Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
On a winter day in Fairbanks, Alaska, blankets of fog hold pollution to the ground: ice crystals suspended in the polar air. It's a phenomenon that settlers called the "white death." Though the sun stays up for just four hours, David Klumb's days are long. The owner and sole employee of Laughing Husky Enterprises often works on six or seven dogsleds simultaneously until 3 a.m. Hours later he's up again to feed his dogs.
Fairbanks, with a population of roughly 30,000, is situated just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, between the Alaska and Brooks mountain ranges. Tourists flock here each year to see the Northern lights swathe the basin in purples, greens, and pinks. They also come for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,000-mile course that starts in Anchorage and extends north to the city of Nome. Fairbanks has been one of the race's checkpoints. When the racers swoosh through here in March, the ground is dotted with paw prints, as mushers coax their dogs through the streets.
Laughing Husky manufactures dog sleds and sled parts, selling to professional and novice racers, as well as to Alaskan tour companies. The biggest names in mushing--including former champions Susan Butcher, Rick Swenson, Jeff King, and Lance Mackey--have all been Laughing Husky customers. The business operates out of a 1,500-square-foot-plant, with manufacturing on the ground floor and an office, storage, and sewing room for accessory bags above.
It's a small business, with revenues of just $60,000. But Klumb's needs have always been meager. Klumb hunts for his meals--typically moose or caribou--and tends a garden in his backyard during the summer. He and his wife Joanne (a former musher herself), are getting ready to start a winter garden, too, powered by low-cost LED lights, where they'll grow peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Laughing Husky's sleds are known for their classic, old-world aesthetic. Bill Cotter, owner of the tourism startup Bill Cotter's Kennels, purchased a sled from Laughing Husky for one of his tours. It's a custom order made of elegant, grainy wood: 9 feet long, with just enough space for two. Klumb "makes a beautiful sled, really nice workmanship," Cotter said. He also appreciates that Laughing Husky does quick repairs. "He'll take your sled, and he'll fix it right away," says Cotter.
Turning to mush
Klumb first arrived in Fairbanks on a winter day in 1979. The Wisconsin expat had been tending to dogs and horses as a member of the U.S. Army veterinary corps, stationed in El Paso, Texas. To his chagrin, he found himself reassigned to a place that residents affectionately call "the city on the edge of nowhere."
Klumb's first experience with dogsledding was unforgettable. Invited out by an Alaskan friend, he recalls that the dogs coached him down the icy trail--not the other way around. "It was love at first ride," he says. In Alaska, dogsleds are used for tourism and transportation as well as sport, and Klumb saw an opportunity to sell to a wide demographic. He launched Laughing Husky Enterprises in 1991, financing the company with a small business loan and by making cabinets on the side. The first sled he built is a primitive-looking model made out of hickory. He keeps it around to remind him of simpler times.
Laughing Husky specializes in two types of sleds: toboggan and basket. Toboggan sleds are mounted directly on the runners; their stability makes them suited for carrying big loads. Basket sleds, which are raised above the runners, are lighter and better for racing. Mushers can stand on the runners of a basket sled and steer the vehicle using their body weight and a foot brake. "Lashing the sled together is a real art, because you're trying to get a certain tension," says Klumb. "Some places you don't want it too tight, and you don't want it too loose."
Klumb ships out about 100 sleds each year. They are made mostly out of ash wood, aluminum, and high-density plastic. A tour sled, designed to hold several people, sells for about $2,500. A standard racing sled goes for around $1,500. Klumb also ships sled parts such as metal footboards to the far reaches of the globe, including China and Russia.
Klumb would love to source locally, but wood from ash trees and some other materials aren't native to Alaska. So he imports his materials from the East Coast and from China, among other locations. Shipping to Alaska from the lower 48 is expensive because items come up on barges or in large containers. To avoid placing lots of little orders, which can jack costs even higher, Klumb orders many pallets of plastic in bulk. What he doesn't use he sells to other manufacturers in Alaska.
"I build Fords"
Ask folks in the lower 48 to list the most important annual sporting events in the United States. Chances are the Iditarod won't come up. But it's a big deal in Alaska. Last year nearly 80 teams--each including a musher and his or her pack of 16 brilliant blue-eyed huskies--weathered the punishing frost and terrain, some for as many as 13 days. The eventual winner, Dallas Seavey, finished at 4 a.m. on the eighth day. His father, Mitch Seavey, came in four hours behind him.
Danny Seavey, Dallas's brother, has also raced the Iditarod. Today he manages the family business, IdidaRide, which offers sled tours and rents out cabins in the summer. (The business effectively closes in the winter, so the Seaveys can race.) The company purchased two tour sleds from Laughing Husky in 2011 for its glacier helicopter mushing tour. For $549, or $489 for children, visitors can ascend to the towering Punch Bowl glacier via helicopter, to mush where there's ample snow in June or July.
The Seaveys don't use Laughing Husky for their Iditarod sleds, however. Like other sports ranging from bike racing to golf, dogsledding has grown more technologically advanced, with sleds made of materials like titanium and carbon fiber, instead of old-fashioned wood. Klumb "is a good sled builder," says Seavey, "but prefers traditional materials, not the carbon fiber sleds we use nowadays."
Klumb agrees with that assessment. "I build a lot of sleds, and I do build race sleds," he says. But "there are car companies that build Maseratis, and there are car companies that build Fords. I build Fords."
Even for Laughing Husky's more race-focused competitors, the dogsled business is not what it once was. The size of professional kennels has declined as costs for dog food (huskies consume up to 12,000 calories a day) and upkeep have risen. A racer in the late '90s may have bred up to 100 dogs at a time. Today, kennels are typically capped at 60 or 70. Fewer dogs means fewer sleds purchased. And of course, the sled business is largely at the mercy of Mother Nature. In 2014, the levels of snowfall in Anchorage hit a record low of 25.1 inches.
Last year Klumb derived much of his revenue from other aspects of his business, including repairs (he typically charges about $300 for those and can turn a job around in 24 hours) and manufacturing children's sleds out of leftover scrap materials.
It's enough to keep the business going and to keep this transplanted Midwesterner in the inhospitable, incomparable region he now calls home. "It's a frozen wasteland," Klumb says. He pauses. "But I love the frozen wasteland."