Wednesday, February 12, 2014
CHESTERFIELD — Nestled in the woods of West Chesterfield, Marla Brodsky lives off the grid in an “eco-village” along with her team of Alaskan Husky sled dogs. While Brodsky offers nature camps, mushing classes and sled rides, through her business Hilltown Wilderness Adventures, her sights are firmly set on competing in the Alaskan Iditarod.
For years, Brodsky, 54, has been preparing for the opportunity to get into the race.
Now she says it is time to make that happen.
“I have already established myself as a touring kennel, but now I am trying to establish myself as a racing kennel,” Brodsky said. “The dogs are in their prime now and this is my window of opportunity.”
But before she takes on the Iditarod, Brodsky must compete in at least three qualifying races including a mid-distance race covering 100 to 300 miles and a long-distance race covering from 300 to 1,000 miles.
The Iditarod’s roughly 1,000-mile competition, which starts March 1, takes mushers and their teams over mountain passes, frozen rivers and inhospitable tundra, as biting winds and bone-chilling temperatures test their perseverance. The race takes an average of eight to 12 days to complete.
Mushers generally spend an entire year preparing for the race and raising money to outfit themselves and their teams. In this regard, Brodsky hopes she is on track to have her go at the race in 2015.
But there is much to do before she gets to that point.
The physical stamina needed is profound, says Brodsky, who holds advanced degrees in tae kwon do. “Training for the Iditarod is much harder than being a martial artist,” she said.
The mushers are not the only ones preparing for the race. The dogs must build their endurance and know how to work with Brodsky and the rest of the team.
According to Brodsky, her 16 dogs, whose ages span from 1 to 4 years, are prepared to take on the race that defines the sport of mushing. “We are ready,” Brodsky said. “We will use this winter to race, train, build endurance and get more support,” she said.
Then, she hopes, it will be on to Alaska. This year, the race starts in Anchorage and runs to Nome, a distance of 975 miles.
Along with knowing how to handle the sled and care for the dogs, mushers must have outdoor survival skills, as they will be sleeping beneath the stars during the race. “I haven’t done any overnight races yet, so mushing at night in the northern lights could be beautiful, or it could be terrible, if you don’t know what you are doing,” she said.
In building her sled team, Brodsky received a gift from her mentor, a well-known musher named Aliy Zirkle. Zirkle has worked with the Iditarod Trail Committee and has competed in the Iditarod 12 times, coming in a close second for the past two years.
“I adopt out some of my dogs after they are finished racing competitively with me, and I immediately thought Marla would give one of my dogs a great home,” Zirkle said.
After adopting “Betty,” the retired sled dog had a litter of puppies and that was the beginning of Brodsky’s real mushing lifestyle.
“Marla has determination and her path is not an easy one, especially for someone living on the suburban East Coast,” Zirkle said, adding that Alaskans consider much of the Lower 48 to be “suburbia.” According to Zirkle, dog mushing in Alaska is a “normal lifestyle.”
“I have friends who mush their dog teams to church on Sunday. So, for Marla to really learn and someday run the Iditarod, I think her next step is coming north with her dog team, Zirkle said.
“Then we will see where that takes her. My guess is that she can go as far as her dreams will carry her,” she said.
It takes more than determination, skill and a fast sled dog team to participate in the Iditarod. It takes financial backing.
“As the team grows, the expense grows. To segue from a touring kennel into a racing kennel, I need sponsorship,” Brodsky said.
All Iditarod mushers must have the appropriate dog sled, harnesses, an arctic parka, heavy sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, dog booties and sufficient food for themselves and their dogs.
“The booties alone are $1 a piece but you have to bring at least 200 of them,” Brodsky said. “Then I need to have the right gear to make sure that I am warm enough and that the dogs have everything that they need,” she said.
Northern Outfitters, a seller of extreme cold-weather gear, has agreed to sell Brodsky equipment at cost and several local business have signed on to support their local musher. Still, Brodsky says she still needs additional sponsorship.
She is working to purchase a $7,000 moving truck that she plans to customize to comfortably transport her dog team. She is also looking for a handler to help shoulder some of the load.
“A lot of mushers have an experienced handler to help train and care for the dogs and also have the support a spouse. So far, I have done all of this on my own,” she said.
With 16 dogs to train and care for on a daily basis, running Hilltown Wilderness Adventures, and raising her 9-year-old daughter part-time, Brodsky says she could use help.
“Being a handler is a great opportunity for someone to learn about racing and getting to run a team,” she said.
The first Saturday in March, the start of the Iditarod, beckons.
Though Brodsky won’t be in the race this year, her mentor, Zirkle, will be, with high hopes for placing.
As for Brodsky’s goals for next year, they are much more modest:
“My goal is to get there and finish respectfully,” she said.