Thursday, April 30, 2009

Have DAWGS, Will Travel...

" Now I don't know but I've been told- "You never slow down, you never grow old..." - Thomas Petty
Hey y'all,
Our next race, the "Welcome to the Doghouse" school tour gets under way in a week- Neff the nomad sets out once again. Was talking with Sebastian about how hard it is to sit still for very long anymore. The body and mind are conditioned for continuous wandering. Unfortunately this time of year it can be a bit muddy around these parts for a walkabout. The lake and surrounding hillsides have lost most of the snow within the last few days. Been amazing to watch the power of the sun's rays though the ice will still be around for a few weeks yet.
Been enjoyable playing with Annie's pups as their eyes and ears discover new treasures each day. They can get a bit frisky with one another though momma keeps them in line for us. Or Sophie, our white buser/attla gal. Soph's probably our fastest pooch though she has only been in harness a few times. She's trouble with a capital "T.", guess that's why she has her own bed. We rescued her 5 years ago from some kids who lived in Anchorage but weren't able to have a dog anymore. She has so much energy that it's best for her to live where she has a chance to roam around. She can leave our main speed leader Annie in the dust yet unfortunately is not much of a 'team' player while out on a dogrun. Thus Sophie's been relelgated to puppy duty though she's 0nly 6 now- can older dogs learn to mellow out eventually?
Not this old Dawg- I am what I am. Will be fun to visit with new found friends starting on May 6th- as well as our old amigos. As much as we love playing with the pooches out on the trail, having the opportunity to share our adventures with others is half the fun. Hope you all enjoy the show- it never gets 'boring' - believe me, I should know at least that by now! Peace, HHN

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Journey Like No Other

"Some say it's just a part of it. We've got to fulfill the book..." --Robert Marley

Good day, eh?
Each morning I awake around 5:30ish, not out of necessity but curiosity. What awaits us this time around? One of the beautiful parts about living in the wilderness is never living the same day twice. Sure, we have our daily chores to perform yet the pooches' antics typically leave us in hysterics. Each morning I enjoy a cup of joe while staring out the window watching Annie and Amos's litter of 6 month old pups playing with one another. Mind you, the rest of the dogs are still in their houses snoozing away- or at least trying too. Angelina, Amelia, Aussie, Alfie, Archie and Atlas are all awesome acrobats.

Pooches are fed by 8am, then it's on to scooping poop, puppy walks and training runs. This time of year we spend even more time out in the dogyard. The warmer temps. are melting the snow constantly revealing daily teasures to unearth. Straw must be raked up and brought to the dump, it's very important to keep everything as clean as possible for the overall health of the yard. Up here though we call 'work' play- that way everything seems more enjoyable. John Baker is one of the top mushers in the world, he's a native from the village of Kotzebue up on Alaska's northwest coast. While visiting a few year's back I asked John how often he feeds his pooches. "Usually 3 times a day Hugh, the more time I can spend in the yard with them the better!" Sayings such as this are never forgotten- we call it 'Wisdom'.

Still snowing up here so we'll keep straw in the pooches' houses for a while yet. Ice on the lake is still thick- we try to go on as many walks on it as possible while we still can. The big dilemma in our yard right now is "Flame", he's a 6 year old we got from Lester Erhart many moons ago. He's finished 3 Iditarods, usually in lead though last year his shoulder was injured thus he was unable to compete. (Of course he wasn't too happy about this but there's always next season.) So the 'problem' is that above Flame's house we have a Calgary Flames hockey team logo. (our next litter of pups will have a Luongo and Bertuzzi) What's wrong with this? Well, the Flames just happen to be playing my Chicago Blackhawks who actually have a decent team for once. As a sports junkie I am completely confused. I'll tell you what though- the more I see of this sport- the ACTION- the more I enjoy watching it compared to other professional events that are getting slower by the year.

