Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011, Hello 2012

    I would like to wish all my readers a Happy New Year! As the door closes on 2011 I'm reminded of how far God led me last year and I look forward to the new year.
    2011 has taken me farther away from my family than I'd ever imagined and I've learned to rely on my Savior more than ever before. Here's some verses that have encouraged and strengthened me these last few months:

    Genisis 12:1: "...the word of God came to Abram in a vision: "Don't be afraid, Abram. I am your protector; your reward will be very great.""
    Just like Abram, I am sojourning in the far north - a stranger in the land.

    On the 10th of October a verse jumped out at me and I pray I can live it:
    Micah 6:8: "Human being, you have already been told what is good, what the Lord demands of you - no more than to act justly, love grace and walk in purity with your God."

    When I was feeling extremely homesick in early November, I came across 1 Peter 5:7: "Throw all your anxieties upon him, because he cares about you."

    Before coming here, I'd never really appreciated the Psalms. How that has changed! They are full of encouragement when things aren't going like you'd hoped (for me, being homesick!). However, one verse that really jumped out at me is Psalms 111:10: "...the first and foremost point of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all those living by it gain good common sense. His praise stands forever." Sounds a bit like Proverbs, doesn't it?

    I'm daily reminded that I'm an imperfect person. Alas, how many times I feel pretty good about myself because I "know about God", while others don't acknowledge Him at all. However, I recieved a clear reminder - Matthew 11:19c (Jesus speaking) "...the proof of wisdom is in the actions it produces."

    And finally, just a couple days ago I read another excellent reminder - also from Matthew.
    Matthew 15:18: "But what comes out of your mouth is actually coming from your heart, and that is what makes a person unclean."

    Just some of the things God has been showing me in 2011...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

December 29th - What I Learned Today

    Today wasn't a busy day, kind of relaxed, but I learned a lot of "tricks of the trade" from Aaron.
    This morning he told me about his breeding program, which is based on bloodlines he's been developing for over a decade. Before that time he did a lot of outcrosses to sprint lines, but he discovered it wasn't worth it for the number of pups he'd have to raise to get some to make the team. So, he went back to the older, distance husky lines that he had at the beginning.
    We also talked about my team. Tyler is going to be running with Leila in the Knik 200. I hope he does well for her, I guess Bill came this morning to take Tyler to his kennel so they can work him into training. The more I find out about Coldfoot, the more I like him. His mom, Lucy, was actually on Lance Mackey's winning Iditarod team (in 07 I believe). Kanuti is, I guess, a lot like Lucy but I've been spending extra time with her and I think she'll come around eventually. And then Trig has started leading for me also, so that gives me another dog up front to give Tyler a break. Aaron told me the yearlings probably won't learn direction commands this year - usually dogs don't "remember" them until they are two or three years old.
    This afternoon we got his race sled out and went through gear. And we did an experiment with two cookers. The Burmeister's old handler had insisted that the cooker he used, with a raised burner, melted snow faster. So, Aaron showed me how to light them and I practiced melting snow like I might do camping. Aaron was glad to know that his cooker, with the lower burner, melted the snow much better! We took out the extra height in the second cooker, which is the one I'll be using, so it should work well for me now.
    One thing no one ever told me about a cooker is that there needs to be a wick in them. Aaron showed me how to make one out of a rag, and it should last all season. It's a good thing I never needed mine that I've carried at home - everyone had told me just to drop a match in the Heet to start it up.
    Aaron's sled is pretty cool, it's one of Hans Gatt's sleds and is very lightweight. It's a sit-down sled, your seat being the cooler. Aaron is using an actual cooler, but he said a five-gallon bucket with foam duck-taped around it and the bucket lids (you can order them from a place like Adanac Sleds) work just as well. When it's cold, the food is GOING to freeze eventually.
    Something I'd never thought about before is how well snow insulates. Aaron said you always want to camp in fluffy, soft snow - just packing it down by walking through it before setting the straw out for the dogs - because it insulates the dogs so well. If you want your dog food to sit out for an hour or two while you get some sleep, put the cooler in deep snow - don't leave it by the sled - because it will stay warm.
    Also, for your own comfort and warmth, you want to dig yourself a trench in the snow (you can be efficient by using this snow in the cooker) to sleep in. Aaron usually uses two flakes for straw for himself and then puts down his sleeping bag. On top of himself he puts a survival tarp - which reflects the heat and traps it in your trench.
    He told a story about one Iditarod when it was -60F and he stopped outside of the Cripple checkpoint (only a mile and a half away!) because he couldn't go any farther. He made himself a trench and slept, toasty warm, for about five hours. Rick Swenson came up on him and thought he was dead, frozen, and had to shake Aaron to wake him up. The generator at the checkpoint was running and they could hear it at his camp spot!
    Since you may camp on the side of the trail, it's also beneficial to teach the dogs to all lay down on one side of the gangline. This is a trick Aaron learned from John Baker. This makes it easier for you to work on packed down snow, while the dogs are being insulated.
    Aaron doesn't use coats for camping - they compress the dogs fur thus making them colder. He will use them in wind or extreme cold if they have a belly guard to keep the dogs from freezing. However, foxtails work just as well - or actually, better! (Mandy, her mom and I made about a dozen of them yesterday)
    I've always carried a knife with me on the sled, but Aaron gave me a serrated knife for my sled for Christmas. The best way to carry it is by duck-taping the sheath to the back stanchion of the sled (easy to reach) and then putting a string through the handle with a clip to clip to a spare neckline in case it comes out of the sheath. You always take a serrated knife, he told me, because it is sharper and will actually cut through cable.
    Another fun fact: Cordura booties didn't start being made until the mid-1990's! All they used was fleece and fleece booties last for about 30miles. Compare that to Cordura which lasts several runs - probably average of 100miles depending on the type of snow; I guess that's why I was told earlier this season that if you're fast at booting dogs you have a future in racing!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

First run in the dark

    Last night I did my first night run - left the yard at about 2:45pm and got back about 6:30pm. It was a smooth run with my nine dog team - Bananas and Maggot having gone back to Sebastian and Rowdy being out with a wrist injury. Didn't see any moose and had to concentrate on finding the trail at the 32 mile turn around. I actually appreciated Tyler - he kept us on the invisible trail and back to the main trail home!
    I was pretty excited to be able to try out my new headlamp. I'd been told the Coast headlamp at Lowes is a nice, affordable, lightweight, headlamp and I finally got I'd have a backup for my other headlamp. I should've picked one up back home, they were $44.95 up here and $40 back home! I kept it on half brightness and had plenty of light to see the team. The lowest beam is great for chores.
    Today went on a shorter run, it's supposed to get very cold again so I ran today in case I have to take extra time off.

