Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How It All Started - Part 9: The 2011 Season

    After a taste of overnight camping with a team of dogs, I really did some soul-searching the spring and summer of 2010. In looking at my team I realized the dogs I really liked were my Alaskans (not that I disliked Seppalas, but of the few Alaskan's I had compared to Seppalas - the Alaskans were better). I'd met Katie Davis at the Flathead races and when I saw her add on Sled Dog Central, my decision was pretty much made. She had just run the 2010 Yukon Quest but was selling out to go back to school. My mom and I went up to Montana to see the dogs in the spring. The end result was Summer - a big female yearling - and Voodoo, a fiery little black and white lead dog who had completed the Quest with Katie.
    I'd been talking with people and researching pedigrees for a while, so had my mind made up on Swingley bloodlines - in part because of Legolas - so I was glad that Katie's dogs were mostly Swingley. I laugh at my bias now, but I was actually concerned (inwardly) that Summer was only half Swingley lines - not realizing what a great job Katie had done with that cross!
    As the transfer from Seppala's to Alaskans occurred over weeks and months, I would end up going back to Katie for Summer's sister, Rachel, and later for a middle-aged female named Jersey - who had to be one of the the happiest dogs I've known!
    I collected a few others as well, from my good friend's Wendy & Steve. They gave me Ruby, a very friendly little dog who was easy to handle, and Wendy's older main leader, Virgil, whom (they gave me fair warning) detested his feet being touched but would keep me going where I needed to go.

    My mom will tell you that when I came in from the training run with Katie, on our first meeting to look at dogs, I had a huge grin on my face. I think it was the first time I saw such a well-mannered, big team of Alaskans. I learned a lot in talking and emailing with Katie - it was the first time I'd be introduced to the concept of not worrying about the distance of the run so much as the length of time on the trail. She also had the experience to recommend and sell me what I'd need for the Jr. Race to the Sky, namely a cooker, booties and dog coats. I didn't really realize at the time how much meeting Katie, talking with her and getting some good dogs would impact me.

    It intrigued me that she didn't use necklines - with great success. While I only ran one year without necklines, it taught me a lot about my dogs and training. I rather liked the freedom each dog had, but it takes a special group of dogs to work that way - and stops often lead to more tangles. On the positive side, the dogs didn't have a neckline yanking them with the team around corners or through deep snow; which can lessen injuries. Of course, in Alaska I'd revert to the neckline, but it was a valuable learning experience.
    I think the first time I heard of going "neckline-less" was at the 2009 (?) Race to the Sky sled dog symposium from Jason Barron. Although they no longer have the symposium, it was really good that last year with talks from Jason and Hugh Neff. I'll have to look over the pages of notes I took (yes, I saved them!) and come up with a blog post about it - maybe I can even remember if it was 2009 or 2010!

    As fall drew near, I short on a couple dogs and responded to an ad from Sled Dog Central. I got in contact with Nancy Yoshida (whom I finally got to meet in Alaska) and she entrusted me with four wonderful dogs: Bessie, Cougar, Rocky and Bobby. All had run in the Iditarod and the first three came from Aaron Burmeister (I'd later meet some of Bessie's offspring at Aaron's). The boys were big and Cougar was a reliable leader - the gift of these experienced dogs made the season go much smoother. I remember Nancy telling me that they were quite calm, since in distance mushing you don't want them to waste energy. It's a good thing, too, because all three boys were over 55lbs.


        Bobby (L) and Ruby (R) in wheel.                                                Bessie (L) and Virgil (R)
                                                                                                       Cougar (L) and Voodoo (R)
                                Cougar                                                                Bessie

      Training that year was a lot of new experiences. Due to forest service trail closures, I had to drive to train and began to train alone (finally being old enough to drive!). I ran quite a bit in the early morning hours, then came home to study and go to work in the afternoon. I loved it!
     Now that my mom didn't come as often, I decided to try to fill up my schedule of races so that I didn't have to do so much training alone and to get the dogs up to distance in a race environment. I wasn't to the point of being quite comfortable out in the woods with a big team. In fact I took twelve dogs to West Yellowstone (our first race that year, which was 10 below) and only ran ten because I was concerned about handling them. It was a needless worry, but I'm glad I didn't take Bessie because she was older and I discovered she had trouble keeping up with the faster pace we set on the sled vs. 4-wheeler. I actually don't remember much about West Yellowstone, I think I was so stressed out about running that big of a team alone (when I'd switched to the sled I'd always had someone come with me) that I hardly noticed anything else.

    Both pictures above (L to R): Rachel/Virgil, Summer/Jersey, Quest/Ruby, Legolas/Rocky.

Cougar & Voodoo in lead


    The next race I ran eleven and, boy, was I glad I did! I'd never seen such steep hills before. Although, again, we were quite slow, I had a sense of accomplishment for finishing the race. I also received some very good (and much needed) advise from Rick Larsen after day 1 which encouraged me - leading to a better day 2.
Legolas/Virgil, Jersey/Rachel, Ruby, Voodoo/Quest, Cougar/Summer, Bobby/Rocky


    Something I learned at Flathead was that the longer distances really separate dogs. A couple of my dogs just weren't cut out for distance. Whether it was because they were older and hadn't been used to running so far (Quest), or just didn't like it (aka Virgil - who tore off booties and had terrible feet as a result) - I learned to use what I had and make the best of it. Looking back I really wish Quest was younger; that dog had heart and I feel certain he would've gone much further if he'd had the training as a younger dog (learned to pace himself). He never gave up, even though he'd get tired. It's one of the reasons I'm really excited about the opportunity to bring some Seppala back into my kennel, through Quest's great-niece Athena.

