Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sometimes we run at night...

"Sometimes we run at night.
In the full moon when it is blue and
white on the snow at the same time,
so bright and clean and open
you could read in the dark
we harness the dogs and run at night."
~ Gary Paulsen from "Dogteam"

Sometimes, running at night is necessary in this crazy sport for a variety of reasons, usually dictated by temperatures and schedules. So, like nocturnal creatures, we acclimate ourselves to operating in the dark.

If I'm being honest, sometimes I cheat. I have about 8 different headlamps of various lumens and intensities for a variety of jobs in the dark.

I have often wanted to capture our night runs this fall, but usually am too busy focusing on the dogs to juggle a camera. But I had the opportunity to go with my good friend, David Gill, and his 14 dogs on a night run while up in the U.P. last weekend. And I had an opportunity to capture mushing in this special time, when there is nothing but quiet and darkness.

Not only was I able to capture this special time of mushing through my camera lens, David, who is also a musician, has captured it in a collection of original music on a CD entitled, "Moonlight on the Snow."

Some of David's team silhouetted in the light of the four-wheeler

Something extra special and unexpected came through these photos during this run with David: an illustration of the supremely close-knit bond between a musher and their dogs.

David goes down the line, giving each dog a pat on its big furry head during a rest on a training run

He explains to me how some dogs "require" a hug before putting their harness on. Several of the 14 dogs were raised from puppies. The bond he has with these dogs - all of whom are some of the largest sled dogs I've ever seen - is clearly strong.

David patting each furry head during a rest

David knows a thing or two about running dogs at night as well. He has raced the challenging Midnight Run several times since his first attempt in 2006. And he was so inspired by these nighttime runs, he wrote a series of songs about mushing in the dark. In my opinion, "Moonlight on the Snow," simply must be listened to in its entirety.

The songs traverse through a winter adventure, starting with a ride on the runners and cymbals mimicking the twinkling sound of dog tags running to an explanation of why mushers are driven to "brave the darkness and the cold and the pain..."

David takes listeners through some of the great moments of dog sledding, to some of the not so great mishaps that go with this crazy sport.

Like being dragged head first toward a logging truck.

Or having leaders run right up to the front door of an unsuspecting neighbor whose poodle was in heat.

Anyone who has been in this sport for awhile has stories like these, and David's music will certainly appeal to those of us who will laugh knowingly at these horror stories, remembering some of our own.

But his music is also accessible to anyone - even those who have never ridden the runners. The folksy guitar rhythms, vocal harmonies and lyrics are exquisite and catchy. I find myself humming some of David's songs while running my own team.

If you would like more information about David and his huskies and music about them, please go to his web site.

David has been a great friend to me and is someone I have many things in common with. Thanks, David, for allowing me to capture some of the magic that goes on during these nighttime runs, and for taking the time to share some of your mushing experiences through music.

Mush love!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fall, friends, and fires: Shaw's Rig Session 2010

Dawn is barely breaking when I hear the quick, light steps of Jan Shaw making coffee. The warm, small home of the Shaws is soon filled with the inviting aroma of homemade bread and coffee. The sound of a gentle, steady falling rain makes me want to stay in the safe cocoon of my sleeping bag, but I know better.

There are dogs who need miles.

My team ready to go on a training run this past weekend

It is here, in the Upper Peninsula, that my love of mushing really gained a foothold - here in this stark wilderness. Here in the rain, snow, and ice storms. Here in negative temperatures. Here, in this unforgiving landscape.

Taking a break along one of the gorgeous trails outside the Shaw kennel in the Upper Peninsula

The dogs did great this weekend! It was a first rabies clinic and camp out for yearlings Kerouac and Aspen.

Ten month old, Kerouac, holds the line tight while resting along a ten mile run

New kennel member Tak (far) and two-year old Big Brown (closest) stand ready during a run

My young leader, Ruffian, being silly while resting along the trail

I am fortunate to have the best trail helpers ever on my training runs: Emily Curtice and my own daughter, Sophie.

Emily Curtice (left) and Sophie stopped along the trail. They bonded this past weekend over dogs and dirt :)

As I come in from my run, Bob Shaw asks the perfunctory, "how'd they do?" in his gruff Yooper accent, long O's made even longer.

It's a common courtesy to ask this question, and we all hope for clean, uneventful training runs.

"Good," I answer. "I didn't get lost," I say with a wink.

I will miss these people when I leave. I always do.

