Archive for June, 2010

Summer School

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Part of our view of being responsible mushers/ dog owners is teaching others about what we do, why we do it, and how they can responsibly do it too. Interacting with school children is a great way to spread this message. Cole works with “troubled” children as her 9 to 5 job, so teaching and inspiring young minds is nothing new for her, but these invitations to talk about the dogs, rather than the regular curriculum, is always a special treat. Some mushers get paid as much as $600 for these presentations, but despite our perpetual need for kennel funds, we always do local presentations for free.
On this most recent outing, we brought three dogs: Buckwheat, Pong and everyone’s favorite little lady – Penny (see above). Cole discussed our lifestyle as mushers, what racing is like, and all the gear we uses such as harnesses and booties, and she kept it all in the context of how important concepts learned in school play into her mushing life. Knowing math helps her add up mileages or figure out her run/rest schedule. Geography helps her understand trail maps. And reading helps her understand the rules for each race. It all ties together.
Of course, there were lots of fun activities too. In addition to letting all the kids play with, and pet, the dogs we brought. Cole always organizes games. She split the kids into two teams and had them run a relay race where each child had to run in bunny boots. There was lots of stumbling and laughing. By far though, the highlight of every presentation is when Cole unloads a sled and gangline, explains the positions on the line to the kids, then lets them fill in for the dogs and pull their teacher on the sled like she was the musher. (See below).
Also, we try our best to keep up with requests we get from readers, so below is the photo of a healed Buckwheat that a few folks asked for. He has healed remarkably well considering how badly he tore his chest.
Also, one reader asked to see the photo of the grouse I refered to in the last blog entry. Below is the mama grouse with several chicks tucked under her wings, just before she sounded the alarm.
Also, a few people have asked about why Cole’s name wasn’t on the list of mushers who signed up for the Iditarod on Saturday. Quite simply it boils down to lack of money, rather than lack of interest. We got lots of financial help last year, but still ended up spending close to $20,000 to compete in the race. We just can’t do that year after year without more corporate sponsorship. It’s like NASCAR, there would be few drivers or races without all those company’s like Tide, or Coke-a Cola and all the rest, making contributions to cover costs. We must remember that while it is great to compete in the Last Great Race, we still are responsible for feeding and covering veterinary expenses for 40 dogs the other 50 weeks of the year when they’re not on the Iditarod. Still, the last day to sign-up isn’t until November, so we have more time and we are always pursuing more sponsors, and if we don’t run it thise year, we still have fun participating in 200 and 300 miles races around the state. All for this week.

Memories, emotion, thoughts…

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Between work, fishcamp and dog chores, the last two weeks have been so busy, but today we actually found ourselves with a few minutes to think…about the past, present, future. It’s strange where the mind walks when it isn’t completely focused on a task. I saw a mama grouse today, basking in the sun with several chicks not much larger than the eggs they must have recently hatched from. I had my camera with me and popped off a few pictures, but as I got a little too close the grouse clucked, sending the chicks scurrying in one direction, while she headed off in the opposite direction, feigning a broken wing. I’ve seen this behavior before, an attempt to selflessly draw a predator away from her offsping, but still it amazes me every time I witness it. If this is learned behavior (rather than instinctual, like most naturalists believe) what does it say about the intelligence and empathy of this literally “pea-brained” bird. More importantly, what does this mean for even larger brained animals with more complex social relationships, such as dogs.
I’ve mulled this question over most of the day. I wonder how much about dogs we still don’t know. How much they see and read in us that we will never understand. Gestures are all they have. How constraining it would be to live in a world where this was our only form of communication with those we love and are completely devoted to.
As is often the case when I hit these periods of deep introspection, my thoughts turn to Kawlijah. We still speak of him, think of him and miss him daily. But, through the kindness of our own species, we never have to go a day without seeing him. After our loss, several strangers wrote to share stories of meeting Kawlijah at races, some shared stories of the loss of their own dogs, and some sent beautiful momentos to remember him by. I have drawn so much happiness from this kindness of others, and knowing how many people Kawlijah affected. I wanted to share a few of the gifts we have recieved, but I will not mention who they come from out of respecting a request of a few who wanted thier contributions to remain anonymous. Still, I wanted everyone to see what we see daily to get us through this loss.
The photo at the top of this post, was taken of Kawlijah as he crossed the finish line in NOme. He happily took a pet from a thick-mittened child. The inscriptions at the top and bottom of the picture are passages from the book “Racing in the Rain.” It is a good read for anyone who shares a close bond with a dog. I take strength from it everytime I pass it in the stairwell where it hangs.
This photo above is of Kawlijah in wheel position the first day of the race, but it is the frame that should be noticed. (We put this photo in the frame, since the one that came with it was one we had already made into an 8×10 and had hanging, but the frame is made of hand-stamped leather.) Kawlijah’s name, character, birth and death dates, and “gone but not forgotten” inscription have all been put in. It blows my mind to think of the time someone put in to making this for us. Truly heartfelt.
This photo is Kawlijah and Cole coming down front street. The person who took this photo visited with Kawlijah after the race, while he was busy causing trouble in the doglot in Nome. His exhuberance quickly won her and her sister over. This photo now sits in the windowsill of our kitchen, where we see it during breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This last one is an abstract image, sent in Kawlijah’s memory. Much like the grouse, this picture often inspires me to think about the spirit of the dogs around me. For this reason it sits on my desk in our office, where I can look at it inbetween looking out the office window at the dogs playing in the yard.

