Archive for November, 2007

You take the good and the bad

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

How different this training season is from last year. Last November we ran into conditions of no snow and temperatures of minus 20 degrees for three straight weeks. There was no snow in the Caribou Hills, the trails around Cohoe were too icy to run on even in booties, and large slabs of ice on the beach ruled out running down there. Instead we were forced to do what we find to be the world’s most boring mushing. We would drive up to Skilak Lake Loop Road in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where we would attach a gangline directly to the truck and then we would run the team from end to end on the road a distance of about 40 miles. However, despite this distance, we don’t really feel the dogs get as much out of pulling the truck (since you’re helping them so much with the engine) as they do by pulling the 500 pound wheeler or a sled loaded down with dog food. Also, there is nothing challenging for them when pulling on a road with no turns, and over sheets of compacted ice.
This year has been the exact opposite, and we feel for the better. We have had very mild temperatures in the 20’s to 30’s for most of the winter and the Caribou Hills got close to two feet of really good snow early in November. For different reasons related to their personal lives, not a lot of people have been training in the hills this year, so almost every run we have been on up there so far, we have been breaking trail through deep snow for miles. Our longest run this year has been just under a 30 miler, but the runs are taking four to five hours to complete, so while our mileage may be less than last season, the strength and cardio training is far better this year. Also, since we are breaking so much trail without a snowmachine leading the team (like some mushers opt to do) we are really developing some outstanding leaders. On out last run in the hills, Waylon and a few of our other yearlings stepped up and broke out trail in co-lead with some of the older dogs showing them the ropes. They all did awesome.
As the weather in these parts often does at this time, it took a turn for the worse these past few days. A warm weather front from Hawaii pushed in and brought with it temperatures in the 40’s a lots of rain. This quickly destroyed all our snow, even in the hills. However, calling friends around the state and following the radar obsessively, it looks like everyone was in the same boat across AK, as it rained from here to Fairbanks. This always brings mixed emotions because while it is good to know none of the more northern mushers are on better conditions than we are and thus could really pull ahead of us in training and then in early season races, it is also bad because it means we can’t drive north to chase good snow.
With the warm weather we decided to give the dogs a few extra days off. This is one of the perks of training so consistently as we do early in the season. By building up miles, as we did by putting in several long, arduous, back-to-back runs in the hills the last two weekends, we can take a few days to a week off around November and December without falling behind in overall mileage. In fact, the dogs typically seem to come back stronger from the break since they get a little much needed rest and can put on a few pounds of weight, since they are eating the same, but not running off calories.
After the dogs rested for a few and the weather cleared enough to return to safe training, we went back onto the beach with them pulling the fourwheeler. We were hesitant at first because the beach is very dependent on how much sand gets washed in on the tides. When there is a lot, the training can’t be beat because the soft sand is just like running through soft, freshly fallen snow, which the dogs encounter a lot while racing. However, if the sand has been washed out and there are only rocks it can be horrible on the dog’s feet and bad for their morale. Fortunately, luck was on our side, we ran on the beach yesterday morning and the sand was really, really good. We even hit a few pockets of mud where the dogs had to slowly muscle their way through it, just like they were breaking trail. We ended up putting in 25 miles of really tough trail. This run would have been equivalent to 40-45 mile run on a sled.
Today we went back with a puppy team, and the last tide cycle brought in even more sand, making it one of the best beach runs we’ve ever had. There is no doubt in our minds we had some of the best training on the peninsula, if not the entire state. The puppies did awesome, as with breaking trail in the hills, we don’t put in a trail in front of the dogs, so they learn to rely on us to call them up and down the beach following the good sand. Today Hildy and Six were in front and they led the entire run flawlessly, geeing and hawing on command. As a yearling, if Hildy can lead that good on an expanse of trail-less beach that is 200 yards wide, it really bodes well to how she will lead on something easy for her like a trail through the woods.
So in closing, while it would be better to be running on sleds over some soft, white snow, you take what you get as a musher and make the best out of it, which is what we’ve been doing and it has actually turned out to be some pretty darn good training in the end.


Monday, November 12th, 2007

It finally snowed enough to take a sled out yesterday and brother did it feel good, even if we had to travel a little bit to get to it. While the trails around our home are bare except for a thin layer of jagged ice that’s dangerous to the dogs’ feet, the Caribou Hills (located about 45 minutes from the house) got a foot of beautiful, heavy, wet snow. We took two 12-dogs teams up yesterday and had a blast. The first 5-6 miles were a little chewy because the trails here are very wide and some hotdogs in their wanna-be monster trucks had gone up and tore the trail to hell, but as soon as we turned onto smaller trails, only accessible by a dog team, there was nothing ahead of us but miles of fresh powder. It was great snow too, the kind where you don’t need booties on the dogs’ feet, although we stopped and check several times. We broke trail out to a place called “The Park Bench” in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It was an awesome strength/cardio workout for the dogs since the whole run was only 20 miles, but ended up taking four hours, since the snow was shoulder deep on the dogs most of the way. It was great leader training too, since some of the younger dogs had never broken trail in snow that deep, for such long a period of time.
It was good to be back in the hills too since we had heard the landscape there had been dramatically altered from huge wildland fires during the summer. We were nervous that it may be difficult navigating though the area without the old familiar landmarks. However, minus a few cabins and the branches to many trees, most of the area still looked the same…amazingly. People have already put out more barrels to mark “The Barrel Trail,” and while the old “Tinkle Tree” is gone, people have started tying bottles to a new tree in the same location, so people are adjusting. In terms of missing landmarks, the cabin at “Four Corners” is probably the only really unusual thing. During the day it’s obvious when passing this area (despite the cabin being gone) because there are so many trail converging, but at night I could see flying right by this spot and never knowing it.
Anyhow, we’ll keep enjoy the snow while it’s there and keep our fingers crossed for a little of the white stuff down by our house so we can run out of the yard without using a fourwheeler, but in the meantime, it felt great to be back on a sled!

