Across the great white north: New children’s book chronicles epic Alaskan trip by dog sled

A gal and her dogs: Marla Brodsky, known as Marla BB, poses in Alaska’s frozen wastes with some of the dogs that pulled her on a 750-mile run on a historic trail in the state. 

A gal and her dogs: Marla Brodsky, known as Marla BB, poses in Alaska’s frozen wastes with some of the dogs that pulled her on a 750-mile run on a historic trail in the state.  Photo by Meagan Murphy/courtesy Marla Brodsky

Better than a tent: Brodsky spent some nights along the Serum Trail in cabins such as this one, located west of the Yukon River.

Better than a tent: Brodsky spent some nights along the Serum Trail in cabins such as this one, located west of the Yukon River. Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

On June 6 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, Marla Brodsky will read from and sign copies of her children’s story chronicling her dog sled trip in Alaska.

On June 6 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, Marla Brodsky will read from and sign copies of her children’s story chronicling her dog sled trip in Alaska. Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

Across the frozen north: Marla Brodsky, known as Marla BB, heads across northern Alaska a few years ago on a sled pulled by her Valley-bred Alaskan Huskies. 

Across the frozen north: Marla Brodsky, known as Marla BB, heads across northern Alaska a few years ago on a sled pulled by her Valley-bred Alaskan Huskies.  Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

In the Topkok Hills, near the coast of the Bering Sea in western Alaska

In the Topkok Hills, near the coast of the Bering Sea in western Alaska Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

Time for rest, on fresh straw, for the dogs; they’re bedding down in the hamlet of White Mountain Village in western Alaska.

Time for rest, on fresh straw, for the dogs; they’re bedding down in the hamlet of White Mountain Village in western Alaska. Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

One of Brodsky’s dogs makes a new friend in the village of Shaktoolik.

One of Brodsky’s dogs makes a new friend in the village of Shaktoolik. Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

By the frozen Yukon River

By the frozen Yukon River Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

A break by the Bering Sea on a brilliant winter day in western Alaska

A break by the Bering Sea on a brilliant winter day in western Alaska Image courtesy Marla Brodsky

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-30-2024 3:03 PM

Crossing the snowy wastes of Alaska in deep winter, when the temperature is plunging past 40 below zero, might not be everybody’s cup of tea.

But for Marla BB, it was a little bit of paradise — a three-week sojourn with her own Alaskan sled dogs, pulling her along a historic trail not that far south of the Arctic Circle through a snowbound landscape she calls “magical and mystical … everything was shimmering.”

Marla BB, the working name of Marla B. Brodsky, is the owner of Hilltown Sleddogs, the West Chesterfield business that features rides and summer camps with Brodsky’s Alaskan Huskies. (In warm weather she uses a sled with wheels.)

But when she’s not running her camp, Brodsky is often on the race circuit with her dogs: in the Northeast, Canada, Minnesota, Sweden and other locales.

And in early 2020, she had the opportunity to return to Alaska, where she’d first developed an interest in mushing, to fulfill her dream of taking her dog team across part of America’s largest state.

Now she’s chronicled that journey in a children’s story, an illustrated tale that she’ll present June 6 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence, along with a slide show and an opportunity to meet her sturdy dogs in person.

There might be a few other things in store: She’s calling her visit to Bombyx a “multimedia event.”

In a recent phone call, Brodsky said she decided to write her children’s book — “Our Serum Run: By the T’s, U’s, V’s & Me!” — and read from it in conjunction with her upcoming 65th birthday, both as “a birthday book to myself” and a nod to her earlier life as a blues singer and dramatist (she earned a degree in drama from Emerson College).

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“I thought this would be a good way to knit together these two sides of my life and career, the artistic side and and the outdoors side,” she said.

Fittingly enough, her story is illustrated by two artists, Lara Renner of New Hampshire and Tabetha Kopta of Pennsylvania, who are also dog mushers. Their combined work, in a mix of blue, gray, and white, at times conveys an almost three-dimensional look while also capturing the wide-open expanse of Alaska’s snow-bound north.

