Training and training

16 November 2016     11.00 AM   14 F   Overcast

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.

taraan-quiz
Water stop for the team in early training. Taran and Quiz in lead.

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.

taran-jul-16
Taran,  a rising star.  

 

That Time of Year

5 Nov 2016  12.00 PM     28 F   Snowing

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.

flat
One of those little problems that just adds to the time it takes to do anything. Never mind, it’s only flat at the bottom.

 

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.

cubes
A successful morning of ice cube farming.

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.

nov-snow
Just as I finished this entry, lo and behold, the snows have started.

And So It Begins

27 Sept 2016     2.00 PM         52F          Sunny

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 !

A misty morning, a quick water break
A misty morning, a quick water break

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.

Safely home, with Davaar learning how to be a leader by working with Kazek
Safely home, with Davaar learning how to be a leader by working with Kazek

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.

The wonderful Dawson
The wonderful Dawson
Powerhouses, Turov and Xaros
Powerhouses, Turov and Xaros
Youngsters (and brothers), Eris and Raasay
Youngsters (and brothers), Eris and Raasay

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.
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.

 

 

 

Goodbye Seven

6 Sept 2016        12.00 PM       57 F      Overcast

Gealach Mor Screamin' Seven   5 Sept 2003 ~ 2 Sept 2016
Gealach Mor Screamin’ Seven             5 Sept 2003 ~ 2 Sept 2016

On Friday, we lost Seven, following a prolonged battle with a hemangiosarcoma that had claimed her spleen in January, and was already spreading through her body then. Her diagnosis was not good and we were told to expect her to be unable to see out February, if she even lasted that long. Seven was always a determined little soul, and she, like her sister Fina , refused to bow down to cancer and both confounded and delighted us by bouncing back and being her usual, happy, shouty self all Spring and Summer. She had blips, she had her moments, but she never changed her happy outlook and she never stopped being a momma’s girl.

Through our tears, as we held her and said goodbye,  we mourned not just her loss, but the passing of a hugely saddening milestone for us. Seven was born in September 2003, as part of our very first litter, and all 8 pups stayed with us. They changed our lives and were truly special. As a litter, they were together from the moment they were born, until each one of them died. Their bond was incredible, their love for each other and for us has always been a yardstick  that we try to live up to.

Seven and her mum, Beth in Oct 2003
Seven and her mum, Beth in Oct 2003
Seven, second from left, huddled amongst all her brothers
The family portrait
The family portrait – taken during our 6 month stay in New Hampshire, when they were just 18 months old.

Seven was a fairly confident character, she always knew exactly what she wanted to happen and usually, that involved telling her brothers what she wanted them doing too. She wasn’t the best sled dog in the world, but when she put her mind to it, she proved that she could actually be astoundingly good. The fact that she chose not to, on occasion was a source of frustration, but her happy nature meant that she was always forgiven her misdemeanours.

Seven leading a small team with Ruya in Alaska Dec 2010.
Seven leading a small team with Ruya in Alaska Dec 2010.

Being a house dog suited her down to the ground. No more standing in dirt, or having to splash through puddles, she had her favourite beds, and enjoyed lording it over the other house dogs from her vantage point when she was up on the sofa. She loved cuddles from my wife, and she would accept them from me, she would lie for hours  in the Spring to be groomed when her winter coat was coming out, but she wasn’t so keen on you touching her feet and as for clipping claws, well………… let’s just say it didn’t happen often.

Seven shares her bed with her brother Takeo, Dec 2013
Seven shares her bed with her brother Takeo, Dec 2013

Goodbye dear, sweet Seven. May you find your rightful, restful place amongst your brothers and sister over the Rainbow Bridge. Take another little piece of our hearts with you to share with all the others who you are going to rejoin.