Fishing Finale

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Much like the end of the mushing season is bittersweet, so too is the close of our time at fish camp. We’ve enjoyed living life by the tides and spending basically every minute of the day outdoors, but with many salmon put away for the winter, it is finally time to pull up the stakes, pack away the pullies and coil the ropes for another year. Here are a few photos from our time on the beach. The picture above is us, and our niece and nephew, cleaning fish at around midnight.
Here is what we wait for all day long; a fish making a splash as it hits the net.
A cooler full of fresh gutted fish. Their meat — packed with protein, omegas and other nutrients — will power us and the dogs through the cold winter months.
Joseph shotting a scene from the remake of the Hitchcock classic “The Birds.” We believe in attempting to make the most of everything we harvest. We’ll eat the fillets, the dogs will enjoy the heads, and we shared what was cleaned out of the fish with the local seagulls, much to their delight.

Summer Spottings

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

It seems like each summer is busier than the last and this year’s is no exception. We’ve been hard at work fixing up so many things left all winter, plus all the usual hot weather chores, like getting the garden in and getting ready for fish camp which starts this week. We hope to reap a huge bounty from the sea to feed us and the dogs all winter. Look for photos next week.
As to the injured dogs, Dunkel’s toe is healed and he has been able to go back to rough-housing with his best buddy Metoo (see above). Buckwheat got his drain out and staples removed, and he has healed up remarkably well. Other than his hair is still shorter where his he was shaved for surgery, you’d never know he was even injured.
Between bouts of work and tending to injured dogs, we have been able to get away for a few more hikes with the dogs, and we have been seeing tons of wildlife. We even got a rare glimpse of a lynx recently. The cat was huge, easily Shagoo’s sizes. It was very calm and we took several pictures, but we saw it at about 11 at night, so not many of them came out in the low light. Here is one of the best ones.
A few days later, Cole had a brush with a black bear in almost the same place. She annually sees half a dozen a year, both black and bear. Seeing bears near the kennel is always a bit uncomfortable, but seeing them out and about in their own natural environment is always a treat.
Check back soon. We’re busy, but we’re still trying (trying being the keyword) to update the blog at least once a week.

