Archive for October, 2008

You guessed it…

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

…we’re still on the beach. But to be honest, it’s not that bad given the time of year. The beach is such a great tool for building strength, and they are getting stronger with each run. If this were December and we were still on wheelers I’d be more concerned, but wheelers in Oct. will just make the dogs tougher. Our beach runs are up to two hours long now, as we planned, and despite soft sand in many places, it’s been weeks since we touched the throttle to help the dogs out. The only help they are getting from us is when we tap the brakes to slow them down over the patches of ice that form when water runs out of the bluff, and then freezes. These patches are getting quite immense. We ran yesterday a.m. while the temperature was still only 3 degrees, and a few of the patches of ice were more than 100 feet wide (see photo).
While this can be tricky to navigate (at least once the wheeler started to jack-knife sideways due to no traction, much like the sleds will do), it once again offers us a fantastic training opportunity. We have been warned about the large expanses of glaciation and overflow in the Yukon Quest, so we are using the opportunity of crossing this ice daily, to teach a slow down command. It is going very well so far. Thankfully, most of the dogs are not wearing booties too, so they can use their nails for traction to keep from slipping.
At this time of year, feet issues can be a problem with dogs, but if you have a good foot care routine, it really isn’t a problem at all. We had a few small splits last week, but by staying on top of them, most of the dogs with these minor ailments are already healed and back to running without any footwear (as evident by the image above of two-year-olds Hildy and Brick leading the team on an early morning run).
We also integrated Zoom back into running (with the B-team) following her 5-week hiatus after breaking a toe. She has completed three small runs, and finished each strong. Hopefully, it won’t be long until she is back to training with the A-team.
The pups are also doing well and getting big. They get down to the beach every few days for some free running and playing on the bluff. Here is a picture of them playing doggie hide-n-seek with each other. On days we are to busy to take them to the beach, they run around the yard, much to the excitement of the adults. They also come in the house creating nothing short of a tiny tornado.

More Beach Training

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

The rest of the state got blanketed in an early snow this past week, friends in Paxson and Fairbanks have said they’ve already gone to sleds, but here is Kasilof the storm seemed to miss us. The temperatures dropped a few more degree, as highs are now around the low 30’s, and lows are in the single digits to low teens, but we didn’t get any snow. The woods trails, which we had already been avoiding due to jagged ice that would be equivalent to running a dog team over broken glass, have only gotten worse. Now the ground has frozen and is as hard as asphalt.
The beach continues to be the best option for training, but yesterday’s run was good for more than just strength and cardiovascular fitness. There were 30-50 mph winds coming off the water all day and into the night, so our normal beach run ended up being excellent storm training too. Hopefully, running along open water, skirting around deadfall, and in direct headwinds like that, will prepare the dogs for the Yukon River in February when Cole runs the Yukon Quest.
We really got to test a few young dogs in the conditions. Penny ran lead, but little Penny is always like a knife through wind. She is as tough-headed as they come, and never flinches in storms. But with her we decided to run Squirrel, a two-year-old dog that has been showing some amazing leadership skills while on training runs this season. We weren’t sure how Squirrel would do, since not only were the winds strong enough to peel your face off (which alone can break some dogs), but also because the winds had blown away any signs of a trail and even moved some new weird sand drifts into place. Squirrel would have to be leading solely by listening to commands.
Tests like this are mentally tough on dogs, but they are the best way to determine dogs that will lead, from actually lead dogs. Lead dogs go in any and all conditions, while some dogs are just fair-weather leaders. Both are valuable since fair-weather leaders can be a real asset in training runs, but real leaders are what you want when you’re in the high country of the Caribou Hills, trying to go up hill through three-feet deep drifts, in a blowing storm.
Squirrel was solid. She ran through the storm like she had been doing it here whole life. She just put her nose down and dug in. It was awesome, especially since Squirrel is already slated to make Cole’s Yukon Quest team, barring any injuries between now and then. Having an extra leader on a 1,000-mile race will definitely help out when her usual race leaders need mental breaks, or if any get hurt and have to be dropped from the race.
The only down side of yesterday’s wind is it scoured away a lot of the sand in some places, leaving large patches of gravel to run through. This is no good on the dogs feet or ankles, so hopefully the next series of high tides will pull more sand down from the bluff, or wash some in. Of course, getting snow would be our first choice though, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed some will come in the next few days, so maybe we would move the operation to the Caribou Hills.
Here are a few photos from this past week. The top one is the team going out a few days before the big winds came. Most of this sane is now gone, sadly. The second in Zoya cooling off in a stream while on a water break.

