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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite my best intentions, I have once again fallen behind in my blogging. Things have been a little hectic, with the Yukon Quest and Iditarod preparations in full swing right up until the proverbial last moment.
We’ve still been trying to get our dogs out and running, but the weather has not been at all co-operative. Most of the tail end of February and early March saw us suffer with rain, ice and temperatures rarely dropping below freezing even in the dead of night. This played havoc with the trails and the dogs – it’s not much fun trying to run in 35F in your fur coat when you’re happier at -20F. Despite this, we had been making a fair attempt at keeping them ticking over. By chance, a friend in Whitehorse suggested I come over for a visit and bring the dogs. There was a 100 mile race in the little town of Haines Junction, not far over the Canadian border and it is on the way to Jacob’s place. So, I decided to enter The Silver Sled 100 and duly completed my entry form, and started to pack the truck with everything needed to survive a week on the road in winter. At some point during that process, I realised that I am definitely an “err on the side of caution” type when it comes to packing stuff. For 6 days away, just me and 10 dogs, I had so much gear that I could barely get it it all in or on the truck. Thankfully, I didn’t need all of it – actually I didn’t need most of it, and I didn’t even bring some of it back – but more of that later……..
Early on the Friday morning, I roused the dogs -who were not unduly impressed at being asked to get up at that ungodly hour – loaded them and we set off on our big adventure. All my previous drives into Canada have been in the Spring/Summer time and the outbound leg has always been done without dogs. Fortunately, the mild winter meant that the road was clear and driving was easy. The dogs very quickly got into a good drop routine and around 10 PM, we pulled into our overnight accommodation, just outside Haines Junction.
With the morning’s dawn, dogs were fed and Jacob and I set off to find breakfast and then track down the location of the drivers’ meeting. Vet check completed, and only a little alarmed by the trail talk, we headed off to the start area and to get ready for the race. I will confess to being a bit panicky at this point. There’s something about a race start that brings added pressure and complications – even when I’m telling myself that this is just a training run. The fear of forgetting something vital or mandatory meant that the area around my truck looked like a bomb site – things were going in and out of the sled several times. Eventually, I calmed down and packed just what I needed, plus a couple of extra everythings and left most of my “rookie bulge” at the truck. Things were going swimmingly until one of the volunteers pointed out that there was no bib 14 and that bib 13 was just leaving – rather than having 6 minutes to go, I had less than 2. Let’s just say as we got to the start line, the starter was already waving me through as being late. Hardly an auspicious start and it got worse only 500 yards later when Rosie decided she didn’t want anything to do with the volunteers manning the road crossing and tried to take us anywhere except where we were meant to go. Mini excursion over, we were back on the trail, already hotly pursued by the next team out.
The next few miles were a bit of a blur, several more road crossings, several more avoiding the marshals by Rosie and being passed by a lot of teams as we struggled with the gradients, the heat and the disruptions. Eventually, I figured we had been passed by everyone who had left behind us and I could stop looking over my shoulder. As we climbed out of the trees and back into the sunshine, I had to remove my jacket it was so warm. A brief sojourn alongside the Trans Alaska Highway and then we turned back into the treed trail.
From then on, it was all uphill, apart from the few downhills, but they only led to more uphills, so they don’t really count. I have always loved the scenery on the drive from Haines Junction to Kluane Lake and one of the main reasons for doing this race was the chance to get to see that scenery much closer and without the distraction of driving. It sure is pretty but it seems a whole lot more mountainous on the back of a sled than it appeared whilst behind the wheel of my truck.
As hard as we were finding it, things got a little more complicated when Turov started limping. The heat made him want to dip for snow more and more and with the soft edges of the trail, it seemed likely he simply tweaked a wrist trying to get out to the sides. As much as I would liked to have him in the team for the long climbs ahead, it was simply not an option to risk further injury to him. So I had to clear some space in the sled and load the biggest dog I have and carry him the 15 miles or so to the finish line. Fortunately, he was as good as gold, he sat leaning against the sled stanchion and never stirred or wriggled. The others simply got on with their work and we just marched on.
