Massachusetts woman leads her sled dogs on an Alaskan expedition
By Stacey Dresner
Marla Brodsky, owner of Hilltown Sled Dogs in Chesterfield, Massachusetts runs a camp at her kennel each summer, where kids choose one of her 20 dogs and learn the basics of training an Alaskan Malamute.
This year, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has altered those plans. This year, re-ports Brodsky, camp will be “shorter and smaller – four hours long with eight campers, ages 10 and up, wearing face masks and gloves the whole time except when eating lunch. Social distancing will be maintained in dog yards, at fire pits and in puppy playpens. So, hopefully we will help some families out and the sled dog team will get to have some fun with the kids too.”
Modifying the camp, a significant stream of revenue for the kennel, may be a bit of a disappointment, but it takes more than a pandemic to rattle Brodsky. Free-spirited and determined, she never gives up.
“I’ve lived my life by making my dreams a reality,” says the 60-year old Brodsky.
In March she fulfilled one of her fondest dreams – running her team of sled dogs on a trek through the Alaskan in the 2020 Serum Trail Run Expedition, a 674-mile trek from Nenana to Nome.
“I was like, ‘I made it!’ I always wanted to do it and I did,” she exalts.
More than fulfilling a dream, Marla says this accomplishment also means a lot to her as the mother of 15-year-old daughter, Ruby.
“I feel like I’ve been a role model for my daughter [showing her that] if you really want to do something, you can. You just have to work hard and you have to put your mind to it.”
She has been doing that since childhood.
Born and raised in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, growing up Brodsky was active in her Conservative synagogue Germantown Jewish Center, and egalitarian congregation where she received an excellent Jewish education. After delivering a flawless bat mitzvah service, the synagogue’s Cantor Ben Maissner told her mother that she was gifted and should begin voice training.
“My mom sought out a local teacher from the Curtis Institute of Music Philadelphia, and, at 13, I started studying classically. You hear stories of blues singers being nurtured by the church, because they started with gospel and then crossed over to the blues or jazz; I was nurtured by my synagogue,” she says, noting that she remained involved, chanting on the High Holidays and as the only youth in the temple’s adult choir.
A graduate of Emerson College in Boston with a BFA in Drama, Brodsky also studied with a voice teacher at the Berklee College of Music.
The dream of being a performer brought her to New York in the early 90s. Adopting the moniker Marla BB – which she still goes by most of the time – for 25 years she toured the country with her band, Marla BB and her Sassy Mama Blues Band.
In 2000 she moved to Western Massachusetts and, in 2005, her partner gave birth to their daughter. To cut down on touring, Brodsky – who had taken up Tae Kwon Do years earlier – opened her own Tae Kwon Do studio.
But it was while on a month-long tour of Alaska in 2007 that she completely fell in love with sled dogs and mushing.
On her days off from performing she visited as many “dog yards” as she could and became friends with champion mushers Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore. The next year she apprenticed for them and handled their Iditarod teams. At the end of the season, they gave her one of their sled dogs, Betty. So began Brodsky’s kennel of sled dogs, which she has bred and raised herself.
“Once I got into mushing, I closed the [martial arts] studio,” she says. “I ended up separating from my partner and moving across the road… So now I live on 17-plus acres with my Hilltown sled dogs and my daughter 50 percent of the time. Now my world is all about mushing because when you have 20 some sled dogs, you have to have a passion and your passion becomes your life. My life has been dogs and daughter.”
It has also been important for her to give her daughter a strong Jewish upbringing.
“I wanted her to have the foundation I had and Northampton offers so much Jewishly,” she says. “She want to Gan Keshet Preschool and then to Lander Grinspoon Academy, the Solomon Schechter School of the Pioneer Valley. She was bat mitzvahed at CBI [Congregation B’nai Israel].”
‘I’m going to Alaska!’
As owner of Hilltown Sled Dogs, Brodsky calls herself an “Ambassador for the world of Sled Dog Sports.” Her kennel offers sled dog lessons and rides, hikes with the dogs, demonstrations, education, and tours.
Her summer camp grew and grew and in 2019 it was filled to capacity. As some of her campers have gotten older and more experienced, they have become apprentices, training and helping out on sled runs, with the goal of becoming mushers themselves.
In recent years Brosky has also raced and won mushing competitions throughout New England, the Midwest and Canada. She competed in the World Championships in Sweden last fall.
Yet, what she really wanted to do was go on a trek through Alaska.
“My goal was to go back to Alaska with my own team and train and race there, and for ten years I would say, this year I’m going to Alaska,’” she said. “This year my business finally became successful enough so that financially I was able to take my dog team to Alaska.”
She even wore the “Jonathan the Husky” mascot costume and wandered around UConn at Christmas-time with a live husky to make money for the trip. and, she received support from Common Capital, a non-profit community loan fund in Springfield, Massachusetts.
When Brodsky learned that the commemorative Serum Run Expedition was going to take place, she applied and was selected to participate. The 674-mile trek commemorates the historic 1925 serum run by 20 mushers who relayed life-saving anti-toxin medication to Nome and the surrounding towns during a diphtheria epidemic. The Serum Run trek hadn’t been run for nearly a decade, but this year was revived by Alaskan graduate student Robert Forto for his master’s degree project.
In December, Brodsky loaded up her dogs and headed for Alaska to train. She rented a cabin on a corner in Nenana, Alaska, which she called “mushing central…More dog teams went past our cabins than cars.”
Brodsky was one of five mushers, all women ages 50+ who call themselves who call themselves “The Fabulous Five”. They were accompanied by eight snowmachiners, who hauled gear and helped break trail, as well as a veterinarian and a doctor.
Mushing during the day, the group stayed overnights in schools, bush cabins, arctic oven tents and roadhouses along the route that took them from Nenana through towns including Old Minto, Beaver Point Lodge, Manley, Tanana, Bone Yard Cabin, Galena, Old Woman Cabin, Koyuk, White Mountain, Safety/Nuuk, and finally Nome.
The expedition was challenging. Mushing for many miles per day was exhausting for both the dogs and mushers, and at times the temperature was below -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
The group finally made it to Nome on March 11.
“It was the perfect focus for my winter because it took me across two thirds of the Iditarod Trail,” she says.
But when the time came to go home, the pandemic hit.
“The goal became to rush to get from Alaska through Canada and to the lower 48 so I could get home while I still could,” she says.
Brodsky and her assistant had to figure out how to get back into the U.S. as some parts of the border with Canada were closing. They finally crossed into Montana, then drove through rural areas to avoid bigger cities where Covid-19 could be a problem.
Glad to be home, Brodsky spent the month of April applying for PPP and other grants to keep her business running.
“I have 20 sled dogs and summer is the most fun part of their year. I do weeklong camps where every kid gets their own dog and every dog gets their own kid. They groom them, they hike with them, they swim with them, they run with them. At the end of the day the dogs and kids are just as exhausted. I need to pay staff to help take care of the dogs,” she notes.
Next up: Brodsky now plans to write two children’s books about her recent experience in Alaska with her dogs. She also hopes to do some motivational speaking and perhaps produce a television show about sled dogs.
“People are looking for diversions now,” she says. “Maybe this is going to be a new outlet and a new direction for me.”
Main Photo: Marla Brodsky snapped this shot of her sled dog team ‘on the road.’