Sunday, December 28, 2008


Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas: a photo diary

Waiting on Santa Dog

Karma is a little more eager

Elise throwing oats outside for the Reindeer

And we waited....and waited....and then what to my wandering eyes should appear...

"A Roboraptor!"

"A Polly Pocket Playhouse!"

Another trip up north! I leave for another stint in the U.P. and two distance races, the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Classic and, still to be determined, two legs of the Seney 300. These races alone will add up to over 100 miles of dog sledding. Stay tuned for pictures from the trail.

I would also like to say Happy Birthday to Foxy, our kennel namesake and retired leader. She turns 13 on December 28th. This is her baby picture, courtesy of Wayne and Scarlett Hall.

Foxy (in the very back) with her litter mates in Eagle, Alaska 13 years ago

Scarlett said it was one of the coldest storms they remember the night Foxy was born in Eagle, Alaska. At negative 50, the Halls worried about the pups. But they survived well, and Foxy is still going strong. Though fully retired now, she still runs along side the sled. We hope to have her with us for many years to come. Happy Birthday, Foxy!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Life in the Cold

It's cold. Really cold for this part of Ohio. This picture, taken at 10:30 p.m., is actually up a degree from what the temperature read at 9 p.m.: negative 10. I've not seen this particular thermometer read that temperature ever.

When it's this cold, everything becomes brittle, molecules slowing down, expanding, distributing weight. We, like all cold-resistant, warm-blooded creatures, shiver in the cold as a way of warming up - a form of conduction.

When it's this cold, things creak and snap. My boots make a "squeak, squeak" sound in the snow similar to tennis shoes on a gym floor. Waves of feather-light snow drift across the road. My truck groans when I put the key in, then rolls its eyes, shrugs and turns over as only a Toyota can.

When it's this cold, things stop working. Things move slower. Engines crack. I remember first learning what engine block heaters were in 1997 when I lived in the west behind the broad back of the Teton Range in Victor, Idaho.

This kind of cold brings a unique silence. Light becomes stark. Darkness a quiet cave.

In this kind of cold, nature protects itself by huddling - called aggregating in ecology. Bernd Heinrich describes the aggregation of garter snakes in Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival: "writhing masses of these snakes pack themselves like live spaghetti into specific crevices - ten thousand in a single depression of a few cubic feet - in the rocks of a barren region near Winnipeg. The snakes spending the winter at these spots avoid freezing and gain protection."

Tonight, we make like snakes and huddle together. Although huskies are fully equipped for arctic temperatures - their thick double-coats enable them to withstand temperatures below zero comfortably by placing the muzzle and nose between their rear legs, curling a tail over their face and sleeping - we bring all the dogs inside tonight. It's quite a scene here at the ranch. Dogs are sprawled.

There is a rule I've heard mushers use: the rule of 30s. It states that skin exposed at 30 below in 30 mile an hour winds for 30 seconds will freeze. The wind howls around the house tonight, blowing snow in small drifts. I'm not sure how fast it blows, but I'm sure thankful I'm inside.

A Winter Reading List
These are some of the titles I've enjoyed lately.

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival Bernd Heinrich
Life In The Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology Peter J. Marchand
Winter Count Barry Lopez
Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape Barry Lopez
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons In Greenland by one of my favorite authors, Gretel Ehrlich
The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold by Gretel Ehrlich
and of course...Novels and Stories by Jack London which includes "The Call of the Wild," "White Fang," "The Sea-Wolf", "Klondike and Other Stories" but does not include the classic "To Build a Fire."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody. "

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said these words, and last night, as I spent my daily two hours at the gym running, I thought a lot about perseverance.

One thing I've learned from dogs is how to dig down deep inside when you think you can't go on and pull out strength you didn't know you had in order to muddle through and make it.


I first learned about perseverance from conditioning for my own cross country training in high school. I relearned it again getting through eight years of school, completing not only a masters program, but a certification in composition studies and a thesis in creative writing while working full-time as a single mother.

I relearned it again a few weeks ago.

