As slowly as it arrived, our sledding season was also slow to depart. We could still run on sleds out of here until early April – without it being truly horrendous as it has been at the tail end of some winters. Our plentiful snow gave us a nice base and the strong winds we had endured for a spell had packed our home trails well.
But now, it’s all gone. The very last snow disappeared this morning from the sheltered, shady spot it had been hiding in and the days are already appreciably longer and warmer. It’s time to start thinking about the list of chores that need done before we can start training dogs again in the Fall. We have trees and shrubs to plant, maybe a spot of vegetable gardening, some new dog houses to build, a few dogs to be spayed and neutered, the list seems to grow daily.
Break up was perhaps not quite as bad as we feared, given how much snow there was to melt. The re-grade of the driveway following the rebuild of the house after the Sockeye Fire definitely helped carry away a lot of the water. A few of the dogs had to endure a number of very splashy days, as despite 5 sump pumps running in their pen, the icy waters continued to rise and gave them plenty of experience of running around in “overflow”. Now, the yard is dry and sandy again and the first holes have already been dug, some several feet deep as the dogs switch from sled dog to pet dog mode for the next few months. The transition period, as they no longer get to go running with the team, can be a bit little crazy. Fit, strong dogs really need to be able to burn off some that energy and ours are always happy to get turned loose every day in the exercise yard and tear about, chasing, wrestling and playing. As the temperatures increase, they tend to spend more time sunbathing than chasing.
Once again, this winter we didn’t quite manage to get to the targets we had set. We missed making the races we were aimed at, and we also ended up short of the training mileages we had scheduled. On the plus side, we integrated the new dogs we bought in January and we still managed to get out and enjoy a whole lot of the Alaskan countryside behind a dogteam. We had visitors to stay, amazing northern lights to view, deep cold to deal with, and a whole lot of dogs to love, look after and worry about. We have always said it is the dogs that drive everything we do.
As we look back at another season, we have made more memories that we will cherish for ever, and we have made plans to make even more. Of course, nothing is guaranteed and we are painfully aware of that, but suffice to say, we’re looking forward to the seasons to come and being blessed to have the dogs that we do.
In years past, and as recently as last year, we debated having a handler to help with the kennel chores and to assist with the running of the dogs. In the end, our usual reluctance won the day and we didn’t actually make any attempt to find anyone. There were quite a few times this winter, as I shoveled snow from gates and doghouses that I would have happily revisited that decision. I sometimes wonder if the fact that we only think about looking for a handler at some point in the summer, means we have forgotten just how much my back hurts from digging snow and how much work is involved in caring for all the dogs when it is cold, snowy and dark. So, this marks a departure from our usual deliberations. We have “decided” that we will actively look for a handler for next winter. To be fair, having decided to look is still quite a distance from actually looking, but it is a start. I guess the next step will be to write an advert. I wonder how long I can put that off.
Alaska is a great place to live. There are no snakes, no biting creepy crawlies – well excluding the one wee spider that isn’t even supposed to be that bad, no need to check your boots before you put them on in case some sneaky scorpion has decided to have a nap in there, and no need to send an armed patrol into the bathroom to check the toilet for venomous reptiles lying in wait.
We do of course have some natural pests, namely the mosquito. But, as it’s late April and we haven’t actually seen any yet, it’s easy to forget just how fierce they can be. We are also a little less intimidated by them after a few summers of zapping the area with our Skeeter Vacs – we may not have reduced the overall State population by that much, but we’ve certainly decimated the ones around our kennel – and that’s what’s important !
The other animal hazards tend to be of the big variety. Moose and bear. Happily, we’ve not had many dealings with Yogi and his kin, bar one, a couple of years ago, that took a late evening stroll down the drive, past the front of the house and then ambled off into the trees. Moose however are a very different ball game. For a start, they are either mean or stupid – or stupid and mean. In the winter, they constantly seem to want to play chicken with cars on the Highway. If they’re not doing that, they’re standing in the middle of the dog trail refusing to budge despite a variety of entreaties suggesting that they really should be elsewhere.
