Saturday, November 27, 2010

Learning to 'Harness the Energy'...

"If you've got a good connection with your dogs, you are a part of them and they are a part of you. They are an extension of your arm. If you feel from deep down those dogs will feel it. We all Focus as ONE mind." - Joe Garnie (Teller, Ak.)


I love the month of November- fresh trails, wagging furry tails. For many up North this is our 'spring' time: most of the rivers are nearly frozen and lakes are now safe to travel upon. 4-wheeler training on mining roads is a distant memory for now the true travelling begins- bushwhacking. Until I'm on the back of a sled flying over some bumpy terrain I never feel as if I truly know what each Dawg is capable of achieving. Early season conditioning in the fall time helps to tone up their muscles yet it's the tale of the trails that lets you know what lies in their hearts. Why do I love this month so much? Cuz there's not a day that goes by that we're not flying around in the woods, a bunch of 'free-birds' whose song remains unchanged. Keep the music flowing...

I call it Charlie Boulding training. A legendary musher, Charlie often said that the best trail he ever saw each year was the Iditarod trail. Unlike most sprint mushers and Iditaroders he did not use a snowmachine to create a hard packed, sidewalk of a trail. Instead we let the Dawgs do the creating. For me it's an homage to the past when klondike seekers and adventurers of the day did not use motorized vehicles. Lord knows I did not move up north to train dogs with a vehicle all the time. A foot or so of fresh snow to plow through shows you a lot about what each pooch is capable of- fortunately for us we've had plenty of snow to play in lately.

One of the greatest training trails in the world is just above our Annie lake homestead- some 2,000 ft. up. I call it Majestic valley and it is mesmerizing to travel through on a daily basis. "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair..." Man, I love listening to that song when out playing with da pooches. I gaze down upon the valley off to our left as the sun rises above the mtns. behind us. It's impossible not to smile for this is heaven- not just the land surrounding us but the energy of the team as well. Early morning runs have the team amped up to chase- squirrels are scampering around everywhere storing away their winter's supplies. Once we've reached the upper part it's 10 miles of twisting roller coaster trail. Often tracks can be seen of caribou, moose and our local wolf pack. This isn't just a training run, we're traveling through a living National Geographic novel. Welcome to my office...

I've had the good fortune this season to share quite a few runs w/ another dog team driven by my good mushing buddy Normand Cassavante, a veteran Quest musher from Quebec. Not only an accomplished dogman, Normand is also a fine musician and canoeist. We share a great respect not only for Dawgs but the Native American lifestyle, after all we are just modern day nomads. We simply cannot resist the urge to be out exploring life on the trail each and every day. Our heroes were warriors who were wise enough to give praise and to honor the ways of Mother Nature. The reason we really like to train with Normand is his attitude- he always seems so happy as he sings and talks to his dogs. He's someone who realizes how lucky they are to do what they do, this life isn't about 'racing'- it's about LIVING.

In numerous mushing videos narrators often point out that "These dogs eat over 10,000 calories per day on the race trail..." Guess what? They're eating that much each and everyday right now. This season we have made a concerted effort to pour as many groceries into their bodies as possible, even while not running their metabolisms are on overdrive. Meat, chicken, fish, kibble- "yes boss, more please!!!!" Of the 30 pooches I'm training nearly all have had only a few days off... for the last month. Nearly every morning and evening I'm out in the woods living on the runners w/one of our main squads. There are a plethora of trails to choose from thus they never know where or exactly how far we are going. In the past we would have trucked the dog team a few hours south to do longer runs on the canol hwy.- to put more miles on them. Having had all summer to think about it I decided to revise our methods this year. Road training is boring, tight twisty trails usually leave the Dawgs in a much more enjoyable mood. After all it's not just about training- it's about learning how to fly!