Back to business

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

While we are still grieving from our recent losses, and probably will for quite a while, life must go on when you have a kennel of dogs that long to be allowed to run. About an inch of snow feel and the temperatures have dropped to lows around 20 and highs around 35. This has left the woods trails a little less than desirable to run on, so we continue to train on the beach. We recently went through the highest series of tides for the season, so the landscape has changed dramatically. This is one of the reasons we like training on the beach – every run is different.
The wind can sculpt different dunes, and the eroding bluff always seems to reveal something new. Water that runs out of the bluff also makes streams that can be small and deep, or wide and shallow (such as the one in the photo above that we usually let the dogs cool off and drink in). Most of these streams we just teach the dogs to blast threw though, so they will be used to it when they encounter open waters on the race trail later in the season.
The beach also has the added advantage that it allows us opportunities for leader training. We can do this on the woods trails, but they’re so heavily used by other mushers that we can count on head-ons with other teams, and on narrow trails. This is not the place to run a yearling or two-year-old-pup out front, but on the beach we can. Also, on the woods trails the dogs get used to following the same predictable path, which gets boring for them and us, but also it means they are turning where they know the turns are, rather than listening to the calls given to turn. On the beach we can go after a high tide, when there’s no trail to follow, and call the dogs gee and haw to follow the sand belt up and down the beach. We can also call them around obstacles, such as deadfall that washes in with the tide. They learn commands fast and because they don’t bump into many teams (and the ones they do see they aren’t running into nose-to-nose) these young leaders develop a lot of confidence out front too. (Notice in the stream photo, Cole’s leaders are Squirrel and Brick, two two-year-olds that did an awesome job, especially since her teams led the run.)
Then there are also the numerous marine animals that seem as interested in seeing us, as we are in seeing them while on the beach. We frequently see seals that will periscope up as high as they can to get a better look at the team. Porpoises are not uncommon either, and even beluga whales will show up from time to time. However, this past week we saw a very rare creature for this far north in Cook Inlet – a sea-otter that at a length of at least five feet long was the largest we had ever seen (see photo).
As we’ve stated in past posts, the dogs also get a real workout in the soft sand, and with the runs getting longer each day, their muscles are starting to really show. This year since Colleen is training for the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest we are emphasizing on training time, as opposed to distance. This is because training for the Quest involves teaching the dogs to pull heavier loads than they are used to, and at a slightly slower pace than their used to too. But also because on a race like the Quest, weather and trail conditions may mean only traveling 10 miles in a few hours, rather than 10 miles an hour, which is their usually racing pace at smaller distances. As such, our runs are taking about an hour and a half right now, and will likely be up to two hours long by the end of the month. Hopefully we’ll be on sleds soon too, which will further alter the training equation.

