Sunday, December 30, 2007

Whoa, Damn it!

I made the 100 mile round trip to visit my good friends Jan and Bob last night. Driving up 407 to Seven Mile Fire Line in the dark, snow machines buzzed past me, their headlights bobbing in the distance haphazardly.

Bob reminds me of Santa. Jovial with a pot belly and a long white beard, he dozes frequently while sitting in his recliner, even mid-conversation. Their surrogate granddaughter, Laura, sits on the recliner next to him. She sought the Shaws out through the local 4-H five years ago. Now, at thirteen, she has more experience than many on a sled. She will run the Tahquamenon 19-mile sportsmen class race, along with me and several others I know. Bob laughs when recounting stories of her attempts at hooking up a team from five years ago.

“When she tried to hook a dog up, the dogs would pull her wherever they wanted to go.”

Al Hardman and two teams came into the yard last night, making the dog to human ratio expand to about 100 to 8. No one in the dog yards would settle down from the excitement: new dogs, new smells, new things to see. The dogs howled all night. I timed them once after midnight, and they howled for over five minutes.

Tom left with Al and Rodney sometime after I went to bed, probably around 2 a.m. for an all night run over to Jim O’s cabin nearly 40 miles from here. It’s been nice being on my own. I don’t have to set an alarm because the howling wakes me up every morning at daybreak.

It is a beautiful day. It’s finally stopped snowing, and the sky is blue and bright. next to the white-covered trees. I’m losing track of days here. Every morning, I rise with the simple goal of caring for and running dogs. I am lucky. But it’s a full-time job caring for the dogs, and Tom and I share the responsibility.

This morning, I rose, washed my face, and started making broth for the dogs. When it’s cold, the dogs are brothed instead of given water. Broth consists of a small amount of kibble with a large amount of warm water, and sometimes chunks of meat or venison thrown in for good measure. After scooping poop and brothing/feeding what remained of Tom’s dogs, I waited a couple hours and then hooked up my six dog team for my first run alone.

The biggest obstacle for me so far has been not getting disoriented and lost. It's an insurmountable task when everything is white! Today, I took a wrong turn and inadvertently went up the cabin trail loop. I bit it in the "water hole," – a mid-calf deep puddle of freezing cold water and ice -- soaking my glove, boot and part of my pant leg. And when I tipped the sled into the water hole, I lost my team, at least eight miles from camp.

“Whoa, damnit!” I screamed as the team sped off, but it was no use. There I stood, alone, with my glove and pant leg soaked. I was more than a little concerned.

When things are going well, it's joyful and beautiful. The sunlight reflects off of the snow, throwing glints of light in every direction, and it's breathtaking.

But when things go bad, I can see how they can become very bad very quickly. My drinking water and what few supplies I did bring were in the sled bag, and tugged away with the dogs. At first, I began running down the trail after the team, but I quickly realized this was futile. I calculated how long it would take me to get back to camp. At roughly 2 miles an hour, and with it being 12:30 already, I estimated I’d make it back to camp just as the sun set. The team would make it back in an hour. I hoped and prayed they would make it back safely, and dreaded the embarrassment when I finally made it to camp, my own tail between my legs. Surely I would be the laughing stock of camp. I’m developing quite a reputation for losing my team.

Luckily for me, a snowmobiler flew up to me just as tears started to fill my eyes in panic.

"Did you lose a dog team?"

"Yes!" I sighed in relief. He is covered head to toe in black winter gear. All I can see of him under all of his black gear and helmet are his blue eyes, but they are kind and concerned. "Let me turn around and I'll take you back. They're only about 1/3 of a mile up the trail."

He quickly turns around, and I hop on the back. He zooms back to the dogs, and they’re safely tied to a tree, lying on their bellies soaking up the attention of four other snow mobilers in the group.

I thank them profusely. I am eternally grateful and feel extremely fortunate they were there to catch my team. As I step on the runners and wave one last sign of gratitude, I think about how easy winter can turn deadly.

Winter is a temptress. She leads us out to enjoy her beauty, but tests our preparedness.
We ended up running 20.35 miles today. And I learned a lot.

#1: bring a spare set of gloves.

#2: As Tom keeps telling me, lose your team, lose your life.

Tonight, it’s cold and clear. Stray snowflakes fall slowly down from Heaven. There’s frost on the windows, and even though I sleep in the mushers’ cabin, it is only heated with a single wood burning stove that is in another room, so it’s chilly here. I snuggle into my arctic rated sleeping bag, and in the mornings, it’s hard to come out of that cocoon. My shoulder is throbbing despite 1000 mg of acetaminophen. Dogs randomly bark in the yard, but the excitement of last night has died down. Still, an unrecognized truck pulls in the yard at 10:20 p.m. – apparently someone sent by Al Hardman to pick up a dropped dog from last night’s run.

