Sunday, February 28, 2010

Puppy update and 400th post!

The house is filled with what sounds like tiny horses galloping ta tump, ta tump, ta tump

Kerouac and Lucy have been coming inside more frequently now that all the other puppies are gone, and they are learning how to acclimate and socialize with the house dogs.

Kerouac and Lucy trying to understand our strange cattle dog rescue, Karma. "What is it?" Kerouac asks Lucy. "I don't know," says Lucy. "Let's attack it!"


They enjoy some of the luxuries of the house, like sleeping on warm people.

Yesterday evening, I loaded up six dogs, two sleds and three kids and headed out for the snowmobile trail to make the most of the rest of our fabulous snow. The days are beginning to warm up. It won't be long before everything melts and spring will be upon us.

Sophie took her friend Drew in her sled basket and I hooked up two dogs to her sled. Elise rode in my sled basket with four dogs, and we went for a fun run. Elise giggled as we bobbed up and down moguls made by snow machines on the trail. Gwennie seemed so happy to be back in harness and doing what she loves to do: run!

As we came back to the truck, the beam of my headlamp shined bright in the night. The trail, which had warmed in the sun during the day, now froze over, and my sled runners slid effortlessly over the bright white snow. "This is contentment," I thought. It's like nothing else on earth to me. I will be sad to see winter fade this year.

But, big changes are in the wind for the Lazy Husky Ranch soon.

And I'm already so pleased with the way my pups are turning out and looking so forward to harness breaking them in the fall.

Miss Lucy the Luck Dragon at 8 weeks and 2 days, turning into quite the little beauty


In other news, this is my 400th post on this blog. I started this blog nearly four years ago as an effort to communicate with family and friends about the goings-on in our hectic life. I never dreamed it would turn into something I am so committed to and look forward to so much. I have made so many very good friends from my blog. Like Cici Birnberg in Illinois, who mushes with her Golden Retrievers. Like Ginsberg's human mommy, Kathleen Kimball-Baker, who is always so positive in her outlook on life. Like Bolt's human mommy, Amanda Stanoszek, with her small kennel and chicken house in Hinkley, Ohio.

People come into and out of each other's lives at certain times for definite reasons, in my opinion. Every person who has come into my life has taught me something. I am so thankful for true friends - those who take me for who I am and accept me completely. Thank you, guys! And thanks for reading.

An homage to dogs: in fierce defense of a lifestyle

The team trekking along a frozen lake on the Jack Pine 30 trail last weekend

"Come, see my dogs.

They carry me
into all things, all things I will be;
all things that will come to me
will come to my dogs.

Come, see my dogs.

My dogs are what lead me,
they are what move me.
See my dogs in the steam,
in the steam of my life.

They are me."

Gary Paulsen - Dogsong

Occasionally, people question or test my loyalty to my dogs. This weekend, I have been tested.

I currently have eleven dogs. This is small compared to other kennels.

The person who comes closest to expressing in words my relationship to my dogs is musher and writer, Gary Paulsen. The passage above is at the end of Dogsong.

Love me, love my dogs

The dogs are not something I have part-time; they are not a fad, a hobby, or a passing phase. Keeping dogs is a lifestyle, and numerous sacrifices go into that lifestyle. There is never a "day off" from caring for my dogs. There are no vacations without the dogs, and Christmas morning finds me doing kennel chores same as any other day.

We are a team, always. I will spend money on my dogs before I will spend money on things for myself. My dogs eat better than I do, with fresh meat and high-octane kibble at every meal.

I am the dogs and the dogs are me. Our connection to each other is deeply rooted. They are an extension of my family. My dogs are not "pets," although they live a wonderful life. They are part of a team, and each has a role to play. I, too, have a role to play. I work for them, and they work for me.

The dogs connect me to the earth through the many trails we have ventured on together; they connect me to history, through the many people who have hunted, lived and moved via dogsled. Like Paulsen says, the dogs carry me to what is important, and conversely, away from what is not important in life.

I am grateful for my dogs.

I have learned from them as much about life and about myself as from anything. Sometimes we communicate best in an ancient language of quick short grunts, glares or tail wags; sometimes we have extended conversations.

My connection to my dogs is as intrinsic and important to me as the air I breathe. There will not come a time when I will not have dogs, work with dogs, laugh with dogs, live with dogs.

