Monday, February 27, 2012

Musings From Hours Behind a Dog Team

    I've had a lot of time alone in the wilderness with the dogs and my thoughts lately. In many ways it has been refreshing, but it has also given me time to mull over things that have weighed on my mind.
    The other evening I was asked if I'd seen any moose on the trail on my first camping trip. I said I didn't see any except for a cow and a calf who were well off the trail and moving away. I went on to say that I hadn't had any trouble with the Alaskan moose - they got out of the way quite well, better than ours at home. In fact, I've seen less moose up here than I usually see at home during a season! What was said by a couple people, at the same time, immediately after I'd finished speaking is what I found myself examining during my camping trip yesterday: "Knock on wood," accompanied by a quick knock on the table or whatever wood object they were close to.
    I've heard this phrase a lot since I came up here and yesterday I got to thinking about it: Knock on wood. Is it just a harmless saying or is it a misguided placement of our hopes? And, as a Christian, how should I respond when it is used with belief?
    As a Christian, I'm not left to place my hope in a superstitious saying and action. The reason I've been kept safe during my sojourn in Alaska is because God has been watching over me. Proverbs 15:3 says: The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, watching the evil and the good.
    There are hundreds of situations that could have turned bad, but His protecting hand has always been there, shielding me from harm. When you stop to think about it, it's pretty ridiculous to think that a piece of wood is going to take action on my behalf against a charging moose. I suppose I could throw it at the moose, but somehow I doubt that would help the situation! I am so grateful that even in the midst of trouble, my Savior is right there with me. I love 1 Peter 5:7 which reminds me to: Throw all your anxieties upon Him, because He cares about you.
    And then I soberly realized that, by remaining silent when this phrase was used, wasn't I passively agreeing?  How should I, as a Christian, respond? By remaining silent I failed to share God's truth to those who may never have considered His Providence. I made a mistake... Mark 8:38: For if someone is ashamed of Me and of what I say in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him when He comes in His Father's glory with the holy angels.
    My conclusion, then, was that I should've said, "It was by God's grace," or (I always like dramatic, eloquent speeches!), "I'm content to consign myself to the watchful care of Almightly Providence..." as a response to the misguided phrase of, "Knock on wood."

    If you entrust all you do to the Lord,
your plans will achieve success.
- Proverbs 16:3

The name of the Lord is a strong tower;
a righteous person runs to it and is raised high above danger.
- Proverbs 18:10

And here's some pictures from yesterday's campout...
 The dogs all settled in...


 A dog's eye view...

 A few alert dogs watching me...

 Photo from run back to the kennel in the dark...

 My headlamp wasn't bright enough to get great pictures...

But it can give you an idea of what it's like to run at night!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sneaky the Fox

    Sneaky woke up. Stretching with a big yawn, he left his burrow. Fresh snow showered down on him from the bushes and he shook it off with a little, impatient flick of his beautiful, big and bushy tail. He stopped and sat down to lick away the last couple flakes of snow from his shoulder. Being proud of his glossy, thick red coat, he couldn’t stand to be seen with any of it out of place. The Ravens had been giving him a hard time with their haughty laughter, high up in the fir trees.
    He emerged from the shelter of the forest to glance up and down the trail. A few nights ago he had seen a team of big dogs traveling towards the People’s dwelling, and had a made a quick dash to the safety of the woods, out of sight, where he stood panting while he watched their progress.
    But Sneaky hadn’t lived so long in the barren north without learning how to find an easy meal. It was late winter and things were scarce. The Ptarmigan who’d survived were flighty and the Snowshoe rabbits especially fleet. An opportunist who never missed an opportunity, Sneaky followed the dog team. By the light of the moon, he sniffed around the cabin and dog yard. He laughed at the big dog’s heavy slumber, envisioning himself trotting through the middle of the dog yard without them being any wiser. But of course, he knew, it would be too risky to actually do it. It’s something only the big Moose would be foolish enough to attempt.
    The best part of his investigation was the discovery of a pile of dog food snacks, cut up and bagged in nice, mouthful-size pieces, just waiting to be eaten…by me, he thought. There were a few in easy to reach places, underneath the edge of the tarp with hardly any snow on top, but it had taken some effort to get to the heart of the mountainous pile.
    Sneaky trotted up the trail, sniffing the wind for any alarm. Nothing, everything was still. He smiled, anticipating the meal he was about to receive.
    He crept up to the pile and dug the fresh snow away from the tunnel he’d made into the snack pile. There was plenty of variety here: the red salmon, tasty beef and slimy chicken. But something smelled especially good. He turned to follow the scent and licked his chops.
    There it was, just to the edge of his little trail – a piece of green tripe, just a step away. Sneaky stepped forward.
    “Yyyip! Yip!” Sneaky cried as a squirrel trap closed over his foot. He shook it off and set off running, limping on his pinched paw.
    A mile away he stopped and looked back, before setting off again. The stockpile of food was no longer an option – he wouldn’t go back. His foot hurt and he stopped to sit down and lick away the soreness. He was sorry to lose the meals, But I’m Sneaky, he thought, I’ll find another source of food.