    And now, I have some "notes" from talking sled dogs with Bill Cotter. I'm trying to convince him to write a book...
    Feet: Bill likes dogs with tough feet. This means that it is a consideration in breeding and he supplements with the famous "Black Pill" (also known as the "Cotter Pill") which has oils specifically needed to promote good coats and feet. (This pill is also available for people, Bill told me it will really help your skin in the dry, cold winters here.)
    He doesn't like to use booties because they cause injuries and slow the team down. I asked him under what conditions he booties the dogs and he said, "...the eskimo's have 40 different words to describe snow." In other words, it's hard to explain. However, he was able to tell me he always booties the dogs on rough, icy snow or ice and on windblown or very cold snow (as well as very cold, wet/fresh snow) and not in warm weather. If the dogs are snowballing, you can bootie them or Bill likes to bootie just the rear feet because the front ones are easier to clean out periodically. Also, since booties affect the dogs balance, etc, the front feet (wrists) are more prone to injury when booties are on. To help prevent snowballing you can also trim the hair between the pads.
    Another trick he shared with me was that of taking the booties off 10mi from the checkpoint. This gives the feet time to work out any swelling and prevents sores from the booties. It also works out the "kinks" in the wrists and feet.
    Feet injury care: No foot powders. Either Ophir Gold foot cream or Pink Ointment (can get from the vet - has Betadine in it.)
    Harness rubs: *Blue* Gold Bond powder.
    Soreness or wounds: Mountain Ridge emu oil blend. Bill said he uses it for everything and it's better than Algyval.
    Stretching dogs back: Should be done periodically, especially in a distance race because the dogs are hunched forward as they pull.
    To stretch dog: Bend over dog and grab around the dogs body, right behind the front legs. Lift up and back, until you are holding the dog completely off the ground (back feet off the ground). Hold the dog in this position until the back legs stretch down and touch the ground.
    Range of motion in wrists: Wrists should be able to bend so that the dog's pad touches the back of the front leg. If it can't, something is injured.
    For a distance race: equal run rest time (6hours run/6hours rest or 4hours run/4hours rest). Bill said any dog team will respond well to this schedule. It is used especially when a team is sick or tired out - to bring them back and regain speed. The problem is sleep time for the musher...there isn't much on such a schedule.


    I hope everyone had a good Christmas. I wasn't sure how mine would go, being away from home and all...but it went better than expected.
    Christmas Eve the Burmeisters were gone to town all day to pick up family from the airport, so we cut up twelve 50lb blocks of meat into snacks. It took a few hours, bagging it and then burying them in the snow to keep them frozen.
    That evening I went with Bill to Christmas Eve mass at the little catholic church in Nenana. It was nice to go, I've really missed our church at home, and I was glad he invited me because otherwise I would've been all alone for the evening at the kennel.
    The next morning I was up early (5am our time) because my brother Garrett called and was "sharing" his stocking with me. Alas, the chocolate couldn't be virtually enjoyed! I was disappointed that my package I'd mailed over 2wks ago didn't get home in time, AK postal service really is slow...
    After breakfast, I walked over to Bill's to give Leila and Bill their gifts. I felt bad because as I walked up the steps to give Bill his I dropped the candycane and it broke...sorry Bill!
    Then I ran the dogs, while Leila and Scott rode the snowmobile ahead of me to groom the trail. I guess Leila got really cold: it was -3 at the kennel and usually about 10 degrees colder on the trail. The wind on the flats really gets you.
    In the afternoon I had a good talk with my friend, Josi, in Idaho and then caught up with Wendy, a friend in MT. Then Scott and I fed the dogs and headed over to Bill's for Christmas dinner. He told some stories about the 'old days' Iditarod's and we played a card game Leila taught us called "Cheat". We were all laughing so hard the game moved very slowly, but it was a lot of fun.
    I want to wish everyone a late Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

 Today is a day to celebrate – we are now gaining daylight! Today was our first step in the right direction: one one-hundredth of a second. By January we’ll be gaining 1-1.5 minutes per day and by March there will be 12 hours of daylight.
    Scott and Aaron left today for their 190 mile camping trip. We are nearing the end of training for the race dogs, with perhaps a 100 mile continuous (no stops except for snacking) run after Christmas.
    In January, Scott, Aaron and Leila will be running the Knik 200 (Leila, of course, with Bill’s dogs).

    Yesterday I had another adventure. I was the first one out and no one else was running. Twelve miles into the run I saw a bunch of ravens to the side of the trail, pecking at something. We were running in a rectangular swamp area bordered by trees and maybe a hundred feet to my right was a wolf kill. I couldn’t see the body, but you could see wolf tracks coming and going, where they’d laid in the trail to eat (a fair distance apart from each other) and other wolf sign. I know it was a fresh kill because the day before nothing was there.
    Razz was looking in the woods both times we passed through, but I saw nothing. I’m sure the wolves were watching, though!