For a well-written editorial about Why Sled Dogs Run featured in the NY Times, click the link.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gwennie back in harness

Today, I ventured out with Gwennie in harness for the first time since she had her litter of eight puppies on January 2, 2010. Snow began falling two days ago, and hasn't stopped since. It was rough slogging as we broke trail up and down hills in a foot of snow, but Gwennie was amazing as always. If I even stopped for a tiny split second, she'd whine and pound into her harness. She is 100% on the line and such a joy to run. I sure have missed having her in the team.

During the slow run breaking trail, I had more time than usual to enjoy the scenery. A train chugged down its track, parallel to the trail and the sled creaked and the collars jingled.

I reflected on the dogs' work ethic. As tough as that trail was, they were undaunted, unfazed. I am always impressed with the work ethic of sled dogs. They do not complain or stop, they just keep slogging, stay focused, work harder. Yeti, especially, is as honest a dog as they come. No matter what, he puts his head down and pulls with everything he's got.

I thought about this sport and my relationship with my dogs. It's about self-reliance and solitude. Native people who traveled and hunted via dog teams could live in harsh climates for unlimited amounts of time, the dogs becoming best friends, confidantes, even shelter. I'm re-reading Gary Paulsen's Dogsong right now, and he paints such a vivid picture of how mushers and their dogs are connected - to each other and the earth.

No pictures on tonight's blog. Tomorrow will find me back on the runners with my little team, dreaming of a timeless period long ago. Mush on.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Foxy and Kerouac visit the library!

As I type, the snow falls steadily outside. This has been the most amazing winter here in NE Ohio. We have had more consistent snow than I remember in years.

Last night, as the snow began falling, Foxy, a seven-week-old Kerouac and I made a special visit to our local library. We had been asked to give a presentation about dogsledding.

Foxy was quite a social butterfly!

She walked up and down the isles visiting all the people who had come to see her. And there were many. The library staff reported over 200 people!

There were several special people in the audience. But one extra special person I hadn't seen for many, many years. My best friend from kindergarten, Jen - aka "Jenny" to me.

Jen and me at my presentation at the library

Jen and I haven't seen each other in person since I think the 3rd grade or so. But we have kept up with each other through Facebook. During my hospitalization last fall, Jen sent me the most beautiful and encouraging emails. A teacher as well, Jen even had her students praying for me while I struggled to gain strength.

Years may have spanned between us, but seeing her was like coming home, in a sense. Looking into her big blue eyes, memories of giggling at sleep overs in her tiny room came back to me, clear as yesterday.

So good seeing you Jenny.

Thank you to everyone who came to the library to learn about this fabulous sport and the amazing teamwork that exists between dogs and a musher! And especially, thank you to the Ellet Library for having Foxy, Kerouac and me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Red Lantern

Young dogs. Tangles. Lack of brake. Snowhook in hand. Chair lift. Everything that could have possibly been a factor in this red lantern was.

Ruffian, my yearling leader, with a worried look on her face. Photo by Dino Mandoli

My first clue was before I even left the starting chute when my drag mat broke in the parking lot before the race even started! It was half attached on one side, so I figured I'd go for it. My name was called to the chute, and we zoomed out of it, drag brake or no. The team looked awesome coming out of the chute, and I was very happy with the way Ruffian and Yeti, both young, fearlessly led the team over terrain they'd never seen before.

My team flying out of the starting chute at the Jack Pine 30

I stepped on the drag mat to slow them down a bit. Despite having several hundred miles of training on the dogs this season since September, they don't know how to pace themselves very well having run sprint races all this season. Soon after I stepped on the drag, it fell off completely! With almost the full 30 mile race to go, I braced myself. This would be an interesting ride.

Suddenly, the team decided to try to turn left on a short crossroad to a little shed! I yelled "straight ahead" over and over to tell Yeti to keep on the same trail, and I could see the wheels turning in his head, but he was determined to go down that short turn off! Eventually, after about four minutes, Yeti got it, but by the time we were back on the trail, my leaders were hopelessly tangled. They were still hot (wound up) so I was hesitant to stop them and hook down for fear they'd pop my snow hook and I'd be left in the dust. So I ran them a bit. In that time, my friend Jon who started behind me, caught up to me. I let him pass and he yelled back, "Your leaders are tangled!"

"No shit!" I yelled back.

He stopped his team so mine would (hopefully) stay behind him and I quickly hooked down and ran up to untangle my leaders. In a swoosh, we were off.

Only to encounter another tangle. I hooked down again. This time a musher from Lloyd Gilbertson's super fast kennel was coming up behind my team. I knew if she passed, my dogs would want to give chase. Translation: I better hurry up! Just as this musher started to pass me on the left, the dogs started to pound in their harnesses and popped the snowhook, which came flying toward me. I caught it, but it stuck into my right hand between my thumb and index finger. I caught the sled and jumped on the runners just as it came by. There was no time to think about the snowhook or my hand, which was bleeding. The dogs were off again.

