Tuesday, January 29, 2008

You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong? And you may ask yourself, My God, what have I done? -- David Byrne, Talking Heads

Same as it ever was....back to the daily drama that goes along with life with kids: fights over Playstation games and Barbies, lost hamsters, found hamsters, picking noses, driving to and from some form of extracurricular school involvement or daycare, spilled macaroni and cheese, ponytails and painted fingernails, groundings and loss of priveledges, gold stars, report cards and science projects about Mars.

Add to that the daily drama that goes along with living with a small pack of dogs: broth the dogs, feed the dogs, broth the dogs, scoop poop, supply fresh bedding, clip nails, wipe muddy paw prints off the freshly-mopped floor.

And daily life of Ohio in January: erratic weather patterns, traffic, gray days imbibing on coffee drinks. And daily life with another human being: complaints about money, about sex, about the T.V. remote.

Back to life. I'm back to feeling like I have a foot in two worlds. My heart longs to be in the tundra, hearing the dogs howling, but I am bound here. And I am homesick for there. My dogs began howling last night in unison around 9 p.m. and I went outside in the snow. I wanted to howl.
Saturday morning, a wet snow was falling, and I spontaneously walked out back by the fire pit and sat with the dogs, still in my pjs. They swarmed around me, nuzzling in for a pat like kids vying for my attention. Nothing makes me happier.
I return to the U.P. in two weeks for the U.P. 200. I can't wait!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Take one tablet by mouth daily

Tonight, I filled a script for Voltaren I received from my family doc for my shoulder injury.

As I opened up the packaging from Walgreens, the insert made me laugh. It listed safety tips for snow skiing. "The key," it reads, "is to control your equipment and your speed."

What if your "equipment" is a pack of six big-ass dogs who have suddenly lost all sense of the "Whoa!" command because they're giving chase to another team of dogs in front of them on a hard-packed trail?

After the drug and a glass of wine set in, I had a good laugh over this little publication that came with the little yellow pill.

Some other funny tips:

"Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment"

"The easiest way to get hurt is to try a trail or move that is too hard."

That trail was hard, alright!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Situations have ended sad, Relationships have all been bad...Bob Dylan

Force is dead

Dog fights, torn foot pads, a broken shoulder, withdrawing from races, and now, no Alaska.

This is what Force gets.

I left Frank Teasley's little musher's cabin in Wyoming in 1998, pregnant with Sophie, temporarily abandoning my dreams of running dogs but swearing I would find my way back to dogs. When I made up my mind in the last year and a half to get back into it, I became too impatient. And I have suffered the consequences.

Like Andrew Marvell, “at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near.” But fighting to race time is not graceful, and it’s proven that attempts to make much of time are worthless. Time indifferently marches on.

It's hard to be graceful sometimes. It's hard to see yourself as forceful. But I have been. And the universe has shown me what being forceful and impatient gets. By being forceful and impatient, I've set myself back.

Situations recently have turned bad. My eyes are open now. And now I have an opportunity to start over again.

I have learned an enormous amount, not only from job let-downs two years in a row, but about myself, men, trust, my marriage and my own weaknesses. I needed some time to put things into perspective, and now I’m ready to get up, dust myself off, and get back on the runners!

We're heading back to the U.P. in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Today is rainy and dark, and my mood is the same.

I take a ride up to Target with my little black dog, Gracie, beside me because she wants to go and she seems to suit the day. She is curled in a black mass, and looks up at me with her dark eyes, sullen.

Why am I here? Not just here, amist the strangers searching for contentment in stuff, but here? What do I want? Where am I going?

I stuff French bread in the dog box in the back of my truck, away from Gracie's tempted tongue, and walk out into the rain. A mother coos at an infant. I look at underwear. Retail creates need.

I forget why I am here.

I am here because I am aimless, lost in a rainy dark day, with hundreds of others, searching for meaning through merchandise.

I'm on a cleaning kick lately, probably in a search for meaning as well. I want to purify, cleanse: my house, body, life.

I browse, looking for a good Riesling to go with the shitake mushrooms. I buy stuff I don't need. Spend all your money, say the bright red and white colors. Slowly, the rain begins turning to huge, wet snowflakes.

After spending a little over seventy dollars, I return to my truck where Gracie is chewing mud out of her foot pad. She looks at me expectantly. I give her a dog biscuit.

Everything is wet. People race around, trying to escape, but I stand in it. It is beautiful, thought-provoking and tragic.

