The Great Boot Debacle

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18 May 2015     4.00 PM    69 F    Sunny and hot

It might seem a little strange, on the face of it, to find yourself contemplating the qualities of winter boots on the warmest day of the year so far. Actually, I can already feel the sweat building up between my toes, just at the thought of trying them on.

Fortunately, I won’t have to put any of them on. Because they are all headed for the bin.  I’m not having a complete brain melt – although it is warm enough, but am actually, finally, being brave enough to discard a collection of boots that have failed me, in a variety of ways.

As you can imagine, like most sensible people, I quite like having warm feet. At a push, I’ll even accept cooler than I’d like, feet. I’m not terribly impressed by cold feet and I’m terrified of frozen, frostbitten feet and toes. Not that I’m thrilled by the prospect of having any frostbitten parts, just in case you think that’s open to debate. Accordingly, over the years, I have spent quite a lot of time and money on many different boots. Some have been terrible, some have been decent-ish, some have been good and one or two have even been pretty warm. Of course, the ambient temperature has a whole lot to do with that. What seems fine at 0 F ( a mere -17C) has proven to be surprisingly disappointing at -30 F.

However, the pile of boots heading out the door are all being chucked for one reason. It is a failing they all share, and it’s something that makes a winter boot, less than ideal for it’s purpose.

Boots not up to the tasks.

Boots not up to the tasks.

As you can see from the picture, they have all split which kind of defeats the purpose of an item meant to keep cold and damp out. The top two pairs, the Sorel and Baffin boots were proper winter pacboots.  I had a pair of Sorels in previous years that were pretty good. This pair lasted less than 3 months before starting to split along the seam where the leather meets the rubber, and also across the actual rubber base. The Baffin boots at least lasted the whole season before they decided to split in almost exactly the same spot. I guess I must just use my feet in a peculiar way. Presumably the boot designers don’t bend their feet when they move.

The Boggs fared a little better, and lasted almost a year before starting to leak, strangely enough in the same place as the Sorel and Baffin.  Now I’m really beginning to wonder about the way I walk. Lastly, the Keen boots. They did survive longer than the other 3 pairs and they also got worn a whole lot more than the others. In fact, for a large part of our sledding this winter, because it was so mild (relatively speaking) I wore my Keens and pair of Neos and my feet were pleasantly comfortable, as well as being better supported than when I wear my other usual winter footwear combo of mukluks and Neos.  I guess how disappointed I am in the big boot manufacturers quality is testament to  the fact that I have a pair of Steger Mukluks that are well over 10 years old and still in great shape and doing what is required of them.

I really like my mukluks, but they do have a couple of drawbacks.  They’re not great in wet stuff and the soft sole is wonderful and comfortable to wear right up till the moment that you forget you’re wearing them and try and kick a snowhook into the ice. Using the Neos as overboots solves both of those issues and really just leaves the one design flaw. Me and my weak ankle.

So, I did chuck out all of the damaged boots and I’m currently cursing my latest pair of rubber boots.  As you can imagine, we get quite a bit of water, mud and snow around here at various times. Everybody owns at least one pair of rubber boots, and here in Alaska those tend to be Xtratufs. Just to be difficult, I stuck with what I knew from back home, and bought Muckboots. Hmm, well despite the hefty price tag, they really didn’t last that long before springing a leak. They were replaced with the Boggs mentioned above as well as a pair of Ranger boots. When those gave up the ghost, I bought a pair of Lacrosse insulated rubber boots and they did really well all autumn but just yesterday, I noticed this………………. I suppose a generous application of duck tape will keep them going just now, but suspect that they are on their last legs.

My funny feet curse strikes again. Another pair of boots die.

My funny feet curse strikes again. Another pair of boots suffer a mortal wound.

Whilst doing a bit of reading as I try to decide which pair of boots to replace those with, I found that I’m not the only one with troubles. And it also seems that the fabled Xtratufs are maybe not so superior any more either.

