Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The United Nations of DAWGS

Juho and Karl on 4-wheeler


Been one of the more memorable autumns so far this year. Last year I was still trapped in Juneau with the pooches surviving tours during the awful daily rains- that'll be the last time we'll ever give away our freedom by signing a contract with folks who have lil' integrity when it comes to our pooches' well-being. It's been heaven around here lately, not only the cool, crisp weather but our newfound friends as well. Karl is from Sweden, Juho from Finland- both are experienced mushers who have previously been a part of mushing outfits back in Scandinavia. It's been nice to have these two twentysomething men around to help train, care for and play with the pooches. And last night we enjoyed the autumnal equinox by going on our 1st camping trip.

Our destination was less than twenty miles away but with most of our teams consisting of yearlings this was more of a mental excercise than an ultra training event. The boys would be on the 4-wheeler; 14 canines would be in charge of them. I would have a bit more control with our 'Schnuelle-mobile' and thus decided to hook up 18 for my squad. Tamra helped to ensure that we safely made it out of the yard at half past four in the afternoon. The temps. were in the lower 40's so numerous stops would be made in order to keep the pooches from overheating. Three miles from the kennel we crossed over the Wheaton river bridge and on to an old mining road. I stopped once again to see how the other team was faring as well as caution Karl, the other driver, about the possibility of traffic being on the road up ahead.

Dog team next to Wheaton River

Less than a minute later all of our heads, including the dogs, swung around as a blur of brown fur flew out of the bushes just up the hill from us. To be honest my 1st thoughts were, "You gotta be kidding me- don't I have enough on my mind already?" Fortunately the bruin was in a mad rush to get away from this alarmingly bizarre situation as quickly as possible. My main leaders, Nathan and Simba ,thankfully continued on down the road and not into the bushes. Behind us Juho and Karl looked exhuberent, as if this was just another everyday occurrence in the wilds. They actually live further north on the globe; situations such as this are just another day at the office.

Obviously trail conditions without snow can be a bit more stressful on the pooches bodies so a nice, even, steady pace is much more beneficial than trying to set any speed records. A positive experience is our #1 prerequisite; the evening's 2nd goal would be to see how well these younger dogs could rest for a few hours. In the back of the truck we carried a bale of straw to bed them down with as well as water, broth, kibble and meat. It was time for a puppy party! Once we had secured the teams and let them cool down food and h20 were offered. This being there 1st campout most of them were whining to keep moving. The word 'rest' never has been a favorite of the average toddler I suppose. "Hmm, how am I gonna get these hyper lil' furballs to mellow out? I've got an idea."

Plugging our small dvd player into the truck's lighter outlet the younger pooches suddenly quieted down, staring in amazement as the screen came to life. It was an old tv series cassette I had purchased from a record store last year in Juneau. It was a musical variety show featuring one of my heroes from Tennessee- "Hi, I'm Johnny Cash..." For some inexplicable reason Nemo, Capone, Griffin and the pups kept still- they were probably wondering if the tv could move or not. We decided to call our new resting spot the 'Living Room" which was appropriate considering all of the energy we had. The music was nice to have around to ward off any unforeseen animal encounters as well. Our return trip would be interesting- for many of these children would soon finally become true "Children of the Night".

Puppy play with Nemo and Griffin

I actually left many of their tuglines off the 1st few miles knowing their overall exhuberence level would be off the meter. Reaching a steep hill we stopped to make sure every one was in their proper place. Juho and Karl were worried about the ganglines that the pooches were clipped on to. The tugline's color was blue and white which happens to be Finland's national colors. The necklines were made from nylon consisting of blue and yellow hues- Sweden's national colors. Get the picture yet? "None of these tuglines can be messed with, do you dogs understand?", Juho remarked with his thick Finnish accent. Suddenly I felt as if we were running in a Euro-league soccer match.

(Chasing after team that decided to leave without us. Emergency brake was on and the truck in gear as it slowly skidded down the road-learned our lesson, amazing power these animal have.)

We arrived home just after 11 that evening, Tamra's headlamp could be seen waiting for us in the yard. I'm sure the rest of the pooches had already warned her of our imminent arrival. Once back in their houses, fed and watered the Dawgs reminded all of us how much they enjoyed the show. Nothing compares with their daily canine chorus signalling their appreciation of a well lived day. For some of us their energy is a major reason why we enjoy this world so dearly; hopefully humans can one day learn from their sense of community on a global scale.

