Living the Alaska dream

The distance from Willow, Alaska, to Fort Dodge is 5,600 miles — a bit far for Jeff Hemann to mush his team of Alaskan huskies for a return to Iowa to visit his family and friends in his old hometown.

But there is little else that the 37-year-old Hemann hasn’t tried since moving in 2001 to Alaska, where he has forged a variety of careers — dog musher, log-cabin builder, bear spotter and more — and where his father and two sisters followed him and live close by.

First and foremost a dog musher, Hemann is comfortable directing a team of 6-8 Alaskan huskies for dogsled rides to tourists, carrying building supplies, food and gas from one location to another and, when racing, doubling the number of dogs pulling the sled. Meantime, he and his wife Heather are raising two sons along with a lively group of 25 huskies.

As a dog musher, he exercises the dogs to build up to a 50-mile run while holding a 10 mile per hour pace. “We get them to peak physical condition.”

Hemann considers himself an “old school musher” — starting fire with natural resources, blazing new trails, camping out with his dogs. “These days, there’s no stopping and smelling the roses, you’re just about speed and getting there in a designated amount of time,” he said. In 2014, Hemann, his wife, their son and his dad were featured in a nationally televised segment on dog mushing for National Geographic’s Dead End Express.

“There’s a constant rotation of age,” Hemann said, noting the huskies — who weigh 50 to 70 pounds — can race up to 12 years of age, some as many as 14, pulling twice their body weight at speeds of up to 25 mph in sub-zero conditions. “My oldest dogs are starting to hit that age (of retirement). There are no regrets. They get to run free a lot in their lives.

“Everything in Alaska goes with the seasons — you’re always trying to get ready for next season or cleaning up from the previous. It’s like a whole other world, never boring. You’re always getting ready for next season.”

To prepare for the Alaska winters, where temperatures can reach 40 below and sunlight can last for as little as five hours a day, Hemann uses his dogs to go deep into the woods to collect chaga — fungus that grows on the outside of trees that he grinds and mixes with coffee and tea to provide a high level of anti-oxidants. He hunts moose and caribou and fishes for salmon to store up for the long winter. No canned food for his dogs: they are highly trained athletes and he combines chaga with salmon and rice for a nutritional diet.

“We are outside a lot,” Hemann said. “We use headlamps in the winter. If you’re not doing stuff in Alaska, you’re not in Alaska.”

Hemann was born in Fort Dodge — the son of Sue Blanchet and Paul Hemann — and was raised by both after they divorced when he was 12. His mother later married Ron Blanchet and works as executive assistant at Friendship Haven. His father moved to Alaska not long after Jeff.

“I was always in tune with nature growing up, always wanting to be outside hiking, or fishing or hunting,” Hemann said. “When I wasn’t outside, I was training and teaching Tae Kwon Do with and under my dad.” His father was owner and operator of Hemann Tae Kwon Do in Fort Dodge for 30 years.

Hemann said the start of his passion for dogs and animals came from his grandmother, Charlotte PeCoy. She and her husband Burlyn, who now reside at Friendship Haven, owned a Siberian husky named Kota while he was growing up. “I spent a lot of time with the dog, walking her. It was my first job.”

Hemann credits his parents and his Midwest background for giving him foundation for his current lifestyle. After graduating from St. Edmond High School in 1998, he spotted a newspaper ad for a dog mushing guide at a lodge in Minnesota.

“I had never even seen a dog team in my life, but I was ready to step up and apply,” he said.

He spent three years in Ely, Minnesota, on the Canadian border. He first worked as a tow-boat driver and gear packer, and then got a job guiding at the Gunflint Lodge — where he learned to mush — and driving boats to take canoers deep into the lakes region. He also hired on as an activity assistant at a nursing home — “one of my most favorite jobs, hanging out with the elders of the community in their last legs of life. I enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed me. I guided for two winters in Ely while working at the nursing home. I was very busy with lots of names to remember, between the dogs and everyone at the nursing home.”

Hemann said he got “the Alaska bug” and spotted a newspaper ad from Alaska Heli-Mush to be a guide for tourists from cruise ships who are flown by helicopter from Juneau to the Taku Glazier where they are taken on sled dog rides. After that summer, he and his dad ran a remote trap line in interior Alaska — “We got dropped off by ski bush plane and we lived in a log cabin for the next two months with no electricity or generator or cook stove. Just lanterns and woodstove and quality father-son time.”

The owner of Alaska Heli-Mush, Linwood Fiedler, asked Hemann if he would train dogs with him in Willow “and I was definitely in.” He did that for the next few years before moving out on his own, buying 35 acres of remote land along the Big Susitna River in Willow. There, he began raising and training 25 huskies — he and Heather involved in such duties as their feeding, cleaning, vaccinations and nail-clipping.

It was through teaching a class in Tae Kwon Do in Willow that Hemann — who has held a black belt for 23 years — met “the love of my life” — Heather, who had moved to Alaska from Montana with her son Dakota from her first marriage. Both her son, now 15, and then Heather took classes from Hemann. “We hit it off right away and never let up. We’ve been together for 10 years now, married for eight, and since then have had our son Granite who is 8 years old now.”

Heather is a Pilates instructor at a church in Willow and still does dog handling and mushing. Hemann’s father lives a few miles away from them and is now “a professional video guy — weddings, selling property, movie scenes, making a living capturing the beauty of Alaska,” Hemann said. His sisters live in Anchorage, 100 miles away — Emily and her husband Jacob Lyon have two children, Annie and her husband Jeff Brace have three.

Hemann works seasonally for surveyors from seismic gas companies in some of the most remote and bear-infested spots in Alaska. He said, “We go in front of them and are there to protect the wildlife, the bear and moose. Our job is to deflect any danger, let animals know we are there not to harm them. We’ve run into a thicket of bears but we were able to walk away just fine.” Such trips can last up to several weeks — ‘It’s a real fun job but it’s hard being away from family so long at a time.”

“When I first moved away,” he said, “I got a lot of my leads in Alaska from my Midwest work ethic. I started appreciating more and more, everything in life has its role and purpose. The people and family values that I got growing up in Fort Dodge, from my family, churches and schools, are solid as a rock. I take pride in the fact now.”