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.
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.
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.
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.
Hard on the heels of the trip to and from Manitoba, I was already planning another departure from home. Fully sanctioned and supported by “the management”, of course. In fact, when I first raised the proposed trip, she thought I was intending getting home on the Saturday and leaving again the very next day, after dropping off the 6 new dogs and loading some of ours for the weekend.
Yes, I am indeed completely aware of how wonderful and understanding she is.
Anyway, it was not such a quick turnaround, I was home for over a week. Enough time to get the new dogs settled into their routine and become familiarised with their surroundings, enough time to wash my socks and enough time to change the list of dogs going with me about 8 times.
I was heading north, destination Crazy Dog Kennels, for a mushing clinic. By happy coincidence, this enabled me to finally do something I’ve been wanting to do since we got to Alaska, namely drive the Denali Highway – or at least, a large part of it.
Bright and early, we loaded the 7 dogs who had made the shortlist for a variety of reasons. A couple of dogs that had specific issues I wanted to work on, a couple that needed the exposure and experience and a couple of dogs that I figured would require very little attention and would just get on with their work, leaving us free to concentrate on the others. Even just packing for this short trip away, made me appreciate how lucky we are that we can train from home all year round. Maybe if we did have to truck to train, I might be a bit better prepared, but it seemed quite a complicated procedure just getting me ready. Fortunately, my wife is super-organised and a maker of great lists. So, despite all the last minute running around, it turns out, I didn’t forget anything I needed. However I had packed a lot I didn’t need – still, better over than under prepared.
A couple of hours later I pulled into Cantwell, refilled the dogtruck’s seemingly insatiable fuel tank and turned onto the Denali Highway. I feel honour bound to point out that the use of the word Highway, to describe the road, is more than a little optimistic, especially for us non Alaskans. The tarmac finishes only a couple of miles outside of Cantwell and the road is basically dirt and gravel the rest of the way. It’s been very dry and as a result, the surface was extremely dusty, resulting in plumes of blinding grit marking the passage of vehicles.
The Milepost, the authority on almost every possible road trip in the north lands, says that 30 mph is a reasonable average speed to achieve. The Highways Department has a posted 45 mph limit. Take my word for it, The Milepost’s figure is closer to being attainable than the posted limit.
It was only 90 miles from Cantwell to my destination on the McLaren River. In the manner of most guys, I had read and duly ignored that 30 mph advisory in The Milepost, considering them to likely err on the side of sensible achievability, especially as their main target audience are driving RVs and figured that surely I could make better time than that. Well, I did.
But not a whole lot better. That road was interesting, the scenery spectacular – it is one of the Top 5 Scenic Drives in the country, after all, but it certainly requires you to pay a degree of attention to the road surface. It’s quite a sensation to feel a 10 000 lb truck squirrelling round under you not exactly going where it is pointed. I did back off the throttle a little, figuring the dogs would probably appreciate that greatly and I did want to get there with the trailer still attached to the truck and my atv still safely secured inside the trailer.
Finally, I crested a rise and could see my destination in the distance. It was with a degree of trepidation and anticipatory excitement that I pulled into John and Zoya’s dogyard, unsure of what the next few days would hold but sure that they would be crammed full of information, learning and practice.
Once my dogs were dropped, snacked, watered and settled, I headed down to the main cabin for coffee and the first of many hours of sled dog talk. Topics we discussed ranged from the simple to the complicated, but John was always willing to explain and clarify, usually with a practical application of the queried point, which greatly helped me understand the rationale and reasoning behind his thought processes.
Later that first evening, John hooked up a team of his dogs, and we set off for a 6 mile run. He used this team to illustrate some of the points discussed earlier in the afternoon and deliberately selected dogs for this run who move in just about every variety of gait there is. Finally, he declared us done for the day and I headed back to my cabin to write up my notes whilst they were still fresh in my mind.
Bright and early next morning, it was the turn of my dogs to show what they could do. Getting my excuses in quickly, the previous evening, I had mentioned several times that most of the dogs with me hadn’t run much at all since February, and the couple that had run into March/April had really only just been harness broken and hadn’t gone very far. John had reassured me that it would all be fine and that the dogs are more than capable of dealing with whatever we would throw at them.
So, I packed bowls and water into the atv and set about hooking up my team. Being sensible, I went with my calm, reliable, leader girlies, Ruby and Avery. Swing dogs were Teague and Quiz, both have run lead and know what is expected of them. Rimini ran single team – he’s young and can get a bit wild, and that left Friddy and Kazek at wheel.