    And now, before I go any farther, I need to finish introducing the dogs – just Scott’s athlete’s left!
    First, his six adorable puppies (which are humongous now, but still lovably cute). These pups are out of Mouse and a dog from Jay Cadzow that goes back to old village lines:
-         Bluegrass: He’s finally catching up to his brother’s in size, with floppy ears and a “smile”. He used to be my shadow, but now he thinks he’s ready to take on the world alone.
-         Belle: Scott was going to spell it Bell, but I reminded him that we didn’t want her to be a “ding dong” and added an “e” to the end. She is a princess! Prim and white with black markings so that she’s almost a piebald.
-         Sweetwater: is a feisty, small girl. She has an attitude and will be a handful, but probably a good leader. I think she’s more like Mouse than you’d think at first glance.
-         Harpoon: a big, white, cuddly polar bear. My “favorite” from the first. He is like a miniature Noah and has a great personality. The biggest boy and so snowy white! Sweetwater and Harpoon are quite the combo; when I was first walking the pups on leashes they were the ones that pulled the hardest.
-         Yonder: has a big coat like Grizman, but is a little princess. Probably the best behaved of the pups, sweet and good tempered. She’s middle sized between Sweetwater and Belle.
-         Victory: was one of the smaller pups when I got here but he’s caught up to Harpoon now! Big and brown, with floppy ears. He doesn’t realize his size and tries to be your buddy. Nice and leggy.
    You’ve already met the yearlings on my team (Ruger, Razz, Rowdy and Urchin) so we’ll skip to the adults:
-         Mouse: is Scott’s oldest dog. She’s from Jason Barron and has been a point dog all her life. She is feisty, but shy with people until she gets to know you. Loves attention, yet she’s so submissive that she often rolls on her back when you’re trying to harness her. In harness she’s always ready to go.
-         Cujo: is another Mouse pup out of a dog from Jason Barron. He’s rather shy as well and not as smooth as Scott’s other dogs, but he’s a good leader.
-         Lager: an awesome leader with a great personality. Another Mouse pup, out of Piniot (the retired old dog I’ve already introduced). He barks, loud, in your face while you’re booting him up and lunges with excitement. He’s amazing!
-         Porter: Lager’s brother. Was never a great leader until this year, but Scott says he’s outshining Lager now. Not really outgoing, but always crazy to go once he’s in harness. Barks loudly like Lager.
-         Pepperjack: Amazingly athletic and yet calm. He is Swingley/Buser lines and Scott got him from Ellie Clause, I think he’s seven years old. All his pups take after him: leggy and athletic.
-         Nibbs: also from Ellie Clause. Scott told me he was the only dog in his team who wouldn’t lead. Well, today he led Scott’s team out on their run! He lives up to his name (one of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan) and is always happy. Built a bit stockier than some of Scott’s other dogs.
-         Blaze: out of one of Scott’s old leaders, Hen, and Pepperjack. Just like ‘Pepper’, but a less reserved, dignified manner. Another leader, Scott said he and Pepperjack are his smoothest dogs. Nothing else to say: just an awesome dog!
-         Flynn: Blaze’s brother. Leggier than Blaze and smoothes out the longer the runs get. He is kind of shy, but coming around. Poor guy, he lost his tail earlier this season.
-         Midge: Sister to Blaze and Flynn. Not huge, but she’s racy and fast! A very funny personality, can’t quite figure her out. Young leader.
-         Bonnie: A lot like mouse, just friendly and more “bouncy”. Has led Scott to the finish for races last year.
-         Clyde: Bonnie’s brother. Big but he leads with Nibbs! He thinks he’s a little lap dog. You’d think a dog so big would have trouble being smooth, but Clyde proves that’s not true.
-         Mambo: A bit different style from some of Scott’s other dogs, but still smooth and tough. I don’t think Mambo leads, but that may change! Very happy and friendly.
-         Tango: Mambo’s brother and a good leader. Kind of an “unhappy” personality – unless it’s time to run. Has run in a few Iditarod’s.

    Well, now you’ve met all the dogs. Hopefully I’ll get pictures soon…

    Before I sign off I want to congratulate everyone who went to West Yellowstone – I missed being there and I hope it went well for you all!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Our first 30 mile run

    Just got back from our run. It was fast on the newly groomed trail and the wind did not blow in the trail!3h10m for 33 miles. I had a bit of an issue with Ruger bullying Bananas in lead, and Bananas was afraid to take turns whenever he had to pull or push Ruger in the right direction, so I moved Maggot up and things went better.
    There is a sort of "roundabout" with three trails coming into it at triangular corners that goes around a beaver house. I decided to go left, the long way around, rather than keeping straight on my trail, so that I'd be able to use commands - in the hope that the yearlings will begin to pick them up. Scott and I made sure the trail around the beaver house was good last night, grooming it in all directions, so I was hoping for smooth turns.
    Alas, Maggot was too good at taking commands! I said "haw" and he went on the far side, but when we had to turn left again, to go around the roundabout, he turned a bit late and had to cut across some snow and over the trail. I gave the "gee" command, to get him back on the trail, but he overshot the trail again. I don't know if he couldn't see it or if my "gee, gee, gee" and then "haw, haw,haw" (given to guide him back to the trail) confused him. We ended up doing a figure eight on the little pond (where I couldn't hook down to go up and set him right) and went back to the first intersection, took a right (gee) and contiued on our way. I was laughing so hard, it was awesome to see such a responsive leader. Poor Maggot looked a bit confused, but we went all the way around on the way back without any issues - I made sure to give one command at a time this time!
    Other than that, the run was uneventful. We saw a moose cow and calf, well off the trail, and several ptarmigan - which are very pretty white birds that look to be a bit like grouse (same size, including brain size!)
    This morning Blayne (Buddy) Streeper, his wife Lena, daughter Ava(?) and handler John Stewart (from Scotland) stopped by. I didn't get to talk long, since I had a team to run and they were gone before I got back, but they were very nice. I hope I can get an opportunity to see some of their dogs in person at some point, the pictures in Mushing Magazine just aren't the same! I think that when I am tired of distance mushing, it would be a blast to do the Stage Stop. I used to think of the Streeper's as being sprint mushers, and sprint mushers going short distances, but they just won the Alaska Excursion's race (the same race Leila was running) and that was two days of 40 miles. It would be fun to have a team go fast for that distance!
    Well, that's all for now. Hope everyone is looking forward to Christmas!