Worst Halloween Ever

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

It’s tough to know where to begin with this story, so I’ll begin with when Doc, one of the older dogs in the kennel, began limping about two weeks ago. Since he is no spring chicken we thought his old bones may just be feeling their age so we gave him a few days off from the short runs that he had been going on. He started using his foot again, so we ran him again, but the limping was back the next day, followed by a swollen toe a few days later. At first we thought he may have just broken a toe, but a few days later it looked worse and seemed to be moving up his paw. We took him to the veterinarian and started him on antibiotics, but feared we would be back in a few days dealing with something serious. We ran the course of medicine, but the swelling didn’t decrease, so when we returned to the vet, he advised us that Doc’s toe should come. He thought it better to be safe and lose the toe (even if it didn’t come back as cancer after a biopsy was sent out) rather than waiting and potentially having cancer spread up his leg or further into his body. We were sad to make the decision because the toe being removed was his middle (main weight-bearing) toe, so making the decision to remove it was also making the decision to end his career pulling sleds. Doc doesn’t go on long runs, but he loves the runs he does go on, and he is the best puppy trainer we have ever seen, but for his health we agreed on the surgery and dropped him off at the vet at 9 a.m. on Oct. 31.
Here’s were the story gets more complex. We have also been in negotiations to get a dog named “Screamer” up from Colorado. This was a dog we raised and harness broke while farming a litter of pups for a neighbor. She is the sister of Oaky, Penny, and Nuk, which are three of the best dogs in our kennel (and two of our main race leaders), and before she left us, Screamer was the largest of her siblings and the best leader. Unfortunately, the musher we split the litter with picked her for himself, but a few months later he decided he didn’t want her anymore, and the price he was asking for her was several hundreds dollars more than we could pay. Screamer was sold to a musher in the Lower 48, but less than a year later, he too decided he didn’t want her and was preparing to sell her again. Colleen was crushed when we lost Screamer the first and second time and it was difficult seeing a dog we knew had such potential being passed around to different homes. Joseph made it a mission to bring her back to a kennel where she would be appreciated for her abilities and encouraged to reach her potential. We were solely getting her back for sentimental reasons. So we purchased her from this Lower 48 musher and got her flown up, coincidentally on the same day Doc was booked for surgery. Since we had to pick up Screamer in Anchorage at the same time Doc was coming out of surgery, we asked a family member to pick up Doc and left a kennel for him at the vet’s.
As it turned out the kennel was too big for her car, so she loaded Doc in for a ride, but when she got to her house, a frightened Doc made a break for it and got away from her. He ran a few blocks away (on his paw fresh out of surgery) and disappeared into the woods. To make matters worse than they already were, Doc was lost in Kenai – an area he had never been. Had he gotten away almost anywhere else on the Kenai Peninsula and he probably could have found his way home, since over the years he has run on numerous trails, but Kenai is the city and there are no trails. Also, since Doc is so old, runs loose around the yard without leaving, and knows his way around Kasilof (where we live) so well, he is one of only two dogs (his brother Bashful is the other) that we don’t have identification tags on. So we feared that even if someone did catch him in Kenai, they wouldn’t know who he belonged to. Oh, and of course it was Halloween, so there were a million cars, screaming kids and other weird things to not only freak Doc out, but that hampered our efforts to search for him.
When we got back to town with Screamer, about 6 p.m., we began looking for Doc. The woods he was lost in were very dense and marshy, so we were only covering about 50 feet an hour, due to the darkness, knee deep mud and numerous downed trees. After several hours we decided there wasn’t anything more we could do until morning, so we went home with tears in our eyes and tried to get a few hours of fitful sleep. We went back at the crack of dawn the next morning with fellow musher friends. Colleen took the dog truck and several of our most vocal dogs to where Doc was seen last, we thought the familiar sounds might draw him in. Joseph took “lost dog” flyers to the local shelters, police departments, schools and other areas, then tried to book a plane to fly over the area in the hopes of spotting Doc. While the plane was fueling up, we all met up at a predetermined rendezvous point and when we got there, Sarah Armstrong – our friend, neighbor and a hero – had found Doc and got him back to her dog truck. Amazingly he was not to worse for the wear, despite the cold night alone in the woods without his surgery bandages on. We quickly took Doc back to the vet and got him cleaned up, then brought him back to the kennel for some much needed food and rest. The amazing thing about it was that even after all he had been through, and now with only three legs to work with, Doc is still the strongest dog in the kennel as he proved when he pulled us to his house when we got back.
The night was one of the longest we’ve had in years. It was a real emotional roller coaster, but we are very thankful it ended well. Doc has given so much to so many mushers over the years, and is even liked by all the dogs in the kennel. Whenever we take any of them out – males, females, even the new little puppies – they all run to Doc and climb all over him, and he never seems to mind the attention. When and if Doc finally says good-bye to this world, we don’t want him to be alone in the woods like a scared feral animal; we want him to be with us, his friends, and the ones who love him for what he is – a very special dog. Thanks for coming back to us buddy!