The dogs were, understandably, a little bit excited to go – I believe that could be called an understatement. Pleasingly, they refrained from any type of hooligan behaviour and we got off onto the trail without mishap. In this case, the trail happened to be the Denali Highway. It is easy to see the advantage of living in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt road.
We had only gone a few hundred yards when I felt John lean forward and ask me why “that dog” was running wheel, pointing at Kazek. I explained that Kaz was an inexperienced 2 year old we had just got the previous winter, and I had only harness broken him this Spring. He had only ever run in front of a sled, and only a few of those before break up. Babbling on, I said he was here for experience………… John said – that dog wants to lead.
And sure enough, when we stopped and switched the dogs around, Kazek set off in lead as if he had done it a hundred times and pretty much stayed up there for the rest of that training run and the 2 other runs done at the clinic. He and Ruby led the team through rivers, past campers and even accomplished a “come-haw”.
After the run, it was time to take care of the dogs and once they had been fed, watered and were on their picket line, it was time for a late people breakfast and more hours of sled dog talk. For me, the dogs are the reason we do this, and it is working with those 6, 8, 10 or 12 individuals that make it such a pleasure and challenge. To find out that John’s philosophy is “to let the dogs be dogs” was a real pleasure, in a sport where some people seem to feel the dogs are nothing more than cogs in a machine.
That afternoon, we took some dogs for a walk, several of John’s dogs ran loose and we had Friddy and Kaz on leads. It’s a great way to spend time with the dogs and helps reinforce the bond we have. It also helped me discover that Friddy loves water, so much so, that I suspect he could possibly be part otter and I now know that the McLaren River is exceedingly cold.
With time passing incredibly quickly, the volume of information coming my way was far more than my previously admitted, poor memory, could reasonably be expected to hold for any length of time. I took full advantage of the short breaks to write up my notebook and take note of any queries that writing them down had brought to the fore again.
Later that evening, it was time to run the dogs again. This time, as well as all the other things we were working on or looking at, I would have the challenge of dealing with passing another team. This has been an issue for us in the past and was something I had specifically mentioned as an area requiring attention. Training at home had not helped much – it seems our dogs know they’re not supposed to visit passing teams and when that other team is made up of their kennel mates, they can and do ignore them. Unfortunately, they seem to find passing strangers much more interesting and just can not resist the temptation to check them out.
Needless to say, that is exactly what happened. However, having 3 people working with 2 teams gives us two leggers the advantage and we were able to show the dogs what we wanted from them in this situation. The second pass went a bit smoother and by the third time, Teague (no surprise) was the only dog seemingly concerned about where the other team were on the trail. A hesitant but non-tangle head on pass and a further couple of overtakes seemed to reinforce the wanted behaviour in the dogs or maybe they just decided that other teams are boring and not worth bothering with, after all.
They trotted home in good style, their second 6 mile run of the day completed. Tired and hungry, but enough about me, the dogs too wanted their meal and a rest. John’s parting words – tomorrow at 8.00, be ready…………..
The next morning, as I harnessed the screaming dogs, John appeared and remarked that he had wondered whether the dogs would be as keen to go this morning, after 2 runs the previous day, given that I had been emphasising how little they had done, prior to coming here. The fact that we had to yell at each other to carry on that conversation seemed to indicate that the dogs were indeed ready and more than willing.
This time, Zoya took a team out comprising of some of her nice, calm race dogs so we could do more passing work. That didn’t quite go according to plan ( eh, Hunter !) but it certainly taught my guys a lesson they seemed to absorb very well. The second time Zoya’s team came up behind us, the dogs gave her such a wide berth, you could have driven an 18 wheeler between the teams. Far from wanting to visit, most of my dogs completely ignored the other team and the only ones who did give any indication they knew that there were other dogs around, were pointedly turning their heads away.
A successful head on pass, and another couple of smooth overtakes left me grinning like a fool and mentally raving about how wonderful Ruby and Kaz are. To be honest, as the team trotted back to the truck, finishing their third 6 mile training run in a day and a half, I had to swallow a large emotional lump as I came to the realisation that I have completely and utterly underestimated the level of ability of the dogs we have.
Back at the cabin, I unhooked, watered and then fed the dogs, and told them all how awesome they were. If John had offered to sell me that cabin at that point, he would have had a new neighbour before his words were caught by the wind.
Over coffee, we went over the training runs, and he answered more of my questions, showed me more useful tips, shared more of his experiences and passed on more advice.
