Looking Back

4 May 2017       3.00PM       59 F    Cloudy

As slowly as it arrived, our sledding season was also slow to depart. We could still run on sleds out of here until early April – without it being truly horrendous as it has been at the tail end of some winters. Our plentiful snow gave us a nice base and the strong winds we had endured for a spell had packed our home trails well.

But now, it’s all gone. The very last snow disappeared this morning from the sheltered, shady spot it had been hiding in and the days are already appreciably longer and warmer. It’s time to start thinking about the list of chores that need done before we can start training dogs again in the Fall. We have trees and shrubs to plant, maybe a spot of vegetable gardening, some new dog houses to build, a few dogs to be spayed and neutered, the list seems to grow daily.

Break up was perhaps not quite as bad as we feared, given how much snow there was to melt. The re-grade of the driveway following the rebuild of the house after the Sockeye Fire definitely helped carry away a lot of the water. A few of the dogs had to endure a number of very splashy days, as despite 5 sump pumps running in their pen, the icy waters continued to rise and gave them plenty of experience of running around in “overflow”. Now, the yard is dry and sandy again and the first holes have already been dug, some several feet deep as the dogs switch from sled dog to pet dog mode for the next few months. The transition period, as they no longer get to go running with the team, can be a bit little crazy. Fit, strong dogs really need to be able to burn off some that energy and ours are always happy to get turned loose every day in the exercise yard and tear about, chasing, wrestling and playing. As the temperatures increase, they tend to spend more time sunbathing than chasing.

northern lights
Northern Lights play over the kennel late at night.

Once again, this winter we didn’t quite manage to get to the targets we had set. We missed making the races we were aimed at, and we also ended up short of the training mileages we had scheduled. On the plus side, we integrated the new dogs we bought in January and we still managed to get out and enjoy a whole lot of the Alaskan countryside behind a dogteam. We had visitors to stay, amazing northern lights to view, deep cold to deal with, and a whole lot of dogs to love, look after and worry about.  We have always said it is the dogs that drive everything we do.

team snow 2016
Lots of snow makes for hard work the dogs. Breaking trail.
team norna
Taking my sister out with a team in January 2017

As we look back at another season, we have made more memories that we will cherish for ever, and we have made plans to make even more. Of course, nothing is guaranteed and we are painfully aware of that, but suffice to say, we’re looking forward to the seasons to come and being blessed to have the dogs that we do.

In years past, and as recently as last year, we debated having a handler to help with the kennel chores and to assist with the running of the dogs. In the end, our usual reluctance won the day and we didn’t actually make any attempt to find anyone. There were quite a few times this winter, as I shoveled snow from gates and doghouses that I would have happily revisited that decision. I sometimes wonder if the fact that we only think about looking for a handler at some point in the summer, means we have forgotten just how much my back hurts from digging snow and how much work is involved in caring for all the dogs when it is cold, snowy and dark. So, this marks a departure from our usual deliberations. We have “decided” that we will actively look for a handler for next winter. To be fair, having decided to look is still quite a distance from actually looking, but it is a start.  I guess the next step will be to write an advert. I wonder how long I can put that off.

3 Years On

16 August 2012     3.00 PM    64 F   Cloudy with rain showers

So it seems I missed our anniversary.  No, not the important one, I’ll never forget when that is – but the anniversary of our arrival in Alaska. In my defence, I only missed it because I thought we didn’t arrive until the 18th August, when it seems we actually got here on the 13th.

Accordingly, I’ll take this opportunity to look back over our third year and forward to the coming one.

This year has been marred by the loss of 3 of our beloved dogs. Milloy died in April, Dushka in June and we just lost Bhu 2 weeks ago. Each loss hurts us deeply. No matter the number of dogs we have, each one is special, each one has their own place in our hearts. They are all so much more than just dogs.

We decided to have a litter of puppies with Cuchi as the intended mum. Deciding to have a litter is no small thing, a whole lot of thought goes into it – and there’s also a great distance between our decision and Mother Nature’s required co-operation. Fortunately, everything went according to plan and we were delighted to welcome 4 little bundles of fluff into our lives in November. Those tiny puppies are now 9 months old and a real joy to behold.

We also brought 5 more dogs into our kennel from Seppala Kennels in Manitoba. I returned with Arkady, Boofochko, Jakal, Yuri and Kalinka in June and they have all settled in really well. I’m excited to get them into harness in the next few weeks.

