But mushing in the U.S. is different than it is in Scandinavia. In Isacsson’s native country, for example, keeping dogs on chains is illegal, sled dogs are usually allowed in homes and top mushers keep only about 30 dogs (as opposed to as many as 100 in U.S. kennels). Abandoned or dumped dogs aren’t a fact of mushing there, either, as they are here.
As much as she enjoyed being paid to live and work with dogs, at some point she realized she couldn’t be part of an organized sport that treated dogs like ATVs. Today, mushing plays a very different role in her life. “It does not define who I am,” she says. “I don’t have dogs to fulfill my mushing experience; I mush to fulfill my dogs’ experiences.”
The sport still drives her. Not only does she provide a home and healing for mushing rejects, she also wants to be seen as a workable model for kennel management. She has offered her vision to anyone who will listen, at mushing symposiums and during three years on the board of Mush with PRIDE, an organization established in 1991 to address the care of dogs and the public perception of the sport.
Still, she is realistic. Huge kennels and tethering aren’t going away anytime soon. So her short-term push is for kennel owners to create time and an environment for dogs to socialize off the chain. As a starting point, she recommends either perimeter fencing around yards or building large playpens so dogs can be allowed some free-run play together. She invites people to see her operation, to bring their dogs for a visit. She has even offered to help install fencing. And even this compromise on her vision, she knows, will be a tough sell.
When I check back with Isacsson six months later, she’s added three dogs and built three more pens. It’s snowing when I call, normally a cause for joy, but she’s demoralized. She’s on her way to take in her 27th dog, one of a large group of dogs that were being slowly starved to death. She’s stretched and doesn’t want to add to her pack, but this one is the son of her couch-loving Husky. “He’s family,” she says, to explain why her heart is overruling her head.
But the real punch in the gut, she says, came in July. A puppy she’d placed with good friends five years earlier was returned because of pressures in their life. She was crushed.
“I started thinking about it, wondering am I just enabling people?” says Isacsson, who always promises to take back dogs if necessary. “It was really an eye-opener. I’m thinking about not taking in any more dogs.”
I’m stunned. That she feels hopeless is a rift in the Force.
By the time I hang up, it’s almost 6 PM in Fairbanks, probably just about time to feed the dogs at Camp K9 Kin. During my visit, mealtime struck me as the realization of Isacsson’s vision. While many of the dogs are fed in pens with their pen pals, as many as eight to 12 eat together in the big yard.
Isacsson sets the metal bowls in a ring, like a canine Round Table, and stands in the center with two white plastic buckets. She calls a hungry dog, who then sits in front of a bowl that she fills with a scoop of kibble and two ladles of warm stew. Once the bowl is filled, she and the dog look into each other’s eyes. Until that happens, she waits. Then she says “okay” in Swedish. The dog lunges at the food. She turns to the next bowl, calls another dog, working her way around the circle. One dog at a time sits, waits, connects, eats—and leaves his or her pack mates unmolested.
After the meal, she’ll head inside for her own dinner of soup, cheese and Swedish flatbread. At some point, a howl will rise up in the yard. They do it every night after dinner. It’s eerie and beautiful and seems intended for her. Then Isacsson will walk onto her porch and call out, “Thank you.”
Could she really give that up?
With two dozen dogs keeping her busy, Arna Dan Isacsson has not had time to create a website, but she can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.