Dogged determination

The non-mushy tale of an Iditarod racer

Silvia Brugger distinguished herself by becoming the first Swiss woman to compete in the Iditarod dog sled race. But how did she end up in Alaska in the first place? 

“Dear Philipp: Here’s a short report about me. This is the first time that I’ve written something like this, and I’m not really sure where to begin.” 

That’s how Silvia Brugger started a long, letter-like text about her emigration from Switzerland. I got in touch with her as is typical these days, online - in this case via Facebook.

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I had put out an alert searching for Swiss people in Alaska, and I was lucky that Silvia answered my call after an old school mate in Lucerne shared my Facebook post. Quite naturally, she went ahead and created what we call “user-generated content” by writing her own story. I’ve just jumped in with some follow-up questions here and there. 

Silvia’s life story begins like this: 

I was born in 1974 and grew up in Cham near Zug. I have four siblings; Max is my twin brother and the other three are four and eight years older. (My sisters are twins, too.) 

As a child and teenager I did a lot of travelling in Europe. My grandparents lived in northern Germany and our family had some Icelandic horses. Nearly every year, my sisters and I competed in international tournaments. 

After finishing secondary school, I studied tourism in Lucerne – thinking I could apply to Swissair afterwards. But first, the spirit of adventure got a hold of me. After studying at a language school in Perth, I travelled across Australia with a friend. We were just 18 years old. 

Then it was time for me to concentrate on my career. After an apprenticeship at Carlton Elite Hotel in Zurich, I took on a seasonal job at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St Moritz. 

What life lessons did you learn at the Palace Hotel in St Moritz? 

Let me think. It’s all a bit of a blur – probably because I went out practically every night and drank too much beer :-) 

Generally, I’d say that what I learned in Switzerland is something I miss a bit here in America: a sense of personal discipline and responsibility. Both are necessary for a successful working life. For example: The lawsuit business in the US drives me insane. Someone buys a McDonald’s coffee, burns his tongue, sues the fast food giant and gets $1 million as compensation? I don’t understand that. Such situations are now normal; there’s no need for common sense. 

During a trip to Canada (1997), I met the Willis family from Anchorage. They had Icelandic horses as well as sled dogs. Bernie and Jeannette Willis spontaneously invited me to visit them for a few weeks. This was my first time in Alaska. 

After a final season at the Palace Hotel, I moved to Alaska in 1999. That same year, I married Bernie and Jeannette’s eldest son, Andy. 

In 2001, Andy and I set up our own lodge. We bought the building and its land at an auction and spent a year cleaning, tidying up, repairing and renovating. 

I never thought that I’d be able to fulfil my childhood dream of having my own fishing and hunting lodge. My life was full of adventure: we fished all summer, hunted in autumn and spring and trained sled dogs in winter. 

Andy and his family were really into the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race. All the men have participated over the years. In 2007 and 2008, we had a pretty good dog team – and now it was my turn to complete the 1,000-mile race. I was the first Swiss woman to ever take part in the Iditarod.

Hunting, fishing, and refreshing beer

Silvia Brugger has been been living in Alaska for 17 years. For nearly a decade she ran a hunting and fishing lodge; today she’s working in the beer business. (Images: Trent Grasse)

What fascinates you about sled dogs and racing? 

Wow! I don’t even know where to begin. As with the horses, the whole thing started as a hobby. The Willis family had had sled dogs for a long time. At the beginning, they were probably a bit of a substitute for the horses for me. 

I always liked being with animals, but I grew up in an apartment where we could only have two cats. We got our first dog – a golden retriever – when I was about 16 and we moved into a house. Of course, you can’t compare sled dogs with pets; these are “working dogs”. For generations, they were kept as draught animals. 

It was nice just going out with the dogs = 30 or 40 miles :) 

I’m an active person who loves challenges. So I wanted to have sled dogs not just for fun but also for relatively short races (200-300 miles). So I put together a team of about 20 dogs that I could later do the Iditarod with. It took me seven years to prepare. I raised all the dogs myself and trained with my husband. 

A run with the sled dogs gives you all sorts of feelings! It’s adventurous, and sometimes even dangerous. A lot of things can go wrong. In the wild, you can easily get lost. Aggressive elk might attack the dogs – even injuring or killing them. Then of course there’s the cold: temperatures of -30 and -40°C are not uncommon. From November to January, the days are very short (10-15 hours). This makes it very challenging when you train from 8am until 6pm. 