Believe it or not, there are places still on earth where cell phones and digital signals do not reach. There are pristine areas where acres of white birch trees stand instead of buildings, where it is quiet, save for the sound of wood popping in a stove and 80 huskies howling in the night. These places are home to me, places close to the earth. I keep the snowy-white rolling tundra with me in my heart. I am most comfortable in solitude – always have been. Even though I am away from my family and I miss them, I know I will be sad to leave this place.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

more pictures

My bunk at the Sleddog Lodge

the view from my bunk

The Warren Cabin

Jim's Seney 300 axe

Frozen tree sap


Three pups at the Sleddog Lodge

Deer head in truck

Cabin on the Cabin Trail loop

Pile of handler arm bands from Jim's '06 Iditarod

The Warren Iditarod Shrine

Stiff. That’s what I am when I awaken. Sore is an understatement. My shoulder aches, and even simple chores, like getting dressed, cause me to wince in pain. I am stiff and sore, but not broken. I decide to rest my shoulder by spending the morning visiting puppies and then driving the 60 mile round trip into town for groceries. Tom is out with a 10-dog team before I am even out of my sleeping bag. The dogs who remain look confused, dejected.

The Warrens have several batches of pups: a couple litters who are about 12 weeks old and one litter, out of Raven, who are about six weeks. Jim holds the runt of the litter, telling me how he almost died. Sick with worms and small, Jennifer has become this pup’s surrogate mother – something Jim says might not be best in the long run for the pup.

“Sometimes it’s best to let nature take its course,” he says. “They all can’t make it.”

The pup has wandering into the main dog yard several times, coming dangerously close to death. Now, Raven has become a neurotic first-time mom, ushering all the pups back to their house in the dog trailer if they wander even remotely too far away for her comfort. But the pups are getting bigger and harder to herd; they sass their mother when she tells them what to do, and even the little sickly pup cops an attitude.

Jennifer takes the runt from Jim, cuddling it.

Jennifer with the runt pup

“He smells like snow machine,” she quips.

The pup immediately snuggles down into the warmth of her parka.

“Last night, he ate a little kibble, then fell asleep, then woke up and ate a little more, then fell asleep again,” Jennifer says. “He’ll make someone a really nice pet, but I don’t think he’s going to be a sleddog.”

In town at the IGA, I disclose my out-of-town status through my use of the shopping cart. I have forgotten that the bagboys take groceries out to your car for you here, and quickly start putting bags into my cart. Blonde and youthful, the bagboy looks at me inquisitively.

“Clearly, I’ve forgotten where I am!” I say and grin, allowing him to take the bags back from me. He walks me out, loading the groceries into my truck, and I feel oddly helpless.

I take a back road out of town and find, to my surprise, a truck parked with a snow-covered deer head propped up on the tool box in the bed. The empty black eyes stare forward, the horns of several points are covered with a faint glint of snow.

Later that day, after Tom has returned, we go out to the yard to hook up my team for an eight mile run. I fumble from the pain in my shoulder. “Only,” a big, brown and white husky from Tom’s team, pulls away from me and runs loose in the yard, momentarily taking advantage of my injury. I somehow manage to hook my team up while Tom prepares his snow machine. I am worried I don’t know the trail system well enough yet. He offers to lead me out, but he says teasingly, “I can’t babysit ya forever, ya know!”

I release the snow hook, pull the quick release, and go flying. Tom flies faster, of course, and disappears up the trail and out of sight soon enough. My dogs get into a slow lope, and I have to ride the drag break at first to keep them in control.

At one point, we stop along the trail. Tom walks back to give each dog a pat on the head, then starts back for the snow machine. The dogs know it’s time to go, and like kids who can’t wait for the “go” when hearing “ready, set,” the dogs are off before I’ve gotten on the runners. I hang on to the handle bar, but I can feel myself tipping. I let go, landing hard on my left shoulder – my bad one – again!

I believe it was Don Bowers who said there are three rules in dog mushing: don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go. After zooming off to catch my team on the snow machine, Tom recounts the number one rule in Alaska to me: lose your team, lose your life.

Friday evening, the snow begins falling and the temperature drops. Three inches falls overnight. In the morning, we awaken to a wonderland. After wading through the snow, feeding and dog chores, Tom chats briefly with Jim about breaking trail with the snow machines. Hearing Jim and Tom talking over a map is like hearing another language. Various mushers have given spots along the trail systems unique names: the carrot trail, the cabin trail, the dumpster trail, the burn, Scott’s cutoff, the Gorge. Each trail has a story. The carrot trail was apparently named because Scott, the musher who “Scott’s cutoff” was named after, had dumped a big pile of carrots there for deer baiting, which is legal in Michigan. The cabin trail is named after a tiny little cabin secluded in the wilderness.

I join Tom on the snow machine for the 35 mile loop to break trail. Up far into what’s known as the Gorge trail, we spot the straight dotted line of fox tracks. They follow the trail along for about ½ mile before suddenly veering off left into the thicket.

Later on, when we return from breaking trail, I begin hooking up my team for another run. I can’t wait. I gulp down some hot cocoa, gear up, and head out. When the dogs see me, they begin their howling, barking chant of excitement. I hook up six dogs, and I’m off, this time leading with Tom behind me on the snow machine. I take the first left turn well, and on the first right turn, I notice the trail hasn’t been broken yet. A clean white ribbon of trail leads me through birch and spruce trees. It is quiet. The sled runners sound like the hull of a ship passing through the ocean; they creak and moan through the fresh powder. I hear the chink, chink, chink of the dogs’ tags and their pants and steady trot, which sounds like the steady motion of a locomotive, shush, shush, shush, shush. The boughs of spruce are heavy with snow now. Everything seems bathed in white. It is disorienting, and after a couple more turns, I realize I’ve taken a wrong turn. I’m now on the “outer loop” trail.

