Friday, November 25, 2005

Things I've learned over the years...

- A musher's biggest weakness is his own ego. Stay humble and willing to learn at all times;
- Despite ones' best intentions, in the heat of the race one is likely to revert back to bad habits looking for an easy way out;
- Dogs come first!!
- It's comes down to not how strong you are physically but how strong you are mentally;
- Being a good care provider is the key to success;
- On the back of a sled silence is golden. Talking too much distracts the dogs and they learn to tune you out.
- Learn how to read your dogs and give pep talks accordingly;
- When a dog isn't running properly it's your fault not theirs. i.e. change their position in the team, check their feet, wrists, shoulders for injuries. If necessary even put them in the sled for a short rest break;
- A team can only go as fast as it's slowest dog;
- All dogs have the potential to do well - it's up to the musher to cultivate the talent;
- Personal pain is part of the game; deal with it - no whining allowed;
- Don't feed every dog the same. Feed according to body type, metabolism, eating preferences;
- In messy situations keep your cool; the dogs will be able to tell when you've lost control. The dogs need to have confidence in their leader;
- Always be positive with dogs. Dogs will emulate your mood they'll be bummed out if you are or happy when you are.
- Dog mushing is problem solving. Always look for a way to solve the problem rather than dwelling on the negative;
- Share the love. We all have favorites but all the dogs deserve to be respected and rewarded for thier effort;
- Give as much attention to your B team dogs as your A team dogs in order to see them excel;
- Communication is number 1. If problems arise share the information. Problems snowball if not dealt with immediately;
- Dogs and musher's health is priority number 1.
- Take care of yourself and plan ahead. When running a team make sure you have supplies in case your trip takes longer than expected, i.e. bring extra food, axe, fuel etc.;
- Learn to be thrifty. Mushing is expensive. Bills will topple even the best musher;
- Dog mushing is a unique, treasured existence we live but everything is earned. The freedoms that a dog team opens up also include responsibilites;
- Respect mother nature - she's your number 1 competitor;
- Never trust or listen to hearsay and gossip at checkpoints;
- If need be help other mushers along the trail while keeping an eye on your own safety;
- Learn to take criticism from officials, other mushers, vets etc. in a positve way or else you'll never learn to grow. Knowledge is power.
- Discipline in yourself and your dogs is necessary however love should be your main motivator.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Picture from the 2006 Mushing Alaska calendar for June - Hugh and the Laughing Eyes Kennel crew. Coincidentally June-Mari is in single lead for the month of June! Looks like a pretty good, happy team coming into Dawson. Posted by Picasa

Something's Brewing Up Above

A few weeks ago we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our migration from Chicago to Alaska's Greatland. What a strange, wild and mystical adventure it has been. For many of us being a part of the ‘Dogmushing World’ is an intense spiritual experience. Each year we commemorate this unique lifestyle of the North by participating in various races throughout this 'season of the snow'. Events such as the ultimate challenge - The Yukon Quest - are a platform for us to show off our lil' furry babies, our treasures, to the world. For nearly 2 weeks we are surrounded by dozens of the most magnificent beasts on the planet as we travel that hallowed trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. To us they are more than just athletes; the pooches are an extension of each musher's spirit, their heart, and souls. I received many of my lil' poopers from Curtis and Lester Erhart, native Athabascan mushers from the Yukon River village of Tanana. It was an honor to live and train with these true dogmen of the north as they taught me not only about dogs but how to survive the demanding winter conditions.

My 'flesh and blood' kin have always been the Dawgs, starting off with Maverik. I always realized their unique gifts: the inherent beauty, natural toughness and pure, unconditional love (and of coarse their most enduring quality – their wildness). As I held that first litter of pups in my arms so many moons ago, this clueless Cheechacko from Chicago had absolutely no idea how many “huge messes” we’d get ourselves into on this trail of life together. If you had told me then that within ten years we would have traversed 10’s of thousands of miles, mushing from coast to coast – from Kasilof to Coldfoot, Kotzebue to Carcross, that we’d compete in dozens of races, including 7-1,000 milers; that these tiny balls of fur would become the energy force of my very existence, that their hunger for the unknown, curiosity for what lay ahead and desire to live fully on a daily basis would dominate our mind thought. If I had known that then? I’m sure that goofy city slicker smile would have ever so slowly spread across my face.

