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.

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.

taraan-quiz
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.

taran-jul-16
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.

flat
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.

cubes
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.

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

And So It Begins

27 Sept 2016     2.00 PM         52F          Sunny

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 !

A misty morning, a quick water break
A misty morning, a quick water break

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.

Safely home, with Davaar learning how to be a leader by working with Kazek
Safely home, with Davaar learning how to be a leader by working with Kazek

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.

The wonderful Dawson
The wonderful Dawson
Powerhouses, Turov and Xaros
Powerhouses, Turov and Xaros
Youngsters (and brothers), Eris and Raasay
Youngsters (and brothers), Eris and Raasay

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.
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.

 

 

 

That’s A Definite Maybe

15 August 2016    10.00 AM     63 F     Sunny and bright

There are probably two topics of conversation that take place here on an almost daily basis, that provoke angst and indecision. One of them is “what shall we have for dinner? ” and the other one is ” are we going to try and get a handler for this winter? ”

Thankfully, the first one, we normally manage to resolve by dinner-time. (Tonight apparently, we’re doing something with rockfish fillets, from my fishing trip last week.)
The second one, not so much.  In fact, it’s been an ongoing, unfinished discussion subject for several years. The last time we actually got as far as semi-seriously trying to recruit a handler was 2010. And even then, we didn’t try that hard.
For every upside, we can find a downside, for every advantage that a handler could bring, we can think of several disadvantages. We have known some really nice people that handled for friends and other kennels around here, and we’ve also heard some real horror stories about handlers – and in the interests of fairness, some pretty crappy treatment of them by a few kennel owners too.
It would be reasonable to say that we’re ambivalent, at best, about having a full-time handler but are teetering on the precipice of actually looking for one, nonetheless.
Of course, on top of our general doubts about having a handler, we also live in a small town that has numerous well-known racing kennels that advertise for handlers every year. I suppose the only thing in our favour would be that we’d be looking for someone who is sane and fairly normal, and not the kind of person that thinks running for a 100 miles at 40 below at 3 in the morning is an acceptable way to squander valuable sleeping time.

So, in the event that we actually seriously, or even semi-seriously start looking for a helper, our ad would go something like this.

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 several years ago.
We are home to 49 Siberian Huskies/Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and 1 extremely efficient guard dog.
We are a mid-distance kennel, aiming primarily hopefully, 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 team with 4 wheelers and a sled (obviously not at the same time) and pretty much anything else that needs doing.

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 be able 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 for spells 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 accommodation in a separate modular home, complete with full kitchen and bathroom, central heating and a wood stove. In lieu of the pay you’re not getting, we’ll occasionally put some food in the pantry and if you’re really nice (and use the shower), we might even have you over for dinner sometimes.

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 @)

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.

The Main Crew

1 November 2014    1.00 PM     15 F    Clear and sunny

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.

Meet the Fabulous 14