Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Team: Lead, Swing, Team and Wheel

    One of the first questions I get asked when introducing the dogs is: "Who's your lead dog?" My answer is, "There are several." I quickly point out that each and every position is important...

    Nowadays, mushers typically run sled dogs in double file. This means two leaders, then the swing (or point) dogs, then 1st team dogs, 2nd team dogs and so on until the wheel dogs. Many people assume the largest dogs run in wheel. I can't speak for other mushers, but something I learned in Alaska was to put your medium (or even a small, hard pulling dog) in wheel and put them in single wheel. I feel it gives the dogs a better experience - they have more room to move when we go around a tight corner. Also, a large dog has more pressure on the hips from the tugline in wheel. I rotate all dogs in wheel. If they have a really smooth gait, it's helpful to avoid injuries. Another plus is if they are good at switching over and under the gangline - so they use the extra room they have by running single.
    Over the years, I've found most dogs will lead - if given the chance. But a natural born leader is a gem. I look for dogs who are receptive to commands and hard-driving. Of course, there are exceptions: dogs like Razz who aren't hard-driving but will lead just fine despite not knowing commands. But the majority of my leaders are dogs who like to be up front. Achilles is a natural leader - he really wants to be up front and will "go around" the leaders if he's in swing. I typically pair a male and female together; it just seems to work out best for me. But I work everyone in lead together at some point in training.

    Something else I like to know about my leaders is if they will single lead. Although it doesn't seem too common to have a single leaders, putting a dog in single lead really gives them a confidence boost (if they can handle it). It's also helpful when breaking trail when someone has driven a truck through the deep snow (this just happened today - double leaders were having a hard time staying in the track and kept pushing each other around but Sweetwater happily led in single lead until we got out of the mess).

    I like to put reliable, no-nonsense dogs in swing. Because of intersections and any other circumstances that might make a leader balk, the swing dogs are a great help. They can pull the team in the right direction and give stability behind a young leader. I also like to put young leaders-in-training in swing because they can watch the leaders and learn. I'll put young dogs (yearlings) who have lead potential in swing so they get comfortable at the front before being put in lead.

    Team is where all the dogs get a chance to run. There are some dogs that seem to always get tangled in their necklines or may not be the strongest in the team and I tend to keep them in the team positions. It's a good place for uncertain yearlings in the fall - if they're afraid of the 4-wheeler. In team I'll mess around with pairing dogs up. I like to have dogs matched up by gait and size. I also watch and see who runs well together (do they like each other?) and if they don't like a particular teammate, can they run comfortably ahead or behind them? If not, then team is where they will learn to get over their dislikes!

   As you can see - every part of the team is important. We wouldn't get very far down the trail without each position filled...especially when you're breaking trail!

Monday, December 14, 2015

How It All Started - Part 5: Races in 2007

    So I was training my 4 dogs for short races and the ISSSC folks invited me to come to their December fun race which was 16 miles. I thought I would be terribly under trained, and perhaps I was, but the dogs did just fine. They let me borrow a dog named Moonbeam and Wonder's brother, Wise Guy. 
    I can honestly say I wouldn't have bumped up to 6 dog mid-distance if they hadn't pushed me to do it. I didn't think I could do it...or the dogs. Yet the 5 dogs (I bought Moonbeam that weekend) pulled my mom and I on 25 mile training runs - up and down mountains too.
    We had to get special letters of recommendation for the races because I was so young but Elaine at Conconully was supportive and we got in! Even more exciting, much to my surprise, we came in 5th! I think the dogs were ecstatic just to be pulling me on a groomed trail...Our time was far from impressive, looking back, but we got a check which always helps for dog food.
    Something funny about Conconully is that we stayed at a place called "Comfy Cabins" which is probably the worst place to stay in Conconully - it was cold and there were no showers or anything. Needless to say, next time we found a new hotel!
    Conconully was an instant favorite race - the trails are most similar to what we run at home and the dogs and I had a blast. I was terrified I'd get lost or have trouble passing but everyone was super nice and we met the nicest folks. Also, the trail is marked so well you could do it blindfolded! 
    Priest Lake is the closest race to us and there we had a tough time. It was the beginning of purebred politics and I remember loving the dogs but not liking the race at the time. Still, it was exciting to beat a musher who had told us Siberians weren't real competitive racing dogs.
    Oh, and something fun about Priest Lake is the switchbacks on the back side of the mountain. The race is an out and back and there are some serious switchbacks. The sled I'd bought was bolted together and so stiff you basically had to fall over to navigate around some turns. It's not nice to have a a snow hook bouncing inches from your face. However, every time I fell the dogs stopped and let me get back up. 

Conconully 2007 - 5th place
Wonder Woman X Moonbeam in lead
Ella X Quest in Swing
Chase X Wise Guy in Wheel

Priest Lake 2007 - 9th place
(Same team lineup as Conconully)

   I also wrote an article for the Continental Kennel Club about my experiences mushing thus far; it's a lot of the same information I've already written about, but including it here for "historical value!" CKC's support and sponsorship really made my early mushing career possible. I can't thank them enough for believing in a Jr Musher and giving me the opportunity to represent them...