Snowmobiling the Trail

    Yesterday Aaron and Scott groomd the trail. I followed close behind with a load of straw for the cabin (where we'll do our camping). It was a fifty mile trip, and I believe I've seen all the trail system I'll be using (at least for a while). Today I'll be doing my first 30 mile run with the yearlings, so we'll see how it goes.
    On the ride we saw what I mistakenly thought was a wolf (it was so far away, it was hard to tell), but it was actually a fox. We got to watch it for a while, since it was in a big, open area and running away from us.
    The Cabin is a little, one room cabin with a stove. It's on a lake, which is frozen over. There's plenty of room to camp all the teams and, since yesterday, there will be pleny of straw for us to use.
    We were about three miles from the kennel when I had an unexpected adventure: I ran out of gas. It was dark and Scott andd Aaron were ahead of me. I remembered how to switch tanks, but forgot to prime the engine before starting it and, thus, couldn't get it started.
    So there I was, guessing they'd go all the way back before realizing I wasn't with them. The only light I had with me was a little one on a carabiner that I'd gotten at a race an unknown number of years ago. It worked for me to switch tanks, but I couldn't get it back on after I'd turned it off.
    I considered walking the three miles home, since I knew exactly where I was, but remembered you're not supposed to leave your machine.
    I won't say I wasn't scared - after all, the Alaskan woods are big woods and I didn't have a faithful dog (or gun) with me. Plus, I'd seen the neighbor's cleaning lady a few days ago and she'd said there were some big wolves in the area at present. I know a wolf frequents the area I was stuck in about once a week - just a loner, who passes in and out judging by tracks. And though I thought it would be cool to see a wild wolf, alive in it's proper habitat, I didn't want to see anything that night! Moose I wasn't worried about, although they might have been a problem if I'd walked home since there's a few that frequent those last couple miles.
    So, I did the sensible thing and laid down on the snowmobile and gazed up at the stars. It wasn't completely peaceful, the highway isn't terribly far away and I could hear a big truck every so often. Still, I was able to make out the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. I wish I knew more constellations, the stars were very bright and seemed so close that I could reach out and touch them. I saw a shooting star and my only wish was that the northern lights would make an appearance, but they did not.
    And then I heard a snowmobile and Aaron arrived and helped me start up my machine. I felt kind of silly forgetting to prime it, since I'd done everything else correctly. Oh, well, lesson learned!
    Made it home without any issues and the experience has only made me like running dogs better - you don't have to worry about running out of gas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Another Week Passes...

    Well, tomorrow is the weekend! I'm actually not running Saturday so I'll get a day off...haha! Actually, we may do some trail work. I'll need to be moving up to some 30's and 40's with the yearlings so the best way to learn the trail is by snowmobile (so I know what to expect). After the 40's I'll get to do some camping...finally.
    For the race team they'll get their long (180 mile) camping trip/run in this week before Christmas.
    This week was filled with long days, Aaron was out of town and Scott ran one of the two race teams daily on runs that were 8-9 hours long - ending with a 75 mile run for each team. The dogs look great, but there were a few injuries that will have the weekend to heal up.
    My runs were 3 hours (at least) for 25 miles. The wind blew in the trail daily, so poor Scott often had to break it out on the way out and the way in - while we had his trail to follow (usually) on the way out. It's good for the dogs, though, because you might see these tough conditions in a race.
    Speaking of races...the racing season has officially begun up here! The Alaskan Excursion race, put on by Ryan Redington, is this weekend and it will be Leila's first race. I wish her well!
    Down in the lower 48 is the West Yellowstone race, I'm missing it this year - last year was my first year there and I had a blast. I hope it is a success for everyone.
    With Leila and Bill gone, I volunteered to take care of the 30+ dogs they left behind. So, tonight I fed over 80 dogs - all our dogs (Scott went Christmas shopping in town this evening) and Bill's. I think it took me an hour to do them all...
   Due to truck issues on the way to the Alaskan Excursion, Buddy Streeper, his wife, child and handler stopped by - but it was only for a quick meal and I was out feeding the dogs while they were here so only got to say a quick hi before they took off. It sounds like they'll be back here on Monday, so that should be interesting. (For those non-mushers, the Streeper's are a sprint and stage stop team that is ranked #1 in the world! One of Aaron's dogs, Java, is from them.)
    In other news, I'm going to be published (again) in the CKC magazine. It's always a pleasure to write for CKC, who has been such an awesome sponsor these past years. I can't wait to see the article - it's on Alaskan Huskys.
    Oh, and today my team passed a test: Aaron ran them. As I hooked up and watched them leave the yard it was rather hard. I mean, I know how they each run and their preferences and this was Aaron's first time with them - I couldn't help being a little worried! He said they looked good, which was exactly what I'd hoped for.
    I've also been reading a great book by C.S. Lewis (of course, aren't all his books awesome?): That Hideous Strength. Not my typical genre (kind of modern sci-fi, but with a British twist), but it has been a lot of fun...can't wait to finish it!
    The book I read before THS was Economics in One Lesson by Henry Haszlit. A great, practical book. I discovered that economics is just plain common sense...or you could say that the economics principles that work could be summed up by saying: "Capitalism with compassion."
    But I won't bore you with one economics lesson...for now! Next post I'll have another story for you...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wheel Dogs

    The other night Scott and I were talking dogs and discussing the merits of single-wheel dogs. I would’ve never run a single dog in the first one or two sections in front of the sled (wheel), but now I’m a believer in the method.
    Although you may lose some power without the four dogs in the back, it makes the next section (one or two sections in team up from wheel) an ‘honest’ position – those dogs have to work too. Until Scott told me we put the weakest dogs in those spots, I’d never really thought about it. But what he said is true: I automatically put my strongest dogs in wheel and the best front end dogs are arrayed in front. And who goes in the middle (in team)? Those dogs I forget about, the dogs that don’t stand out.
    Taking some of the power out of the wheel sections makes the rest of the team work harder as well, because up in lead the dogs just aren’t pulling as hard anyway. Thus, without being able to rely on the back four doing so much of the work, they have to lean into their harnesses a bit more.
    Another benefit is that the wheel dogs have more freedom to move out of the way around tight turns and switchbacks – which I have noticed on our tight portage trails. The dogs can jump over or under the line which helps you navigate the turn by jerking the sled out of the turn and also keeps them from getting wrapped around a tree or off the trail. Single-wheel is also beneficial for looking at dogs more closely, whether judging performance or soundness.
    While on the subject of wheel dogs, another mistake I realized I was making, was putting my biggest dogs in wheel. It’s actually hard on the ‘big boys’ to be back there since the tug-line pulls down on their hips at a sharper angle in wheel than further up the gang-line. Thus, it is best to put your big, powerful dogs up one or two positions and put smaller (but not tiny) dogs in wheel instead.

