Saturday, December 29, 2007

And What of the Musher

Alethia heads my medical staff. She's applying IcyHot to my back. To much snow shoveling lately!

So what of the musher? In a nutshell, everything is the musher's fault. The musher assumes credit for both success and failure. Mike Williams was featured on an Iditarod documentary once where he said, "It is never the dog's fault. It is always the musher's fault." It's a lot of pressure to put on yourself and I'd like to explain it a little.

First an exception to the above. Most competitive racing kennels run multiple teams in races including the Iditarod. If you signed on with a musher to train and run a team of dogs in a race you probably didn't get to choose which dogs would be on your team and definately didn't choose the breedings that created that team.

A musher who has selected breeding stock, chosen which dogs would breed, raised and selected pups, chosen the equipment they use, selected the diet and housing arrangement, and set the training schedule, has assumed complete responsibility for his dogs. This is the boat I'm in. Most of my dogs are alive because I arranged it. The few dogs that weren't born under my care were carefully chosen to do a specific job. Interestingly, that job did not originally include running races. I wanted 60-75 pound dogs with good coats and feet to haul wood, go hunting, go camping, run a trapline, and spend time with my family on nice winter days. The dogs I have selected, bred, raised, and trained will do all those things very well.

Can they race? This question has bothered me in recent years. As it became clear that my dogs were accomplishing all my goals within a few years, I wanted to push things further. Entering the Kusko 300 has pushed me, and ulitmately the dogs, to learn more and work harder then before. I've enjoyed that part of it. For my part, I've lost 15 pounds and am trying to drop 5 more before the race. We've purchased some new equipment more specific to racing. I've gone 48 hours with 4 hours sleep many times while still holding down a job and a family. Special care has been given to the dogs' diets. Foot and leg care has also been a huge issue. I've contacted knowledgable mushers about various training techniques. All this has been done in an effort to prepare the dogs for a new challenge.

If the dogs do well, I've got much to be happy about. If they don't, it's all on me. These are the dogs I've chosen, raised, and trained. They are a team of my own making. If they don't do well I don't think it will bother me too much. I did not set out to build a team of distance racing sled dogs 6 years ago. But down deep I hope they do well. I'd like to say not for my sake, but it probably is. These dogs didn't ask to be entered into the most competitive 300 mile sled dog race in the world. I did it for them.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Status Report - 12/28/2007

We're on Christmas break here at the Belleque house. Johanna is a teacher so she's got a few weeks off. I took a few days off work as well. It's been nice spending time together. The last few months have found me putting miles on the dogs when other just wanted to spend time with their Daddy.

We've been offering dog sled rides as a fund-raiser and it's going pretty well. We're sharing a dog mushing experience and raising money in the process. We didn't book every possible slot so I've got time to do a few longer runs as well. With the rides and longer runs, we should still come close to our goal of 1000 miles by January 1st.

I've spoken at length about trail conditions. We are on the brink of the best trail conditions of the year. Temperatures were below zero for a time and then it snowed, and snowed, and snowed. The kids are on Christmas break and the skys clear today so snowmachines are driving everywhere packing down trails. The dogs and I still need some good long runs. Hopefully we'll be able to do those in the next few weeks. Still anticipating starting the Kusko 300 with 1200 to 1300 miles on the dogs. Would like more, but I'm happy with what we've accomplished. It hasn't been easy.

The dogs have been laying low and look great. Many of them shed their winter coats late this year. Don't know why some dogs shed their coats in June and others in October. Need to research that. A few of my late shedding dogs have been looking pretty scronny with their short coats. Their coats are filling in and everyone looks like a husky again.

With Bernard out with his weird paw injury, I'm still planning to start the K300 with 10 dogs. Most of those 10 dogs look great. Still not sure about Hagar and his injured rear leg. Luckily Dr. Hagee will be in Dillingham before I head to Bethel so he can get a good comparitive examination on that leg. I'm sure he can go to the first checkpoint, but he may be capable of more. He's looked really good lately. Ginger is the one dog I'm worried about. She was always a very reliable little dog, but has become irratic in harness. If everything is moving along smoothly, she does fine. She doesn't pull hard when we slow down, but she pulls hard the entire way home. Maybe the trick is to get her up to Pike Lake (even if it's in the sled) and let her pull us back to Bethel. I'm kidding of course, but the thought has crossed my mind.