So, who knows what I will buy next. Somehow, I suspect that unless I can stop walking at all, I’m going to be replacing boots on an annual basis -which just seems crazy. Therefore, if any boot manufacturer is looking to conduct field trials on the sustainability of their new boots, I hereby offer my services as a test subject.

Silver Linings

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10 May 2015    1.00PM       62 F   Cloudy

It’s May already.  The last of our snow has just gone, it was clinging on stubbornly in a few sheltered spots out in the trees, but otherwise we have transitioned from winter, through break up into Spring.

The Serum Run trip I was supposed to be on, was this year’s cunning plan to avoid having to deal with break up. With my damaged knee being the reason for missing out on the trip, I was able to safely skip the worst of the mud and water due to being housebound because of that injury. Silver linings and all that !

Normally, I would have felt terrible at the prospect of my wife having to deal with all of the dogs and the thaw on her ownsome. But this year I didn’t feel so bad.  Not because I’m a horrible person but because she actually had help.  Her brother and his girlfriend had already arranged to fly over from the UK and spend the 4 weeks I was supposed to be away, with her here in Willow. Robert’s a very handy guy to know, not only is he a qualified general contractor, but he’s also real problem solver and hates sitting about doing nothing. So, he got stuck into the daily dogcare routine, and he also tackled my ever growing list of projects that I dream up and never quite get round to starting, never mind completing.

First, he had to find all the sump pumps and hoses that got put away somewhere safe last Spring and haven’t been seen since. Then it was a game to work out which ones still worked and which ones should have been thrown away. Next step is unravel the spaghetti tangle of the multiple hoses that somehow managed to have melded into one giant knot. Honest, I very carefully laid them out individually when I finished with them last year. Maybe. Oh, and I might have forgotten to mention to him that one or two of the hoses had been squished and had greatly reduced flow through the pinch point – which greatly irritates me and leads me to throwing them in jumbled pile in the corner- or cutting them up to make bucket handles. And then the fun task of placing the pumps in a good spot to get lots of water, but not where they, the hoses or the power cords can be reached by any of the dogs.  It usually involves moving dogs around, and then taking all the equipment out of the pen each afternoon when the dogs get their free run time. I’m assuming all went well, I haven’t seen any chewed stuff and I never heard too many complaints, other than how wet and muddy it was.

After wrestling with that task, I’m sure Robert was happier when he got the chance to turn his attention to actually building stuff. In his time here, he built 12 dogs houses, 7 decks, a dog apartment complex and best of all, he renovated our “dog room”.

The dog room is in our workshop and was intended to be an unheated indoor space for our original dogs to continue their loose living habits that they were used to when we lived in the UK. Those dogs were very well behaved and the dog room survived untouched for the first couple of years.  However, the inclusion of some of our younger American bought dogs soon changed that. Ciara was definitely the main culprit – well, at least she was the one that I continually caught, eating the walls ! It’s a pretty fair bet that she wasn’t alone in the practice – some of the holes were way out of her reach – so it would appear that she had accomplices, much taller accomplices, in the vandalism.  I had the thought to redo the walls with GRP panels. Enquiries at various hardware stores merely resulted in puzzled looks – apparently the stuff I was looking for is actually FRP  – oh so close, just the one letter out. Even with the proper name, I wasn’t able to track down a supply locally – and by locally, I mean within 50 miles.  However, I knew a neighbour had used the stuff in his own dog barn so I asked him where he got his from. Turned out he had lots of panels left over and we worked out a very reasonable trade and Robert was now able to complete the transformation, from badly abused space to super clean, functional dog room again.

Entire lower half of the room is clad in FRP, same for the doggie apartment complex.  Tough and easy to clean.

Entire lower half of the room is clad in FRP, same for the doggie apartment complex. Tough and easy to clean.

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Yuri inspecting the second batch of new dog houses.They all passed the sniff test and most of them were christened by him.

 

The new decks getting put in place. Zury and Jak seem to have got the idea.

The new decks getting put in place. Boof, Zury and Jak seem to have got the idea.

