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Mush! Alaskan dog handler visits OES

Joe Pawelek and his Alaskan husky, Ketza. (click for larger version)
March 30, 2011 - A bit of the Great White North blew into Oxford Elementary last week when Joe Pawelek, a sled dog handler and tour guide from Alaska, visited the school with his two Alaskan huskies, King Tut and Ketza.

"It's incredible to see a team of 16 dogs marching in step, alternating every foot each time in a perfect trot," said the 26-year-old Rochester Hills native.

Pawelek is the son of Janet Pawelek, elementary media specialist for the Oxford school district. He and his huskies are visiting Leonard and Clear Lake elementaries this week.

He lives in a dog camp located on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. It's the only glacier within an Alaskan city's limits.

"I think that's kind of its claim to fame," he said.

From May to September, Pawelek lives and works at the camp, which houses 18-22 employees and approximately 240 sled dogs.

OES students Ethan Thompson and Ronald Green pet Alaskan husky, King Tut. (click for larger version)
Owned by a company called Alaska Icefield Expeditions, the camp provides sled dog tours ( to the approximately 200 tourists who visit on a daily basis during the summer. Most visitors are from cruise ships, however, to get to the glacier, they must do so by helicopter.

"We give them a talk and then get them on their own sled with their own team of dogs," he said.

The dogs who live at the camp belong to sled dog racers called "mushers." Lodging them there for the summer allows the dogs to receive exercise and helps the mushers out financially.

When he's not active at the camp, Pawelek, who's a 2002 graduate of Rochester Adams High School, works as a dog handler for various mushers.

"I train young dogs, between 6 months and 2 years, and when they're ready to race, I pass them on to the people that I'm working for," he said.

Pawelek's trained dogs for Michigan musher Ed Stielstra, who's raced in the 1,000-mile Iditarod seven or eight times. He's considered one of the best mushers in the lower 48 states and one of the most successful in Michigan. His best placing in the Iditarod is 29th out of about 70 competitors, according to Pawelek.

Pawelek got into the world of sled dog racing through a friend when he was 22 years old. He loves how it forces him to focus on the present and be keenly aware of everything that's going on around him.

"I'm able to live in the moment and I think that's important in the fast-paced society that we live in," he explained. "Dogs don't think, they just react. When you're living in the moment with the dogs, you're able to train them better."

When you're running a team of dogs, there's no time to daydream or plan next week's schedule. It's all about the here and now.

"When it's 40 or 50 (degrees) below (zero), you can't be off in la-la land," Pawelek said.

A good musher, in Pawelek's opinion, has the ability to prevent incidents before they happen.

"You're constantly dancing on the edge of chaos and harmony," he said. "Every little thing you do all adds up to the big picture."

The biggest part is keeping the dogs healthy and recognizing when there's a problem.

"A good musher loves his dogs and has a bond of trust with them," Pawelek said. "You rely on them out there as much as they rely on you. You've got to take care of them in every conceivable way."

For instance, one of the most important parts of maintaining a sled dog team is proper nutrition.

"These dogs consume 13,000 calories a day when they're running the Iditarod," Pawelek said. "If they miss a meal, they're going to lose a pound."

A pound doesn't sound like much, but for a dog, it's the equivalent of a human losing 10 pounds, according to Pawelek.

Pawelek said a good sled dog must be both fast and smart. He or she needs to be able to follow commands, but also have the ability to read the trail and run in several different types of weather.

Not the type to mince words, Alaska's old-timers, nicknamed "sourdoughs," believe "a good sled dog is smart enough to pull, but dumb enough to do it," according to Pawelek.

Interestingly, Alaskan huskies are not a recognized breed. Pawelek said they're really just an "engineered mutt."

"They're dogs that are bred based on their parents' racing statistics. You're either looking for speed or strength or stamina," he explained.

His own dogs, King Tut and Ketza, are both considered Alaskan huskies, even though they "look quite a bit different."

Ketza is an 8-year-old female with a good bloodline.

"I can trace her lineage back to the early 1900s," said Pawelek, noting she's competed twice in a 1,000-mile race called the Yukon Quest.

On the other hand, Pawelek doesn't know anything about King Tut, a 4-year-old male, other than he got him at a rescue shelter in Michigan's Upper Peninsula about three years ago.

Although he can race, Pawelek doesn't use King Tut because he's too tall.

"He's probably six or seven inches taller than Ketza," he said. "A small, boxey dog is good for long distance.

"Tut sticks out like a sore thumb. He hurts himself when he runs with smaller dogs because he's trying to compensate and adjust his gait. He just ends up hurting his shoulders or his chest."

King Tut is, however, quite strong.

He took third place at a weight pulling competition when he dragged 450 pounds a distance of 15 feet.

Pawelek has done some mushing of his own, competing the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race (45 miles) and the Knik 200 (200 miles), along with some others ranging from 100 to 400 miles in distance.

He's currently writing a book featuring two microbreweries from each of the 50 states, along with beer photos and 100 short stories about his life experiences. He plans to call the book "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words."

Pawelek plans to use the proceeds from his book to purchase some property in Alaska and his own sled dogs.

"It's a sport that you do for the love it and that's the tradition that I want to keep going," he said. "I don't want it to turn into a NASCAR or something like that."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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