It's funny how words or phrases can become stuck in your brain, becoming a part of one's psyche. In dogmushing terms this can be used as motivation for the future. One of my favorite mushers to watch is Ramy Smyth- he's an animal when behind the sled flying around with his pooches on the trail. His father Bud is probably the most underrated 'Dogman" in the history of the sport. We enjoyed spending a week together with Ramy and his brother Cim before last year's "Sweepstakes" race in Nome. He described how his dad taught them to not only do their best but enjoy the journey as well. After this year's race at the banquet in Nome Ramy gave me some advice as well, "Don't give up your day job Hugh". You can count on that buddy- nothing compares with the life we are able to enjoy each day up here in the mountains. I just wish that one of these year's Ramy will learn to race in the YukonQuest as his brother and wife have.

The Quest and Iditarod are wondrous journeys we are so honored to be a part of each year. Nothing compares to our own personal journey however. That's what the general public doesn't understand- "How can Hugh be so happy? Where does all of that energy come from?" Experience. The reason a 1,000 mile race is a walk in the park, no matter the frozen body parts or ripped apart face, is knowing where we came from. As my friend's from the band STOV would sing, "Out of the mud I crawl, out of the slime-I climb- Evolution." Think about it- in '95 we stepped off the plane with a few hundered dollars to our name. Spent our 1st few weeks in Alaska sleeping under some bushes alongside a pond in Anchorage. Have lived in shelters, received weekly food rations from charities, wondered where we would be living the following week yet somehow- we're here! Back then I would never have believed that within a few year's I would be able to compete in a 1,000 mile race let alone 15 of them! Who knows 'why' but I know how-Perserverance. Where there's a will, there's definately a way no matter the hardships encountered everyday. In life we must all remember that not only do we smile with our teeth but our EYES.
Enjoy the view, Hugh

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Road Tripping with the Puppies

"Oh, you're Hugh Neff. I've heard of you- the guy who loves what he does..." - Alligator lake snowmachiner
Morning everyone,
Returning from a short trip south to Atlin, B.C. Went with my friend, fellow Quest veteran Paul Geoffrion. Our buddy Normand Casavante has been renting Hans Gatt's kennel there this winter- talk about being fortunate. No one has done more for the sport of dogmushing in recent history than Hans. Not only a multiple race champ, Mr. Gatt also builds sleds used by nearly half of the Iditarod field -75% of the Quest teams. Hans is from Austria and his intellect is a polar opposite to mine. The only trait we have in common, besides loving dogs, is... the ENERGY. Though ten years my senior I've seen Hans standing in place- Jogging- and this was 5oo miles into a race. One year after Sheep Mtn., a short training run in December that numerous teams partake in, we witnessed him (after caring for his pooches) put on a running outfit and head straight up a mountain!
The trails in Atlin were in nice shape, especially for yearling training. It's nice to get the lil' poopers away from our casa- they tend to get a bit bored having run the trails around here all winter. The leaders of our 8 dog team were Tyler and Delilah- each 2 and 1/2 years old. Their mom Omen is now retired, she finished in lead coming into Nome 4 years in a row. This year Tyler made it to Eagle Island during Iditarod. His sister Ms. Delilah finished the Iditarod as well as the Quest- now that's a Diva. Following them were 6 yearlings: Griffin, Amigo, Nemo, Capone, Frasier and lil' Ms. Gypsy.
Considering most of these pooches had not run over 15 miles all winter it was interesting to analyze their mindthought. One of the greatest misconceptions of our sport is that it's all about breeding/genetics. Folks like Lance and Sebastian are proving how proper, consistent training creates powerhouse outfits. Life isn't just about having 'superstars'- teamwork creates that positive energy to fly on down the trail. Speaking of being positive our Quest buddy Normand, a French Canadian, is amazing w/ his pooches- they truly are a pack. After our 1st run, a short 10 miler sunday evening Normand sang all the dogs to sleep w/ his harmonica- a mesmerizing moment. The following morning we would run 35 miles which I was a bit worried about. For 6 of the 8 pooches this would be their longest run, in fairly warm temps. too. During 'spring training' we're constantly rotating the dogs around to see how they perform in different spots. The wonderful surprise of this trip was lil' Gypsy. This tiny 35 pd. black female is named after... me. Now most folks who pay attention to what the media tells them would think that my nickname is "Huge Mess" but 10 years ago I was given the name `Gypsy Musher`by 2-time Quest champ John Schandelmeier. Up to that point I had lived in 8-10 places all over Alaska within just a few years- hence the nickname. To me, the Greatland and Yukon are the funnest playground on this earth of ours. Gypsy was wonderful to watch in lead yipping and yapping, rolling around on the ground whenever we stopped to take a breather. I thought she was a bit young to race this past year but am having 2nd thoughts now- just hope Annie and Delilah like her too!
Muchas gracias to Hans, Normand and my good friend Paul- was a fun way to begin training for next year. Most folks might believe we only run pooches up here in the wintertime. Why not all the time- it`s what they love to do after all. Heading out to feed the yard, catch you all- sooner or later, Hugh and the DAWGS
P.S.: We are now full for our upcoming May school tour. Next one will be in October, send us a line if you're interested in a show like no other- guaranteed to put a smile on everyone's face!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Daring to Wander Over Untrodden Trail...