The story itself is told in rhyming verse from the standpoint of the 12 dogs that pulled Brodsky and some of her gear 750 miles across the frigid terrain for three weeks, from late February through the first two weeks of March 2020.

As the canines put it, “We mushed a lot at night / We’d see the sun set and moon rise / Sometimes we didn’t see anything / But we could smell the dogs and / Machines before us, as our guide.”

The trip ended in Nome, a town in western Alaska on the Bering Sea that’s also the terminus of the famous Iditarod Trail Sleg Dog Race.

The trail Brodsky and her dogs followed, however, is named after a route used in 1925 to transport antitoxin serums to Nome by dog sled to fight an outbreak of diptheria in the town. (Block ice in winter had made the port inaccessible by boat.)

A little nip in the air

Brodsky wasn’t on a rescue mission in Alaska, but that didn’t make her trip any less challenging. She says she and her dogs, after driving all the way to Alaska, had to spend weeks acclimating to the serious cold — with temperatures at times dipping to 50 below zero at night — and doing some test runs before they were ready for a trip on the Serum Run Trail.

“I discovered I’d need to have an insulated parka and other gear,” she said. She also used a special insulated tent while camping out at night, while the dogs needed booties and jackets, and sometimes leg warmers, as well as blankets and fresh straw for bedding down at night.

“The cold,” she said, “was something else.” Intense enough, for instance, for small icicles to form around her eyes from modest bits of moisture. Or, as one passage in her book puts it in the dogs’ voices, “We trained hard, we trained cold / We had icicles hanging from our nose.”

Yet Brodsky had been preparing for the trip in a general way for decades. Born in New York City, she says she was skiing by age 5 in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania, and she later moved on to backcountry and telemark skiing. She also took up martial arts and eventually became an instructor.

“I loved being outdoors, I loved physical challenges,” she said.

Brodsky also loved music, and as Marla BB she became an accomplished blues singer and recording artist; she moved to the Valley in 2000. She toured Alaska some years later, promoting a new CD, and in between gigs she began meeting dog mushers, as she’d begun entertaining the idea of raising her own dogs.

Those contacts led to an extended apprenticeship with the leaders of an Alaskan dog sled team that competed in the Iditarod Trail race; following that she began breeding, raising and training her own dogs in the Valley and opened Hilltown Sleddogs not long after.

She and her partner were also raising a daughter, Ruby, so Brodsky had to balance family responsibilities with running her business and racing her dogs. But she says after about 10 years, she’d raised enough dogs, acquired enough equipment, and gotten come capital loans to make the trip back to Alaska.

Dog mushers on the Serum Run Trail work as part of small teams, Brodsky notes, with someone on a snowmobile grooming the trail ahead and more importantly hauling extra food, gear, and bales of straw for the dogs.

Averaging between 50-70 miles a day — they took a few rest days during the trip, Brodsky notes — she and her dogs also passed through a number of small villages and were able to stay in schools and cabins a few evenings.

The dogs enjoyed those times: One illustration in Brodsky’s book depicts people in a village petting some of her dogs, with the accompanying text reading “The best part of our trip / Was when we got to sniff / Hands that pet us / Kids faces that kissed us / Treats we dearly missed.”

The whole experience “was wonderful,” said Brodsky, “although when we got to Nome, we discovered a problem called COVID-19 that had developed outside of this unique world we’d been part of for weeks.”

Places in Nome were already starting to close down, she noted, and in fact some of the villages she and her dogs had passed through were later closed to mushers for a couple of years.

At her Bombyx event, she’ll talk about the brighter moments of her trip, displaying photos on the art center’s film screen and reading from her book. She’s also enlisted several friends to handle her dogs; audience members will be able to visit the animals in the Rainbow Room, one of the community spaces at Bombyx.

“They’ll enjoy the company,” she said of her Alaskan Huskies.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.