    At Conconully I felt confident enough to switch things up a bit. I had some interesting conversations with Mark Stamm on Saturday and decided to drop my two slowest dogs to run eight on day two (after all, Race to the Sky was only 8-dogs). We had a better run the second day and had a close finish with Steve.

 The CKC sponsored mushers: Wendy, Me, Amy and Steve. 


    And just like that, it was time for Race to the Sky!

    I wasn't too confident about it, being fifty miles when we'd only run about 40 at the furthest, but everyone assured me we'd be fine. I think my biggest worry was the trail - something we'd never run on before - and being in the dark with only markers to guide me. But the trip over huckleberry was fantastic - my headlamp worked and I got to run with some of the 12-dog teams on the way up. We also made good time up the mountain, putting some distance between us and a couple other Jr. other teams which had caught us when I stopped to snack the dogs (as I'd been instructed to do by Nancy). 
    I remember little of the camping at Whitetail, but I recall my dogs knew what they were doing and didn't sit there and bark for six hours. We left and ran on the plowed road for a while and then at some point I remember going through trees and switchbacks and over some streams - then popping out into a road which pretty much took us to Seeley. I think the section winding through the trees must have been new that year because I don't recall running it since. It sure woke you up though! With the road running, stream crossings and turns I was really thankful not just for Cougar and Voodo in lead, but the wonderful work done by Rocky and Bobby in wheel - those big boys could throw their weight around and helped me stay on the narrow bridges.
    One thing that hasn't changed since my first Race to the Sky is how hard it is to stay awake on the rolling hills coming in to Seeley. I could scarcely keep my eyes open!
    Something else that happened at the Jr. Race to the Sky was my meeting Doug Swingley. As I mentioned above, I pretty much thought Swingley lines were the best thing ever. I'd not been able to afford to get a dog directly from him but it was "now or never" because he was selling out. So I decided to get a harness broken yearling.
    We left our truck at the start parking lot and Doug gave us a ride to the kennel. Unfortunately he took one of the turns too fast and we slid off the road. Looking back it's really hilarious, but at the time I was very concerned about missing my start time - although we'd given plenty of time.
    Anyway, it's hard to know what to do with someone else's vehicle. My mom and I are very good at chaining up vehicles because of our driveway (I make it a game, actually, timing myself to chain up all 4 tires...record is 5 minutes, if you care to know!) but obviously this was someone else's vehicle and his tire chains were missing parts and, this was a guy and his truck - you don't usually want to interfere! Fortunately, mushers are resourceful and a few spare drop chains, tuglines and snaps can do wonders. We got going again.
    We didn't spend too long at Swingley's kennel, lots of his dogs were already gone, but we did look at two yearlings. What struck me about his kennel set-up was how far it was from the house and what I liked about the dogs was the conformity. I chose Gogo - a little black and tan dog much like Rachel. She had good breeding and was supposed to be harness broken. Although I worked with her over the spring and summer before heading north to Alaska, she never became outstanding. Lesson learned: just because the dog has "the name" or the pedigree doesn't mean it is a good sled dog. I guess it's good it was only a couple hundred dollar mistake...

Rocky, Bobby, Summer and Rachel


     Summer & Rachel (sisters)                                                               Bag check


                    Cougar & Legolas                                                             Jersey
                         Rocky & Bobby


    After Race to the Sky I met with another musher, Charlotte Mooney, who gave me a couple dogs from Barron lines. My mentor, Lanette, had been very happy with her Barron dogs so I thought I'd give it a try. I will always regret not hanging on to these dogs - Mack, Bonner and Viking - when I went to Alaska. Especially Viking - he went back to Charlotte and she wasn't willing to sell him again.

    A few days after Race to the Sky, we hit the road again to head back to the American Dog Derby in Ashton. I intended on running the 60 mile race, but Chris Adkins persuaded me to run the 100 mile. I'm glad he did, because they were in shape for it. However, we had to "get around" the minimum dogs rule. Per the rules, you had to start with 9 but could finish with, I think, 7. Well, all but my 8 core dogs had been having time off for several weeks. So, Ruby "won the lottery" to come run with me. Chris said since she was an older dog with lots of experience she could probably make it quite a bit of the way. And she did. Ruby really taught me how tough sled dogs are. She made it halfway and then I tried to put her in the bag - figuring she'd done well enough. She would have none of it. I tried on and off the rest of the race and she was adamant about running. She didn't pull but she wasn't neck-lining either. I let her have her way and she got to stay at the truck for day two.
    Day two they weren't the most animated, having just come off Race to the Sky and lacking Ruby's enthusiasm (she was a cheerleader), but we had a good time and received some nice compliments on the team and how they looked. My sister also had the chance to run the Jr. Race there, with Quest and Virgil.

Bonner, Mack, Rocky, Viking, Quest, Summer, Bobby
           Rachel/Cougar in lead, Jersey in swing         Ruby next to Legolas, Voodoo/Summer, Rocky/Bobby
Day 2 start: Voodoo/Cougar, Jersey/Legolas, Summer/Rachel, Bobby/Rocky

    And with that, the final episode of "How It All Started" is complete...if you go to the early posts from 2011 you can find out what happened afterwards and how I went to Alaska and came back again. I hope you've enjoyed these memories as much as I did in sharing them with you! If you think I've missed something or you have questions, let me know - I'll be glad to address them in a future post! 

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