As all the teams begin to pack up on Sunday, the rain begins to fall steadily. With good company, standing in the rain with hundreds of dogs on Saturday was lulling and jovial. But as we leave, the rain takes on a different tone and makes me cry. Weather is only a reflection of ones heart.

Soon the wind comes to strip the trees of what remains of their colorful clothes. The leaves fall in a haphazard flutter scattering sullenly behind my truck as I make my way along Lake Michigan on Route 2. A hawk soars effortlessly on the winds, and the waves make a raucous on the shoreline.

Now that I'm home, it's happening. It always happens.

With a good night's sleep and the 10 hour drive behind me, the flood gates have opened and I cannot write enough. I am a ball of emotion and it's all flooding out of me in words.

How is it the U.P. always has this effect on me? Wyoming was the same. I wrote almost my entire master's thesis while living in a tiny, one-room cabin with no running water in Teton National Forest with 180 sled dogs. That was over ten years ago. It's like the dogs, the lifestyle, opens up a faucet in my heart and so much pours out of me. It's like being home - not only in the landscape and with the people, but also, home - finally - in myself. Comfortable in my own skin.

When I leave, I always, always cry, because I know where my heart is. And I leave a little piece of it in the woods every time I leave the U.P.

Apparently I have passed this trait down to my off spring: I came home to two notes taped to the back door, both from Elise. One was for me, and the other, for Sophie.

They were love notes, written in her first-grader's scrawl, expressing how much she missed us and loved us. Sophie came back out to the kennels at 2:30 a.m. as I was finishing putting the dogs away last night to tell me how happy the notes made her - that she smiled the whole time she was in the house.

Then, this morning, I found a poem written in Chris's scrawl, but which had been dictated, he told me, from Elise while he gave her a bath.


Our dogs are big and strong,
They pull the sled
All day long,
And after they run
At night they rest
Our sled dog huskies
are the best.

They bark, bark, bark
And mush, mush, mush
Yeti's the leader
of the pack.
The other huskies
run in the back.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Packed and headed to the great north woods

M 123, a road that literally leads to Paradise: Paradise, Michigan that is

This coming weekend marks the kick off to another season. It is a weekend typically low on sleep but big on hope for the upcoming winter. Friends and hundreds of dogs converge in the woods not far from Hemingway's Big Two Hearted River, just outside of the tiny town of Newberry, Michigan and the home of Bob and Jan Shaw and Arctic Wind Sled Dog Kennel.

If you are not familiar with the U.P. - Michigan's Upper Peninsula - it is the farthest northern point of the mid-west you can drive to without falling into Lake Superior and then Canada. It is where I spend much of my time in the fall and winter - where I train and race, an absolutely gorgeous place of stark beauty, where wolves roam and bears grimace.

A Shaw dog sits regally at his house last fall

The season is in full swing already. But somehow this annual party is a cornerstone and official marker for the season for mushers in the mid-west. It is a bittersweet weekend of seeing people I consider an extended family long enough to laugh, catch up, talk dog, and say good bye returning to "real life." That is, until we see each other again when the snow flies.

My young leader, Ruffian, as a yearling at last year's annual rig session

I should be sleeping, but I'm still up packing in the wee hours, too excited to sleep like a kid at Christmas eve awaiting Santa's arrival. The dog box is securely attached to the Toyota, and all the dog supplies are loaded.

Stay tuned for scenes from this year's annual Shaw Rig Session and Rabies Clinic! Mush love!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Birthday, Kennel Open House, and the Green Goblin

We moved into our new Ranch and this very small community in late June. Across from the new Ranch is over 100 acres of soybeans; across from us on the other side, cattle "Moo" in the distance.

Largely agricultural, I worried how our 13 dog kennel would be received by the surrounding farmers and cattle rancher.

So, I decided to have a kennel open house. This would give our neighbors a chance to check us out ("what is up with that? why do they need so many dogs?") and would also serve as an opportunity to meet some of our neighbors.

Enter here for kennel updates!

Last Saturday, we opened the kennels up for visitors. Several people came out in support of the open house, including our families and friends. We also connected with some locals, including one local reporter, Heather Braddock, who writes for the The Telegraph, a very small paper in nearby Newton Falls, Ohio.

Visitors meet with Jack and Lucy at the open house

Heather was intrigued. She came to the kennels, tape recorder and camera in hand, and started asking questions. She asked, finally, if she could go on a training run with me and the dogs.

Luckily, the open house was also a day after my birthday, and a day after I received the best birthday gift ever: the Green Goblin!

The Green Goblin: a 2000 Yamaha Bear Tracker ATV. Little rough around the edges, but PERFECT for training the dogs!