The fox is the little speck between the trees.
    Ok, so we really have had a fox start coming around to inspect the stash of dog food and steal bags of cut up trail snacks. He is a goregeous thing, dark red with a bushy tail, but now that he's getting into trouble eating the dog food we've had to scare him off. Hopefully he's the only one, but by now he probably told all his friends...

Here's a better picture of a fox - the one I saw was darker, though.
photo of Fox Coat

Friday, February 24, 2012

The "Little" Puppies

    What you've all been waiting for - pictures of the cute little puppies! Unfortunately, they are no longer small, but I think they're still cute!
Aaron's pups




Scott's pups







Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sebastian Schnuelle's Dogs

    Ok, now on to some of the race dogs. There are basically three kennels here - Sebastian Schnuelle's old dogs, Aaron's dogs and Scott's dogs. Two dogs I introduced earlier that ran on my team in the beginning and are now back with Sebastian are Maggot and Banana's. The other six are below:






Grizman (Vasser's brother)

The Rest of the Team

Here's the rest of my team...

 Nibbs - one of Scott's dogs. A recent addition, as he won't be running the Iditarod this year.

 Clyde - another recent addition. One of Scott's dogs.

 Midge - Another of Scott's dogs, a recent addition. Half sister to Ruger, Razz and Rowdy.

 Hawkeye - an 8 year old dog, father of the three "small" pups of Aaron's. Runs point and has been on the team all season.

 Roxy - has been on the team of a while. One of Aaron's dogs.

 Smokey - one of Aaron's dogs. Joined the team the same time as Roxy.

 Trig - was on the team all season, now dropped to make room for the three new dogs from Scott.

 Java - Streeper dog. Dropped from race teams and my team.

Rocky - dropped from my team to make room for three new dogs.

Tyler - back from Leila's team. One of Aaron's dogs.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Attitude, Appetite and Conformation

The three main concerns when breeding racing sled dogs are Attitude, Appetite and Conformation.

    Attitude: You want smart dogs - dogs that know when to rest, when to get excited and when to get along. They need to mesh into a team, so they must be compatable to what you already have. Some people like crazy dogs, but for distance racing it doesn't matter if they lay down and yawn right before you pull the hook - they just need to do their job comfortably (and you'll know that they love it!). The dogs need to be controllable and trust you. Also, a dog with good attitude is focused when in harness.

A dog who has run in about six 1,000 mile races. He still has a spark in his eye! 
    Appetite: A dog needs to devour its food and not be picky about what you give it. Obviously, even the most voracious eaters will miss a meal in a race, but you don't want a team that stops eating for the littlest reasons. Also, if your dogs are good eaters, then loss of appetite is a good indication that something is wrong.
 You want a dog that dives right in...

 Gets excited about eating...

 Actually, a whole team of them...

And don't forget the pups!