During this stretch, where the trail turns away from a major highway and runs along a railroad track, I had an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful day! It was a little warm at right around 30 degrees, but sunny clear blue skies stretched on for miles. The run along the train tracks was beautiful. A train went by, but the dogs handled it fine. Things were uneventful for about 8 miles or so until we hit the "gravel pit" - a winding trail that goes through a gravel yard. There's a sharp 90 degree turn that drops abruptly down a sharp hill along this part of the trail, and apparently some mushers had several wipe outs here, because in addition to the huge drop off, there was a three foot ditch within the hill. My right runner fell into the ditch and I wiped out briefly, but quickly bounced back. The dogs were still going strong and I was happy so far despite a couple set backs. I thought we still had a good chance at placing with good time.

But as we climbed the steep hills behind "Marquette Mountain," the dogs started to tire.

Coming down one of the steep hills behind Marquette Mountain. Photo by Dino Mandoli

It was difficult to navigate the downhill slopes without a drag mat; I used my heel a lot and the bar brake so I wouldn't run over the wheel dogs. I stopped to give them a break a couple times and to encourage them a bit. But they were growing tired climbing those big hills, despite my running behind the sled.

And then, finally, we made it to the top of Marquette ski hill. This is my favorite part of the race trail on the Jack Pine. It's so cool to run along the ski hill with skiers whizzing past. The skiers and snowboarders always get a kick out of the dogs, and it's a lot of fun to come flying down that hill.

If it weren't for the chair lift overhead.

You ain't goin' no where! My team stopped dead at the bottom of Marquette ski hill because of the chair lift. Photo by Lina Blair

Several dogs in my team are young. Two, Big Brown and Ruffian, are yearlings who are only 20 months old; Yeti, my main leader, is only 28 months old. My main concern was giving my young dogs a good experience and helping encourage them to keep moving. They were quite nervous about the chair lift, however, and just stopped dead near the bottom of the hill. I decided to give them a break. What else could I do?

Several people came up to talk to me and encourage the dogs while we were stopped. One person, photographer and academic advisor from Northern Michigan University, Lina Blair, shot several funny photos of my team stopped at this point. Lina was instrumental in helping my team have the confidence to go under that chair lift. I owe her tons of thanks!

Once we got past the chair lift, I called the team up, and away we went. The break gave the team a chance to collect their energy for the final five miles.

Finally, we went under the bridge and turned the corner headed back for town. It was a rough 30 miles.

Grabbing for the hard-earned red lantern

The red lantern is a symbol of perseverance and teamwork. In the first serum run in 1925, the red lantern was kept lit until the last musher returned home safely. It was a beacon guiding wayward mushers home.

But it is so much more. The red lantern says you've met struggles and adversity on the trail and had the wherewithal to deal with it and still meet your goal. It's a symbol of teamwork.

I am so proud of my dogs. And I am thankful for the people who have stood behind me along the rocky road the last six months have been. There was a point in time, last September, I didn't think I'd even be back on the runners, much less racing. This little red lantern symbolizes triumph over so many struggles.

Monday, February 22, 2010

With love, from winter: come as you are

People rarely meet others with an ability to see or accept them exactly as they are. Whether we admit it or not, we inadvertently meet others with judgement or expectations about what they will or will not be. We may look up to others, or we may look down.

Part of the beauty of the U.P., and of the mushers I call friends, is I have never been met with anything but a "come as you are" acceptance. People are real. There is no pretense. This is part of the allure of the Upper Peninsula for me.

Growing up in a family who spent so much time on the water, I looked forward to every weekend on the boat, anticipated it. It seemed I could smell the water in my dreams. Some look forward to a long-awaited, exciting vacation to Disney World or an amusement park; nature was always my amusement park.

This season, and this race - the Jack Pine - meant so much to me this year. Working toward that goal, training my young fur kids, making sacrifices. Even fora 30 mile race, these things are present.

But getting together at races is more than just about racing. It's about seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and celebrating - sort of like a reunion.

Driving over 2,000 miles in four days is exhausting enough. But add to that running a 30 mile dogsled race, staying up chatting with friends, not eating well, sleep deprivation...and saying good bye to five of my beloved Gwennie puppies say I am exhausted is an understatement!

