As 2013 comes to a close, and snow drifts down in lazy clumps outside my windows, it seemed like the perfect day to look back. I have been blogging here for just over 2.5 years, which seems crazy and unreal and wonderful. So today I thought I would re-post some of my favorite memories (oldest to newest with links to the blog post).
Thanks for sharing in our journeys and we look forward to new adventures in 2014!
Happy New Year!
Today my first blog post for Women’s Adventure Magazine came out. I will now be posting monthly for them! To see the post about my last week mushing click here.
As you might have guessed from my blog posts this winter, I have a soft spot for dogs and dog sledding and winter Alaskan activities. So when a friend offered to take me skijoring, I was more than excited.
Skijoring is a winter sport where a person on cross-country skis is pulled by one or more dogs. The word skijoring is derived from a Norwegian word that means ski driving. It is a popular sport here in Alaska, and after a morning on the trails, I can see why.
I met my friend and her two dogs, Sierra and Walker, at Creamer’s Field, a wildlife reserve in Fairbanks, AK with over 40 miles of trails that stretch out into the valley. Breakup (spring in Alaska) is well underway here, so we started early to take advantage of cooler morning temperatures. The trails looked fast with hard-packed, icy snow, which made me a little nervous. I am not a particularly experienced cross-country skier, but I certainly didn’t want to miss the chance to try skijoring.
I would be skijoring with Walker, a large, white Alaskan husky, who I already knew and loved. But, before we hit the trail, we all had to get harnessed up. My harness fit around the waist and then between my legs, much like a climbing harness. In front, it connected to a main line that would link me to Walker. Walker wore his dog sledding harness. We clipped into our skis, and the dogs where ready to run.
Walker loves to chase so we started out fast. For the first fifteen minutes I pretty much snow plowed and said, “easy Walker, easy” so that we didn’t run straight into my friend and Sierra who were out in front of us. It was awesome.
Skijoring is a little like sledding. Even on flat ground you get that wind-in-your-face-feeling as you glide over the snow. It made me feel like a giddy little kid again. I am not sure how I will ever go back to regular cross-country skiing.
But the best part was about a half hour in when Walker and I got into a rhythm. We were moving down the trail like one unit, my sliding steps in time with the padding of his feet, the hiss of the ice-snow underneath us like the sound of waves on a beach. The rhythm of movement is soothing.
We stayed out on the trails a little over two hours, and I felt pretty good that I only fell twice. And Walker was great. He listened to commands so well, waited when I did fall, and pulled hard the whole time. It almost, but not quite, makes me wish the snow wasn’t melting so fast.
What a great way to say goodbye to winter.
Yesterday I felt like a proud parent. The 8 month old puppies I have been working with since January helped pull a dog sled for the first time! And they did so well.
It’s funny, I didn’t expect to feel so emotionally invested in their “success” transitioning to full-time sled dogs, but I did. My pups are growing up.
It was also neat to see how puppies are trained for this next step. In a lot of ways it is a little like throwing them into the deep end and saying, swim. But they didn’t seem to mind.
To train puppies, you run them with experienced dogs that you want them to be like. You place them in the middle of the team so they aren’t pulling to much weight and all they have to focus on is following the dog in front of them. So we hooked up a ten dog team, with three slots for puppies in the first run, and two slots in the second run. We had all the experienced dogs already hooked up before we harnessed the puppies.
The puppies were not thrilled about being put in a harness. They squirmed and wiggled and howled while we slipped the tiny harnesses over their heads and around their chests. But once it was on, they didn’t even seem to notice any more. We hauled them over to the sled. And when I say hauled, I mean it. We sort of lead/carried them over. Once they were hooked to the main line, next to their older partner, they started getting excited and rightfully, a little confused.
One of the things they have to learn in this new phase of their life is to “line out.” This is a lot like teaching new kindergartners to stand in line to go out to recess. The puppies don’t want to hold the line tight and face forward, they want to sniff and circle and explore. And if you let them, they will tangle themselves and any other dog within a short distance in a giant knot of ropes and harnesses. So they have to learn to line out. Patience, repetition, and surveillance.
But this is also where the fun begins. The puppies are hooked up, read to go, and we just start. The owner of the kennel drove, and I rode in the sled, so I could jump out and untangle the puppies when needed. Our first group, Tanana, Pebbles, and Gopher were so easy. They didn’t miss a beat. The sled started moving, and they started running. It was all instinct. We cheered them on, like a little league game, shouting their names, encouraging them to pull. Go puppies!
We took them on a really short loop, about fifteen minutes, and by the end they were exhausted. Tongues hanging out, ready to fall asleep, exhausted. We took them back to their houses with no squirming or wiggling this time as we removed the harnesses, and they laid down in the snow, tails wagging.
Nest, we harnessed up Silver and Stubby. Stubby is whiny and lanky. I was a little worried about him to be honest. But surprise, surprise, he was great, and Silver, my usual running all-star, struggled. When we started the sled, she pushed all four paws into the group, refusing to run. It was the strangest thing. But the owner of Paws said that their is always one in each bunch of puppies. Silver was being stubborn. She wanted to run on her own terms. So we made switches. We put a new dog next to her, then we moved Stubby next to her, and finally, we put her by herself and this did the trick. She started running. And kept running all the way back to the dog lot. All five puppies made it through their first day of training!