April’s Birthdays

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27 April 2015   2.00 PM     56 F      Cloudy

It’s not always that easy to remember birthdays. I always remember my sister’s, but as it is on the same day as mine, it’s maybe not that great a feat. I also always remember my wife’s – she may not get a present, but I always know which day she’s not getting the present on.

That lengthy ramble leads me to today’s post in celebration of Echo’s birthday. He turns 10 today and the Serum Run trip that I wrote about last week was supposed to be his big swansong before enjoying a long retiral. However, a couple of things may delay that retiral. The main ones are that Echo shows absolutely no signs of slowing down or any indication that he has lost any of his drive or desire. He is, without doubt, our strongest dog, our most enthusiastic eater and a phenomenal worker. He has so much energy that he positively vibrates at times. So, happy birthday Echo – enjoy your special snack today – yet another reason to celebrate teaching him not to snatch snacks and fingers during our training runs.  Thanks to Jeff and Susan for gift of Echo.

The Birthday Boy, Echo at 10 years old.

The Birthday Boy, Echo at 10 years old.

Of course, Echo is not the only dog having his birthday this month, so a quick shout out to the other 5 dogs that also celebrated turning another year older – or more accurately they celebrated getting a frozen herring – I’m fairly sure they had no idea why.april birthdays1

Fionn and Ciara both turned 6 on 14 April, Oscar also had his birthday on that day. He became an old man of 11. Oak turned 7 on the 15th and Ruya was 8 on the 25th.

A Sair Yin

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18 April 2015   3.00 PM     52 F   Overcast

Usually about this time of year, I sit back and reflect on how our season went, how much fun we had and whether we got close to the goals that were set all those months ago. However, if everything had gone according to plan, I wouldn’t actually be sitting here at all – because I should still be out on the trail, somewhere between Nenana and Nome.

Like many of my great adventures, this one was born out of idle conversation around the dinner table. I’m beginning to think I either need to stop eating dinner, stop talking at meal times or just not have such a supportive wife. I’ve long expressed a liking for the idea of travelling a great distance with my dog team. I should stress at this point that “liking the idea” of it and actually doing it are two very different things.  The idea always seems so much easier when discussed around a table with beer and a fire, rather than the reality of being lost, cold and hungry. I’m pretty sure when Meatloaf sang 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, he wasn’t referring to those kind of options. As we sat around (friends and neighbours, not Meatloaf) and discussed the coming winter, the subject drifted around to the Serum Run. The Serum Run refers to a mercy mission to bring diphtheria anti-toxin to the City of Nome in the winter of 1925 to prevent a catastrophic outbreak of the disease. As it was winter, there was no way of getting the medicine to Nome, other than by dog team. But the usual time scale for the mail sleds making the trip was several weeks – and the Nome doctor was adamant that he could not possibly wait that long. In the end, a group of 20 dog drivers managed to get the serum from Nenana to Nome, a distance of 675 miles in just 5 and a half days, through the worst of a terrible Alaskan winter. If you want to read the whole story, I recommend The Cruellest Miles By G & L Salisbury

In 1997, the late Col Norman Vaughan organised the first Serum Run 25, to commemorate the original dog drivers, to teach the importance of wellness and health to local communities and the value of working together. Over the intervening years, the Serum Run ran annually, and then latterly every second year. 2011 was the last time the Run took place. As 2015 is the 90th anniversary of the original run, there was some talk of an effort to resurrect the SR and to keep its memory alive. Sadly, this didn’t come to fruition, but the remnants of that conversation ended up bouncing around our dinner table on that fateful night.

One of the great advantages of Serum Run is that it is not a race, but an expedition. It was always structured around visiting as many communities on the trail as possible and so it seemed an ideal trip for me and my dogs. I was also thrilled at the thought of our dogs, who had ancestors on the 1925 run, following in their footsteps.

The logistics involved in organising such an event are quite daunting – but fortunately, one of the parties involved in our dinner happens to do such things almost every year. She runs an organisation that utilises her sled dogs as part of an adventure learning curriculum for schools, using long trans Arctic expeditions to generate interest in science, the environment and awareness of other cultures.