After all the climbing, it was wonderful to begin the long descent down to the lake and to the overnight stop. The race organisers had volunteers drive our trucks up for those of us without handlers, it was great to be able to direct the dogs towards a familiar sight and to know that everything I needed to take care of them was at hand. A quick check of the dogs, who all seemed fine and they happily started gnawing on a meaty snack. Turov was still in the sled bag and seemed to be enjoying the attention he was garnering. The vet came over to check on him and made sure I knew where to find her, if required. Turov was a little stiff and sore, but ate and drank, and was tucked up into his box after an Algyval massage and the application of a wristwrap. The others all ate well and happily climbed into their boxes for a well deserved sleep.
The race organisers had done a wonderful job with the checkpoint, we had cabins to sleep in and they fed us an excellent dinner and a great breakfast in the morning. My catering for the dogs may not have been quite up to the high standards of Martine and her crew, but they did eat without complaint. In the morning, Turov was moving well, with no sign of his limp, but I decided it would be better for him to have the day off. As the slowest team from Day 1, we would be first out on Day 2. With one less dog in the team, I didn’t hold out much hope for any dramatic comeback, but I was a little wiser in packing my sled and dumped a lot of the gear that I would have no need for. The first couple of hours were a little cooler, until the sun burst through the clouds and the temperature soared. There almost seemed to be a visible slump from the dogs when they first felt those rays of sunshine hit them. And somehow, the trail that seemed all uphill on the way out, was also all uphill on the way back. At least we managed to keep contact with more of the teams for longer on the second day, but we still had a long solitary run for home.
It’s a mentally tough thing to be running last, but the dogs don’t care where we finish, they just want to run and go some place, any place. New places are great, after several winters of training on the same trails, we have finally broken away from my comfort zone and done new things. The dogs have had to travel, to sleep away from home, to be surrounded by other dog teams and to climb more hills than we have ever encountered.
As we crossed the finish line, I looked forward over the team and somehow felt we had forged a stronger bond. They had done everything I had asked of them, without complaint, without quitting and had to endure my loving hugs as well. It is always the leaders who are singled out for praise and special attention – and to some extent that is understandable. If they don’t go, none of us go. However, everyone needs to pull and be part of the team and it seems unfair to single out any one dog . However, I’m going to do that anyway. Kazek ran lead both days and for a large part of Day 2 he was the dog driving us forward. I rotated Rosie, Ruby and Quiz as running companions for him, but as they tired, they seemed happy to let him do all the work. Eventually, I promoted 3 year old Brooks to run beside him – her first time in lead and she rose to the challenge and ran shoulder to shoulder with him for the last 15 miles. Kazek was my MVP, but it was so heartening to see Brooks, whom we bred, taking such a big step up.
After the dogs were checked, fed, watered and cared for, I was happy to find that we had managed to take 30 minutes off the previous day’s run time and that I had finished in time to make the Banquet as well. Once again, the race organisers had laid on a wonderful dinner and had a slideshow of photographs taken during the race being projected onto a large screen as we ate and chatted.
The awards ceremony took place shortly afterwards and I was duly awarded a very nice Red Lantern for finishing last. Much to my surprise, I also picked up another prize, The Veterinarian’s Choice Award – I was genuinely shocked and incredibly moved to win this. We all love our dogs and try our very best to take care of them, and I know it is the influence of my friends Mike and Sue Ellis, and Joar, who constantly and consistently set a fine example of dog care for me, that have helped me learn so much about caring for my team.
I’d like to thank The Silver Sled Race in Haines Junction for a wonderful weekend, a fine competition and some great competitors, my buddy Jacob for persuading me to drive 1800 miles for a weekend away, my wife for keeping the rest of our crew cared for at home, but mostly I’d like to thank Kazek, Brooks, Quiz, Rosie, Echo, Ruby, Lily, Lightfoot, Turov and Xaros for being out there with me.
An apology or a greeting. Let’s be positive and say Happy New Year, welcome to 2015. Not too sure what exactly has happened to the days and weeks since I last managed to post anything – rest assured the lack of productivity on here has not been due to a lack of activity in the kennel or with our dogs – in fact the opposite is true.
As is traditional, let me share the New Year’s Day gate photo.