This winter, we’ve been delighted to have had pretty decent snowfall. This has made the trails a delight to be on, it has also made life for the moose a bit more difficult than in the past couple of winters where the low snow made it much easier for them to travel and graze on the trees and shrubs they like to eat. With deep snow everywhere, the moose really don’t want to get off the hardpacked groomed trails – they also find it harder to get enough to eat. This makes them even meaner and more ornery. The State Fish & Wildlife Department actually came out early this Spring and said the moose were especially grumpy and that people should be aware that getting between them and wherever they wanted to be was not a good idea. Given the size of them, it’s probably not a good idea at any time !
As you may recall, this area was devastated by the Sockeye wild fire in June 2015. A large swathe of the countryside was burnt and has just started to recover. Due to the nature and structure of willows, they are remarkably resilient and had already grown several feet since the fire. Moose like willows. Moose LOVE young willow shoots that are still succulent and juicy. Moose seem to have realised that we have a lot of said willows on our land. By February, in the depths of winter, we were having a moose or two visit every day to graze on the new growth. Of course, they started on the outer edge of the parcel and slowly worked their way closer to the house and dogyard. Of itself, that doesn’t seem to be so bad, however, it has to be said, the dogs really don’t like moose. To be fair, the moose aren’t all that impressed by the dogs either – however they seem to have figured out that dogs on tethers, behind a fence are not an issue. the dogs on the other hand are very vocal about their dislike of the situation. What makes this even worse, is that it usually seems to occur at 3 in the morning. There is a particular bark that as soon as you hear it, you know exactly what is going on.
As there are so many mushers in Willow, all going through this same issue, a lot of thought and discussion has gone into ways to mitigate the moose problem. Our friends who live just the other side of the Highway, explain one of the methods they’ve had success with here. Without spoiling the read, we tried that and had mixed results. maybe I’ve just not got enough crazy in me.
Our biggest fright came one afternoon, when Ciara, our blind Siberian, could be seen scenting a moose that was wandering about. Ciara, obviously had no idea what this thing was that she could smell, but it was apparent that she didn’t like it and she proceeded to issue some kind of canine/moose challenge – which unhappily the moose accepted. Ciara weighs about 35 pounds and the moose must have been around 600 pounds – and all that was saving Ciara (or stopping her, in her mind) was a chainlink fence. When moose get mad, their ears flatten, their nostrils flare and they start stomping the ground with their front hooves. As we dashed/floundered through the snow to rescue Ciara, the checklist went, ears – yes flat. Nostrils, – yes, definitely flaring. Stomping – oh heck yes. If we weren’t so concerned about Ciara ( and the fence), it would have been quite the sight to see this little blind black dog squaring off against something quite so large and mean. Fortunately, once we got a hold of Ciara and dragged her away from the fence and into the safety of the house, the moose gave a few more stomps for good measure before getting back to eating.
With the onset of Spring, and the snows starting to melt, we have seen a reduction in the numbers of moose visiting – something we are truly grateful for. And whilst technically, moose are members of the deer family, they are a long way from the lovable Bambi.
In May 2014, I made what I thought would be my last long run to collect dogs from JJ and Susan Bragg at Seppala Kennels in Manitoba. I’d made several trips over the preceding years, and was sure that I wouldn’t be driving there again. And I was sort of right……..
Early in January, the only other kennel in the US of A that has Bragg’s Seppala Siberian Sleddogs announced that they were looking to sell their dogs for personal reasons. My initial interest was tempered by the fact that Seppness Kennel is located in Minnesota, and they wanted a group of the dogs to go together and within a fairly short space of time. My wife, who really should know better, agreed that we should make enquiries and before you know it, we’ve bought 10 new dogs and I’m loading the truck for another long drive to collect new dogs.
I’ve driven the Alcan 5 times, in May, June, Sept and October. I’ve also driven to a race in Whitehorse in early March, but the prospect of driving across a huge swathe of North America in the height of winter was a little daunting – to put it mildly. As well as all my usual precautions, I packed extra, extra winter gear, 2 sets of snowchains, a couple of snow shovels, a towrope, a spare towrope, spare fuel, renewed my membership of AAA and charged up my Delorme Inreach Explorer, which is a satellite tracked SOS device. To make things even more “interesting,” the day I left it was a balmy -35F, and when I spoke to my wife a couple of days later, it had dropped to -45F, a temperature where all sorts of issues start arising, including our propane regulator freezing which means no fuel for the furnace – ergo no heat. Not a problem for me, as I was well to the west of the cold air and was actually enjoying unseasonably warm weather. For most of my trip, the temperatures ranged between a pleasant 10F and a very warm 41F.