 

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” V Harrison

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye Echo

22 August 2016       1.00 PM    57 F       Raining

Echo of Seppala 27 April 2005 ~ 15 Aug 2016
Echo of Seppala                        27 April 2005 ~ 15 Aug 2016

It’s been a week since Echo died. It’s been a week of unhappy days and unsettled nights. His circle is empty, his house unused and as I feed and work with the other dogs in the Happy Crew, his space is a constant reminder of his absence. I have even topped up his water bucket a couple of times, force of habit or just flat out denial that he is gone.
It’s take me until now to write about him, to be able to see the words on the screen through the tears.
Echo came to us in May 2011, on my second trip to Seppala Kennels in Manitoba to bring home 5 dogs. Seemingly, on the spur of the moment, Jeff gifted Echo to me as I was preparing to leave on the long drive home.  As generous as the gesture was, standing next to this large white dog, who was perpetually on the move and had managed to turn his circle into what looked like a bottomless mudpit, and liked to coat himself liberally in the stuff, gave me cause to question his motives – for the briefest of moments  – before hastily putting Echo in the truck in case Jeff thought about changing his mind.

Echo of S May 2011
Echo on his way home to Alaska with me. Some of that Manitoba mud still clinging to him.

During the long drive home, Echo confirmed all my initial impressions of him. Large, strong, vociferous, huge appetite with a boisterous, ebullient personality. Over the years he has been with us, he was a fixture on our team because of all of those traits. His enthusiasm and drive was always evident, and he became a solid, reliable swing dog, backing up his leaders and driving the team forward.

Always ready to go
Always ready to go

Off the team, he was a much loved member of the “Happy Crew” and managed to devote much of his free time to digging large holes and appearing happiest when emerging from a deep cavern, covered in sand, his huge smile evident, and looking forward to inhaling any snacks you happened to have on you.

Echo always knew who had the snacks.
Echo always knew who had the snacks.

His diagnosis of round cell tumours, that seemed to spring up almost overnight, and multiply at any amazing rate, and defeat any treatments that our vets tried, caused him to become a shadow of himself. Our huge dog that never flinched from anything, became increasingly painful and body sensitive, refused food and was becoming ever weaker and thinner. We reached the point where it was apparent there was to be no recovery, no miracle and our love for Echo and his indomitable spirit was no match for his illness. Holding him close as he passed, we whispered calming words, and hoped that he could forgive us.

Run free Echo, may your paths be clear, may your snacks be endless and may your foodbowl always be filled.

That’s A Definite Maybe

15 August 2016    10.00 AM     63 F     Sunny and bright

There are probably two topics of conversation that take place here on an almost daily basis, that provoke angst and indecision. One of them is “what shall we have for dinner? ” and the other one is ” are we going to try and get a handler for this winter? ”

Thankfully, the first one, we normally manage to resolve by dinner-time. (Tonight apparently, we’re doing something with rockfish fillets, from my fishing trip last week.)
The second one, not so much.  In fact, it’s been an ongoing, unfinished discussion subject for several years. The last time we actually got as far as semi-seriously trying to recruit a handler was 2010. And even then, we didn’t try that hard.
For every upside, we can find a downside, for every advantage that a handler could bring, we can think of several disadvantages. We have known some really nice people that handled for friends and other kennels around here, and we’ve also heard some real horror stories about handlers – and in the interests of fairness, some pretty crappy treatment of them by a few kennel owners too.
It would be reasonable to say that we’re ambivalent, at best, about having a full-time handler but are teetering on the precipice of actually looking for one, nonetheless.
Of course, on top of our general doubts about having a handler, we also live in a small town that has numerous well-known racing kennels that advertise for handlers every year. I suppose the only thing in our favour would be that we’d be looking for someone who is sane and fairly normal, and not the kind of person that thinks running for a 100 miles at 40 below at 3 in the morning is an acceptable way to squander valuable sleeping time.

So, in the event that we actually seriously, or even semi-seriously start looking for a helper, our ad would go something like this.

We are looking for a handler to help us out in the kennel for this coming winter.

For those who don’t know us, we now live in Willow, Alaska, following our move from Scotland several years ago.
We are home to 49 Siberian Huskies/Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and 1 extremely efficient guard dog.
We are a mid-distance kennel, aiming primarily hopefully, at 200 and 300 mile races.

Handler’s duties would include assisting in feedings, which we do twice a day, scooping the yard, helping with hook up, assisting in dog care chores, running a team with 4 wheelers and a sled (obviously not at the same time) and pretty much anything else that needs doing.

