This Alaska landscaper has gone to the dogs

This Alaska landscaper has gone to the dogs

Off the clock at her job at Mainscape, Abbie West finds time to race in her first Iditarod.

May 15, 2014
Industry News

It’s always important to have personal activities outside of work – things that keep you from plopping down in front of the TV after a long day out on jobsites. Many contractors fish, go hunting or spend time with their families.

Abbie West races dog sleds.

West has been dog-sled racing – or mushing -- for 18 years. She moved from New Jersey to Alaska in 1995 specifically to learn how to mush dogs. Because training peaks in the winter, West was hoping to find a job in an industry that would give her that flexibility.

“That’s why I started landscaping,” she said, “because I thought it would be a perfect fit for mushing dogs.”

West is the field operations manager for Mainscape’s Alaska branch in Fairbanks, and this past March she took part in her first Iditarod, finishing in 18th place overall, with a time of 9 days 17 hours and 58 minutes. She missed the Rookie of the Year honor by six minutes. This is impressive on its own, but it’s even more impressive when you realize news sources are referring to this as the toughest Iditarod in years and according to West, 19 other mushers had already scratched before she crossed the finish line.

“We’ve had actually not very much snow and we had some warm temperatures right before the race so some really treacherous parts that are dangerous even when there is snow, had no snow on it,” West said. These conditions made the trails more dangerous. “We were just going over rocks and ice and stumps. We were basically just out of control. Normally the Iditarod is easier, but I don’t think this year that was the case.”

In honor of her achievement, Alaska Branch Manager Ryan Hughes sent a company email and an announcement was posted on Mainscape’s Facebook page. “Keep in mind most mushers don't work a full time job in the winter, so they can concentrate on training. Abbie does, much of the time putting in extra hours.”

Ball of energy. The busy schedule fits West well, since she said she isn’t the type of person who likes to sit still.

“On average I’ll spend three or four hours at least a night after work training dogs. I’ll probably do one or two hours a day in the summer, but in the winter it’s different. … Depending on what I’m doing, it could be anywhere from a two-hour run up to a whole day,” she said. “If I have a couple days off, I’ll go camping and just be gone and then go back to work.”

Training for West begins in the summer, when she free runs her dogs. In early August, the harnesses are put on and they pull the 4-wheeler just as they would pull the sled. The dogs also haul firewood. West will continue to use the 4-wheeler until it snows enough to use the sled. When November rolls around, the dogs stop hauling wood and start working on their endurance.

“We start really increasing the mileage and do back to back runs with camp outs in between,” she said. “So we do anywhere from 40 to 80 miles take a one to eight hour break, then go again. There are lots of trails here in Alaska and cabins to stay in but sometimes we just build a fire and sleep in the sled. The dogs rest on straw or spruce boughs I cut for them.”

From January to March, as race time approaches, West switches the focus of training from endurance to speed.

“I currently have 20 dogs, which believe it or not, is extremely small for a competitive kennel,” West said. A fan of astronomy, West’s kennel is named the Cosmic Canines and all of her dogs are named after stars, planets and other stellar things.

“So there is Perseus, Sirius, Galaxy, Astro, Atlas, Aurora, Nash, Sahm, Draco, etc.,” she said. “Even my Jack Russell's name is Cosmos.”

“Managing a full-time job, a rigorous training schedule, and giving each dog the attention it needs is only possible for me with a small group of dogs. I work an eight-hour shift then go home and run an hour to eight hours after work, as well as daily chores. So I stay busy.”

“I do put in full-time work,” she continued, “but my company understands that we have other lives and it’s really cool that they help us. They’re very accepting, like, ‘I need this weekend off for this race,’ or ‘Can I trade this day for that day so I can do a long run?’ And so it’s really helpful to work for Mainscape and have them understand that.”

Work and play West said being a musher and working with her dogs has taught her lessons that can be related to her job.

“It makes you more confident,” she said. “If you feel like, ‘oh I’m working so hard’ or something like that, I always think, ‘well it’s not like crossing Norton Bay in hurricane force winds on glare ice.’ You know? If I can do that, I can do anything. It puts into perspective what’s hard and what’s not.”

She said it also helps from a managerial standpoint.

“You’re almost like a coach in a way to your dog team, so you have to deal with different personalities,” she said. “And it’s not like you can just go ‘Oh, that dog’s not good enough, I’m going to get rid of it.’ You have to work with what you have to be successful. It’s the same way with people in the workplace. You need to see where their talents are – learn how to work with finding people’s talents and using that to get the job done, just like you would find your different dogs’ talents. It gives you a sense of value in all of your coworkers and employees. Everybody has a worth.”