Large parts of Alaska feature a stunning landscape of snow-capped mountains, beautiful rivers and creeks, and magnificent wildlife. The wilderness in this state of few people — caribou outnumber humans by a substantial amount — tends to overwhelm, and silence resonates as its loudest sound.
For many, the beauty and remoteness of this place make it the perfect location to live, and for Paige Drobny ’97, it certainly is.
Drobny feels that way even though living here means surviving crushing cold for half the year. She remains undeterred, even though living in her world means driving a dogsled 54 miles to the nearest town and then hopping in a truck for an additional three-hour drive just to get groceries.
In fact, the nearest town to her, Cantwell, once had 6 inches of snow fall — in July.
“There is just so much open space and so few people,” Drobny said. “I just love being out in nature and having it so close and accessible and not having that many people around.”
Drobny and her husband, Cody Strathe, also love Alaska for another reason. The state offers them the perfect opportunity to pursue their passion in life — sledding with their dogs.
Drobny and Strathe met in Seward, Alaska, in 2004 after Drobny, who graduated with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry from Virginia Tech’s College of Science, took a job as a fisheries biologist. They started dating and eventually moved to Fairbanks to pursue master’s degrees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
They eventually married, but while in Fairbanks, they adopted a few Alaskan huskies from the animal shelter because they loved animals and loved being outside. The dogs served as companions on their exploration trips throughout Alaska.
They adopted a couple more dogs and took even more trips, including a caribou hunting excursion on the North Slope. Then, a friend suggested a new hobby.
“We had amassed a few dogs that we thought were really good, and someone was like, ‘Oh, you should try racing with them as a way to see new places and explore new trails,’” Drobny said. “So, I signed up for the Yukon Quest 300. I was told that was the hardest 300-mile race in the state, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do this one, and I’ll hate it, and we can go back to our normal life of traveling with dogs.’”
So in 2010, Drobny and Strathe put together a team, and she hopped on a sled built by Strathe. She finished the 300-mile version of the Yukon Quest in the dead of winter, surviving the snow-packed, treacherous route and occasionally braving temperatures that dipped to 40 below zero.
Drobny finished sixth in that race. But something strange happened at the finish line.
“When I got to the point where I was finished with my race, there were people continuing on and doing 1,000 miles,” she said. “I was sort of heartbroken. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep going, and the dogs were having so much fun that I was addicted and hooked.”
The race started an addiction that continues today. In each year since, Drobny or Strathe or both have competed in various dog sledding events. In 2012, Drobny competed in the Yukon Quest 1000 and finished 14th in the 1,000-mile gauntlet, and the following year, she ran her first Iditarod — the nation’s premier dog sledding event.
She will be competing in her ninth Iditarod when it starts March 5, with a career-best finish of seventh coming both in 2019 and 2020. She has pocketed more than $75,000 in prize money, though that barely covers the care for their dogs.
For her and Strathe, though, they simply love being in the frozen landscape and providing happiness for their dogs, who were born to run in this environment.
“We sort of live, eat, and breathe taking care of dogs and living in winter conditions,” Drobny said. “We have the right gear for it, so we can stay warm at 50 below. We live in a stormy area, so we’re used to traveling in windy conditions and in storms. We train for it, so none of those things that we see in the race is something that we haven’t seen before in training.”
Margaret Bellows has come across many people like Drobny and Strathe, people who live, eat, and breathe taking care of dogs and competing in events. Bellows, a 2013 graduate of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, moved to Anchorage, Alaska, nearly two years ago when the U.S. Air Force sent her husband there. She volunteers her services as a veterinarian at many dog sledding events.
Bellows, who does not know Drobny, participates in veterinarian checks before select races and gets shuttled — sometimes by snowmobile up to distances of 80 miles — to remote parts of the backcountry that serve as checkpoints throughout a race. But for her, the most exciting part of a race is the start, when both dogs and mushers get ready to take off.
“They all love it,” Bellows said. “The mushers love being with their dogs, being outside. They know the dogs by name, they know their personalities, and they’re like family to them. It’s definitely a family affair. Everyone involved with the kennels is invested at an every-hour, every-day level.”
Dog sledding has been criticized in certain circles. Some hold the opinion that running dogs mile after mile every day in freezing temperatures leads to injuries and death and constitutes harassment. They say the same about the training regiments before dogs even get to the start line.
