Forward Focus

23 June 2011                6.00 PM             72 F      Blue skies and sunny

Hard on the heels of the trip to and from Manitoba, I was already planning another departure from home. Fully sanctioned and supported by “the management”, of course. In fact, when I first raised the proposed trip, she thought I was intending getting home on the Saturday and leaving again the very next day, after dropping off the 6 new dogs and loading some of ours for the weekend.

Yes, I am indeed completely aware of how wonderful and understanding she is.

Anyway, it was not such a quick turnaround, I was home for over a week. Enough time to get the new dogs settled into their routine and become familiarised with their surroundings, enough time to wash my socks and enough time to change the list of dogs going with me about 8 times.

I was heading north, destination Crazy Dog Kennels, for a mushing clinic. By happy coincidence, this enabled me to finally do something I’ve been wanting to do since we got to Alaska, namely drive the Denali Highway – or at least, a large part of it.

Bright and early, we loaded the 7 dogs who had made the shortlist for a variety of reasons. A couple of dogs that had specific issues I wanted to work on, a couple that needed the exposure and experience and a couple of dogs that I figured would require very little attention and would just get on with their work, leaving us free to concentrate on the others. Even just packing for this short trip away, made me appreciate how lucky we are that we can train from home all year round. Maybe if we did have to truck to train, I might be a bit better prepared, but it seemed quite a complicated procedure just getting me ready. Fortunately, my wife is super-organised and a maker of great lists. So, despite all the last minute running around, it turns out, I didn’t forget anything I needed. However I had packed a lot I didn’t need – still, better over than under prepared.

A couple of hours later I pulled into Cantwell, refilled the dogtruck’s seemingly insatiable fuel tank and turned onto the Denali Highway. I feel honour bound to point out that the use of the word Highway, to describe the road, is more than a little optimistic, especially for us non Alaskans. The tarmac finishes only a couple of miles outside of Cantwell and the road is basically dirt and gravel the rest of the way. It’s been very dry and as a result, the surface was extremely dusty, resulting in plumes of blinding grit marking the passage of vehicles.

The Milepost, the authority on almost every possible road trip in the north lands, says that 30 mph is a reasonable average speed to achieve. The Highways Department has a posted 45 mph limit. Take my word for it, The Milepost’s figure is closer to being attainable than the posted limit.

It was only 90 miles from Cantwell to my destination on the McLaren River. In the manner of most guys, I had read and duly ignored that 30 mph advisory in The Milepost, considering them to likely err on the side of sensible achievability, especially as their main target audience are driving RVs and figured that surely I could make better time than that. Well, I did.

But not a whole lot better. That road was interesting, the scenery spectacular – it is one of the Top 5 Scenic Drives in the country, after all, but it certainly requires you to pay a degree of attention to the road surface. It’s quite a sensation to feel a 10 000 lb truck squirrelling round under you not exactly going where it is pointed. I did back off the throttle a little, figuring the dogs would probably appreciate that greatly and I did want to get there with the trailer still attached to the truck and my atv still safely secured inside the trailer.

McLaren River Lodge in the distance
McLaren River Lodge and Crazy Dog Kennels

Finally, I crested a rise and could see my destination in the distance. It was with a degree of trepidation and anticipatory excitement that I pulled into John and Zoya’s dogyard,  unsure of what the next few days would hold but sure that they would be crammed full of information, learning and practice.

Once my dogs were dropped, snacked, watered and settled, I headed down to the main cabin for coffee and the first of many hours of sled dog talk. Topics we discussed ranged from the simple to the complicated, but John was always willing to explain and clarify, usually with a practical application of the queried point, which greatly helped me understand the rationale and reasoning behind his thought processes.

Later that first evening, John hooked up a team of his dogs, and we set off for a 6 mile run. He used this team to illustrate some of the points discussed earlier in the afternoon and deliberately selected dogs for this run who move in just about every variety of gait there is. Finally, he declared us done for the day and I headed back to my cabin to write up my notes whilst they were still fresh in my mind.

My dogs on the truck
Our home for the next 3 days.

Bright and early next morning, it was the turn of my dogs to show what they could do. Getting my excuses in quickly, the previous evening, I had mentioned several times that most of the dogs with me hadn’t run much at all since February, and the couple that had run into March/April had really only just been harness broken and hadn’t gone very far. John had reassured me that it would all be fine and that the dogs are more than capable of dealing with whatever we would throw at them.

So, I packed bowls and water into the atv and set about hooking up my team. Being sensible, I went with my calm, reliable, leader girlies, Ruby and Avery. Swing dogs were Teague and Quiz, both have run lead and know what is expected of them. Rimini ran single team – he’s young and can get a bit wild, and that left Friddy and Kazek at wheel.

The dogs were, understandably, a little bit excited to go – I believe that could be called an understatement. Pleasingly, they refrained from any type of hooligan behaviour and we got off onto the trail without mishap. In this case, the trail happened to be the Denali Highway. It is easy to see the advantage of living in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt road.