Been a while since I've posted individual dogs' mileage. Some of the dogs with early injuries have less mileage then others. You can see who has been consistently healthy.
Hagar-665 Lucky-825 Luke-824 Bing-859 Charlie-834 Felix-755 Olaf-846 Lucy-684 Phoebe-763 Ginger-829

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Some pups come along slowly and some explode out of the shoot. I still remember Lucy's first run. She was six months old and very shy. She didn't quite know what to do when I put her in harness. Don't remember who she was next to, but she just stood there. When the 4-wheeler began moving she moved along with it, not really pulling. She pulled back on the neckline a few times. I stopped to pet and encourage her. About a 1/4 mile into the run she lurched forward slamming into her harness. Her tug line has been banjo-string-tight ever since. I'm not exagerating. This dog pulls 100% of the time.

Not only does she always pull hard, she loves doing it. Her tail never stops wagging. It's a love for work you don't see very often. An absolute love bug, she does her best to wipe faces clean and get the big hugs. A pat on the shoulder isn't enough for her. She wants lots of lovin'.

Lucy has run lead, but hasn't taken that as a main job yet. I'm planning to give her more time in lead later this winter and next. Since she does run out front I can breed her while keeping to my goal of only breeding leaders.

She's a little smaller then most of my dogs at about 62 pounds. Her body isn't as long as most of my dogs either. Lucy came from a reputable breeder in Eagle, Alaska. I'm planning to breed her to Luke this summer. To say I'm excited about that breeding is an understatement. It should be fantastic.

This is Lucy.


Here are a few Christmas pictures. We went to Mid-Night Mass at 8:30 (I know that sounds strange) and to bed by 10:00 on the 24th. We got up around 8:00 and opened presents. The kids played with their new toys for a while, we went on a short mush, and friends came over for dinner. A wonderful Christmas. Was hoping to get some mushing pictures, but the camera got too cold. Should have taken them when we started.

Here is Jacob and Alethia packing Jacob's new Hummer. They can get a bunch of Barbies in there with the driver. They had a blond manning the .50 cal most of the morning. Jacob is wearing new pants and a shirt from Nana Mary.

Here's Jake with his new piano from his Grandma Vera.

Alethia and her fancy new hat from Uncle Buck.

Monday, December 24, 2007

No Denali Highway Around Here

Read an interesting article in the Fairbanks News Miner. It can be found at the following link, . From here on I'm assuming you've read the article.

The major challenge I've had training my team this winter has been finding a long trail. You've read in this blog that I've done laps and on a few occasions have been able to run my dogs on a 45 mile trail (round-trip). Folks don't realize how far 50, 30, or even 20 miles actually is. In Rural Alaska all trails are essentially snow machine trails. Snow machine trails are made as people travel between communities or by folks just out having fun. The trails made by those having fun don't make for good dog trails. Trails made by those traveling between villages require frozen rivers. We are just now starting to get a good ice layer on one small river. The larger river isn't frozen solid yet.

It's really not something to complain about, you can only do what you can do. But clearly mushing in Rural Alaska is different. The fact that we don't have 100's of miles of road connecting us to different areas of the state can be seen as a disadvantage. When it comes to finding long trails to run the dogs on it may be, but our dogs are used to a variety of trails. My dogs only have one run on what most would consider a good trial. I'm not worried about deep snow, slush and slop, glare ice, anything really. The dogs are used to tough trails.

When the rivers are frozen and trails between communities well traveled, we have more trails then a musher would know what to do with. Problem is, that usually doesn't happen until February or March. I think a professional distance musher would probably have a difficult time consistently preparing for races. There would be years where they would have lots of trails and could condition the dogs well and others where they would struggle mightily to get miles on the dogs. I wouldn't say I've struggled mightily, but it's been a challenge. Just last year there were many more trails established by this time.

So we don't have anything like the Denali Highway near Dillingham. There are no 135 mile trails constantly being packed down by snowmachines. That's fine. If all mushing consisted of was running dogs on a road, I probably wouldn't mush anyway. I prefer the wild, true wilderness where a musher and a good team of dogs can travel the way they always have. We use a trail when we have it and make our own when we don't. That's mushing.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

On the Air

Last Sunday I took Anne and Tricia for a dogsled ride. It was a beautiful day with nicely packed trails. Anne is our local radio reporter and Tricia a tallented young photographer. KDLG ran the story yesterday. It can be found at . Tricia took some great photos that can be viewed at . Just click on the mushing links.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Half Moon Run

Mushers use powerful headlamps when running at night. The strong lights are made even better with a cord attaching them to battery packs holding 4 D batteries. My powerful headlamp is a nice LED. Lately it's been giving me fits. It went out just as I was about to head out of the yard. I fiddled with it a little, but gave up and went to my back-up. My back-up light is a very simple LED and isn't nearly as bright as the other. Looking to the sky I saw a bright half moon, plenty of light. I cut the dogs loose and off we went.