I wish I had pictures of the dogs slogging through knee-deep snow in a blizzard that day we did 23 miles. The wind blew so hard it pushed the snow sideways as it fell. Visibility was minimal. There were times I thought of stopping, resting, and there were times I thought "what the heck am I doing out here!?" But whenever I stopped pedaling and pushing the back of the sled for a rest, the dogs kept right on pulling, trudging on through the crazy snow and cold.

And when I turned a corner and dumped my sled on another run. The dogs kept pulling, dragging me 1/4 mile, face in the snow, breathless. I could have let go, chosen the easy road. But I had a death grip on the handle bar of that sled and I would not give up. Because letting go meant falling short of my ultimate goals to go the distance. Letting go meant failure.

About 30 minutes into my training every night, I want to stop. I hit a wall where I think my body can't give anymore. And then I remember the dogs. How they don't even think about giving up - they reach down inside of their wild souls and push harder when it gets tough. And then I reach down and push harder, go longer, faster.

I believe there is some divine greatness that we are all blessed with that helps us tap into strength in times of need, but some people never push themselves to tap into that greatness.

My dad, the Marine, is who I owe my work ethic to. He is a fighter. He is why I started this blog (see the very first posts).

He has been sick again this week, with oxygen levels of 58%; I didn't know someone could live with saturations lower than 72%. He's been on oxygen pretty much 24/7 except to go to the bathroom and eat. The doc wanted him admitted Monday but, of course, he refused.

This morning, he started to pass out twice. He was taken by EMS squad to the hospital this morning, still fighting.

At this point, it's looking like he has pretty advanced emphysema. There's not a heck of a lot that can be done. It's kinda like putting a bandaid on a bleeding artery, just biding time.

Dogs are an inspiration and a testament to what can be achieved with a little hard-headed determination and a refusal to give up. And my dad is also an inspiration to me.

Jack and my dad this past Thanksgiving

Monday, December 15, 2008

House dogs: a photo diary

This is my bed. On the left is Karma; on the right, the black blob not too visible is Gracie. They were both rescues. We stumbled on Karma five weeks after the death of my dearest friend and companion, Kahlua (below).

Kahlua, a Keeshond, loved snow.

Karma was emaciated, living in squalor in a bad part of town and near death from a massive worm infestation. She was only five weeks old, weaned too soon. We certainly didn't need another dog when we found Karma. But, considering the date of her birth was about the same date as when Kahlua died - November 18 - I felt we had to rescue this sweet little mutt of a cattle dog from the hood. Hence, her name.

She was so tiny when we got her, the girls could hold her in the palms of their hands. It took three months and so many stool samples and trips to the vet and panacur to finally rid her of her worms. I never saw so many worms! The vet said if we hadn't saved her, she would have died.

Then, at four and a half months, she contracted Parvo. More vet bills and worry over Karma.

She's a survivor. And now, she is spoiled. She sits behind me on my bed while I work every day. If I move, she follows me all over the house, wherever I go.

This is Gracie - her "mug shot" from our local pound. Cage # 32. Skinny little black thing who had obviously had a litter of pups shortly before being picked up on the streets.

I am in the masochistic habit of regularly perusing the local pound web site, mostly in search of huskies or other northern breeds that need rescued. But I could not stop thinking about this dog. She seemed to melt my heart with this sad face. So I went to see her one day on my lunch break.

She sat on my lap, timidly at first. I touched her paws, to see if she would react aggressively. She was totally gentle, just looked up at me, eyes bulging, showing the whites.

I left with her in my arms that day. She is a mutt, a black lab cocker spaniel mix we assume. We had her spayed within the week and the vet said her uterus was distended, a sure sign of recent birth.

Gracie has been a blessing - easily the best dog we own as far as pets go. She doesn't bark, is totally house trained and just lays around all day. She knows how to beg from her years on the street. She sleeps with me and follows me from room to room also, just like Karma.

And this is Karma and Gracie doing what they do best:

Karma sleeping curled up behind me on my bed

Karma checkin out the camera. She is afraid of everything!

Cuddling Gracie

Sleep. This is what Gracie does best

Sure, we didn't need more dogs. We have working dogs. But these two are always with me, always loving our family, and making our lives so much happier.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Sauna: a Modern Day Sweat Lodge

The sauna: one of the places I go to find peace

Everyone has sanctuaries - places they retreat to when they need to regroup, think (or cease thinking), places that are safe and quiet where answers or even just peace comes. For some, it might be a church or place of worship where they feel close to their creator; for others it might be within nature.