That is rubbish, according to Bellows.
“For me, it’s frustrating,” she said. “If you see them and see the kind of care they get, I think the dogs are happy. I think these dogs are really happy to have jobs.
“There are a lot of breeds out there that are common pets that are meant to have jobs and don’t. I don’t think that makes for a happy, well-cared for dog. You take a dog that’s bred for hunting and retrieving, and you just turn it into a couch potato, then they’re not fulfilled. These dogs are born to run, they want to run, and they love to do it, so that can be frustrating when you hear groups say, ‘This is not good.’ If you saw it, you might change your mind.”
Drobny and Strathe certainly put their dogs first. They lived in Fairbanks on a 20-acre property for 15 years, but as they expanded their kennel, they quickly outgrew the property and decided they wanted more land for their dogs to roam. They bought property outside of Cantwell, three hours south of Fairbanks.
Their property features two lakes, a creek, hills and mountains – perfect terrain for the dogs. The kennel, uniquely called Squid Acres Kennel after Drobny studied squid in graduate school, has 49 dogs. Drobny and Strathe breed their own dogs, but do not sell them. Instead, they train them to become sled dogs, and for the ones without the talent to become great sled dogs, they keep as companion dogs or find homes for them with friends.
“Alaskan huskies make great pets for the active person,” Drobny said. “They’re happy lying next to the wood stove, but if you want to go hike a mountain or do a long backpacking trip, they’re up for it.”
In addition to running the kennel and training dogs, Drobny and Strathe are involved in other ventures that they run out of their home and provide much of their income. She runs a fisheries consulting business, helping to write grants and proposals for research projects, and he established DogPaddle Designs in which he designs and builds skin-frame kayaks, wooden paddles, and dogsleds.
They also give tours of the Alaskan wilderness, and later this summer, they’re opening a high-end lodge that they built on their property, called Susitna Adventure Lodge. Couples, families, or groups can stay at the lodge and fish, hike, or bike, or simply enjoy Alaska’s real backcountry.
The multiple enterprises led Drobny to get her Master of Business Administration last year through Quantic, an online program based in Washington, D.C.
“I feel like my biology degree prepared me for a career in biology, but didn’t prepare me to run the back end of a business,” Drobny said. “While we were getting along and doing it just fine, I felt like there were holes in my education and that I could use more help in certain areas. So when I found this online degree program, it felt like the right fit. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to be home with my dogs and my husband, so it was a great way to fill some holes in my education and do it from home.”
The two of them stay busy with those ventures throughout the spring and summer. But in September, their focus shifts toward training their dogs for upcoming races, and in particular, the Iditarod.
In many ways, training dogs for 1,000-mile races resembles the way humans train for a marathon. Drobny and Strathe start out running the dogs in a harness three or four miles a day and gradually increase the distance. They build in recovery days for the dogs, and on some days, they run the dogs at a faster pace. On other days, they run a little slower pace.
They build up to 25 to 30 miles a run and then start training the dogs on the routine of camping. The dogs gradually get used to running and camping.
“The routine is dialed in early on in training, and as we progress, we add more miles and stack miles on miles,” Drobny said. “As we get closer to the Iditarod, we’ll have done 300 to 400 mile training runs a couple of times until the dogs have the routine down pat. When we get to the race, there is nothing they haven’t seen in training except for the full 1,000 miles.”
A race almost serves as a continuation of training for the dogs, though working out the logistics for a 1,000-mile race presents additional challenges for Drobny and Strathe. They buy meat for the dogs in 50-pound blocks and cut it up. They pack, organize, and haul 2,000 pounds of food for a 1,000-mile race. They keep track of 1,000 little booties that the dogs wear, hundreds of gloves, repair kits, and 1,600-lumen lights to guide the lead dog in poor weather.
For Drobny and Strathe, though, this is what they love to do. And for the dogs, this is what they were born to do.
“Our main goal is to give the dogs the best life that we can,” Drobny said.
Drobny hasn’t been back to Virginia Tech since she graduated, and she only returns to the lower 48 to visit her family or her husband’s family. When she and her husband vacation, they find somewhere in Alaska to explore. They love living on the last frontier and plan to spend a lifetime exploring it.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else, but that will probably change at some point,” Drobny said. “It’s not an easy lifestyle, so at some point, we’ll probably want something easier — but for now, this is perfect.”
– VA Tech News Service