So, Sunday evening, I spent over an hour with Heather, who accompanied me on a seven-mile training run.

Her story is due out Thursday, October 21. I'll keep ya posted! ;)

In other news, the puppies are now 10 months old, and have definitely discovered the joys of using their canine teeth!

Kerouac guards a portion of deer from his sister, Lucy

Kerouac made off with this portion of deer spine at our party and would notsurrender it!

It was a great weekend of talkin' dog under a beautiful moon.

Stay tuned for Wednesday, October 20, I head up north for the annual Shaw Rig Session at the home of Bob and Jan Shaw and Arctic Wind Sled Dog Kennel!

Mush love!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall in the sticks

I live in a town with one stoplight and one restaurant: a Dairy Queen that, until two months ago, had a Port-o-potty as its only bathroom.

I live in a town that, if you were driving on the interstate, has only one thing to offer a road-weary traveler: keep going, at the sole gas station.

I live in one of the few places in northeast Ohio without a reliable cell signal, where livestock outnumber humans 2:1. Farm equipment stands in fields, aging and rusty, like the stiff bones of some old dinosaur.

Sandwiched between three state parks is this little piece of paradise I now call home. Life at home circulates around the seasons and animals. Fall means stacking the wood pile and stocking up on meat...for the dogs.

Even though they're only nine months old, the puppies know what they smell!

Kerouac says, "Is that meat you have for me?"

I was super fortunate to find a gentleman about three miles from the Ranch who processes deer meat for hunters. I bought his old meat scale from a tiny mom-and-pop thrift store the next town over, and when I asked where they got it, they told me he brought it in. I left my kennel card at the thrift shop, and he eventually called me. He gave me an entire 50 gallon black trash bag full of deer meat this past weekend!

And this was after my good friend, Amanda and I had already gone on a road trip for dog-quality raw meat in Youngstown!

In the end, I filled a freezer and a half full of turkey, beef chunks, tripe and venison for the dogs. And there was a small dog party at the Ranch!

Lucy invaded the bag of venison. She said, "Leave the venison to me!"

One of our newest kennel residents, Tak, smelled the meat!

Tak says, "where's the beef?!"

We're having a kennel open house this coming Saturday, October 16, 2010. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The "Backyard Iditarod" comes to the Tallmadge Branch Library

Foxy and I had our first dog sledding presentation of the season today at the Tallmadge Library! It was a great way to kick off fall, and the weather followed suit with a chilly rain.

Fourteen-year-old Foxy really enjoys our outings. It gives her a job to do, and she adores all the attention from the kids in the audience.

Foxy feelin' the love from the audience at the library talk today

Recently, Foxy gave us quite a scare.

I came home from work one day a couple weeks ago to find Foxy stumbling. She fell four times heading for the back door; I had to carry her in all of her 65 pounds outside to use the bathroom. Her head was tilted, and her eyes were doing a quick back-and-forth movement, called nystagmus. She was also drooling and walking in circles - all signs of a stroke, or so I thought.

I rushed her to our vet's office. She went reluctantly. Even though she could hardly walk, she still strongly refused to enter the vet's office willingly. I was relieved when Dr. Wittington said she had something called Canine Vestibular Syndrome, a relatively common thing that affects elderly dogs. It is idiopathic in Foxy, meaning we don't know what caused it. Her ears were fine; there was no sign of infection or mites. So we went home to wait it out.

Sure enough, within a few days, Foxy was back to normal, trotting along the puppy paths at the Ranch! We are so thankful!

Foxy and me at the Tallmadge Library

In other news, nothing says "I need a four-wheeler" quite like this bruise!

Six crazy dogs + one 80 pound cart and me = suicide mission #562!

Yes, it's true. I hooked up six dogs to my little cart. We took a corner quite sharp at the end of one of our dirty, country roads, and my leg collided with the post of a stop sign going six-dog-power forward. Lemme tell ya, it ain't pretty! And it's turning deeper shades of purple and blue as I type. OUCH! My dogs heard some extra colorful words coming out of my mouth on that run!

But, I have to remind myself of the words of my friend, Jim Warren.

Jim told me two things a few winters ago as I ran his dogs.

1. They're only dogs doing dog things. Be sure your expectations of them aren't too high because, after all, they're only dogs.

2. Mushing teaches the best of all skills: triumph in the face of adversity. No matter what life or nature throws at a musher, a good musher will pick up and carry on.

After a few brightly colored words and a brief pause, I lifted the brake on my little cart, hupped the dogs, and away we went following the setting sun.