But the hard work is worth it! Later in the winter (February and March), the days get longer and in a normal year, the snow conditions are ideal and the temperatures pleasant (around -10 to -20°C). Under such circumstances, I can imagine nothing better than going for a “run” with 12 well-trained sled dogs. Except for the panting of the dogs, it’s absolutely silent! And when you’re out at night you can often admire the aurora borealis. 

And then of course there’s the personal challenge of participating in a race – especially the legendary Iditarod! One thousand miles is very far. Depending on the weather and route conditions, it takes the winner about nine days. Finishing the race is the biggest reward for the hard work. 

For 1,000 miles, I need ten days. You can find the details on the Iditarod website – search for “Silvia Willis” in the 2007 and 2008 archives. 

As a rookie in 2007, every day was an adventure and I never knew what awaited me. The weather wasn’t so bad, but it was one of the coldest years. Many participants (both dogs and people) battled frostbite. At the finish line my whole face was swollen. I also had a bad infection in my left hand and needed emergency treatment with a scalpel at a checkpoint. It was done by a volunteer nurse (not a doctor!) who had a little first aid kit with him. 

In the long run, however, this lifestyle was too stressful for my marriage, and Andy and I soon parted ways. I moved from the “wilderness” to the city, and I now live a “civilised” life. The dog races were a lot of fun and I miss them. But the dogs were also very demanding. We couldn’t go on holiday because the dogs had to be fed every day. At the same time, the summer training break coincided with high season at our lodge. 

Now I work for K&L Distributors as the beer sales team leader, and I have six employees. I’m responsible for beer sales in about 80 liquor stores in Anchorage, Wasilla and Palmer. 

What do you miss about Switzerland? 

I miss a lot of things. Public transport is unbeatable compared to Alaska – which is so vast that public transport wouldn’t be financially viable. Also, I miss the many hiking trails. Alaska has a lot of nature and mountains, but most of it is very remote and potentially dangerous (wild animals). Being Swiss, I am also spoilt when it comes to chocolate. I fill all my pockets when I fly from Switzerland back to Alaska. 

I regularly compare Alaska with Switzerland and wonder where I would rather spend the rest of my life. Should I return to Switzerland to be closer to my family? Which place has better economic conditions and health care? And so on. The way to the “right” answer is long. Both countries (USA and Switzerland) have positive and negative sides and it isn’t easy to compare and contrast. 

In the US, it is easier to enjoy my personal freedom and follow my dreams. And when I write “USA” I mean Alaska. I could never imagine my life in a big city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Alaska is comparable with Switzerland; I especially like the mountains. 

I have the impression that Switzerland is very regulated – too much is dictated by the state. Switzerland is relatively small and densely populated. During visits I almost get a sense of claustrophobia. 

How do you stay in touch with your friends and relatives in Switzerland? 

Most of my contact is just via Facebook, but I enjoy that very much. It’s a nice way to find out what my former classmates are doing today. Without Facebook I’d have no idea. And thanks to “Hangout” I’m also in regular contact with my siblings and our father. We all meet online on a Sunday morning about every two months. 

I’ve been living in the US for 17 years, and although America isn’t perfect, it’s easier for me to pursue my personal dreams here. I don’t know how to express that better; I can’t find the right words. In Switzerland, my life was all planned: go to school, do an apprenticeship, find a job, work for the rest of my life and save for retirement. 

Also, I’m more worried about the political and economic situation in Europe than in America. But the whole world is changing. We are all affected by it, no matter where we live. In Alaska, we depend on natural resources. Currently, we’re struggling with a gigantic multi-trillion state deficit. This is worrying and the future is uncertain. At the same time, I’m also worried about the European situation. So I think it’s good that Switzerland has never joined the EU. This protects it somewhat from any negative economic impact. Nevertheless, Switzerland is in Europe, surrounded by and influenced by EU states.

I didn’t leave Switzerland because I didn’t like it. I had the opportunity to broaden my horizons, and I’ve taken advantage of this. I am proud of my heritage, love my country and like to travel to Switzerland for visits. But at the end of each stay in Switzerland, I look forward to flying back “home” to Alaska.