Looking back at previous years, this is not the lowest snow level on January 1 that we have experienced, but it certainly is close.
What have I been doing in the weeks since my last blog post ? Well, it can be summed up in just a few words – training dogs, caring for dogs and worrying about dogs. I set myself some goals in September
the rough plan was :
Do some camping/checkpoint training with the dogs. Succeeded – well, one camping/checkpoint thingie done, should have done more, will try to……………
Enter the Willow Relay Sled Race (with TJ of Cold Canyon Sled Dogs as the other team) run in late Dec. Entered – race was cancelled due to crappy snow conditions.
Enter the Knik 100 – run in early Jan Entered – race was delayed till Jan 31, then subsequently cancelled – yes, I am that unlucky.
Enter the Earl Norris Memorial Race – run in late Jan. Starts on saturday – I’m about to enter – still not too late for it to be cancelled !
Enter the Two Rivers 200 – run in mid March – unlikely to make this, besides every race I have entered since we moved to Alaska 5 years ago has been cancelled or moved. If the Two Rivers people want to send me a bribe to stay away, I’ll happily accept.
Have fun. Succeeded – more smiles than previous years, more miles on the dogs than previous years (many, many more miles)
The core group of running dogs, aka The Fabulous 14 have become The Terrific 13 – Tess decided that she wasn’t quite ready to make the commitment required to stay in the big group, so she got to start her summer holidays early. The Terrific 13 occasionally became The Troubling 12 and even dipped down to become The Alarmingly Low 11 for a short spell. However, those injuries seem to have cleared up and we are back to the full 13 as a training pool again.
Fingers crossed we get to keep enjoying the rest of the winter and that some more snow is on the way.
With all of the excitements of the winter ahead, with the plans we have to race and explore with our sled dogs, I thought it would be a good time to let you see some of the main running dogs.
We started training in September with a group of 30, which includes just about everybody in consideration for a spot on the “big team”. In early training, it’s so much easier to get multiple teams out with the distances being that much shorter. As we progress, the runs get longer and everything takes much more time to accomplish. Additionally, being an old fogey, there are only so many hours in a day I can cope with bending, harnessing and riding on an atv without my back grumbling to a greater or lesser degree. (and it’s usually greater)
So, the solution is to whittle down the team numbers. Sometimes, that’s quite easy – a few of the older dogs are more than happy to step aside when we start going further. Queen’s pups, at 18 months old have been doing a fantastic job, but are too young to be pushed and will benefit from continuing to work, but at a reduced level. So, the young and the old are sorted, the marginals are the hardest group to assess. Most of those, we know from previous years, like going out and doing a bit of work, but seem to be missing that willingness to push themselves – may be they are the smart ones! A few others just need a bit of additional time and effort to feel more relaxed and become part of the team.
Both of the races that we’re entered in, in late December and early January are 10 dog teams. With that in mind, I’ve decided to go with a main training pool of 14. It’s big enough that it gives me a bit of a cushion, and it’s also about the maximum number of dogs I’m comfortable running on a 4 wheeler.
By now, blogs by myself and other mushers should be full of training stories and possible complaints about the early onset of winter, about the bitter cold and hard trails. But they’re not. And our complaints are all about the late/non-arrival of winter.
For us during our formative years in the sport, early season training has always been done in the rain and mud. Especially at Aberfoyle, a good training site in Scotland that seems to have it’s very own weather system that meant no matter how nice it was 10 miles down the road – by the time you reached the forest, it was raining. The dogs don’t really seem to care one way or the other, as long as they get to run, but I definitely did care. Days where we managed a dry run, and I didn’t have squelchy toes and water dripping down the back of my neck were celebrated like a lottery win.
Moving to Alaska was supposed to be the end of running in mud and rain. In every story I’ve ever read, no-one has ever mentioned the harsh reality that actually, Fall training here is just about as bad here as it is every where else. You want to train in late August or September, you’d better be ready for rain. With that being said, one just has to grin and bear it, or just mutter and moan.
However, by October, one feels the worst of the the mud should be a fading memory and that by this stage, we should be layering up and watching the occasional snowflake dust the ground. Sadly, not the case. If I wanted to run in rain and mud in November, I could have stayed on the other side of the pond.