Julia Klaucke – Urban Mushing: For the Love of Dogs.
By Laurencia Ciprus / Photos Courtesy Laura Matesky, Julie Klaucke
Sirius the Dog Star illuminates an indigo night. Jubilant sled dogs yip and strain. Breath vaporizes into clouds of anticipation as Julia Klaucke runs her huskies under a beacon of moonlight. The day goes cold, street noise dies, and people snug into homes with cozy fires. Julia is transformed from this invigorating journey deep into the cold night under the beacon of the full moon and a sky strewn with stars. Trees cast long shadows on the trail as the dogs pause by the lake for a drink. She turns on her headlamp and matches the gaze from amber eyes on the opposite shore. “It was one of the coyotes that we often see. We hear them howl and yip on their early morning and night runs. The dogs are electric with ancient connection. Our eyes and spirits are one for a moment, and then the wild one slips back beneath a curtain of dark.”
Julia Klaucke’s whirling microclimate took uncharted turns to arrive at this apex of true north. There was always one constant: a singular obsession with sled dogs. Four year old Julia memorized the saga of Balto and carried it around the globe next to her heart. Balto – the hero of sled dogs – a black and white Siberian husky of folklore and legend – was intrinsic to the success of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska. Originating in Seattle, Washington it was a relay of over 20 mushers facing blizzard conditions and temperatures of -20 degrees, delivering diphtheria antitoxin to outrun a pandemic in a frozen landscape. This epic journey captured world attention, immortalized Balto, and elevated the sport of mushing. The route is retraced annually as the legendary Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Julia was predestined to be a part of this ultimate adventure, but there was an odyssey to complete en route to the destination.
In physics, the Coriolis effect describes the ricochet and bounce of storm systems as they skirt predictable trajectories. Julia’s parents, humanitarian workers, moved her off course from Shelton, Connecticut to Tashkent, Uzbekistan when she was a child, teaching her to “do good,” not unlike her beloved Balto. It was a ten-year journey back in time within a poor and desolate post-Soviet landscape. It was a childhood of tenacity and resourcefulness. English was not spoken. In a dry, arid country with little snow and animals held in low regard, owning a sled dog was an elusive grasp. That first day in Uzbekistan, her mother bought her a plush husky dog from a sparse and dimly lit store run by an elderly Soviet woman. The fluffy totem became a placeholder for future dreams. Although there were large dogs in Uzbekistan, Julia’s parents were unable to fulfill her wish to take on such a burden. They did allow her sister to bring home a small Pomeranian mix named Topaz. Julia was devastated by the choice, yet this little dog became her first training subject, herding chickens and locating her hedgehog when he veered off course.
Returning to the US, Julia enrolled at Southern Connecticut State University. Expanding her studies into Psychology and Art, she began to work closely with adults recovering from brain injuries. She also pursued mushing in earnest with her first two huskies, Barx and Zola. Fully immersing herself in the sport, she connected with the best of mentors, Karen Ramstead. Julia shadowed Karen at a conference; and on her advice, scrapped her plans to begin handling courses in Maine. Instinct and synchrony shifted the course. It was her best decision. “Karen has influenced my perspective. Sled dogs are a lifestyle – an incredibly rewarding and adventurous one. They keep us positive and are always teaching us new things about life, ourselves, and others.” Instead, Karen detoured Julia to her place in Alberta, British Columbia, working with 50 dogs; and shifting into a lifestyle revolving exclusively around dogs. Julia cannot say enough about her mentor: “Mushing transcends daily life and brings us and our dogs to a place where that’s all that is important. It requires us to slow down, listen to our dogs, and see the beauty that is around us.”
During this time Julia acquired her youngest dog, Spock, from Karen – the pup a direct d descendant of her first love, Balto. “When Karen told me which puppy was going to be mine, I cried. We connected from the first moment we met, like two souls who were bound for something.” Julia runs the sled dogs year around in the current style of Urban Mushing, which swaps out bicycles for sleds in the absence of snow. “We had our first race, which was only about a mile long, this fall in New Hampshire. When we all crossed the finish line, I hopped off my bike and Spock leaped into my arms.
With large credit to Julia, the year round sport and lifestyle of Urban Mushing has taken hold in Connecticut. The training practice also benefits her client dogs, which wouldn’t normally receive this level of discipline and exercise. As with any group dynamic, the leader is not always obvious. It is often the underdog versus the alpha who is most adept at leading the pack. It is a study in personalities, and Julia’s background in psychology has facilitated her. “Training a young dog to become a leader in the front of the team requires patience and support. Consistency and positivity is key. It is important to surround that new leader with a strong understanding leader next to them and two more behind them to support them and teach them.” It was a logical progression when Julia introduced the dogs and their empowering lessons into elementary schools as teachable moments in teamwork. It is a win-win for the kids and the dogs.
Julia and her boyfriend, Steve Muffatti, have integrated the dogs into their nuclear family. “Working with sled dogs makes you live in the moment. They keep us present with a higher awareness of ourselves and nature. Regardless of sled or cycle, it is a special connection with our dogs on such a deep level when working as a team traversing the land.” Daily life in mushing is a commitment to passion. Mornings begin before dawn with the dogs’ daily run in Huntington State Park. Owls, coyotes, and night creatures usher in Julia’s shift. The balance of the day is spent with clients and their dogs, with one of Julia’s team as a training model. The light fades as the team heads out for a sunset run deep into the dusk. The same owl that exited that morning returns to greet the night. It is a full cycle steeped in nature. They return home for cuddles and paw checks, then curl up on cushions as Steve and Julia enjoy dinner warming in the crockpot.
This year will mark Julia’s fourth concentrated year in Urban Mushing. Her future vision carried the intention of another trip to Alberta and additional time and training with Karen Ramstead. The Iditarod is always in her peripheral vision, and a trip is in the offing for 2017/18.
It was a crisp day last winter and the snow sparkled in allure. Julia took five dogs on the sled with Barx – her whimsical male – running in wheel in front of the sled and two leaders up front in great pace and deep focus. True to her nature, the journey turned onto a trail less traveled as further in the snow continued to deepen into cascading drifts. The leaders tired and Julia gave Barx his first chance at lead as he rounded the team through an impossible drift. The curiosity of the Coriolis effect continues to shift the collective, closer to the dream.