Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The First Weeks, continued from part one

    Hi everyone! I just got back from our first 22 mile run. It was beautiful, especially on the way back with the setting sun. I can’t wait to introduce you to my team, but first is another installment of “the first week”.

                      *                                       *                                        *

    So I was left alone just a few days after my arrival in the frozen north with over fifty sled dogs and lots of leaves. It was actually quite warm – a good thing because the boxes of clothes I’d mailed a week before did not arrive on time (despite what the post office told me, mail is a few days slower in Alaska!).
    Everything went well, my runs with the yearlings were uneventful – probably due in part to the fact that with just seven dogs I had too much control with the 4-wheeler. I’d never run such a small team on a 4-wheeler in my entire dog sledding career…I thought we’d be running big teams up here, but even Scott was training three twelve-dog teams. It all seemed too normal!
    Then, the morning before Scott returned, trouble visited the kennel: two of the dogs decided to have an argument on the end of their chains. The wounds were not serious, but I decided to call Aaron and give him a heads-up anyway. This led to putting the dogs on six days of Ammoxicillin and putting Betadine on the wounds every day. One of the dogs, Spinner, was great – he’s the shyest dog in the kennel and just cringes on his house whenever you do anything with him – but Vasser…well, I think he had some experience at thwarting the medicine-giver. For six days I struggled to get the Ammoxicillin pills down his throat and even when they were down he would gag and cough until I was afraid he would spit it back out. Putting it in his food was no good – he’d just dump it and pick out the pill. Some dogs are just too smart!
    The next morning we ran all the teams and I tried to figure out what my schedule would be. Often I’d be waiting around in the dog yard, not sure what else needed done. It was tough, I had come to help and didn’t want to go off and do my own thing if there was work to be done.
    A few days later, we got between six and eight inches of snow. Since it hadn’t really been cold, both Scott and I were dreading that warmer weather would melt it and leave us with a sloppy, muddy mess. Thankfully, it didn't. 
    About this time, several things happened. First, we realized we had to get some food in the house. Most of what was in the fridge and pantry was outdated or, what both Scott and I mutually disliked, it was boxed, prepared meals…that were probably outdated – I never checked.
    So, we took a trip to Nenana and the grocery store. I should mention that the first trip we took ended up with the one store, Coghill’s general store, being already closed and since we were in need of butter we tried the gas station. To my surprise they had butter…but at an outrageous price - $4 for a pound!
    The next day we got mail and went once more to Coghill’s. We fared slightly better, but the produce is really pitiful – very little of it and somewhat wilted. However, we were able to get less perishable items (again, at inflated prices) and figured we could get by since we have an abundance of moose meat and sausage up here.
    It must have been two days later that we went into Nenana again, this time to take Leila to see if we could find a spark plug. I really felt bad for her, everything seemed to be going wrong or breaking while Bill was gone…and then when she did get running again a dog got a foot injury.
    The next day, I had my own bad day. Things had been going very smoothly since Scott had written out a schedule (see below) for me, and I was walking puppies when he took the first team and then running my team (now with only six, since Scott had taken one of the adults back on the main team) after helping him out with the second team. Alas, when I came back with my team I noticed Flynn’s circle was sprinkled with blood. And then I saw his tail…
    Flynn is a very pretty black and white dog, and he had a nice tail to go with it, but his neighbor had apparently caught hold of it and ripped the skin and hair off over half of it. I could see the bone and it was dripping blood everywhere, though fortunately it wasn’t bleeding fast.
    I did what I could to stop the bleeding and clean it up, as I called Aaron...without success because he was out of range. Fortunately, he’d given me his Nome home phone number and I called there and started to leave a message before Mandy, his wife, answered. I explained the situation and she told me to wait until Scott got back because Flynn is his dog and it wasn’t life threatening.
    And so I waited…I kept thinking, how am I going to explain this to Scott? Flynn is such a nice dog!
    Scott got the team in, I explained what happened, and he took a look at the dogs. The offending dog got moved to the corner, far away from Flynn. I was relieved that Scott wasn’t too upset, other than at the dogs for fighting.
    There is a different concept on the treatment of injuries/injured dogs up here. Both Scott and Aaron believe that, “If a dog has enough energy to fight, it has enough energy to run” and "They're going to feel a whole lot more miserable during long training runs or races." Basically, as long as the injury isn’t to the joints or something that would be worsened by running, the dog runs.
    So Flynn ran…that very afternoon.
    The next day, he got his tail docked and began running again in a few more days..
    During this time Scott, Leila and I got together often for dinner – either at Bill’s or here. We actually ate quite well – all homeade: Taco’s, Quesadilla’s, Gyro’s, fresh Grouse and Stew. And in addition to being a good cook Scott would often do the dishes!
     On one of these evenings, Leila and I discovered that in a few days it would be Scott’s birthday and we plotted about what we could do to celebrate it. She agreed to cook and I went over to bake the cake. Since she had no frosting, I managed to find some in the pantry that was only slightly outdated.
    We had the meal at Bill’s and Leila invited another neighbor, Jaysen, who is an older musher originally from California, to join us. It was a fun evening.
    Now, all this happened over a little more than a week, but it went by very quickly. At this time, due to the huge difference between life here and at home, I was not homesick much but I was looking forward to the Burmeister’s return on the 29th of October.

