The Magazine

The Last Frontier

In Alaska, the folks are self-reliant and prefer to take care of things themselves. And they like Sarah Palin.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Big Lake, Alaska

Kathy Chapoton, 55, a newly retired schoolteacher, and her Swiss-born husband, Martin Buser, 50, live in a 3,000-square-foot, two-story house on a lot carved out of the forest in this unincorporated community of 3,500 in Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley (Mat-Su, for short) just north of Wasilla, the now-famous home of Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin. With its open-plan spaciousness, its birch-laminate floors, its tasteful array of lived-in furniture and houseplants that bespeak middle-class comfort but not opulence, its large wood-framed windows that look out to vistas of towering spruce and birch trees, the Chapoton-Buser residence might appear at first glance as though it could be located in any woodsy large-lot suburb or second-home enclave in America: in Vermont, on the San Francisco peninsula, in the horse-filled exurbs of greater Washington, D.C.

Then you see the dogs. Some 80-odd sled dogs, each tethered by a long chain to its individual kennel, seem to occupy the entire middle distance between the triple-paned picture windows in the living room-dining room and the gorgeous landscape beyond. Some of the dogs look like lean, half-grown versions of the fluffy, blue-eyed Siberian huskies that are common pets in the lower 48 states, others like junior wolves. The compact sled dogs, weighing about 60 pounds on average, bear the generic name of Alaskan husky, but they're actually a variety of mixtures of northern canines including Siberians, malamutes, and whatever else will produce speed and endurance.

Martin Buser is an Alaska celebrity, a four-time winner of the Iditarod, the grueling late-winter Anchorage-to-Nome dogsled race. In 2002, he set a record by finishing the 1,150-odd miles in less than nine days and received his U.S. citizenship at the end of the race. A slender, blue-eyed, surprisingly youthful-looking man with a thick shock of brown hair, Buser is already training for the 2009 Iditarod this coming March. (His goal is to match the record of five-time Iditarod-winner Rick Swenson, set during the 1970s and 1980s.)

The 30 acres that Buser and his wife own in Big Lake are not only his home but also the site of his business, Happy Trails Kennel, where he raises, trains, and shows sled dogs, stages dry-land mushing demonstrations, and shares Iditarod lore with busloads of summertime tourists up from Anchorage. The dogs, some standing atop their kennels, some scrambling at the ends of their chains or skittering up and down exercise slides, were mesmerized by the sight of five humans sitting inside the house at the capacious Chapoton-Buser dining table and consuming a Sunday dinner of moose soup, Australian shiraz (purchased by me at the Fred Meyer hypermarket in Wasilla after an impromptu invitation), hot French bread, and homemade chocolate cake. The dogs were mostly silent--except when they were not. Their intermittent howls ranged from the high-pitched ululations of the contentedly fed to alarmed growls suggesting that some other needle-toothed critter, perhaps a fox, might be lurking in the Chapoton-Buser curtilage. Sled dogs are affectionate, and they warm to human companionship, but their perpetual craving for exercise makes them unsuitable as house pets. Chapoton and Buser have two dogs of conventional breed, a Jack Russell terrier and a dachshund that just had a litter of puppies.

The couple has known the Palins off and on for years. Palin's husband, Todd, once had a snow-machine repair shop in Big Lake. He and Buser became friends, and they share an identical number of victories in Alaskan big snow races (Todd Palin is a four-time winner of the Iron Dog, the 1,950-mile Wasilla-Nome-Fairbanks snow-machine race). Buser recently traveled with the Palins on the campaign trail in New England. The Buser sons, Nikolai and Rohn--now off attending the University of Washington and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute respectively--played hockey on the Wasilla High School team with the Palins' son Track.