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.
Gealach Mor Teague 5 Sept 2003 ~ 10 March 2016 (flanked by Harry and Seven)
Today, we say a stunned, heartbreaking farewell to Teague.
It has often been said that these dogs are incredibly stoical – and that many of us don’t regard that as a trait that is very helpful, as time and again, the first indication any of them give about being unwell, it is usually something major. And so it was with Teague. At bedtime, he was fine, at 4 AM he was uncomfortable and by 9.00 AM at the vets, he was gone.
We’re still in a state of denial and disbelief. Partly, because his sister Seven, was saved by our vets at the end of January following a ruptured spleen caused by a hemangiosarcoma. Her diagnosis isn’t especially hopeful, and we are constantly watching her with varying degrees of trepidation. To lose Teague in such a manner, and the vets suspect that it was a hemangiosarcoma in his chest that had ruptured, was a gut wrenching blow. Teague had been a house dog since he retired a couple of years ago, and he was a steadying, calming influence, as well as a wonderful cuddler. A dog who loved people, from a very young age, he was also one of my main leaders and a strong favourite of my wife.
We wish our darling boy Teague safe travels to the Rainbow Bridge, and to the joyous reunion he will have with his 5 brothers and his sister, as well as his parents Vader and Beth. Carry our tears and our unending love to them all.
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.
Yes, it’s the middle of February and the temperature is a balmy 37 F and is forecast to remain around there for the next week or so. It’s fairly disheartening to be wandering around the dogyard in just a flannel shirt and to feel too hot at this time of year. (Edit to add – well, not just a flannel shirt, I have trousers (pants for my N. American readers) and boots on, too )
As mentioned in a previous entry, training was going reasonably well and the team were looking quite acceptable. The 5 leaders, Kaz, Kalekh, Quiz, Ruby and Rosie have been doing a sterling job and all contribute different strengths to the front end. Prior to the cancellation of the Knik 100, Kalekh’s face ballooned to twice it’s normal size – and as suspected, he had managed to do something that had infected his jaw and developed into a delightful abcess. This ruled him out of the 100 mile race, so when it was cancelled, I was happy that he wasn’t going to miss it, and I wasn’t going to have to race it without him. It is times like that when I realise the importance I place on particular dogs.
And so, with the cancellation of the Knik 100, I decided to enter the Earl Norris Memorial Sled Dog race, run locally in Willow. Offering a different format this year, of 2 days, at 30 miles a day (actually 31.2) – it attracted 15 teams and included a couple of serious sprint racers, several local Iditarod teams and a couple of recreational teams like myself.
Right up until the moment that the starter began my countdown, I was fairly sure that something would happen to ensure my 100% cancellation to entry streak would continue. But it was not to be, and after 5 years in Alaska, I was finally on the race trail. behind my own dogs and enjoying the moment.(whilst repeatedly muttering under my breath – don’t fall off where anyone can see you) .
Over the years, people have asked me what kind of team we have – and I have given the following reply – we have a mid-distance team, being trained at ultra long distance pace but at sprint distance. It was also fairly apparent within the first 10 miles that I hadn’t quite got the right approach to the race – as several teams passed me I was trying to work out what was “wrong” with their sleds – then it struck me. None of them were standing on their drag mats and a couple of them didn’t even seem to have them at all. It was sort of nice to finally get passed by Lisbet Norris and her Siberians and to see that not only did she have a mat, but she was even using it to brake a little.
All in all, it was a great race, the trail was really well marked, I thought my dogs did everything asked of them and I was impressed by their behaviour both on the trail and whilst on the drops at the truck, before and after the race. It was a first race experience for every single one of them and they handled it all with aplomb. We even managed to finish in the Top 10 and grab the last pay out spot.
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.
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.
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 :
Do some camping/checkpoint training with the dogs.
Enter the Willow Relay Sled Race (with TJ of Cold Canyon Sled Dogs as the other team) run in late Dec
Enter the Knik 100 – run in early Jan
Enter the Earl Norris Memorial Race – run in late Jan
Enter the Two Rivers 200 – run in mid March
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.
Now, we’d like some cooler temperatures and a lot less rain.
As much as we say there seems to be no reliable weather pattern in Alaska, it has to be said that generally, March is lovely. We’ve been blessed with seemingly endless days of clear blue skies with lots and lots of sunshine. Our ever increasing daylight hours help too, and there’s just a general uplifting of our spirits, partly derived from Takeo’s continued presence and his bouncy good health,
Spring always sees changes around here. Our friends from Colorado who winter here in in Willow have fled back to their mountain retreat, the last few sled races of the season all take place soon, in the High Arctic, the Denali Highway or Chukotka, which is where our neighbours have headed off to, to race in the Nadezhda race. With the way our winter went, I pretty much put the sled a way a long time ago, and have just spent most of the days playing with the dogs, setting up new play groups and making sure that Queen’s pups, now a year old, are well socialised and integrated with the adults. The early end to our season has meant that a lot of time of looking ahead and planning for next year has already taken place. A couple of the mainstays from my main team in our 5 years here will likely be stepping back as age catches up with them. Oscar, who has been a solid, consistent leader (if a little headstrong occasionally) and Mermaid, who has been Little Miss Reliable, will both turn 10 this month and have earned the right to have a bit of an easier life. They will both get called upon to work with Queen’s pups when we harness break them this Fall.
It is also the time to go through our equipment and gear to see how things held up and what needs replaced. I guess the upside of so few sled runs is that I didn’t break or lose anything and that we don’t actually need to do too much. One ongoing debate is the one about switching from a cable-filled gangline to one made from Spectra/Amsteel (otherwise known as “ironrope”.)
One other thing that was reviewed was our other house. Ever since I went to New Hampshire for the winter of 2004-2005 with our dogs, we’ve had a lovely log home there, which was always held onto with the intention that one day, we might go back to NH to live. The reality is, with as many dogs as we have, it is just not going to happen. It seems a shame to part with it, but it is difficult to take care of a property from 6000 miles away, and if it hadn’t been for our friends over there, it really would be nigh on impossible. So, reluctantly, we finally decided to go ahead and put it on the market. It’s listed on MLS and a few other places too. I’d love it to go to a musher, as it is full of happy memories of my Winter of Adventure, as I called it.
The dogyard was built and fenced in for us by a local musher, and it worked really well for our small kennel. Anyone with only a few more dogs than the 11 I brought would likely be able to make the yard work without much effort. A bigger kennel would need to expand or make changes, but as the lot is 5 acres, there is room to do that. It’s the last house on a dead end road and is only about 20 minutes drive from Plymouth.