Tom catches up to me, passing me on the left and patting each dog as he passes by. He stops and asks why I went this way. I tell him I just realized I’d taken a wrong turn. He says, “it’s alright, we can go this way,” and take off in front of me.

I maneuver the turns and hills much better today. I’m getting the hang of this. The hardest thing so far is not getting lost – finding my way through the dizzying array of white-covered trees.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Get Miles!

Morning comes too soon, but comes in beauty: I awaken to a glistening of snow over spruce and an eruption of howls, yips and barks in the yard. Tom takes me out on the snow machine to show me the trail after making a hand-drawn map for me. He stops the machine periodically along the trail to show me markers or turning points. My helmet is foggy, and the snow fall is wet. Eight snow machines pass us, and I’m engulfed in the fumes of 2-stroke engine oil. By the time we get back to the cabin, I’m literally nauseated from the fumes.

I don’t get it. Snow machine’s are loud, scaring away any wildlife in the woods. Snow machine’s are stinky: indeed, when we returned today, my clothes and parka reeked of snow machine fumes. But their must be some allure, because they’re everywhere up here.

A far better way to see nature is by dogsled. Traveling by dogsled is still a necessity to many people who inhabit Greenland and other arctic areas of the globe. Where I am in Michigan, dogsledding is a way of life, a culture.

The yard erupts when I push the five-foot sled between the rows of blue-barrel dog houses. I stamp down on the snowhook with my boot, tie off the sled to a small birch tree, and begin to hook up six dogs while Tom does the same. It’s full-blown chaos: a cacophony of barking, screaming huskies, hell-bent on miles.

Each dog whirls around in circles, hoping to be hooked up, like elementary school kids waiting to be picked for a game of dodgeball. "Pick me!" they shout. When they are finally approached by someone with a harness, they explode with excitment.

Once on the line, they lunge forward excitedly and the snowhook tightens its grip. My heart races in anticipation of the first run on snow-covered trail. Tom gives a sign, asking if I’m ready, I nod, and we’re off.

All is quiet, except for the sound of the dogs’ breathing and the sled runners. This is what it’s all about I think. Winter hangs heavily on the boughs of spruce and hemlock and from the vapors trailing from the dogs’ open mouths. I round a corner and winter flies from the sled runners, white flecks of beauty evaporating into the air.

I pull the hood on my parka up as a wet snow begins falling steadily. Snowflakes collect on the coyote-fur lining around my hood as we head up a hill. We come down fast, the dogs giving chase to Tom’s team in front of mine, and suddenly he yells back to me, “we’re gonna do the outer loop this time,” and turns a sharp right, disappearing into the pristine winterlude.

I’m going fast, and I slowly begin to realize I cannot take this 90 degree turn at my current rate of speed. I stamp on the drag brake hard, but the ruts in the trail from snow machines combined with my speed and this angle make my efforts futile. The turn has come too fast, and I’m going down. I see it unfolding in slow motion. Then suddenly, the sled tips up and my left shoulder collides with the hard-packed trail. Snow is up my sleeve, and the impact rips the hood of my parka half off. I cannot breathe for a minute, and as I lie in the snow trying to regain my breath, I look up to see my team running hard, happy for 160 pounds less to pull. I lay my head back down in the snow. The pain is instant and overwhelming, a hard, sharp pain shooting through my shoulder down my left arm.

“Shit,” I curse, and struggle to pull myself off the frozen ground. I hope to God Tom is able to grab my team, and that he doesn’t yell at me too badly for screwing up.

On the six mile route back to camp, I grind my teeth to fight the pain, bracing myself at every turn, every bump. I hang on with one hand and pray there are no other sharp turns coming up. I think about the predicament of many a musher who has braved the Iditarod trail with broken bones and injuries, and realize just how delicate the balance is in winter. Bad judgment can cost a lot in winter. I think, also, about these amazing and loyal dogs and a musher’s dependence on them – how despite my injury, the just keep chugging along, doing what they were born to do: run. Mushing is teamwork to the fullest extent.

After sixteen miles and a bum shoulder, I’m angry at myself, and wonder about the fate of myself in the Tahquamenon Race in nine days. Am I ready for this? And what if this shoulder is broken? I’d surely have to withdraw.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Welcome to Winter

Welcome to Winter
Along Route 2, Lake Michigan is a changing, breathtaking white expanse. Giant rocks, once pushed up on the shoreline, are now frozen in place by waves locked in ice. This is where water meets ice. The frigid nearly-January air has punched holes in the ice, leading the eye through the crystalline white aperture to the still water beyond. Large pieces of ice bob up, waving “go back.”

Eventually, route 2 rises up from the lake and into the heart of the U.P. Old tourist shops touting “pasties” – a Finish pocket food – have long since seen life, and real estate signs are every where. Cold is a way of life here, and those who can’t hack it get out. Winters are long and hard, and only the stoic survive.

