Ruth Bass: Alaska - Where else can you scratch the ears of an Iditarod dog?

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You say, "I'm going to Alaska." They say, "Wow." Or, "You'll love it." Or, "It's on my bucket list." Or, dismally, "Mosquitoes. So many mosquitoes." We worried on the airplane that we should have bought more bug spray, although it seemed obvious Alaska would have it on every shelf if, indeed, mosquitoes were the bane of their existence. And they did. Without DEET.

So, as the bus twisted up the hairpin turns that led to our hotel in the Denali National Park area, we laughed a little nervously at a traditional yellow road sign that showed a mosquito carrying off a human. Still, several days into our trip, we had not a bite among us. The first time they became pesky — and they are twice the size of our mosquitoes — was when we reached the top of a mountain via gondola and emerged in the midst of chairlift towers, alpine flowers and a hungry horde. We fled to the bar to enjoy the view.

We kept the spray handy, including the day we were to visit Martin Buser, Iditarod champion, and his 50 dogs at Happy Trails Kennel. We'd be having a picnic lunch at his place, and it seemed a likely spot for the flying vampires. We petted his dogs, enjoyed sandwiches and watched as son Rohn demonstrated the equipment an Iditarod dog wears. Fiddler was not only a patient model but also lifted each foot in turn when it was time for a sock and a bootie to be pulled on. No mosquitoes.

Back at the main building, Martin hitched up a team to an ATV and demonstrated how his "Gee" and "Haw" commands brought instant turns, even when a loose Alaskan husky ran alongside and tried to divert the team to his own route. That's when I noticed swallows flying into bird houses on the side of the building. Lots of swallows.

Inside the gift shop (even a kennel has a gift shop), I bought a lovely woven dog sled as a Christmas ornament — to join with my potato from Idaho, sailing ship from Nova Scotia, onion from Bermuda, etc. Buser's wife was behind the counter, and I asked her what kind of swallows these were — not our barn or tree variety, I knew. She didn't know. But what she was eager to tell me was that they ate hundreds of mosquitoes a day.

"Martin made 150 swallow houses," she said, "and we don't have mosquitoes." Back outside, I saw for the first time that the very tall light poles in the dog house area each had three or four nesting boxes attached. Little houses were everywhere and very busy. Perhaps it's an idea Berkshire Mosquito Control could add to its program and attract our tree swallows to trouble spots. The Alaskan birds, by the way, were violet-green swallows, known by ornithologists as aerial insectivores because they fly high.

Visiting Happy Trails was fun and educational. We had no idea we could walk up to a racing dog and scratch his ears — we assumed that these tough racers might not be friendly. Several in the group eagerly cuddled puppies from a new litter. We learned that Buser's dogs are quite different from Siberian huskies. His are more like a slender German shepherd with less hair than the Siberians, a breed he's produced with a friend who was considered a genius in dog breeding.

And we learned a lot about this champion racer. Born in Switzerland where he started mushing at 17, Buser came to Alaska in 1979 to train sled dogs. He has won the Iditarod four times, in 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2002, and he's still racing. His sense of humor has made him a favorite with fans, and he certainly made us laugh. But he gets serious in the video he shows visitors when he mentions 9/11 and says, "Until that day, I was an Alaskan. On that day, I decided to become an American."

Ruth Bass is author of three historical novels. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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