Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Trip to the White Mountains

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, some friends of mine and I did a training trip to the White Mountains. The White Mountain Recreation Area is a little less than an hour from my house; not far at all. It is a popular spot for dog mushers, ski-jorers (skiing with the help of a dog), snow machiners, etc. This is where I usually go once I start trucking dogs on a regular basis, vs. going from my house, where I am confined by running small teams due to the trail and road crossings.

Trucking dogs has advantages and disadvantages. The dogs like a new spot, I can run larger teams, the dogs get used to traveling in the truck and they learn some patience. But it is very time consuming and a lot of work. All the equipment has to be organized and packed, the dogs have to be loaded, then there's the driving time, things have to be unloaded and assembled once at the destination, dogs unloaded etc etc etc, you get the picture.

Here, the dogs have been let out of the dog box and are put on the 'drop chains' which I set up along the sides of the truck. I've packed the sled and have started puting harnesses on the dogs.

These are my friends Sarah Love and Clint Warnke. Sarah is a veterinarian who has vetted many many races in the Lower 48 and Alaska (mainly the Iditarod). She failed to keep her witts about her and decided to get into the dog running bussiness. She and Clint have some really nice and talented dogs. Clint has a long background of running dogs and has trained dogs for Doug Swingley (Montana) and Sonny Linder (Alaska). Swingley and Linder are two of the best mushers in the history of the sport. Sarah and Clint recently bought a trailer for the dogs instead of using a truck. The dog boxes are on the inside (should have gotten a picture!).

We each ran 12-dog teams and planned to run 26 miles in, then turn around and come back to the parking lot (all the cabins were full, thus we had to return to base camp in the lot). We camped overnight, then did the same run the following day. I wanted to run as many dogs as possible, but also wanted to continue to try to get my previously injured dogs to catch up to everyone else. So I brought little Kiana along and bagged her for part of the run. She's not able to run 52 miles yet, but she could run two, 35 mile runs. So I bagged her for the first or last 10ish miles.
Here, you can see the drop bag that I use. It encloses the dog so that they can't jump out of the bag, thus they are kept safe and contained. The big metal hook is the snow hook. I carry two of these and use them to anchor the team when I stop (each hook is connected to a rope that runs to the base of the gangline from which the dogs are connected). The dogs are nut jobs, serious nut jobs. They don't like to stop. So I need good hooks to secure the team.

Kiana doesn't like being in the sled, hence the stink I that she gave me.

Here's the start of the run. It's about 1 pm and a beautiful day.

The White Mtn. National Recreation Area goes on as far as we can see. There's a 100 mile loop that goes through the Area, but I've never taken it due to low snow conditions. Some day.

Here's a great picture of the mountains in the distance and the full moon coming up, with the rose hue of the sunset behind me. No that's what I'm talkin' about!

(notice that Kiana is now in the team and has stopped giving me the stink eye).

After this picure, my lends froze open and that was that. So I put my camera back in my inside pocket. I thought I did, anyway. It turns out that I didn't get it into my pocket at all, it fell down my bibs and out my pant leg without me noticing. Now you have to understand something. It's a little cold out; about -20. Life is different at -20. You can't use your bare hands. You have many many layers on. You have a big hat, then your parka hood, plus a neck gater and a parka over all that. Then you have to unzip things and try to look down and find that little pocket on the inside of the bibs (I use that pocket because it's warmer for the camera). And you can't really feel anything because you have gloves on. Anyways, I lost the camera.
But! Sarah was quick on the draw and picked it up behind me. She then took advantage of the situation and took some pictures of her own. Notice the frosted lens.

A self portrait. Funny girl.

Another full moon through the trees shot (don't know why it's on it's side, I swear I rotated it).

Two beautiful shots of our view.

This is nearing the turn-around point. The run back to the truck was in the dark; hence the constant wearing of headlamps by mushers up here. We're constantly in the dark and refuse to let it slow us down. And the dogs love it!