    Another introduction…
    Noah: from Bill Cotter, running with the race team. He’s Bill’s trademark big, white dog. Although he’s a leader, he’s not as competent as the other 22 leaders on the race team, so he hasn’t really led. The biggest dog here, it would be horrible to have to bag him if he got injured!   

    Just Scott’s dogs to go now…

Stories from the North, episode 1: How Jeff King died

    As promised, I have a story for you!
    I was told to ask Bill Cotter about the time he was running the Yukon Quest with Jeff King. Now, unfortunately I cannot reproduce the atmosphere or Bill's quiet telling of the tale - with laughter - but I hope you can enjoy it even so! I know musher stories change with time, so hopefully I'm getting all the facts correct...
    It was one of the first Yukon Quests, back before cookers and when mushers would stop to start a fire and cook their food and dry everything. Bill and Sonny Linder and a couple others were, therefore, stopped along the Yukon River and decided to cut up wood and make camp.
    Sonny was carrying wood to stack by the fire and Bill, having cut it, was tossing it down the bank to him. And then Jeff King entered the show. He decided to stop, but Bill didn't hear him - if anyone else did - and he walked over to where they were working. Again, Bill had no idea he was there. He tossed some more wood...and one ill-fated log hit Jeff on the head.
    Of course, the others saw this and told Bill. Jeff was knocked out and they moved him to the fire, trying to find a heartbeat and see if he was breathing. They couldn't find anything. At last, they decided he was, really, dead. After taking care of his dogs, they talked about what to do with Jeff's dogs, sled and the body.
    After some discussion, Bill suggested that they leave the sled, let the dogs loose to follow. He asked Sonny Linder if he would empty his sled (Bill would carry the gear) and carry Jeff's body to the next checkpoint.
    Now, I've never met Sonny Linder, but apparently he's a very quite person and when he speaks, Bill says, you'd better listen! And he spoke. "Bill, YOU KILLED him, YOU carry him!"
    So, they prepared to leave camp. At that moment, Jeff King said, "Be quiet!" Their discussion had disturbed him. Of course, everyone was overjoyed that he was alive and they kept him talking. He had a big headache.
    I'm not sure if Jeff finished that years Yukon Quest or not, but I wonder if Bill can claim some credit for Jeff's success because Jeff hadn't won a race until after he was knocked out...and he went on to win the Iditarod!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Great Alaskan Pastime

    Sorry it's been a few days, folks. Things have been pretty busy - long days running dogs. Aaron is in Nome for his last trip (I'll believe it when I see it!) for the season so Scott has been on the trail 9+ hours per day running 70 mile runs. It's been really warm, in the mid-twenties, and windy so the swamps/flats trails we run in are blown in daily and since we do out-n-backs, Scott has to break trail on the way back as well.
    Today was my third time doing the 26 mile trail. Yesterday and today I was thrilled to have Banana's back on my team. I'll introduce him and the other dogs from Sebastian Schnuelle who are here at the end of this post. The great thing is that he's a competent leader! The sad thing is that he had a tricep shoulder injury and is an injury prone dog (his gait) so he's off the main team. There's talk about him going back to Sebastian to do tours...I hope he stays for a while!
    Yesterday, the second time I'd done the 26 mile trail, we had a bad time at the turn around. Guess who was in lead...yep: Tyler. I missed the trail, found it and thought the dogs would go cross-country (about fifty feet) to regain the trail. Tyler wasn't thrilled about going off the trail, but proceeded to cross the trail and continue into the field. Now, in the drifts the only place your snowhook (basically, an anchor) will hold is on the packed down trail. Believe it or not, if you walk in the snow and the trail is not visible, you can tell when you've reached the trail - it's noticably firmer.
    In the end we made it on the trail and turned around. I was soaked with sweat by then (multiple trips up to correct the leaders) and moved Tyler out of lead...which proceeded to leave me playing swap-the-leaders until Tyler ended up back in lead. Some snowmobilers passed me as I was putting Tyler back in lead and I'm sure they wondered what the crazy dog musher was doing to the dogs! (It was in a wide open field and in that section I switched dogs twice, not to mention trying to give one of the lead candidates several opportunities to STAY AHEAD OF THE TEAM)
    Today went better, Banana's amazed me at the blown in turn around and I was so impressed I stopped to praise him profusely. It is a joy to run such a dog! And he's so great for training the younger dogs because he's not pushy or mean. Tyler, meanwhile, ran in single-wheel where I could keep an eye on him. (Wheel - the position closest to the sled).
    And now, for the introduction of the Great Alaskan Pastime: Weather watching!
    This is no joke, every morning someone asks the temperature and there is a mini-conversation about it: comparing it with yesterday, if it will get cooler, has it warmed or cooled since chores, etc. I have to confess that I've begun to join in these talks...I'm afraid I'm getting acclimated! The colder the weather, the larger the crowd around the temperature gage. We've even gone over to the neighbors (Bill's) to see that it's a few degree's warmer...
    Actually, that was a joke...although it is a fact that they are about 3 degrees warmer than us.
    When I first got here, Scott told me he was going to get me a temperature gage for my window because one winter he and Aaron called each other every day during a cold spell to compare temps. I still don't have a thermometer, but I check the electric one on the way to the dog yard daily.
    There are probably half a dozen regular (non-electronic) gages around the house, kennel and barns, but I was informed that they are there for show and are not trustworthy. During an investigation I found that the one inside the garage reads a lower temperature than the one on the woodshed which doesn't match the one on the tree - which is stuck at -20F. One of these gages is from the Nenana general store and reads: Happiness in Alaska...-50F!
    Also, during the cold snap when it warmed up (to -20F), Aaron would call the neighbor 'up the hill' to check the temperature and make sure it wasn't colder there - where they were running.
    Apparently, you could make good money off the weather here. In Nenana there is a huge jackpot for the person who can most acurately guess when the spring river ice breakup occurs. The Nenana Ice Classic is the name of this 100 year old tradition.
    So now if you are playing a game of Alaska trivia and ask what sport is second to hockey up here, you can answer with confidence: weather watching. If you want to be more specific and really impress your friends, say: temperature calculating.

