ST. ALBANS — Eleanor Wirts may have grown up in St. Albans, but she found her home in Alaska. She has gone from training horses – an riders – to training and mushing dogs, while living in a yurt beneath the aurora borealis.
Wirts now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska where she runs a dog mushing business, “Just Short of Magic.” She has also returned to living on the grid, with electricity if not other amenities.
The daughter of Dr. Henry Wirts, a retired OBGYN, and Linda Wirts, Eleanor was born in 1964, and grew up on 150 acres of land, with woods, ponds, and streams. “I have always loved the early mornings, working on dairy farms was happiness for me. I enjoyed milking, learning to drive a tractor, and haying. As long as I can remember, I loved being outdoors,” Wirts said.
Her love of animals drew her at an early age to horses. Wirts owned her first horse at the age of 10. It was a love affair that lasted well over 20 years.
After graduating high school in 1983, Wirts attended the Westmoreland Davis Equestrian Institute. She lived and worked in Virginia training dressage and three- event horses. Free time allowed for horse related pursuits such as fox hunting. As she entered the third decade of her life, Wirts realized, “It was time to do something else. I knew I would never have the same job for 40 years.”
Wirts moved back to Vermont and attended the University of Vermont (UVM). She received a master’s degree in secondary education, and taught high school science at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River. She also served as the school’s equestrian coach.
“It was clear that horses were fading from my life,” Wirts remembers. “I owned a Husky during this time and one day some friends and I tried dog mushing. I loved it.”
Her fondness for dog mushing blossomed. She got many of her dogs from shelters and trained them herself. Her team grew to 12 dogs.
The years spent working with horses proved “a transferable skill” when it came to training sled dogs, Wirts said.
“I read books, and learned from other mushers, but it’s really about getting out there and practicing. The dogs teach you a lot, if you pay attention to them,” she said.
But the feeling that it was time to move on was hitting Wirts once again. She entertained the idea of joining the Peace Corps, but decided to venture to Alaska instead.
Wirts first went to Alaska as a seasonal, summer employee running sled dog tours on glaciers outside Juneau. “We catered to tourists coming off the cruise ships,” she said. Wanting to stay in Alaska, she began searching for full-time employment.
Fate or luck stepped in, and Wirts landed a teaching job in the small town of Teller, a Native Alaskan village of about 250 people village on the coast of the Bering Sea. All provisions are flown in by planes. Wirts taught primarily science in the school of 75 students in grades K-12.
When school is out, most of the non-indigenous people leave Teller and return again at the beginning of the school year. Wirts however, chose to stay in this remote village year round. For three years she lived and worked in Teller, often being the only white person.
“I had my dogs with me. I drove them on the sea ice and the tundra,” she said. “In the winter I would feed the dogs seal meat, and in the summer they would eat fish. I did all my own fishing.”
Life in Teller is by most people’s standards primitive. There is no running water and no television. Wirts realized, “Who needs to join the Peace Corps? I’ve got my own little Peace Corps, right here.”
In 2006, Wirts moved to Fairbanks, and entered a master’s program in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska. During this time, she lived in a yurt, “off the grid, without running water or electricity,” she noted.
After receiving a master’s degree, she went on to study for her Ph.D. Wirts remembers this as a “time of intensive study, I spent six days a week for nearly five years inside a room at the university.”
She had her mushing team but little time to devote to her dogs and her passion for dog sledding. In May 2012, Wirts decided to take a year’s leave of absence from her Ph.D. program.
Four months later she started her sled dog touring business, Just Short of Magic-Alaska Dog Mushing School and Educational Tours. “It took off like a rocket,” Wirts said.
After operating Just Short of Magic for one year, Wirts won a small business award in Fairbanks. The Jim and Mary Binkley Award is given to a local business for its creativity, innovation, courage, and entrepreneurialism. “It was pretty exciting to receive this award from other small businesses in the Fairbanks area,” Wirts said.
Today, Wirts owns and operates her business year round. During the height of the busy winter season, she has as many as 70 dogs running at one time, and five dog mushers working for her.
The yurt that she lived in during her graduate school years, has now been made into a bed and breakfast, offering guests an authentic Alaskan vacation, with fabulous viewing of the aurora borealis.
After living off the grid for 12 years, Wirts has built a home in Fairbanks, with running water and electricity. Her future plans include growing her business and sharing her love of dogs and dog sledding with people.
“I have found my forever place, in big, rural, rugged Alaska. It is very rewarding to be out in nature with dogs you have raised and trained. I have an image of myself in the years ahead, looking out the front window of my house, while making eggs and watching the people go down the trail,” Wirts said.
Animals, action, and adventure have been the foundation of Wirts’s life. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she declared.