Finally, it was time to load up and head for home. I have a notebook full of notes, a head full of memories and a heart full of love for my dogs.
Thanks to John and Zoya for a memorable mushing clinic. I’ve heard there is likely to be another clinic held in the Fall. Looking at my yard, I’m sure I could find enough dogs who would benefit from going again to justify making the trip.
Thanks to Avery, Friddy, Kaz, Quiz, Rimi, Ruby and Teague for being there and for being awesome and most importantly, for not screaming all night in the truck like I feared they might. Ruby gets double thanks for being an outstanding lead dog.
Special thanks to my wife for everything. Without you, none of this would be possible.
Tasker was the very first puppy born from our only litter bred to date. He was a big fluffy puppy and has grown into a big fluffy dog. He is sweet, gentle and very, very loving.
Along with all his siblings he made the trip to New Hampshire with us in 2004 for our winter there and learned his trade. He is a willing worker but suffers dreadfully if the temperatures start to warm too much. He also was my introduction into the fine art of crabbing and the various ways to remedy this strange gait. Now, he runs straight in any harness.
Tasker has his favourite playmates, chief amongst those are Nadia and Ciara.He also likes to play with his food, spill his soup and generally be a bit of a mucky pup. It is a good job he’s so gorgeous that he can be forgiven anything.
I have so many things to be thankful for in life, it is indeed a very long list and I don’t propose to go through it in fine detail, but just to mention a couple of them.
I’m from Aberdeen and I follow Aberdeen Football Club (which is both a blessing and a curse) and one of our many supporter club songs is the old folk classic, “The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen” but please don’t ask for a rendition as I can only sing when surrounded by ten thousand other slightly inebriated people, all bellowing with great gusto but a certain lack of quality. Now to my almost certain recollection, we’ve never actually had proper “northern lights” in Aberdeen, heck even here in Willow, AK we don’t get them that often. But this past week they have been on display and quite an amazing sight they are.
I did try and take some photographs but I’m going to guess that no-one really wants to see a black square masquerading as a picture of the Aurora Borealis.
So, I’ve done the next best thing – admit my failure and borrow a photograph from friends just down the road, who actually know how to take a good picture.
However, no matter how wonderful the picture, the effect is but a fraction of the impact that actually standing out there seeing it all happen in front of your eyes brings to your heart and soul. It is no wonder that in earlier times, they were attributed to the spirit world. Knowing the science behind them in no way diminishes their appeal and capacity to make you forget to breathe on occasion.
We’ve had some new neighbours become friends. In Alaska, the word neighbour seems to encompass anyone who lives within about 10 miles of your house, so as they’re only a couple of miles away, that must count as almost being next door. We’re also enjoying trying out new recipes on them and so far, they seem to have survived the experimentation. They fill the house with fun and laughter and it’s great knowing you have genuinely good people you feel you can rely on, close by.
TJ, who gave us Hop and Rimi, was also in the State recently for a couple of days, on a flying visit. It was great to see him again and spend some time just chatting about Seppalas, sled dogs and training.
We had all hoped to go out with multiple teams, but as anyone who has been paying attention will know, I’ve not been out with the dogs for 4 weeks because I’ve been cruelly struck down with that most debilitating illness – a bad back. It has been slowly getting a bit better – I’ve started doing my share of the dog yard chores again. Actually, I think that was my wife’s idea of a fitness test – every time I mentioned taking a team out, she’d mention something about feed buckets or poop buckets……… I can take a hint.
But having proved myself capable – well at least of feeding the dogs and clearing up without wincing (too much), I was allowed to finally get back out on the trail. Of course, it’s been a while and the dogs are a little nuts about going, so ever sensible, I selected a small 6 dog team and took trustworthy leaders and no complete lunatics.
In the time that we’ve not been running, it has snowed. This is winter in Alaska after all, I guess it might have been assumed it had snowed and therefore probably more worthy of mention if it hadn’t snowed. But it had. Quite a lot. And I hadn’t been digging out our yard gates. So that needed done and it means we now have a 3 feet wide trench that is needed for the gate to swing open.
I think that could be the fastest I have left the yard, despite standing with both feet on the dragmat. And of course I know I have this dip (let’s call it a dip, it sounds less imposing than ditch) to get over, without any kind of jarring impact, preferably. Deciding that speed might help – after all speed is always the answer in every tricky situation, no ?, we pass over the gate threshold off the brakes and the sled is temporarily airborne just for long enough to smack into the lip on the far side. Flex knees, tense quads, tighten core stomach muscles ( stop laughing) and grit teeth. Well there, that wasn’t so bad, I’m out onto the soft deep snow, still on the sled and can relax and enjoy the run.