   Well, that’s all for now – we’ve covered a lot of ground in these couple posts so now you’re almost caught up to the end of October.

Scott’s schedule:
– water dogs, scoop yard
– eat breakfast
– be hooking up first team
             while first team is out, walk each of the nine pups (I ended up taking two at a time and figured I walked/ran/dragged 2.5 miles per day!)
Help get second team out and then run my team
Help get third team out, and then the rest of the day was mine until third team came in/feeding time at

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dog Bowls: The Epic Story of a Alaskan Sled Dog

    It was nearly -20F and snowing when Blaze looked outside his house to see a dog bowl shimmering in the cold winter moonlight. It was hours until the next feeding and already, just minutes after he’d licked it clean and marked it as his, not Tango, Clyde, Nibbs or Lager’s, the remains were frozen solid. He sighed, his food bowl was dear to him and if it would only take his advice and remain close to the house, all would be well…
     Blaze rose up to the challenge, shook himself off and prepared to put himself in peril for the beloved bowl. At great discomfort, he emerged into the night, being sure to keep his tongue well away from the nasty, frozen chain.
     At last…at last, he reached it – at the far ends of his chain. Unable to kick it into place, as he’d seen Remy do so many times before, he did the unthinkable and clamped his teeth ever so gently around the bowl. After all, he thought, Ozzie does it all the time.
     But the bowl bit him! Cut to the quick at the bowl’s ungratefulness, Blaze tried to set it down. But it wouldn’t go! He decided it was the bowls way of telling him it wanted indoors after all. With a sigh and a shake of his head, he turned to trek back to the comfortable, warm straw. By the time he reached the house, all anger at the bowl was forgotten The last thought through his mind, before he settled down, back to back with the bowl, was how glad he was to have a friend watching his back as he dreamed of running so fast that Mambo couldn’t keep up with him…
    Ok, so maybe that’s a little too dramatic, but many of the dogs here are in love with their bowls. Many nights Scott and I have searched for bowls in the snow, only to end up having to crawl into houses to dig them out. Some dogs collect as many as they can and curl up with them. I have no idea why, since they must be very cold!
    Remy plays “soccer” with his bowl for hours, unless it flies out of reach and then he looks at it (and then at you) with such sad eyes that you feel compelled to toss it back to him. Razz does the same thing, but usually he succeeds in sending his bow halfway across the yard. Noah is perhaps the kindest to his bowl. At feeding time he will pace around his circle with the bowl in his mouth and when you come up to him he drops it (or sets it down – depending on how you look at it) and 50% of the time it lands right side up.
    But Ozzie, Scott’s energetic Golden Retriever, is the most enthusiastic about his bowl. He and I will play “Bowl” – when I have time, because he’d play it all day! (Bowl, for those of you who don’t know is basically fetch with a bowl)
    Now, to real news…
    Last night Leila woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me the Northern Lights were out. I dressed quickly and joined her to see them. When she’d been coming over they were dancing, she said, but by the time I got out there they were moving very slowly. They cast an eerie green/blue light over everything. It was awesome! We were laughing because none of the locals (Scott, Bill or the Burmeister’s) were out to see them – actually, since we could only see them from the dog yard, Scott poked his head out of his cabin and told us, laughing, to get out of his front yard! (His cabin is on one side of the dog yard)
    I guess it’s just exciting for those of us who haven’t seen them before! I hope I can see more, maybe when I’m out on a night run later this year.
    Other than that, not a whole lot happened today because it was my day off running and Scott and Aaron are still out (probably will be back between ) running. Yesterday I ran the yearlings 16 miles and tried some new dogs in lead, which is always an adventure. It was beautiful out on the swamps, with blue sky and sunshine. I wish I could get a picture for you – it was so pretty.
    I realize that in the above story you have no idea who these dogs are that I’m writing about, so I’ll start introducing them to you in groups. Hopefully I can get pictures eventually so you can see them as well!
    We’ll start out with the house dogs and retired dogs:
    Ozzie – a 3yr old Golden Retriever that belongs to Scott. In Scott’s words, “He’s 3yrs going on 3wks.” A very playful, energetic dog that actually will retrieve birds for you! The day after I got here Scott and Aaron went to scout out some trails and took Ozzie with them, and their guns, and came back with three or four grouse (which tasted awesome).
    Riley – I don’t have much to say about this dog. She belongs to the Burmeisters and barks constantly. I believe she’s a Blue Heeler.
    Banshe – Mother of three of the younger puppies. Completed every race she ever started with Aaron. She’s 12 now and has diabetes so I have to give her shots twice a day, which she takes very patiently. Banshe’s a gray dog and, to tell you the truth, she’s not a pretty dog at all. If you’ve ever seen Bessie (one of my dogs) then you can get an idea of what she looks like, minus the big feet!
    Garcia & Pinoit – Scott’s old retired leaders, both are big, yellow-white dogs. Pinoit is the father of two of Scott’s good leaders, Lager and Porter. They still get excited every time a team goes out, but they never get to run.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Week, part 1

