Saturday, September 27, 2008

Definitely Dog: A Tribute to Working Dogs


Photo provided by Jason Cameron, Kachemak Kennels, in Homer, Alaska http://kachemaksleddogkennel.com.

In preparing a big feature for Mushing magazine, I have plunged into the long and rich history of dog sledding. In college, I minored in history. Perhaps this is one thing that draws me to dog sledding. The timeless and important bond dogs have historically played in the survival of humans and the betterment of not only our country but many other countries even today prompted me to sit down and write a testatment to the amazing spirit of these incredible canine companions.

Research has documented the therapeutic role dogs play in our lives. They lower our blood pressure, ease depression and even our sensation responses to pain. Dogs are used in hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers to brighten patients' days and improve healing outcomes and overall mood.

Documentation and archeological evidence puts dogs and humans in a complimentary partnership as long as 4,000 years ago. Much like horses, working dogs helped carry supplies to build towns, helped us deliver medical supplies to take care of sick and injured soldiers during World War II, helped provide food to trappers and hunters and delivered mail in places like Idaho, Wyoming and the intermountain west all the way into the 1950s and 60s.

But what's more, they are our friends, companions, and protectors.

Working with dogs, for me, is a reminder of how important they are not only in my life, but in the shaping of this country and others. Inuit people in Greenland travel by dogsled often, even today. When I hook up a dog team, I become a part of history, connected with a simpler, slower time. To hear their howls and barks of excitement, see them leaping and pulling at the lines to go -- I am connected to an enduring spirit, a stoic survivalist that is one with the Earth and at peace in a silence without engines humming.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Walking Trails at Dusk



Brown like the pebbles beneath him, the frog's eyes perch on the surface of the water. He hops, swimming to safety, bringing me back to the present. My mind had been elsewhere, sifting through the drudgery of the day. Foxy steps a giant Alaskan furry foot into the water, takes a drink, then stops to listen to Canada geese passing overhead. The sky is smeared orange; a hawk calls. The geese who remain squabble.

Dark silhouettes of trees stand against the pale sky as night falls. They leave speckled impressions on my eye lids. I close my eyes to see the colors transposed - now white trees reaching up to a black sky. Buildings mimic trees. We're all down here reaching up to Heaven.

Foxy walks slowly, sniffing along the trail for interesting scents and limping slightly. She is old and has run many miles in Alaska. Still, she loves to take her time while we walk trails at dusk. Her 13th birthday comes this winter. It's a good retirement life for her, and she deserves it.

We emerge from the woods, both standing on the hilltop overlooking the field. We stand together in silence. The wind blows & cicadas chatter. I duck into the trees to relieve myself. Foxy walks over to me, tail wagging, and when I'm done, pees over my spot. I ruffle her big, furry head.

"Don't pee on my pee! I'm alpha, Foxy!" I tease her.

I think about dogs and how I dread the inevitable day when I have to say good bye to Foxy. She is one-of-a-kind.

Love is letting go. Sometimes I think I've let go too much. I feel anchorless.

There isn't a soul around. The black figure of what I first think is a raccoon hobbles across the trail and up a tree. I look up as we pass, however, to see the face of a smoky gray cat staring down at me. I wonder how many pairs of eyes see us that we do not see.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Neko Case at Beachland Ballroom last night

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"I am nothing! I see all" Emerson

Last week, while I was in Michigan enduring torrents of rain, there was a wind storm here. Apparently 60 mile-an-hour wind gusts killed power for much of the state. Tonight, while hiking with two of the dogs, I saw evidence of that wind.

Whole trees knocked over, like bowling pins, from the force of air. Spirals of roots twisting around rocks and earth, upturned in a harrowing show of force while the rest of the forest lie patient and undisturbed.

Wind, a convection current made up of simple particles of air and gases, changes and shapes the earth, stirs the ocean and uproots trees, houses, cars, buildings - like a Dorothy in some weird earthly drama.

Cold air, like a child vying for the limelight, anxiously awaits the moment when warm air rises and converges with the clouds. Then, the cool air steps in.