And so, over the course of a few weeks, the bones of a trip were laid out and we set about getting ready for winter, with one eye very firmly on a start date at the end of March. This of course explains why we were so much more structured in our training this winter, why I actually continued to take the team out when conditions were such that normally I would have opted for coffee and cake instead. It was interesting to be a part of, to get some small idea of the demands that preparing for races entails. I thoroughly enjoyed the longer training runs, the extra dog care required and trying to work out a suitable feeding/snack schedule. Not so sure that my wife was so enamoured with all the additional chores she got lumbered with, due to my increased hours on the trail.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that where a winter filled with plenty of snow would have been ideal, we barely got any. There was a lot of running done on very hard, icy trails and the snow depth was depressingly low. I believe this year’s snowpack was one of the lowest on record. It did work to our advantage in one respect. The Iditarod race had to move their start from Willow up to Fairbanks – meaning they were running on exactly the same trail we were planning on using just a couple of weeks later. This guaranteed us a fairly obvious trail to follow.

As the middle of March loomed, final preparations were getting made and we were still attempting to keep the dogs running and in tune. The conditions on the main trail systems were actually holding up fairly well, my biggest problem was the couple of miles to get onto those trails – exposed to bright sunshine, they continually thawed each day and then refroze at night, leaving us with a pretty hair-raising ride on glare ice with fresh dogs. And then it sadly all came crashing (literally) to an end for me.

Whilst out running with a small team of 8 dogs, I missed my intended turn, and tried to remedy the situation by getting the dogs to take the next turn, which unfortunately was already behind us and at a 120 degree angle. I managed to get the team onto my desired trail, but obviously it wasn’t their desired one. Somehow, I ended up under the sled , with my foot trapped by the runner and the gangline twisting my leg in the opposite direction, as the dogs attempted to continue in their original travel direction.The loud pop from my knee and the subsequent pain indicated that all might not be well. Eventually, I manged to extricate myself, sort the dogs out and get the sled upright. 15 miles from home and doing my best to steer a sled with one leg, it was a rather interesting run home. The only thought that was going through my head was that I was supposed to be going on the Serum Run trip in 10 days. By the time I got home and started to put dogs away, I faced the fact that a. I couldn’t actually stand or bend my knee and b. it was highly unlikely I was going on the trip.

The official medical diagnosis was an avulsion fracture of my fibula. It seems that I won’t need surgery and now, 5 weeks later, I am fairly mobile and my knee brace seems to be providing plenty of moral and physical support.

A few weeks of daytime tv helps everything heal faster.

A few weeks of daytime tv helps everything heal faster.

However, as I suspected, there was just no way that I was going to be able to drive a sled for 700 miles with just 10 days of healing. And so, with a very heavy heart, I watched as my friends made their final preparations, packed the last of their supplies and a few days later than originally planned, loaded up the dogs and set off.

Getting ready to leave Willow, the intrepid dog drivers, Cole,Miriam, Tima and Joar.

Getting ready to leave Willow, the intrepid dog drivers, Cole,Miriam, Tima and Joar.

The plan had been to run the dogs from Nenana to Nome, following in the paw prints of the original Serum Run. However, the low snow and mild winter meant that it just wasn’t practical to leave from Nenana this late in the season. Accordingly, the gang drove as far as Manley Hot Springs  in the truck, before unloading everything and then setting up their sleds and teams.

Ready for the off.

Ready for the off.

I’ve been tracking their trip, via a two way GPS Communicator, and the occasional phone call. They phoned on my birthday from the trail and all sounded very happy. Today, they left Koyuk and have travelled to Elim, which leaves them with just around 125 miles to go before they arrive at their destination of Nome. Trail conditions have been good, colder than expected, but not anything like as cold as experienced by the racers on the Iditarod. It sounds by all accounts to have been a wonderful trip so far, the dogs have all been doing well, and there have been no nasty surprises. All in all, it seems like it would have been everything I was hoping it would be, and would doubtless have helped greatly broaden my experience in long distance dog driving and dog care.

