A Dog Sled Wedding During The Pandemic
It was a cold Thursday morning when Erin Newkirk and Larry “Toby” Tobias decided to finally tie the knot after 12 years together. Together with three guests, a pastor, and 12 dogs, they set out into the tundra for the ceremony.
It's a love story years in the making. Erin and Toby first met in Lebanon, Ohio back in 2008.
“And after talking for about a month,” said Erin over a Zoom interview, "had a first date at a Waffle House in Lebanon, Ohio and met for coffee. I think we ended up having a pancake or something.”
Erin wasn’t shy about her first impressions.
“I thought he was a bit preppy for me,” she said.
Toby, on the other hand, liked her right away.
“Well, I liked her,” said Toby. “I didn’t realize that I was coming off as preppy. I was on my best behavior.”
In December 2020, Toby popped the question. This wasn’t the first time he had asked Erin to marry him.
“Well I gave her a diamond back around 2012,” reminisced Toby. “And Erin has never been married, and I’ve been married more than once. And that scared her, and probably scared me too.”
“He left out part of the story,” said Erin. “Between my two parents, there have been eight marriages. So I've had plenty of experience with marriage and divorce myself. And I've had a pretty pessimistic view or, you know, of what people say versus what they do.”
It wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic hit that things began to change for Toby and Erin. Back in April, Erin was working as a nurse practitioner in Ohio. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Erin lost her job. Her job search brought her up to Alaska, and eventually to Bethel, but the distance was putting a strain on their relationship.
“Even though he's been fully supportive of the job, and the move, and the plans,” Erin said. “I think once he got by himself it all hit home. It's one thing to be, you know, stuck at home with somebody. It's another thing to be stuck at home alone.”
For Toby, the distance and the separation gave him time to reflect on their relationship. He came to the realization that he’d been taking Erin for granted.
“You tend to take people for granted sometimes. And it really, it was a big wake-up call for me how much she really meant to me and how little I showed her how much she meant to me.”
With Erin working in Alaska and Toby living in Ohio, there seemed to be no end to the distance.
“So we've had several heart to hearts via Zoom or Google Meet. And, you know, I finally asked her to marry me again. She said yes,” Toby said with a smile.
With the pandemic still going and the courthouse closed, wedding planning took a different spin.
“So yeah, it definitely impacted his decision,” said Erin,” but also made him a little creative.”
Toby wanted to make his marriage memorable, and what is more memorable than getting married on a dog sled?
“It's unique to Alaska,” noted Toby. “And I just, I just threw it out there to see what she'd say. And she said 'Yeah, well, okay. If he, if he can pull that off.'”
Toby reached out to the KYUK News Director, Anna Rose McArthur, who contacted Kuskokwim 300 Race Manager Paul Basile.
“And then I emailed him and he was kind of, 'Well, I don't know whether anybody really wants to do that, but I'll send your name out to a couple of people.' And luckily, Victoria Hardwick was one of them.”
With a musher and team ready, Toby set out to Bethel to get married. On the morning of Dec. 24, together with three guests, a pastor, Victoria and her handler, and 12 dogs, Erin and Toby set out from Tundra Ridge subdivision in Bethel. After a 10-mile run, they stopped at Dry Lake. While Victoria took her dogs for a lap around the lake, Pastor Tad Lindley performed the ceremony. With vows exchanged and dogs raring to go, Erin and Toby stepped back onto the sled and began their journey into marriage.
Erin gave this piece of advice to anyone thinking about marriage during the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic:
"It's one thing to have doubts about the world and the situation that we're in. People are like, how can they bring children into the world the way it is now. Since the beginning of time, you can either make it better or you can make it worse. You just have to make a choice to make every era that you live in better. So we have a chance to make our lives better and more peaceful and, you know, share a bond that is going to make this time that we're all going through a little better.”