           DOGSLEDDING IN IDAHO! How I Got Started!
    It all started with Nakota- a nine-month-old copper and white, blue eyed Siberian husky! When we brought her home I never dreamed we would ever dogsled, in fact we lived “in town” and it was a huge step to get a second dog. But since I was 10 years old and had demonstrated responsibility caring for  Sable, our German Shepard, my parents allowed me to get my first dog.  Later since my Mom wanted to re-train our German Shepard and because Nakota needed training we enrolled in a 6 week training course with a reputable, local trainer. Our Instructor gave us a lot of information and spent quite a lot of time on behavioral issues.  When we were through the trainer recommended a dog sledding friend of hers who might help me train Nakota to dogsled, if I was interested.
    It sounded neat so I gave the lady a call.  She was really friendly and patiently answered my questions. She eventually invited me to join her on a training run with her dogs and sled.  This invitation I could not refuse.  I took Nakota with me to the run, and even harnessed her up.  Well, Nakota ran faster back to the truck than down the trail! That was the day I got my first dogsled ride behind 6 malamutes.
    After that we fitted Nakota with a harness and my grandpa and brother built me a dog sled.  It was too narrow and we had painted it, not what you’re supposed to do, although we still used it on our city street when it snowed.  The following summer I had another bright idea, running Nakota pulling me on roller blades! It worked, Nakota ran great and she stopped sometimes if we were lucky. That summer I enrolled in a 4-H club and did the dog sledding project during which time I read about training, racing and the breeds of sled dogs. I read all the dog sledding and siberian husky books in our local libraries.
      That fall my Mom and I visited a “show husky” kennel and compared Nakota to some champion dogs- we found out Nakota was smaller and did not have enough coat for a winning show dog! But the kennel owner told me that he thought Nakota might have sled dog lines instead of show husky lines. I thought that was great but soon found that to be incorrect observation!
     A few months later (when Nakota was about 2 years old) My mom and I took  Nakota to get her eyes checked.  As we were leaving mom asked a customer waiting in the lobby what breed of dog her husky-looking puppy was?  She told us it was a Seppala Siberian Husky and some of the history of the breed, How the Seppalas were related to Leonard Seppala’s original champion sled dogs, from Siberia.  Mary Jane, the lady we met at the Veterinary office, also told me that Nakota did not have any breed lines she recognized.
Later, after another musher had told my mom “Siberian husky’s are too slow to be competitive” I started researching that Siberian breed and told my mom I wanted to find a siberian husky related to Leonard Seppala’s original dogs.
Mary Jane, invited us to watch their seppala teams race in a local dog sledding race and then to visit their kennels which we did. The seppala kennels,  happened to be just 10 minutes drive from my home this allowed me to help Mary Jane care for the dogs all summer during which I learned a lot about Seppala Siberian Sled dogs. That fall I was invited to help train the dogs and was told I could borrow some dogs to run a 3-dog race that February! I got to train the dogs I used: good old Nakota, Trapper (borrowed) and Cruiser- a dog given to me by a musher friend. Trapper was the only seppala but we still did well.
   At that race I bought a sled and a Seppala named Ella. She was a lead dog and (I thought) would be great with Cruiser and Nakota. She was way too fast! She has good lines and is a calm, “easy keeper”, I brought Ella home just a week before getting another seppala: Quest and we thought it was a big deal getting a second dog!
      Well, before getting Ella my Dad’s job moved us out into the country closer to some really good training trails. As I started training this fall I realized Cruiser was just not quite what I needed so I wrote to the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club to see if anyone had a Seppala for sale. It just so happened that their annual summer meeting was in a few weeks and they invited us to come.
   What a learning experience! I met an Iditarod musher and got to tour the kennels- it was cool to see dogs related to Quest and Ella! When we got home I began training again and was able to buy Chase- an 11 month old pup! Three weeks later I bought Wonder Woman- a 1\2 seppala X 1\2 Alaskan lead dog.  It is amazing how fast you can get by adding a dog or two.
      Now that I have 4 seppala’s I train every day but for a while I was worried about not getting on snow in time for my first (December) race! Well over Thanksgiving we suddenly got 6-8 inches of snow and it is still snowing and inch here and there!
     I’m 13 now and cannot believe how far Nakota and I have come (with plenty of family support) as we train for this season I hope that more people realize what they’re missing. Sure I don’t do a lot of the things kids my age do (and dog sledding isn’t for everyone) but I do get to do what I love doing- spending time with the dogs in the woods- you can just slow down for an hour, think and have fun!
    My favorite memory was running a training run this season on the cart with “perfect” snow falling, it parallels the time last season when I was running on a sled with the snow coming down and a great trail!
        Get out and do something with your dog today!


Friday, December 11, 2015

How It All Started - Part 4: Getting My Own Seppala's

So where are we in the “How I Got Started” adventures? It’s been a while since the last “episode” of how I got started so I thought I’d do a recap. Fortunately, I found a “historical” email from that time – which also flushes out the dates for things (it’s amazing how much I’d forgotten already).
   Below is a letter I wrote as a 12 year old after seeing a bulletin on the International Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Club (ISSSC) website. On the humorous side, when we went to our first ISSSC meeting, they thought my mom was the musher – even though I put my age in the letter!

I’ve copied the letter here (as exactly as I can – without any editing, where I could help it – so you get the feeling as it was then!):


Sent: Thursday, august 03, 2006
Subject: Applying for Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Pups

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to apply for a Seppala Siberian Sled Dog puppy that is in the program mentioned on the ISSSC website as being sold at minimal cost or given away free. The bulletin mentioned that this program is a good opportunity to get top racing Seppala Siberian Sled Dogs if you are a newcomer to Seppala’s and that to apply I should e-mail or call with my credentials.

