Alaska sled dogs get summer taste treat: fish heads

Posted: Monday, August 01, 2005

KENAI - There's an old saying that "one person's trash is another's treasure," and that couldn't be any more true for Jon Little, a Kasilof-based musher who has competed in both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races.

Dudded-up in waterproof bibbed overalls, rubber gloves and a sweatshirt with blood and slime up to his elbows, Little doesn't look out of place in the slime line at the Pacific Star Seafoods processors in Kenai, but he's not one of their seasonal workers.

Rather, Little is there for his summer ritual - collecting fish heads to feed to his 20-plus hungry huskies waiting at the kennel back home.

"It's a great resource, but if you have a lot of pride, it's probably not for you. It's garbage after all, so you're only one step above a seagull," he said.

However, Little is humble and said he doesn't mind the dirty deed, since his furry friends benefit from it.

"The dogs love it. It's a great summer treat for them," he said.

With moves reminiscent to the Lucille Ball episode where she's overworked in a candy factory, Little quickly nabs fish heads off a conveyor before they fall into a huge industrial grinder, eventually being pumped back out into the river.

However, Little explained the processing line was newly upgraded this season. In the past, heads were not separated from guts and other fish waste, and all of this material came together via a chute outside the processor building.

"This new way is much easier," he said, compared to sorting fish waste in the rain, or worse yet, in the heat while contending with flies like he did in the past.

However, he did it because salmon was - and still is - a huge staple in the sled dog diet of most peninsula mushers, and many others throughout Alaska.

Little said the dogs relish the savory fish and more importantly, it's good for them.

"I've never done an analysis on it or anything, but I believe they are loaded with nutrition. As gross as it sounds, the eyeballs, brains and cheeks are concentrated with protein, fat and other nutrients," he said.

Numerous scientific studies have shown salmon are loaded with Omega-three fatty acids.

Foods rich in this "good fat" have become a staple ingredient in many high-quality commercial dog feeds due to their health benefits, some of which Little has observed firsthand from feeding the heads.

"The heads seem good for their skin and coats. The dogs will get nice and shiny after just a couple of weeks of feeding them," he said.

Little doesn't feed the heads raw, though. He takes them home and packages them in selected amounts - one or two for every dog in the kennel, and then freezes them in a large 18-cubic feet freezer.

"Freezing them hard - for 15 days or more, is partly to kill any parasites, but mostly because the dogs seem to love it more than eating it raw," he said.

Then, when he's ready to use them, he just takes them out, bangs them with an axe a few times to loosen the heads and gives each dog one once a day.

"They're perfect bite-sized breakfasts," he said, adding that then he just follows up later in the day with a high-quality kibble and water for their dinners.

Also, Little said you can't beat the price, since the processor provides the heads free of charge.

As to what the processor thinks of the musher's periodic visits, Kricket Stephenson, a quality controller at Pacific Star Seafoods said it's not entirely uncommon.

"Once in a while mushers come in, but many like to wait for things we're giving away," Stephenson said, referring to low grade whole-bodied fish or fillets that don't appeal to buyers and thus sometimes become available late in the season.

However, Stephenson said Little's not of this sort.

"Jon doesn't mind working for it. I've seen him in slime up to his elbows digging for fish heads on the dock out back," she said.

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