    Conformation: This includes build and how a dog moves. Dogs should be comfortable at a trot, which should be smooth and effortless. No awkward gaits. As far as build, I think it is best to illustrate with a picture of two well-built dogs. These two dogs are pretty much perfect examples of what an ideal dog is like:

The Yearlings

    It's high time I post some pictures of the dogs and I hope to get pictures of all the dogs this week so you know who I'm actually talking about. I had pictures of all the dogs on my team, but then my team changed with the addition of some race, I'll have to just do the yearlings in this post and do the rest of my team (old and new) later. I haven't included a detailed description of each dog, since I wrote about them in my early posts before I had pictures.
    First, Scott's yearlings:
 Razz (Pepperjack X Jeff King lines) A smooth, fast trotting dog.

 Rowdy - Razz's sister. She has sooo much energy and will bark in the middle of a run - she just wants to go faster!

 Ruger - Out of Pepperjack and Jeff King dog. Very focused and doesn't seem like a yearling.

 Urchin - part siberian. Amazing leader!

Aaron's yearlings:
 Coldfoot - Out of "big" Ruger (not the yearling!) A big boy! Can run anywhere except lead.

Kanuti - Coldfoot's sister. Runs in team. A pretty big girl.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Shorty Harnesses

    First, some pictures:
Tyler, with a shorty harness (Red Harness). Kanuti has a regular X-Back style harness.
Top view of different harness styles.

    Until coming here, I'd heard about different harness types, but never used them. After becoming a bit more familiar with the other styles, I'm more convinced that the standard X-back harness is the way to go.
    The philosophy behind the "shorty" harness is that hard-charging dogs work twice as hard as their teammates and are prone to more injuries. Also, these dogs will get in shape faster and drive the rest of the team into the ground. The shorty harness basically teaches the dogs NOT to pull so hard. 
    My feeling is that it seems counterproductive to reduce your power and teach your dogs not to pull - after all, that's what they are bred to do! Also, as mushers, it is our job to keep each of our teams from hurting themselves and the best way to do this is to drive/train the team to your slowest dogs ability.
    There may be a few instances when it is beneficial to switch harness styles - for healing an injury or harness rub, for example - but overall it makes the most sense, to me at least, to stick to the X-back harness which continues to be the most popular harness available.
    I am aware that some kennels use shorty harnesses just in training or on only a few dogs. However, if the first rule of running sled dogs is, "Never let go of the sled," and the second is, "Take care of you can take care of your dogs," then the third, and perhaps most important, is, "Race like you train." To do otherwise will only confuse the dogs and frustrate the musher.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