Hours are variable and long, there’s no pay, and no union !
The work is pretty relentless, if the dogs are all sorted and happy, then something else probably needs doing. Chances are you will be cold, wet, too hot, dirty, scratched, smelly, bruised and exhausted at the end of the day. Ideally, you should be in reasonable physical condition (because I’m not and someone needs to be) – you will need to be able to carry 5 gallon buckets full of water, meat and kibble, and obviously buckets full of food going one way result in almost as full buckets of poop going the other way.
You won’t be asked to do anything we don’t do and you won’t be left to get on with things unattended except in the direst emergency.

We have some big, strong dogs, some upwards of 60 lbs, and you’d need to be confident that you can cope with walking those dogs around and also boosting them into the truck – we also have small, lighter girlies, so it’s not all powerlifting.

Alaska gets very short days in the depths of winter, around 5 hours of daylight and it gets cold ( we saw -35F for spells this winter and this was a mild year. )

If you have a driving licence that would be a benefit, and you will need to be ready to drive on snow and ice.

In exchange for signing away all your freedoms for your time with us, you will have accommodation in a separate modular home, complete with full kitchen and bathroom, central heating and a wood stove. In lieu of the pay you’re not getting, we’ll occasionally put some food in the pantry and if you’re really nice (and use the shower), we might even have you over for dinner sometimes.

We have trail access from our yard for both 4 wheeler and sled running. The trails from here go hundreds of miles in all directions.

Willow is home to the official Iditarod Restart, which takes place on Willow Lake, about 4 miles from us. There are around a dozen kennels in the immediate locale, as well as many others in the surrounding area.

If you would like to know more or have any further questions, please send us an email to gealachmor at aol.com (replacing at with the usual @)

7 Year Itch

12 August 2016        2.00  PM           65F    Overcast

As us old people are fond of saying, time flies by…  when you’re the driver of a train. Oh wait, that’s the Half Man, Half Biscuit song, but the premise remains the same. Somehow, in the blink of the proverbial eye, 7 years have passed since we first landed in Anchorage, Alaska, with a couple of pieces of luggage, stuffed to the brim, and beyond, with all the clothes and mushing gear we could carry. Our 16 dogs were sitting on the east coast, awaiting clearance from US Customs and onwards flights to us. Over the next couple of days, they made their way over to Alaska and we began this chapter of our lives.

The plan – and it’s a bit optimistic to call it a plan, was to live here till we decide we have had enough and then return to Scotland to live out our old age, or something. In the intervening period, we would enjoy life in Alaska, have some great experiences and get to run sled dogs in some of the most amazing areas around. Racing wasn’t, and still isn’t, a driving force behind the desire to be here or to run dogs. Just running sled dogs is an end unto itself. The joy, pleasure and privilege of being at one with your 4 legged team-mates is reason enough to keep exploring new trails, trying new training methods and learning new things. We have raced our team and almost certainly will do again, but it’s not why we’re here.

It’s fair to say that Alaska has given us lots of memories already. Most of them have been great but there are a few that we’d probably rather not have experienced. I could certainly forgo breaking my leg again whilst mushing and having our house burn down will not be something that is high on our list of “things to repeat”. Although, being able to tweak our original design (which we loved and it worked well, but the few changes seem to have been good choices)  and be part of the actual rebuild was a plus point.

ciobair 16
Ciobair supervises the big return. She was very happy to be back in her house.

The positives far outweigh those few negatives, and we are blessed to have the lives we have here. We’ve been able to have as many dogs as we would like, and that has given us the opportunity to acquire, work with and breed our much-loved Seppala Siberian Sleddogs. We’ve met some amazing people and made enduring friendships. And we’ve built a house, twice !

house 2010
The house (Mark 1)
house 2016
The house (Mark 2)
door
Our “famous” front door. Stained glass was designed by my wife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No-one knows what the future holds, but we’re certainly going to do all we can to enjoy it and make the most of our time here. Here’s to the next 7 years, to new memories, new challenges and a few less disasters.