    And now, dog introductions:
    Bananas: A cute, blue eyed Siberian Husky looking boy. He led my first team here and was introduced in an previous post. I love his goofy personality - kind of shy, but so sweet! He'll often roll over on his back when he see's me coming to have be scratch his belly.
    Maggot: Yes, that's this poor dogs name! He is like a hound dog - short coat, long legs, floppy ears. He also led my first team but is on the main team for now, although he's laid up for a few days due to soreness. He actually doesn't lose tons of weight from the cold weather, which surprised me. He likes to sleep with his bowl, but will come out of his house if you promise to scratch his back!
    Skunk: A cute, gray/white girl. She's old, around 11yrs old, but still has lots of energy to run. Friendly and although she's not fast, a great leader.
    Saffron: looks like a reddish arctic fox. Small and bushy! She looks really fat with her coat (and she is, being an extremely easy keeper!) but she also leads well. Kind of "in her own little world". She likes Bananas.
    Grizman: looks identical to Togo, long coat and all. But he moves amazingly well and is a tough old leader. Scott knew him as a puppy. His best friend is his brother Vasser.
    Vasser: what Griz looks like underneath the coat! Smaller and more excitable, but another good leader. Both these dogs are around 8yrs old and getting rather bored of the long runs, yet they have been really happy all fall.
    Finn: is a beautiful red dog. He does a little 'happy hop' as you lead him to the gangline. I guess he only leads when he's happy, and he's been leading. He also has a thick, although not long, coat and is built more stocky like Saffron than some of the other dogs here.
    Inuk: looks like a malamute cross. He's big, bushy coated and stocky. Another good leader, though, and extremely happy! I believe I overheard that he was a dog Sebastian picked up from the pound. If so, Inuk is even more amazing.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alaska: the land of extremes

    A few days ago it was 42 F and raining...if you do the math that's an eighty degree swing in just two weeks (and most of that two weeks was under zero)! Bill Cotter, after living here for forty years, had this to say: "Alaska, the land of extremes." The trail turned to a sheet of ice and I was dreading the possibility of having to navigate it...
    Rainy days seem to be the day for visits. Bill and Leila came over (driving, so the trail wouldn't get punched through) to visit and also to get their second ton of poultry blend (frozen, ground meat) feed. I helped them load it and then went over with them to unload it as well. It got me out of my room and doing something outside, so I was pretty happy. It's much easier than bucking bales of hay!
    A day or two later I decided to go over in the afternoon to see Leila and it so happened that she had the same idea and came over here. The sad part is that she must have slipped inside here before I went over there, so I missed her! I got a laugh out of it, anyway, and had a good time talking dogs with Bill and taking Rocky on a walk.
    It's taken us all week to get decent trails again - dustings of snow every morning and this morning an inch or two. The Burmeister's had a trip to Anchorage, so it was just Scott and I running dogs this week. It was rather nice to be able to make my own breakfast for a change...I like to get up early and get the day going, but when the Burmeister's are home Scott and I have to eat with them which means breakfast is usually served between 10-11am! Way to late for my liking.
    I planned on writing more on my early adventures, but there's so much to write about I think I'll skip it or save it for later and go ahead and introduce Mandy and Hunter Burmeister:
    Mandy is Aaron's wife. From what I understand, she used to train all the dogs with Aaron before Hunter, but now she's too busy. We get along fine, but I've realized just how much my mom does...I miss her so much!
    Hunter is three and, to be completely honest, he's the most spoiled child I've met. That's made it really hard since at our home you didn't have your way in everything and I'm so thankful for that discipline now that I'm older. You know, they say dogs are a lot like kids: I wonder why people tend to demand more obedience from their dogs than their children? I'll have to think about it on my next run and come up with a philosophical essay for say the least, I've learned some valuable life lessons here!
    Not to end on such a note, I'll introduce you to my team. We had a great 22 mile run today and will be moving up to the 26 mile trail tomorrow. I'm so excited about my young leaders, because I'd rather work with them and watch them improve than have Tyler up there messing around - although I have to admite he is doing better now!
    In order of how they were run today (lead to wheel):
    Coldfoot - a yearling of Aaron's. He's not really hard-headed in lead, but he gets along pretty well with everyone and I think that as he grows up he'll get better. He's very willing to please.
    (Little) Ruger - a yearling out of Scott's Pepperjack and a Jeff King dog. He's the super-star of the team and he knows it! On one run he really beat up Coldfoot, and he still bosses him around in lead, but they no longer fight. Just an all-around awesome boy, Mr. Personality. We came back from the run today and he laid right down while I got their after-run treat ready and watched me like, "Come on, we've been waiting FOREVER!" What I like the most about him is how in-tune he is with me. He watches me whenever we stop until I say, "Ok," and we take off.
    Tyler - I think I've told you all about him!
    Hawkeye - The old point/swing dog. Just melts into the team.
    Rocky - My boy! Since being here he's been depressed so I've been taking him on runs and walks to Bill's when I visit them. He'd been running wheel for a while so I thought I'd let him go farther up in the team. His trot looks horrible next to Ruger and Scott's other yearlings who are smooth.
    Urchin - A "purebred" Siberian Husky from Bob Chlupach, who's related to Pepperjack. I was very disappointed to meet him at first, since I came here to work with Alaskan's, but he's been a great little leader and is really growing out of that "shy husky" attitude. Always the first to scream to go. I was thrilled that he actually slowed to a trot for today's run!
    Trig - Doesn't lead, but is great anywhere else.
    Kanuti - Moved her back from the front because she always tries to drag the team to a stop when she goes to the bathroom during the run.
    Razz - A Pepperjack son. Probably my favorite moving dog on the team. Sooooo smooth and effortless. He does what Scott calls a "powertrot" the whole run. I hope he matures and gains confidence so he can run lead eventually. Another dog that is awesome because he watches me so closely!
    Rowdy - Razz's sister. Barks while we run, just like Urchin. She's just soooo excited! Today's run was the first time she ever trotted for more than a few steps. She is so much like Razz, what can I say? Totally awesome! Too excited for lead, but maybe on the longer runs...

     As you can tell, I love my little team. I kind of ignore the older dogs, since they aren't the focus of the team, but every little improvement in the yearlings is exciting!