The run was only a 20 miler, another "fun run" before we do our 70 milers later this week. Before long I realized the small headlamp wasn't giving off as much light as the glowing moon so I turned it off. We ran under the light of the moon.

It's been a while since I've mushed by moonlight and I'd forgotten how mystical is seems. You can hear the dogs feet lightly and quickly touching the snow, but you can't see their feet moving. They appear to float across the snow and they love it. You feel as a guest in their natural element.

In this moment it also dawned on me that I hadn't prayed on the runners in a long time. I often pray while mushing. Mostly I thank God for the day, my family, the dogs in front of me, and other gifts recently given. So there in the half glow of the moon I thanked the Lord for all my blessings and reflected on many things. Just as Jesus went to deserts, mountains, and gardens to be with God, I feel closer to God when in the midst of his original creation.

The dogs continued to float effortlessly across the snow until we reached home. They stopped. I turned on my light to see wagging tails and happy eyes. All of us renewed by our half moon run.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Shooting Games

Basketball was my sport in high school. Dad was a coach and I grew up learning about the game. I even coached a team myself one season. Like most sports, basketball practices can be hard and demanding. Coaches ask a tremendous amount from their players. It's the only way to succeed. A team must constantly push their limits to reach new heights.

It doesn't matter if it's the Utah Jazz or in a YMCA summer league. The successful teams push and push hard. But every coach knows that you can't simply keep pushing. At some point the team must relax, have a little fun. In basketball they play shooting games. They're different simple competitive games focusing on shooting (every players favorite thing to do). The mood in the gym lightens considerably. Most leave smiling.

We are playing shooting games at Nushagak Kennels this weekend. It's been tough with the weather and trail conditions lately. I saw it on our last run on Snake Lake road. Some of the dogs were feeling it. The runs this weekend are short, fun, and the trails perfect.

Johanna, Alethia, and I put in a simple trail behind our property. It twists and turns 10 miles then makes a big loop and comes back, 20 miles total. The cherry on top is the snow conditions. We had lots of wet heavy snow and now the temps have dropped to zero degrees. It is hard and fast with enough give to set a hook and provide a little cushion for each step.

The dogs took off and loped/fast trotted the whole way. They ran the 20 miles at 10 - 12 mph and came home with wagging tails. Everyone had fun. Everyone was happy.

I'm planning to hit it pretty hard these next 7 days. The goal is to get 250 miles this week. 250 miles would keep us on track to hit our 1000 mile mark by January 1st.

You can't just drive a team to exhaustion. Sometimes you've got to play some shooting games.

Friday, December 14, 2007

They Can't All Be Lead Dogs

Some dogs just pull. Charlie and Olaf are two such dogs. Olaf is Charlie's nephew and best buddy. They typically work in the wheel or back of the team. Neither dog has the slightest inclination to lead and they work best hitched up next to each other.

Honestly, they're not my favorite dogs. They don't display the determined power of Bernard or Lucy's quick trot. Neither is very bright and they don't even pull all the time. So why do I have them you ask? Well, they eat well, have good coats and feet, and don't cause any problems. They just keep moving along.

They pull as hard as they need to. They really lean into their harnesses with a big load of wood, but are content to just trot along with a light load and a fast trail. Distance racers don't necessarily wanting their dogs pulling too hard and wearing themselves out. There's a good chance both of these dogs will see the finish line of the Kusko 300. I hope they do finish the race and I hope they do it together.

Charlie is closest to the camera and is darker brown then Olaf who is more of a tan color.
Olaf is nearer the camera in this picture. They're almost exactly the same size.


Finally borrowed a cord for our digital camera. Most of the pictures below were taken in November the first time we had snow. The snowed disapeared shortly after. We were sledding behind our new property. The first picture was taken at Alethia's 5th birthday party. She had 7 friends over for pizza, cake, and plenty of play time. Enjoy the pictures.

Alethia and her cake

Jake and Rebel

Johanna and Alethia

I'd like to introduce the 2038 Yukon Quest Champion, Alethia Belleque

A solid 8 dog team

Breaking trail

Monday, December 10, 2007

Status Report - December 10th

Things have been less then ideal on the mushing front. Last week we had a run in the driving rain. We've been running back and forth on Waskey Road. Temperatures haven't been below freezing much. Snow has been falling in recent days, but it's been warm and the creeks are open and the tundra is still wet - no base at all. We're scheduled to start dropping into the teens late this week. That would help a lot.

