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Call of the Wild

“I’ll be happy living in Alaska with my dog, writing who knows what, and making enough money to put food on my plate and Alpo in Killer’s dish. No millions of dollars, no big-city newspapers, no fast cars and fame or fortune. It might be nice, though.”
—Gustave Guenther, September 1988

Each semester, longtime IUP Journalism professor Randy Jesick asks his students to write a short autobiography. Gus Guenther wrote the words above at the beginning of his junior year at IUP.

Gus Guenther on the Mendenhall Glacier

Gus Guenther on the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, with dogs Junior and, in the foreground, Ellie. The Mendenhall Towers provide the backdrop. (Mike Croy)

He followed through on the plans he put on paper in Jesick’s class twenty-three years ago. Now, the forty-three-year-old Alaska resident can add IUP alumnus to his autobiography.

Guenther completed requirements for his bachelor’s degree in Journalism last fall and graduated from IUP in May. It’s 4,316 miles from his hometown of Clam Gulch, Alaska, to IUP. For Guenther, it was an equally long road to graduation.

The Butler County native enrolled at IUP in the fall of 1986 after graduating from Slippery Rock High School. He served as sports editor of the Penn before leaving the university in May of 1990, several credits shy of graduation.

“He was always sort of a character,” Jesick recalled. “Whether it was the hot days of September, when the Fall semester was beginning, or the very warm days in May, when Spring semester was ending, he always wore a hat with flaps over his ears.

“He was an upbeat student and always had something to say—a very likable person.”

Guenther left Western Pennsylvania in the summer of 1990, landing a job as a sports writer with the Peninsula Clarion newspaper on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. “I got off the phone [after accepting the job offer] and threw some clothes in a bag,” Guenther said. “An hour later, I was on the road. Six-and-a-half days later, I was here.”

“As soon as I crossed the border and saw the vast emptiness and ruggedness of it, I knew I was staying here. I didn’t care what happened; I was not leaving Alaska.”

After seven months on the staff of the Clarion, he moved on to the Anchorage Times. When the Times folded in 1992, Guenther found himself more than four thousand miles from home and unemployed.

But he knew one thing. He wasn’t leaving the Land of the Midnight Sun.

“As soon as I crossed the border and saw the vast emptiness and ruggedness of it, I knew I was staying here. I didn’t care what happened; I was not leaving Alaska. During my sophomore year at IUP, I saw a map of it. I didn’t know anything about it, but I said to myself, ‘I have to go there.’ I got the feeling that this is where I belong.”

Guenther has worked different jobs over the years to pay his bills. He was employed as a commercial salmon fisherman for eleven years, working on Kodiak Island, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and Bristol Bay. “It was brute, physical work in very rough conditions.”

Gus Guenther and his team

Gus Guenther and his team placed third in the Tug Bar 120 race in Knik, Alaska, in March 2011. (Barbara Redington)

Following his time as a salmon fisherman, he completed an apprenticeship to become a carpenter. He landed industrial construction work in the winters of 2009 and 2010 at the South Pole in Antarctica, where he was a member of a crew building a new research station.

“My first year on the South Pole, a guy came in to give a safety talk, and he walked in with an IUP T-shirt on. My jaw just dropped. I went up to talk to him after his presentation and we chatted for about a half-hour about IUP. It was kind of surreal.” The speaker was Matt Barnes, a 2002 IUP Safety Sciences graduate working for Raytheon Polar Services at the time.

Guenther puts his Alaskan Huskies in a position to succeed. Read more about these dogs that are Born to Run

Work has never driven Guenther—it has always been a means to an end. “When the jobs come up, I do them. I don’t work the same kind of ridiculous schedule most people do. A lot of people lose track of what life is all about. It’s not about going to work every day. If you only have weekends and two weeks of vacation, you can lose touch. You only get one chance at life, so you might as well enjoy it.”

Guenther derives a great deal of enjoyment at his current job. Earlier this year, he began giving dogsled tours on the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau. He flies in by helicopter and gives tourists from Alaskan cruise liners rides around the glacier, which is roughly 3,500 feet above sea level. During the tours, he and the other mushers live out of Quonset-hut-style tents.

Guenther owns twenty Alaskan huskies. In the early nineties, he began racing sled dogs. In March 1994, he completed his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. A 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, the event attracts roughly fifty mushers each year. He competed in his second Iditarod four years later. In both races, Guenther and his team of huskies covered the course in eleven to twelve days. That’s more than ninety miles a day.

Guenther and Junior

Guenther and Junior (Mike Croy)

“They’re unbelievable athletes,” said Guenther, who often must navigate his dogs through whiteout conditions, gale-force winds, and sub-zero temperatures. “In every race I’ve run, when I get to the finish line, the dogs would be happy to keep going. If you give them enough rest and they’re eating well, they’re not spent at all. They need a couple days to recover, but they’re always looking to go again.”

Guenther and his dogs are currently training for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a grueling one-thousand-mile competition that starts in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ends in Whitehorse, Yukon. He is seeking sponsors for the 2012 race, set to begin February 4, and can be contacted at wildthingkennels@hotmail.com.

The Yukon Quest is conducted in the dead of winter, when Alaskan days consist of seventeen-and-a-half hours of darkness. Temperatures often plunge to 30 to 40 degrees below zero during the race, with wind chills down to 80 below.

The Quest allows mushers fewer dogs on their teams than the Iditarod (fourteen versus sixteen) and has fewer checkpoints, where sledders can restock provisions. It follows a more northern route than the Iditarod, with mushers covering some of the same trails Klondike gold miners navigated in the late 1890s. In 2011, twenty-five mushers entered their teams—only thirteen completed the race.

“When the jobs come up, I do them. I don’t work the same kind of ridiculous schedule most people do.”

“It’s a pretty incredible symbiotic relationship that we have,” Guenther said. “They’re willing to pull me and run over very difficult terrain and in extremely cold temperatures. They know at the end of the run, I’m going to take care of them. And I know they’re going to get me there.

“That’s the reason I do this. There’s love on both sides.”

When Guenther takes his dogs to the start line of the Yukon Quest in February, he will become the first IUP alumnus ever to compete in what’s promoted as the “toughest dogsled race in the world.” Last fall, he completed a two-credit guitar course at the University of Alaska at Anchorage’s Kenai River campus, near his home in Clam Gulch.

He contacted Jesick last November and asked if the elective credits he earned in the guitar class would complete his graduation requirements. They did.

“I thought maybe IUP would just blow me off. Why should they even care? I really feel thankful that they went to the trouble to help me.”

Guenther is also thankful for his family of dogs and the opportunities he has enjoyed over these last two decades living “off the grid” on the Last Frontier.

“I get to hang out with my dogs, and the commute is a walk from the tent to the dog yard every morning,” Guenther said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Pat Farabaugh ’93 is a former IUP Journalism faculty member and a current faculty member at Saint Francis University in Loretto.