Which I did, immensely.
I guess you have to try and make the best of any given situation.
The dogs are doing so by seemingly enjoying the enforced break from running by spending longer playing and chasing each other. Even ultra serious dog Oscar is trying to get Kazek to become a playmate. As I read other blogs and websites, it seems to be the time of year when teams are complaining about the dogs being in a mental slump, the long miles and hours taking their toll on them. Not so here, because we haven’t been able to get anything like enough miles on our dogs to be close to that predicament. I’m close to getting back on the runners and there is long enough left in our season that we should still manage to get some quality training runs in, once we get their fitness and stamina back.
So, in the meantime, I’ve been trying to make good use of my time and the inability to actually do very much physically.
I’ve blogged a bit more and done some work on our website. Finally, most of the dogs now have their own pages and I’ve updated a few other pages too. The rest of the dogs’ pages will be finished this week ( he said, with fingers crossed.)
One further advantage of being laid up is the ability to follow all of the exciting race events that take place throughout Alaska. January is probably one of the busiest months, with races in many locations.
Race season for the distance guys kicked off with the Sheep Mountain 150 or the Alaska Expeditions 120, both on the same mid-December weekend. Then the GinGin 200 out of Paxson, between Christmas and New Year. Next up was supposed to be the Knik 200, at New Year. That got delayed a week and then ultimately cancelled because of a warm weather front that moved in and opened up some of the rivers. The Copper Basin 300 set off on 8 Jan. The Kuskokwim 300 racers were out on 21 January, along with the Bogus Creek 150 teams. The Don Bowers 200 left on the 28 Jan, but was shortened to about 110 miles, due primarily to open water on the rivers. The Tustumena 200 just started today, (along with its 100 mile supporting race) and our neighbour DeeDee Jonrowe is rocking the early stages.
Early February sees a new race out of Willow, The Willow Tug 300 leaving on 4 Feb (and still taking entries if you’re interested). The next day sees the Yukon Quest racers leave from Whitehorse in the Yukon and run the 1000 miles to Fairbanks. Our good friend Mike Ellis of Tsuga Siberians will be running his fourth Quest and we’ll be following him as closely as the computer will let us.
19 Feb sees the Aurora Mushers 50/50 race out of Big Lake. First weekend of March sees the small matter of something called Iditarod and for us mere mortals, a few days later the Chugiak Dog Mushers run a 36 mile race out of Chugiak. The end of March sees the popular Spring race, the Taiga Spring Break 300, although they have upped the distance to 360 for the 2011 race.
April 14 sees the start of the Kobuk 440, way up there in Kotzebue.
With the continuing development of wireless internet, satellite phones, SPOT trackers and various other new fangled devices, us armchair followers are spoiled with how much information is readily available – and the speed with which we receive it. We did have plans to be entrants for at least a couple of those races mentioned, but sadly didn’t quite get our act together well enough to have the dogs ready. Coupled with my current ailment (did I mention I had a bad back ? Because I have a dreadful memory too), it was with very mixed feelings I followed the updates on the Don Bowers race. That was one I had definite intentions of running – a friendly, well run local race. So, congratulations to the winner, Justin Savidis – not that I had any illusions of challenging for any trophy except possibly the one that it looks like Jan Steves is going to win, the famed and highly desired Red Lantern.
Sepp-Lok’s Ruby at Gealach Mor – or super Ruby as she is known here.
Ruby joined from Josie Thyr’s SilverSepp Kennel almost as soon as we landed in Alaska 18 months ago. She was only 2 and a half years old then and we were told she had been running lead regularly. That did turn out to be the case and she is now considered one of the core group of lead dogs in the kennel.
She did have one fairly major trail issue – any stop was considered to be a unissued command to do a come haw. Not the most endearing trait and one that took me a few times to figure out what was going on in her head. Now, as long as she hears the “line out” order as we stop, she is happy to keep facing forward.
She is a playful girl, very evenly tempered with just a touch of timidity. So far, nothing we’ve encountered on the trail has spooked her and she seems to have developed a really good leadership pairing with Ruya. (Excluding one run where the two of them seemed to collude in doing almost the exact opposite of what was wanted, at every possible opportunity.)
In the yard, she has her gang that she roughhouses with, primarily Ciara, Tasker, Oak and occasionally Rimi.