Shawn Williams is originally from Texas and ended up in Alaska on a whim. During a three-month road trip around the United States with his brother, a friend bet him that they wouldn’t make it to Alaska. After a failed attempt to see Canada in a two-wheel drive SUV, he returned to Texas and started making calls to win the bet and get to Alaska. “I landed a job in Juneau, running dog mushing tours which turned into an opportunity in Big Lake for the winter, and then I just got into the rhythm and decided to stick around,” he said. These days, Williams lives just outside of Big Lake, Alaska, a remote area surrounded by miles and miles of open wilderness. Some people call what he does dog sledding; in the United Kingdom they refer to it as husky sledding, but in Alaska, they call it dog mushing. The practice of using dogs to pull sleds dates back to at least 2000 BC. It originated in Siberia or North America; many Indigenous cultures have used dogs to pull loads. Today, sled dogs are still used for utilitarian purposes, sometimes replacing snowmobiles to haul equipment, wood, or just as reliable transportation in inclement weather. Others do it for sport; dog mushing is quite popular in North America, the Alps, and northern Europe. There are a handful of important races but the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which takes place in Alaska, is arguably the most important Mushers and their teams of 21 dogs, of which at least six must be on the towline at the finish, cover approximately 950 miles in under sixteen days.
High winds, blizzards, and below-freezing temperatures make the race extremely challenging, but for Williams it is also exhilarating, “You are commanding a team of lightning bolts,” he said. “There has to be trust. You are mostly trying to slow them down, trying to keep them at a good pace,” he said. As technology continues to threaten tradition, Williams sees the race as a way to preserve the symbolism of the sled dog. “Things are much simpler; it’s just you and your animals,” he said. Williams has a close relationship with the dogs and his natural, serene surroundings. He found urban settings too loud and chaotic. “Here in Alaska, and especially with dog mushing, you hook the dogs up, take off, head out into the woods and the cold, snowy environment has a way of quieting down the world,” he said. “You just focus on what is right in front of you, and that's really like moving meditation."