Saturday, October 27, 2007

Training Update 10/27/07

Things are starting to get interesting. The mileage has increased and the dogs are getting into the groove. We're up to 17 dogs with the addition 2 more of Harold's yearlings. It's 17 dogs, but ranging in age from 18 months to 9 years. Dogs with hardly any experience to dogs who have been mushing longer then I have. It's definately getting fun now!

We're basically doing laps on Waskey Road as the mileage increases. Any time spent with dogs is time well spent, but I'll be happy to get on a sled. The scenery hasn't changed for almost a month now.

Luke is still doing most of the leading. He's a great finished leader at the age of 3. His brother Bing has been running with him almost exclusively for the past week. I need another young finished leader and Bing is the best prospect. He's got all the drive and natural ability in the world. Bing just needs some polishing, he should be nice and shiny by February. In a pleasant turn of events, it looks like Chester (see post in September Archive) wants to be a lead dog. He struck me as "leaderish" from the beginning. I've had yearlings eager to charge ahead before, but it appears that Chester already knows his commands for the most part. Could he be a "Natural Leader"? The Holy Grail of dog mushing is what we call a Natural Leader. They are dogs that seem to know just how to lead a team from the very beginning with little or no instruction. I've never had one of these so I don't exactly know if Chester is one, but let's hope he is. Regardless, he's been running in swing where he can pick up more leading commands without the stress of leading.

Running on gravel toughens up a dogs feet, but only to a point. The dogs have been running without booties to this point, we haven't needed them. I knew that at some point we would cross the threshold of helping the feet and beging hurting them. That threshold was crossed at about 100 miles. I wonder if that's normal? I usually don't run much in the fall, just enough to get the rust off before we take off on the sled. A number of dogs today had the beginnings of raw tender feet. We're going to start running them with booties tomorrow. They need to get used to running with booties anyway, may as well start now.

The dogs are getting used the routine. The old dogs walk calmly to the line and patiently wait to be hitched up. Even the young dogs have mellowed out. I'm sure their spunk will come back when I pull out the sled. Need some cold weather before that happens. Since I began mushing 6 years ago, I always begin with a sled in mid-November. There isn't always snow, but the tundra is hard enough. Let's hope this year is the same.

Hagar = 104 Lucky = 109 Luke = 130 Bing = 120 Bernard = 99
Charlie = 109 Felix = 46 Olaf = 106 Lucy = 19 Phoebe = 109
Ginger = 109 Arctic = 53 Louie = 93 Pete = 109 Chester = 109
Gus = 18 Junior = 46

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sponsors and Support

It's not always easy talking about money. I'd much rather engage in a good religous coversation, but just about everything we do these days requires money. Running the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race this January in Bethel will be no different.

Before asking businesses to help fund this endeavor I had to ask the question, "Why would anyone give me money to go run a dog race?" After some serious thought I came up with a few good answers to that question and sent out letters requesting sponsorship. A few generous business have already decided to help sponsor this effort, many said no, and a few are still thinking about it. Our official sponsors have been listed on the left. Hopefully we'll be adding others before January.

I decided there are a few different reasons businesses and individuals offer financial support to dog mushers. The primary reason is that dog mushers may help you sell something. The year after Jeff King won the Iditarod for the 4th time a good number of mushers switched to his particular style of harness, bought the snowsuit he uses, and gave his favorite dog food an opportunity. Even small town mushers can help advertise for a business in a given area.

There are also those businesses that market Alaska. Every Iditarod musher last year had their picture taken with a bottle of Alaskan Amber. Alaskan Amber is a quality beer that has been well marketed as THE Alaskan beer. Some businesses market within Alaska and we see their products and services being advertised by Iditarod mushers every winter. After all, mushing is our state sport and these men and women are our Alaskan heros. However, many businesses market Alaska to the rest of the world. I've always thought these businesses could benefit from an exchange of money for a weekend's photo shoot with a dog team. I once met a Brazillian who knew absolutely nothing about Alaska except that there was a big sled dog race up here that started with an "I". America, and a good portion of the world, associate mushing with Alaska. There could be potential for small unknown mushers like myself. Where I may not be able to sell tacos, lumber, or snowsuits on a state or national level, I've got a few dogs that would make a heck of a poster hanging in a travel agency in Orange County.