There are a couple of differences between driving the Alcan in January and June, unsurprisingly.
It’s dark – a lot of the time.
It’s colder, much, much colder
Alaska doesn’t bother plowing out it’s rest stops or opening the public restrooms
There’s no-one else on the road
The scenery is just as stunning, but looks much more desolate and daunting.
Due to there only being one road out of the State, navigation is not really an issue, the biggest of my concerns is always making sure that Big Blue has enough fuel to make it to the next gas station. My most frequent complaint about my beloved truck is it’s truly appalling fuel consumption rate. The first day went almost exactly to schedule, and I duly pulled into my planned rest-stop a couple of hours east of Whitehorse around 2.00 am and grabbed a few hours of sleep, cocooned in my -40 rated sleeping bag, which easily coped with keeping me warm – if not a little too warm.
Driving conditions were pretty good – I was very pleasantly surprised – I’d almost venture to suggest it was better than the road is during the summer. Accordingly, I made great time and had made it to Dawson Creek at a reasonable enough time to make it worth getting a hotel room. And thus, my schedule was set. Drive great distances during the day and sleep in a comfy bed at night. Day 3 saw me in Saskatoon, Day 4 was Fargo, North Dakota and an easy Day 5 was just 350 miles to my destination.
After spending some time getting to meet my new dogs, collecting their paperwork and loading them into the truck, it was time to reverse direction and head back north. The trip home is always longer with dogs. I tend to try and develop a routine with them, I prefer to give them smaller meals or snacks each time we stop, rather than load them up with a full meal a couple of times a day. It also takes me nearly an hour to drop the dogs, I know of guys that can drop and reload an entire truck full inside 20 minutes. I’m never in that much of a hurry and I’d rather the dogs got the chance to stretch, play a bit and get some fresh air. My route home was a bit less direct than the trip out, and I had planned to take the opportunity to go visit Jeff and Susan in Manitoba as who knows when I’ll be back that way again. It was a little out of the way, but as it turns out, it was a good plan, as it enabled me to transport an older dog from Seppness back to Seppala Kennels, where he was originally from. Another of their dogs, Tyna, seemed to be pleased to see them both and we agreed that she should stay with them – the first dog to greet her, was her mother, one of Jeff’s favourites – Little Lizzy Lineout.
After an all too brief visit, it was time once more to hit the road. From here, I feel like I could almost drive back home blindfold. Probably not a good idea, so I resisted the temptation to try. The weather continued to co-operate, apart from a cold patch between Saskatoon and Edmonton, where the dog drop was a little chilly at -3F. I found it cold after the previous warmer days – and the dogs seemed to find it cold too, considering the Minnesota winters hadn’t been too fierce latterly. I did wonder how they were going to find life in Alaska as I watched them doing the “stand on 2 paws ” dance.
When I travel with the dogs, I find myself unwilling to sleep in hotels. I always have the fear that something bad will happen and so I end up staying in the truck. The advantage is that I tend to get much more driving done, the downside is that the interior of my truck becomes a bit of a bombsite, with empty candy wrappers, soda cans and other assorted goodies scattered across the cab. Add in all my spare clothes, blankets, sleeping bag, pillow and goodness knows what all else, well, it is a surprise there’s space for me in there too.
As I continued westwards, I calculated that I’d make Whitehorse at a reasonable time of day and decided to see if I could cadge a free meal and maybe even a bed from my buddy Jacob at Grizzly Valley. Happily, things worked out perfectly, and I got a wonderful meal, a fabulous sleep and fun evening with people I am happy to call friends. A leisurely start the next day and things were looking good for an easy last day. Until I hit Haines Junction and a blizzard. The next couple of hours were the most difficult driving of the entire trip. Heavy snows, 50 mile an hour wind gusts and zero visibility. Fortunately, a snowplow went by and I followed him as best I could for a while. I decided to stop and drop the dogs at Kluane Lake, my favourite spot on the trip and during that break, the weather cleared and my unseasonably good travelling conditions returned.