Iditajournal Part II

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

It’s dark and I use my headlamp on its brightest setting to help me spy the trail markers. While at the checkpoint I watched as a musher left and came back, and seemed to go in circles with his team. The musher was irate and blaming a poorly marked trail for his return to the checkpoint. I shutter thinking about getting lost and having to turn my team around. I know that there are far worse things that could happen out here, but the mental toll that it would take on the team and on my rookie nerves would be substantial. I resolve to use my high-beam and be on high alert until day-light so as not to miss a marker. I wouldn’t mind “chasing” a veteran musher out of the checkpoint who knows the trail, but as I looked around, I didn’t notice anyone else preparing to pull a hook. Oh well… nothing new. I have a strong tendency to move alone in races, and apparently even sandwiched among 71 teams there won’t be exceptions.
After a short time I head into the woods. Daylight is slowly creeping up on us. I am able to shed my headlamp and while doing so pull out my ball cap. Snow has begun to fall and I need the bill of the cap to dissuade it from landing on my eyes which impedes my vision, but also stings really bad. Later in the race I run into my friend Newton (Marshall from Jamaica) who passionately professes to me his dislike of snow, “It makes my eyes hurt,” he admits without any need to feel macho. He discussed this same section of the race with the crystalline flakes rushing the face, and we commiserate over our highs and lows, snow in the eyes being a low (but really just an ironic nuisance).
As daylight rose, so did the mercury. The “warmer” temperature brought a snow storm, or more likely the storm brought the warmer temps. This snow was the kind that hits your body and instantly melts. The dogs are strong, but as we approach mid-morning, their pace begins to lull. I think about what to snack, and with the desire to keep them hydrated in the warmer conditions I decide on fish (which for those of you reading this not from Alaska, is wild sockeye salmon caught at the beach ¼ mile from our house… far better that what you could find in your “Lower 48” grocery store).
Halfway into my run an interesting sign catches my attention. “Assholes ahead” it reads. I suppose it’s a good landmark, but I’m wondering if I should be nervous, you never know what you’ll encounter with a self-proclaimed a-hole.
I move along a lake and pass a camp that appeared to be where the party was at during the darker hours, but at this time not much life was stirring. The open lake gave me an opportunity to see how close other teams were, and seeing one several minutes behind me I determined I had enough time to snack the team.
Moving along through what I would guess to be swamps the trail becomes very narrow, doubtfully wide enough for two sleds side-by-side. Of course this is when I catch a team. I time it out and watch for a while, both to conclude I have the faster team (no sense passing if I can’t pull ahead) and to decide if the trail will offer a safer spot to pass. I deduced that I had a much faster team, and that the trail would not yield in my favor. The musher in lead also read the situation and came to the same conclusion. She did her best to find a passable section, but the bigger challenge was handling the sled. If the musher moved too far to one side, the trail was too soft to hold back the team, but by being on the hard-pack, there wasn’t enough room for two sleds. Most of her team moved over while my guys plowed on by. Unfortunately her leaders swung left and blocked off the trail causing the need to muscle my sled further to the left and encourage the team to go around them and not duck under her gangline. I was in waste deep powder and not only lost momentum, but also my footing. I held onto the handle bar and gracelessly dragged behind the sled so as not to give the dogs pause. Not sure if it’s good or bad, but I often reassure myself by thinking, “well it could have been worse.”
Soon after the minor fiasco two teams came cruising from behind. Mushers are often unrecognizable all bundled up, but I quickly knew who the first team was as I had trained many of the dogs about to pass me six years ago when they were pups. The driver had leased the team and was not touching the drag mat. I moved my sled off the trail to the right so that I could still claim a piece of the hard-pack with my snow hook. I stomp it in solidly and quickly scramble to the front of the team to keep them clear of the passing team. I don’t want to risk tangles or injuries. The passing team moved fluidly by my guys until it came to the driver who made no effort to steer just a bit to the left to keep it clean. He stood frozen on the sled like a line backer and careened into my back stanchion. A bolt or something must have caught my sled bag because as he passed my sled moved with his and turned so the back end was out completely blocking the trail. I winced, hoping the snow hook would hold, and that nothing major on the sled was broken. In the meantime my dogs recognized their neighbors passing by and got pretty amped up to chase. Crud, here come two more teams. In an instant the next team’s dogs were already over my sled runners. Nothing I can do now, just hoping the hook holds as it gets run over. Luckily the seemingly more experienced musher in this team had witnessed the debacle and was prepared to maneuver his sled to where it barely scraped over mine. Can’t say who it was, our eyes greeted each other, I might have mumbled a sorry, and I noticed he was tall.
The next team was approaching quickly but started to slow and the musher waved me on. I realized it was the team I had already struggled by. I straightened everything as best I could and pulled my hook. I notice perkiness in my team as we gave chase. I kept the other teams in my sight for an hour or so, but then my discomfort with the speed we were going forced me to ease back on the drag mat and slow the team down. “Still day one” I tell the team, “Let’s just focus on making it.”
Finger Lake checkpoint emerged through the torrent of snowflakes. I check in and was given directions of where to park and where the hole in the ice was to retrieve water from. A checker lead me to the parking spot, but in such soft snow combined with a strong 16-dog team, I couldn’t slow them down and ended up being greeted by a barrage of accusations. I don’t like being yelled at, never have, never will. I choke back my own feelings and focus on the dogs. My chores go smoothly, and I’m careful not to leave my sled bag open or gear out because of the falling snow. I look around to take in another famous name on Iditarod.
At this moment, I witness what may be one of the worst spots a dog team could be parked. Luckily I’m at least a half dozen teams over from the spectacle. I don’t know if it’s affiliated with the race or the lodge or what, but not 30 yards from the teams is a helicopter attempting to take flight. The noise alone has teams suddenly cowering, but even more disturbing is the artificial snow squalls it sends smashing into the resting teams. I watch the chopper rise into the wind and come right back down. Word is they’ll try again in a bit because the machine just can’t cut through the storm. I note that my team is currently ignoring the calamity and resting well. I head up the steep hill to where I’ve been told there’s a hot meal for mushers. Honestly I’m just hoping to dry out.
There’s a back entrance for mushers and a small area in the kitchen for us to sit. The kitchen was buzzing with activity, a gourmet staff in a back country world. A hot breakfast came my way, indicating it was still morning, a surprisingly delicious plate of black beans and eggs. I force myself to also drink as much water as possible. I move to the water jug with a sign indicating drinking water and read a caution sign hung in the kitchen on what seems to be an invisible boundary. “Mushers watch your ass” it reads. I waste valuable energy contemplating what it means and then give up… too scared to ask. As mushers come and go I hear bits of anything from grumbling and complaining to bragging and reminiscing about other races. I cling onto any information about the trail ahead, but it’s a typical group of racers, everyone’s opinion is different and everyone’s is right. Time to go check on my friends and offer them more broth and food to rehydrate. I leave what I can to keep it drying and head back out to the falling snow.