Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Creating Magic within a Mystical Kingdom

"Trust none of what you hear- and less of what you see. This is what will be..." --The Boss

Now there's a reason that most dogmushers are sequestered off in remote regions of the wilderness- secluded within their personal 'Doggie Domains'. You think you have issues? There are but a handful of folks that we compete with on a yearly basis that contain the amount of energy that yours truly has to deal with on a daily basis. We're just not talking about the Dawgs here people. With so much to perform and accomplish on a daily basis around the dogyard I really don't need too many friends to hang with- I'm busy enough talking to myself. Yes, we northerners may be a bit touched in the head at times yet the lives we lead are true blessings from above. Amongst the people of the North mushers are quite unique characters. Hugh Neff? Well, let's just say that most of the competition is still trying to figure out my maddening ways- that's the beauty of it.

Last year's theme word was `Patience`, for this season we are going to 'Focus' on appreciating and enjoying the moment. With all of the training, travelling and racing our kennel does each year I often forget to take a breather, relax and just enjoy the beautiful view before my very eyes. Fortunately the Great Almighty has a way of reminding YOU when one leasts expects it. This time of year I'm on the sled constantly; 2 fourteen Dawg teams each day. Our runs typically last 3-5 hours in length and cover all types of terrain. Originally I had hoped to be training out of Tok by now but the conditions have been excellent here thus a brief delay in our plans. Around the Annie lake area we have some of the best training in the world w/out an abundance of other folks to share the trails with. From our cabin I can head out on half a dozen trails varying from flat and fast, twisty and tight to straight up! They all have their advantages as well as dangers. My favorite would have to be...

Having travelled throughout Alaska's Greatland as well as the Yukon by dogteam I often reflect on all of the amazing vistas we've enjoyed. Words could never properly do them justice. Ya know where my favorite place to travel is? It's not exactly a location but a certain type of trail. Thick woods with narrow twisty turns are always the rollercoaster ride I dream about. There are parts of the Yukon Quest that have some amazing zigzagging routes that leaves you dizzy at times. Back when I was participating in sprint races over a decade ago one of my favorite events was held in the Athabascan Indian village of Minto. The trail there is tight, up and down, curvy and fast- fun times are always to be had. That type of racing was enjoyable but once the hound dogs replaced the huskies ( in order to get more speed) I lost any interest in it. Besides, why race for an hour or so when you can travel for days on end? In long-distance mushing it's nice to have a bit of speed in one's squad but power is what creates champions. That's why I love training in the mountains- my favorite area? Alligator lake.

From our kennel we travel straight up some two thousand feet to reach a valley that runs a dozen miles or so. At around 5 thousand feet there is plenty of wildlife in the area that enjoys the warmer temps. Yesterday morning I was giddy with delight having witnessed yet another 1st. I've had encounters with wolves on the trail in the past though sightings are quite rare. They are a shy intelligent animal that is wise enough to hide from man. I'd much rather see a few of them than an ornery mother moose. A few hours into yesterday's run with our 2 year olds, the dogteam crested over a hill as I noticed a large group of Ravens hovering over some bushes just off to the side of the trail. These birds are usually a good indicator of game being in the area. Having seen numerous caribou tracks over the previous few miles I figured there might be a few of 'Santa's buddies' hanging out in the neighborhood. Scanning to my left I looked out over the half mile wide valley and noticed movement everywhere. 3 or 4 large grey wolves were flying away from us across a pond and up into the hills. I immediately stopped the team even though we were descending down a hill, in order to enjoy such a beautiful sight. Looking more intently I noticed a larger wolf closer to us, most likely the father or uncle protecting the pack. Directly in the center of the ice was a gorgeous brown wolf, I could almost FEEL that it was the alpha female, her eyes were piercing. The look they gave us said it all, `Hurry up and get the heck out of here, can't you see we're having breakfast?"

We finally continued down the hill and found a nice flat spot. I hawed my leaders Watson and Tolliver to the left as we swung back around and began to head back home. Passing straight up the hill we had just came down, I stopped the team behind a stand of trees to have one last peek. The wolf pups were nowhere to be seen. Yet out on the edge of the frozen water stood the black male eyeing his prey. In the middle stood his Mrs.- she did not flinch knowing we were still in the vicinity. One can only imagine what thoughts were racing thru their heads. What was I thinking? "I'm in heaven..." Some folks might run dogs in order to race for money and trophies yet for me moments as rare as this are priceless. How appropriate that it was sunday morning for our 'church' service was definately under way. Everyday feels like living inside of a "Cathedral" up here in the North, that's why we choose to be on a sled as much as possible. Living in harmony with nature is awe-inspiring.` It was another reminder of why I moved north many moons ago- not just to be some dog racer- but a true beast of nature.

Training the younger pups this year has been wonderful. The 2 litters are out of our main retired leader Omen and Lance Mackey's Zorro, the other litter is from Annie and Brady. Zorro is the famous stud dog of Alaska yet his litter pales in comparison to Annie's wild bunch. We call them the `brat pack`- eight of the most comical critters I`ve ever been fortunate enough to train. The main man of this group is Geronimo as well as his bro Amigo. Their sister Juanita is quite fiesty as well- they all have their mother`s energy combined with their pa`s gregarious attitude. (Jericho, Joker, Jester, Jewel and George fill out the group) What also sets them apart from the other litter is that they are all neutered and spayed. How ironic considering most people would believe that this would give the dogs less energy. Despite their enthusiasm most of these kids will only participate in a few of the shorter mid-distance events this year. Another season for their bodies to mature and these furballs are going to be something else.