My next move is to start doing laps on Snake Lake Road. This road is different from Waskey Road. It's small and not maintained during the winter. It's further North and usually has more snow and colder temperatures. The dogs will be loaded into the truck and driven to where it begins. Some snow machines trailered up there and hopefully packed down a decent trail. Folks have said it is 7-8 miles long (I'll check it with the GPS) so we'll still be doing laps, but it will be in a new place, on a trail, in front of a sled. Hopefully the dogs will respond well to it.

As far as the dogs go - Chester has had a tough time of it lately. I think it's a combination of things. He's going through an adolescent phase. His littermates have gone through it also. They live with Swanny in Two Rivers. Swanny maintains a blog at . It's fun to check his blog and see how Nells and Rose are doing. Chester's got a few other issues going on as well I suspect. For one, it's been warm. Very warm. Chester has got an enormous thick coat. The warm temperatures have got to be hard on him. Also, the longer miles just aren't for him right now. He's still young and not fully developed. I've still got high hopes for him as a great working dog and don't want to ruin him for a race where his participation won't make a bit of difference anyway. We're going to let Chester lay low and get him hauling wood and pulling weight for a living after the Kusko.

Sadly, I think Arctic has got hip displasia. We don't have a veterinarian out here so I'm not certain, but I think that's what he's got. Arctic is 7 years old. I bought him from a reputable breeder when he was 4. He's always been a great working dog and I couldn't figure out why he was having trouble after about 25 miles. He'd start hopping on his back feet instead of using his solid trot. He's always had boundless energy and he'd come back from easy runs totally worn out. The back feet would sort of splay out with the ankles close together. Did some reading on the internet and I'm pretty sure that's what he's got. Will make an apointment with Dr. Hagee when he returns.

Hagar on the other hand has been recovering from his injury nicely. No signs of pain or discomfort although I check his hind leg often. We worked him back into the runs slowly. He'd ride in the truck until the run was half over and then finish the run in harness (one nice thing about running with the truck, plenty of room). This weekend he completed a 50 mile run with shining colors. I still don't think he can run the entire Kusko 300, but am starting to wonder if he could at least go with us to the first or second checkpoint. He's one of the only mature experienced dogs I've got and the starting line scene won't bother him any. I'll talk it over with the vet.

So where does this leave us? We've got 11 dogs in the running for the Kusko including Hagar. Even if Hagar didn't start the race we'd have 10 (assuming no one gets hurt - cross your fingers!). Kusko 300 rules state that a person may start the race with no more then 14 and no fewer then 7. A team must have no fewer then 5 dogs in harness and attached to the gangline at all times. Teams regularly finish the race with 7 or 8 dogs still in harness, many are still running 10 dogs. So where 10 dogs is still a workable number, there is not the room for error I would like to have. Dogs are dropped during a distance race for any number of reasons - injury, dehydration, loss of appetite, or just running out of steam and not wanting to go any more. My dogs have plenty of muscle so using 7, 6, or 5 dogs to pull a light load on a broken trail isn't a problem. My biggest fear is injuries. If certain dogs get hurt, I'm in big trouble. I've mainly been running Luke, Bing, and Lucky in lead. I'm going to do some more work with Felix as he has been leading well lately. Lucy has run some lead, but isn't ready for a race. Phoebe may be able to run some lead, but she's iffy. Hagar is a lead dog, but is very out of practice. Hasn't run lead all year. We have always been a small pack and know each other well. The numbers don't bother me. The 10 dogs I do have look solid. I know them well and they trust me. We should be fine together.

We haven't gotten as many miles on the dogs as I was hoping. This lousy weather has seen to that. Luke has got 588 and the others fall in behind that. The goal is to get 1000 miles on the dogs by January 1st. Since the runs are much longer now, this is a realistic goal. The dogs haven't been anywhere near exhaustion. They had plenty of spunk after the 50 miler so we need to push them a little. The Kusko is a whole lot more then one 50 mile run though. It's a series of runs with relatively short rests between them. That's the hardest part of distance mushing as I understand it. It's not the running, but the resting. The competitive musher's will run the 300 mile race while resting their dogs 10-13 hours. They'll also enter the race with 2000 plus miles. We'll enter the race with 1200-1500 miles and will rest a minimum of 20 hours. The rest is planned for the front side of the race. If they need it on the back side, they'll get it then too. The Kusko is not the Iditarod or Yukon Quest, but 300 miles is a long way to run. No question about it.