Enjoy the view, Hugh

http://www.laughingeyeskennel.com/ Chicagoland school presentations october 22-27th, for more info.: laughingeyeskennel@hotmail.com

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Welcome To The Chocolate Factory

"Listen as the WIND blows across the Great Divide, voices trapped in yearning..."
The energy is expanding, guess it just must be that time of year. Or is it just another full moon? Yesterday while staring out at the lake I felt like part of an old Ansel Adams print. The cloud layer was thick, barely a few hundred feet up the surrounding mountainsides. We are constantly being showered with wind driven yellow leaves as they create a mosaic of colors surrounding the dogyard. One wonders if the dogs even notice as they gnaw away on their individual moose bones. This time of season various friends and neighbors offer scraps left over after all the meat has been processed and properly frozen. It's nice to know that the dogs help ensure that as much of the animal that is deemed not proper for human consumption is put to good use.

Most mornings, if we're not out playing on the trail somewhere, you'll find me stoking the fire underneath a large barrel of boiling meat or fish. Often my thoughts will wander back to earlier days working for other mushers as a handler whether it was the Erhart family, Ray Brooks, Paddy Santucci or Mr. Jerry Riley. Numerous people have passed on a bit of their mushing wisdom for others to decipher thru. Lester Erhart, an Athabascan native elder from Tanana, taught me the most about how to survive in the north, " Always keep an eye out for dead standing trees- never know when a fire might save your life in the bitter cold." I always think of Lester whenever we have handlers staying with us. No one is going to spend more time working or caring for our pooches than me. Each and every day this seventy year young man would be up and at it taking care of them dogs. It's no wonder he's one of the geatest dogmen ever.

In Joe Runyan's dogmushing novel he mentions that Lester's dream was to just once have the greatest dogteam on the whole planet. (I suppose most mushers might have thoughts such as these.) Knowing myself however I've become a bit more realistic. Who knows if we'll ever perform to perfection in a race but I definately hope to have one of the greatest dogyards in the world. After all, races usually only last a few days to a few weeks- where the pooches spend the rest of their time is of even greater importance! Growing up in Evanston Il. I was much like any other typical child of the seventies. My hero wasn't Harry Potter, it was a man called Mr. Willie Wonka. (And we're not talking about that Johnny Depp stuff either.) Lo and behold 30 years later we have our very own Chocolate Factory right outside the front door. Hills for the dogs to scamper around on , a lake and streams to swim in and travel upon in the winter as well.

Everywhere around here must be respected and cared for to help ensure a healthy environment. On weekends all the dog waste is put in the truck and then hauled off to the dump. Trails must be kept clean- obstacles whether they be tree limbs or large rocks are removed to create a smoother surface for the dogs to tread upon. Much like anywhere else on this earth sometimes we find spots where people have dumped garbage in the woods. To my eye no sin could be greater than trashing Mother Earth. Who do we complain to when this happens? No one- it's faster and more efficient just to clean up the mess ourselves. Besides, it makes one feel honest with a sense of integrity performing good deeds. I just feel sad for people who treat life this way- they're not 'evil', just spiritually sick inside. One of our handlers Karl helps me cleaning up each day, it's refreshing to see how he appreciates our unique northern lifestyle.

Presently we're running a few hours everyday with the racing squad and yearlings. How quickly we travel or the number of miles covered is of less importance this early in the year. "Time in Harness" however is quite valuable as we introduce the younger, less experienced pooches to this newfound wondrous world of exploration. Preparing the squad can be an exercise in patience with all of the pups pent-up energy unleashed in a cacophony of canine frenzy. Twisting and jiving back and forth they yip out in glee, " C'mon hurry up you humans- it's time to boogie." Having extra neck and tuglines around nearby is a necessity for the occassional chewer yet this is their school session when the pupils must learn to act properly. (Or else they receive a "timeout" and miss out on that day's run.) Out on the trail, the dogs are constantly being rotated around as we perfect the overall strength of the team. Most of the dogs get a chance to run in lead, how big of a team that's behind them depends on their overall speed and head smarts. Some Dawgs are natural leaders; they tend to be a bit more dominant than their littermates. A few of our more experienced racers become a bit bored during this time of year yet the young punks running next to them have a way of keeping them energized.


Speaking of which this week's featured dogs are Sicily and Geronimo. Sicily is a three year old female that we acquired from my good friend Mr. Ray Redington this past spring. Tamra and I spent a night at his place after the Kobuk 440 race. He lives in Knik, right down the road from Iditarod HQ and Wasilla, the home of Sarah Palin. I love talking dogs with him, his brother Ryan, his father and Uncle Joee. I call Ray the 'Conscience' of the Iditarod- his grandpa Joe was its founder. Before we left his house we were walking around the dogyard as he muttered to himself, "What good dog can I give to Mr. Hugh Neff? The pooch he selected is beautiful, she was on an Iditarod squad last year and has a heart of gold. Ray's a true mushing genius in his own right and it's an honor now to have such a talented lil' gal from him. Sicily's original name was "Screamer" though she actually is quite dignified around other dogs.