    Ok, so it's time to continue getting you caught up on what's happened since I arrived in the frozen north.
    Before I begin, I think some introductions are in order:
    Aaron Burmeister - I got in touch with him through a mutual friend, Nancy Yoshida of North Dakota. (As most of you know, she gave me four dogs - three from Aaron - last summer when she got out of dogs). He manages operations for Tumet Industries (a road construction company) which is based in Nome, AK, so in the summer he lives in Nome, where he was born and raised, but in the winter, when he's running dogs, the kennel base is here in Nenana. He's run the Iditarod about 10 times, placing 7th in the 2009 Iditarod. After '09, he sold his team to Dallas Seavey and took a break to spend time with his family. Last year he leased a sprint team from Buddy Streeper and ran some races, including the Wyoming Stage Stop. The few dogs he had were with Sebastian Schnuelle and Jessie Royer, who ran some of them in the Yukon Quest and Iditarod. This year the race goal is the Iditarod, and he and Scott will also run the Kusko and Kobuk 440.
    Scott Smith: up here to help prepare and basically oversee all the training of the race team. He's never worked with Aaron before, but met the Burmeisters when he ran the Iditarod several years ago. Scott got into sled dogs after doing tours in Wyoming, an outfit he actually bought and owned/ran for several years. He's been in dogs for about 18yrs and ran the Iditarod four times between 2004 and 2008. I believe it was in '06 that he moved up to Willow, AK from Wyoming, after selling the tour outfit to Billy Snodgrass. Since then he's focused on mid-distance races, 200-300 miles, and succeeded in beating just about every musher you would want to beat, including Lance Mackey! In the summer he works as a construction contractor, really enjoying custom-home work. He brought his dogs to contribute to the Iditarod team.
    I'll introduce everyone else as they come in, but this should give you an idea of who I'm working with for now!