Still, the tiny beacon of headlights on snow machines dart around in the black night as I drive up M-123. When I arrive at the “Sled Dog Lodge,” 60 or so huskies greet me with howling that parts the silence. It smells of spruce, and snow crunches under my boots as I unload my dogs and gear. I’m perplexed, however, by the temperature, which is a downright balmy 33 degrees.
I am continually impressed with the frugality and, simultaneously, generosity of mushers’ homes. Function precedes aesthetics in every musher’s home I’ve been in. Here, Gortex bibs and snow clothes hang from PVC piping dangling from the open beam ceiling, along side of pictures of the star athletes in racing action. Next to a coffee pot (a mushing necessity) a clothes line might be draped across the room with dog booties or wet gloves pinned up to dry.
One thing I’ve learned about mushers is, their doors are always open. Their hospitality is something I am most gracious for. I’ve slept in quite a few homes of people who’ve opened their doors to me having not known me an hour previously. During training and race season, their humble homes turn into dens full of tired mushers snoozing haphazardly in random places, like bears content during a winter’s nap. Mushers are known to sleep anywhere and catch winks when they can. I wonder if I will have a difficult time qualifying as a musher since I’m a chronic insomniac and infamously light sleeper.

Indeed, when I am first introduced to Jennifer and Jim Warren, purveyor of the “sled dog lodge,” they quickly forewarn me of several mushers who will likely crash my bunk around 1 a.m. in a couple days on their way in from an overnight training run with a team.
My head hurts. Tomorrow, Tom will take me on the eight mile loop by snow machine before turning me loose with my own team. Our day will start early, at daybreak, and it’s already 11:30 at night, but sleep doesn’t come easily. I walk outside into the black night. The wind sings through the spruce boughs, lulling my insomnia. The air is crisp and beauty surrounds me. I think about how I will miss winter.

It is estimated that, at the current rate of melt, all the world’s glaciers will be gone by 2080. A little over ten percent of the Earth’s surface is considered “permanently glaciated;" there is an average warming of two degrees per year. The majority, about 68.7 percent, of all the world’s freshwater is held in polar ice or glaciers. If all glaciers melted today, the seas would rise about 230 feet, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, mixing much of the world’s freshwater with sea water.

Do the math. It won’t be long before, like the Tragically Hip song, New Orlean’s is literally sinking, along with other lowlands. Find the nearest mountain top and set up camp.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

If you're traveling in the north country

I step into the steaming tub. My body pulsates with the rise in temperature, capillaries opening like daffodils at Easter. I soak in steam. This will be my last night here, and I want to savor this heat, keep it in reserve, for tomorrow, I leave for a two week journey into cold.

Ten years ago, I walked brazenly into a Wyoming winter that engulfed me and changed my life. This time, I know what I’m getting into. And I have high hopes for winter again.

We guesstimated I've spent at least $600 on winter gear just for me for this trip. That's not including equipment for the dogs, food, etc. Over dinner dishes at my folks' house tonight, my mother wanted to know, simply, why.

"I don't understand why you would want to do such a thing," she said emphatically, referring to my winter camping trip, which I leave for tomorrow. Sleeping on a dogsled in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula is clearly not her thing.

And, to be honest, I don't know if it's my thing either. But I'm about to find out.

I'm fully portable. My only Christmas gift from Chris was a power converter that plugs into the outlet in my truck. It charges my laptop, cell phone, ipod and even holds a USB port. I can now travel the country and write. As long as I have my truck! It's a beautiful thing!

And write I intend to do.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas from the Lazy Husky Ranch!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Pageant

Sophie had her second Christmas pageant tonight. Kids are so funny. Put a collection of 1st and 3rd graders on a stage, and anything could happen. Sophie was poised and beautiful. Notice the boy to her right. :-)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Notes on Winter

Winter turns a tangle of branches into festive birthday streamers.

Winter teaches patience. Mallards sit in icy cold water, waiting for the warmth of spring. We all sit in a hushed silence, watching fields fill with a swathing of snow. We wait.

Winter teaches delicacy. As I walked to take the pictures for the video below, I encountered a snarl of branches covered in inch-thick white snow. On one branch, the snow had slid off the branch completely, but still hung, draped from the branch independently in a crystalline "U" shape. One wrong move, and this delicate sculpture would have become dust.

Winter teaches quiet. In a winter-clad wood, trees creak and crack, bending as lovers to embrace one another. The energy reverberates from the trees. Even in this gray/white expanse, there is warmth and places where life perseveres: in a shallow pool of water partially frozen, I saw tiny pale green leaves swaying in the ebb and flow of water ripples. A dead fish floats just under the glass-like surface of ice, its eyes fixed and glazed staring up to Heaven through this white frozen landscape.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Five inches of snow fell in two hours yesterday, and I kept finding reasons to go out in it. I injured my left knee running dogs on Friday, and between my and Mandy’s injuries, our training is waylaid for the time being. But I played in the snow nonetheless. The dogs and I scampered around in it; I shoveled it, played with the girls in it, and slipped in it in my truck while making random errands around town just to be out in it. After playing in the snow, I went to my parents’ house to use my mom’s sewing machine and made a fleece liner for my sleeping bag and a small camp pillow. Then I came home to order some winter gear online, including my “Trans-Alaskan Anorak” from Cabela’s – my only requested Christmas present.

As excited as I am about the upcoming winter, I am also hesitant. This winter marks a separation in my life from what I have known for quite some time. In two days, I close a chapter of my life that’s existed for seven years: that of working in healthcare. Coming to my office this morning was bittersweet. Despite the irritation from office politics, I will miss this place in some ways. I will miss the peace it brought to me, days doing research on the hospital’s charting system, listening to the CPU humming while looking out the giant windows. This office has been my place of quiet and solace.

There are many people I will miss here, too – many who I’ve come to know well in a short amount of time, and many who I will likely not continue to know simply because of not working with them anymore. I think of the Verve, “it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life.”

