A woman of many skills, Judy Cooper has lead an interesting and active life. She was born in 1939 in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. When 18 she entered Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and received a B.A. from there, with a major in biology and a minor in art. The summer she graduated she went to the Michigan State University Biology Station at Gull Lake, where she took biology courses. She attended the University of Colorado in Boulder for 2 years, where she studied botany, zoology, chemistry, and geology.
In January, 1964, she took Peace Corps training and went to Bolivia for 2 years, where she worked with the Aymara Indians at 12,000 feet above sea level on the Altiplano. Most of the indigenous people of the Andes were conquered by the Incas. The Aymaras, however, joined the Incas, thereby retaining their own language and culture. Judy was involved with a community development and preventative public health program, dealing with such diseases as tuberculosis.
After her return from Bolivia, she took a job for 2 years in North Carolina with a War on Poverty Community Action program. While she lived there she had a brain hemorrhage and was taken by ambulance to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was fortunate to have one of the best neurosurgeons in the country as her doctor. When she recovered, she returned to her job and stayed until funding was cut. Then she returned to Wisconsin and worked in a store until she had enough money to go to Alaska.
In 1968, Judy got her first Alaskan job in Hoonah, where she directed the Parent-Child Center. This facility took in children from birth to age 3. Judy worked with the parents and the children. After 2 1/2 years, she moved to Juneau, where she worked for Parks and Recreation in an after-school program for street kids. Judy took them on camping trips and hikes, and they learned about appropriate behavior and safety in the mountains.
In 1972, Judy joined Local 941, Laborers International Union of North America, and went to Anchorage to learn how to do heavy construction. As many workers had left to work on the pipeline, local jobs were available. She did jobs that were unusual for a woman.
Finally, Judy got a job on the pipeline itself. She first worked with an insulation crew, claiming she is the only person who has ever crossed the Yukon River twice on her back. She worked on the underside of the pipe, squirting sealant into seams.
Judy’s pipeline jobs were in Prudhoe Bay and North Pole. On several jobs, she spent hours as a flagger, by herself in the middle of nowhere. She played soccer with rocks to stay awake. She also learned how to talk to the ravens. She and the raven would have contests to see who could make the funniest noises.
At North Pole, Alaska, Judy worked at the refinery as the only woman on a crew of 6, spending 8 to 10 hours a day unloading gravel from a dump truck into a wheelbarrow, then shoveling it into dish-shaped retainers around the oil storage tanks. One man on the team remarked, “I never thought a woman could work so hard.”
The pipeline was finished in 1977. Judy went on a cross-country ski trip, following Cliff Lobaugh, veterinarian for Juneau and the Yukon. They skied from a cabin on Atlin Lake to the Taku arm of Tagish Lake and back. Cliff, a big man, moved fast on his skis, and Judy couldn’t keep up, partly because she kept stopping to take pictures. On such skiing trips, she always took a dog with her. Finally, she hitched herself to the dog, and kept up easily. On Tagish Lake, Cliff introduced her to a woman with a dog team, giving Judy a chance to see what mushing was like. As the mushers like to say, “She caught the bug, and she was hooked.”
She bought a cabin in Tagish, Yukon Territory, spending winter months there and running sled dogs. She started with 3 or 4 dogs, and went from being pulled by a dog while on skis (called “skijoring,” from a Norwegian word) to mushing.
Judy decided she would move to Fairbanks, so she could have a garden. She settled in Two Rivers, close to Fairbanks, and known as the mushing capitol of the world. While in Two Rivers, her dogs multiplied, until at one time she had 52 animals. (As the number of dogs increased, it was harder to keep track of dogs in heat, so a couple of accidental litters pushed the total higher.) She kept and trained all of them. As the mushing trails started from her yard, she would take dogs on runs most days from the house, starting training in winter. By early spring, they would have enough stamina to go on a long trip. She would use a different team every day, 8 dogs to a team. Thus they all got exercise.
Judy is fascinated with animal behavior. She says, “to ask a dog to do something, you have to figure out how to motivate him.” She loves dogs and loves raising puppies, and tries to train them all so they perform to the best of their abilities. She worked up to running them 10 to 18 miles a day. Racing mushers would ask her, “How many miles do you have on your dogs so far?” She didn’t keep track, because she had no means to measure distances. She just kept working them until they reached their distance goal.
In March and April she took trips with a friend to the White Mountains, a BLM recreational area with cabins spaced a few miles apart. They would rent different cabins so they could run the dogs between them. Sometimes getting to places could be difficult because of the weather. Creeks would be overflowing. The trail was not flat, but slanted, and the sled slid off it sideways. To counteract this slide, the musher had to stand on the uphill runner of the sled and lean uphill, much like on a sailboat.
One winter, Judy and a mushing friend from Haines went on a trip to a small fishing resort on Tagish Lake. The Haines friend brought her team and a basket sled, so Judy decided to use hers as well, instead of the toboggan sled, a decision she later regretted. The toboggan sled has a large piece of plastic on the bottom, which allows it to ride on top of the snow. The basket sled has narrow runners that dig into the snow.
The pair left from the town of Atlin at about 10:00 a.m. They crossed Atlin Lake and then crossed the isthmus onto the Taku arm of Tagish Lake. Everything looked fine when they started the trip, and Judy felt confident they’d get there with no problem. She knew the route very well, since she had traveled it many times.
