By Becky Karush ’94
One spring four years ago, Emily Rosenblatt ’10 rode shotgun in a truck headed from Colorado to Alaska. Richie, her boyfriend of a few months, drove. In the back, 14 Alaskan husky dogs lay in their crates and dozed.
“That was a fun conversation with my parents,” Emily says, cheerful and wry. She’s in between chores on a fall afternoon near Two Rivers, Alaska, east of Fairbanks, the winter cabin home for her and Richie, now her husband, and their 32 sled dogs in various states of puppyhood, racing, breeding, and retirement. Together the couple runs WildThingz Dog Mushing, a professional sled dog team and sled dog tour operation.
Normally, Emily would be at their summer yurt right now, alongside Denali National Park, where they run dog sled tours for the robust tourist trade. But a neighbor family’s baby (human, not canine) had taken ill enough for a hospital stay, and Emily’s helping care for their dogs.
“I had to tell my parents I’d broken up with the boyfriend who I went out to Colorado with, I was dating a man 19 years older than I am, who had 14 dogs, and now I was going to Alaska, byeeeeee!” She laughs. “It was a classic Emily move at that point. I had no idea what I was doing, I was all over the place, I wanted to do everything but nothing until then stuck.”
Headlong and curious, Emily was in that post-college, early-twenties middle ground where no landscape fully meets the appetites and questions of the heart; everything feels like one long road trip. She’d felt more congruence at Putney, loving farmwork and art, especially photography, but art school in New York City held a strange sort of exile from belonging.
“I’m from Maine,” she says, “I’m not a city person. I went there solely for the education and especially after Putney, I felt like a huge part of my life—nature, hands-on labor—was missing.”
So the summer after graduation, Emily hit the road with her then-boyfriend. They drove out west, landing in Leadville, Colorado, near a ski resort. She didn’t have a plan, and she had no expectations that her art school degree would land her a job; she figured she would figure it out, wait tables, go skiing.
Then, she found a job. A sled dog tour company, five minutes from her house, was seeking a photographer.
“I started working around the dogs, and it was like, ‘Oh. This is what I want to do,’” she says. Not long after starting, she met Richie, who’d been managing the kennel for several years. They rode across the property on a snow machine the first day they met. “That I fell in love with someone with sled dogs…” Her grin is audible. “I definitely got lucky with that.”
Chop Wood, Carry Water, Comb Fur, Nap
Emily takes a lot of steps in a day. Wake up, drink some tea or coffee, cook meat or salmon for the dogs. Take a half-hour to scoop poop from the kennel. Go to the river to haul water in five-gallon buckets for the dogs (and for her and Richie, the river is their running water). Water everybody. Depending on the season, hook up a team of dogs, 45- to 70-pounds each, and take them on a training run. Get back and unhook from training run. Cook more food for the dogs and water them again.
“It’s a constant flow of dog care, and in between it’s getting wood for the fire, chopping wood for the fire, preparing salmon or caribou or moose scraps for the dogs later, fixing or building equipment,” she explains. “And then more for the dogs, trimming their toenails, brushing their fur, giving vaccines or vitamins. There is always something to do.”
Emily and Richie raise Alaskan huskies, which are a wilder breed than the Siberian huskies used in movies to play sled dogs. The breed is thousands of years old, descended, as Emily puts it, “from whatever dogs native people had in their villages.”
Sixty or 70 years ago, Alaskans started breeding these huskies more specifically for racing. The genetics of modern sled dogs trace back to a handful of mushers who originated the sport, but they’re not purebred, as mushers bred in different traits over the years.
“They still have the husky look to them, but they might have floppy ears, one up and one down, or longer coats, or maybe one bloodline has a hound in there somewhere. Ours are more wolf-y looking,” Emily says.
WildThingz dogs are lean and vital and physical, their eyes bright to ferocity. Emily’s kinetic and visceral photographs of the teams in motion, even in harness, even at rest, show dogs of such self-possession, ambition, and satisfaction that it’s clear they’re made for this—running land so spectacularly beautiful and demanding, it is still a frontier.
Caring for happy working animals, nearer to wolves than to pet dogs, animals with emotional lives and complex relationships with each other, may be what Emily is made for, too.