While I usually retreat to the woods for these quiet times of introspection, one place I frequent for peace is the sauna at my gym.

In fact, it has been one of my favorite places for over a decade now.

A sauna is a place where I feel like I can come to literally sweat out all the toxins in my life, ridding myself of negativity, angst, worry. After a nice run, some quiet time in the sauna, followed by a hot shower, seems to rinse some of the tension of life away.

My first introduction to "sweating it out" was from my friend, Dr. Larry Martin, professor of English and an Ojibway Native who now lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In 1997, Larry invited me to a traditional "sweat" ceremony.

"With the help of Medicine Men and Women, they could repair the damage done to their spirits, their minds and their bodies. The Sweat Lodge is a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing, a place to get answers and guidance by asking spiritual entities, totem helpers, the Creator and Mother Earth for the needed wisdom and power." Adapted from this site where you can learn more about the traditional sweat lodge ceremony.

It was a cold Sunday in late fall. A light snow was on the ground at his house when I arrived. The sweat lodge was in a field along side of some woods by his home. It was made of thin saplings and branches that formed a sort of rounded teepee, with tarps over them. Inside, a pit was dug in the earth. There was sage and cedar burning, the sweet smells of these healing plants.

Outside, a huge fire roared. Rocks were heated to a great temperature from this fire and taken inside the sweat lodge. Larry pulled back the East-facing door to the lodge and I stepped inside. It was hot - amazingly hot - and the pit was filled with the scorching rocks. Larry poured water over the rocks then, and a great steam filled the autumn air inside the lodge. He smoked his pipe, and we spent the afternoon inside, emerging every now and then for air, talking and telling traditional Ojibway creation stories.

Tonight, I sat for nearly a half hour in the sauna - the closest I can come to that sweat lodge. I had a lot of thoughts flying around in my head and needed peace. I thought of Larry, Nanabush, and the traditional things I had learned.

I emerged rejuvinated, grounded.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dogs: the Ultimate Buddha

I can't imagine not having my dogs in my life.

I usually have dogs around me. Right now as I type, three of them are on the bed behind me. I have camped with dogs, biked with dogs, hiked all over this country with dogs, driven with dogs, eaten with dogs, laughed with dogs, cried with dogs.

I'm sure my house smells a bit doggy. Sometimes I know I smell a bit doggy too. They've done damage to my house, my "things" and my family's "things" from the puppies we have reared: tiny mouths cutting teeth on my siding (yes, my siding!), chewing up my couch, gnawing on my shoes. And then there's Elise's Barbies we have lost, too many to count, like this one.

And, like Gary Paulsen says, dogs are rarely quiet:

"They live in sound, always in noise. Perhaps because it is so constant, the art of listening to them falls off, and so many things they say are not heard, are swallowed in the overall sound. ...They bark, whine, wheeze, growl, and -- wonderfully -- sing."

There is absolutely nothing that fills my heart with joy and contentment like waking in the night to hear my little pack singing.

But dogs always live in the moment. When they're hungry, they eat; when they have to pee, they do; when they are happy, they play; when they want to run, they do; when they want love, they find a friend to nuzzle against.

None of the damage to my "things" can make me hold a grudge over them. Because they are always in the moment. And they always love me with the purest form of love no human could ever match. Dogs are the ultimate Buddha.

I have seven dogs. I want more. I want a field of dogs: prancing, smiling, barking, howling, singing, wagging, wiggling, sleeping, growling, belly-rubbing always-happy-to-see-me dogs.

If I could, I would move away and live in a yurt in the middle of some forest somewhere with my family, both human and canine. We would live by the seasons and the ebb and flow of the moon and sun. We would make fires and live simply. And we would run, run, run. I would teach my kids how to live off the land via dogs. And the dogs would teach my kids how to live in the moment.

And maybe, just maybe, they'd teach me too. Because sometimes I'm not so good at this.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Punderson State Park

taking a curve in stride

The weather has been perfect for mushing. We received five inches of snow in the snow belt the night before last, so yesterday, I spent the afternoon on the runners with the dogs at Punderson State Park. Punderson is the only state park in Ohio (that I know of anyway) that has a designated "Musher Trail."

