Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Coming to Alaska

    I've been meaning to write down my reasons for coming to Alaska for several months, and as I find just two months to go until I'll be back in Idaho, I figured I'd better get this written!
    Back when I started running dogs, I thought the Iditarod would be fun to do but only ran 6-dog mid-distance races - always unable to get enough mileage on my Seppala Siberian's to run any longer races. Looking back, every year that I'd start out with a 12-dog team on the 4-wheeler and end up with 6-8 dogs raceable had a little note of disappointment to them - although I've learned a lot each year and enjoyed every team.
    Then, in 2009, I was given my first real leader - Cricket - who has since passed away at the ripe old age of 13. He was old, but would do anything you asked.
Cricket - I will always miss you!
    That was a turning point in my career. I wasn't able to field a 12-dog team, but I was able to participate in the Cascade Quest 75 mile stage race - which included an overnight camping trip. Sleeping under the stars with the dogs is something very special, even if I did get woken by all the teams howling together at midnight!
    During the few years prior, I'd not considered the Iditarod as a possibility, but after that camping trip I really wanted to do longer distance racing. Somehow I forgot the comment I'd made to my mom the spring of 2009 - that if I ever had another younger sibling I'd get out of dogs...
    Spring 2010, because of the success I'd had with the three Alaskan Huskies on my team, I chose to take the opportunity to buy more Alaskans from Katie Davis and get out of Seppala's, retaining only Quest - my first sled dog.
    Katie had just run the Yukon Quest, and my interest in doing a longer distance race was only heightened as I was able to field a team in 12-dog races during the 2011 season, including finishing the Jr Race to the Sky - a 100 mile continuous race. All summer I was dreaming of the next season, even acquiring another dog with Iditarod experience.
    During my dog mushing experience, there have been moments that I've considered getting out of dogs. There are things like college and a job that require attention, and the dogs are a huge undertaking - something I could never do without the support of my amazing family. However, God has continued to open doors within the world of dog mushing and it has been a priviledge to continue doing something I love so much.
    So, as I drew close to graduation and the upcoming season loomed before me, I was thinking about options. I'd orginially planned to take the winter off (of school), to focus on training a team - I had sixteen nice dogs ready to train. However, I'd thought a lot and talked to several mushers as I tried to acquire the knowledge I knew I'd need to undertake a 200 or 350 mile race, and the best way to learn seemed to be to handle for an Iditarod musher - if I was serious about attempting that race (or the Yukon Quest).
    Talking it over with my family, the door was opened to come up to Alaska to handle for Aaron Burmeister, who placed 9th in the 2009 Iditarod and is fairly well-known in the mushing community up here - on the board of directors for the Iditarod. He was highly recommended by another musher, from whom I'd acquired dogs that traced back to his kennel - one of them, Cougar, I was really, really impressed by during the 2011 season.
        Everything worked out - I think it was God opening the doors again! I didn't have to come until October (other positions wanted a handler beginning in August or September) and I'd get to work with Aaron and another accomplished Iditarod veteran, Scott. I would know what went into running the Iditarod by the end of the season - whether I decided I'd want to do it in the end or not - and I'd get to train yearlings and puppies (always fun!) and do a 200 mile race, which was the length of the race I was going to attempt at home.
    So, here I am...thousands of miles from home in 60 below weather! If I never run either of the 1,000 mile races, the knowledge I've gained here will assist me in any mushing venue.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Stories From the North: Episode 3 - Great Lead Dogs, part 2

