The call of the wild
Buff, Zep, Josie, Lotus, Quilk, Star, Spruce, Socks, Coho, Raya, Azul, Lego, Lava, Triumph, Rita, Yukon, Sadie, Cleo, Bug and Mariah are just a few of the dogs that Alea Robinson has been on the run with since she was three years old. She likes to think about her dogs as being a part of the family more than anything.
“I have grown up with dogs my whole life,” Robinson said. “They are like siblings, family and friends to me. I can’t imagine my life without them.”
For the last 15 years, Robinson and her dogs have weaved through wildernesses in Alaska, France, Montana and other snowy terrain competing in high-level dog sled competitions, including the Race to the Sky, the Arctic Winter Games and the Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
The Linfield freshman hails from Bethel, Alaska, approximately 3,000 miles from McMinnville and inaccessible by road. Her stepfather, Eric Noble, is a pediatrician at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage – about 400 miles away from Bethel – and her mother, Lois Rockcastle, works as a nurse practitioner. Robinson is interested in pursuing a nursing degree.
“We like to help people,” Robinson said. “It matches our personality.”
Since moving to Oregon, Robinson has found it difficult to continue mushing. She competed in several minor races with her dogs over Linfield’s winter break to maintain her skills.
Robinson’s mushing career got started when her family hosted Jessie Royer, an 11-time Iditarod competitor and distinguished dog musher. Royer stayed with the family while she competed in the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel, Alaska.
“Alea clicked with Jessie and the dogs right away,” Rockcastle said. “In just one day, Alea had all the names of the dogs memorized.”
Robinson remembers loving when Royer was around because she was allowed to stay up past her bedtime to help feed and rub down the sled dogs each night.
“She has always really liked working with animals,” Rockcastle said. “They respond well to her.”
Before Robinson had an official sled dog of her own, she hooked her two golden retrievers, Denali and Shelly, up to a sled and threw tennis balls for the dogs to chase down. She began competing in quarter-mile loop races with one-dog teams at the age of six.
The next year, Royer gave Robinson her first sled dog, Zephyr, an Alaskan Husky. It was then that Robinson began competing in two-dog, two-mile races.
Robinson’s kennel now totals 20 dogs, all but one of which are from Zephyr’s bloodline.
“One thing about Alea is that her dogs are a kennel of pets,” said Kitty Wellmann, a family friend and mentee of Robinson. “They are heavily socialized because she takes time to love and care for them.”
Between extensive hours of training, caring for and competing with the dogs, Robinson has developed extraordinary relationships with her team of dogs. Her friends and family vividly recall her drowning her dogs with hugs and kisses at the finish line, regardless of the team’s performance in the race.
“She never whines or complains or gives the dogs the impression that she is disappointed in them,” Wellman said. “Alea doesn’t carry the frustration because the dogs can tell.”
The art of mushing lies within resource allocation within the sled. Mushers are responsible for determining which dogs work best next to each other, the strengths and weaknesses of each dog and what combination will be most efficient. In order to determine who will work best where, Robinson has to take risks.
“It is really important to build relationships with animals,” Robinson said. “When you take the time to interact with them and get to know their different personalities that’s when you can really see the dog excel.
Robinson would spend three or four hours after school everyday training and spending time with her dogs. Some days, she and her team would travel 30 to 50 miles in order to condition the dogs for distance races.
Several of Royer’s dogs that Robinson inherited were from sprint lines, so Robinson and her stepfather had to spend hours re-training the dogs to develop the requisite endurance for distance races.
Buff is the leader of the pack. He works with Robinson to help steer the sled and communicate with the rest of the dogs to maximize efficiency.
“Buff just adores Alea,” Wellmann said. “He is unlike any other dog I have seen before because if he feels Robinson fall off the sled, he will stop. Not many dogs do that. Alea is the sun, moon and sky to him. At the end of the race when all the other dogs are rolling in the snow and drinking water, all Buff wants to do is snuggle Alea. ”
Robinson has also spent a great deal of her time sharing her passion for mushing with others in the community, including offering support to novice mushers. She travels with her family to nursing homes, preschools and anyone else that is interested in learning about the sport.
“When Alea teaches other people how to mush, she stresses the importance of having a good time and keeping your dogs safe,” Wellmann said. “She teaches mushers to be a person who does right by the team and then if you win, cool. Her dogs never feel stressed, they only feel the joy, and that’s how she gets good results with her dogs.”
Over the years, Robinson has had many opportunities to compete at an extremely high level and has proven to be quite successful.
In 2006, she competed in the Chugiak Junior Dog Mushers Junior Eagle River Classic in the three-dog class for four miles. Robinson came in second place overall with a combined time of 30 hours, 34 minutes. She also received a sportsmanship award for hooking down a lost dog team during the two-day competition.
She won two silver medals and a gold medal – and, yes, another sportsmanship award – at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games, held in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. She won two seven-dog world championship events that same year.
In February 2013, after receiving special permission to compete, Robinson won Montana’s Race to the Sky, a competition usually open only to athletes 18 and older. Similarly, in 1994, Royer gained special permission as a 17-year-old to compete in the Race to the Sky and won the event. Family members have remarked that Robinson is following in Royer’s footsteps.
In the immediate future, Robinson’s main focus is getting an education. Mushing will have to wait.
“Alea won’t ever live without having at least a couple of dogs,” Rockcastle said. “Dogs always have and always will be a part of her life. It’s part of who she is. ”