Geronimo (left) with his buddy Tolliver (right)

Geronimo, on the other hand, just turned a year old and acts as if he's been eating way too much of Mr. Wonka's magical candies. He's the son of Annie and Brady and much like his parents has a very outgoing personality. Walking by his house he constantly jumps up for a hug and a pat of appreciation. Unlike some humans who are constantly ordering their dogs to sit!, lay down! or be still! We encourage the pooches to express their joy at being a true 'wild treasure' of nature. Sure, they can show a bit of puppy love with everyone who comes in contact with them yet they must also learn to respect others space as well. Geronimo is what we refer to as a "cow dog" - white with black spots- he also has a strange marking on his face that resembles a mustache. Though a bit young it's already obvious that he has a load of natural talent that must be nurtured properly, only time will tell... Enjoy the view, Hugh

http://www.laughingeyeskennel.com/ P.S.: Just a reminder that I'll be in the chicagoland area the end of october for a friend's wedding. We already have a few schools lined up for presentations but still have available times if you know of anyone that might be interested. I assure you it's a show for all to enjoy and learn from! If you have ?'s our contact: laughingeyeskennel@hotmail.com

Training on Annie Lake Road with the new Honda (Watson and Sicily in lead)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Surviving in Orwellian Times...

Sitting on the sofa enjoying yet another exquisite autumn sunset. As usual Omen, one of our main female Iditarod leaders, lays beneath my rear end. Reminds me of when my dad sat on us in order to get us motivated, he happened to be an ex-linebacker who weighed in at about 240. Pleasant afternoon spent running 2 teams about ten miles each. The surrounding hillsides are now immersed in shades of gold, purple, and green- your eyes can't help but smile at the surreal carpet of natural colors. The road the pooches travel upon is awash in wildlife, typically lil' varmits and birds are drawn by curiosity to our moving canine caravan. Squirrels are everywhere scavenging supplies to store away for the upcoming colder weather. The other day we came upon two of the lil 'punks chasing each other around on the road. Watson and Sicily were in lead and zigzagged the whole team around in pursuit of the elusive prey though they soon learned that their endeavors were fruitless.
Love training pooches this time of year. The freshness of the air, thanks to daily rains and cooler nights, adds a renewed energy to each day's activities. It's as if every day is Halloween. This is also probably the most dangerous time of year, it's hunting season after all. I've always said that the most dangerous predator on this earth is the human being. Usually we will allow some of our retired dogs to wander around the yard yet in early fall it's best to keep them inside the house or one of the pens. Animals are more likely to enter the homestead area in search of food or protection from pursuing beasts.
Earlier this evening I took Deyaah, a ten year old black lab, on a short mile long bike trip around the northern end of Annie lake. Sipping on a glass of wine as we flew thru the trees I laughed at her portly frame. Over the last ten years I've probably fed Deyaah perhaps a few hunded times yet she knows how to perfect the art of eating. I call her our 'vacuum cleaner'- looks like she put on a few pounds recently. Fortunately she's also quite athletic and can lose the fat nearly as quickly. Amazing lil' lady who chased us down over a decade ago just outside of the native village of Minto in Alaska's interior. We had just competed in a mid-distance race and were travelling across the flats back to Fairbanks. A few miles outside of town I noticed a small rodent chasing after the team. Stopping the kids I realized it was a few month old puppy. Reaching home I called my friend Lloyd Charlie, "Anyone there missing a pup?" "You better keep her Hugh, she must love you." was his reply. After all these years and all of the bizarre moments I have been a part of this beautiful tail still tops the charts.
Like so many others, we have enjoyed watching a bit of the telly lately. Whether it be the olympics in Beijing, the cubbies in 1st or the start of football there is much to get the testosterone pumping. Viewing the political gatherings even became entertaining until we soon realized why so many choose to shy away from them-- too much negative energy. Anybody ever hear of the word "Compromise". I've often believed that the greatest sin- besides being too judgemental of others, is being too narrow-minded. Having spent twelve years in the Catholic educational system, one realizes that belonging to a certain religious denomination doesn't automatically mean that people are true representatives of their faith. Taking an objective look up at the folks on stage to choose from, remind yourself not to judge a book by its cover- inform yourself! Thankfully the dawgs are here to keep us focused and heading in a positive direction. How Sarah Palin and her family can enjoy not being in Alaska this time of year is beyond me. At least cityfolk down below are now realizing that the potential in women is limitless, something the world of dogmushing has known for quite some time now. Enjoy the view, Hugh www.laughingeyeskennel.com