The cool air cannot step in fast enough tonight. I had hoped to hook the dogs up with the rig for a training run, but the air around this place is currently heavy and warm. Jan wrote to say she hooked up for the first training run this season, temperatures this morning at 38 degrees in the U.P.

So, tonight, we trekked to the park, watching the sun set in its lavish display of sexy colors, red and orange, seductive. Mandy and Foxy stop at a small stream for water, and a big frog startles, its long legs jumping in the frenzy of escape. It watches us, then, from a drain pipe, big eyes still and fixed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Delicate

Sometimes in the right light, when I'm quiet enough with my paddle, I can see them down there below me. They hover effortlessly, dark and quiet, their fins moving delicately.

Tiny insects skim the surface of the water paddling furiously, leaving the faintest of ripples.

A spider spins a web on a branch hanging over the still water.

There is no one - not another human soul - on the lake tonight. It is then I see the heron.



Long-legged, woeful, she stands alone on an extended branch eyeing me with one gold, tiny-pupiled eye. We sit in silence for a long time, watching each other, sizing each other up. She is patient with me as I snap pictures of her. She must be heavy - she is a big bird. But she looks as weightless and graceful as wind.

The lake is low and green, algae rising from summer's last horrah. It is delicate here, this world, and even the slow ripple of my paddle starts a reaction.

The sun sets. Steam rises from the water. I am reset, like a clock in spring.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More Pictures from Lance Mackey Weekend


Lance Mackey sits in the main tent listening to questions and telling stories from the trail


Mushers love to eat!

An intimate afternoon talking dog


Fielding questions

Everything is damp. My hair, my clothes, even the paper from the map I used to get here. People stand around talking about the weather.

“I thought we were done, but I heard it’s supposed to be in the 70s this week,” says Sherry.

Joann and Larry Fortier and I stand in the main tent in baseball hats, talking about poop like first basemen talking about catching flyballs. It’s all part of the game. Crickets call long songs from the fern and lichten surrounding.

There’s no drying out. The wind stirs and I am thankful, hopeful, for the chance at possibly drying out, but the air is too saturated. There’s nowhere left for it to go. Coyotes yip and bark in the distance.

I spend some time talking with Lance about the quality of the protein/fat ratio of dog food, foot ointment, essential fatty acids and glucosamine. It's a bit disorienting when I catch myself in moments looking at his blue eyes and saying to myself, "that's Lance Mackey." But he is so real and tangible, so easy to talk to and open, the feelings of awe soon slip away. He is just like us, at home sitting in a tent in the rain eating hot dogs and talking dogs. We talk dogs like mechanics talk shop.

Later on, he talks more about surviving throat cancer and all he's accomplished since that diagnosis. He says, "I wouldn't be disappointed at all if it all ended today," speaking like a man with a deep sense of satisfaction about his life's vocation.

Mackey won the 2008 Yukon Quest Veterinarian's Choice Award last year. He said he would rather come in "dead last" and win the Humanitarian Award. "That means more to me to have my team look good. Every dog that makes it to the finish line deserves to be on the front page of the paper, in my opinion."

When I am here with all of these good people, I am home. I am myself and honored and respected for exactly who I am, how I am. I feel so honored to be here, and blessed to be doing exactly what I love to do: talking dogs, writing and living the dream.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lance Mackey Gets Personal with Michigan Mushers, Talks About Life, Moose Hunting and God


Me and Lance

9/13/08
Last Chance Kennel in Mancelona, Michigan

Steady rain couldn’t put a damper on festivities to welcome Lance Mackey, two-time Iditarod and Quest champion in northern Michigan. About 50 mushers from the Great Lakes region listened to Lance’s stories from the trail and beyond, gleaning as much as possible from Mackey - and the insights weren’t just about kennel management and dogs. Mackey discussed how surviving cancer changed his outlooks on life and his relationships with his family and his dogs. He spoke candidly about his struggles with regularly being “poked and prodded” during annual cancer checks, and his wife, Tonya, talked about helping him prepare for races with feeding tubes, speaking about regular doctor visits.