When they made it across the isthmus, the trail suddenly disappeared. The wind had blown the snow into deep drifts, and no one had been over the trail since the storm. Though weather conditions remained okay, the lead dogs struggled to break trail through the drifts. After floundering in the snow for a long time, they became very tired. The basket sleds didn’t help. They were harder for the dogs to pull in the deep snow. Judy would walk ahead for a distance to mark the trail, then urge the dogs forward. They changed lead dogs, to give the original leaders a break.
Afternoon turned into a winter evening. They couldn’t camp, as they had no cooking pots and no water for the dogs. They couldn’t start a fire, as they had nothing resembling dry wood. After some hours of travel, they realized they could not go back, as they had progressed too far, but had to continue forward. They could not change routes and go across Tagish Lake, as they could easily get lost in the dark and miss their friend’s place completely. Being on the lake ice at night was very unsafe, as there were soft spots in the ice that they couldn’t see, and they could break through and plunge to the bottom. Unfortunately, the left shore of the lake where their trail ran had received the most drifting snow, and they had no choice but to go through it. By now it was very dark and they could just see the outlines of the large trees close by…these trees were all they had to steer by. In the distance they spotted the light from the friend’s place, but it was still a long way off. Stress and weariness settled in. Every so often, Judy’s companion would ask, “Are we getting closer?”
Finally, they parked the sleds. Judy left her friend with the dogs and sleds and walked about one-third mile to the house on her snowshoes. Her friend there had been worried, because she knew they were coming. When Judy finally arrived, she was so dehydrated that she drank a quart of water. She walked back, taking water to the dogs and to her friend. After all, their very lives were dependent on the dogs’ ability to take them to safety, so she took care of them first. They hitched up, then followed Judy’s snowshoe tracks to the cabin, arriving at 4:00 in the morning. Judy says that the simple route that she’d used so often turned into the trip from hell. Instead of four to five hours of travel time, it took them fifteen. They never would have made it if she weren’t so stubborn.
Her Fairbanks garden was wonderful. She grew such vegetables as zucchini, lettuce, beets, carrots, chard, and green beans. She tried to grow plants that the moose wouldn’t eat. She had an added moose deterrent: The dog kennels were spread out in 2 rows in a big circle with an alley down the middle. The garden was planted inside the circle. An 8-foot fence surrounded the whole area. If the moose wanted to get to those plants,, it would have to jump the fence and go through the double row of dogs.
In Fairbanks, Judy started a B & B called Earthtone Huskies, renting mostly to summer guests. The cabins had no running water, so she had to appeal to hardy folks who didn’t mind a somewhat primitive lifestyle. Most guests were Europeans. She met many interesting people. Her guests’ fees helped pay for dog food. Judy would take guests out for 30 to 45-minute rides with the team, which they all claimed was the highlight of their trip.
Judy’s artwork is a reflection of the outdoor area where she lived. While in junior high, she learned how to make linoleum block prints, and while in Hoonah, she began making Christmas cards. Soon a business was born. Now she makes one or two designs a year. As her line of cards grew, she joined the Artist’s Coop in Juneau and did art shows in the fall and winter.
Here are instructions from Judy on how to make linoleum block prints: First, you have to draw the picture. Put it on tracing paper and reverse the image so when you print it, so it comes out right-side up. Put the design on the block with carbon paper. Use the kind that is found in triple-copy documents, as that carbon design cannot be rubbed off with your fingers.
Once the design is on the block, start carving. Be aware that what is white on your final picture is the area that you have carved away; color stays on the raised portions. Roll ink on the block and place paper on it to make a black and white copy. Rub the paper with a tablespoon until all the ink is on the paper. When inking, lift up one side of the paper at a time to see if it is inked properly; if not, touch it up with the roller. Make prints until you get a really good copy. If color is needed, put it on that final copy with a magic marker. Take it to a commercial printer. Judy gets 500 to 1,000 cards made from her copy.
Judy ran dogs in the Yukon and in Fairbanks for 25-30 years. Besides loving the dogs, she likes to be outdoors. She says mushing is good exercise in winter, and the country looks totally different than in the summer. Her mushing career evolved from skiing to skijoring, and finally, to mushing. Often she would go skijoring when in Juneau. The dog team picture in this article was taken outside Juneau at Spaulding Meadows, a 3-mile hike up to a great place for skijoring.
After 15 years in Fairbanks, Judy moved to Gustavus. Her hands were suffering from the cold winters, and she needed to be someplace warmer. She thought Gustavus was a good choice because she also needed a place with flat terrain. A knee injury from an auto accident made climbing hills difficult.
Though now she only has 12 dogs, Judy still runs them. Their “trail” is Rink Creek Road. The team pulls a dog cart or her car, which is a Geo Tracker. She uses 6 dogs for the car, though 5 will pull it.
Here is a picture of Osa, one of Judy’s lead dogs. She also gets to be a housedog. Osa is an AKC Siberian husky, daughter of Ruby,another AKC husky, who was killed by wolves in Gustavus. Judy bought two male AKC Siberians, Kumo and Barack. One of Kumo’s pups is in Colorado, where he lives with a boy with some serious health challenges. The dog has helped the boy a great deal, and his health has improved.
Juneau people can meet Judy in person and buy some of her wonderful cards at the Juneau Public Market, held in Centennial Hall the 3 days after Thanksgiving. Judy’s booth is in the same place every year in the Egan Room. Be sure to stop by and say hello and make your card selection.