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Anything is Possible

Greetings to All,

For some strange reason we've been receiving numerous inquiries of late about our Governor up here in Alaska-Sarah Palin. Back in 'o4 when she was the mayor of Wasilla she actually sent me a card congratulating us on our rookie success in the Iditarod race. Lately it has been quite an exciting time up here in the north watching all of the political drama down south. Personally, when I heard the news my first thought was, " She can't leave, she just started and there's still alot to be fixed in Alaska." The republican party could definately use her help but the Greatland will always be her home. Hopefully she's enlightened enough to send her family back up here for their own safety from the media mania- poor kids don't deserve to be stuck in this awkward situation.

Life has been gorgeous around here lately, typically cold in the morning-high 30's then a bit warmer in the day with constant winds. Great dog weather. Still running 10 milers, with two different teams each day. Our friend Sebastian sold us his 'Schnuelle-mobile', a Honda acty, which we've been using to train the pooches with. This vehicle gets 50 miles to the gallon, is a bit larger than your average 4-wheeler with a bed that can hold about 30 bags of redpaw dogfood. On our runs we carry a five gallon bucket of water that the dogs recieve out on the trail. Not only is it far easier to control the team now but the extra space affords us the luxury of pulling dogs that might be a bit pooped out from the team for a 'quick breather' while letting them rest once our longer runs begin soon.

As many of you know last year was one of the most difficult of my life. Seeing one's family member suffer each day is quite disheartening yet something we must all face in our lives at one time or another. The dogs and Tamra are what give me the strength to carry on down this trail we are all so lucky to enjoy up here in the northland. Around here Heaven isn't just above us but all around us if we're willing to open our eyes and enjoy it. Numerous hours are spent each day, not only caring for,cleaning and feeding our beloved pooches but just as imprtantly-- bonding with them. After all, Laughing Eyes Kennel is more than just a team- it's a community. Folks are always asking why they hardly ever see us out around town. Why leave home when that's where the heart is? We're just lucky enough to have a few hundred miles of trail to play on around here.

As this new school season gets underway we will be offering weekly blogs for all those kids that we've visited to enjoy and learn from. Along with describing our daily rituals around the lake and encounters on the trail we will also be featuring exposes on 2 pooches per article. This episode's famous furballs are veteran males: Mr. Marcellus and Oscar the cow dog. Marcellus was one of the 1st huskies I ever had- I was given him as a pup from Curtis Erhart back in '95. He'll soon be 13 years of age and though he does'nt compete in races anymore everyone around the yard knows whose still King. Along with his girlfiend June-Mari and the rest of their cohorts, Marcellus introduced me to Alaska's interior region, the YukonQuest and Iditarod races as well. Now this aging gang of furballs patrols the younger pooches keeping them all in line and happy. Most of our younger dogs love to come in the house and play with their human providers yet Marcellus is still independent to the core. While Junie is probably sneaking into some other dog's house and Shyela is out and about stealing bones, my main man, who is named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, can always be found in the same spot, night after night. No, he's not up in bed with Annie and Sophie stealing all of our blankets. He's an outdoors type of fella, sleeping right in the middle of the yard keeping an eye on things. He might not be the fastest pooch anymore, or the strongest but having shared thousands of miles each year with him for over a decade Mr. Marcellus will always be the center of attention in our hearts.

The other Dawg on this week's docket is Oscar the mad cow dog. Now the 'big O' really isn't much of a fighter but his level of enthusiasm to continue moving on the trail is unreal. It could be the beginning of the Iditarod or 700 miles on down the trail in Unalakleet this ferocious furball will still be banging away on his tugline, itching to continue on, "What's the holdup boss?" In training we have to be careful which team we put him in so that he doesn't tire out the rest of the dogs. I knew he was going to be something special when we were given him by Francis Roberts, an Athabascan Indian from the village of Tanana. At the time I thought we'd have to carry him in the sled back to the truck in Manley Hot Springs- some 70 miles away. After all the most he had run that winter was around 5 miles. After a 6-7 hour run this precocious yearling was still in harness- amazing energy. Cow dog? One would have to meet him in person to know why- white with black spots, he's about the size of Marmaduke. When he places his paws on your shoulder to give you a lick on the face one realizes that the tables have been turned. For it is you, the human who is now looking UP at man's best friend! Enjoy the view, Hugh http://www.laughingeyeskennel.com/ p.s.: Just a reminder that I will be in the chicagoland area briefly in late october for a friend's wedding. We will be offering a few school presentations if you know of anyone who might be interested.