The trail leaves a bit to be desired, in my opinion. It's only 1.2 miles long! Which would be great if we were sprint racers. But we need miles. It's pretty and challenging with a curvy hill right down and a curvy hill right up; at the bottom of the hill is a lake, so you better make that turn at the bottom! But without the mileage, wasn't worth the hour long drive from my house

I'll stick to the pretty bridle trail at West Branch State Park. Not only is it closer, I can gain some miles there.

Happy trails!

Friday, December 5, 2008

It's the most BUSY time of year

This season is such a busy time of year for me, I am often criticized by my friends for dropping off the planet. So, over the last week, I've been so lucky to be able to hang out with some long time friends of mine who were in town over the Thanksgiving holiday. I've also been fortunate to see a lot of live music lately.

First, it was a get-together with my friends Kim and Mark Swickard from Kentucky. Kim and I have been best friends since I was 16 and she was 15. We were both zookeepers together and both worked together at Camp Y-Noah as teenagers. Now Kim and her husband Mark have several acres outside of St. Elizabethtown, Kentucky and eight Thoroughbred horses. Kim teaches 7th grade science - God bless her! She is also an aspiring musician with the Heartland Songwriters Association of Kentucky. Check her out here.

Kim and our high school partner in crime, Paul, at the Northside Cafe

Mark and our beautiful friend Rinda hanging out at the Northside Cafe

Then it was the long-awaited moment in Sophie's life: the opening of her first performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Weathervane Playhouse. Sophie is 9 years old and was hand-picked to be a part of this production. The performances sold out so fast, another showing was recently added. She is applying to Miller South School for Performing Arts this year and is an aspiring actress. We're so proud of her!

The very colorful cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Finally, last night at the famous Kent Stage I was honored to see Carrie Rodriguez perform. To hear some of her amazing music, click on her name.

Carrie Rodriguez at the Kent Stage

Finally, we didn't leave the dogs out of course who are all decked out in yule attire.

Yeti, the Reluctant Reindeer

Two elves and a reluctant reindeer

Happy Holidays from the Lazy Husky Ranch!

What a life! Foxy, our retired leader, who will be 13 this month, celebrating. "After running single lead in the Yukon Quest in 2002, this is the life!" said Foxy. "I even get to play with toys!"

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Late Greats: Follies Untold

In doing research for my latest article for Mushing, I have gotten a crash course in some of the foundations of mushing in the lower 48. I discovered this picture of Millie Turner while doing research on mushing in New Hampshire and the New England Sled Dog club. I've been reading about greats such as Arthur T. Walden and his dog Chinook who founded the backbone of the Chinook breed of sleddog at the turn of the century after returning from goldrush country in the Yukon.

Reading about the foundations of the Seppala Siberian, and great mushers like Dr. Roland Lombard, Dick Moulton, George Attla, and interviewing greats like Harris Dunlap of the Adirondacks - all of whom were at one time or another champions of the Open Class North American Sled Dog race in Fairbanks.

We start mushing because of the allure of the dogs: the sound of teams clamoring for the trail; the enthusiasm of huskies jumping three feet into the air, slamming into their harnesses; the fury and rush of runners on snow. But eventually, we begin to realize the connection this sport has to a great history teaming man and beast. History is important to mushing, and learning those big names, George Attla, Joe Redington, Leonard Seppala, starts becoming important.

Any one of those people started on the runners like anyone else. And though they may not have admitted it, or many might not know about the particular mishaps, I'm sure there were plenty of learning experiences and mishaps along their training. This is part of it.

I learned more from Don Bowers and Gary Paulsen's accounts of mishaps on the trail than I ever did hearing stories of great runs.

I hope that my honesty about my trials and mishaps in training do not appear as clumsy as they appear honest, realistic tales of what it's really like running dogs in this crazy sport. I offer these stories up humbly because it would certainly be easy to poke fun at me for my follies and adventures. And I hope somehow, they can help someone crazy enough to hook multiple dogs to a single sled in the snow learn, and also learn how humbling, tough, completely ungraceful and absolutely amazing this sport can be.