Friday, December 30, 2011

Race essentials and a lengthy discussion about plastic

While gathering up the necessary final items for my races this season, it occurred to me to write a blog post about all that goes into even one mid-distance race. All the dogs' harnesses must be marked with reflective tape 12 inches by 1 inch. Mushers must carry required gear that will basically give them enough provisions to last one night should they get lost or otherwise stranded out in the cold; this gear includes basic survival gear: an axe; snow shoes; arctic rated sleeping bag (mine is rated negative 30 from Cabela's); rations of food for yourself and your dogs for one day; first aid kit; knife; cable cutters; compass; survival kit which includes waterproof matches or a lighter, fire starter and an emergency blanket.

And that's nothing compared to what Iditarod mushers must prepare for and carry!

One thing that is absolutely essential is a top quality headlamp, especially for a race like the Midnight Run, which is primarily run in the dark throughout the night. If you are looking for a super bright, handy beam of light to part the darkness, check out the Princeton Tec Extreme headlamp. Out of all of my headlamps (and I admit I have more than my share) this one is by far the brightest, lightest and most handy.

Another thing every musher needs is an efficient, experienced and upbeat handler. Someone patient and willing to stand out in the cold - serious cold - for hours waiting for their musher to come in. And the "upbeat" part is paramount! I am super fortunate to have one of the best little ladies I could ever hope to have helping me out at the Midnight Run this season. I can't wait to write a blog post all about her...soon!

Lately, my quest for adequate runner plastic for my new sled (which I purchased last summer) led to quite a discussion thread amongst friends on Facebook. See, the runners of each sled are like skis; they're unlike skis, however, in that the plastic can be changed. Plastic is rated differently depending on the climate conditions a musher runs on. There are also different types or brands of plastic to fit different types of runners.

It's quite complicated, and I literally found my head swimming during a recent discussion. This is a picture of the bottom rear view of my runner:

This thread went on for a long time....
....and on...and on...

...and on...

...until finally, someone asked me to archive the discussion thread. it is! 

That is the gist of the conversation, which finally came to a wonderful conclusion by none other than Troy Groeneveld, owner of Ten Squared Racing, where I buy 99% of my gear.

Thank you, Troy, for clearing that up for all of our inquiring minds!

I am so grateful for all of the essentials provided by a small but mighty cast of supportive friends this season. They have helped with dog jackets to keep the doggies warm at our checkpoint (thank you, Audrey and Dennis), my outstanding headlamp and snowshoes (Dennis), monetary donations, meat not suitable for human consumption,  dog booties (Sherry), mechanical help (Chris) and most importantly, moral support! Special thanks to the random person who handed me cash at a recent speaking engagement with an encouraging, "good luck to you and the dogs this season." I am continually amazed and grateful for the generosity of strangers.

The dogs and I leave for our first race in just a few days. We'll be heading back up to the U.P. to train for a couple days on my new sled before our 42 mile race on January 7. Stay tuned, and as always...

Friday, December 23, 2011

Give thanks this day....

The end of the year is a natural time, it seems, for reflection and hope. This year has brought so many things: some sad, like losing my job in September; but more blessings. In fact, the frugality that came with losing my job has taught more lessons that I am thankful for, because being frugal builds one of the best qualities: character.

I am thankful for family: my kiddos, Sophie and Elise.

My girls

 I am thankful for family who have helped me, mentored me and supported me in various forms along the way in this journey - in dogs and in life (even when some of them thought I was nuts regarding the dog part!). There are far too many to name, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my parents, Chris, and a handful of very best friends who are like family. I am thankful for having such a beautiful place to call home. I am thankful for my amazing canine family, the beautiful, hard-bodied athletes as well as the half breed mutts who call this place a sanctuary of love. I am thankful for Tak's beautiful, well-bred puppies this past July.

Tak and her sweet pups this past August

I am thankful for the chance to train up in the Upper Peninsula - the land I love - with my Michigan family.

I am thankful for good friends, so many friends near and far who I think about daily even though they may be far away; those who have mentored me, and those who have listened; those who have been there and who have accepted me for exactly what I am. I am thankful for the random strangers who have offered a word of encouragement in emails from all over the country.

My good friend and mentor, Jodi Bailey and me at the Midwest Mushing Symposium this past October

I am thankful for the bounty God and nature provide to feed my family and my dogs and animals. I am thankful for my beautiful flock of hens who provide such awesome eggs for our family daily, and Ninja the rooster who is good at being pretty.

 I am thankful for the large pieces of well-seasoned hardwood that heats our home.

I am thankful for my education, and my muse. I am thankful for my freedom, and all of those who keep it safe. I am especially thankful for music.

I am thankful, especially, for the handful of sponsors who have helped make this season possible. And, if you've read this far, I am thankful for you too.