The white of winter makes me simultaneously giddy and content. Snow offers an expanse that separates us from the busy scurry of summer. I appreciate the neatness of a field of white, untouched and pristine. Gazing at the giant single snowflakes that fell randomly and gently from the sky this morning on my early drive in, I was lulled by their beauty and softness. In their haphazard gentle swaying, each snowflake fell so gracefully and quietly. Winter is a peaceful abode where the world is hushed-up, like a sweet baby sleeping. Winter dreams not. The sleep it brings is heavy.

But what is it about winter that also makes me want to keep moving? I’ve recently learned that bear, commonly thought to hibernate all winter, in fact do not. They have regular periods of waking during hibernation. Their bodies receive fuel from glucose stores in ketones in the fat of their liver, not from proteins. Because the liver is a filter, they wake out of necessity: when the liver stores up too many toxins, they wake up to search for food.

Winter is home to me. Barren trees with nothing to cover them strike me as thin hands clawing at the sky. But barren trees covered with snow become highlighted in beauty. It is how nature calls our attention toward Heaven. Once highlighted in white, the trees beg our attention, pointing to the sky saying, “look! This is God’s country!”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketToday it snowed, and snowed and SNOWED! It's Beautiful! I spent the day sewing a fleece sleeping bag liner and shopping for winter gear. LOVIN' this weather, and the dogs are too.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tom called to leave a voicemail for me today from dogsled training camp. He said it's zero degrees and they had an additional six inches of snow on top of the foot they had already. We're planning some backcountry camping trips with the dogs when I am up there, so his voice mail was a list of things to bring: toe warmers, hand warmers, etc. I'm so excited! I've never done backcountry camping in January.

Here, it snowed, and snowed and snowed today! We had fun playing outside, and when we were done, we made sugar cookies -- yum!

We had to carry Mandy outside to go potty today. She lounges sadly on the couch licking her paw pads. I will spend the evening ordering dog booties! I feel so bad for Mandy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Torn pads and ice formations

After a mildly frustrating run of only five miles today, I noticed Mandy was limping as I unhooked the dogs. When we returned home, I checked her foot pads out to find all four of them torn! No wonder she kept looking back at me and was slacking on her line! This is an issue running dogs on the damp concrete for miles. Their pads become soft and tear easily. I felt so bad when we got home. She's now curled up on the couch with Bag Balm on her pads, which I massaged shortly after returning. And here I was thinking about all the miles we would be able to accumulate training in the next few weeks!

Tonight was the first night in a long time that I ran dogs and didn't take my camera, and of course, there was a stunning scene on Mogadore Reservoir where I run. A shallow portion of the reservoir had frozen, and a thin sheet of ice, cracked and hollow-looking, floated on the surface like a dark mirror. The splinters within the ice formed a sort of shattered circular pattern and then apparently refroze, and a frost formed over the circular pattern -- an ice sculpture to rival any artist's work. I cursed myself for my carelessness of not bringing my camera; unfortunately, you have to rely on my words to create the picture.

Less than two weeks before I leave for the U.P.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ode to winter

I used to see winter as a depressing time. Winters in Ohio are particularly depressing. All the rain and gray days are enough to deplete anyone's serotonin levels. In '97, when I moved to Wyoming, I had to change my perspective about winter.

Winter is a way of life in many parts of the world, including Wyoming. That first winter, I'll never forget. I'd never seen so much snow. I learned how to put chains on the tires of my truck in order to clear the mountain pass over to Jackson. I learned to depend on the faithfulness of good friends and good boots. I learned what an engine block heater was. I learned to cross country ski. I learned what it felt like to fall into snow literally up to my hips. I learned that once the temperature goes into the negative numbers, there's not much difference between -1 and -20 degrees. It's all just damned cold.

I learned patience as I watched days and nights go by in endless snow for two and a half months. I learned wonder when the sun finally emerged over the Teton mountain range and it glistened and sparkled a million points of light in each crystaline snowflake. I learned to appreciate the beauty that comes from seeing forests highlighted with white along boughs and branches and riverbanks.

Winter is not a reprieve. It is a time to celebrate solitude; it is a silent time we need for reflection and rebirth. These are my intentions for this winter. It is the silence and starkness of winter that helps us appreciate the colors of spring.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Force is dead

Last night, I fed Brie and Newt their last meal, loaded them up into their dog boxes, and made the trek down to Shreve. Tom agreed to return them to Carp Lake for me to the Caldwell's, to their original pack.
I have inadvertantly forced a situation by bringing Brie and Newt into our kennel. Brie is stressed, losing hair when she should be growing it, and not eating well; Newt is aggressive, dominating "tail up" position always and not thriving.
As I said goodbye to them last night, leaving them in the trusting and capable hands of Tom, I cried. Saying goodbye to them is a bitter pill to swallow. I had such high hopes for them, for this winter, for what they could become. Saying goodbye to them is like saying goodbye to part of a dream. I forced a situation by buying them that I might have been ready for, but my current kennel set up wasn't.

Force is dead (take a closer look at the headstone picture above). I've wanted this dream for so long, that I've become impatient and unfocused, forcing it to happen prematurely. I know saying goodbye to them is best. Still, it's hard.

Amazingly, Brie is not pregnant. I had her to the vet yesterday to confirm this before returning her.