Hello, I am 12 years old and this is my 4th year since I STARTED my dogsled “Journey.” I had always wanted a sled dog and in 2003 I got my first sib. She was a show dog and would pull but was a lot better at other canine sports. I really wanted to dog sled so in 2003 and 2004 I went to Priest Lake dogsled races and watched, asked questions and learned. During those years I met several Mushers’ (Suzie and Jim who have Malamutes and Jill and Bob who have Alaskans and Samoyeds) who sat down and answered a lot of my questions. I was also involved in a 4-H dog sledding project and learned a lot from that experienced- I got some sled dog training books and trained my show sib. I was still trying to find someone who raised Siberians because the Malamute musher’s used Siberians to speed up their team and I did not want Alaskans. Well, right before Priest Lake sled dog races 2005 I ran into MJ- Holding a Seppala pup at the vet office. We lived in town in Idaho at the time so after Priest Lake I went and visited Sepp-Raptor Kennels. Over the summer I visited Sepp-Raptor kennels several times and then was invited to help with the dogs while learned the care, the time it takes and what to feed. I also learned about puppy care since the G litter of 7 puppies was a few months old when I first visited Sepp-Raptor. That summer (2005) my family and I moved to the country in Idaho. There we put up kennels and a dog run. The fall in 2005 I was invited to help train dogs on a 4-wheeler. There I learned that you keep to schedule and run even in the slush and rain. I learned how to tell if a dog was pulling or just keeping the tug-line straight and a lot of terms & meaning, how to train and how to care for them afterward. After one of the training runs Curt said that Ella of Sepp-Raptor (Bambi of Seppalta X Sepp-Stars Eddie of Seppalta), a leader was for sale. I instantly said yes and agreed to pick her up after the season was over. I was able to help run dogs right up to the time I got Ella. In January 2006 I was invited to the Snow Dog Super Mush in Conconully, WA as a handler for the Sepp-Raptor dogs. I saw some Seppala teams; one was a 12 dog team and the rest were 6-dog teams. Before Conconully I had signed up for the Priest Lake 3 dog Class. I was using my show Sib, Trapper (Sepp-Raptor), and was still looking for a 3rd dog. At Conconully I met Amy Hanley- who started out a few years ago and has one of Ella’s brothers. She gave me Cruiser, a Siberian husky. So I had my 3 dog team! Although I had an interesting team- 1 show husky, 1 seppala and 1 Siberian husky-cross (Cruiser is not a Purebred although he looks it) we won the race and came home with my first sled which I bought from Amy also. After and before the race I ran Cruiser and my show Sib together a few times. Later that spring I bought Quest of Seppalta (Hudson of Seppalta X Articsky’s Avior of Seppalta) from Amy. I did not get Quest in time to run him this spring but ran Ella, Cruiser and my show sib together.

My goals for 2007 are to fill out at least a 4 dog team with all Seppala’s. I’m already halfway there! I also plan to race in 3-4 races. I would like to add to my dog run either down the hill or on the flat as well. By next summer I would like to have a 6 dog team of all Seppala’s. I would also like to become a better driver, especially if I have a faster or bigger team.

If you need any more info please contact me.

    That letter was a turning point for me because I was invited to the fall ISSSC meeting in Seeley Lake, MT and from there, made contacts and eventually got Quest's brother, Chase. Later, I got a half-Alaskan named Wonder Woman and ran Ella, Quest, Chase and Wonder...Cruiser had already become too slow. Also, because of going to the meeting I applied and received sponsorship from the Continental Kennel Club for my first season.
    At first it seemed a big deal to have non-AKC purebreds and I won't deny there's a lot of politics in it all but I was just a young musher who wanted to run Seppala's. For now, I ignored it all and just enjoyed the would catch up soon enough.
    That first fall I had little idea about what I was doing on my own and trained the 4 dogs 5-6 days per week around our house. I could go about 3 miles with lots of turn-around's and did this up to 4 times for a 12 mile run. Poor dogs! They must have been bored but they never showed it. We had a blast! 
    Throughout the fall, I kept it touch with Doug - the Seppala guru of the area - and he kindly responded to my numerous e-mails with questions about Seppala's and dog mushing in general. Looking back, some of the questions seem rather redundant but I really had no idea what I was doing - it's a whole lot different doing it on your own versus helping another musher who has their "system" down.
    I also immersed myself in everything Seppala. I kept track of all the Seppala kennels and scoured their websites for dogs for sale, bloodlines and anything else out on the web. It was a blast - I have no idea how many hours I spent on it. 
    Here's some pictures of my first team:

Quest - "the best!"

Ella (white) and Wonder Woman (black) in lead. Chase (white) and Quest in wheel.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dog Box Setup

At races, I like to look at everyone's dog box - everyone has something different which works for them. When my dad built my dog box I tried to incorporate as many ideas as I could. So I thought I'd share photos of the set-up. 

There is storage inside (wish there was more, though - I still have to use a dog box or two depending how many people come to the races with me and for drop bags) and the sled goes in the middle (where the buckets/harnesses are in the picture). I like the sled being inside - it keeps it clean, means I can leave the bag on and gear in it to save time for training hook-up and break down. If I were to change anything, I'd do a 10ft flatbed so the runners don't stick out at all - this would also give me more room for storage and, if I could make it 8ft wide, I could fit two sleds.