I've not yet struck a sponsorship like this though. My financial support so far has been local. I grew up here and always felt support from this small town. I haven't asked the businesses why they chose to sponsor me, they each probably have their own reasons. We'll be doing things to thank them and promote their businesses. Their generosity is greatly appreciated. They run good businesses I'm happy to support in return.

Not all support is financial of course. One of the things I never tire of is the positive reactions I get when people see me running my dogs. Snowmachines pull way off the trail to give me room to pass. Some give me a thumbs up, everyone smiles and waves, others turn off their machines and watch and hear the team go by. Once a man stood up on his snowmachine and applauded as we passed. There is something about seeing a team of sled dogs traveling across our land. It fits. It's part of our heritage. The dogs evoke memories of a different time, maybe a better time. Regardless, the dogs make people smile and they thank me for that memory, that thought. This is support too. Every one of those poeple has helped me keep these dogs and motivated me to continue on. Their support will help send me to Bethel too.

Nushagak Kennels is traveling to Bethel to run the 2008 Kuskokwim 300. That much is certain. How well we finish remains to be seen. It's been years since a Nushagak team has entered the race and I'm proud to represent our region and its mushing heritage. So whether you have chosen to support me financially or encourage me through word or deed, I thank you. It all makes a difference and without it this dog team would not be headed to Bethel.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Beautiful Wife

Johanna and Jake last winter.

You haven't seen many pictures of Johanna on this blog because she's usually the one behind the camera. Under the title of this blog reads, "The comings and goings of a Rural Alaskan family and their team of working sled dogs." The truth is we wouldn't be coming or going anywhere with out her. She's the backbone of our small family. Modern women wear many hats, but we are her first priority. Anyone who knows her would agree. She is "Mama" to our children and the love of my life.

I know, I know, this is a deviation from the more masculine posts of hard working dogs, dead moose, and such. But let's give credit where credit is do. Johanna is a musher's daughter and first suggested that I get sled dogs. It was always clear they would be my responsibility, but she does feed and care for them on ocassion. Johanna knows how much these dogs mean to me. When times got tough and I wanted to get rid of the dogs, she talked me out of it. With Johanna it's not about dollars and cents, it's about family. Our dogs are a part of who we are as a unit and she embraces them just as she embraces the rest of us.

Before this Kusko 300 quest began, Johanna and I had a talk. I showed her a training schedule and different fund raising options. I asked if I could give it a try and she agreed. So the entire reason I am able to prepare for and run this race in Bethel is because Johanna is willing to sacrifice while I pursue a dream. I definately owe her something big when this is all over...maybe a new house would do the trick.

I don't know why God blessed me with this beautiful woman, but I'm sure glad he did.

Our "Lucky" Dog

If Hagar is my foundation stud, Lucky is the Grand Matron of Nushagak Kennels. She came from Will Forsberg in Healy and has been a joy from day one. Most of the dogs I've ever owned have been her direct decendents. She is everything a working sled dog should be.

Lucky is a rangy 65 pound brown dog with a short to medium coat. Mushers refer to dogs with long legs and a long body as "rangy". This is a quality to look for in working dogs. She is what is termed a trail leader. Not every leader works the same way. The best ones will follow a trail when they are on one, but will also turn and adjust their travel on command. Some dogs prefer not to listen to the driver, but will willingly follow a trail as long as it continues. Lucky is such a leader. She knows gee from haw. However, she would rather choose her own path. It is a misconception that all dogs can follow a covered trail by scent. Dogs can loose a trail and some have a difficult time following a broken trail. Lucky on the other hand will follow an old trail to the footstep even a year after she has traveled it. More then once I've had the weather close in and the trail quickly disapearing behind me. I turn the team around, put Lucky in lead, and enjoy the ride home.

This is going to sound corny, but I think Lucky and Hagar are in love. Seriously, they seem to have a relationship. Right now they are in a kennel where Lucky is attached to a chain and Hagar is loose. He won't leaver her, not a chance. Also, both dogs are rather dominant around other dogs, but they share the food in their dog dishes and genuinely seem to like being together. Hopefully they will give me another litter before the winter's over. Lucky has very long heat cycles. She will allow a male to breed her for two weeks, most will only allow it for a few days. The problem is determining when the breeding will result in pups. The last time they bred successfully, I put them in a kennel together until it happened. Hagar's getting a little older and I'm not sure how this will go. I know one thing, the world could use more of Lucky and Hagar's pups.