Now they will practice. Before the snow melts this year, they will run five or six more times. And in the summer and the fall, they will practice with the four wheeler, so next season, they will be full-time working dogs. How quickly they grow up… but they are still so cute!
Okay, as promised, here is a look at the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile dog sled race that starts in Fairbanks, Alaska and ends in Whitehorse, Yukon. The race, which started in 1984, usually takes 10-16 days. It ends when the last musher crosses the finish line. I like a good adventure (maybe that is how we ended up in Alaska!), but I can’t even begin to imagine spending that many days outside running a dog team. Talk about cold. I have so much respect for the men and women that can not only survive, but compete, in that kind of landscape.
So on Saturday, we headed into town to watch the teams begin their journey towards Whitehorse. It was warmer, around -15, and we parked and walked down to the river, the official start for the Yukon Quest.
The dogs were excited, ready to run, and the mushers looked just as happy to get on the road.We took a ton of pictures, of course. Enjoy.
P.S. One more fun fact to share. The race is big news here. Every morning I get to hear how the teams are doing on the radio, and the paper offers the equivalent of a play-by-play. Love it!
Winter in Alaska is an experience, and I have to say, there are days I love it, and then on other days, not so much. Sometimes, you can’t help but think, dang, it really is cold and dark, with emphasis on cold. But today was not one of those days. Today was a perfect. Light, fluffy flakes of snow drifting out of the sky like glitter and smiling, happy sled dogs.
I have been working/volunteering at the dog mushing kennel for almost a month now, crazy. And I am settling into the groove. I love that the dogs, particularly my team, know me. When I walk up in the morning they go nuts: barking, jumping, running in circles. It makes me feel a little like a celebrity, until I remember they put on the same show for food, having the snow cleaned off the top of their house, and really, just about anything that peaks their interest.
But my lead dogs, Nugget and M&M, continue to watch me as I move around the yard. They are vigilant. It is their way of saying, I want to run, today, right now, in case you didn’t already know that. And Batman, the newest addition to my team, gets so excited he jumps straight into the air when I start pulling out my little, green sled. He’s a pain, but he is so cute and enthusiastic, that I don’t even get mad when he won’t sit still while I try and put on his harness. (He once gave someone a black eye when they were trying to put on his harness, because he was jumping around so much.) And the puppies … the puppies start drooling when they see me, because they know two lucky winners will get to go for a walk that day. A puppy romp in the snow.
Maybe it’s weird, but I have started talking about the dogs like I used to talk about the kids in the after school programs that I ran in Pittsburgh, PA. Loveable little personalities. Lucas laughs and smiles and laughs again when I come home from a day with the dogs and tell him that Batman was so eager to pull that he, literally, ran over M&M during our start out of the lot. It was a tangle of ropes and dog legs. Or that now all of the puppies have figured out how to pop out the bowl on the top of their houses, making room for their heads. They are following Tanana’s lead, our little puppy ring leader. With the bowl gone, their heads stick out of the little wooden houses like a submarine scope. It is beyond cute.
I know I shouldn’t say this, but Tanana is my favorite. I should love them all equally, but I don’t. That little girl has got me hooked. See the picture below, how can you not love that face?
Beyond my dog-obsessed love, I also continue to learn new, practical, things. On Wednesday, I learned how to make (out of nylon rope) gang lines and neck lines that connect the dogs to the sleds. I have learned how to extend and shorten the main line on the sled, allowing me to add or take away the number of dogs on my team. And then the basics: I am faster at chores and I know where things are and what needs to be done. It is a good feeling. It feels like I fit.
What I am most excited about, (with the addition of Batman) I now drive a five dog team. I take to the trails by myself, for the most part not getting lost. And as wild and chaotic as the dog lot can be, as soon as we are on the trail it is like a whole new world has just opened up. A quite world of white.
When we are running, the dogs are silent and focused. Little engines. Driving a sled I sometimes feel like I’m in a dream. The world slowly, smoothly, drifting around me. The only reminder of the real world, crisp air on my cheeks. It is the same kind of feeling I get when I am running (when I am in shape and not huffing for air). Or after hiking up a mountain and looking out at the view. The moments when you stop thinking about laundry or shopping lists or what you need to do in five minutes or five hours. I wish I could make my brain quite like this more often. And being pulled on a sled by a team of loveable dogs is certainly an enjoyable way to make the world around me feel so peaceful.
Happy Friday, and I hope your day was as good as mine!
Oh, PS. Tomorrow is the Yukon Quest. A 1,000 mile dog sled race that starts in Fairbanks, Alaska and finishes in Whitehorse, Yukon. Mushers around here say it is often tougher than the Iditarod, because it is run through more rugged terrain and during a colder month. Regardless, I think both are pretty hardcore! You can check out the website here. Hopefully, I will have some pictures to post next week from the race start. I feel a little like a dog sledding cheerleader, but it is pretty awesome, so why not?