    Aaron was running the Iditarod - on the Yukon River glare ice - no snow on top of smooth ice. There was no way to steer the sled and not much of a way to stop. For a reason unremembered, he had to stop and go up the team - snacking or untangling a dog, perhaps. He stomped on his snow hook, which hardly went into the ice, but he figured would hold the dogs (at this point in the season, the dogs pretty much stop on command and wait until told to go).
    As he walked up to his leaders, he slipped and fell, sliding down into a bowl in the ice. He tried crawling out, on his hands and knees, but there was no traction - he was stuck in the well-below-freezing temperatures. With his headlamp he could only hope another team would see him and possibly be able to haul him out. Or so he thought...
    He heard a bark and saw Mojo, a dog he'd bought from Charlie Boulding as a wheel dog that had become his main leader, start the team down the river. His heart sank, as he realized his dog team was gone. Or was it?
    As he watched, helpless, Mojo turned the team back towards Aaron and brought the team past him, bringing the sled so close to him that he was able to grab on and haul himself onto the runners. Mojo proceeded to turn the team back in the right direction and continued on, as if nothing happened.

    This is one of many true stories about beloved lead dogs who run the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. What is special about this story is that the week before the start of the Iditarod, Mojo took Aaron and a 20 dog team on a wild ride OFF the trail and down the railroad tracks towards the highway! Mojo is the grandsire of Moss, (big) Ruger and Remy - dogs on Aaron's team this year.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Days at Sixty Below!

    Hi everyone: I hope you all had a good, WARM weekend! It has been 60 below zero the past two nights, I guess we continue to break records...
    Today we had fun throwing hot water into the air and watching it evaporate before it touched the ground - very cool! This works at anything around -40 and colder.
    I have discovered a bright side to the cold weather: when I walk from the house to my room with a cup of hot tea, it is drinkable temperature by the time I get here!


Friday, January 27, 2012

A Virtual Tour

    Today I want to take you on a virtual tour of Flat Dog Kennels. It's hard to get good pictures with a cell-phone camera - but I think you'll be able to see everything ok!

    Here we go:

 The View out the back of my "garage home."

 There is a thermometer on the tree (remember the alaskan pastime?), this is the woods to the left of the front of the garage.

 The Garage - my room is on the left. Piled in front is a bunch of meat for Iditarod drop bags.

 View from just below the front porch of the house.

 The wood shed in front of the house. (Also known as weather central center: see the three thermometers?)

 Decorations on the dog barn.

 The Boy's half of the yard.

 The Girl's side of the yard.

 The Dog Yard - we go out through the middle on a trail into the woods.

 My sled.

 Scott's cabin to the left of the Girl's yard. There's about 30 dog houses in front that he's working on.

The Harness rack - the sides close up to keep snow out of equipment.

 The Puppy yard (to the left of the girls yard).

 The other half of the puppy yard.

 Scott's sit down sled, built by Kenny Hess.

 Looking toward the house (left) and the dog barn (right) from the girl's yard. Piles in front of dog barn are all frozen blocks of meat.

 Close up of the front of the dog barn.

 Inside the first door - dog food on the right.

 Inside the second door - this is where I mix up the dog food. Totes have thawing meat for dogs dinner. This is looking to the right (I'm standing in the doorway).

 Looking to the left - dog water buckets and misc gear.

 Looking out towards the meat pallets.

Looking out of the barn door at the dog yard.

 Looking at the house from the boy's yard.

 Looking at the garage from the house.

 From the corner of the house, looking at the driveway (garage is to the right). Dog trailer - to haul the dogs and sleds to races.

 Looking from the garage door at the house.

Hi everyone, that completes the tour!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Snacking: People Food Drops

    The other night I had the opportunity to see what Leila put in her food drops (people food) for her 300 mile race this weekend - the Northern Lights 300. Here's a list: Pizza, some of the awesome, organic cinnamon roll (I mentioned earlier), chocolate, granola bars, trail mix, energy drink, protein breakfast drink, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, jelly beans, cheese and brownies. I believe she'll send out 5 bags and there will be additional food available at the checkpoints (usually).
    Something she mentioned to me was that on her first (200 mile) race, she just didn't feel like eating and this time she wanted to make sure she packed food she would want to eat - because it's important to eat and drink enought yourself.
    This made me think about what I will want to send out to races and I realized I forgot to mention my favorite trail snack: Jerky and Pepperoni sticks. Back home, my amazing sponsor/butcher Mr. Scheffelmaier, makes really good Jerky and (at our house, famous) Pepperoni sticks. I took the Pepperoni sticks to races last year, and I think the dogs were jealous when I ate them!
    Something to keep in mind with snacks is that they have to be chewable or quickly thawable in the cold. They can be tough (I prefer it, especially when you're trying to stay awake and want to use up time on an easy or boring trail), but they can't be rock hard (chocolate bars just don't work...unless they are cut into bite size pieces!).
    Well, I hope that gives you some food for thought!