We had our usual allocation of visitors from the UK over the year and were delighted to host each and every one of them. Most of them are even welcome to come back. We also had visitors from several other US States and even had an Iditarod team spend the week prior to their big race here. Brent Sass went on to win Rookie of the Year, solely due to our relaxing accommodations, I’m sure.

Our running plans didn’t quite follow their prescribed path, even with the help of a handler. As ever, the dogs were doing wonderfully well, it was their human who continued to be the very weak link in the chain. There’s always next year – he says hopefully. However, we did make some progress, saw quite a lot of trail that I had never travelled before and managed to get a reasonable number of miles under the dogs’ paws before all the snow melted away.

So, 3 years on from our first week in Alaska, we’re looking forward to the year ahead. We already have some visitors confirmed for the winter and we’re always ready to host more. As ever, the dogs will be our main focus of attention – it is why we are here after all.  Each year, I learn a little more and feel a bit more prepared for the coming season. Our dogs have also learnt a lot, especially those young dogs for whom this is all a new experience.

I set a target of entering a race last winter and we failed to achieve that. However, we did learn quite a bit (despite my injuries and bad back) that will hopefully make it easier to actually attain that goal this year. So, this year, my stated aim is to be on the start line of the Don Bowers Memorial Sled Dog Race, a 200 mile race leaving from Willow on 25th January.

There’s a lot of work to be done between now and then, but with commitment and effort, there’s no reason we can’t be there.  A friend posted one of those funny sayings on Facebook a few weeks ago, that I found to be strangely reassuring and surprisingly motivating.

It said  DLF >>DNF>>>DNS.

A Dead Last Finish beats a Did Not Finish which greatly trumps a Did Not Start.

It Has Started

3 April 2012          3.00 PM        42 F   Sunny

6 April 2012         10.00AM        38F    Snowing

If you thought any of the previous blog posts had been a bit whiny about the amount of snow we have had this winter and constant need to be digging, shovelling, snowblowing etc, prepare to be whined at some more.

The next few weeks ahead of us is absolutely my least favourite time of year in Alaska. Break up -as it is called, when the winter’s bounty (that’s snow to you and I) is adversely affected by the ever increasing sunlight and warming temperatures. The end result is that what was a joyous playground becomes a grotty, miserable, muddy, swampy mess. No-one is happy about this. The dogs don’t like that their nicely compacted living areas are, for a spell, either rivers, lakes or mudholes. People don’t like that, for the same spell, the ground is treacherously deceiving. It looks solid enough, until you plant a firm foot downward, at which point, rather than perambulating forward in the expected and customary manner, you find yourself face down in, if you are lucky, a soggy snowbank, and if you’re unlucky, one of the aforementioned mudholes.

So far, this Spring hasn’t been too bad, although it is very early days yet.  The biggest issue I have been having is that the snow, of which we have had an abundance, has been packed down by the dogs and humans as we go about our daily business.  This is all well and good and does make moving around the dogyard much easier, even with 14 feet of snow on the ground. However, the warmth in the sun wreaks havoc on the snow surface, softening it quite dramatically and leaving it with all the weight-bearing qualities of it’s main constituent, water. One can no longer casually wander carefree around the yard, each step is a calculated gamble or more accurately, a wild guess at the outcome. A good result is a step that only sinks in about an inch or two, moving downwards in the scale, we have the ankle sink, the knee sink and my personal favourite, the drop you into your groin sink. There may be a deeper drop available, but I seem to find that once I’m thigh deep in snow (and it’s usually just the one leg ) perhaps the greater spread of bodymass stops me sinking any further.

Of course, this predicament can be made a lot worse, depending on the chore being carried out at the time. 5 gallon buckets are an almost permanent attachment to a musher/handler’s hands in a dogyard. Finding yourself falling as the ground gives way underneath you is a tricky enough task to do with any modicum of grace and decorum. Add in bucket or two full of soup for the dogs, and the end result could be an unwanted shower of warm water, powdered fat and raw meat. It has to be said, that given the alternative contents of the other buckets, if you have a choice, I’d recommend going with the soup spillage over the poop bucket disaster every time.

melting snow makes lake
The first of our meltwater lakes in the driveway

I’m a little disappointed in that photograph, as it fails to capture quite how much water has already gathered in some of the lower spots in our driveway. It may not look like much, but that puddle is over 9 inches deep and I couldn’t convince any of the dogs to stand in it long enough to have their picture taken.

