Mush! This Alaskan Couple Works with 35 Sled Dogs and Lives Off-the-Grid
“Alaska has a group of people that are a little less than ideal citizens,” Jeff Deeter says.
And, as a middle schooler and early high schooler, Jeff fell in with them.
“It was a typical teenage rebellion,” he says. “Starting to fail in school and run with a group of kids not going down the best path.”
Whereas many parents might have worried or made unconvincing threats, his took action – action in a way that’s unimaginable to many in the Lower 48.
“When I was 15, my parents pulled me out of school to focus on the fundamentals of why we live in Alaska,” he says. “They forced me to work with this dog musher.”
Although Jeff had wanted to be a musher since the age of 6, he’d lost interest as he grew older. “It didn’t appeal to me anymore,” he says. “It sounded like too much work, and wasn’t fashionable.”
But after that first day, his excitement about the sport came rushing back. From that point on, he never attended conventional school again, instead taking correspondence and online courses to graduate.
“Mainly, my focus was on dogs and mushing and life skills that can be learned by working with dogs,” he says. “I definitely was more focused on dogs than school.”
Stars Align in Alaska
Years later, and three thousand miles away, KattiJo Deeter was finishing college in Wisconsin. Eager to use her therapeutic recreation degree, she worked her way around the states in a variety of seasonal jobs.
In 2010, Hawaii and Alaska were the only states that remained on her wish list. When she began hunting for jobs, the first listing she saw was from a sled dog tour company in Juneau. A lifelong lover of animals, she applied – and pretty soon, was on a plane to America’s 49th state.
In addition to hiring general summer help like KattiJo, the company hired mushers who brought their dogs down to earn an income and free dog food. One of them was Jeff.
They became good friends over the season, and as the end loomed near, KattiJo wasn’t feeling motivated to find another seasonal job.
“Every few months you’re starting from scratch,” she says. “It’s really emotionally draining; I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to everybody again.”
So when Jeff said she should come to Fairbanks, where he’d teach her to mush, she decided to go for it. She got a job as a live-in nanny for a family who raced sled dogs – which turned out to be the perfect introduction to the world she now lives in.
“I got to see what it’s like to be in this situation where you’re around a bunch of sled dogs, living off grid, 45 minutes away from the grocery store,” she says. “It’s neat, but it’s also complicated and more difficult than I thought it would be.”
Over the winter, she fell in love with the lifestyle – and also with Jeff. Two years later, they got engaged and purchased their own little piece of land: 10 acres about 45 minutes from Fairbanks.
Giving It a Shot
They began to build their new life together, literally: They constructed an off-grid house with an expansive view of mountains, trees and their growing stable of 16 sled dogs.
Each cost around $1,000 per year for food, gear, veterinary bills and medications – and eventually the Deeters asked themselves: “How are we going to make these dogs pay for themselves?”
They could’ve, of course, traveled with their dogs to work summer tours elsewhere. But that wouldn’t have been a long-term solution for them.
“Just doing tours in the summer was not sustainable,” says KattiJo. “I wanted to start a garden; I wanted to have chickens; I didn’t want to leave our home for half the year.”
So they decided to start their own tour company right there in Fairbanks. And right on their land.
They wouldn’t get much summer business – as that was monopolized by cruise contracts – but they could try to attract independent winter tourists visiting for the northern lights.
Though a few dog-sledding companies already operated in their area, the Deeters had no idea how successful they were.
“We didn’t know if they were just making ends meet or if they were making a comfortable living,” says KattiJo. “But we figured we could give it a shot.”
A Different Kind of Dog-Sled Tour
Luckily, they were already paying for the biggest expense: the dogs.
Additional overhead costs included a warming hut, six sleds, business insurance and heavy-duty clothing for clients, which they mostly collected second hand.
In spring 2013, the Deeters launched Black Spruce Dog Sledding. KattiJo built their online presence with a website and profiles on social media and review sites. She also worked with the local visitors’ center and distributed brochures throughout Fairbanks.
“It’s hard when you’re starting a new business,” she says. “You really have to wait months and months for the [search engine] algorithms to find and categorize you. And then you have to wait years for your reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor to start building.”
But the Deeters made sure their tours stood out. Rather than simply going for a ride, Black Spruce’s customers visit the dogs at their houses, hook them up to the sled and then even try their hand at driving.
“You can run a dog-sled tour like a carnival ride,” explains KattiJo. “You make more money, but we knew that wasn’t what we wanted to do. Because there’s so much more to being a dog musher.”
Their approach proved successful: Black Spruce now holds the top spot on TripAdvisor, and the Deeters have grown their pack to 35 dogs. During the holidays, they run six tours per day.
“We’re quite passionate about the dogs, and all of our visitors are really excited to see our dogs and see what our lifestyle is like,” says Jeff. “Feeding off their energy is really encouraging. It never really feels like work or drudgery.”
Finding Their Limits
At times they needed that energy because, for several seasons, Jeff ran tours during the day and trained his race team at night; a schedule that left barely any time for sleep.
“Sometimes those training runs will be 10, 12 hours; sometimes 24 to 36 hours,” he says. “We’re basically trying to condition them for a 1,000-mile race we’ll run in 10 days. We need a lot of time on the trail, but also need to be home for the business.”
They’ve now hired some part-time guides, so Jeff says they “get a little more sleep, but not much.”
“The separation between work and your hobby and your personal time is all kind of blended together,” he continues. “It has taken a little bit of growing into and a little bit of change on our part.”
They used to have a northern lights tour, for example, but decided to stop offering it – even though it cost them business – because they didn’t want customers at their house day and night.
“It can be hard to draw those boundary lines,” admits KattiJo. “But at the same time, it can be two o’clock on a Tuesday, and instead of sitting in a cubicle, I am outside taking my puppies for a walk… We feel like we have so much freedom to direct our lives and how we spend our time.”
A Simple (Shower-Free) Life
Unlike freedom, however, money doesn’t always come easily. The Deeters make a relatively good income compared to other dog mushers, but their expenses remain high.
“There are times of year when we feel great, and other times I’m losing sleep because I wish we had a little more money in our bank account,” says KattiJo. “Every time I catch myself feeling comfortable, I remind myself we don’t have health insurance. And we don’t have a retirement account.”
Most of their extra money goes toward their house, which they continue to work on when they have time.
They don’t have kitchen cupboards, countertops or a complete deck, and they still don’t have a shower. In the summer, they use a bathtub on the deck; in the winter, they take bucket baths or visit public showers in Fairbanks.
“We don’t need much for living,” says KattiJo. “But it’s getting old – we’re ready for a shower.”
Every Dog Day Is Great
Showers aside, the Deeters love their lifestyle, which has allowed them to pursue their greatest passions: their dogs, their surroundings, their freedom and each other.
“There’s really no other mode of transportation like dogs,” says Jeff. “It’s silent, it’s engaging and you’re traveling fairly slow, so you really get to be immersed in your environment.”
He still competes in dog-sledding races – he’s done the 1,000-mile Iditarod twice, and plans to do it annually from here on out – and KattiJo is gearing up for her first solo race this winter.
“Alaskan huskies are truly meant to run,” says Jeff. “So watching them do something they enjoy – and then challenging myself to keep up with them – is an interesting dynamic and a very cool lifestyle. It’s really through the dogs we can live off grid, and support ourselves and travel this amazing country.”
“Every day with your dogs is great,” adds KattiJo. “Even when it’s hard, it’s still really neat.”
Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. Like KattiJo, she worked seasonal jobs for many years after college – and wrote a pay-what-you-want ebook teaching others to follow in her footsteps. Find it at susanshain.com/ebook.