I'll start with the pups. One by one, I loaded them into a small crate in my truck, and Gwennie became increasingly distressed to see them loaded, one by one.

First we arrived at the home of sprint racer, Jane Schramm and her beautiful family.

Jane stands with her son and their two new pups, Annie and Two Star

Jane has been driving dogs a long time, and has a small kennel of thirteen dogs in Indian River, in northern lower Michigan. She also spends her days working in the Cheboygan County Humane Society, so she knows a lot about dogs. She helped me vaccinate all the pups with their first puppy shots, and left me the sweetest gift: a three page note from Annie and Two Star about how happy they will be as real racing sleddogs! Jane also sent me off with a sweet little treat: a five gallon bucket (mushers always need buckets!) chock full of goodies for the trail. What an amazingly generous gift!

Jane's son holds his new puppy, Two Star

Then it was off to Marquette to meet friends Tim and Angie Looney from Iowa, and Kathleen Kimball-Baker from Minnesota.

New sleddog mamas Kathleen Kimball-Baker (left) and Angie Looney (right) get acquainted with their new fur kids, Ginsberg and Maggie, respectively

I held my emotions in check while passing off Gwennie's babies to begin new adventures. Kathleen, however, got emotional on seeing Gins, who she calls her "dream come true."

Kathleen tears up while hugging Gins

On the way down from Marquette, in Manistique along the Lake Michigan shore, it all hit me. My puppies - who I watched take their first breath, eat their first bite of food - were gone. The weekend I had trained for and looked forward to, was over.

In a whirlwind, the weekend, the race, the reunion - it was all over before I knew it. Suddenly I was alone, exhausted, heading southbound on Route 2. The only thing to do was to stop along the way and shoot some photos. Hopefully they express the beauty and peace I see in this landscape.

Jumble ice along Lake Michigan, Manistique, Michigan

More jumble ice

Some are drained by the snow and cold. I leave the Upper Peninsula recharged, focused, and sad to return to Ohio every time.

Lighthouse along Lake Michigan, Manistique, Michigan

With love, from the U.P. winter

Many, many thanks to this guy, my friend Jon Mattsen, who is as real as they come and helped me get to the Jack Pine this season. Jon also won 7th place in the race! Congrats, Jon, and thanks for being there

The story of how I came to receive the red lantern in the Jack Pine, and the significance of the red lantern award, belongs in a post all its own...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tug Hill Challenge 17th out of 27 teams

I left the warmth of the whelping room to venture to my second race this last weekend, the Tug Hill Challenge in upstate New York.

My little team at the start of the 4-dog pro class

My friend Amanda joined me for the seven hour journey north. Upstate New York reminds me of the Victorian era. The clean, pillared Victorian homes and red barns line the winding roads through the state to Winona State Forest - the site of the Tug Hill Challenge.

At the race, we had time to wander around and visit with the dogs and new friends. Like Jenn and her 10 year old up-and-coming musher son, Shea.

Jenn and her son Shea, who I predict will be working on the glacier by the time he's 18!

We met them first at the Punderson Sled Dog Classic the second weekend in January. From Pennsylvania, Jenn and her son are traveling some of the same race circuits we are. New to mushing, but not to a life with animals, Jenn and her family have a small farm and are always a big help.

We also had the chance to make new friends, like Roy and his sweet leader, who reminded me of my Yeti.

Seeing the different types of dogs is always a treat, especially at sprint races, which Tug Hill is. Sprint races are like the drag races of the mushing world. They're quick, short, challenging courses of usually only one mile per dog; for example, my four dog team ran a 4.9 mile course. The idea is to let the dogs go as fast as they can and get to the finish in a blaze. Sprint races are dominated by the sleek, super fast hound crosses.

A hound cross

My dogs are traditional Alaskan huskies, which are typically used in mid-distance and distance racing.

A traditional looking Alaskan husky peeks out of the hole in her dog box

What I learned this weekend is I can't really hold a candle to the hound crosses that dominate the sprint racing scene. The winning team finished the 4.9 mile course in about 15 minutes.

I finished in 17th place out of 27 teams, which for an Alaskan husky team made of two yearlings is good. I am proud of my fur kids and proud of my middle of the pack standing! Our overall time for two heats of 4.9 miles was 53 minutes.

Look at the joy on my fur kids' faces as they rocket out of the starting chute!

This week is bitter sweet for me.

The puppies resting in their first home, the whelping crate. They can barely all fit in it now

Several of the pups will begin adventures in new mushing homes this coming weekend. Annie and Two Star will begin their new life at Avalanche Kennel, the home of Jane Schramm in Indian River, Michigan.