The dogs did really well after both runs. Training with series of runs is really important, as distance races are just series of runs. Plus I needed to teach the 2-yr olds how to camp. They needed to learn that when I stop and set straw down, it is time to rest and quit being a wild maniac nut job. Stop and rest. Everyone did great both during the running phase and the camping phase.
Our first race is coming up very soon. The Copper Basin starts January 9th. This is a 300 mile, very challenging race, possibly harder than Iditarod. More on that later.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Solstice 2009!

It's taken me a while to get the videos off the camera, onto you-tube, then onto a post. yada yada yada. These are just more clips taken during recent training runs, but I thought I'd show you what mid-day looks like, then a late afternoon run. It's the shortest day of the year afterall, let's celebrate! Actually, I don't mind the short days here. Julie is always teasing me about the number of headlamps that I own - but hey, they keep me outside and happy. I figure it's like Eskimos and their many words for snow; a northern musher has many headlamps for all the different situations in their dark world.

I'll try to talk louder in the future. I'm still figuring it all out - how to hold the sled, hold the camera, push the correct button, hopefully don't freeze the camera (I've done that.... camera doesn't like that!) etc. Now I need to find the microphone or shut up.

The most interesting comment I had was that the dogs really like running in the dark. I don't know if it's the cooler temperatures or just the change of senses or what; but they like the dark. I've just started puting Sadie up front in lead. First of all, she's hillarious. She's like a little kid up there, laughing and having a good time. But she was also playing 'Kill the Musher' on this run; meaning that she wants to go fast, especially on turns, down hills, around trees..... anything that makes the musher work a little harder to control the sled and hang on. Little buggar, she is.

Ok, once again, happy belated Solstice!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2010 Iditarod Rookie Meeting

The rookie meeting for this years race was held on the weekend of December 5th/6th in Achorage. There were 24 of us rookie types there, with a wide range of backgrounds. Some newbys with few years of racing experience (like me) all the way to my friend Dan Kaduce, who could write a book or two on the subject. Dave Decaro has been handling for Jeff King for a few years and also knows more than I'll ever know about training and racing dogs. I was really happy to see my friend Colleen Robertia there. She is a talented and driven gal with some great dogs; most, if not all, rescued or demoted from professional kennels. Michelle Phillips is another gal who is as tough and competitive as they get. I'm sure she'll be vying for the Rookie of the Year! There were two guys from Scottland, Newton from Jamaica, and guy from Ontario, and the rest of us yanks from all over the states (even Chicago). The scottsmen are leasing teams from Dean Osmar and Rick Swingley and Newton is training with Lance Mackey. These kennels are as good as they get; and yes, there is a slight twinge of envy and/or jealousy. But! I dig my mutts big time and we're going to have a great time.

The first day of the meeting was held at the Millenium Hotel, the headquarters of Iditarod in Anchorage. We heard from Mark Norman (the race marshal), Dr. Stu Nelson (head race veterinarian), Dee Dee Jonrowe, and Lance Mackey among others. They talked about dog care, race logistics, equipment, race strategy and more; more than we could mentally digest actually.

The second day was spent at Martin Buser's in Big Lake, about 1.5 hours north of Anchorage (if you don't know, Martin buser has raced in 25 Iditarods, has won 4 times, and still has the fastest recorded time). Martin shared really great information on equipment, feeding, dog care, training techniques, trail conditions, and the overwhelming topic of how to pack your drop bags. 'Drop bags' are large sacks of everything we need between the start and the finish of the race. We'll have 20 checkpoints before reaching Nome, with each checkpoint supplied with 3 drop bags, straw and fuel for our cookers (to heat water and make a soup for the dogs - their main meals..... more on feeding later). Our drop bags have to be packed and finished in Febuary, when they will be taken away and that's that. No changing. We better have enough food, dog snacks, dog booties, people food, hand warmers, batteries, veterinary supplies, underwear, socks, runner plastic etc etc etc etc etc.... you get the idea, in each of those bags for each of the checkpoints. So it's a bit stressful, especially for a rookie, to figure out exactly what and how much to put in. Oh, and you can't bring the food back; that stays in the villages. They do their best to get our gear and non-food items back to us. So premium kibble is running a little over $1/lb. Shipping is close to $1/lb. So this makes drop bag planning a sporting operation!

Dog talk between Emil and Martin. Notice the exercise wheel in the puppy pen.