The other team consists of some of the toughest beasts on the planet. Walter, Watson and Annie are my `3-headed Monster`, Tyler, Tolliver and their sister Delilah have their mother Omen`s speed and father Maestro`s heart, Shaman and Shifter are my `twin towers of power` as well as Sicily, a dynamite lil`gal I received from my buddy Ray `Babycakes` Redington. (Sicily and Shaman are from Robert Sorlie`s dog Barley) Throw in another dozen veteran pooches and it`s gonna be interesting once we leave the starting chute. This team has been treating me like a ragdoll; most of the time I`m slamming both feet down on the sled`s drag trying to mellow them out a bit. So far it`s been rather warm (20`s) but my hands, face and feet don`t seem to be complaining. Great training year, one of the best ever, hardly a sun or moon rise that we have not witnessed out on the trail in this wondrous wilderness. The key this year won`t be just how many miles logged but how powerful our magical mushing potion can be created. Some seek to be great competitors, I`d much rather enjoy being an Artist hoping to paint a prettier picture each and every year.

This is NOT Disneyland however- there are always tough times on the trail no matter what path in life one so chooses. In our area the last few months have been rather traumatic. Upon returning from our school tour in september I learned that our First Nations neighbor Ray had died from a heart attack then just a few weeks ago another great man, Bill Baker, passed on as well. Bill was diagnosed with cancer, fortunately he did not suffer too long. My father died a few years ago from cancer just before the Quest began. It was one of the toughest moments I've ever had to deal with yet we took comfort knowing how great a person he was. All of the wonderful things he had done for his family and community as well as the fact that he had the opportunity to live a fairly long life. Our neighborhood friends however were both in their 50's and were active outdoorsman. Not having them around suddenly gives us a greater appreciation not only for the world around us but our very beings. One can only feel sorry for those in this world of ours who don't grab each day with a sense of gratitude for all they have seen. Hopefully one day they`ll realize how lucky they are if they choose to see things in the proper light.


"Every Dog has its day. Every day has its way of being forgotten... What would you say?"

- Dave Matthews

I have been advised to make a brief statement regarding last year's Yukon Quest race. This will be reference material for any media/fans who happen to have any ?'s or remarks about our `road experience` in Central. We were penalized 2 hours for travelling down a road for 4 miles, I would end up losing the 1,000 mile race by 4 minutes. The trail we were supposed to be on was 20- 40 ft. to our right though I deemed the road to be safer for the dogs to travel on. No dogmusher has ever been penalized for this infraction on this section of trail before however the musher in front of our team complained to race officials resulting in our receiving the penalty. (this can all be seen in a German documentary- I was actually giving an interview to some camera folks while on the road) I have no problem with being penalized. The issue is why were any of the other 'top ten' mushers -whose dogteams also went down the road NOT given a 2 hour penalty or even made mention of? The media quoted the race marshall as calling me a cheater, thankfully he's not around anymore. Nice fella but a bit under qualified for the position. It's just sad that the other mushers have not come forward to admit their transgression as well. Whether one is on the wrong trail for 1 mile or more, each one of us should admit our mistake and not benefit by hiding the truth. In any race the best dogteam should win not the musher who uses the rules to their advantage. Just sad when outside human influences determine the outcome of a DOG race.

Fortunately I was the person who was meant to be made an 'example' of- dealing with adversity is my middle name. We just hope the Quest is wise enough to admit their inadequacies so that a more professional event can be run in the future. We protested the penalty fully knowing what the Quest's response would be. Will the people running the show ever fess up to their miscues? One wishes they would so that we are able to attract more prominent mushers from the Iditarod and other global mushing events to participate in our ever dwindling field. Races like Iditarod are consistently run more efficiently by people who have actually run the race with dogs before, maybe the Quest needs to find more retired mushers to aid them with their expertise. The Quest has wonderful banquets and is great with putting out 'press releases'. Here's wishing they give as much thought to a well organized set of officials and a trail coordinator that keeps a keen eye out for each section of trail.
Tripods before

Tripods after

I actually had to console a trailbreaker who came up to me at a party this past summer crying. He related his story to me that he was told not to worry about putting in a snowmachine trail over Eagle Summit. For those who don't know (and lots don't because the Quest chose not to comment on it), Jon and I spent 8 hours on the side of Eagle Summit in a blizzard because not only was there no trail, there were no markers. The markers may have blown away but that is why they put up tripods a few years ago. To our surprise the Quest only bothered to put reflectors on the up hill side of them. Jon and I spent hours walking around looking for a reflector to find the trail. I've since been told that this has been a problem in years past, but complaints to the Quest have gone unheard. So this summer, Brent, Mike and I went to Eagle Summit and made sure there were reflectors on those tripods. Later we were called volunteers for the Quest, as though they had any part of it. Really we were fed up, frustrated mushers- not that the Quest would say that to the media. I'm not complaining- in this day and age it's a blessing to have people volunteer their time to ensure this event continues on. We just think it can be done better with a greater sense of dignity. Times are tough and money is scarce yet look at what Dr. McGill has done with her limited resources. Many mushers now believe that the veterinary staff in the Quest is more attentive to the mushers/dogs needs than most of the other major races.

Was it tough losing by 4 minutes? Not as tough as losing your dad or a neighborhood friend. Or getting your face ripped apart by the coastal winds in Iditarod. 'Winning' some 1st place trophy and $ is not my goal each year. Creating a perfect dogteam is- and that's probably why I'll be running pooches for the rest of my time on this earth. I'd much rather be a Real Dogman than a Fake Champion. Hugh Neff will accept 2nd place as long as I know in my heart that I had the best dog team and the fastest time on the trail ever. ( I still think another half a day or so quicker is within reach) Some folks are actually accusing me of wanting to lose the race. You know why? A few years ago I made a deal with my sweetheart Tamra that we could get married once our team won a race. Sorry Honey! We'll see if I can rectify the situation this upcoming season...

Enjoying the view as always, Hugh