Get to Know sled-dog Guide Bill Cotter

Veteran musher Bill Cotter visited Alaska on a post-college grad trip in 1970 — and never left. He got his first sled-dog pup, Kwik, from his neighbour and the rest, as they say, is history. Kwik became the foundation dog in his kennel, and he went on to compete in 20 Iditarods (a legendary sled-dog race covering 1,000 miles of rough, rugged Alaskan terrain), winning the Yukon Quest in 1987. He’s also won four humanitarian awards for the care of his dogs during races. Now semi-retired from racing, he keeps his 30 adult dogs and 12 puppies active through Cotter’s Kennel Sled Dog Tours and a mushing school in Nenana, Alaska.
How did you get into dog-sledding?

I was involved in sled-dog racing from about 1970 until the present time …  I’ve finished 25 1,000-mile races. It’s something I really enjoy — it was kind of a hobby and it’s a vocation now. It gradually progressed that way. I used to be an electrician; now I’m retired and I do sled-dog (tours) only.

How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?

I’m semi-retired from racing. I don’t do 1,000-mile races anymore, just 100- or 200-mile races, just easy stuff. To support the kennel I started giving rides and it gradually went from there. Now I have a sled-dog school (where people can) learn how to drive dogs. We have beautiful trails here all winter long — it’s a really good opportunity for people to experience the real Alaska.

What’s the season for dog-sledding?

We usually have snow by Oct. 15 and it goes until about April 10. The summer season is basically kennel tours and rides on a wheeled cart.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A lot of people just come for rides, and I usually pick them up at Fairbanks and bring them here. (They can) hold the puppies and I introduce them to some of my dogs. Then we go for a ride for about 50 minutes to an hour, and then they come into the house and we have coffee and tea. If they just come for a ride they’re here about two-and-a-half hours. If they come to the mushing school where they actually want to run the dogs … I give them lessons on how to ride the sled, how to handle the dogs, how to put the harnesses on. Then we do a couple of small practice runs where they go out with me. … By the end of the day they actually take their own team out by themselves. They usually do at least one day — people who are very serious usually book for a week. With seven days, each day we go a little bit further and by the end of the week we go for probably a 50-mile run.

Do you have a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

It depends on how outdoorsy they are. I build the tour around what they’re comfortable with; I don’t push anybody. I’m a pretty relaxed guy.

What’s the best part of your job?

I really love being out there, out in the wilderness with the dogs. It’s really quiet; there’s no motor involved at all. Because it’s quiet we quite often see animals, moose and sometimes wolves. I just really enjoy being out there with the dogs.

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had as a musher?

I’ve been mushing dogs for 40 years; I’ve had every kind of experience you can think of — broken ribs — but I’ve had some pretty unusual experiences with animals. Moose don’t know the difference between a dog team and a pack of wolves, so several times I’ve had a moose charge my team.

Ever had any odd requests from clients?

Sometimes they call in the summertime and want to have a sled ride on the snow.

Any tips for people interested in booking a sled-dog tour, but aren’t too sure what to look for?

Go with somebody (who has) experience. A lot of people get into sled-dog rides and they’ve only had dogs for a little while (but) a lot could go wrong. It can be a little bit dangerous.

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

You have to like people. I like people and I like showing people my dogs. If they like dogs, I’ll probably like them.

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  • Herzog von Otter

    Hello Mr. Cotter, I take my tour groups to the Balto Monument in New York’s Central Park. I explain Balto’s celebrity status in 1925. And his humiliating end, stuffed in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The start of his story brings smiles; its end brings frowns. When you visit New York City I will be happy to show you around, including the bronze to Balto.

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