    The day after I arrived, Aaron and Scott took the first team out after breakfast. I was able to go with Scott for the next run. Scott's dogs had been on the glacier all summer, so they had about 400 miles on them already, but Aaron's had been sitting all summer, so the early runs were 7 miles.
    Then I began my leaf-raking career. Since there are few evergreen trees here, the birch and willow take over everything...and that means tons of leaves every fall. The dog yard, surrounding area and around the house needed to be raked to make it look nice.
    The main dog yard is four rows by twelve rows deep, stake outs. To the left are two rows of girls (at one end girls, at the other are the yearlings) and to the right are all the boys. There's a lot more male dogs than females, even when you include the puppies.
    Younger puppies are off to the left a little way, to keep them away from the adults.

    I was just finishing up raking the boy's side when our closest neighbor, about 5 minutes walk away (farther if you drive!) and his handler stopped by for dinner. Our neighbor is Bill Cotter, who's been running dogs in the Iditarod and the Quest since the 1970's. He's amazing: in his sixties, has had two strokes and had to teach himself to walk again - and he still runs dogs (although he doesn't race so much anymore)! I can't remember what year(s) he won the Yukon Quest, but I know he's done something like 22 Iditarods!
    Leila, his handler, is several years older than me and is from England. Who would've thought I'd be drinking genuine English tea in Alaska of all places? I love her accent! I've been very thankful she's here as time goes on, we can talk over the challenges of handling and what we're learning. Her goal is to get qualified for the Yukon Quest this year and, next year, to be the first English woman to run the Quest! I'll definitely be cheering for her and I hope she reaches her goal. Oh, and did I forget to mention that she's a national champion for martial arts? You don't want to get into a fight with her! :)
    Hearing Aaron, Scott and Bill tell stories about Iditarods and races was like being among legends...I mean, I'd read Gary Paulsen's books and other stories about the Iditarod and people like Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson, but to actually hear the tales from the lips of people who were was really cool.

    A day or so later Aaron headed back to Nome and, because the dogs were going to have several days off, Scott headed back to Willow to finish up some things there. And so, I was left alone with the dogs...and my leaf raking. Without the internet or anything else to do, other than run the few yearlings for 3 miles on a two day on/one day off schedule.
    Fortunately, Leila came over and I returned her visits, and was able to check my e-mails on their extremely slow internet - which broke up the monotony. Being from a large family, it seemed extremely quiet without anyone else around! Leila and I were both holding down the forts, since Bill headed off for vacation at the same time!
    To be continued...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A day at 20 Below...

Good evening! I know we're at least an hour behind Idaho, and even more behind for many of you down there. I just got in from feeding my team, who all had hearty appetites after their run today. As Scott says, "The sound of a dog eating (or drinking) is music to my ears" - it is so crucial for the dogs to eat in this cold weather and in any type of distance racing. Here, if a dog doesn't eat the food gets taken away until the next meal. Few dogs miss a meal and if they do, we know something might be wrong!

    First, an overview of the day:
    Watered and cleaned the yard this morning at about 8am - which is done by headlamp. Yesterday we had a fuel outage in the feed barn, so the meat chunks were only partially thawed. Fortunately, everything is working today, but meat thawing is still behind a bit. It's stayed right around -20 all day, and I hope Aaron and Scott are staying warm on their first camping run. They are running the race dogs to a cabin, about 52 miles, resting 2 hours and then home, which will be about 18 miles.
    I was a bit tired today, because Bananas (Yes, that is the dogs name!) has a shoulder injury and Scott said heat would help so...Bananas spent the night in my room. Being from Sebastian Schnuelle (who routinely brings in up to 20 dogs at a time), he was right at home indoors and took a comfortable spot on my bed, after deeming the easy chair beneath him. It's so hard to be miffed with Bananas, he's so goofy and willing to please. He has racing-style Siberian Husky gray colors/markings and blue eyes, with an overly large ear standing straight up...unfortunately the other ear is hopelessly flopped, giving a dog who is desperately trying to be serious a comical look. I would insert a picture, but have yet to figure out how to get them from my phone to computer, hence the drawn out description.