Tom called at 10 o'clock to tell me Brie had escaped from his kennel. Luckily, she is well socialized and just hung around their house. He tucked her safely in a crate in the barn for the night, and she is currently heading up north with Tom and 16 other dogs.

We'll miss you, little Brie.

Monday, December 10, 2007

only here

Most who know me know I have my camera on me a lot. After ice skating Friday night, while walking downtown, I happened across this very disturbing window scene: Decrepit Dorothy with a badger named Toto by her side. I laugh hysterically when I see this picture, and hope you enjoy it too! I think Dorothy needs some calcium STAT!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ohio Iditarod musher prepares for departure for sled dog training camp and Alaska

Contact: Shannon Miller
Promotions Manager, Valley Road Outfitters’ Iditarod Project

December 9, 2007

Ohio Iditarod musher prepares for departure for sled dog training camp and Alaska

Shreve, OH - Tom Roig, Valley Road Outfitters’ Iditarod musher, will depart Tuesday for sled dog training camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he will remain until departing for Alaska’s famed Iditarod Sled Dog Race in February. The Iditarod, dubbed the Last Great Race on Earth, covers 1,100 miles of some of the most extreme and remote country on earth across the Alaskan interior, crossing two mountain ranges and spanning from Anchorage to the coastal town of Nome. Roig is only the third musher with an Ohio-based kennel to ever qualify for the great race. In order to qualify, he has trained and raced over 7,000 miles spanning the last 13 years.

“I have always considered it one of the greatest honors to be able to race alongside some of the greatest mushers in the world,” said Roig. He departs with 16 of the best dogs from his 28-dog kennel on Tuesday for Newberry, Mich., in the heart of the state’s Upper Peninsula. There he will train for the next two and a half months before making the 4,000-mile trek to Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod on March 1.

The Iditarod Trail had its start as a mail and supply route for postal workers and other travelers at the turn of the century. Then, in 1925, it became the life-saving trail system as relay teams of mushers brought lifesaving diphtheria serum via dogsled to a diphtheria-stricken Nome. In 1973, the Iditarod race began as a race to commemorate the brave mushers who risked their lives to save others in Nome. Today, the Iditarod is Alaska’s biggest media event, attracting thousands of volunteers, media and visitors to this Last Great Frontier.

The 2008 Iditarod includes the largest number of entrants to date, with 111 mushers signed up as of the Nov. 30 deadline for entries.
For further information about Valley Road Outfitters’ Iditarod Project, go to Or contact Tom and Brenda Roig at 330-567-3580. ##

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them. -- Aristotle

Lots of snow lately. I am disappointed I cannot be out in it more. I am wrapping up my final days in my job and slowly preparing for the trip of a lifetime.

I've been thinking a lot about dignity because I have allowed things, whether they be entities or particular people, to get me down. I have felt particularly de-valued lately from a multitude of things.

But last night I realized dignity doesn't come from what others value or recognize but from the regard I give to myself -- "the consciousness that I deserve honors." I know I've done my best in my job(s). Maybe there are disappointments, because I know things didn't turn out the way I wanted. Unfortunately, I don't think I've even held myself in the highest regard for my abilities and my confidence in those.

Now that winter is here, I'm scrambling to prepare for Christmas with my family, and then my long-awaited winter trek north. I can't wait!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

To this day, part two

What will you do with your life?

It could end today from a car accident or a year from now from cancer. If you’re not living the life you want, what will you do to change it? What’s important to you? What will be written in your obituary? Is that how you want it?

Everyday for the last seven years, I hear sirens, mediflights, and codes called overhead because people are in trouble and near death. Today, I was looking for the obituary of an acquaintance’s mother, and I just started reading random obituaries. So-and-so, who died at 26 “after a short illness”; So-and-so, who died “unexpectedly after a car accident”; so-and-so, who died “after a long battle with cancer.”

Many of them list their jobs or their club affiliations. And I wondered, as I read, how many of them were content with their lot in life. Were they happy working for the Teamsters? Did they like being a machinist? Were they happy in their marriages?

So many people go through life feeling stuck, dying young from cancer or a car wreck, and all they have to say in their obit is that they were a member of some legion or church and where they worked and who still lives on in their family. We don't see the struggles or the stories between the lines.

Write your obituary. What does it look like? Mine would say: Shannon Miller, 35, unhappily lived in a town that smelled like fried food, praying for snow and working for a company she resented because it took her away from her true loves: her children and her dogs." This is not what I want. If I died today, I'd be pissed. I want to move. I want to live my life to the fullest doing what I love to do.

What I'd like my obit to say is this: Shannon Miller, 35, lived an adventurous life writing books, working as a media production specialist for other animal enthusiasts and touring the alpine backcountry via dogsled. :-)

What legacy will you leave?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Baby, it's cold outside!

Today, the first real snow fell. The temperature soared yesterday to an unseasonable 53 degrees, but then plunged sometime through the night. This morning, we awoke to snow. And it snowed all day. The temperature hovered right at 32 degrees, though, so there wasn't much accumulation, only about an inch or so. But the huskies are in heaven!

Tonight, we scampered around in the snow outside, playing their favorite game, chase. They pranced and woo-wooed. And when we came in, Jack stoically stayed outside, preferring the falling snow to a warm crate in the feed room. He lays curled up in the snow under the blotted night sky.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dog food expenses

I never thought I wouldl go grocery shopping just for dogs, but today I did just that. We stocked up on pink salmon, ground beef, white rice and other goodies just for the dogs. We haven't even gone people grocery shopping yet!