An uneventful border crossing and an easy drive over the Tok cutoff saw me catch an early breakfast at Eklutna Lodge, and the start of a sprinkling of snowflakes. These continued to fall and get heavier until by the time I reached Palmer, things were a bit chaotic. People in Alaska tend to drive the same way all the time – no matter the weather conditions – and not all of them are necessarily that good at it. The last 50 miles of the journey was a little stressful and I was very happy to pull into our driveway, through a foot of new powdery snow and finally be home.
I’m sure the dogs were happy to be out of the truck too. It took a little time to get everyone into their spots, a couple of feet of snow had fallen since I left and some dog houses needed to be found and dug out. Now, 2 weeks later, it feels like they have always been here and I’m looking forward to getting them out on the trail at some point in the near future.
Tradition has it that I post a photograph of our Happy Crew at their gate, taken on New Year’s Day. I can’t quite recall how this particular “tradition” started, and unfortunately, I forgot to take one this year.
In part, that was because the snow level was so poor that it was a little depressing. This season has been the latest that we had to wait to get on sleds. Our previous latest was Dec 4th, this year, it was Dec 19th. Given that much earlier in the season, we had briefly considered entering a race in McGrath to be held on the 18th, it was perhaps just as well we decided we’d probably not be ready for a 200 mile race in mid-December. (And as it happened, the race was cancelled due to a lack of snow anyway.) However, since then we’ve been blessed with mucho snowfall – almost too much on occasions, but let’s not be ungrateful, seeing as we spend most of the autumn praying and doing snow dances. So here is the traditional photo for 2017. For comparison, you can check out previous years’ entries.
We’re at that stage of the season where in good years we’re already running on sleds. On bad years, we’re still a couple of weeks away. The latest we’ve had to wait was until 4 December, that was our first winter here and my reticence was partly because I was still sort of expecting groomed trails and a good base to hold a snow hook. After a few days of seeing teams running by on sleds, I came to accept that it was time for us too.
This year, not only have we not had any snow to speak of, but the 10 day forecast doesn’t show any on the way either. For us, and many others, that means many more miles on the 4 wheelers, running the same loops – on the upside, our teams are all getting plenty of practice at passing. The swamps are frozen, for the most part, and a few teams have apparently been utilising some of the trails on them, it provides a welcome change of scenery for those hardcore, long distance guys.
We’re not quite on that schedule, in fact, I’m a little behind where I’d like to be at this stage of the year. But, the dogs are looking good, and we’ve managed to find a couple of leaders among our young dogs. Taran is proving to be best of them, and I hope he will continue to shine. There is a lot of pressure on leaders, they are expected to set the pace, follow directions, ignore distractions and generally be the example that the rest of the team should follow. So far, he is doing all of those things – in fact he is a little too smart for his own good sometimes. He had figured out most of the turns we take and on occasion, started to turn the team before we actually reached the intersection. At least he came to realise that not every driveway was worth exploring ! He has also learnt that it usually is best to wait until we get to the corner, before taking it. Amongst the established group of leaders, the males Quiz, Kaz, Kalekh are proving to be good teachers, and the females, Rosie, Lily and Ruby, not so much. It seems the girls consider having youngsters beside them, beneath their dignity.
I started this entry about 3 weeks ago, when it seemed like winter was well on its way to us here and most of us were in full on panic mode trying to get everything organised before the snows arrived. The temperatures had dropped appreciably and we were seeing lows of 2F for several mornings and day time highs that never quite got above freezing.
Usually, it is nice to have all of the outdoor paraphernalia that has been scattered around and in use most of the summer, back in storage before it disappears under a blanket of white, or is frozen in place, and can only be removed with the aid of a pickaxe and some brute force. Planning ahead would be wonderful, having all of that done ahead of time seems sensible, but invariably, the list of other things needing done seems to take precedence and the tidying up bit is always last. Of course, training dogs is a high priority and as the distances increase, so the time spent on the trail obviously goes up too, which leads to less time to do those other things…….. aaah well, I’m sure they can wait till Spring.