In the afternoon, Pat, a search and rescue dude from Nome came in to talk about some tricky sections on the coastal portions of the route. Specifically, he talked about the section between White Moutain and Safety. Now, I've been watching the Iditarod for a few years, and I have some good friends who routinely run the Iditarod, but I really had no appreciation of this section of trail. The media is always camped out at the Happy River Steps, or the Dalzel Gorge, or the Burn; places where you see mushers crash and burn, I'm sure to the delight of some camera man who just flew in on a helicopter. Why don't they talk about the BLOW HOLE!? Probably because the media can't get there when it's bad. Scared the crap out of me. There's a little mountain range between White Moutain and Safety, with a nook between the hills. A high pressure can develope on the inland portion and a low pressure over the Norton Sound. Well, you know what happens with that; can just blow a gasket through that little nook, like over 100 mph winds. Pat had stories of people losing their snow machines to the wind. I mean, the machine was blown over and out to sea. My eyes opened a little wider at that story. So, I think they wanted to scare us a little so that we wouldn't 'go for it'. I'm not sure who they think is going to 'go for it,' but it certainly won't be me. My goal is not to be Rookie of the Year. My goal is to finish with happy musher and happy dogs (ok, and preferrably not in last place). To my mom and dad, if you read this, it will be ok. We will have weather reports in White Mountain. We will know when not to go. I will not be blown out to sea.

So in a nutshell, the rookie meeting made the race real for me. It gave me the steps I need to take to get organized. It also gave me both the fear of god and even more respect for the race than I already had.

Martin's new house. I wonder what his day job is? And, it's so far from the dogs...... retirement or just more dog handlers?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Small Fish in a Small Pond

I don't know how or why, but this little fish made it on ''. Maybe it's just a small pond. Benedikt Beich, who handled for and ran Aaron Burmeisters (Iditarod musher) dogs in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, asked if he could interview me. 'Sure, what the heck.'

So check it out:

It's surreal to see yourself on the screen!

Speed Bumps

Where the heck have I been? It's been a while since adding to the blog, so I'll try to be better about keeping up. Things get a little crazy though!

So we've had a couple of speed bumps during the last few weeks. Running dogs and racing have taught me two invaluable lessons though, 1: patience and 2: obstacles are to be figured out, not allowed to dominate the situation.

Speed bump number 1: tweeked my back, dang. This sport seems to be done in the prone position most of the time. You bend over the pet dogs, bend over to feed dogs, bend over to check on dogs, bend over to bootie dogs, bend over to scoop poop... you get the idea. So I had to rest a little, a bit of ice, and the following (especially drinking more water):

It seems that everyone in this sport has a bad back. I just need to work smarter, not harder. I'm one of those 'strong back, weak mind' sometimes. So I'm coming up with little tricks around the yard to make things easier and not dependent on me bending over.

I'm doing much better now, almost normal. Back to training dogs. Also back on the 4 wheel. We haven't received any new snow since that storm a month or so ago and the ground is starting to show.

Speed bump number 2: Mr. Snake, who was doing fantastic, had a seizure during a run. Seizures in dogs aren't an unusual thing at all, but one should not (and cannot) take a dog to Iditarod that may have a seizure. He's quite fine and just wants to get back to training; but he will have to go back to my friend Bob who runs recreationally. He'll probably never have another one again! So the biggest, strongest dog gets to go on semi-holiday, even though I'm sure he'd prefer to work for a living. Dang.

Speed bump number 3: The first race of the season, The Sheep Mountain 150, was cancelled due to lack of snow. I suppose the lack of snow is more disconcerting to me than the race being cancelled (it's Alaska in December, we're suppose to have snow); but the race cancellation is a bummer also. I was going to run the 2 year olds, just as a series of training runs. But we will just have to arrange some camping trips in the White Mtns to teach the punks how to rest and camp between runs.

None of the speed bumps are serious. My path is still in the same direction, and I'm sure I'll have many bumps along the way and will certainly have some big speed bumps in the race! Now I'm just back to training for the next race, which is the Copper Basin 300. This is a very, very tough race. I'm looking forward to the challenge.