Merry Christmas and, as always...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The U.P. Tree

I promised my kids I would bring back something special from my training trip to the Upper Peninsula this last time. Something seasonal and fragrant. Something green and big. A genuine Christmas tree from the U.P.

I ventured out in Newberry, Michigan to find the perfect tree. Balsam fir? Colorado Spruce? My eyes and heart settled on a gorgeous blue spruce that was almost seven feet tall and fat.

I love the tradition of putting up a tree. The house dogs must think we've lost our minds every year though, bringing a tree into the house. I vaguely know the Yule history and the Christian historical symbolism of the apple being plucked from the tree in paradise. But I like to think of trees as symbols of family. They take root, and grow with branches ebbing out like families branch out and grow.

A Christmas tree is an extension of this symbolism: going through the ornaments every year, many belonged to my grandmother, now deceased. Some were made by Sophie when she was in grade school.

Sophie, eating pizza, while Elise shows her an ornament
Some were made by my other daughter who is currently in grade school....

....and some were even made by me when I was in grade school.

One special ornament holds a picture of my favorite dog ever, Kahlua, with a little bell that was fastened to her collar throughout her life. Though she died of lung cancer four years ago, that ornament makes her live on.

So now a little part of the U.P. stands in my living room. It smells so fragrant and wonderful, and reminds me of the places that I love.

 Until next always

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Humbled thoughts from hours in the north woods

Thirty six degrees at noon, the rain has fallen steadily here in the north woods all morning. I am thawing meat to go feed the dogs, and shortly after that, we will head out on a long run in the woods. We will likely be out running for the rest of the daylight hours, as I plan a 25-30 mile run today with them.
My fur kids and me on a 25 mile run

I admit, some days it's difficult to muster the dedication and discipline. Anyone who thinks training sled dogs is fun is mistaken. This is not a vacation; this is akin to a full-time job, and mostly outside in weather others wouldn't dare venture out into. Hours spent with the dogs are not all spent running. We stop frequently for praise, drinks, or to untangle lines. It's training - not only marathon training, but also simple training techniques like others use for their pet dogs when they "sit" on command. The dogs are learning at every turn, especially mine, because they're still so young: my youngest dog, Miles, just had his first birthday two weeks ago.

I learn too, on every run. I learn more and more patience. I learn humility - who am I compared to these amazing athletes? I learn to compartmentalize my fears from the dogs; I don't want them to pick up on the worries I have about that first checkpoint, or whether I am the weakest link in this dog team. Indeed, there is a lot of time to ruminate over lots of thoughts when you're out in the woods for hours with nothing but yourself and 9 of your best friends.

When I'm out there, I think a lot about my family. I think about my kids, and how much I miss them. I hope they grow up with a respect and appreciation for follow through, being focused and going after their goals; I hope they don't resent me for going after mine. I think about the sacrifices it has taken to get to this point - sacrifices from my family and me -  and I am humbled and grateful for all that I have. I marvel always at my amazing canine family, and pray only that we get to the start and the finish line.

Thankful from the north woods, and as always....

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude."

Many probably think I'm a little odd in my need for solitude. For me, I need regular intervals of isolation, time to, in computer terms, "defragment." I guess that's what makes me a musher, as well as most who enjoy outdoor sports: a passion for solitude.

My spirit opens up every time I come to this place of solitude, locked away in the woods with a bunch of canine best friends. I couldn't be happier. The only thing that would make this perfect would be if my kids were with me, and if I could find a way to financially sustain myself here.

Doesn't anyone value a poetic female hermit with wanderlust?

Ah, I guess I ask too much.

I smile when I think back to five or six years ago when I first started coming up to the U.P. Then, I was baffled by the solitude, an observer, learning about this new area, about this sport, the people. And while I am still an observer learning, it is less about documentation now and more about having a job to do and feeling confident doing it. And the people feel like home to me.

I have a new appreciation every day of the intricacies and nuances of training for this sport. I am continually amazed at how in depth and multi-faceted training sled dogs is, and I learn so much from my dogs - about the sport, but also about life.

Doggy Update 
We arrived back in the great north woods very late Tuesday night (actually, very early Wednesday morning). Last night, we set out on our first 20 mile run of the season.

The dogs before our 20 mile run...

...the dogs, seventeen miles into our 20 mile run

The dogs were so happy to have new trails - hundreds of miles of trails. Today we completed 25 miles, and within about an hour or so of rest, the dogs looked as if they were ready to go again.

I am so proud of my team! Their enthusiasm, determination and drive is really something to behold. I am even more proud because it has taken me years of patience in building up this team from puppihood; five of my nine core dogs were raised and trained by me, so they have grown up with me and I am especially proud of them. Their work ethic is exemplary. When things get tough, even my smallest dog digs in deeper, pulls harder, strives for more. It seems that is something we all could learn from.

No matter where we place in our races this season, I am so proud to call them my teammates and be along on this beautiful journey with them.