Bolt will begin her new life with Amanda and her little recreational mushing team.

Maggie will begin her new life in Iowa with Tim and Angie Looney, joining Alice and Nick on their recreational mushing team.

And Ginsberg, sweet boy, will begin his new life with Kathleen Kimball-Baker in Minnesota.

It is truly bittersweet. The puppies have discovered two beautiful things this last week: the wonders of snow, and what a joy it is to run full throttle through it!

Annie at six weeks running through the snow

They have begun going outside to go potty and have vigorous play sessions in the snow with their mom. Then they all waddle back inside the whelping room and bed down together for a long winter's nap.

Gwennie sharing a cozy winter nap with her puppies

I will miss them dearly. They have brought such joy to my life, and watching them grow has been awesome. But I know they are all going to wonderful homes where they will do what they were born to do: run.

Bolt at six weeks

Stay tuned as I head back on the road, this time to my final race of the season in beautiful Marquette, Michigan to the Jack Pine 30!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence"

For a long time, I sit with them in the snow. We watch the boughs grow heavy as the silence piles up around us.

There is no silence like a steady snowfall.

I watch the dogs celebrate, prancing through powder, snow collecting on their backs. They shake it off, unfazed.

Jack comes to me, his one eye a blue glint in the white. He shifts his weight, stretching into a downward dog before rising and sniffing at the snow beneath his feet.

Yeti prances over, staring at me, his big brown eyes intense, inquisitive. So much going on inside that head.

Soon Ruffian follows.

And Big Brown.

Slowly, they present themselves to me. Big Brown touches a cold nose to my cold nose. She smells like cold, like wet earth. She nuzzles me.

The dogs defrag me when I am fragmented, keep me sane. After spending the entire day with rowdy, hormonal 6th and 7th graders, this snow and the dogs - and the tranquil silence that accompanies them - is a welcome relief.

For years, I had Max Ehrmann's Desiderata above my desk when I worked in hospitals. Of all the noisy, hasty places, a hospital has to be, by far, one of the more urgent.

But I found myself going back to the opening line of this great piece today, as I walked the boisterous and explicitly loud halls of an urban middle school.

"Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"A Baby is God's opinion that the world should go on." Carl Sandburg

It's so hard to believe: the puppies are now five weeks old. Before you know it, they'll be pulling sleds like their beautiful father Yeti...

Papa Yeti stopped along the trail yesterday

In just two short weeks, some will leave the safety and warmth of their mother and the whelping room and begin new adventures. Elise, my five year old, explained to Bolt tonight,

"You will go live with Amanda, and you will love it! She has lots of space for you to run around, and chickens and wolves for you to play with!"

Elise and Bolt

My good friend and fellow musher, Amanda, will take our beloved Bolt to join her pack. Amanda and I have become quite close ever since the Punderson race a month or so ago where she officially went from "recreational" musher to "racing" musher.

Amanda and me at the Punderson Sled Dog Classic

Amanda and her little team at the starting chute at the recent Punderson Sled Dog Classic

Amanda has three recreational sled dogs who are all rescues from area animal shelters just days away from euthanization.

Sled dogs Willow (left) and Bandit (right) were just hours away from euthanization before Amanda rescued them from animal shelters

In addition to lots of space, Amanda has some fun critters on her property. Some funky-looking free range chickens provide yummy eggs.

Amanda's funky chickens

And she also has a wolfdog, Jasper, who is 50% wolf. He was also pulled from a shelter.

Wolfdog Jasper gets some lovin' from Amanda

Unlike many wolfdogs, Jasper loves attention and seeks it out, even from children.

Elise is the first child Jasper has met, and they adored each other

Big ones or little ones, Jasper doesn't mind:

Sophie and Elise get love from Jasper

I am so happy Bolt will go to such a loving home with lots of space and friends. Stay tuned for the stories of some of the puppies who will travel to their new homes, including Maggie, who will go to the home of Iowa friend and musher Tim Looney, who definitely lives up to his name!

Miss Maggie at 4 1/2 weeks, who will go to the Looney bin!

I have a busy next few weeks at the season culminates with two long-awaited races: the Tug Hill Challenge in Lorraine, New York on the banks of Lake Ontario and totally the other direction, the Jack Pine 30 in Marquette, Michigan on the banks of Lake Superior. Then, finally, the season's presentations kick off with our first presentation at the Ellet Library!

Posts could get spotty over the next few weeks as I'm on the road, but STAY TUNED and HAPPY TRAILS!