ferrying project, scary. On the second ferrying project we decided to involve more people and a bigger boat. Our friends, Wally and Mike were up for the challenge, so the four of us headed out on the river. Well, needless to say, hours later, I was walking downstream on the shore to catch up with the guys as they were spinning out of control past me. The wheel ended up on sandbar a mile from Nenana. Our options and patience were slimming as the crisp fall air cut into our cheeks on the way back to the boat launch.The salmon season was one for the record books. There were fish running upstream like crazy, filling everyone’s wheels except ours.We had stopped again to talk with Rick on our way home. He had offered the use of his wheel to fill our permit. For the next 24 hours we harvested salmon. It was amazing to be standing in the holding box and have salmon just continue to be scooped into the basket and slide into the fish box. There were fish piled knee deep in the holding box as we filled the boat. We filled our permit, which allows a household to harvest 2000 chum salmon for dog food.Once the fish were home, the real work began. Splitting and hanging of the fish is a traditional method of storing fish and by far the least aromatic. Not to say they smell like a bed of roses, they just smell like fish, 2000 fish! Splitting and hanging all of those fish takes quite a bit of time and a good amount of energy; it pays off as all winter as the dogs have salmon soup everyday. There is something to be said for feeding salmon caught in a traditional fish-wheel. As the snow has started to pile up on the fish tails and we are looking forward to race season, the dogs are looking forward to the next batch of salmon soup. e

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