" Give it away, give it away, give it a way nowww..." -- Chili Peppers
Good Morning,
Yes it is, flurries in the air- can anything compare? Our buddy Sebastian e-mailed us the websight connection for the german tv show about this year's Quest race. Though not as well known about in the states, The YukonQuest is a rigorous 1,ooo mile jaunt the pooches and I participate in each February- just a few weeks before the Iditarod. Known for its cold temps., this race covers some beautiful terrain between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. For yours truly it tends to be a bit of a 'soap opera ' at times. If you'd like to check out the 2 hour program on the internet go to:
Our "WELCOME TO THE DOGHOUSE" tour is nearly finalized, waiting for confirmation from a few schools. We'll be giving over 25 presentations within a 3 week period- now that's what I call a race. I was thinking of creating a competition for the schools with each other. They could each come up with a "Checkpoint Name"- let the fun begin. A few days back I donated $5,000 to the Kruse family who have been running McCabe Creek, a Quest resting spot, for years now. Unfortunately the building that housed the mushers accidently burned down. They mentioned that there will be a 'barn raising' get together sometime in June. I also donated $5,000 to my native friends in Fort Yukon to help get there inaugural 300 mile spring race off on the right foot. (paw)
Now why would a goofball like me do something so silly? Believe me others questioned what I was doing, like Kathy Chapoton (Martin's wife has 2 kids in college) Blame it on Loyola Academy, the Jesuit highschool I attended whose slogan was "Men for Others". Thru all of my wanderings over the last decade I've realized that $ does not buy happiness, feeling 'content' is what really counts. Back when I was a kid caddying for some of the richest people in Chicago I saw many wealthy folks that never seemed to smile much- maybe it was their golf game? Life's been relatively good lately, why not "Spread the Wealth". This is not to say we're rich Republicans- in the past year we learned something very important- be wary of hiring male handlers who are in their 20's. Combined together ours destroyed a pick-up truck, Hans Gatt Sled, storage shed, etc. Nice kids but I guess there's a reason why insurance is so high for boys in their age bracket. Believe me- been there, done that. As dogmushers, with all the expenses our sport has, we'll always just be 'getting by' yet helping those in need in one's community is what life is all about. As the song says, " Don't forget-- We only get what we give..."
See all of you kids soon! Hugh