“This life up here comes at you so hard. The work is hard, and the darkness in winter is hard. And the dogs alone, I never wanted and still don’t want kids, but now I have 32 furry kids!” Emily takes a beat. “But it gives me so much structure. If I don’t have that, I struggle a lot, including mental health struggles. In so many ways, I can’t even imagine if I didn’t come to this. This saved me.”
This is Emily’s chosen frontier—the daily journey of hard physical work, the gorgeous extremeness of the landscape, and the intensity of living essentially in a wolf pack. During racing season in the winter, she also works as Richie’s support team (the definition of intensity), while she juggles side gigs, including waitressing, art classes, photography, and graphic design. She’ll also do some sled racing of her own this winter to see if she likes it. But there’s a softness in her days, too, that exists because of the severity of life and land.
She has time during the long days to read a book. She can move slowly and deliberately through chores. She has time to look at maps. She has time to listen to the radio. If she and Richie organize their days just right, she can even take a nap. The days are full, but freer than Emily has known.
Alaska Was Inevitable. The Climate Crisis Means the Future Isn’t.
Though she couldn’t have known it at the time, Emily started mapping out the route to this life long before she petted a husky pup in Colorado.
Childhood in Maine meant a lot of time outdoors, from sledding to fishing to playing with her family’s Siberian huskies. In fact, one family photo shows Emily in a snowsuit at three years old, hanging onto a little dog sled.
Later, she came to Putney in the midst of a tough adolescence, and she was drawn to the school like a salmon to its stream. Here she found hard work, beautiful land, daily structure, and a passion for art that helped her discover a self to respect and love.
Even in college, far from her natural habitat, Emily explored what would become her future. “For my senior thesis, I documented people living traditions around homesteading and self-sufficiency,” she says. “I shot with a 4×5 large format camera, because I wanted to use traditional tools, too. I photographed lobstermen, dairy farmers, my own family, people who lived off the grid in random places. That was the commonality, people making an effort to self-sustain and have a minimal footprint.”
She laughs again. “Ironic, right? Lo and behold, that is so much of what our life is based around.”
That life, however, is at risk. Climate change isn’t theoretical here. This summer saw the most intense period of drought in the state since drought monitoring started in 2000. As of mid-September, more than 2.5 million acres have burned in wildfires. That’s about half a million less than the peak of 2015, but with more damage to homes and other structures. Elsewhere in the state, tundra lakes are drying up, rivers are filling with silt, and coastal storms are forcing villages to move. It’s harder for animals, of wild and human variety alike, to find food.
Emily sees it all firsthand. “Every summer, Richie fishes for our own fish. In the fall, we end up getting about 500 salmon for our dogs. There were no salmon this year. The river we would usually go to, it’s dried up. The fish never made it there. That’s devastating in itself, and it’s definitely weird for us, to be in a place that’s so bountiful but not to be able to get the food we rely on.”
Why Living in Alaska Matters
Part of her mission now is to help people see, love, and live in some measure of respectful harmony with the planet, as Alaska has helped her do. She and Richie can’t help but live simply, using resources sparingly and creatively, providing for themselves as much as possible with what they have at hand. But Emily hopes that with her photography and her stories, and sharing them on social media, she will help inspire people to take care of the land as much as they can.
She hopes, too, that she might inspire people to connect with work that makes them feel joy.
“This is a super corny thing to say, but life is short.” She’s urgent now, her natural vigor and delight focused on what matters. “Don’t waste it doing something that doesn’t light a fire in your belly. It’s important to me that people know: my life is not just romantic. It’s heartbreaking. I have 32 dogs. I have to have my heart broken 32 times when they die. It never gets easier, and it always hurts. We’re with them when they die, and that’s really sad and stressful. It’s tough.
“Every time it happens, I don’t think I’m strong enough for this. But ultimately the joy of raising puppies and living with these dogs, it makes it worth it. Having these guys, my kids, being there with them every day, makes me feel like if I died tomorrow, I would be happy. I’m doing what I’m doing to die happy.”
She pauses. Dogs are waiting. There’s more road ahead of her today, more work, more love. “I wish that more people felt that way in life. Hopefully I can help them know that somehow, somewhere, they can.”