This is the "Lucky" dog:

Lucky chilling out on her dog house - a very easy going gal.

Lucky looking back at me. She spends a lot of time in swing (position directly behind the leaders). Although she doesn't listen too well in lead, she knows the commands and willingly performs them in the swing position.

Lucky and her outstanding litter of 11 pups. One of the pups was very small and didn't survive, another died of an accident, the rest are owned by myself and another local musher. Of the 9 surviving, the four males are rangy 70 pounders and the females are considerably smaller 55 pounders. More then half of these pups became leaders. Let's hope for more!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

It Ain't all Good Times and High Fives

For the most part, mushing is tons of fun and very fulfulling. But when working with living things, bad things can happen.

Right now, we have three dogs out of commission due to fighting. Dogs get in a scrap and one dog gets bitten on the foot or leg. A bite just about anywhere else is no big deal, but a car just won't run without good tires. In six years, this has happened once before and now it's happened three times in two weeks.

We think we have it figured out. It's happening during feeding time, some of the bowls needed to be moved. Dogs are in contact with their neighbors in the new dog yard. That allows for good socialization, but it also allows for this kind of thing to happen. But too, they are just more "edgy" then I've seen them before. There are a few new recruits in the yard, but they've been there almost a month. My dogs are some of the sweetest I know and I've never seen this much aggression in the yard. I know they don't like strange dogs, but this is their team - their pack. They've also never been in harness five days per week, maybe their energy levels are up.

One way or another, we need to deal with this. It's an incredible responsibility to bring an animal into the world. Most of my dogs are here because I wished it and made it happen. When I see my dogs's just not easy to take. Once a great young dog of mine died because of my actions. Johanna and others wouldn't let me get out of dogs although it was what I wanted to do then. This sense of responsibility helps create the bond that connects us all. It's not about preparing for races or optimal team performance. These are my dogs and they deserve to be well cared for. It always hurts to see them in pain.

The good news is that they are dogs and dogs heal well. I gave them antibiotics to fight off infection and let them mend. These aren't life threatening injuries and each of the dogs will be back in harness before long.

Even though it ain't all good times and high fives, I wouldn't trade this life for anything.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Fall Training

Fall training is more about getting the dogs in harness then anything else. It's not nearly as enjoyable as mushing across the snow while standing on the runners. Leaders need to remember their jobs, young dogs need time in harness, and everyone needs to start building miles.

Our land is on one end of Waskey Road so we can pull out of our driveway and mush down the road. The dogs learn to stay on the right hand shoulder. Waskey is a working road and cars drive by slowly and happy to see dogs in harness.

Lately we've been harnessing 13 dogs in front of a 4-wheeler with 2 guys riding it. The 4-wheeler is not running, just in neutral. Having 2 guys on the 4-wheeler works well. One guy can steer and work the brakes and the other can run up the line if need be. It's a very safe system and works well.

Eric and Ryan have been a huge help. It's a lot easier, and more fun, mushing with others. They even scoop poop. I could get used to this!

The kids come along for about 2/3 of the runs. Here Alethia is loaded up and ready to go home.

Hagar = 34 Lucky = 31 Luke = 50 Bing = 44 Bernard = 31
Charlie = 31 Felix = 40 Olaf = 28 Lucy = 19 Phoebe = 31
Ginger = 31 Arctic = 9 Louie = 31 Pete = 31 Chester = 31

Friday, October 12, 2007

Uppa Hagar

All but 3 of my dogs are direct decendents of this beautiful 70 pound gray. I bought Hagar from Mitch Seavey the December before Mitch won the Iditarod. Hagar was a wheel dog when I bought him, but soon became a solid gee/haw leader.

Hagar is getting older now, a bit slower and sagging a little in the belly. I learned what sled dogs could really be when I first hitched Hagar in with the team. He pulls and pulls and pulls, there's just no quit in him. No matter the weather, no matter the load, no matter the trail, he pulls with all his strength and all his heart. These vital traits have been passed on to his kids and grandkids. Hagar's determination is the backbone of my dog team.

I'm pretty contected to Hagar. In a lot of ways he taught me what mushing was all about, what it could be. Johanna and the kids love him too. He's the grand old gentleman of our kennel.

