FAIRBANKS — Alaska’s distance dog mushers continue to rely on fur to keep warm on the trail, even as they’ve increasingly switched from natural to synthetic equipment in other parts of their gear.
The fuzzy parka ruffs that lined the head of nearly every musher at Saturday’s Yukon Quest start line are nearly as recognizable a symbol of the sport as the lattice dog harness pattern the race uses as a logo.
Unlike the harnesses, the sleds and even the breeds of dogs, the parka ruffs haven’t changed much since the first Yukon Quest in 1984.
Fairbanks business Alaska Raw Fur Co. has sold fur ruffs for 38 years, and the most popular style has long been a 4-inch ruff that mixes wolverine and wolf fur, according to business co-owner Sandy Costa-Mattie.
Wolverine is popular for ruffs because its hairs are resistant to frost, although not impervious as some people incorrectly believe, Costa-Mattie said.
“It’s stronger and shorter than the wolf (hair),” she said. “What it does it covers the underfur of the fur behind it.”
A real fur ruff makes up a significant fraction of a parka’s overall cost.
The Raw Fur Company sells its 4-inch wolf-wolverine ruff for $250.
People wear ruffs in the extreme cold because they create a warm pocket around the face that keeps condensation from breath from turning to frost. Mushers continue to use fur because it works, not for tradition’s sake alone.
“Sometimes there’s no competing with nature, especially when it comes to warmth,” is what 2015 Yukon Quest champion and 2016 front-runner Brent Sass said in a 2014 article about the Iditarod for Outside Magazine.
“When I need to stay warm in temperatures 50 degrees below zero, I use fur in my jacket from the animals that have evolved to survive these harsh conditions.”
In other areas, competitors have replaced traditional equipment with newer synthetic materials in order to save weight or improve performance. Ester sled maker Dog Paddle Designs, which makes many competitive sleds, describes its source materials as a mix of traditional and space age.
Down feathers from duck or goose were once the go-to source for insulating the heaviest parkas, but mushers have increasingly turned away from down because it performs poorly when it gets wet, according to Jacob Witkop, a Salcha sprint musher and the publisher of Mushing Magazine. They’ve replaced it with layers of wool or synthetic materials.
“When you put so much faith in one layer like that, if you hit a spot where that layer fails you’re kind of screwed,” he said.
Witkop hasn’t noticed major changes in parka ruffs, however. He uses a 6-inch wolverine and wolf ruff from Alaska Raw Fur Company.
Other mushers use ruffs made by Iditarod musher Heidi Sutter and Iditarod musher Joe Redington Jr.’s wife, Pam Redington, he said.
Some mushers wear do-it-yourself fur. Four-time Iditarod winner Jeff King of Denali, for example, has a grizzly bear ruff because about 15 years ago a grizzly bear made a habit of hanging out around his dog yard.
“After several days of being asked to leave nicely, he wouldn’t, and it was bear season so eventually I ended up destroying him and having a ruff made out of his hide,” he said.
King has re-used the ruff from that bear over the life of several parkas.
“It’s as good now as the day we made it, so that’s pretty cool,” he said. “If you were to feel grizzly bear, it’s one of the few things that might be close to wolverine. I think it’s the coarseness of the fur.”
A pair of mittens made from the same bear weren’t as successful. King stopped using them because they scared the dogs.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter:@FDNMoutdoors.
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction.
Friday's article "For a ruff job, Alaskans rely on fur" misstated the first name of Jacob Witkop, the publisher of Mushing Magazine. Also, Pam Redington is the wife of musher Joe Redington Jr., not Ray Redington Jr.