Bananas and Maggot

     Here are pictures of Banana's and Maggot, who went back to Sebastian Schnuelle about a month ago. I will always remember them - they were my first leaders here...I miss them!

Banana's enjoying a rest stop.

 Maggot (R lead)

 Happy Maggot...

Banana's loves the snow!

Monday, January 23, 2012


    I haven't done much snacking, as I've only had one run over three hours, but I have been able to watch and listen to what Scott, Aaron and Bill use.
    Basically, a snack for the dogs can be anything - fish, liver, heart, beef, lamb, fat, tripe, etc - that is frozen or cut into chunks. But it can also be a wet snack, like soaked dog food, given in bowls or on the snow. For Wet snacks, that will be in the cooler for a while, it's a good idea to use a trash compactor bag inside the cooler (really helps cleanliness for any meal put in the cooler) and then just use a dipper to dish it out to your hungry canines!
    If the first rule of dog mushing is "Never let go", then the second rule is "Take care of yourself...so you can take care of your dogs". Taking care of yourself means making sure you have a thermos with water (and drink some!) and trail food. I'm not a big fan of granola bars, since they are basically just sugar, so I've been using dried fruit or nuts and sometimes, chocolate (I know, I know...so much for staying away from sugar!). Leila told me about an awesome, wholesome (organic) trail snack which is like a cinnamon role with nuts and stuff all folded in. Both she and Scott used them on the Knik 200 and liked them.
    It's also important to keep from sweating, so whenever you get off the sled for a prolonged amount of time you have to make sure you unzip your parka and take down your hood. Today, as I dealt with leader issues in the first mile, I actually took off my parka so I didn't get soaked before we got going again. I still got sweaty, but my new X-system base-layer shirt kept me drier than my other base layers. So far, I've used the X-system gear twice and both times it's worked great. X-system has Silver weaved into the fabric and has lots of other cool features. I've been wearing the sock liners and pants all season.
    I mentioned leader problems...they seem to be never-ending at the moment! I know we'll get through them, but the last week's runs have required moving 3-5 dogs in and out of lead every run...today was no exception. Ruger just isn't interested in leaving the kennel, although he ran fine yesterday when we followed Leila on a run. So, I put Rocky (yes, my wheel dog from home!) up with Roxy. He's never stayed in lead for more than a mile in the past - gets too distracted - but he actually ran the whole run in lead. I'm trying to wait to get excited until he does a few more runs up there, but it's not going so well...
    Here's proof he ran lead:

More pictures from our run (I ran two wheel dogs today, with a single point dog):

 Rocky here in AK

 Rocky at home in ID this summer

 Happy Rocky!
Rocky 2010

    In other news, I just finished reading Lance Mackey's book. Now, I know I'm probably the last musher to have read it, but I've just been busy... It was a very, very good read and if you haven't read it, I highly reccomend it!

Stories From the North: Episode 2 - Great Lead Dogs, Part One

    It's high time I share another mushing story with you. I wrote this some time ago, but never got around to publishing it for you, so here it is!