Mackey said when he went in for surgery, his physicians told him to say goodbye to his family. He was motivated to persevere, however, because “I’ve got dogs who want to eat and a family who wants to see me.”

He spoke of his love of his dogs and of life in Alaska. Mackey’s wife, Tonya, heckled from the circle of people listening about his failure to successfully shoot a moose so far during moose hunting season. He replied, “I don’t have time to hunt. I’ve got dogs to train!”

Mackey has a full agenda this fall, with a trip to New York City planned in October for interviews with David Letterman and the Today Show.

Still, talking with Mackey around a fireside, it’s hard not to see the humility and grace of a man who has accomplished so much, and yet, is so down to Earth and has such a reverence for life.

“We are in God’s cathedral right now,” he says, pointing out to the farm and rain falling steadily.

Last Chance Kennel is owned and operated by Russ and Sherry Sutherby. They run a sleddog touring company in Mancelona, Michigan and hosted the event, attended by mushers from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The event’s co-speaker was Tim Riley, Wildlife Biologist and 2009 Iditarod Rookie. For information about Last Chance Kennel, contact the Sutherby’s at 231-881-2688

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing for Mushing Magazine

The Lazy Huskies are super proud to announce a year-long contract to write for Mushing magazine!

And we're also happy about leaving for Michigan this weekend to meet Lance Mackey, 2 time Idita-quest veteran.

Stay tuned for pictures and updates from the road!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

First successful training run!



This picture is not the greatest; it was taken with my phone at dusk while being pulled by two crazy boys. But...you get the idea.

Yeti had his first successful training run of about 5 miles tonight. It's wonderfully cool here, and we took advantage of it. There was no slack in his line at all. We saw a deer on the trail, though: that was fun...NOT!

I'm so stoked for this winter!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In defense of dog mushing


Jughead (left) and Whiskey (right) in lead at the start of the '07 Iditarod with Tom Roig's team. Photo by Brenda Roig

I received a question, via e-mail, today that people who don't understand mushing often ask.

This person writes, "I’m a local PETA spokesperson and I know they are against all animal sports but from the little that I know Huskies love mushing. But, how many dogs have died for human sport? It seems that one is more than enough. Do u ever run across people who abuse their dogs and push them too far? I would have a big problem with that."

Of course I defend the sport of dog racing; I'm a musher. But I can tell you, any kennel I work with treats their dogs better than many people treat their children in this country.

Sleddogs get more vitamin supplements and eat better than I do! What's more: their feet are massaged and covered with salve and booties during winter to protect them; mushers typically read the labels of dog food for purity of ingredients more than their own food and supplement with fresh meat like bison, venison, chicken, or beef for extra protein and fat calories during racing season; and the dogs don special coats to keep them warm when they have shorter hair.

Dog mushing originated in Greenland as a method of transportation and is still utilized as such in many parts of the arctic world. Like any sport, one occasionally runs across a few "bad seeds."

But those mushers are not well-regarded in any reputable mushing circle. And mushing circles are tight. Word travels fast if you're treatin' your doggies like poop, and it's highly frowned upon.

So much so that a musher is immediately disqualified from ANY race if they're found to harm a dog in any way, period. Dogs are checked from head to toe at vet checks before any race and at checkpoints along the way, and any dog not deemed healthy enough to race does not receive clearance from the vet to race. There are very strict guidelines about treatment of dogs in mushing. For an example, check out www.up200.org by clicking on the link to the left.

As you can see, I get a little fired up about this topic. While I consider myself an animal rights activist, I find PETA quite fanatical and their leader quite crazed in her methods of obtaining attention. PETA and groups like that who try to give mushing a bad name have no idea what the sport is all about.

Last year, there was a dog who died during Iditarod. It does happen. But it is rare; and when it happens, it is investigated with a full autopsy. These dogs are athletes -- their pedigrees and training programs, impeccable. They are, quite literally, born to run and nothing makes them happier.

To answer your question: I implore you to do some research and visit some sleddog kennels/races yourself. And no, I've never worked with anyone who did anything but hold their dogs in the absolute highest of regard. Nor would I.