We had only gone a few hundred yards when I felt John lean forward and ask me why “that dog” was running wheel, pointing at Kazek. I explained that Kaz was an inexperienced 2 year old we had just got the previous winter,  and I had only harness broken him this Spring. He had only ever run in front of a sled, and only a few of those before break up. Babbling on, I said he was here for experience…………  John said – that dog wants to lead.

And sure enough, when we stopped and switched the dogs around, Kazek set off in lead as if he had done it a hundred times and pretty much stayed up there for the rest of that training run and the 2 other runs done at the clinic. He and Ruby led the team through rivers, past campers and even accomplished a “come-haw”.

After the run, it was time to take care of the dogs and once they had been fed, watered and were on their picket line, it was time for a late people breakfast and more hours of sled dog talk. For me, the dogs are the reason we do this, and it is working with those 6, 8, 10 or 12 individuals that make it such a pleasure and challenge. To find out that John’s philosophy is “to let the dogs be dogs” was a real pleasure, in a sport where some people seem to feel the dogs are nothing more than cogs in a machine.

That afternoon, we took some dogs for a walk, several of John’s dogs ran loose and we had Friddy and Kaz on leads. It’s a great way to spend time with the dogs and helps reinforce the bond we have. It also helped me discover that Friddy loves water, so much so, that I suspect he could possibly be part otter and I now know that the McLaren River is exceedingly cold.

With time passing incredibly quickly, the volume of information coming my way was far more than my previously admitted, poor memory, could reasonably be expected to hold for any length of time. I took full advantage of the short breaks to write up my notebook and take note of any queries that writing them down had brought to the fore again.

Later that evening, it was time to run the dogs again. This time, as well as all the other things we were working on or looking at, I would have the challenge of dealing with passing another team. This has been an issue for us in the past and was something I had specifically mentioned as an area requiring attention. Training at home had not helped much – it seems our dogs know they’re not supposed to visit passing teams and when that other team is made up of their kennel mates, they can and do ignore them. Unfortunately, they seem to find passing strangers much more interesting and just can not resist the temptation to check them out.

Needless to say, that is exactly what happened. However, having 3 people working with 2 teams gives us two leggers the advantage and we were able to show the dogs what we wanted from them in this situation. The second pass went a bit smoother and by the third time, Teague (no surprise) was the only dog seemingly concerned about where the other team were on the trail. A hesitant but non-tangle head on pass and a further couple of overtakes seemed to reinforce the wanted behaviour in the dogs or maybe they just decided that other teams are boring and not worth bothering with, after all.

They trotted home in good style, their second 6 mile run of the day completed. Tired and hungry, but enough about me, the dogs too wanted their meal and a rest. John’s parting words – tomorrow at 8.00, be ready…………..

Rimi and Ruby lead the team home
Rimi and Ruby led us home

The next morning, as I harnessed the screaming dogs, John appeared and remarked that he had wondered whether the dogs would be as keen to go this morning, after 2 runs the previous day, given that I had been emphasising how little they had done, prior to coming here. The fact that we had to yell at each other to carry on that conversation seemed to indicate that the dogs were indeed ready and more than willing.

This time, Zoya took a team out comprising of some of her nice, calm race dogs so we could do more passing work. That didn’t quite go according to plan ( eh, Hunter !) but it certainly taught my guys a lesson they seemed to absorb very well. The second time Zoya’s team came up behind us, the dogs gave her such a wide berth, you could have driven an 18 wheeler between the teams. Far from wanting to visit, most of my dogs completely ignored the other team and the only ones who did give any indication they knew that there were other dogs around, were pointedly turning their heads away.

A successful head on pass, and another couple of smooth overtakes left me grinning like a fool and mentally raving about how wonderful Ruby and Kaz are. To be honest, as the team trotted back to the truck, finishing their third 6 mile training run in a day and a half, I had to swallow a large emotional lump as I came to the realisation that I have completely and utterly underestimated the level of ability of the dogs we have.

Back at the cabin, I unhooked, watered and then fed the dogs, and told them all how awesome they were. If John had offered to sell me that cabin at that point, he would have had a new neighbour before his words were caught by the wind.

Over coffee, we went over the training runs, and he answered more of my questions, showed me more useful tips, shared more of his experiences and passed on more advice.

Finally, it was time to load up and head for home. I have a notebook full of notes, a head full of memories and a heart full of love for my dogs.

Thanks to John and Zoya for a memorable mushing clinic. I’ve heard there is likely to be another clinic held in the Fall. Looking at my yard, I’m sure I could find enough dogs who would benefit from going again to justify making the trip.

Thanks to Avery, Friddy, Kaz, Quiz, Rimi, Ruby and Teague for being there and for being awesome and most importantly, for not screaming all night in the truck like I feared they might. Ruby gets double thanks for being an outstanding lead dog.

Special thanks to my wife for everything. Without you, none of this would be possible.

Sunset on the McLaren Glacier at midnight
The sun setting at midnight over McLaren Glacier
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