Our feline friend is gone

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

For the second time in a week, death has again spread its horrible black wings, this time taking the life of our one and only cat. Joseph first got Kitty around 1995 or ‘96. He was working as a veterinary technician at a no-kill shelter in Florida. Someone’s cat had apparently had an unwanted litter, as a motorist reported seeing someone through a brown bag out their window, and then kittens coming out of it. They were only days old, and most didn’t make it, but Joseph was able to use an eye-dropper with milk to keep one alive and growing. She quickly put on weight, opened her eyes, and become a normal healthy, happy kitty. Joseph was the only parent she had ever known so he adopted her. Because of raising her, Kitty was very unlike some cats that just slink around the house, eating and pooping, but not interacting very much. Kitty was very interactive and talkative, always meowing in excitement when we would come home. When she was little she use to use her claws to run right up Joseph’s leg and shirt, then holding on to his chest, she would just pure in happiness.
She lived everywhere Joseph did, including Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Alaska. Kitty took to Colleen immediately. She loved to cuddle and would always lay on one of us while watching TV, but seemed to really favor going to bed early with Colleen. She would sleep curled up next to Colleen, on either her arms or head. Kitty also always took part in any meal we would make, especially anything involving salmon, halibut or chicken. She would occasionally be naughty by chewing up any houseplants we attempted to keep, but other than that she was a great companion. She enjoyed watching the birds at the feeder in summer, and curling up in front of the heater with Snickers (our Boston terrier) in winter. She was extremely tolerant of the dogs. In fact when we moved to Alaska, we had so much stuff packed into out tiny pickup, that Tatika (our shepherd), Snicker and Kitty, had to ride on the passengers lap the whole way, since we drove non-stop. Kitty learned to sleep, eat, and even (we would hold it over the dog) use the litter box, while riding on Tatika, who was riding on one of us.
Kitty was around 12 year old this year, but still in great shape for her age. We thought she would outlive most of the other house dogs. Unfortunately, it was not to be. We have been keeping a sled dog in the house that has an injured foot. This dog has been in the house hundreds of time over the years, and has lived in the house non-stop for three weeks, never causing any problems, even when we would leave her alone with the cat for eight hours a day to go to work. However, something changed or must have happened two nights ago, because when we came home Kitty was dead, and this sled dog was the only one in the house that could have caused it. It was a horrible sight to come home too. Kitty, much like Tatika and Snickers, are very much a part of our “core” family. Again, like Pinhead puppy, we felt we had failed her. As a pet owner, our responsibility is to provide and protect, and we didn’t protect Kitty in the only sanctuary she had – her own home. She didn’t die, she was killed, which adds an additional layer of pain and sorrow and guilt. The dog that killed Kitty robbed her of her life, and robbed us of many more years of happiness and companionship with Kitty. We feel betrayed. Joseph is numb and Colleen has cried non-stop for two days. This may not seem unusual for a woman, but anyone that knows Colleen knows tears from her are rare. In eight years, Joseph has only seen Colleen cry four times, and twice were this past week. We’ll miss Kitty, but never forget her. Since she was happiest being warm and with us, we had her cremated. We will keep her ashes next to our bed, where she was always happiest with us.

Saying goodbye to a little one

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

This is an entry we hoped never to have to make, but sadly we had to say goodbye to one of our puppies yesterday. A sweet little girl we referred to as Pinhead Puppy. We tend to be a little superstitious with puppies, so normally we don’t write about them (or give them permanent names) until they have completely gone through the vaccination series. Because of this I’ll start at the beginning.
We decided not to breed any dogs of our own this year. This is always a tough decision, since we love having puppies, but there are just SO MANY dogs out there in need of a good home that we just felt too guilty bringing more into the world. Still, summer wasn’t the same without a few little guys running around underfoot, so we decided to see if anyone needed help raising some of their pups. A neighbor of ours recently lost his wife, who was also his chief puppy raiser, but he was expecting a litter and looking for help. We offered to take the pregnant female, have the pups at our place, and raise them for a few months. In return we would get to keep half of the litter.
The dog ended up having six pups, four males and two females. They started off great with the mom feeding them seemingly all the time. People would come by to see them, or play with them as they started getting older, and couldn’t believe how huge they were. They were definitely a bunch of rollie-pollies.
Unfortunately, the area we live in is dense with dog mushers. There are probably in excess of 300 dogs within a square mile of our house, and with such a dense congregation of dogs comes numerous dog germs. Adding to this, some of our neighbors (not sure if lackadaisical, ignorant or both) aren’t very disciplined with sticking to their vaccines, and as a result have lost numerous pups to parvo, and subsequently furthered the spread of the disease throughout the neighborhood. We always keep this in mind when raising puppies, so we maintain a very strict and aggressive vaccination program. We vaccinated our pups early in the hopes of preventing any problems.
However, around a week after the first vaccine, a few of the pups started getting sick. They were lethargic, had no appetite, and had very loose stools. The situation worsened quickly, so we brought them to the veterinarian. He initially suspected parvo, but couldn’t test for it. Since we had already vaccinated for the disease, the test would have yielded a false positive. Also, there were some symptoms that were very uncharacteristic of parvo. Some of the pups continued to eat and keep down food. Some never got ill. And, some that were ill for a few days, made immediate recoveries. The vet wasn’t sure what was wrong with them, since there are literally thousands of pathogens that can affect young dogs.
Three of the pups, one of which was Pinhead, didn’t pull out of it quickly, so we began to treat the three with SQ fluids and antibiotics. By the end of a week of treatment all but one had recovered. We continued to nurse the little sick one (not Pinhead) back to health for more than month, and finally she pulled out of it as well. Things seemed to be going good, but then, at least two weeks after Pinhead had recovered and put back on all of her weight, she starting getting sick again.
We brought her back in and began treating her again. The sickness seemed different this time though. She was very alert and energetic, continued to eat (albeit at a reduced rate), but she had extreme diarrhea. After a week things took and even worse turn, while straining to go to the bathroom, she prolapsed some of her lower intestine.
We rushed her to the vet and he assed her condition as having an intestine that telescoped into itself, and part of it was infected. With her being so young, and already underweight from the illness, he didn’t think she could survive the surgery and/or post surgery care. Our only option was to put her down.
This was tough for lots of reasons. First, the pup was energetic, and still licking Cole’s face and nibbling her nose, even as the syringe of euthanasia solution had to be put into its little leg. It’s tough to feel like you’re making the right decision when a pup seems so full of life. Secondly, the loss of a little one is always tougher to us, because unlike an older dog that has experienced much life, running in a pack and the general joy of being a dog, this little one had barely experienced anything in her short time. And thirdly, it hurts because we feel like we failed her. Despite our best efforts at preventing the disease, and treating it once it reared its horrible head, we were helpless to save her life.
Pinhead was full of life in the time she was healthy, though. She was a little smaller than her brothers, but more energetic and clever than they are. As a result, she always was able to hold her ground whether it was getting to the food bowl, chewing on a bone, or playing with a toy, such as the stuffed gorilla she skinned and proudly displayed the hide of to entice her siblings to a game of tug of war. Despite her young age, she had already developed a sweet tooth for milk bones. Also, while she was showing the signs of promise to one day be a great sled dog, such as being tireless on our runs on the beach, she also loved hanging out in the house, particularly curling up in the Lazy Boy with Joseph for an afternoon nap.
We buried her with our best, softest blanket. One she often sought out to sleep on when feeling sick. For her final resting spot, we put her along the exit trail to the yard, so she could continue to see (in spirit) her siblings develop and one day run by as part of the team. She will be missed, but never forgotten.