Gracie looks up at me, still curled up in a ball. She is not plagued with this weather-affect.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Foot in Two Worlds

A dog at the Sleddog Lodge who I nicknamed "The Skeptic"

Back home, I feel like I have a foot in two worlds: the one with the dogs, and the one with my family. I love both dearly. I feel guilty. The life of children and responsibility is hectic and leaves me frazzled; the dogs ground me.

I wander around the grocery, looking for artichoke hearts and winter. Is it here, in the frozen foods isle? It has rained for two days straight, and a southerly wind has made the temperature rise to 62 degrees. Where has winter gone? I turn the air conditioning on in my truck.

The talk everywhere seems to be "enjoy the weather." What's to enjoy? I look for winter like a forlorn lover. The sky is gray, the ground is drab, the trees are clawed, gray hands. I long to awaken to wagging tails and dogs howling and crystalline snowflakes lighting up, sending light in a thousand directions. The light penetrates me, touching my spirit. This gray zaps me.

I mention to few where I spent most of the "holidays." It feels like there’s no one who understands this love of mine now that I’m back home.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Word on Howling

In the world of wolves, howling has many purposes. It can be a way to keep the pack together, signaling the location of other members. It can signal boundaries from one pack to another, and can be a warning from an alpha male to another pack of his intent to guard his territory. It can be a lonesome howl of a lone wolf, or a jovial chorus of howls and barks, a gesture of unity throughout the pack.

The howling in a dog yard seems to have a lot of the same purposes. There is a welcoming howl first thing in the morning when mushers and care givers emerge to feed and spend time in the yard. There is a thank you howl, usually sometime after a feeding, or after chores are done for the day. When lights go out, many times all the dogs will howl, as if saying goodnight. There is a lonesome howl, where one dog begins howling long wailing notes strung out, mouth an “O” shape, neck elongated and head back. Invariably, a lonesome howl usually leads to a chorus of howling, a way to communicate the solidarity of the pack, to let the lonesome one know he is not alone.

Hearing the dogs in the yard howling always makes me smile. In this video, note the three dogs howling. Jughead, the white dog, starts it. Sunny and Libby both join in, as if to appease Jughead and reassure him of his pack. Jack, my Siberian, just barks like an idiot. He's young. :-)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Running At Night

Tonight, Tom and I watched Eight Below. It is literally about eight degrees outside. A storm blew in, dropping several more inches of snow.

I took a team of four dogs out alone late this afternoon, and before I knew it, it was dark and I still had about five miles to go back to camp. The snow was coming down, blinding me in the beam of my headlamp. When it got too dark to see, I turned the team around because I wasn’t sure which way to turn on the trail. They got tangled, and I tied them off to a tree, sorted everyone out, and headed back.

But if the white covered trees are disorienting in daytime, those same trees at night are impossible. I knew where I was, and that I was on the right track. But at a point, I had to rely on Jughead to take over.

“Let’s go home, Jughead,” I coaxed, and the dogs sped up their pace.

I meant that in more ways that one.

Yesterday, I called home and spoke to my mom. My dad wanted to know how much snow there was, what the temperature was, etc. But when my mom got on the phone, she welcomed me to the New Year with a tongue lashing.

“You need to come home! Don’t leave your kids here during Christmas break again, you hear me?!”

Luckily, my phone signal cut out.

But later, when I called home to check in, my three-year-old, Elise, got on the phone. She started crying, saying “mommy, are you coming home today?”

My love for dogs and this sport is strong – a passion unlike anything I’ve known. But my love and longing to be with my children is stronger.

A lone dog howls, sending the yard into the lonely night time serenade. I’ve made a tough decision. I am leaving camp tomorrow, heading for home. I will not race on Saturday.
So many things are telling me that now is not the year for me to race. Mandy’s paws, my (probably fractured, keeping me up at night) shoulder injury, losing my team and getting lost, not to mention about a half a dozen things I’ve not written about, including getting stuck in the snow with my truck the first night I arrived and getting a speeding ticket in downtown Newberry!

My little girl’s longing on the phone was the final straw.

I will likely cry when I pull out of camp tomorrow. Will I regret missing the race on Saturday?

There’s always next year. And February, when I will be back. And, there’s always Alaska, where I will drive with Tom for the March 1 Iditarod.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tahquamenon Falls Pictures: Winter's Absolute Beauty

Job Description of a Dog Handler

Some of the dogs at the Sleddog lodge

Scoop poop (diarrhea included)

Prepare dog diets (which includes handling raw venison, beef, tripe, salmon, turkey fat, or any combination of the above)

Administer medication: Sleddogs are given more multi-vitamins than many people get. They are also likely to have their feet massaged with medicated foot ointment, are given anti-diarrheal and fiber for good digestion, and antibiotics as needed.