Is it possible to have a team moving at a quick pace at the end of a long run? You bet ya, it's called knowing how to rest while moving. People would laugh if they realized how often I stop the team in training just to mellow them out a bit, "How you kids doing? Who's hungry??" I'm not necessarily looking for the fastest dog, I'd rather have one that is continually one of the most energetic. I often place a few younger pooches in the team to give the more laid back veterans something to amuse themselves with while traveling. This year we have 2 yearling standouts that might not do much racing but are comical to watch. Their enthusiasm for running is always on high alert though their energy level usually diminishes once they realize how trail hardened in their elder mates are. Like high school kids they have potential but need to zip their lips and learn with their eyes. These boys come from different litters that we had 2 summers ago, there were three pups in each litter. Yet they do share one thing in common - one is named Sylvester and the other? ... Rocky.


Often when we set out on the trail tunes are blaring away in my ears. There is one song however that I never need to have my mp3 player on to listen to because it comes from the soul instead. Two fellas from Chicago sang about it many years ago. Jake and Elwood knew how to keep the trail a humming w/energy, "Rolling, rolling, rolling... keep them doggies rolling..." It's time to see life with a pair of fresh eyes because you never know what awaits just up ahead. HHN

Sunday, November 21, 2010

keep your EYES on the 'Prize'

'If you never learn to have fun then winning is but a mirage in one's mind...'

The beauty of being a huge mess is that I can admit my mistakes w/ out worrying about protecting my public image. No other musher in the history of our sport has had a more controversial, roller coaster ride of a career than yours truly. Never really thought of myself as a 'professional' dog musher, just a kid discovering the wilderness on a daily basis. Is that not what this life is all about? Believe me our personal world is far more tantalizing a subject than anything we might have been a part of in the racing scene over the years. After all this boy did not migrate north from Chicagoland in '95 in search of being some 'championship dogmusher'- I just want to be a DAWG.

Can old dogs learn new tricks? This season we will once again be trying to solve this never ending question. If yesterday morning's run was any indication there is still a huge learning curve to overcome. My biggest weakness? Controlling our energy! The team yesterday consisted of Annie in lead w/ her son Geronimo followed by Jewel and Jester, Juanita and Amigo, George and Joker, and in wheel Jericho and Alfie. (Tamra named this one of course) For me ten dogs is usually the bare minimum I like to sled with yet sometimes...
Flying out of the yard and down the lake the 'Army' was possessed as usual, I've never had a bunch that was so consistently lunging at their harnesses- 'getting at it'. This time of year the trails can be a bit dangerous as I was about to find out. Folks think the Quest and Iditarod are tough? Mother Nature tests us every day around these parts.

A few miles from home we have a couple of stream crossings to deal with. The first creek is rather small with lil' too worry about, the 2nd waterway? It be a bit treacherous at times. Yesterday we rounded the trail as I immediately realized that overflow had enhanced the degree of difficulty in crossing the 50 foot wide swath of semi-frozen water. Our man made wooden bridge was the only way to stay above the thinly iced over h2o. We did make it across safely- unfortunately I was the one not lucky enough to be standing. The Dog team had hurtled my body over the terrain sideways as I desperately struggled to hold on to the tipped over sled. First we plowed through some bushes, seconds later I ricocheted off of a tree finally letting go after my hand slammed into the wood. "Annie! Stop!!!! Annie, Annie!!!!"

Never a good feeling losing a dog in the woods let alone a dogteam. Fortunately we were close enough to the house that I threw off my outer clothing and began running home to retrieve our snowmachine. Soon I was covered in sweat, fifteen minutes passed by when I suddenly noticed a car by the road, some folks were out weekend snowshoeing in the hills. They were kind enough to drive me the remaining mile or so home. I immediately notified Tamra, then scampered back with Peter in search of our lost buddies. Fortunately the pooches had only traveled another mile or so from where I had wiped out on the icy stream. I immediately gave Peter a high five! We were lucky- and now I became totally amazed. Housing various teams in dog pens living as one entity was paying off with positive results.