Meet The New Guy

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12 April 2015.   3.00PM.   42F    Slight clouds and sunshine

As mentioned in The Timmies, Part 2 post, we were delighted to welcome a new, young pup into our lives. Davaar joined us from Grizzly Valley Kennel and is one more bond in a friendship formed through our mutual association with JJ Bragg and Seppala Kennels.

Davaar got his name from a small tidal island close to Campbeltown, on the west coast of Scotland. It fits nicely with the themed names (Scottish islands) we had for Queen’s litter of pups a couple of years ago and purely coincidentally, continues the unintended pattern of all of our SSSD pups being named after places.

heading home newpup march 15

With a “what the heck just happened” look, Davaar sets off on his journey to Alaska

He was an absolute star on the whole trip home, made very little fuss and even managed to eat and drink at our stops – and almost as importantly (for the sake of my nice leather interior,) he seemed to time his toilet requirements perfectly too.

His introduction to the house dogs was done gradually – even though everyone loves a puppy, sometimes things can get a bit boisterous and we didn’t want any accidents or shenanigans. It goes without saying that first to greet the pup and to establish a relationship with him was Ciobair.  She relishes her role as guardian, of us, the property and all her 4 legged subjects. For all that she has a fierce demeanour when required, she remains the most wonderful babysitter and “aunt” to every pup we have had here. And young Davaar is just her latest project.

About as far away from him as she has been since he arrived. Ciobair on duty.

About as far away from him as she has been since he arrived. Ciobair on duty.

Over the next few days, he got to meet the rest of the house dogs and we have had a couple of “meetings” with one or two of them about boundaries, puppy toys, not teaching him to run across the furniture and just how boisterous the wrestling is allowed to be. He has also been out and wandered around with Ciara and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that she has no eyes.

What is it and does it squeak ?

What is it and does it squeak ?     Seven,Wink and Ruya check out the new guy.

In time, he will move out and become a running dog, and live outdoors with the big dogs, but for the next few weeks and months, he gets to be a puppy, a house dog and to learn everything good and nothing bad.

The only way to keep his toys safe.  Behind bars !

The only way to keep his toys safe. Behind bars !

Getting bigger. He can now climb up onto our bed.

Getting bigger. He can now climb up onto our bed.

As many of you who know us are aware, we’re devoted to the Seppala, and our kennel reflects that. The majority of our dogs are Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and that is just one of the many reasons that we were so pleased to acquire Davaar.  Over and above his delightful personality, his happy demeanour and his slightly scary level of smarts, he brings us the opportunity of much increased genetic diversity, as his mother is a full Chukchi dog.

The Seppala Siberian Sleddog was recognised in 1997 as an evolving breed by the Dept of Agriculture in Canada, with WCAC established by JJ Bragg of Seppala Kennels to operate as the Registry for the breed. Simply put, the SSSD is perhaps easiest described as having its roots with Markovo Seppala Siberians combined with native Chukchi dogs.  In 2010, JJB closed down what had become known as the SSSD Project but continued to operate Seppala Kennels purely for the love of the dogs. He made a number of dogs available and as a result, several other kennels, including ourselves, were able to acquire breeding stock and to try and continue the original hopes and aims of The Project.  With the subsequent closure of WCAC, there is no Registry for these dogs and yet, without exception, the kennels with SSSDs have continued to breed and operate within the spirit and goals of the original concept. “The goal and ideal is the restoration of the original Siberian sleddog to whatever extent that may be possible today, using the McFaul/Shearer bloodline broadened and restored to genetic health by the addition of new Siberia import bloodlines. The Project ideal is a versatile sleddog rather than a specialist racing dog. Assortative mating is emphasised, inbreeding is deprecated and will be kept as low as feasible, while many different sleddog traits are considered rather than speed and endurance only.” Seppala Siberan Sleddog Project.

 

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