It's not as easy for Hagar to stay in front of the younger dogs anymore. One of the reasons I wanted to run the Kusko this year was to do it with Hagar and Lucky (you'll meet Lucky later) while they're still able. I'm not sure if Hagar can put in the miles and finish a 300 mile race at his age. But I know that if he's able, he'll do it. He always has.

This is Hagar.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Training Update 10/07

We've been mushing the dogs for a week now and things are coming along nicely. The leaders are remembering their duties and young dogs are shaping up quickly. Runs have been limited to 3 miles this week, but the dogs look ready to stretch it out some. They're coming home with plenty of gas still in the tank. We'll probably stretch them out to 4 and 5 miles next week. The idea here is not to push them too hard, but allow them to determine the distance. If they are ready for 4 miles, that's what we do. When they're ready for eight miles, we'll do that. These athletic dogs take a little while to shake off the cob webs, but once they get going, their runs can get longer quicker. It always seems like they stay around 3 to 5 miles for a while, but before you know it they're doing 8, then 10, then 12 miles. The cooler temperatures have definately been helping out as well.

The goal is to work up to 20 or 30 mile runs before we hit the trails with a sled (depends on when the snow comes). If they can muster a 20 or 30 mile run pulling a 4-wheeler with one or two people on it, they can definately pull a sled with one person and a bag of gear on a 40 mile run. December will be a busy month taking the dogs on some very long runs. They'll need to come into December already in pretty good condition to work them into racing shape. There's a lot of work to do between now and January 18th when we start the Kusko 300, but we're off to a good start.

Arctic injured his hind foot this weekend. He's always had good feet and I can't find any specific injury. It's already healing. I've started the fall with 15 dogs in hope of begin the Kusko with 12. Just like any team sport, you've got to have subs. Having only 3 extra dogs may be cutting it a bit close, but we can start the race with 10 and still run a sound race. These aren't 40 pound wimps in our dog yard. These are honest 70 pound working dogs. We should be fine.

Nushagak Kennels is no longer a one-man-show. Johanna and the kids have always run dogs with me, but I've done all the training, feeding, etc. by myself. This year Eric and Ryan (the guy who shot the moose) have offered to help with the dogs. Ryan is a very athletic young guy with plenty of good questions and a nack for handling dogs. Eric has mushed before and has already been a big help. He's run many of my dogs in the past. Eric may write some posts for this blog as well in the future. If you notice that everything is spelled correctly and the punctuation is uncharacteristically correct, don't be alarmed. It's probably just Eric.

Hagar = 18 Lucky = 15 Luke = 30 Bing = 24 Bernard = 15
Charlie = 15 Felix = 24 Olaf = 12 Lucy = 15 Phoebe = 15
Ginger = 15 Arctic = 9 Blackie = 15 Pete = 15 Chester = 15

Saturday, October 6, 2007

New Lead Dog?

Not even close!

For about a year now Alethia has been asking for a "little brown dog". Recently such a dog became available and we now have Sammy as the newest member of Nushagak Kennels. He's small, fluffy, very cute, and doesn't fit any of my harnesses. His duty will consist of laying around looking cute and keeping us all entertained.

A lot of mushers have pets other then their sled dogs. Sled dogs don't make the best pets by most standards until they are pretty old when they finally mellow out. Sammy should be with us until Alethia leaves for college...That's a strange thought.

Here's Sammy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Big Moose

Here's the moose I mentioned in my first post. Below are pictures of Ryan and the moose. We found him when paddling back into a slough. The big fella was with a cow and refused to leave her side no matter what types of calls we used. How did we handle this you ask. We challenged him! I put the canoe paddles above my head and Ryan followed hunkered down behind me. We walked up to him slowly saying bwa, bwa, bwa and stopping to "thrash" some bushes with my wooden antlers. He was about to run away from us, but we struck a cord with his lady friend. I don't know if it was my handsome headpiece or Ryan's work in the back, but she was definately interested. He came out to meet us, showing us his big antlers and massive size. We began circling each other until until he was broad side at about 50 yards. Ryan shot him through the lungs with his 30-06. He took three steps and fell dead. Talk about exciting! Now that's moose hunting!

He measured out at 61 inches. Being a rather old beast, we let him hang for a few days before cutting him up and sticking him in the freezer. He tastes great!

And in case your wondering about that cow moose, she was pretty into us. We kept having to run her off while we butchered up the old boy.