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Time of Transformation

"Everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend. Everyone has a reason to live again." -Bruce
Hey y'all,
Warmth is in the air, the snow is melting, fur is shedding- guess it must be time to go visit the kids down south! School tour is slowly coming together- starts May 7th, to check out our areas of interest go to our website then on to the school section. Excited to get the "Train Rolling", our featured pooch is "Wild Bill"- a true superstar. He's just turning 3 and has already completed 3- 1,000 mile races as well as the Kusko 300 and Kobuk 440. Have been training him up by bringing him along on our daily errands. We had fun visiting friends in Skagway and Whitehorse recently though nothing compares to home of course!
Had a pleasant surprise in the mail yesterday. We received a book called, Journeys of the Pack, it's by Holly Hagstrom. She is from one of the schools that I spoke with. The story is based on a dog that we acquired from Lance a few year's back- Sampson. An older 75 pd. Dean Osmar pooch, this leader was the main reason we finished 3rd in the Quest in '05. Quite heartwarming to see his pic on the cover. Great motivation as well- if this 11 year old girl can write a book about 1 of our pooches why can't I write about all of them? (So lazy- I know, one of these days I promise.)
It's 'hockey time' in Canada now, driving to Annie lake from Skagway I noticed a vehicle parked on the road. With all of the melting snow lots of rocks come cascading down onto the pavement. Driving by I noticed a fella with a hockey stick in hand flicking the larger rocks off the road. Now there's a true trailbreaker- a sports afficianado to admire. Enjoy the view, Hugh

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Becoming a Student of the "Game"

"Natural Beauty should be Preserved as a Monument to Nature..." - Neil Young
Happy Easter everyone,
Enjoyed a brief 5 mile jaunt with the pooches this morning. Wanted to go further but sunny conditions with no wind made the decision to turn back early an easy one. This time of year we stop every five minutes or so, it's more like running wind sprints than any type of long-distance running- just keeping the pooches happy and healthy! Up in the lead with Mr. Wonka was a dog we brought back from Fort Yukon named Ringo. He was in Josh Cadzow's winning Quest 300 team last year as well as this year's Quest squad. A beautiful white 5 year old male, he should be lining up at the starting line of numerous races next year. After sponsoring Josh, his dad Cliff, out of appreciation, told me I could have this gifted canine once the season was finished. Cliff ran Ringo in lead for the 300 mile Yukon Flats race. Needless to say Ringo looks wonderful, a great gee-haw leader which is always nice to have around I suppose.
Lots of time on the sled runners to ponder over life. At the beginning of the year we had hoped to do well yet realized this was going to be a bit of a rebuilding season. Lots of younger pooches were replacing our more experienced canine explorers. We will not have that 'excuse' next year. The level of talent I get to enjoy goofing around with each day is mesmerizing. Capone, Nemo, Griffin, Geronimo, Amigo... the list of promising yearlings goes on and on. Hoping to have at least 2 racing squads next year. Whomever is lucky enough to be one of our handlers next year is in for one heck of a ride!
As a musher, one is always seeking to improve- even if there name is Lance Mackey. All of us mushers hope that our sport evolves as well. Known as one of the more 'oddball characters' of our sport allows me the opportunity to speak my mind w/out fear of repercussions from sponsors. All of our sponsors are our friends, not just someone looking to make a buck off of our name. Hugh Neff , I promise you, will never be some 'walking billboard'- we're here to play with dogs not sell our soul. That being said, some readers will notice that I might be a bit more 'vocal' in my opinions but at least I'm out there on the trail- I witness firsthand what I write about. The Iditarod is a wonderful trail to play on but there is always room for improvement. Folks might think after viewing the Versus cable show that surviving Schaktoolik was the toughest part mentally for me to handle. The run from Safety on into Nome was actually more harrowing mentally. Why? Well, it was the middle of the afternoon, above 30 and sunny out- tough conditions for the dogs to handle, especially in their tired condition after travelling nearly 1,000 miles already. Famed 4-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser once told me that he did not like competing in races where the trail went over mtns. instead of around them. That's part of the reason so many Iditaroders steer clear of the Quest. Though of the 5 past years in which we participated in both 1,000 mile events, the Iditarod trail has been in much worse shape overall than the Quest. Alot of this is due to Mother Nature as well as the fact that much of the Quest trail goes over roads which are easier to maintain. The reason I'm bringing this up is that I believe teams should have the option of going over or around Cape Nome. Though only ten miles from the finish, this lil' bump has caused too much havoc in recent years. Do the dogs really deserve to be put thru this?
Now, I'm sure all of the 'top competitors' would rip into this notion but is the Iditarod about what 'You' want or what is best for the overall health of the animals. Leaving Safety we were just over 5 minutes behind Ken Anderson yet there was no way I would push pooches hard in the sweltering heat of the day, up and over over a thousand foot hill. But why are we on this hill when there is a nice flat road right next to it that we could be travelling on. Some of the unfortunate events that have occurred over the last few years would probably have been avoided if the dogs had not been overly stressed with the streets of Nome just within reach.
In the Percy Dewolfe race mushers must travel from Dawson to Eagle by any trail they so choose. Why not the same option coming into Nome? Sometimes going over the hill might be an advantage if there isn't much snow on the road. Let the mushers decide their trail into town. Isn't it all about what's best for the dogs?
Yesterday was rather strange, even by my standards. Greg Damon from KMOX in St. Louis, a CBS affiliate interviewed me live on the radio over the phone. I met Greg a few years back when we still gave summer tour rides. (We do not agree with how that mushing operation was run and refuse to ever put any of our pooches thru the summer tourism scene on the coast. It just isn't healthy for their hearts or spirits.) Greg has a Nascar show each weekend at KMOX/CBS Radio.
It was fun talking about our dogmushing season to folks half a world away. Greg then mentioned he had a surprise for me, "Our next question is from... Columbia, Missouri." I knew immediately who it was- my older brother Bruce. It's an interesting interview- you can check it out via the web. Will have our upcoming school tour schedual midweek, waiting to hear back from a few teachers 1st. Enjoy the view, Hugh

