6, 745 Miles

12 Feb 2017    10.00 AM     -17F   Clear and sunny

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.

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The road stretches ahead far into the distance

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.
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Only 975 miles until the next turn !

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.

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Feeding the dogs somewhere in the Yukon.

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.

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Northern Lights dance above the dog truck during a stop at Summit Lake.

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.

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Argus doesn’t seem to be fazed by the gusting wind and blowing snow

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.

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Some of the new dogs getting settled in.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

A Sair Yin

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.

An Update

29 January 2015        10.30 PM    -4 F         Dark

So, where should I start ?

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.

New Yer's Day Jan 2015. Not exactly stellar snow fall this winter.
New Year’s Day Jan 2015.
Not exactly stellar snow fall this winter.

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 :

  1.  Do some camping/checkpoint training with the dogs.  Succeeded – well, one camping/checkpoint thingie done, should have done more, will try to……………
  2.  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.
  3. Enter the Knik 100  – run in early Jan Entered – race was delayed till Jan 31,  then subsequently cancelled – yes, I am that unlucky.
  4. 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 !
  5. 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. 
  6. Have fun.  Succeeded – more smiles than previous years, more miles on the dogs than previous years  (many, many more miles)
    "camping" at the truck. Most of them got the idea and rested.
    “camping” at the truck. Most of them got the idea and rested.

    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.

Hook ‘Em Up

18 September 2014 3.00 PM 53 F Raining (again)

Hard to believe that more than a month has gone by since my last post.

Some of what was targeted has been achieved. We did indeed snaffle some of the potato harvest,  the new part of the dog yard has been successfully fenced and is getting the final security precautions put on place – to prevent unwanted exits more than undesirable entrances.  Although after a bear took a wander through our property last week, I was very happy all our dogs were on the other side of the fence and very pleased that Mr Bear had read our new gate sign and respected our wishes.sign

The website update took rather a lot longer than anticipated. But, it is more or less done, and will (hopefully) be kept a little more current than it previously was. At least now, all our dogs are featured and you can see them in all their wonderful loveliness.

The mechanical gremlins are well on their way to being banished. The Rhino finally got to the Yamaha dealer, thanks to Big Lake House of Yamaha for coming to pick it up and the trailer is still in pieces but repairs are in hand (according to my man, Lev).

With the arrival of September, thoughts turn to the coming winter and the goals for us and our dogs. I’ve tried a couple of methods of attacking the winter plans – and no one approach has had a greater or lesser influence on the outcome. So, with that in mind, I decided I wanted to have clear targets this year.  Of course, these are all flexible and we’ll adapt and deal with whatever happens, but the rough plan is :

  1.  Do some camping/checkpoint training with the dogs.
  2.  Enter the Willow Relay Sled Race (with TJ of Cold Canyon Sled Dogs as the other team) run in late Dec
  3. Enter the Knik 100  – run in early Jan
  4. Enter the Earl Norris Memorial Race – run in late Jan
  5. Enter the Two Rivers 200 – run in mid March
  6. Have fun.

It has to be said, we’re already off to a flying start. Our first training run this year was done on 1st September. A couple of cool days saw us get organised and actually get a team out a full 3 weeks earlier than we managed last year, and 4 weeks earlier than the year before that. With Queen’s 6 pups (although at 18 months old, they’re hardly pups) to incorporate, plus the newest adult dogs from Seppala Kennels that arrived in June, we’re taking it nice and slow to give those guys a positive experience and to ensure that it’s fun and safe for us all. So far, it’s been a bitty schedule and we haven’t quite got into a regular routine. However, the dogs have all done well, we’ve even managed our first couple of head on passes without incident, and I was very pleased at how focused the young dogs were.

young Tanera after her first run.
young Tanera after her first run.

Now, we’d like some cooler temperatures and a lot less rain.

 

Happy Birthdays

31 May 2012      09.00 AM           48 F       Cloudy

Good intentions and a bad memory do not make for well matched bedfellows.

I had thought to write a quick post for each of our dogs on their birthday, as a way of inspiration and/or encouragement to produce something a little more frequently. Sadly, like so many of my ideas, this too hasn’t quite worked out exactly to plan.

However, we shall start afresh and do a quick sweep to try bring everyone up to date, starting now (except of course there’s been a wee bit of a delay between starting “now”, which was then and now- as in today.)

6 May   Harry  9 years old. Ever the gentleman, Harry is a laidback, well mannered dog, who’s main drawbacks are a propensity to chew his harness at hook up, liking to tip his food bowl upside down and the occasional bout of selective deafness when running lead in the team.

harry on his 9th birthday
Tay Marr’s Harry, hanging on to that winter coat, in mid May.

10 May  Mermaid 8 years old.  Mermaid lives for 3 things, eating, digging and running. She’s generally a happy soul and is a wonderful, reliable team dog.

Mermaid with her dirty paws
Sepp-Lok’s Mermaid

14 May  Rimi 3 years old. Big, boisterous, bouncy and a bit goofy. Another very happy dog, pretty much at ease with his crew in the big pen, where he has accepted that he isn’t above being chastised by the elders, such as Teague and Takeo. Crazy running dog who needs to learn to pace himself.

Rimi, smiling big on his box
Cold Canyon’s Rimini

14 May  Hop 3 years old. Rimi and Hop are brother and sister. Hop is a good bit more fiery than her brother, a trait that REALLY comes to the fore when she is in season. An eye injury as a youngster resulted in her becoming one of the “house dogs”, a position as you can see, she seems entirely comfortable with.

Hop sleeping in her favourite spot on top of the sofa.
Cold Canyon’s Hop