Brie, my newest and littlest Alaskan Husky, is so thin, we're taking a break from running today. I offer her food four times a day in an effort to help her gain weight. I bought her a sherpa jacket today too because she's so thin, I worry about her outside in temperatures now that they've dropped.

Some may say I spoil my dogs. But I think this is how trust is developed between my dogs and me. If they know they can count on me to take excellent care of them, then I'll know I can count on them this winter. Maybe I run my kennel program differently than others, but this is what is important to me.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

It's always winter somewhere

It started snowing here today; I got over 20 miles in on my dogs this week. I have to admit, while I don't think I will ever be crazy enough to even want to compete in the Iditarod, it's always been something I've held in such high regard, from the time I worked at Frank's. Then it was this mythical thing I didn't understand; now I still don't understand it, but the myth is somewhat dispelled. The reality is it's unbelieveable and crazy scary. The feat of such an amazing marathon: over 1,100 miles of awesome tundra and rocky terrain, the teamwork of a person and their animals depending on each other. I'm so excited for this winter. I guess you begin at the beginning. My beginning is running my little team of dogs as much as I can, learning, listening and dreaming this dream.

It was 19 degrees and snowing here tonight, so, as only crazy people would, we spent the evening outside: we took the girls ice skating downtown. There is a holiday lights festival at Lock 3 Park, and all sorts of authentic German food and craft vendors and a carosel. The girls had fun. Here, Elise is pouting because we are taking skates off to leave. :-(

Friday, November 30, 2007

Baby, I'm ready to go!

The dogs' training season is in full swing now, which is sometimes difficult with two kids and working full-time. But we've managed to get in about 20 miles this week.

All this running makes for hungry doggies! So I've upped their calories by feeding them my own concoction of doggy stew - which they love! It's boiled white rice and chicken livers mixed with about 10 cups of kibble and warm water. On Thanksgiving they enjoyed turkey meat and gizzards. They're living large.
After a wonderfully crisp late afternoon/evening six mile run tonight at West Branch State Park, the dogs especially enjoy their doggy stew. Above is a picture of them chowing as the sun sets.
The first race is January 5, a 19 miler. I leave for the UP on the 26th with Brie, Mandy, and Jack and maybe Foxy. There's a foot of snow up north already I hear. I can't wait! Baby, I'm ready to go! It will be the best Christmas present ever!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Great training day!

Last night, it was 22 degrees here. The moon was full and the sky was clear. It was gorgeous! Foxy and I hung out back in the moonlight last night in the wonderful cold. Today I hooked up and went for about a 4 1/2 mile run. My dogs need LOTS of training if they're to run their first race in January, and now that it's wonderfully cold outside, I plan on running as much as possible.

Lisey bundled up and came with us today. Little snow bunny loves the cold too :-)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy Turkey Day!

Happy Thanksgiving, Zoe!
Silly Sophie
Silly Elise
Thank you, yummy Turkey!
Papaw and Elise, Thanksgiving '07

Elise, Courtney and Sophie, Thanksgiving, '07
Elise, Autumn and Sophie (Chris in background)
Zoe (pug), Elise, Kristen, Sophie and Joe

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A sad anniversary

Since Kahlua died a year ago this week, my life has changed dramatically. Five more dogs have entered our lives. At the time she died, she was one of four; three of those we added within four months of the end of her life. We went from one dog, to eight in less than a year.

It’s as if I knew I would lose her, and I was rapidly trying to fill the void that would be left from her passing. But, as usually happens when attempts are made to rapidly fill a void, I haven’t filled anything, and miss her dearly right now, on the anniversary of her death.

Instead of confronting my feelings of loss and actively grieving, I’ve scrambled to fill up my life and avoid the pain of that loss. I was not aware I was doing this, of course. It just happened.

I had a sad realization tonight that perhaps I’ve surrounded myself with dogs in a futile effort to gain back the one dog I miss more than anything, my best girl, Kahlua. Truth is, I would trade any one of these dogs to have her back for just a day. When Kahlua died, I lost part of myself. She was with me through some of the happiest times in my life: backpacking, college, trips out west, moving to Wyoming, my first marriage and the birth of my first child. Losing her feels like losing a part of my identity and those happy times.

It's so difficult to quantify the emotional connection I had with her, to her. I’ve been unconsciously but frantically looking for that part of myself I lost last year. Losing Kahlua has caused a sort of early mid-life crisis in me.

My job is ending again in less than a month, which is also throwing me into an introspective, soul-searching frenzy.

Don't get me wrong: the feeling of running behind a team of huskies is something that I cannot describe and that there are no substitutions for. It's exhilerating and serene ...when it works well. When it doesn't work well, it's so frustrating. This has added to my second guessing myself and why it is I'm doing this expensive and time-consuming sport.

Kahlua died on November 24. I miss her. I took her picture, collar, and ashes down last night and cried for her. I miss you, my sweet girl.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Brie (left) and Newt (right) wondering how they ended up with me


Today was one of those days when I wondered: why dogs? Why THIS sport? Had a horrible tangle of a run today and if it weren't for my charm and good looks (JOKE) I would have gotten a ticket from a park ranger.