I honestly don't know how we're going to do in this race. There is no way to be certain. That fact is both exciting and nerve racking at the same time. I will prepare them, and myself, to the best of my ability and let the cards fall where they may. I believe the key is rest. If I give the dogs enough rest they should be fine.

My dad was a successful basketball and volleyball coach for many years winning many championships. He always told us if you weren't nervous before a game you just weren't ready. Well, I'm feeling more ready every day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bing Bong

Many of our dogs get longer names then origingally planned; Luke the Duke, Lucky Dog, Hagar the Horible, Olaf the Olaffer (that's probably the dumbest one). Alethia calls Bing the Bing Bonger. Bing is a son of Lucky and Hagar and brother or uncle to most of the dogs in the kennel.

He's one of my top dogs, but most people don't get to see him at his best. At 75 pounds, he is a monster in harness. Bing can move some serious weight. Also one of my best trail breaking leaders, he enjoys plowing through snow, blazing his own trail, and seeing new country. Usually I'm the only one on the sled when we're doing that though. During races or mushing on a road, he is shy around people and aggressive around strange dogs. He's easily distracted.

If I were mushing this country 50 years ago, I'd want a few dogs like Bing. He's most at home in the wilderness. Hard packed trails don't do him justice. You don't realize how good of a dog he is until your knee deep in snow with a heavy load. He's got the long legs, deep chest, solid coat, and iron feet that all working dogs should have.

Bing, being the way he is, will start the Kusko 300 in the middle of the team. The starting line chaos won't be his thing. Once we get out on the trail, he'll take his turn in lead and keep us moving forward. And if, just if, we get 2 feet of snow dumped on us, I'll be glad Bing's on my team.

Bing with his bad ear. It's not a naturally floppy ear. I think he got in a fight when he was young because the little band that holds a dog's ear up is broken. So his ear doesn't flop down, it just leans to the side. One of the only ways to tell him from his brothers.

Wanna know what a true working sled dog looks like? That's it. He loves his job and does it well.

July 5th...

these guys get a new partner. Jacob is potty training. He looks like a little Hulk Hogan in his underwear.

Johanna had an ultrasound today. She's 9 weeks along. The little nipper is 2 cm long and scheduled to arrive July 5th. They couldn't hear the heart beat with the external microphone, but they could hear and see it beat on the ultrasound. Hearing that little heart beat makes it all so real.
-Notes from Jo: It was so exciting to actually hear the baby's heartbeat and see the little dot. It looked so tiny. It was worth it to have my bladder feel like it was about to burst toward the end of my ultrasound. Like Kyle said, it made it all seem so real. Other then feeling bouts of nausea when I smell certain things and extreme fatigue, I am doing great. Kyle jokes that my new bedtime is 8:30. Most of the time, it is. It shouldn't be so bad during the second tri-mester. Alethia is practicing too. So far she's put her doll in her tummy and has pretended to nurse it, burp it and change its diaper. Jacob, on the other hand, will probably be in for a shock.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dog Sled Rides - A K300 Fundraiser

We've been fortunate enough to get sponsors for air travel, straw, food, and medication (thanks Ocean Beauty, Happy Tails, AC, and Tall Eric), but there are plenty of expenses left to cover. The dogs will be giving sled dog rides from December 26th to January 1st. Money raised from the rides will help cover the costs of additional vet bills, dog booties, and specialized dog food, gear and equipment.

Rides will begin at 10:00 each day with the last ride starting at 4:00. Each group will get an hour to meet the dogs, learn about mushing, and get a ride on the trail. Ryan and/or Eric will be helping out on the 26th, 29th, 30th, and 1st so we'll be running two sleds those days. The cost will be $40.00 for adults and $20.00 for children under 12. We can get a couple adults, or more children, on each sled. Also, local outdoor photographer James "Izzy" Isdell will be available for professional photography at an additional charge. He's photographed mushing before and his shots are outstanding. Like nothing I've seen before. Participants can get shots of them in the sled or put their arms around Old Hagar for a portrait.

I'll be at the annual Christmas Bazzaar tommorw to start booking rides. Anyone interested can also give me a call at 842-5374. If I'm not home Johanna can put your name in a slot and I'll call you back as soon as possible. We're asking for a 50% non-refundable deposit to hold the slot.

The renewed road work is coming along pretty well and it looks like we've got colder temps on the horizon. Keep your fingers crossed. Mileage is listed below.

Hagar - 204 Lucky - 365 Luke - 409 Bing - 399 Bernard - 363
Charlie - 374 Felix - 303 Olaf - 386 Lucy - 278 Phoebe - 353
Ginger - 379 Chester - 388