There are 8 boxes on the bottom (4 to each side) and the dimensions are 2' X 2' X 2'. It would be nice to have them a bit deeper, but my dogs aren't huge so they work. On top there are 4 on the driver's side and 3 on the passenger side (because of the storage area). The front 4 boxes (2 on each side) are 2' X 3' X 2' - perfect for one large dog or two smaller dogs (who want's to lift a big dog up there anyway?). The remaining boxes are the same size as the bottom. I like the large doors - makes it nice to work on a dog in the box or pull a shy one out. It's also nice for cleaning out the box.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Experiments Free-Dropping the Team

  Something which sticks in my mind about Iditarod musher Jessie Royer is the stories about how she free-drops her dogs and lets the dogs "be dogs." I've always been scared to let the dogs loose and, at most, would let Legolas and a few trusted old dogs loose (although at home, loading/unloading I always let the dogs loose). This year I decided to make some changes...
    Starting on our early fall runs, I began to let about half the dogs loose after unharnessing. I'd load them, then get the rest of the dogs. Later, I'd let them all loose. I think I wrote about the interesting things they've found at the trail head!
    Unfortunately, one day Saxon took me on an hour chase on the highway frontage road when he decided not to come and took off (in the direction of home, believe it or not). Discouraged about Saxon, I let everyone else loose and kept him on the line. I figured it must be the stubborn side of the Seppala in him!
    I found it interesting how the dogs responded to being loose. They relax and trot around - with a couple not interested in leaving the truck at all. However, when I begin to load up they all come over. I try to spend a couple minutes just playing with them - at first some of the dogs weren't so sure about it, but now more of them will follow me around and mob me in a group (with silly Achilles and his growling trying to scare everyone off). I've had a few small arguments, but I think it's better to get them settled off the line - then they know their place in the pecking order and can focus on running.
    It's made things fun; relaxing with the dogs after the runs. When I stopped for a couple runs because I had Emily to help me and some of the dogs were hard for her to catch, I noticed the dogs weren't as happy. I resumed and they are back to themselves. It's interesting how most of my core dogs are my shadows - if we didn't have livestock at our house and lived farther out I'd love to take them all out on a hike. I think they'd stick with me.
    The biggest change, however, is from Saxon. As I've probably mentioned, my favorite part of dog mushing is watching the dogs transform. Here is a dog who started the spring with amazing abilities but no training. He's also a bit shy, but he fit in by figuring out he can trot and pull with the best of them. But he wasn't really a part of the team still - something was missing and I couldn't seem to break through to him. I never imagined I'd put him in lead.  
    There is a moment when you know a dog is "yours." With some it's instant - like Razz and Frost. For others, even though they were born here, it takes months - like Odysseus. And then there's Urchin who was "my boy" in Alaska but has come to a whole new level this year (he's a very reserved dog whom I don't think has ever misbehaved, yet he is so stoic I could never tell if he liked me...until this spring, when he finally let himself get excited). It's interesting that part of Saxon's transformation might be linked to Urchin.
    It happened like this: I was unloading the last couple dogs at a new trail head and had Rowdy and Saxon in my hands. Saxon slipped away and I thought, "Oh, great, I'll be chasing him all night." I got Rowdy hooked up and then went for Saxon. He trotted over to the team (he knew where he was supposed to be!) and paused at the line. I made a grab for him and caught his fur. Like any dog might, he tried to pull away and, since I held on, instinctively turned around and nipped at my hand. Urchin was hooked at that section and he immediately jumped on Saxon and gave him a scolding...Urchin, the boy who never fights!
    Now, I've seen dogs do some amazing things (my Collie, Handsome, has bowled over dogs to break up dog fights and barked/nipped at them until they are all cowering) but never had one protect me from another - and it wasn't even like Saxon was really trying to be a bad dog. About this time I also tried Saxon in lead as a last resort. He stands a bit taller and grows in confidence every time he's entrusted with leadership of the team. My theory is that some dogs just need to be given the responsibility and they'll grow into it. It's part of the reason I parted with some of my old, Iditarod veteran's this year - it's time for the young dogs to take up the challenge (and I have an unfortunate tendency not to let them, if I have an "old reliable").
    Getting back to Saxon...on Thanksgiving week I decided to let him loose after the run. There is so much trust involved in dog mushing - I wanted to doubt that he would come but I didn't let myself think on it and treated him like the other dogs. After all, he'd started getting excited when I went through the team during runs to give them some encouragement. And in the yard, he'd not had any trouble coming to his spot to be chained up.
    So I let him go...
    I let the dogs play for a couple extra minutes as I snapped the pictures below and played with them. Saxon came up to me at this time and I pet him, but didn't lock him up (I was sorely tempted, thought). Later, I started on Saxon's side and although he wasn't the first dog to come over, he eventually came and let me put him up. Since then, he's actually come and put his front feet up on the truck, asking to be put into the box.
    Are the challenges over with Saxon? I think not - with those Seppala bloodlines I'm thinking he'll be a dog with lots of stories! But sometimes those are the very best sled dogs...

L-R: Razz, Achilles, Bella, Urchin, Legolas

L-R: Bea, Summer, Saxon, Falcon


In the background you can see Frost really wants to get into the truck!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Snow, Burn and Puppies!