    One afternoon, I was able to get Bill talking about his best lead dog ever - a once in a lifetime dog named Palley. He has a picture of the dog (or drawing, rather) in his home. It was Palley who led him to his win of the 1987 Yukon Quest and Bill has not been able to duplicate him since. Also, like the great race horse Secretariat, Palley's offspring were not great leaders like he was.
    Here's a few special things Palley would do:
    Back in those days you pulled of the trail to camp, then continued forward to rejoin the trail when you were done - so you'd basically make a cresent shaped detour in the deep snow. As you can imagine, the dogs weren't fond of getting up from their nice beds and breaking through deep snow to the trail.
    But Palley was a helpful dog. Once he figured it out, he would jump off the trail to make a camp on command and, if you gave him some tree branches, he'd make himself a bed!
    When it was time to go, Bill could walk up the trail and call him, which would make Palley jump up and drag the sleepy team to the trail, bringing the sled right by Bill - who could hop on as it went by!

    Up next, an amazing story about Aaron's leader Mojo...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Christmas Sled Dog Tale

    Since I posted pictures from Christmas Day, I thought I'd post a story I wrote about that time as well. It was originally intended for Hunter, but I didn't get it done in time...

    Banshe and the Candycane

    Banshe laid her head on the door of her dog house and let her eyes close partway. This was not her first Christmas Eve, the magical feeling in the air no longer kept her awake long past . And yet, she felt as if there was something missing – as if she should be quivering with excitement, maybe even running around barking like the other dogs. But what can I have forgotten? She wondered.
    She retraced her memories, trying to remember.
    One of her earliest Christmas’, she’d seen the people of the house eating candy canes. Perhaps it was the story of the candy cane. That special, Christmas time candy looked so pretty against the green tree and frosted windows. She’d often told the younger dogs how, and why, they were made. Each time, she began the story:
    “Far below us, in the temperate climate of Indiana a two-legged candy-maker sat wondering what type of candy he could invent to remind people of the real meaning of Christmas…”
    Banshe felt as if she were getting closer and allowed the story to replay through her mind:
    “The candy cane was the result of his work; containing several symbols of the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    “White is the color used to portray the Virgin Birth and sinless nature of Jesus.
    “The candy is hard, just as God is the Solid Rock on which we stand and the foundation of the Church. It also reminds us of how firmly we can believe the promises of God.”
    Excitement coursed through her, she was remembering!
    “We all know,” she would say, “that the candy cane is in the form of a “J” for Jesus, who came to earth as Savoir, but it also represents the staff of our Good Shepherd with which He reaches down to reclaim us, the fallen lambs who have gone astray.
    “But there’s a problem, the candy-maker thought. The candy is much too plain.
    “After much thought, he decided to stain it with white stripes. Three small stripes representing the scourging Jesus received…”
    Banshe stopped, feeling that she would never sleep again if she couldn’t remember the rest. She paced around her dog house once, twice, three times…it’d been such a long year since she told the story to the puppies. How could she have forgotten?
    All night she thought and thought. And then, with the brilliance of sunrise, she remembered…and wondered how she could ever have forgotten.
    “The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that each man could have an opportunity to accept the promise of eternal life.”
    Banshe lay down in her house once more, warmed by the memory. For, at last, she had remembered: though Christmas celebrates Jesus Christ’s birth, it was only the beginning of God’s plan to save mankind from their sins.
    And that is what makes Christmas special.