This was not the 1st time I've ever had to track down a dogteam before. Heck, I ran after my Quest squad two years ago after losing the sled just outside of Dawson. With the amount of miles we've traveled over the last decade these eyes have witnessed all kinds of shennanigans on the trail. What amazed me however was that though the team was in a tangled mess of twisted up necklines and tuglines not one piece of rope or dog harness had been chewed. Everyone was healthy though the sled had a few additional wounds. Geronimo was whining away, 'What's going on? Why have we stopped- where were you Boss?' We immediately undid their tugs and stretched out the gangline though this process took just as long as it did for me to retrieve the snowmachine. I was a bit nervous watching Annie's Army jumping up and down in anticipation of setting off once again. Me? well the knee was throbbing and I was still in shock from our morning's ordeal but real humans overcome obstacles, whining about personal pains just isn't the way my daddy brought me up to live.

The remaining 25 miles of yesterday's run was pure heaven as is typical. Though the first few miles can be challenging once you have made it through life's adversities their are so many hidden treasures to discover that are removed from the ways of the 'civilized world'. Lesson learned? Well, it actually gave me an idea. Now that we have tracking beacons on our sleds for races so that spectators can follow on the computer where we are at- why not use one in the sled in training too? All is well that ends well but we should have emergency plans, knowing which neighbors to contact when sudden crises arrive etc. If we are not willing to learn from past mistakes than the chances of ever evolving are minimal at best.

Time to feed the pooches, for soon we shall fly once again...HHN

Sunday, November 14, 2010

We are Family

"Peace is Flowing like a river...

"Been a ruff year up here in the mtns. so far this training season but what else is new? One of the numerous hidden gems of the wilderness is that everyday is a an enigma. Mother Nature has been in a mellow mood in these parts but it's just a matter of time before her windy wrath wreaks havoc, typically flowing in from the westerly shores of Skagway and beyond. As much as the pooches' personalities intrigue me on our training runs I am continually mesmerized as our merry band of furry pranksters rambles around the hood 'letting loose' for a few hours each day. Over the years I've realized that endurance really isn't what we're trying to create- it's an 'attitude'. At our kennel we don't see these animals as 'working beasts of nature'. Yes, they are wild yet with a playful attitude. "You kids ready to run? It's time to have some fun..."

Every season brings ?'s- one can either stress out about the most minuscule details or they can lighten up and love the dawning of each and every day. Annie's Army (8) and the A-team (6) are each looking quite solid so far on our runs. Of these 2 litters, every pooch has a chance of participating in numerous races this year. Obviously experience plays a major role in which event they shall be a part of. As 2 year olds Amigo, George, Geronimo, Jester, Juanita and Jewel competed in races ranging from the Quest to the Kobuk 440. Three of these lil' poopers competed in all 3 of them, YQ, 440, and Iditarod. One of the finest dogmen I know, Paul Gebhardt motivated me to race younger dogs a few years ago. really can't recollect what he told me but it sure does make sense now! The A-team will be our 2 year old 'wannabees' for this upcoming season- this litter of six has their momma Annie's tenacious nature combined with papa Amos's squirrely yet speedy ways. We recently had a few of these pups neutered not only for breeding reasons but to control their weight better too. Some might think this diminishes their energy but I can assure you they are as lively as ever. "Alfie leave your brother alone!"

The warmer temps. this year have limited our training runs which might actually be a blessing in disguise. For the most part we travelled through the 'Gauntlet" for our early season adventures. This short ten mile run is filled with numerous obstacles to whet the Dawgs' appetite for excitement. Over the hills and through the streams we shall flow, for a life of exploration continually keeps us on the go. That was then this is now... Each day for the last few weeks I've been running 1 or 2 16-dog teams on 25 mile runs alongside the Wheaton river, yeah sometimes life might feel a bit monotonous thankfully the surrounding environs are quite majestic to behold. The trail from our kennel rises ever so gently a few thousand feet, what I enjoy most about this training is the consistent cadence the smooth terrain offers, the pooches become stronger as a unit than as individual stars. Being on the 4-wheeler more often this year can get old yet one can never let boredom get in the way of having a good time!