    It's been a busy time of training. The weather cooled off and before Thanksgiving we got some much needed snow, giving the dogs feet a break. It cooled into the teens at night which made it awesome! Here are pictures from Thanksgiving - we ran 27 miles:

In other news around the kennel, Peppermint got out and breed Sweetwater. Although this was not planned, Sweetwater had six adorable puppies in October. I'm sure you'll hear more about them!

I have a Jr Musher named Emily who is helping train the dogs on weekend and bringing her dog, Meringue. She is going to be training with me for the Eagle Cap Extreme Jr race. It's been nice to have an extra hand on the trail and good for the dogs to get used to another person working with them. The first night we had a trailer adventure - which I'll disclose fully in another post.

As some of you may know, we had lots of fires in Idaho this year. I've never run through a wildfire burn, but not far from the trail head we came across a small burned out area. The first time I went, in early November, it stank terribly but after a good rain and now the snow, it's hardly noticeable. 

This week has been one of ups and downs for dog mushing. On Tuesday we got a bit more snow, but rain loomed in the forecast. I didn't want to run in the rain and, with an already slick driveway, decided to do an impromptu camping trip with the dogs. We ran 30 miles on Tuesday night, camped 6.5 hours and then ran 24 miles - with a light rain as we finished. Unfortunately, the rain continued and the trails were ice when I checked last night. Since it's only rain in the forecast, I hope they'll be back to enough dirt to run on Sunday. Otherwise, the dogs will be getting some time off. Last time I checked the forecast, over an inch of rain is expected Monday and then lots of snow starting Thursday. Let's hope it snows and sticks so we can get on the sled! (For photos of the Tuesday/Wednesday run and other training photos, see There & Back Again's facebook page: )

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 4

    Leaving Ollokot for the final leg of the race is perhaps the most memorable exit from a checkpoint I've had...although definitely not my proudest moment. Let me give you some background first...
    Summer is the oldest female in the kennel (except for Mouse, of course) and has been here the longest. She bears a grudge to all other females and lives in the boys yard because of it. I can only run her with other females occasionally, but never with Belle or Sweetwater (these two hate her and will gang up on her in a fight if they have a chance). Summer also happens to be the biggest dog in the team.
    Because I dropped 4 dogs, I shortened my lines and this put Summer ahead of Belle. When we stopped for the final bag check the dogs were barking and excited (even the remaining yearling on the team, Frost), but when we were ready to leave, they wanted to turn the wrong way and got tangled. Summer took the opportunity to seize Belle by the throat. She had a mouthful of fur and refused to let go. It took several of us and a multi-tool to pry her mouth open (I wonder if Swingley dogs have Pit Bull in their background somewhere?) and free poor Belle, who was turning blue...fortunately Summer only got skin and there were no bite wounds.
    It really freaked me out. I don't think I've been so worried before, even when Belle shook herself off and told me she was ready to go (after I moved Summer to wheel, behind Frost and Legolas). I kept thinking about what I would've done if I hadn't had help...probably the wrong time to think such thoughts - as you're heading out into the dark with a team of excited dogs!
    But I calmed with the cool night air and the dogs were moving better than in years past. Frost was nervous about Summer behind him and, I think, wondering why we were leaving his brother behind (he and Jingle have never been separated - they even live right next to each other in the kennel). He was excited to go but not sure if he should pull or look back. But he didn't neckline and was loping, so I ignored him for the ten mile climb off the river.
    Needless to say, I was having some flashbacks about climbing out of a similar checkpoint in the 2014 Race to the Sky and getting stuck on the mountainside. After letting myself worry too long, I pulled myself together - reminding myself that I was tired, I had two awesome girls up front - Rowdy and Sweetwater - and plugged in some goofy music to lift my spirits (Veggie Tales soundtrack). Needless to say, as we started the steepest part of the mountain the dogs and I were much happier.
    As we went up, I kept thinking I saw a headlamp above us (with the switchbacks you can see who's in front or behind very well). The dogs sensed something and really picked up speed. I later found out from a friend that she'd heard wolves howling in the area - and since we never caught anyone I think they might've still been hanging around.
    When we came to our first downhill, Frost started pulling again. He seemed to be coming out of his daze and realizing we were on the way home - and that he could do it! He did better and better from that point on.
    We stopped to snack in the place we always snack on the way to the finish - and the run went smoothly from there. It was a beautiful night, although the last ten miles seemed to drag on forever!
    The end, even with the new start/finish course, remained a white-knuckle ride until we came to the flatter, straighter finish line. The dogs were animated and you could tell Frost had grown with this accomplishment. Over the next day, he remained super proud of himself, as if he had finally become "one of the big dogs." This has remained with him; just like it changed Belle on her first race - the Eagle Cap in 2014.
    We beat the dropped dogs back to Joseph and were reunited the following day, which gave us the day to unwind together on a grassy parking area - visiting with other mushers.
    But the highlight of the race was the honor of being selected for the Best Cared for Team award again...Every musher I know takes amazing care of their athletes and it's a privilege getting to work with so many dedicated dog folks and veterinarians.
    I can't finish this without a shout out to my handlers - my mom and little brother (who was 5 at the time of the race and thrilled that "his" Jingle was racing, and that I drew the #5 bib and placed 5th) - and my sponsors for the race - Jim at Chandler's Inn and Scheffelmaier Meats for the custom race meat mix. The longer I run dogs, the more I realize I can't do it alone; it takes a tremendous amount of support in so many ways. I also have to thank the crew (my sister and family) back home who cared for the rest of the team while I was racing. When everything is said and done, the people you meet through mushing are the best!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 3