I am sore today. Sore like I haven’t been in a long time. And I kinda like it. Okay, not kinda, I do like it. I love the way it makes me feel connected to my body and to the work I did that lead to this. The best part: I wasn’t at the gym. I didn’t go for a run or lift weights. Instead, I drove down a snowy road, past moose eating lunch (yes, another mama and baby!), to Paws for Adventure, my new home away from home, and I worked with the dogs. Good, old-fashion chores are what have me sore and smiling this morning.
In December, Lucas and I went to Mushing School at Paws (click here to read my post about this adventure), and I fell head over heels for dog sledding. So when we decided to come back to Alaska in January, I e-mailed the owner of Paws and ask, oh-so-politely, if she had any interest in an extra set of hands. As you might have guessed, she said yes, and I am now working/volunteering as a “musher in training.”
This means I get to learn all about the daily work of running a mushing kennel, working with the dogs, and of course, mushing. So far I have two days of “training” under my belt, one day last week and one day this week. I am now experienced at:
- scooping poop. This, as you might imagine, is a daily chore. Each dog has a little wooden house and a short chain length of space that they call home. Everyday the poop needs to be removed from their space so it doesn’t pile up. This is relatively easy work. Take a large shovel, scoop the snow and frozen poop into a plastic sled, and when the sled fills up, drag it into the woods and dump it. Repeat until all 50 plus doggie yards are clean. (The repetition of this task contributes to my spaghetti arms feeling sore the next day.)
- doggie house cleaning. This chore is done on an as needed basis and includes cleaning snow off the tops of each dog house and checking to make sure each house has plenty of straw inside to keep the dogs warm, especially now with the amount of -40 degree weather we have been having. The dogs like to stand on top of their houses and this is also where their food/water bowl is located. The funniest part of this job is how crazy the sound of the shovel scrapping across the roof makes them. The sprint around howling while I clean. During this chore, I also carry around a small hatchet to clean the ice away from the edges of their water/food bowls. They hate the hatchet, too. Except for the puppies, who where just moved into their own houses last week, they have no idea what any of this is about. They are like little kids, curious about everything.
- feeding/watering. The dogs at Paws get feed twice a day, and if they go out on a run they get a salmon snack, that they love. The morning/lunch feeding is dog food plus fat, which is often chicken skins, all mixed together in hot water. Two ladles full for dogs, one for puppies. As soon as I walk out with the first bucket they go nuts. Running in circles, jumping up on their houses, it is like I get the equivalent of a dog standing ovation. The buckets are huge, and filled to the top (contributes to sore shoulders), so I walk slow, trying not to spill this gross mix on myself. The dogs are good, when I walk up they move out of way, panting, drooling, waiting for me to pour it into their bowl. They go particularly wild for the chicken skin. Eating it first in one or two bits. The dogs that are waiting and haven’t been feed yet start to cry and bark louder. But once the food comes it gets so quiet. Like people.
- puppy walks. Best. Job. Ever. The puppies, who have just recently joined the routine of the other dogs, haven’t yet been trained on the sleds so they need to be walked for exercise. Yesterday, I took two puppies out for the first time. Tanana and Stubbs. They had never been on a leash before. When I first hooked them up, they didn’t want to go. They tried to sit down, dragging themselves across the snow, until we were a few yards away from the other dogs. Then they went nuts. Jumping, running into each other, getting so tangled up they couldn’t move. It was hilarious and a struggle. Once we made it across the field into the woods (out of eye shot of the other dogs), I let them off the leashes and this is when it got fun. They would sprint out in front of me, then run back to check in. We walked for about an hour through a quiet snow covered forest that looked like it was covered in white cake. They loved it. The path we walked on was matted down by sleds and snowmachines, but sometimes they would jump off the path into the deep snow and disappear until they struggled back onto the path, white-faced, tongues hanging out. I was in puppy love. On the way back, just before we came out of the woods, I hooked them back up to the leashes, and they walked like a little two-dog team, side my side, so good. When I dropped them off at their house with a little dog food snack, Tanana started to cry when I walked away. I think I made new friends.
Besides daily chores, I have also been mushing both times. The first week, I drove a sled behind the owner and a guest who had come to mushing school, but yesterday I took a team out all by myself. It was a little unnerving. Would I remember all the right turns to follow the correct trail? Would the dogs listen when it was just me?
I made it back safe and sound, loving every minute. My lead dogs, M&M and Nugget, were amazing. They know the trails better than I do. And my wheel dogs, Bud and D-1, were only a little lazy. It was so different to be out by myself. The dogs glancing back to make sure I am still in charge, the sun dipping into the horizon in deep reds and oranges, moose tracks crisscrossing the trail, snow piled in thick layers on the ground and the trees, frost forming a white halo on the hood around my face, my eyelashes heavy with white frost. I was mushing.
I still have more to learn, a whole list of things the owner wants to teach me, and eventually my team will grow to five and then six dogs, but for now, I am thrilled to be outside, playing in the snow.