    After several encounters with moose, I've still been unable to get a picture to go with this that part will have to wait. The problem is, when I see a moose, I'm so focused on getting safely by that I don't pull out my phone!
    A couple weeks ago I "complained" to Leila that I hadn't seen many moose on the trail - that I saw more at home than I have in Alaska. All that changed when Scott and Aaron left for their race and I became the first team on the trail in the mornings and, usually, the only person out on the trail system. Of course, another reason I hadn't seen many is because I like to sing to myself and the dogs while I'm out running for hours - I guess I sound so horrible that they don't stick around! Oh well, the dogs are content to humor me...except when I try to hit a high note - then I get some "looks" from the yearlings. The older dogs just shake their heads and sigh, "That lady on the back of the sled really is crazy..."
    Anyway, back to the point of this post!
    Lately I've had a lot of moose encounters - although I think they are with the same three or four moose. They like to hang out about two miles into the run, in the woods between the highway/railroad and houses. I guess the wolves don't like to venture in so close to civilization. There's a cow and calf, a young cow and a bull. The cow and calf are who you have to worry about, usually, since a cow is usually more aggressive to protect her young. Another thing I've found is that it's best not to startle them. If I've been quiet and see fresh moose tracks or spot a moose aways down the trail, I try to say, "Good dogs," or something in a loud voice (at home I used to say, "Get out of the way, Moose!" in a deep, loud voice) to let them know I'm there - usually they take a look at you and get moving.
    The first time I saw moose up close was when we did a 12 mile trail. The cow and calf were inside the turn-around loop. Of course, there's no trees inside the loop, so I was a little afraid she'd come towards us, but they went away towards the woods.
    The next time we saw her and her calf, was two miles into our run when they, again, ceded the trail to us. The dogs got really excited, but stayed on the trail. Just a few hundred yards down the trail I saw the bull in the trail. He stepped off the trail to the right and I considered passing, but remembering our moose at home, I thought I'd give him room in case he preferred the other side. So glad I stopped and put the snowhook in! As I expected, he decided to switch sides and gave us a cocky look as he moved away. The dogs didn't think he was such a tough guy, but he was proud of himself!
    Another day we had to do the same trail twice (out-n-back, out-n-back) to get mileage. On our final run to the kennel, basically at the end of the run, the dogs started really charging - which surprised and pleased me. I looked over, following Razz's focus, and saw the bull in the woods. He took off over the railroad tracks.
    I'm learning to trust Razz when we are in a "moosey" area - he always knows where they are and when his ears go forward you start to look around and try to follow his gaze. That day he had gotten excited every time we passed through the woods, but I'd never looked until the last time. Even now, he still gets excited when we get near spots we've seen moose before. When I see lots of fresh moose tracks, if Razz isn't concerned, I don't worry too much!
    Have you ever seen a moose gallop? I hadn't, until the other day. I'd run the "little" pups and, I thought, scared the moose off the trail pretty well with them, when we came upon the cow and calf. Actually, I didn't see either of them until the cow charged out of the woods on our right - right in front of us! She was intent on getting across to her calf who was a ways off the trail to our left. It was graceful and she looked a lot like a horse.
    Several miles later, Mr. Bull charged in front of us across the trail. The trees and brush were so close that I never could find out exactly where he crossed over (I couldn't find his tracks), but pretty cool. Always love to see moose when they get out of the way...
    Anyway, that's all the moose stories I have for now. They are definitely a trail hazard, but it is amazing how hardy they are and yet how graceful - they can trot so smoothly and fast...and they are great eating!
    Working with sled dogs, seeing moose and all the animal tracks (Lynx, Wolf, Snowshoe Rabbit and Fox, mostly) reminds me that God created some amazing critters!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Urchin, the Amazing Yearling

    When Leila came on a training run with me, I was discussed my leader problems with her and she suggested that I try Urchin, one of Scott's yearlings, in single lead - since I don't have a really good adult dog to run with him to train him. We tried it for a few miles, but since it was hot and we were going on a 40 mile run, I moved Tyler up for the remainder of the run. However, today I decided to put Urchin in single lead from the beginning...
    From the first, you could see the smile on his face! Urchin took charge of the team and took EVERY command (Gee/Haw) - which he's never done before. I was so proud of him. In the middle of the run, when they were hot and settled down, I went up and praised him a lot and he jumped up (all the dogs lay down when we stop now - they are figuring out to rest when they can!) and started singing to go - as only he can, because he has a really high pitched voice...
    I realized that his confidence was really boosted by the responsibility of running single lead...he enjoyed taking command of the team and charging down the trail. I don't know why I haven't tried this with my dogs at home - I guess I'll start when I get back! In the past I've been afraid of burning out leaders and that fear has caused me to rotate leaders every run. This, in turn, has caused the dogs not to take to the leader's position and "make it their own." The only way a dog will become a good, reliable leader is by running up front, after all!

    Here's some pictures from today's run:
 On the 18 mile loop. I have cell service and texted a picture to my brother after missing his phone call (Hey, it's hard to get the phone when it's buried inside my jacket!). I hope there's no Alaskan law against mushing and texting (or talking on the phone, for that matter!).

 Urchin cooling off during a well-deserved rest stop.

 Urchin on the Goldstream River.

 In the short patch of woods...soooo nice for a change! No wind here...

 The dogs get excited about going through the woods and pick up the pace.

 Urchin taking us around the turn.

 I really liked the order I used today - the dogs did well together.

 Dropping off a bank.

 Around the turn we go!

Almost lost my mittens that I'd set in my sled as I took this picture - the turn was bumpy!