    I left Ollokot after the 6 hour layover with a very happy, excited team. I was thrilled to still have the 11 dogs I started with. It was warm, but I reminded myself that everyone was going through the same slush and it was exciting to pass a team several miles into the run. The dogs moved well, but I had to ride the drag mat for Nibbs and Mambo. They are both big boys with thick coats and having to work harder to keep up, were working very hard.
    We stopped many times in the shade and I let the dogs cool off by rolling in the snow. We found a great spot to snack in the coolness of the mountain side before going over the wide-open top of the mountain. It's always encouraging to see other teams on the out and back because you can gage how you're doing and if you've made time.
    Still, it was frustrating to have to move Mambo to wheel as he kept holding up the team. He did better out of lead, and we made better time down the mountain and started the last ascent.
    Suddenly, Urchin started limping...badly. I stopped immediately and tried to put him in the bag. He wanted none of it! He struggled and made quite a mess of the bag. I had to lean over the handle bar and hold him down. As we descended into Ollokot I was struggling to keep him in the bag when my drag mat broke. At almost the same moment, we came upon two of the trail breaking snowmobiles. They asked if everything was ok and I smiled and said yes....everything was under control, but I couldn't help laughing. It was all rather comical (not that Urchin was limping, of course, but that the typically laid back boy was being so difficult).
    We made it into the checkpoint and the to our camping spot, where I fed the dogs. They ate well and bedded down. I had only intended to stop for a few minutes, but with Urchin needing to be dropped and Nibbs, Mambo and Jingle needing looked at, I probably wasted time there. I should've dropped the dogs and gone but I was rather distraught at the thought of having to drop so many dogs.
    I forgot to mention that during the 6 hour layover I had a successful treatment of a wrist injury. I am very conservative with injuries and prefer to drop a dog, but since I had 6 hours I treated the writs with heat, algyval, ice (snow) and walking which helped two of my dogs tremendously.
    In the end I stopped at Ollokot for over an hour, which lost me a placing as another team came and went...and I dropped Urchin, Nibbs, Mambo and Jingle. The last three, looking back, I should've kept in the team - I later learned from talking with Scott that Nibbs and Mambo always look terrible when it's hot, but since the last leg was heading into the cool of the evening they would've been fine.
    Every race I learn so much - it's all about your decisions and every year I come to a new understanding of how tough sled dogs are and how to better read them. As we'll see in the conclusion of Eagle Cap 2015, the dogs grow tremendously when they finish a race...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

November Training Update

    Lots of adventures on the trail thus far. We've got about 400 miles of training now and are having the same problem we had last year - worn out feet. We have a lot of rock in our trails and until recently it's been hard and dry. The rain is nice because it softens the trail, but we're backing off to let some of feet heal up - until we get snow.
    I've noticed it's the larger, hardest working dogs that have the most trouble...and it's almost entirely rear feet affected. But foot ointment and booties work wonders, so I'm optimistic they'll be back to normal by the time we hit snow. A little extra care now means tougher feet down the road. The dogs that had the worst trouble last year are not the worst this year.
   Regarding foot ointment - a while back I shared the ointment recipe I've used. It's been quite a process rounding up the ingredients for batch number 2. Apparently Iodine Ointment is no longer made, which means I have to mix it up myself. Hopefully it'll turn out ok this time...
    It's hunting season and we've had few encounters with live animals. However, the other day we saw our first bull moose. I don't think I've seen a bull move so fast before. It was a rainy day and I looked up to see him standing on the edge of the road halfway in the thick pine trees. He trotted down the trail and I paused for a few seconds to give him room, of course the were dogs barking and lunging in their harnesses. But when we rounded the bend, he decided not to go up the steep mountain and dashed in front of us to the river. Boy did he move fast! He was a pretty guy - but I'm glad he had the sense to get out of the way.
    One day we came to the trailhead to find a pile of deer trimmings. I had to clean them up because I've been letting the dogs loose after the run to unwind before getting into the box (all but Saxon, that is - he had me chasing him for an hour one day).
    The next time, we arrived to find folks shooting their Halloween pumpkin. The .22 didn't make enough noise to scare the dogs at all, but they were thrilled to come back from the run and find a bunch of muskrat carcasses. As you can imagine, the dogs lucky enough to find them were very proud of themselves. Let's just say it was rather messy cleaning up...

    In other news, I'm excited to announce some up and coming leaders. As part of training, I try every dog in lead. So, one morning I put Frost up front. He is NOT a leader and made it about 4 miles before I swapped him for Odysseus...who didn't make it a mile. I think Odysseus will eventually lead, he's just very submissive with the older dogs still. Time will tell...
   Just for kicks, I thought I'd put Saxon up front with Legolas before trying out the puppies. He cranked out the rest of the run like a pro! I put him up the next night with Urchin and again, he did excellent. It also happened to be our fastest 14 mile run yet (not impressive speed wise, since we train very slow right now, but I found out who can trot at 12 mph comfortably).
    Last weekend was the yearlings turn to shine. Owl gave poor Urchin quite a time of it. He wanted to go on the left side of the road and even tried to go into the river. But he didn't balk and kept a tight line. Sunday I put mother and daughter - Rowdy and Bea - in front. What a team! They kept the team animated and insisted on bursting into a lope two miles from the truck. I love the bloodlines drive and general happiness...I'm sure you'll be hearing more about them as the season progresses.