I guess what I'm learning is you take the good with the bad in this business of running dogs. Yesterday was great and I was flying high; today I came home and shed a couple of tears in frustration! Brie and Newt have absolutely no clue what "gee" and "haw" mean. Poor Mandy and Jack. I finally ended up just completely unhooking them because I was worried they were going to get hurt from the cable line. Enter Park Ranger. Two wild looking huskies running free, the other two in a hopelessly tangled mess, and me begging forgiveness. Luckily, he was nice.

I'm learning accidental breedings, tangles, mishaps, torn ears: they all happen, and sometimes it's all in a day.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward" - Vernon Sanders Law

I've been so bummed out about Newt, Brie and the craziness that has gone on at the LazyHuskyRanch bringing them home a month ago. There was a point when I thought I was done with dogs.

But then I realized it's up to me to provide the dogs direction and leadership. I realized Brie and Newt have an understanding of their place in the scheme of things and I removed them from that environment that was familiar to them: their blue barrels, their runs, their pack. They are happiest in their barrels. That is "home" to them.

Years ago at Frank's, I learned this lesson. How many lessons do we need to relearn in life!

I had a favorite in the dog yard at Franks, and it was Thor: a big black and white male who Frank said was part wolf. One day after dog chores, Frank laughed at me when I asked him if I could take Thor down to my cabin for the night. But, knowing experience is the best teacher, he allowed it, warning me first of Thor's importance as a wheel dog.

The night was a disaster. I tried putting Thor in my truck, which terrified him. I tried hooking him to a leash, which just about killed me. Once I got him to my cabin, he walked in and immediately peed on the post of the bunk and took a big dump in the middle of the small cabin floor. The smell was horrendous. So I tied him up outside.

Removed from the familiarities of his house, the dog yard and his pack, he howled all night long outside my cabin window. It was a long, woeful howl, a moan of one removed from the comforts of home, even though his home was only an electrical cable wire spool outside in a yard of 179 other huskies.

I swore then I'd never try to turn a working dog into a pet, that I'd never remove another sleddog from his element.

And I've done just that.

In the pack mentality, free from the familiarities of her house, dog yard, and chain run, Newt has become insecure, dominating and aggressive. She has attacked Mandy, Foxy, and her own sister, Brie numerous times since moving here, clearly trying to find her place within our pack, unable to balance running free with finding her place. But tonight, as we restructured our kennel with proper blue barrel houses and chain link runs, Newt became docile and quiet again. She was back in her element and comfortable.

I have learned so much in the last month about what I want, and what that means. It means sacrifice. It means acceptance (of dogs for what they are: incredible atheletes who are also wiley, crafty pack animals; of myself for where I'm at with so much to learn; of the frustrations of mistakes). It means tenacity and perseverance.

Why do I want this? When people learn I have eight dogs and enjoy the cold and snow, often they simply ask "why?"

What I get from this are qualities that I believe are some of the highest character-building qualities to life. I learn patience. I learn loyalty. I learn tenacity. I learn strength and endurance. I learn teamwork. I learn a sense of accomplishment and reward when the dogs have a good run and perform well; I learn a sense of frustration and sadness for mistakes I've made. I learn to own my mistakes and move on.

I'm back on track today and looking so forward to this winter again. I was spinning my wheels for awhile with angst and some let downs, but now I know where I'm going. I'm moving forward and heading up north soon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

how would I know that this could be my fate?

Tonight, I sat outside with the dogs. All of them gathered around me in the grass in the cool evening as the dew settled. Newt nuzzled me, scooting her slender head into my arms, along my legs, nipping at my sweatshirt like a pup looking for a teat. They were all tongues and tail wags, and though I came in dirty and visibly covered in fur, this is what makes me happy, helps me recover from long days at work filled with bureaucracy and bull shit.
I am so disappointed in so many things right now, disappointed in people, the corporate world of healthcare I've somehow found my way into, but mostly I am disappointed in myself.

I brought Newt and Brie home with the best intentions. And I feel now like I've let them down. I think Brie is pregnant from Jack. She has vomited twice just this evening, and once last night. I came home Friday to find Brie had gotten out of the kennel crate I've been keeping her in since she's been in heat. She and Jack were "tied" in the backyard, Chris asleep on the couch inside. Poor little Brie was screaming as Jack tried to withdraw and run away, a guilty look on his face.

Why can't I learn to not be so hard-headed? Although, the accidental mating wasn't my fault, I still feel like the most irresponsible person on the face of the planet. I came in so angry with Chris for his negligence, I could have spit nails; we ended up getting in one of the worst fights of our marriage about this situation.

Why can't I stay on track? How can it be that I have such good intentions for pursuing this dream, and I keep steering myself into these messes? I am so ashamed.

We were supposed to return Brie and Newt to the Caldwell's in Carp Lake this weekend, but now I don't know what we're going to do. And I'm afraid my reputation will be shot before runners even see snow this winter.

Maybe it's not the right time for me to pursue this dream, even though I've waited almost 10 years for it. I've been spinning my wheels: trying to find a way to keep my job; trying to find a way to "fix" this dog problem.

But like the dogs, things are simple. I need to stop complicating them. We'll either have a bunch of husky pups sometime around January 11, or I'll take Brie in for a spay.

As for the job, well, it's time to move on.

Monday, November 12, 2007

the original lazy huskies

Is there anything else to say?