Snowy roof
West facing roof and effective snow dams

That’s a lot of snow, and as you can see, some of it has already melted and slid off onto the deck below. As a precaution, because we really don’t want to have either ourselves or any of our dogs crushed under a sliding avalanche, our roof is fitted with snow dams. These are designed to allow a section of the snow to slip, but not the entire roofload. In the picture, you can see just how well this is working, each of the segments have separated and hopefully, we’ll just get partial slides.

no snow on this side of the roof
North and east facing roof, ineffective snow dams

Unfortunately, nature doesn’t always take that much notice of our precautions and plans. This photograph is the other side of the house. Not quite the same success. In fact, the snow slid off in one big, rumbling scary freightrain and I was just happy that none of the dogs were in the way. If you look closely at the picture, you’ll see that many of the snow dams have paid the ultimate price for gallantly endeavouring to hold back the onslaught. We now have a 10′ high snow bank outside the kitchen window and I have caught a couple of our more adventurous, younger, house dogs standing on top of the snow bank and stretching out to put their front paws onto the gutters. I’m pretty sure none of them are stupid enough to actually try climbing onto the roof……………….

broken fences from the snow
Snow sliding from the shop roof has broken this section of fence.

 

Snowy, Coldy, Windy, Warmy

18 November 2011    12.00 PM       – 17 F      Clear blue skies

It wouldn’t be a musher’s blog if the weather didn’t feature quite prominently.

Obsessed as we are by what nature is providing for us, it has been quite a week of interesting weather contrasts. Hard on the heels of the 3 feet of snow we got earlier this month, snow for which we are always grateful, even if it was all fluffy, powdery, bottomless and baseless, we got some lovely coldness. All was well with the world, except we can always find something to want more of or better of, and so if I had a wishlist, it would have been for the snow to be a little less of the fluffy powder and a little more of the wet, heavy kind.  Not all wet, heavy kind of course,  just a nice mix to make walking on it/in it a bit easier and a bit less like man’s first steps on the moon.

As previously mentioned, the trails looked pretty good and ran nicely as long as you didn’t wish to plant a snowhook and get off for any reason. However, with the number of teams running on them and the bit of grooming that has been done by the wonderful guys that have groomers, I did actually get a team to stop and stand – albeit very briefly.

Dog team on the trail8 dogs pulling the Double Driver sled

Things were looking good, all the dogs were doing well and the temperatures started dropping nicely, we got down to around – 25 F a few nights and it felt like winter was properly here.Then one evening I went out to feed the dogs at 7.00 PM, as normal, and checked the thermometer on my way. It read -21 F.  Nice. I came back in an hour or so later and it read – 1 F,  how odd.  In the next 20 minutes, it went up to +7 F.  I was so confused (easily done, I know) that I went outside to see if one of the house dogs had stolen the sender unit, as has happened before, and had hidden it in one of their boxes. No, the unit was still on the wall and the air definitely felt warmer and then the winds started. Quite gently at first but building until for the next 36 hours or so, we had blizzard like conditions. During feedtimes, the dogs had to chase their bowls as the wind would catch them and blow them away. Of course the power went out too, just to give us that complete wilderness experience.

Now that has passed, we’ve been out trying to dig out our gateways and groom some trail, as there’s been so much wind drift, some sections have been almost completely obliterated. Downed trees haven’t helped either, although it seems that the previous storm, earlier this month, got most of the trees down that felt the need to return to earth.

After the winds too, we’ve seen the temperatures drop back down again. A pretty chilly night last night saw us at -23 F, although that seems almost tropical compared to the -55 F that our friends up in Two Rivers saw. It really isn’t that bad, as long as you dress appropriately and don’t lick any metal posts.

clearing windblown treesLizzy chops trees

Lizzy, our friend/handler has been of great help and I’m determined to give her the full Alaska and kennel experience. Accordingly, and purely so that she gets maximum enjoyment from her trip, I’ve delegated as many of the things I don’t like doing, as I feel I can get away with.

Chopping meat into snack sized bitesLizzy chops meat

Cuchi’s puppies are continuing to grow well, at just over a week old, they have all more than doubled their weights and are now starting to move around their box with quite a degree of vigour and a lot of puppy squeaking.

1 week old puppy pileAt 1 week old. Little girl on the bottom of the pile.