    Snow is in the forecast...happy training!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 2

    Part of my plan was to rotate leaders for each run this year. So for the night run I switched to Rowdy and Urchin. My plan was to use conservative Legolas for the first leg, since he knows the trail so well, and then get some speed for the cool night run. It worked as planned.
    Everything is in the dark, so there's not much to do but relax and enjoy the ride. This year I was well equipped with coffee and food, so although I was tired I felt great!
    I'm always relieved when I drop my tag at the half-way turn around and start down the mountain. Somehow I always worry I'll forget to drop my tag or it'll get lost.
    It's also fun to high-five the other mushers and see where everyone is at as we head-on pass. It seemed a pretty tight field on the second run and I tried not to let it worry me. After all, we had the same tough trail to do the next day - in the heat.

    Although I'd tried to work out a schedule to keep me out of the heat of the day, there's no way to avoid it. We came into Ollokot for the mandatory 6 hour rest and I knew it'd be hot later when we left. But we were into the checkpoint for the dogs to rest in the cool morning and they ate like champions. I was very happy to see no injuries at the vet check and everyone ate and drank well. I think I might've gotten an hour of sleep - but I'm always afraid of oversleeping (even though I set an alarm). Either way, the teams were still bunched pretty close.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 1

    I'm determined to get the racing blog posts caught up by the end of this year, so without further ado, here's the first leg of the Eagle Cap 200 - 2015!

    It's always hot at the start, and this year was no exception. However, they changed to starting route and I really liked that - it is still steep but not like going up the ski hill! The dogs settled down into their typical pace and I was impressed by how far we got before the sun went down (as opposed to years previous). Part of this is due to the fact that the race changed the course to remove a loop at the beginning - and tack it on at the end.
    I started with Legolas and Sweetwater in lead:

    I remember several teams passed us. When they go loping by I always figure we'll see them later...which turns out true most of the time in distance racing. What is frustrating is when they pass you on the downhill and you keep passing on the uphill or flat sections. But the dogs are pretty happy to run with another team.
    I planned to snack once on the trip out, but shortly before I planned to stop a team passed us and then had trouble taking a turn. So we waited for them and I went a bit further after that break, because they were rearing to go.
    With the miles and miles of training on the dogs at this point in the season, the first leg is really just about settling into the race. There's no need to push them - just get them through safely.
    I always like watching the lights above and below as we go down the 10 mile hill into Ollokot...and then it seems like a really long run by the river into camp - when it's only a couple miles.
    But there's something very special about coming up out of the darkness and into the checkpoint - hearing the river water, seeing the bright lights and hearing dogs barking.
    My dogs know the drill at the checkpoint and don't need much help getting past the checkers and into place. Ollokot is extremely well manned - with people to point you in the right direction. I had a good spot - with a tree to tie off to (very nice, because of the low snow). We also were about halfway between the water and the tents.
    I planned to stay two and a half hours, so I fed the dogs the wet cooler when we got in and got foot ointment and coats on in my planned time frame. I also boiled water then - since it's not very cold in the lower 48 I figure I can fill the cooker with water from the creek, put two bottles of heet in the cooker and leave it - it'll be perfect to fill my cooler before I head out again.
    This year my sponsor, Scheffelmaier Meats, had ground up an amazing blend of meat for me to use - so the dogs were wolfing down their food. I'd also agonized over the calories for each meal, because I always over feed (mainly because the dog food I feed - First Mate - is extremely high in calories; you feed very little compared to other feeds).
    Once the dogs were bedded down I headed in for some food and then forced myself to lay down for 45 minutes or an hour. I didn't sleep, but lay still and rested - listening to the patter of feet and soft panting of teams coming in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How It All Started - Part 3: First Season

    The best part is that the Sepp-Lok sled dog kennel was located in the same town – albeit in the country. My first job was working there and MJ and Curt even went out of their way to take me on a dog sled ride that spring - before the snow was entirely gone. I would work for them through the following summer and when we moved out to the country I was able to do a lot of training with them because we lived out where they trained.
    That first winter I remember getting really, really cold during the rainy fall training runs and being very frightened of the crazy puppies – the “G” litter – because they could drag the 4-wheeler. I also remember double sledding with MJ quite a bit and loving every moment behind the dogs!
    I was invited to handle for their two 6-dog teams at the 2006 Conconully Snow Dog Super Mush and it was a great opportunity to meet nearby musher’s. It was also my first taste of sled dog racing as more than just a bystander. I helped drop dogs, harness, bring the team to the start and help at the finish. The great thing about Conconully is that it was so well run by the organizer, Elaine, and the volunteers that it became a standard by which many mushers would compare races. While there, I also got to go on a sled dog ride with my friend Vicky's malamute team – which was probably the highlight of the trip! I don't think there is another 6-dog team I raced against while doing mid-distance that had a happier face or curlier tales - I can still see the happy team in my minds eye, trudging up the hills. 
    While there, I also met a lady named Amy who was getting into Seppala’s and had a Siberian mix named Cruiser who was too slow for her team. She offered him to me. 
    I think I forgot to mention that my mom came with me. I don't remember it being to hard to get her to agree to let me take him home…as a trial, of course, because Daddy didn’t know yet! Cruiser was the standard husky - black and white with striking blue eyes.
    Let’s just say that I was thrilled to bring him home, but also nervous about what my dad would say. He just asked, “How much did you pay for him?” Since he’d been given to me...that was that! (This also marked the official downhill trend for being sled dog crazy – once you have two dogs, what’s three, then four, then twenty, right?!!!)