    One of the things I first noticed about the ganglines up here, at least that Aaron uses, is that it is bare cable with chain necklines. Now, you have to be extremely careful using cable for sleddogs - especially if it's not coated or covered with rope - because if a dog gets a leg wrapped in the mainline it could severly injure that dog if the line constricts (due to dogs in front pulling). Despite it's drawbacks, the cable and chain discourages chewing and the dogs don't even want to put their mouths on it (especially in cold weather).
    About two months ago, I got to rebuild Scott's lines - making tuglines and necklines. I took the opportunity to get the measurements of them because he had been talking about how his system is shorter than the average line. The shorter line gives you more power by wasting less pulling power, that's just physics! Now, keep in mind that Scott also uses single wheel dogs, most of the time, in the first one or two positions.
    The measurements: The first two sections, wheel sections, are standard (8ft) sections - this gives those dogs plenty of room to maneuver around corners. The next sections are 7ft long - with 30 inch tuglines and 12-14 inch necklines (I made 14 inch necklines). The leader section is long, so that the leaders are easier to see - I'd say about 44 inches, since he puts a neckline on the leader tugs to lengthen them.
    Another innovation he has used in the past, is shortening the tuglines by 14 inches and attaching a neckline to the harness tug-loop. The snap is then in the middle of the tugline and doesn't collect dog droppings during the run - something I'll definitely try next year! A benefit to having the snap in the middle of the tug is that you can tell if the dog is really pulling or not, because that little bit of weight will cause the line to sag if the dog isn't working honestly...this was a trick I was told a while ago, and it will be interesting to see how honest my dogs at home are!
    Snaps on the gangline should be 1/2 bronze for the necklines because those have 50lb breaking strength - so they'll break if the dog goes around the wrong side of a tree (probably not such a big deal on the trails down in the lower 48 - because they are so wide). Tuglines are 5/8 bronze (bronze doesn't freeze as badly in cold weather. You can also use toggles for tuglines, but I think they are harder to use...
    I really like the reflective rope Scott uses in his necklines (which are made out of a really, really small rope - must be 1/8 inch (?) - rather than the 1/4 inch tugline rope). I'm sure you could get it in tugline or mainline size, but in the dark if there was a tangle it'd be nice to have some reflective rope so you know you just unhooked a neckline...plus the extra visibility.
    For the snub line (the rope you use to tie the sled/dogs off to a tree or the truck), I've discovered it makes much more sense to use a long, heavy duty climbing-type rope with a knot rather than the quick release. Not only can you adjust the length at will, but it can't freeze and can't come undone!
   Well, that's all of my observations for now...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

January 19th

    Well, after a week of 40 below, we had a heat wave of -22F and I was able to run the team 18 miles. Scott and Aaron are off to the Kusko 300 and the reason I've posted more pictures than written is because not much has happened in the meantime. However, I have a list of topics that I realize I need to post before the next two and a half months slip by...so I will get working!
    Got a bunch of photos of my team and the run today. The sun was out and gorgeous!

Hooking up...
Imagine dog's barking to go!

Trig say's, can we pleeeease go now!

 Urchin's not sure about holding out the line...

 Smokey doesn't want to get too excited...

 Calm, cool and collected yearlings: Coldfoot & Kanuti.

 Roxy & Rowdy aren't sure about getting along...

 Ruger get's to run in single wheel, behind the girls. That's tough for such a cool guy!

 The boy's side of the yard is on the left, the girl's on the right. Feed barn is at the far back. Shed to the right of the sled is the harness rack.

 Almost ready, coats on!

And we're off...down the runway!

I stopped at about mile ten, after going around "9 mile meadow/lake".

 Urchin is always ready to go!

 My pretty little team! Urchin and Razz in lead (Razz's 2nd time in lead!)

 Razz, focused on the trail ahead. Urchin, well, not so focused! His scream is very high pictched, by the way...

 Trig & Hawkeye know the ropes and are well-behaved during the stop.

 Trig smiling and Hawkeye laughing at the joke...

 Razz gets tired of waiting and decides a snow-bath is in order.

 Impatient Smokey!

 Who, me? Impatient?????

 Rocky doesn't believe her!

 Coldfoot shows his enthusiasm.

Coldfoot and Kanuti - brother and sister.

 Kanuti is not going to waste her energy...

 Rowdy lets everyone know she is ready to go - NOW! (the coloring of the snow on her face is from her tongue flicking the chain neckline. Fortunately, Rowdy is "bi-tongual" and was able to let her tongue hang out of the other side of her mouth after the first few miles - solving the problem.)

 Roxy wishes I would teach Rowdy to contain herself...

 My super lead-turned-wheel dog yearling, Ruger.

 Roxy really,really doesn't like her loud partner.

 Ruger is such a puppy, when he gets impatient he just sits down and watches me with the, "...when are you going to hurry up and get this show on the road," look!

 Sunshine on the Goldstream River.

A great day for a run in the sun!