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Musings from the Trail

  Ok, I was seriously going to try to keep this blog strictly "everything sled dogs", but while I'm scooping the yard or out on the trail I can't help thinking about all kinds of things (not always sled dog related) that are worth sharing (at least, I think so!). This is a warning: you may find yourself reading philosophical ramblings in later posts. I find that philosophy (also called your worldview) intertwines everything we as people do in life - whether it's running dogs or writing books...or neither!
    First off, as we were hooking up dogs the other day I though Scott made a comment that is quoteworthy. It goes thus: "I know my dogs aren't the best in the world, I just treat them like they are." He truly does treat the dogs like the world-class athletes that they are, and it makes them happy to perform for him.
    Another thing I've begun to wonder is why musher's don't take care of themselves as well as they take care of their dogs? Perhaps it's because I've been raised most of my life with a wonderful mom who researched health foods and takes the time to make bread and cheese for all us kids. This year, after being disgusted at how little I felt I could help the dogs when running up hills, I began to run on the mountains at home. It just seems to make sense. After all, we mushers are the other half of the team! If we can't take care of ourselves, dog care suffers!
    A funny fact: I'm sure all you musher's reading this have heard about biting a dogs ear, right? For the rest of you, just watch Snow Dogs to see it in action. Well, several weeks ago a dog came in with a bloody ear. I assumed it had gotten nipped by another dog and thought nothing of it. However, we were discussing dog discipline at the dinner table and Scott started talking about how the dog, named Maggot (poor dog, he's really a nice boy!), had continued to ignore his commands and he went up and bit his ear - a little harder than he intended (hence, the blood).
    As you can imagine, I blinked and with a laugh, asked if he was kidding. Nope. It is a fact that, when a dog refuses to mind, you can sometimes get their attention really quick by biting their ear. It works because there are a lot of nerves, making it extremely painful for the dog.
    Now before you all go out there to bit your dog's ear, please remember to clamp their mouth shut as you do it - so you don't get your ear bitten off! Another tip that Aaron shared is to make sure you only do it in extreme circumstances - that's half the reason it works...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leaders and Commands

    Written 12/2/2011
    The universal challenge of mushers: finding good leaders.
    When I got here and found out there are twenty-two leaders on the race team, and then saw them in action, I was thrilled. At last, I would be able to give commands and have turns taken with I thought!
    I have one "solid" leader, Tyler, who has proved himself to be unreliable - despite the face that I know he knows his gee/haw commands...and he's six years old, there's just no excuse for him not to know them! It's obvious that he's testing me, but I'd have thought he would've given it up by now: after years of working with dogs, I've learned not to give them an opportunity to "get away with it".
    I should add a note here: I consider my early dog training lessons with German Shepherd trainer Kat Peterson invaluable. So much of what I learned from Kat and through the Kootenai County 4-H Dog program has become an integral part of the way I work with my sled dogs. I'd not realized it until last spring, when I was teaching it to a younger 4-H'er who had one of my Seppala pups and also talking things over with my younger sister as she trained her collie. Body language is so important with dogs! They cannot be fooled easily.
    With that said, I've witnessed two styles of dog mushing up here in Alaska. First, is Aaron's. He gives commands in a voice that is commanding, yes, but it is an angry yell, as if he's mad at the dogs. Then there's Scott's firm but quiet commands - not asking the dogs to "please, please turn" but without the element of disatisfaction with the dogs. After all, have they done anything wrong before you gave them the command?
    Personally, I'd rather not raise my voice unless the dogs are doing something wrong. Back with my first dog, I learned how much dogs read our body language and tone of voice. Once the dogs respect you, I don't think most dogs should need much more than a raised voice. Of course, the obvious exception is during a dog fight.
    So, with the yearling I like to be able to raise my voice and have them stop doing whatever is unacceptable. My goal is to have the team to a point that they are so focused on me that there is no need for me to scream at them to get obedience. After all, dogs have much better hearing that people!
    Tyler is obviously having trouble adjusting to a new driver and style of driving. One challenge to being a handler is disciplining someone else's dog - especially if they require more than a raised voice, having been trained through much rougher handling. In addition, one moment I'm told to be as hard as I need to be on a dog to get it to behave but after the first incident you are told, "...well, he's such a soft-headed dog, you don't need to be very hard on him."
    I'm no expert, but I do not believe that just because Tyler has a happy, friendly personality, he automatically has a soft head and doesn't need a firm hand - although I think that a softer type of training will benefit him. When you're out in the beautiful wilderness, who wants to have to scream and shout every command? Certainly the dogs don't appreciate it! I've found that often dogs with good personalities (friendly, happy, seemingly innocent!) get away with the most, puzzling their owners, who say, "But Fluffly is always so sorry for it." It makes me wonder how many times I've misjudged my own dogs? Have I babied certain of my dogs to the point that they've gotten away with more than is acceptable?
    On our run yesterday I decided to put Tyler up in lead since it was only our second run on the twenty-two mile trail and I was hoping NOT to have to guide the dogs at every turn (our first time on the trail I'd let the yearlings lead, so they can begin to pick up commands through use). Also, the dogs were a little tired since we'd jumped up miles quickly after the move to sleds - this was their third day running in a row - so it would be good to give them a break from the stress of leading.
    We started out well. I succeeded in not bouncing off any trees and the dogs settled down very quickly. I was impressed and pleased that they were begining to settle down whenever we stopped until I said, "Are you ready?" and pulled the hook. This is something I've been working on all fall: to get the dogs watching me and not banging their harness' until I ask if their ready to go. It gives you (the musher) a greater amount of control and peace of mind because you can never trust your hook(s) to hold.
    The first few turns we took the same as always, so it was no big deal. Tyler took them with little hesitation, although he always waits to the last second to make it clear that he IS going to take them. But that was just the calm before the storm!
    At our first big intersection, Tyler decided to turn Gee (right) - dragging the team and me after him - despite my Haw (left) command. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a hook in the snow on the intersection beause it's softer than the trail and so I ended up going through the turn, then stopping and stomping up there to pull him back, turn around the team and get them going in the right direction.
    It took me two trips up there to get the team turned around and then Tyler decided we'd just go back the way we came. Of course, that was NOT going to happen! I went back and forth several times to set Tyler on the right trail (you know, the fun game where the leader stays in the right direction until you get back to the sled!).
    I feel sure Tyler was trying to lose me in the portage we entered immediately afterward. The dogs had been trotting at a good pace the entire run, but they charged through the twists and trees. (Too bad, Tyler, I was determined to see this run through!)
    On the way back, we had a few more episodes of balking at turns (and I made sure to take all the turns and loops possible to work this issue through while he was stuck on the subject!) and then settled into the last three miles of trail, homeward bound. The team was looking so good and, knowing there were no more turns, I was happy. Kind of thinking, "Well, I guess this will end well..." Oh, how often we underestimate the dogs!
    One of my dogs, run in team right in front of wheel on this run, has been having an issue passing. He's a bit aggressive and tries to jump at and on the other dogs in the team. However, the last few runs - even when he's leading - he'd been doing much better and I'd hoped we were through the worst of his habit. Alas Tyler, who's never balked or had an issue head-on passing, decided that today he was going to see if he could get away with at least something before we finished the run. So, he balked.
    We got through, but I was fuming because my team dog had reverted to his interest in the other team's dogs. Still, I thought, "Oh, well, we're almost finished."
    A mile later, we went around the corner into the kennel and Tyler proceeds to jump on poor Todd, completely unprovoked. I went up there and broke it up before any other dogs joined in or someone got hurt, and quickly tied off the team. And so ended our run...

