From mushing sled dogs in remote Alaska to helping Truckee dog owners get the best out of their pets, Jen and Michael Raffaeli are living life four paws at a time.
You may hear a backcountry skier or splitboarder sometimes say, “be bold, start cold.”
It’s a reminder to leave puffy coats in packs until needed. Excessive sweating is dangerous in winter.
It’s too bad we’re not built like the Alaskan Husky, the gold-bearing pinnacle of winter athlete, and factory made with a heat-spilling, cold-beating double coat more technical than anything Arc’teryx sells. And it’s organic.
“Their coat is like wearing a Gore-Tex shell over a puffy jacket,” according to dog sled breeder Jen Raffaeli.
For these dogs, frolicking in frigid powder is a welcome release, not something to avoid.
“It’s not, ‘oh, poor sled dogs,’” Michael Raffaeli, Jen’s partner, said. “All the sled dogs we’ve worked with have been the happiest damn dogs I’ve known.”
The Raffaelis work for Buddy Dog Training and Care helping local dogs live their best Tahoe lives.
The couple moved here in 2020 from Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. For 10 years Michael was a summer ranger and Jen the ranger in charge of the park’s famed sled dog kennel. She oversaw breeding, training, and moving gear, people, and goods to the snowy reaches of its sprawling wilderness.
Striding alongside the Raffaelis on a recent afternoon were Lucky and Annie, retired sled dogs and blood siblings, despite striking coat differences. Lucky dons a black cloak with patches of seasoned white pierced by Sand Harbor-blue eyes; Annie, with an elegant tan and cream coat, resembles a more traditional husky.
Spotting them is tantamount to noticing an NFL player in an airport. They loom above the crowd, and everyone wants to meet them.
The American Kennel Club approves breed standards based on physical appearance, but Alaskan Huskies are bred for performance, according to Jen.
“There is no breed standard appearance, but genetically speaking they’re a distinct breed,” she said.
Lucky and Annie are freighting sled dogs — big and born with long legs to break trail when pulling heavy loads. Racing dogs are bred to be smaller, faster.
Before Jen and Michael met in Yosemite National Park working for an environmental education nonprofit, and before they worked for Outward Bound, Jen guided for an ecotourism company in Alaska. A coworker happened to run sled dogs in Denali in winter, and they’d visit the kennels at every chance. Jen was smitten
“I was like, ‘I love these dogs and I want to do this.’”
Jen eventually was drawn to Minnesota, where a small outfitter running trips in the Boundary Waters agreed to mentor her alongside about 200 dogs.
“I thought it would be a one-winter thing to scratch the dog-mushing itch,” she said.
But that’s the thing about an itch: A brief scratch is never enough.
After summers in Yosemite, a winter mushing here in Olympic Valley, and some time back in Minnesota, Jen and Michael landed in Kotzbue, Alaska, a frostbitten town of 3,000 on Baldwin Peninsula. As part of a family-run operation, they trained dogs, hunted, and generally lived as one would in the Northwest Arctic borough.
The couple’s experience with sled dogs grew quickly, paying off handsomely when the Denali job arose. The Raffaelis seized the rare opportunity to live within the majesty of Denali and call its famed canines their colleagues.
Their time in Denali behind them, Jen and Michael love working in Truckee. They’re outside every day helping people help their dogs find joy.
“It’s January, I’m outside without gloves, I’m feeling the warmth of the sun,” Michael said. “There are things about here that are irreplaceable and special,” he said. “And lots of people with dogs.”