No, The Other White One.

3 October 2011         3.00  PM    45 F       Blue skies and sunny

During our first October in Alaska, all those years ago, oh ok, was it really only two years ago………..  well anyway, whenever it was, it was October and I remember watching with some amusement, our builder sending a couple of his younger employees out on an errand. Their job was simple, go around the building site (our house and yard) and collect all of the tools, equipment and materials that had become spread out all over the site.  Not an unreasonable request, what made it funny for me was the cause. He was concerned that it was going to snow and/or freeze soon and they’d lose those things until the Spring.  I understood the concept, I was just a little surprised that early October was the start of the “find everything we think we might want or need in the next 5 months that’s been lying about outside since April”, period. As it turned out, it was a couple of weeks before it snowed, and even then, it only lasted a couple of days before melting. It wasn’t until mid November we saw our first real snow, enough snow to hide all those tools and things the boys had already carefully gathered up and secured.

Which is a rather long-winded way of saying it’s October, it’s getting colder and I spent Sunday running around our place collecting in those things that have been lying about outside all summer. The Skeeter Vacs have been brought inside as the annual battle with the mosquitoes has been declared over for another year. I’ve put away all the gardening implements, the hoses (fire hazards are hopefully done until the Spring), folded up and stored the deck chairs, mowed the lawn for the last time and have, very graciously I feel, left my wife’s window boxes for her to deal with.

Our friend/handler Lizzy has been here a week now. She still says she’s enjoying it – which either means she’s lying or else I’m not working her hard enough.

One of the things that has stood out for me in this first week, is how much my wife and I must communicate telepathically. It is either that, or more likely (but much less interestingly) we have been together with our dogs for so long, that we have an established routine and each knows what the other will do.  We’re also guilty of talking in half sentences, the unspoken words seem obvious to us, but poor Liz has been seen with a glazed and perplexed look on her face a few times. Hopefully, we’re getting better at explaining ourselves and aren’t complicating her life much more than it already is.

She has confessed to not yet having remembered all of our dogs names. I’m not sure that’s really a hanging offence but it has led to more of those glazed and perplexed looks. I will admit that often those looks are my fault – I accept that asking her to bring me Echo and waving my arm in the general direction of a line of dogs on a picket chain possibly isn’t the clearest of directions. Especially when, after being asked which one Echo is, I blithely say – the white one.  Of course, as luck would have it, Echo happens to be standing beside Kalekh, who also happens to be white and with a 50 50 chance of being right, we end up with the other dog.

2 of our white dogsNo, bring me the other white one.

Some of the dogs have been a little unsure of the new person working around them, Oak in particular was loud and barky on her first night. Lizzy does seem to be winning them over and I’m sure in time, they’ll all want to be her best buddy.

Of course, there is one additional hurdle to be overcome in the dog recognition game.

Our dog, RubyHow Lizzy sees Ruby when she tries to remember what she looks like.
8 dog teamThe problem – how she spends most of her day seeing Ruby.

Training has been going reasonably well and the dogs are starting to look solid. We have also drawn up yet another training schedule – one that we are determined to stick to, this time !  Most of the running dogs have had good days and not quite so good days, one or two have had more of the latter than the former and there’s a few that have been wonderful. Shining lights so far have been Harry, Oscar, Ruby, Kaz and Quiz. Teague gets an honourable mention for a couple of recent strong performances as does Lightfoot.  The “Invisibles” look to have a couple of new members, which is always gratifying and perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the season so far has been the form of the Terrible Twosome – sisters Lily & Rosie.  They likely could cause trouble in an empty room but they have both been putting in a tremendous effort in harness. It would be nice if they weren’t quite such dinky little things though. Just how much pull does a 30lb dog contribute to the team?

Practice makes…….

27 September 2011     3.00 PM            43 F                   Blue skies and sunny

………………us slightly less imperfect each time.

Regular readers (does such a person exist?) will be aware that we have rather more dogs than we did at this stage last year. Lots of running dogs generally should be regarded as a good thing. It’s nice to have choice and not to be concerned about maybe not having enough dogs to make up a team. Equally, lots of running dogs could be regarded as not such a good thing, because it’s hard to share your time around them all and with the best will in the world, not all dogs will perform at the same level.

So, these initial runs are being used as a kind of shakedown to find the dogs that even at this early stage, won’t be asked to push themselves.