Racing is fun; a real-life rollercoaster ride for a few weeks out of the year – what a rush! In this sport we all set goals to achieve. Some want to win, others just to finish. Personally, all I ever wanted was to be one of the pack- a true animal. (If any of you have ever gotten close enough to get a whiff of me it's obvious that I do a pretty good job in this capacity.) For most of us, however, this life amongst the beasts of the North is a year-round mosaic of mushing mayhem. Who ever really knows what tomorrow will bring? Our main crew: June-Mari, Marcellus, Shyela, Uncus, Gracie, Makaj, Malaki, along with the rest of their comrades ask, “Where we off to today boss?” The terrain we’ve covered has been immense; the views immaculate, yet what one vividly remembers the most are the wildlife encounters. That wild ‘mama moose’ right behind Dick Mackey’s house in Nenana, the crazed wolf chasing us across Myrtle Creek a few miles east of Coldfoot, or even just a few days ago the wolverine that floated before us on the Wheaton River road.

Back in 2000 before our first Quest race – now there’s a wildlife encounter that will always seem like it happened just yesterday. At the time we were staying up on Murphy Dome, just 20 miles southwest of Fairbanks. We helped a retired military veteran, Rich Doran build a cabin up in the area the previous summer. He was kind enough to let us stay there to train, and he also helped grubstake our first Quest. The trails were perfect there at over 2,000 ft; the highest area around Fairbanks, offering numerous areas to explore. Glancing to the south that afternoon I watched the evening sun lay down to sleep behind Denali’s enormous shoulders. I was a few minutes outside of the homestead with the pooches. We were returning from a ‘fun-run’, a short ten-mile jaunt around the hood. The Quest was just 2 days away. If only we knew then what lay waiting just 2 minutes ahead! “Gee Marcellus, good girl Junie – let’s go home.” As usual we were flying, coming down the homestretch. Suddenly, all the dog’s ears sprang up, heads veering instinctively to the left. “What the …..?!” An enormous amount of brown fur was hurtling itself not at the pack of beasts but at the waxen-faced greenhorn standing on the back of the sled. The animal’s eyes were huge, red glowing orbs in the headlamp’s beam and they looked pissed. Miraculously, I somehow flung myself into a snowbank alongside the trails edge. “Now what you gonna do my lil’ moose friend?” This 1,200 pound moose with lethal weapons consisting of hooves could tear apart my dog team in seconds. Fearing for the team’s safety, I yelled out to my leaders, “Alright boy, c’mon Marcellus, go home!” Only problem was I wasn’t the one on the runners. The moose would be in charge of steering the sled this time around. Boom! In a frenzy, the dog team scrambled for home pulling a bit more weight this time as well. In an instant ‘bullwinkle’ had flipped over on his back and ended up on top of the sled. Bewildered to say the least, it’s glaring eyes were staring back towards me. The team was now carrying our deranged friend on down the hill towards home – a ride I’m sure this gangly legged moose will never forget. Fortunately on the 1st sharp turn, the sled flipped on its side releasing our behemoth neighbor back into the wilds. Moments later the dogs were safely back at Rich’s. The following evening we’d be up until the wee morning hours repairing and putting our Percy Dyke sled back together just hours before the Yukon Quest was to begin.

Looking ahead, I’m sure there’ll be numerous other encounters for us to investigate and explore along the way. Life in the Northland is always intriguing, often intimidating, and highly demanding; yet on a whole, incredibly amazing. It’s a treasured existence we and our beloved beasts are able to share, traveling through this exotic country in search of what defines who we truly are. Hope to see you on down the trail….