Old Timers

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Often people ask us how many dogs we have in the kennel, or how many are in training, but our answer can be a bit deceiving. We have 30 dogs in the kennel, and all 30 run regularly, but unlike other kennels where 30 dogs training means 30 dog capable of racing, less than half of our guys are capable of realistically making the race team.
One of the reasons is we have taken in several retired sled dogs to provide them hospice. The youngest of these guys are around 12 years old, with a few even older, so these guys don’t really do more than 6-8 miles runs. Still, they love these little runs, and act like they are still ready to go to Nome, (which most of them have) whenever we hook them up.
We don’t have enough old guys to make a long team, and a short team is too hard on them, so our friend brings down a few of her dogs (two of which are huge Alaskan Malamutes) to run in the team as well. Here is a photo of an old-timer run from the past week. That’s Doc (the white dog) in lead, still going strong despite his age and having a toe surgically removed almost a year ago. The other dog is SilverTip, who belongs to our friend.
We’ll keep running these guys regularly, just for the physical and mental stimulation, but in a few months when we start training pups, these guys will be invaluable as showing the young dogs the ropes.

Cool beach breeze

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

The temperatures really dropped this past week. After almost a month of running the dogs near or at 40 degrees we have recently been able to get in numerous runs in the high 20’s to low 30’s. Temperatures this cold will freeze the water on the woods trails to sharp shards of ice, so morning runs are no longer an option, unless we wait for the sun to warm up the ground a bit, which we can’t do since we have to go to work. Instead we have either been running on the beach or running in the evening. The beach is always nice at this time of year. The sunsets behind the volcanoes make for a beautiful backdrop. Here are a few photos from this past week. One is the team tearing out after a brief water break. The second is an image of Seeker, one of our yearlings that is already showing tremendous potential. Her brother Kawlijah too. He led the first half of the run yesterday, which is amazing since he wasn’t nervous out front of 13 dogs, but also because the beach is very difficult for even some of our seasoned leaders. It’s very wide and open, unlike a narrow woods trails where forward is the only option. The beach can be mentally tough, but Kawlijah led, without tracks in front of us, like he had been doing it his whole life. AWESOME! The third picture is showing one of the reason’s we love the beach. It’s nice when the only tracks you see are the ones you leave behind.