"Little machines with hearts" is how Ashlander Ann-Britt Malden describes the 31 Alaskan huskies she tended, trained and grew to love during a month of dog mushing and handling in the deep interior of Alaska this March.

"Little machines with hearts" is how Ashlander Ann-Britt Malden describes the 31 Alaskan huskies she tended, trained and grew to love during a month of dog mushing and handling in the deep interior of Alaska this March.

"You're just right there, plugged into the power of nature, and the dogs provide the beating heart to the Alaskan experience," says the 37-year-old, a former marketing director of an international company who first visited Alaska in 1998 and has been making trips to scope new adventures ever since. "These little machines transport you everywhere; they're the vehicle."

The vehicle to dream-like wintertime scenes filled with endless birch, spruce and willows, moose, beaver, lynx, martin, wolves, bears, snowshoe hares, ravens and the looming beauty of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, called "Denali" by locals.

"And lots of snow, snow, snow and cold, cold, cold," Malden recalls, brushing auburn bangs out of her eyes as a smile builds across her open face. "With hills and knolls, frozen lakes and winding rivers, traplines, handmade log cabins, handmade bush planes, and the aurora borealis!"

For a week of her trip, Malden served as assistant guide for a dog-mushing expedition through this remote landscape. Hired by Tonya Schlentner, the daughter part of a mother-daughter team that owns and operates Denali West Lodge, Malden helped two female clients harness their six-dog teams, got the dogs into a gang-line every morning and answered basic questions. She also led her own team of dogs.

"I'd never done overnight before, but it was easy for me to quickly reacquaint myself with the dogs and the system," she says. Malden learned to mush during day trips in 2005 and 2007 while staying at the lodge as a paying client with her family.

The Malden family found its way to the lodge by tracing genealogical roots. Malden's father, Marshall Malden, was born in Fairbanks and his 97-year-old uncle still lives there. The family tree branches into Alaska's remote interior near Lake Minchumina, where earlier relatives established a subsistence lifestyle of trapping, fishing and hunting.

In 2003, the Maldens landed on the lake, about 60 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Accessible only by bush plane, it is the largest body of water in the Alaskan interior at 10 miles long and six miles wide. On the lake's northern tip sits a small, tight-knit community of eight to 20 people, depending on the season. Denali West Lodge is nearby.

The tiny village, which bears the name of the lake, features an airstrip, post office, school/library, landfill/incinerator and a generator/power station. Although no one lives in the village "center,'" Lake Minchumina bustles with activity on Thursdays, when the mail plane delivers mail, special orders and visitors.

"That is when you might run into some of your neighbors and spontaneously have chatting sessions, sharing laughter and colorful stories," says Ann-Britt Malden. "Then off each person or couple goes, back to their lives in the deep snowy wilderness, mushing away across the lake with their dog teams or zooming away on their snow machines."

On their first trip to the village, the Maldens were introduced to Joee Redington, Jr., son of the founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Redington invited the family to visit his dog yard and 100-plus Alaskan huskies.

"Ann-Britt just wandered off and was loving up every single dog," remembers sister Andrea Malden. "Her natural instinct for the dogs was clear, and they had total love for her."

While most tourists simply stand back and watch, Malden "dove right in," prompting Redington to introduce her to the Schlentners. His intuition was right — she was intrigued by their lodge and animals.

"I immediately idolized the lifestyle — the remoteness, the exquisite landscape," she says. "And the dogs are spectacular, smart, strong, loyal, shy and happy. I felt drawn to them."

Over the course of several trips, Malden learned the art of handling huskies. This year, she felt confident enough to brave a full week in the wilderness, counting on them for transportation.

"We went 30 miles the first day and stayed at the first camp," explains Malden. "The next day, we went 30 more miles to the second camp, which served as base for four days of mushing trips closer to and around Denali."

The mushers stayed in arctic tents each night, cozy by the warmth of a central wood stove while temperatures dipped to 10 below. Malden slept well, assured her dog teams were cared for and content on their nearby snowbanks.

The group rose at 8 a.m. to hot, gourmet breakfasts homemade and vacuum-packed by Green's wife, Penny, and Schlentner's mother, Carol. Sourdough pancakes with local blueberries, spinach soufflé and French toast got them off to a strong start. Lunches were casual snacks on the trail. Dinners were hearty and locally sourced, ranging from moose meat lasagna to Alaskan king salmon.

Prepping the dogs for each day's mush was one of Malden's favorite chores. Tied in tandem by a single hook to a nearby tree, the air was full of "the sound of the dogs going crazy — they are so excited to go, jumping and pulling."

Right before cueing them to take off with the word "hike," the musher "pulls the hook," or sets off the quick release.

"Then it's the sled on the snow, their little dog paws tap, tap, tapping and the soft panting of happy, happy dogs," says Malden. "It's a little like a train — that steady rhythm."

She gloried in watching the dogs pull and run next to each other, nibbling at snowbanks for hydration, riding through places rarely or never touched by humans. Seven days later, she was back at the lodge, resuming her dog handler duties for the Schlentner's huskies, ranging in age from two to 14 years old.

"I fed and watered the dogs each morning and evening — they have special diets — and cleaned the dog yard twice a day," Malden describes. "Poop pick-up time entailed using a shovel to chip the poop out of the ice around their dog houses. This was my favorite time actually, because the dogs were relaxed after a good meal and ready to receive my hugs and kisses."

At the end of the month, Malden returned to Ashland, where her own "lead dog," Tuula, was waiting. She's been organizing the thousands of photos, dozens of journal entries and scores of stories she collected.

"And I'm trying to figure out how to get back there next year, but this time I hope to go early and help break trails," she says.

As they say in dog mushing country, "Hike!"

Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville. Reach her at jlstrange@hotmail.com.