When journalist Blair Braverman started regularly tweeting about dog-sledding around five years ago, she was surprised to find how popular the posts were.
“I was shocked,” Braverman, a 33-year-old who has been mushing for 15 years, told The Post. She’d initially intended for her Twitter account to focus on her writing, not her dogs, but she said, “People would ask questions about mushing, and it was all I wanted to talk about.”
The level of interest helped her garner some 125,000 Twitter followers and inspired her to write the new book “Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life” (Ecco) with her husband Quince Mountain. The beautiful, eye-opening book offers insight into a little known world.
“The sport is mysterious,” writes the 33-year-old Braverman in the book’s introduction. “Mushers live in some of the coldest, most remote places in the world. They don’t have neighbors; they spend more time with dogs than with people, and they like it that way.”
A California native, she spent time in Norway as a child. At age 18, she returned to the Norwegian Arctic to go to a non-academic boarding school where she focused on dog-sledding, an experience she chronicled in her 2016 memoir “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.” Soon, she was hooked.
In 2019, Braverman competed in the Iditarod, the famous dog sledding race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. She and 14 of her dogs completed the roughly 1,000-mile course in 13 days and nine hours, encountering treacherous slopes, dangerous ice, and various other hazards along the way.
“It was just me and my dogs and some very intense terrain. The obstacles just kept coming,” she has said of the experience. “But my dogs took care of me.”
She and Mountain, 32, met in graduate school in Iowa and now divide their time between Alaska and northern Wisconsin. In their book, they dispel many myths about the sport, including several about the dogs themselves. While many people picture Siberian huskies when they think of sled dogs, Braverman and Mountain raise Alaskan huskies, which aren’t an official breed and don’t have a distinct appearance.
“Because they’ve been bred for performance, not looks, Alaskans can have floppy or pointy ears, blue or brown eyes, and range in size from thirty to seventy-odd pounds. They can be a solid color, multiple colors, speckled, or have striking masks,” the couple writes.
Sometimes, Braverman and Mountain accentuate their dogs’ looks with mascara — not to make them pretty, but to help cut down the glare of the sun. They’ll use a simple waterproof mascara, like Maybelline, on lighter-colored dogs when they’re mushing above the Arctic Circle and daylight hours are long, applying the makeup to the fur around their eyes rather than their lashes.
“[The dogs] don’t mind the process at all and it helps protect [them] from the light, kind of like wearing sunglasses, or how football players apply eye black,” Braverman said.
Sled dogs boast traits that make them uniquely well-suited for their job, like a warm, double-layer coat and webbed paws that act almost like snowshoes. They also have a special metabolism that allows them to burn fat easily and rely less on carbohydrates than other mammals, allowing the animals to run 100 miles a day, several days in a row, without becoming fatigued.
Naturally, such feats require a lot of fuel. “They can eat over 10,000 calories per day,” Braverman told The Post. “Some of the things they eat seem pretty gross.” Venison is a staple, chicken is a favorite. “While they’re running,” Braverman and Mountain write that they “give each [dog] a raw frozen chicken thigh every hour or so.” More exotic fare in their diet includes beaver, bear fat, and steamed bone meal for calcium.
Braverman and Mountain don’t start training their dogs until they’re at least a year old and their bodies have had time to develop. When it comes time to start a yearling, “teaching a young sled dog to pull is almost ridiculously easy,” they write. You just harness them up and clip to the line with the rest of the team, and “within about five steps, they’ve got it.” Dogs typically retire between ages 7 and 11.
While winter is, of course, the main season for sledding, training and conditioning is a year-round affair. In the summer, the dogs get time to relax and recover and puppies are often born and reared. Once temperatures dip below 50 degrees in autumn, it’s cool enough to train but usually no snow, so Braverman and Mountain will have a team of dogs pull them on a bike, cart or ATV instead of a sled.
It’s all a lot of work, but for Braverman, it’s worth it.
“The depth of trust you develop with these dogs is incredible,” she said. “You get to be with the dogs you love when they’re doing something that they love. And that is completely addictive.”