Work of Dogs
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The UnMusher

What becomes obvious after a few days is that this is a physically demanding life in an extreme climate that would break down most people. In addition to the rigorous exercise, daily maintenance consumes time, energy and finances. It takes hours to pick up waste, replace straw in dog houses, clip nails, trim fur, massage limbs, chop and stew meat and fish (which she does on a porch stove even when the mercury hovers well below zero), treat ailing dogs, wash blankets, vacuum, repair gear and on and on. Isacsson makes ends meet with a night job, processing satellite images of Earth at the University of Fairbanks, and through the generosity of friends and supporters. Still, take one look at her biography, and it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.

The 45-year-old with classic Nordic looks—straight blond hair cut short, blue eyes, fair skin and ruddy cheeks—is the daughter of a Swedish actress, Mona Dan-Bergman, and a prominent watercolorist, Arne Isacsson. Her first name is a hybrid of theirs. They divorced when their daughter was three. After they split, she led a divided life—spending six months with her mother and six months with a foster family. At 12, she lobbied unsuccessfully to live with her foster family full-time. The months with her mother, who Isacsson thinks was probably manic-depressive, were difficult. The young girl ran away frequently and often hid in a hollowed-out tree.

Today, she’s adamant about calling her work foster care. “I don’t call myself a rescue,” she says. “I’m just kind of like a halfway house. I was a burden to the commons for a while because I was in foster care. Now, in my mind, I can repay the debt.”

As a child, Isacsson pretended to have been raised by wolves, an idea she thinks was originally inspired by The Jungle Book. “I think kids who are traumatized live in a fantasy world part of the time. The world of imagination can become the only balanced part of your life,” she says. “I have memories that aren’t really memories from my life. That pack of wolves I was raised by, I know now that it’s not real.”

She fed her fantasy by reading everything she could about canines in the wild. When she discovered there were no wild wolves in Sweden, she became outraged. In 4-H, she studied Turkish livestock guardian dogs and ways to manage livestock without eradicating predators.

She attended a farm high school, where she raised a litter of German Shepherd puppies for an entire year. “I was part of that pack, living with them in a barn. Yet, it was always clear that I was a human and they were dogs. They had leaders in their mother and father, as well as growing siblings, but still I too was their leader. It was an experience that no book or person could ever have prepared me for.”

On my last day in Fairbanks, we take the dogs out sledding. I know the dogs on my team—Jordy, Ilso, Raanin, Lappy, Sachiko and Kaepen—pretty well by now, which makes watching and encouraging them very satisfying. With the White Mountains in the distance, we glide through the gentle ups and downs and curves along a ridge. The only sounds are our heavy breathing and the sled runners crunching over snow-dusted ice. The sun, the wind and the team invigorate me. It’s easy to see why people fall so hard for this experience.

It’s warm, so Isacsson and I run, rather than ride, uphill, and take frequent breaks in the shade so the dogs can munch snow or roll to cool down. It would be fun to go all-out, but their benevolent leader is not willing to push these dogs to a point where they could be injured or become exhausted. That’s one reason she’s not a competitive musher.

Still, she has serious pedigree. As a teenager, she taught herself Nordic mushing. She constructed a harness out of horse halters, hooked her German Shepherds up to a kick sled and let them pull her across the fjord ice. After moving to the United States, she worked for three leading mushers, including four-time Iditarod champions Doug Swingley and Susan Butcher. She was an ambassador for Scandinavian mushers and a production assistant on a PBS Iditarod documentary.


Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom.

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Photographs by Charles Mason

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