Now that Annie lake is frozen we are also running 8 dog squads around the lake just to keep our 'musher's sanity'. Hauling firewood is a great excuse to go for a quick 40 minute walkabout. Habits determine much of who you are whether we be human or furry- or both. Nurturing each dawg's attitude is as important as how far they travel, at what speed, etc. This year by having the pooches in pens according to litter we have also been impressed by how they teach one another. Instead of being covered in sweat before a dog run I'm refreshed and ready to roll. "It's time to fly kids." In the past each dog would drag us thru the dogyard's melee of swirling madness as their fellow compadres begged to play as well. Now, we simply open the gate to the pen as a mad crush of colorful critters rushes up to the gangline. I'm always mindful of where Geronimo, one of our main boyzz is- he's a 'head butter' whose snout could easily knock you out. His favorite past time is hurling himself at your head. Some might yell at him for his excessive energy- my reply? "Good boy ya goofball!" I don't train to make these amazing creatures my submissive servants, these are my buddies, furry friends forever.

So which dogs am I proudest of in our kennel? They are all wonderful in their unique ways yet some our standouts- our canine elders. June-Mari, Uncus, Oscar, Maestro and a host of others have already been around the block up here. Some of these old timers have done over 30,000 trail miles throughout the years. Nowadays they take folks for rides around the lake. Watching them now in their golden years there's not a day that goes by that they still don't impress me with their wily ways. "Who's been in the food bin?"
"Mahoosic did you steal the butter off the counter again?" A famous musher once told me that keeping older dogs around would be an anchor holding us down financially. That might be true but our lives have been enhanced just by having these wonderful critters around whether they be racing or not- after all we are not just a kennel, we are a canine community. A few years back while racing in the village of Minto I overheard another famous musher's conversation. They were giggling at the dogs expense, " When I look for a good dog I want him to be dumb because no smart dog is going to want to run 1,000 miles." We all have our individual views of this world but I'll take an independent smart pooch any day of the week- and ours race some 3,500 miles each season. They are smart enough to remember that this life is a treasure, never shall we squander away the opportunity to enjoy yet another day.

'Have Faith in YOU and all that you do...' HHN

Friday, November 05, 2010

What's in a Name?

Walter Newman (1934-2010)

"They call me sweetness and I like to dance..."

This life is a mystery for no one knows what hidden secrets await our arrival just around the river's bend. We are all fortunate enough to meet people who have cared for us, wished us well and shared their positive energy enabling us to learn from their wisdom. Just before I met Tamra back in 2003 I worked at the Yukon river garage a few hours north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Hwy. One fall afternoon a boat came downriver plowing thru the waves as a torrential storm had left the 3 passengers soaking wet. They came in to the restaurant to warm up with some coffee. These 3 native men had traveled for hours from the village of Beaver to the bridge where a vehicle was waiting to carry them the remaining miles down the hwy. to Fairbanks. Two of them were just kids, perhaps in their early 20's. The fella with the biggest smile was an elder, his name was Walter. The weather might have been rough but nothing was going to diminish this man's zest to live an enjoyable life. One might ask why they were in such a hurry to get to civilization? Why to play some tunes of course, they were musicians.

All of our Yukon Quest races have been memorable experiences yet for any musher the 1st time on the trail is always the most nerve wracking, anxiety ridden moment they could ever imagine. For me? Well, I was pumped up with too much energy as usual. The night before my buddy Rich and I had been up until the wee morning hours putting my race sled back together after a moose had flattened it. (you'll have to read our book to hear about that one) Lack of z's has never been a problem for me though. In 2000 we only had 1o dogs on our team compared to the other larger 14 dog squads. Not having as much as others was not going to keep me from playing on the trail- where there's a will, there is a way. Three of the pooches I had only recently acquired thus we would end up relying on the "Magnificent 7" to get us to the finish line from Circle City to Whitehorse, some 700 miles. What do I remember most of the starting line that very 1st time? The hat I was wearing- it was a blue and orange Chicago Bears winter cap. It wasn't that warm but it was more for ceremonial purposes. On the back of it I had written with a magic marker inscribing the number #34.