Aaron Burmeister's Dogs

    It’s time you were introduced to some of the sled dogs here. We’ll start with Aaron’s (Flat Dog Kennels) dogs:

    There are eighteen dogs total: three little pups (about six months old), two yearlings and thirteen adults.

    The pups are out of Banshe and Hawkeye:
-         A little miniature Hawkeye, Pike, is the only boy in the litter. He’s mostly brown with a black saddle and floppy ears. I thought he was the sweetest puppy in the litter until I started walking him…and found out he liked to beat up all the other pups – even Scott’s bigger males wouldn’t stand up to him!
-         Remedy is a black girl with brown markings on her cheeks and face. She likes to be the boss and has a bad habit of constantly jumping on you, especially when you’re trying to clean her circle.
-         Justice is a miniature Banshe, which is sad because it means she’s not a pretty puppy and her personality is the best out of the litter! When I clipped all the dog’s toenails, Justice was the easiest to do – out of the entire kennel. She is very willing to please.

    The two yearlings are out of Ruger and a Lance Mackey dog named Lucy (out of Hobo) – which the Burmeister’s no longer have.
-         Coldfoot is a huge black dog, but he’s very laid back and focused on pleasing people. The one drawback to his personality is that he loves getting petted and will lean hard against you when you un-harness him. He’s almost fallen off his house when I step away! He’s one of my leaders in training.
-         Kanuti is also black and has Remedy’s unfortunate habit. In addition, she seems to leave her mental powers in the dog house every morning…which makes her difficult to work with – especially since Aaron wants her to run lead!

    The first eight adults are dogs that were bred by Aaron. I will say that I was surprised, and a bit disappointed, at how few of the dogs here are actually “his breed”.
-         Roxy looks like a Seppala Siberian – for those of you familiar with them she looks identical to a dark-gray one with blue eyes. She also runs kind of like one, not overly leggy or athletic and has a rather reserved/shy personality. However, she is one of Aaron’s leaders and is definitely not part Seppala! She is out of Banshe and Taos (see below) 
-         Hawkeye is an older dog on my team, who runs swing (point). There is a bit of discrepancy about his age because Aaron says he is eleven years old, but I had the opportunity to look over their kennel pedigree book and according to that he is eight years old…
-         Trig is a race dog moved down to my team because he has a salivary gland problem that leads to him vomiting whenever he runs. I feel sorry for this guy when we run, he’s always drooling. However, he is one of those dogs that melts into your team and is never any trouble! Trig is out of Lucy and Taos.
-         Spinner…the shy one. He’s kind of “houndy” looking, but is actually one of Aaron’s old bloodlines. I’ve been trying to get him to come out of his shell since I got here, but as Scott says, “He’s a bit of a hard case.” I don’t know if he’ll ever come around.
-         Todd lost his tail in a dog fight at some point; else he’d be another pretty, Seppala looking dog. He looks like my old Seppala leader Nanook. I’m afraid he’s not the brightest dog; he often jumps on his dog house after a run and doesn’t slow down enough so he falls off the other side! Todd is full brother to Trig.

    The next three dogs are littermates. They are out of Bessie (my dog) and a dog named Taos, who is a cousin to my main leader last year, Cougar. (There was another discrepancy, because both Nancy – who I got Cougar from – and Aaron said Cougar and Taos were brothers when, according to the kennel pedigree’s, they are cousins both bought as puppies when Aaron bought out Bruce Lee’s kennel.)
-         Ruger, by far the biggest dog in the kennel. He is huge and never quits pulling HARD. I was surprised to find out he’s also a leader.
-         Remy is the dog that bit off Todd’s tail and, for that offense, is banished to the far side of the kennel where he cannot reach any other dogs. He’s another hard case, who is determined not to trust me.
-         Moss is a miniature Bessie – big feet and all! She’s very talkative and friendly, although she’s calmed down a lot now that the runs are getting longer.

    There are five dogs that are not Aaron’s bloodlines or breeding:     -        Tyler was bred by Blayne Streeper and is a quarter greyhound cross…but you’d never guess it. He’s had many nicknames, including ‘pig’, as Scott and I tried to figure out just what he was! We finally settled that he is a happy, fat seal pup…and that he waddles down the trail. Tyler is the leader for my team.
-         Governor is from Jeff King and he’s a really nice dog; at first I thought he and Trig were brothers because they are so similar. After a run he always growls as you walk him to his house and un-harness him. It’s not a vicious growl, but a kind of “play” or “happy” growl!
-         King was bred by Jeff King. He looks like he could be a brother to Gov and Trig, same type of build. Now that he’s lost some weight, he looks a lot leggier than I’d originally thought. He seems to be a bit of a picky eater.
-         Smokey is another Jeff King dog, although she is a lot like Moss. She keeps to herself and is an easy keeper.
-         Java is a tiny black dog from Buddy Streeper who was one of Aaron’s leaders for spring races last year. She is extremely nervous and a terrible eater, which keeps her very thin.