Farmington Hills native Samantha “Sam” LaLonde has followed her spirit for adventure to Alaska, where she is a dog handler and musher with ATAO Kennel.
Sam and her parents Jim and Sally joined Farmington Voice contributor Emily Karlichek for a Zoom call on Valentine’s Day to talk about her season. Sam called in from Two Rivers, Alaska.
A 2013 graduate of Harrison High School, Sam continued on to Northern Michigan University, where she graduated in 2017 with a degree in outdoor recreation. During her time in the upper peninsula, Sam volunteered at the UP200, one of the top 12-dog mid-distance races in the Midwest and a qualifier for the world famous Iditarod race.
In April 2019, Sam moved to Juno to work on the Mendenhall Glacier, giving dog sled tours to cruise ship tourists. She cared for about 70 dogs and started mushing.
“I volunteered for the UP200 because I loved dogs, and six years later, I’m behind a sled,” Sam reflected. “This winter is the first winter in Alaska where I’m not doing tours, I’m working with the dogs.”
“Every day I wake up, do chores like feedings, vet care and yard cleanup, work on drop bags, do 20-60 mile training runs, do dinner chores, then go to bed to wake up and do it all over again,” she added. “I couldn’t be happier.”
First ‘musher’ race this year
Training happens all year. In the fall, it begins as dogs pull four wheelers. When winter comes, they switch to sleds and train harder to prepare for seasonal races and, in March, the Iditarod. After that, they slow down to maintenance training until fall.
ATAO kennel, a distance and mid-distance racing sled dog kennel, operates out of Fairbanks, Alaska. Owner Will Troshynski and his staff run the 22-dog facility that currently houses 17 race dogs, one retiring dog, and four 8-month-old puppies. The race team includes 14 dogs.
This season, Sam competed in her first race, the Willow 300. She and her team finished 16th among 41 mushers on a 300-mile trail.
“It was really great to get my first race in,” Sam said. “The dogs ran a great race, and our team had a really strong effort.”
Trackers provide security
The races themselves are grueling, as is the preparation. The “drop bags” she works on hold supplies and are placed along the route before the race.
“For the Iditarod, we’ll need over two thousand pounds of drop bags, which includes snacks, extra clothes, vet supplies, food for the dogs like beef, chicken, fish and more,” Sam said.
Jim and Sally LaLonde admit they have mixed emotions about their daughter racing.
“We are amazed at what she can do,” Sally said. “We are very proud, but mom is always nervous, I’m never on social media while she is racing, I don’t like it if she gets off trail.”
Racers wear GPS trackers, she added, which gives her much more peace of mind. Jim uses the tracker to keep up with Sam online.
“I spent all three days of the last race watching the computer, probably got as much sleep as Sam did watching her little #6 tracker move along the map,” Jim said, tearing up. “She can take care of herself… but we sure miss her a lot.”
Preparing for Iditarod
Sam will support her kennel owner during their first Iditarod. COVID-19 has forced changes to the race; a new route will be more familiar for the team. But campsite checkpoints also make it more challenging and dangerous.
“During the checkpoints you usually have a cozy place to eat, warm up, charge phones, rest and dry your clothes,” she explained. “This year, due to COVID, it’s all camping; we have to sleep in a tent and curl up in sleeping bags with the dogs.”
The forecast for race week, which starts March 6, includes temperatures below zero. Still, Sam said, she looks forward to supporting her team.
“The reason I do this is for my own happiness and mental health,” she said. “It works wonders. It’s a good challenge, and it also transfers into everyday life.”
Sam plans to keep working with dogs and get some vet care experience over the summer. Long term, she’d like to own a small kennel.
“Now that I’m doing it, I can’t imagine myself not working with dogs,” she said. “They make me really happy.”