Thursday, April 09, 2009

From the Yukon to... the YUKON

"You put the Magic into me. We make Magic when we do what we do..." - Billy Squier
Hey y'all,
Nice to be back at our Oasis on Annie lake. Amazing how many beautiful pups/yearlings we have at present. They are all out of Annie or our retired leader Omen. Fun time of year to train up the younsters. Always enjoyable to see what puppy predicaments they can get themselves into as they 'twist away' in harness- so much energy. Living within a mountain range affords us the opportunity to travel on decent trails even late into the spring. The high ridges provide lots of shade to keep the snow firm though a bit of soft snow for 'wallowing in' can be decent training too.
Considering the skin on my hands and feet is still shedding, I'll wait a day or so before heading back out into the bush. We need to plan our May school tour first -nearly 20 some schools so far. From Chicago to Buffalo, Conn. to New York, Jersey, Virginia, Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and let us not forget Atlanta- we`ll be everywhere. Tamra and I have a deal that if there are more than 25 groups I can bring 2 dogs instead of just one. (keep your fingers crossed- airline travel is expensive these days) The documentary we did during the Quest with ARD, Germany`s version of BBC is Easter weekend, 85 million viewing audience. Wonder what my pa would have thought- hope to make it over to Deutchland within the year if possible.
Anyways... Trip back from Fort Yukon was pleasant- no vehicle breakdowns for once. Last week my truck broke down at the border. The part to fix it was only $40 but the towing bill for 90 miles to Tok was nearly one thousand-yikes! We had 3 or 4 towing bills this season, I spent alot of time pondering `Deep Thoughts`. Figured this might be a sign that the Great Almighty doesn`t want us wasting so much time travelling to and fro. The drive to Whitehorse can be a bit bumpy at times yet the scenery more than makes up for any bruises. Gorgeous terrain, one of the loveliest ways to appreciate life that I could ever imagine. Full moon ahead, sunset in the rearview mirrow, shaded mtn. ridgelines- is that a Caribou on the road or Elk, maybe a moose, bison or bear- up here we see it all. We`re looking to purchase some land just outside of Tok this summer to save on travelling so often. Funny part of this trip was every spot we stopped in folks came up to introduce themselves and congratulate us on our season. At the border all of the Patrol people even came out to shake my hand, receive one of our kennel cards and wish us well. It was surreal. Like I told Lance last week, `I might be the most well-known unsuccessful dogmusher in the history of our sport.` Sure, I might not have won a race . However, I`m more than satisfied knowing that our Dawgs have the fastest time ever on the Quest Trail. They can give `Hugh Neff` a 2 hour penalty though no one is fooled about who the true `Winning Dogteam` of the race was.
Success can be defined in numerous ways. All I know is that I, once again, have the incredible opportunity this year to show others not only the beauty of our lovely pooches but also the grandeur and majesty of Alaska`s Greatland as well as its neighbor, the Yukon. Most importantly I hope that all of you kids out there realize (no matter what age you might be) that if a simple-minded cityboy can achieve all that I have over the p√Ęst decade up here in the Northern Wilds just imagine what you might be capable of. Believe and you shall achieve, as Mr. Wizard might say. I promise that we`ll begin figuring out the exact details of our `Welcome to the Doghouse` school tour which will begin 1st week of May. Right now, however, I have to head out to the dogyard to scoop poop- a musher`s fun never ends. Peace, Hugh