It’s also been good to finally get to see those new dogs in action. Both pleasingly and excitingly, all of the new dogs have done very well in the team and that includes a couple of adults that at nearly 3 and 4 years old had never been in a harness prior to this month. As previously mentioned, these first few runs are always interesting (where interesting is the word used instead of the combination of phrases involving sweary words, deep breaths and chewed equipment). The last post on the blog tallied the damage sustained during that first week of runs. Now, a further 2 weeks on, I’m delighted to say that nothing else has been destroyed (fingers crossed, touching wood etc, etc).

Oscar and Kazek at the head of our teamQuick water break, Oscar & Kaz at lead. Quiz wants to keep going.

The weather has been great, nice and cool in the mornings with generally sunny, warmer afternoons. It’s great to see those dogs that were working hard being able to lie about and sunbathe in the September sunshine.

One of the things that we intended to do much better this year, was to have a training schedule and to stick to it. Sadly, that has already proven to be a forlorn hope and our initial schedule can safely be considered as redundant. There usually is a fairly good reason why we don’t attain the targets we set – normally, it’s because I’m lying about the floor whimpering about my back being sore. This time it seemed we were either at the vets, on the way to the vets or on the phone to , yes you guessed, the vets.

Cone head dog and sore legWink with her cone and her sore leg

Wink has been the main cause for concern, having had a lump removed on her left front leg, that just won’t heal. Poor girlie is being a great patient, despite a couple of trips to the vet and being poked, prodded and injected more times than I care to recall. She is dealing with the Comfy Cone pretty well, the other house dogs don’t seem to be bothered by it and our legs are happy that when she barges into us, the cone is soft and folds up.  The only ones who seem disturbed by the cone are the yard dogs who, without exception freak out when Wink, the square headed dog appears in the back garden.

We also had a day off because we attended the excellent Willow Dog Mushers’ symposium. John Baker was the keynote speaker, and was wonderful to listen to. A pretty laid back, humourous guy with an amazing depth of knowledge and great way of relaying his tales. Of the many things he said, one struck a particular chord with me. He feels that he, his handlers and the dogs all have their part to play in the team. He expects that his dogs will pull and eat. He’ll give them good food and all they have to do is eat it. As he said, how hard can that be !

There were several other sessions during the day that we attended and the symposium was finished off with A Parade of Champions – a panel consisting of Egil Ellis, Dallas Seavey and John Baker, compered by the inimitable Vern Halter.  All in all, another really good symposium organised by WDMA.

And one final piece of great news. Our friend Lizzy flew into Anchorage late last night from Scotland for a 6 month stay. She is going to help us with the dogs and try to see a bit of Alaska too. We’re very happy to have her here and look forward to putting that extra set of hands to good use. Alaska did its part to welcome her with a great display of the Northern Lights on her first night and wonderfully cool 20F morning.

Help Wanted. Maybe. Sort of…..

When our friend Cameron was here for 3 weeks this past winter, life in the yard and on the trail seemed to be a good bit easier to organise. The ability to have all the running dogs out at more or less the same time made training easier and quicker. With the 3 of us to feed dogs, scoop and generally share all the work, it meant there was much more free time for just being with the dogs as well as getting the training miles in.

Those facts restarted the debate between my wife and I about whether we should seek a handler for this coming winter. It’s a debate that continuously fails to reach a satisfactory conclusion – in fact it usually fails to reach any sort of conclusion at all and we move on to some other topic. However, we keep revisiting the subject and have more or less agreed that perhaps it might be a good idea. As you can see, we’re hardly bursting with enthusiasm but we can definitely see the advantages – as well as some of the pitfalls. We have eventually decided that even if we advertise for a handler, it doesn’t mean we’re committed to taking one – we’d rather do without than have the wrong person here.

Anyway, we have posted the ad on a couple of the Siberian forums in the UK that we are members of and are waiting to see if anyone is mad enough to want to come out here, and if we feel they’ll be a good fit with us and our pampered pooches.

Our Advert

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 last summer.
We are home to 31 Siberian Huskies/Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and 1 crazy GSD.
We are a mid-distance kennel, aiming primarily 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 sled and pretty much anything else that needs doing. If you can cook, then that is something else added to your list.

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 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 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 your own centrally heated 1 bedroom apartment, complete with full kitchen and bathroom, all your meals, cable tv, internet and more sled miles than you can shake a stick at.

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 @)