    So I now had Nakota and Cruiser to run, but the Jr race at Priest Lake was a 3-dog race. Curt had an older, half-blind (blind in one eye) Seppala named Trapper who was a leader. I remember being very nervous about the race – it was 3 miles and I’d be on my own and what if I had to pass another team? Or the dogs didn’t take the turns?
    It went without flaw, Cruiser and Trapper leading little Nakota in wheel, and I think I might’ve won – but it’s been long enough I don’t remember. But it just confirmed my wish to have my own team and race mid-distance. At this point my hope was to get enough dogs to run the 4-dog spring races for next season. Since February is virtually the end of the race season in North Idaho, I began planning to obtain more dogs. 
    Curt agreed to let me work of Ella and Amy sold me Quest that spring. There are so many memories of Quest! I consider him my first real sled dog and although he died several years ago, I still miss his howl in the kennel. He was a gorgeous red dog with striking blue eyes and an excellent Seppala pedigree. He had been super shy, which is why the lady was selling him, but he came out of his house the first night and ate just fine. I found him the model of reserve and dignity - he liked people, so long as he could remain his refined self! After all, he wasn't just a sled dog - he was a Seppala Siberian Sled Dog! 
    Quest also led me down a specific “purebred Siberian Husky” path – because he was my first Seppala sled dog who was not AKC registered. Up till Quest, I’d only worked with AKC Seppala’s and there’d been a lot of controversy over bloodlines and registry. But I’ll get into that a bit later…

Thursday, October 22, 2015

October Training & Photos!

    Training is underway, after weeks of iffy weather. Juggling work and training, I usually run weekends and twice during the week. In September, because of the high temperatures, I had ended up running only weekends but also got in some evening nights - so I'd run 3 short runs in a weekend - but we are still "behind" compared to last year. I'm not worried, though, because last year we ran through the summer so the dogs kept in shape. This year we're starting after several months off - every year is different when you're running sled dogs!
    We've bumped up to 14 miles now, and everyone is looking good. The yearlings are a blast to work with - they are a talented bunch and I look forward to seeing them mature over the season.

   I have to confess I've neglected this blog a bit because over September/early October I did some real soul searching about my mushing future. Originally it appeared that to continue pursuing sled dogs I needed to take a break and go back to school - there's just not enough hours in the day to work full-time, run dogs and study. However, God opened some doors and I get to keep the dogs! School may take a long time, but I'll be happier and even if I don't do much racing, I can bide my time to pursue the Iditarod in the long run. More to come on this...but for now, back to training!

   With the shift in priorities, I did make the tough decision to downsize. It's especially hard to see some of the puppies born here move on to new places, but I enjoy hearing about their new adventures!

    Bella is one of those dogs you wonder about. She pulls hard and is generally well behaved, but not a great leader and, I'm sorry to say it, not the brightest dog of the team. Since the best way to train a leader is to put them in lead, I decided to let her and Achilles lead together so they could learn together. About a quarter mile into the run (which began in semi-darkness), I saw moose eyes to the left. They moved ahead of us and onto the road where the cow and calf decided to stop. Grr! They would not budge and I stopped a safe distance away, but the cow was still a bit menacing (at least, I thought so - I had all kinds of nightmarish visions in my head, borne of last year's moose encounters). But how to turn around a 19 dog team that was fresh and banging their harnesses? Without much trust in my command, I said, "Come Haw!"

   And Bella took the command and dragged Achilles and the team back towards the truck!

   Now, I've discovered that the moose generally move out of the way if you give them space, so about a tenth of a mile away, I stopped and turned back again. The moose were still in the trail, so I had to stop again at the same spot. Unfortunately, Bella had the bright idea that we wanted to turn around again. Ten minutes and many tangles later, we got moving forward again (I ended up having to move Bella out of lead to get moving forward because she's a big dog and did NOT want to go towards the moose - who were well away from the trail now).

    Another night run, we came down to the end of the trail (where we turn around) and there's a campground. The dogs got stoked because with the lights and smells they thought it was a checkpoint. Cool thing is that on a later run we went through the campground and over a one-lane wooden bridge. What great training for the dogs!

   This week I ran on Wednesday night and Thursday morning - spending the sunset and sunrise in the mountains. It's hard to catch in a picture, but I tried. Seeing the beautiful colors reminds me that none of this came about by chance - there is a Creator; it couldn't have happened by chance...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The 2016 Team

Training is well underway, we're nearing 100 miles and running about 6 miles per training run. Here's the athletes:

Owl (black) and Peppermint (white)


Saxon (black/brown) and Mambo (black/white)

Bella (white) and Falcon (brown)

 Urchin (brown) and Achilles (blue eyes)

Summer (back) and Eagle (front)

Bea (back) and Razz (front) 

Frost (back) and Rowdy (front) 

Nestor (back) and Sweetwater (front)

Legolas (white) and Jingle (black)