Drop dogs: the term for letting one to two dozen dogs out, all at the same time, along long stretches of the highway to pee. This includes wrestling in freezing temperatures with large, often rusty contraptions called outriggers hooked to pick-up trucks where dogs are hooked up to cable lines like those used in aircraft.

Hook up: harness, booty, and hook up twelve dogs to the gangline for a musher and keep these dogs contained and in decent order before a race. A monumental task!

Other duties as needed: help repair sled equipment, cook for people (always an added bonus for a handler), help drive (often thousands of miles) to races, pick up dogs dropped along the race trail (dropped dogs are dogs who are injured or too sick to complete a race), support a musher however necessary.

A dog handler is a musher’s right hand man. Or woman. Some of the best handlers have been wives of mushers. Jan Shaw has many stories of handling for Bob, and now many years from dogsled racing, he says the dogs aren’t his, they’re Jan’s. Tom has many stories of his wife, Brenda driving long distances with a trailer full of dogs to be with him at a race. Without handlers, mushing wouldn’t be what it is.

It’s not just the dogs who provide teamwork. It’s a whole community: volunteers who organize the races, groom the trails, sort t-shirts and bib numbers for mushers. Handlers, wives, friends, organizations who donate space, time, equipment. It takes a village. And the community here is thriving, a strong community of mushers – often full of quirks and definitely full of funny stories – but a strong community nonetheless.

Close to the Earth

Becky, the sleddog

I spent the first day of 2008 with one of my favorite people: Jan Shaw.

Jan is straight-forward. If she needs help, she’ll ask for it; self-sufficient, and well-acclimated to a life that isn’t easy, if offered help she doesn’t need, she’ll come out and tell you this, too. She is quick to praise dogs and people, but without a change in tone, she’ll scold just as quickly. She is quiet, with quick, blue eyes and a generous spirit. Jan and Bob have been running dogs for about as long as I’ve been alive.

Jan leads me into the barn to look over three sleds and decide which one I should use on our run today. There is a wheelbarrow at the entrance of the barn full of caribou bones and a small basket of dead red squirrel. Behind three dogsleds is a fishing boat. Bob is originally a fisherman before musher. It is then that Jan says, “you know I’m going to scold you,” looking up at me with her blue eyes. She is referring to my losing the team after falling in the water pit the other day. “Are you ready for me to scold you?”

“Yes, go ahead, I deserve it,” I reply.

She explains the real dangers that go with losing a team, and it involves much more than the danger of being stranded in arctic temperatures. Dogs can go off the trail, getting tangled, stuck, breaking the sled or get hurt. Worse, they can get in dog fights and even be killed. What’s more, I didn’t know the trail system, and it was a very good thing it was 15 degrees instead of 15 below. And I was lucky snowmobilers were there to catch my team.

I hang my head in shame. I know all of this is true. Once she says her peace, however, we move on.

We hook up three teams: first, who Jan calls the oldtimers, Cedar, Rusty, and my two dogs. Jan leads me with the snow machine the whole time. In the final run, we hook up Becky and Zoe, two of my favorite dogs from the Shaw kennel. Becky is smaller in size, and prefers to be cozied up inside the house than outside. In fact, when I unhook her from her doghouse, she immediately runs to the backdoor, expecting to be let in rather than to run. I coax her to the line, but once hooked up, she runs with such a joyful, expressive gait, it makes me laugh out loud to watch her. She resembles a coyote, with long legs and delicate facial features. She smiles often, revealing her huge canine teeth. She bounds along the trail when she runs, smiling all the while, and it is a thrill to see her run.

Zoe, the sleddog

After each run, the dogs get a snack of venison scraps, thrown to them while they’re still on the line. Then, I help Jan feed. Her dogs are fed very well. Their broth is a concoction of venison and warm water, and they each get two cups of high performance kibble along with the broth. Additionally, they each receive a vitamin E supplement, a fiber supplement of psillium and flax seed, and a multi-vitamin. The old timers get an additional glucosamine supplement. The dogs wolf it all down graciously.

When we come in, Phil, his wife Lisa and their son Dale are inside. The house is warm and still full of Christmas d├ęcor. I sit by the register under a blanket, thankful for the heat.