With the onset of the cold, it also means the transition to souping the dogs, so that they can get plenty of fluids, as their buckets of water can no longer be trusted to stay liquid for very long. I tend to resist this stage a bit, I like them to have free access to water as long as is possible, which means we end up collecting a lot of ice cubes as each morning, we discard the frozen bucket contents and dish out fresh, warm water. This tends to keep getting done until it is so cold that by the time I’ve finished everyone’s buckets, the ones changed first have already started to freeze.
This is also when we change over from wood shavings in the dog houses to straw. That day is always greeted with much excitement by the dogs, even those who barely go in their houses most of the year, seem to like rolling around in them when they are filled with fresh straw. As I usually do this when the dogs are loose and playing around, I often end up with 2 or 3 dogs squeezed into one house as I try and get some more straw stuffed in it. Seems these dogs love trying to help, in their own special way.
Of course, a few days after rushing around doing all of this, it warmed up again, and we have had a spell of above freezing temperatures, easy water buckets for all, and dogs sunbathing on top of their houses, whilst that straw that was so beloved days ago, is now very much yesterday’s news. But it is Alaska, it is November, and some time soon, it will be cold, dark and snowy – and we will all love it.
Just in case anyone thinks that all that is involved in having a sled dog kennel is constant trips to the vet and the ability to function normally with a broken heart and tears rolling down your cheeks, I’d like to point out that, contrary to the apparent evidence of this blog, it actually isn’t just like that. It is like that sometimes, a bit too often, truth be told, the price of keeping all your dogs for their whole lives.
However, the real reason for having a sled dog kennel, is to run dogs. And with ending of summer and the beginning of autumn, the season for running draws ever closer. With our heavy coated dogs, we’ve had to watch as our neighbour took his team out in temperatures that would have had our guys frazzled and fried. Daily, we wait for the weather forecast and each morning, I wonder if today will finally be cool enough. Roughly speaking, our cut-off is 50F – and depending on the humidity, it might even need to be a little cooler than that. Our equipment is ready, all replaced after the Sockeye Fire destroyed everything, the 4 wheeler is fuelled and we’re just sitting, twiddling our thumbs and watching the thermometer. Until……………
Yep, a couple of weeks ago, we started training. That’s actually pretty good for us, I’ve seen seasons where we’ve not been out till pretty late in September, so to get out now is great. With all of the drama of last year, we actually hardly ran at all, so everyone basically had a year off = technically 16 months off, I guess. Plus new boy Niko hadn’t run at all and youngster Davaar was just a pup, so at 20 months old, he is getting a late start. Queen’s first litter only ran in early Fall training in 2014, – are you getting the feeling I’m laying the groundwork for a multitude of excuses as to why training hasn’t been the smoothest ?
Actually, that would be terribly unfair on the dogs. After everyone has had 8 runs, we’ve lost the sum total of 2 chewed necklines, which I consider perfectly acceptable, given the excitement levels at hook-up time. Plus, necklines are way cheaper to replace than just about every other piece of equipment !
Generally, I like a fairly calm team, enthusiastic but controlled. With so many youngsters on the team, we’ve got lots of enthusiasm and maybe just a little less control over that wildness. However, even in this short space of time, we’re already seeing the young dogs picking up on the cues of the older dogs in many areas – except when it comes to taking a break. We’ve also been trying to evaluate some of those younger guys with a view to finding new leaders. Happily, it seems like we have at least a couple of potential candidates and we’ll work with those dogs in the hope that we will find one, or more, trustworthy, reliable lead dog.
These first few runs are always interesting, there’s a lot to teach the dogs, even if that is just refreshing their memories, and reminding them of the good habits we’re all trying to develop . Any moments of unhappiness I had after one of these early runs was quickly dismissed as I was reminded by my wife that the last run I had, with the team I was wishfully comparing the current unruly mob with, actually led to them breaking my leg, so maybe these young guys weren’t quite so bad after all.
At the end of the day, we run dogs to have fun, and hopefully, the dogs have fun too. The love and bonds we build with them, lasts their entire lives, as all our dogs stay with us for all of their days. The retired guys who want to, move into the house and those who would still rather live outside, get regularly dragged indoors to see if they’ve changed their minds yet.
Boof seems to have taken to life as a retired house dog pretty well.
For all of the tears and hurt we feel when they pass, the joy, love and companionship they give us, far outweighs that pain.