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Circus comes to Fort Yukon

"If you want to view paradise- simply look around and view it. Want to CHANGE the world? There's nothing to it." -- W. Wonka
And how are we this fine looking spring day? Well, in our wildest dreams we could never have imagined the race being enjoyed so much by everyone. The enthusiasm of the local villagers in Circle, Birch Creek, Chalkyitsik and especially Fort Yukon was breathtaking. The trail was the best I've ever seen in nearly 10 years of racing. Dan Kaduce's winning squad was beautiful though most of the other mushers barely saw them, except leaving checkpoints. By the end I was calling him Lance- kidding! There's only one 'Magic Man'- for now.
I'll write a more detailed account of our travels once we return home, will be finalizing our school tour dates as well. Suffice it to say, the feeling of contentment of achieving this opportunity to create such an enjoyable event was truly heartwarming. So many happy faces- not just human but canine as well. What a trail-amazing. 80 miles in under 7 hours on the return trip to Circle. On the last run? After just running 300 miles- think about it? Travelling on the same trails as famed explorers Hudson Stuck and Olaus and Mardie Murie. Viewing the fox, caribou, moose and throngs of birds heading north on their annual spring migration just added to the festive air. Springtime really is our version of Mardi Gras- northern style.
Have lived in and travelled thru numerous villages over the last decade, it was wonderful to share this with friends like Dan, Jodi, Abbie and Brent. Thanks to all of them for being wise enough to come. They all hope to be back next year as well. We're also thinking of having a race in the Manley-Tanana-Rampart area as well. The more expeditions the merrier, we want to make sure that these events are purely for enjoyment and not just some 'race qualifier'. As far as I'm concerned if one is willing to travel off of the main road system into the real 'Alaskan Bush' they are probably more than qualified to enter any of the bigger events. Just because a race is a 'qualifier' does not mean that its good training for people or dogs. Some of us would rather visit our friends out in the villages who might just know a bit more about dogs considering how long these animals have been a part of their culture.
A special thanks to Janet Cadzow and her daughter Terry who were the main organizers. Cliff, Josh and Jay Cadzow were wonderful hosts as well. Numerous folks helped mark the trail though it would have been hard to get lost considering how nice it was. Doyon, the Athabascan Native Corp, matched our donation of $5,000 which was kind of them. Hopefully, Doyon continues to support its people and culture like this in years to come. Without the unique character of their culture, the spirit of Alaska would be rather bland. Thanks to Ivory Jack's and the Vallata restaurant too! Peace, Hugh p.s.: heading down the hwy.; will be sharing more stories from the Yukon Flats 300 soon.