Phil is tall and thin with blue eyes and shaggy salt & pepper hair. He has a thick northern accent, drawing out all “o” sounds, saying “out” like “oot.” He takes his hat on and off repeatedly, but as we sit down for a bear roast dinner, he takes it off altogether, reverence for his hosts. Bob slices through the bear meat on the platter in front of him. It glistens with fat and is reddish brown and rich in color. Must have been a late bear.

Over dinner, the talk is of a recent caribou hunting trip to Quebec. Phil talks of roasting caribou “on the hoof,” and of the many caribou they saw in the tundra.

After dinner, Helga, one of the older white dogs, comes in to lick the bear plate clean. Jan, Lisa and I do dishes while the men sit talking of the upcoming Tahquamenon race.

I think as I leave about what good people the Shaws are. Many of the people I’ve met in the U.P. encapsulate qualities I admire. They are hearty, wading through knee-deep snow to feed over twenty dogs or hunt caribou. They are strong survivors who live close to the earth, to animals and life cycles.

As I leave, the snow is still flying. It zooms toward my windshield, my headlights creating a hollow tunnel in the white darkness.

I wonder, as I drive, about what it feels like to shoot a bear or caribou.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

Jack, after our 20 mile run

resting on a run

Sign for Two Hearted River

Reading Gretel Ehrlich's This Cold Heaven by headlamp

It is New Year’s Eve. I sit alone in Tom’s cabin listening to the sound of the register, random dog howls and sipping coffee. I took the day off from running dogs today thinking suspiciously that it might break my cycle of losing my team. Instead of running, I went to town to do laundry. Tom left on a 35-40 mile run with a 12-dog team, and he was gone before I returned. Jim went to town too, and returned with a large pizza, saying we could celebrate New Year’s Eve, just he, Tom, and me. I even have a few beers outside in the snow waiting for me.

But I am lonely tonight, thinking of my family.

But here, friends become like family. When winters are long and cold, people come to depend on each other, watch out for each other. I miss that about Wyoming. Here, it is the same. Mushers up here are a tight group. They certainly have their quirks, but their doors and cupboards are always open.

Bob Shaw stopped by to pick up some equipment for the Tahquamenon Race, which is in five days, and when he saw me feeding, said, “I heard you lost your team again!” with a twinkle in his eye. Apparently one of the men who stopped my team on the snow machine lives near the Shaws, and, of course, news travels fast up here.

I’m still considering not running the race. And if I don’t run it, I’m okay with that. What I’ve gotten up here is much more meaningful than any race or trophy (not like I’d win one!).
What’s funny is how much I’ve learned up here that’s not about sled and dog driving. At home, I was hell-bent on racing. I learned years ago that a race gives me needed focus for training. I mistakenly thought that without that goal in mind, I would lose my focus. But the impetus to get on the sled and drive dogs is strong and natural. There is nothing like it on earth to me.

Like some Nick Adams in Hemingway’s Big Two Hearted River, I’ve left the war of the corporate world to ground myself in the U.P. Indeed, the Big Two Hearted River is only fourteen miles from the Warren’s lodge. The politics and stress of my former job seem ridiculous and a lifetime away now. None of that is important in the grand scheme of things. What matters is what’s remembered five years from now. By then, my time working at the hospital will be something I will roll my eyes about and brush off as a bad experience. But the last week here I will carry with me for a lifetime.

It is 10:39 p.m. Jim has gone to bed now, and I’m alone in the dark cabin. A lone dog begins howling, then most of the others join in. I walk outside. Snow crunches under my boots. The dogs continue their woeful serenade, making the night feel oh so lonely.

I think of all the people who are celebrating New Year’s Eve tonight as if there is something unique about this night. The chance to start anew happens every night with the start of a new day. I am lonely, but I needed this – time alone to reflect, to sort out the mottled, tiredness of living in our spotty, exhausting existence.

I came here to find the solace in simple work. We are so harried in our daily lives, rarely do we stop to take in the beauty of winter, of nature. Dogs have so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways of enjoying life. They can teach us much. They’re expressive, communicating strong signals to each other and to us. Nature is communicative as well. I came here to listen to that message, find respite, hard work, guidance, direction, reassurance.

I am at a turning point in my life, only, like yesterday on the sled, I’m not sure where the next turn will take me. But to me, that’s part of the fun. May this year be the gentlest of years, full of beauty in nature. Life is hard, but can also be forgiving, auspicious, and downright exquisite. May life continue to bring good things.