Ask most chicagoans from my generation who their favorite hometown athlete was and a few might say Michael Jordan, his airness was truly magical. Walter Payton however was the MAN.
He wasn't the most genetically talented player. Walter did not covet having the most trophies but he had the golden heart of a child who had an immense passion for life. There was no weekdays and weekends. There is only Today- so let's get busy playing! Now there's a spirit to emulate: dedication and perseverance with a constant smile to share with others along the way.
I'm sure Sweetness would have loved to win a few more Super Bowls but at heart he realized that the opportunity to play the game itself was the greatest trophy. How ironic that many years later I would meet up with a Native Alaskan named Walter who possessed these very same traits!

Walter Newman was a buddy of one of my mushing mentors Mr. Lester Erhart an Athabascan native from Tanana, a Yukon river village. When I lived there many moons ago we would often sit around the table either talking dogs or listening to Lester and the band play some tunes around the table. Throughout all of my travels I've often reflected on the village of Tanana for me it's the true HEART of Alaska. Not only geographically but spiritually. I pity any dog musher who has not had the opportunity to visit there. The People of the Yukon river represent not only where Alaskans came from but our beauty within. Whether it be at the finish line of a race or the Athabascan Fiddlers dance Walter and friends were happy to be alive and were not about to waste much time whining about obstacles that might pop up along the way. Their shining spirits would always prevail in the end.

So herein lies the crux of my problem. Unfortunately Walter Newman passed away at the tender age of 76 this past week. He lived a full life leaving numerous folks with a positive feeling from having met him along the trail somewhere. Walter assumed that I had named one of our main lead Dawgs 'Walter' after him. This dog happens to be our main man, his sister Annie receives all of the media attention but her 2 brothas (Watson is the other one) are typically up in front leading the way most of the time. The crazy thing is that the past few weeks Walter has been putting the other pooches to shame. He's rather large for a race dog, over 60 pds. yet the rest of his nieces and nephews have to give it their best just to stay at his pace. He's not a loping dog like the sprintier hound dogs. Walter's a true husky with a powerful trot that resembles #34 high stepping it into the end zone. Walter just turned 6 years old recently, in Feb. he'll be competing in his 5th 1,000 mile Yukon Quest race. If we are fortunate enough to make it to the finish line once again with him in lead I'm sure that Wally Newman's spirit will be with us every step of the trail.
Cuz we like to Dance...

I'm not sure if it's the magical wilderness of the north, the mysteries of her People or the bizarre karma of H.H. Neff but these eyes have witnessed a myriad of strange sightings often enough to realize that there is far more to our existence on this earth than what people might read in the papers or see on tv. I laugh at those who don't believe in God, a 'Higher power', the Great Almighty- talk about ignorant. Up here we can feel the presence of a greater entity in all we see around us. Up north there really is not much of a need for 'indoor religions' for nature bestows upon us her beauty every day, especially at night when the universe sparkles from above for our eyes to feast upon. We occasionally see it through our fellow human's spirits as well. Walter was defintely someone who took advantage of being brought into this world. And even though I might not have named our dog after you when he was a puppy your character can be seen thru his beaming smile as we head off down the trail in search of what lays ahead.

While reading Mr. Newman's obituary in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner a few days ago I came across an interesting side note to this story. Walter Payton, my football hero, wore the number 34 on his jersey. The same # which I had inscribed with a marker on the back of my hat. Walter Newman was born in the year 1934
-makes ya wonder doesn't it?

Hugh H. Neff
2009 Yukon Quest start. Photo by Carol Falcetta