    After breakfast, before we got dressed up to go dress up the dogs for their run in the cold, I got the booties down from where they were drying and sorted out the ones with holes to throw away and put them in sets.
    Usually I harness and bring the dogs to the line, while Aaron and Scott play "dress up" with the dogs. First booties, then foxtails on most of the male dogs and finally, a coat over it all. Scott likes to put neck gaiters on too, since these keep the cold air from coming in the top of the coat. I think all the dogs look great all dressed up, and they are very patient as they wait!
    Aaron took off first, his team pulling a snowmobile, and then Scott on a sled. By the way, for those of you who get dog food from or know Kenny Hess: his sleds are highly regarded up here! Both Scott and Aaron have sleds from him.
    Once they were gone, I mixed up some water bait before hooking up my team. I'll introduce all the dogs in later posts (there's about 56 of them total) but I'm running a ten dog team right now. Tyler is a seasoned leader, about 6yrs old, and I'm working in the yearlings up front with him. We've had some small adventures, but again, I'll save those for later posts. :)
    I took off and proceeded to nearly dump the sled as we rounded the few sharp corners that are immediately out of the yard. It wouldn't be a problem getting aroudn them if I was on a flexible sled, but the sled I'm using is a lot more stiff and less maneuverable than anything I'm used to. I guess that's why they call it a "training sled" - if I can stay on it around those crazy corners (without bouncing off any trees) then I shouldn't have any trouble staying on a flexible one!
    We got out onto the runway (Aaron has a plane) and I breathed a sigh of relief. At the end of the runway is our last major turn and then everything's easy (flat and rather boring).
    I'd never gone on the 18 mile trail before today (which all the local's call the 20 mile trail. I have no idea why :) ) Aaron made me a map, but I was a bit concerned. There are lots of trapline trails here and I needed to make sure I didn't turn on one of those.
    I had to stop halfway through to put hand warmers in my mittens, I've been using gear from Aaron but not everything works so hands got cold in the Northern Outfitters mitts, but the pair I used today was even worse. Then, shortly afterwards, I decided to switch leaders because the yearling up with Tyler kept messing around. She's just too crazy and excited to focus up there after the first several miles.
    Our run home was uneventful and by the time I'd watered and chained up the dogs again I was warmed up. It was about 2pm AK time then, so I ate lunch and then started sewing more foxtails. The neighbors handler (I'll introduce them all soon), Leila, came over and sewed dog coats at the same time. We both had to laugh because neither of us enjoys sewing...and look what we're doing for the dogs! LOL
    And so ends the day, me sitting here listening to music and writing away...I've got a lot of fun stories for you that I can't wait to share, and I still have to go back to the first week's adventures, so stay posted! It is soooo nice to be back on the internet.
Happy Trails!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Alaska! Day One:

Hello everyone! After nearly two months without internet, it is time to update you all on my adventures, challenges and life up here in Alaska. For those of you who didn't know I was coming up here to handle for the winter, I'll try to begin at the begining...

I arrived on the 8th of October, flying from Spokane to Seattle, where I had a 1.5hour layover, and then into Fairbanks. I brought Rocky with me:

(I'll get into the reasons I came and why I brought Rocky in a later post.)

I was thrilled to finally get here, and the Fairbanks airport is so small that I had no trouble finding Aaron and Scott - they were parked out front in a dog truck. Well, it actually wasn't just any dog was John Baker's! (If you follow the Iditarod, you will recall that John Baker won the 2011 Iditarod!!!) After saying hello and grabbing my bags, and a very travel weary Rocky, we headed out of town.

Sad to say, my first meal in AK was McDonalds.  :( Aaron and Scott had just gotten in town with all the dogs the night before and since Aaron, his wife Mandy and their son Hunter live in Nome, AK part of the year, there was little food in the house! Not frequenting fast food restaraunts, I experienced slight culture shock. :)

After McDonalds, we headed out of town to Iditarod musher Jessie Royer's where we picked up eight dogs from Sebastian Schnuelle. Sebastian had run a few of Aaron's dogs last year in both the Iditarod in the Quest, so this year was Aaron's year to run Sebastian's dogs. Scott also had some yearlings that we dropped off to go down to Montana to do tours for the winter.

And then, to the kennel. It was quite dark when I got here and by the time we fed the dogs it was time to turn in...