It is late now, and the moon hangs in a cloudy black sky lazily. A few flakes of snow fall haphazardly from that black expanse, and I am sipping some 2006 Riesling and ready to nod off, satisfied.

Until next time, as always,

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A thirst for miles

Whether a musher runs mid-distance races or the Iditarod, mushers all train their teams with a few main hallmarks in mind. One of those hallmarks competitive mushers gauge their team's readiness and conditioning by is miles.

It's a lot like a person training for a marathon. Building up a dog team to run the 30, 40, 50+ miles needed to either finish a race or a checkpoint starts in early September with baby steps of two-mile runs, building over several months in the fall to end with longer runs. Throughout the fall, we add up those miles with an ultimate mileage goal in mind. The goal changes depending on the length of your first race. So, for example, I started training my core team with the goal of having 700 miles on them by January. 

It seems, however, every year by Thanksgiving, I feel the pressure of miles weighing on me. It really is very difficult for me to get more than twelve to fifteen mile training runs out of my driveway without looping back around to do the same route twice over, and my dogs are rapidly becoming so friggin bored.

Like kids, they look forward to the excitement of not knowing what's around an unfamiliar corner. After all, our training runs are like field trips to them. And, like kids, they act up when they become bored. 

Yeti, my main leader, stopped my entire team the other night after I looped around the trail for the second time just to look at me.

His wide brown eyes gazed down the line over all eight of his teammates and into mine, and if he could talk, he would have said in the popular vernacular phrase,

"W.T.F. mom!"

He has also been spontaneously dragging the entire team into ditches for long watering breaks where he will lay fully submerged (except for his head) and outstretched on his belly, like a hippo wading in the African heat, only to emerge, dripping and muddy with the cold water.

Copyright Zoological Society of London

Nevermind that I just washed all of the dogs' harnesses.

We are leaving on Tuesday for a much-needed U.P. training reprieve, and I am hoping to do lots of camping/checkpoint practice runs with the team. The dogs and I can't wait. I am officially on the Midnight Run web site, and though this is only a 90 mile race, it will be my first checkpoint race, so I'm excited and nervous.

Yeti will be happy to welcome new corners and miles and miles of new trail. The dogs are more than ready for 20+ mile runs.

Keep an eye out for us in the Akron Beacon Journal soon as our favorite roving reporter, Jim Carney, recently came out to the kennels to write a story on us! Thank you, Jim!

Until next time...and as always...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Birthdays and Thanks

This weekend was very special for some of our favorite doggie friends. Exactly one year ago, a litter of unexpected puppies were born who changed our kennel - and our lives - forever.

The Jazz Litter - Brubeck, Coltrane, Dinah, Ella, Etta, Miles, Parker and Thelonious - were born on November 18, 2010. Of those eight special puppies, only five are still around to celebrate their first birthdays. Sadly, they were a product of terrible inbreeding and irresponsibility, of someone who allowed his dogs to breed indiscriminately and then left the mess for someone else - me - to clean up.

But this is not a sad tale of bitterness. If you want to read that tale, click here.

This is a tale of joy that celebrates life, patience and perseverance. You see, we thought we would lose more than just Etta, Dinah and Thelonious. Brubeck hung by a thread for a time too.

Brubeck seemed normal and healthy as a newborn. 

Newborn Brubeck laying on his mommy's back

But, we soon realized he was born with a condition called megaesophogus like his sisters, Etta and Dinah and his brother, Theo, and had to eat in a Bailey chair - a sort of doggie high chair - for every meal until he was about five months old. This is quite labor intensive because the dog has to remain upright in the Bailey Chair for 15-20 minutes after consuming his food to ensure all of it reaches the stomach.

And Brubeck was no light weight when it came to eating.

Brubeck tolerating time in his Bailey Chair

Luckily, the dark dogs from the litter - Coltrane, Parker and Miles - didn't have this condition. Miles was one of my favorites right from the time his little eyes opened.

Miles at four weeks, already smiling his infamous little smile

Miles was a family favorite early on, too. Very affectionate, Miles longed for nothing more than to be with us.

Sophie and Miles
I am happy to say, Miles is part of my main team in training this fall, and has about 200 miles under his harness so far! Not only has he become a "real sled dog," he has also taken over for Foxy as our educational ambassador for my dog sledding presentations.

Elise and Miles at one of my recent dog sledding presentations in Columbiana, Ohio

I am also happy to say, Brubeck is about 70 pounds now and is a happy, healthy (huge) Alaskan husky house dog.
Brubeck in his crate, hiding from my camera. He is camera shy.

Coltrane, Parker and Ella are all living out their lives with their new families as sled dogs as well, and are happy and healthy, thank goodness!

Happy Birthday to the Jazz Litter! You certainly changed our lives, taught us about sacrifice, love and heartbreak, but also about the happiness and satisfaction that comes from seeing things through.

As always...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's a family affair

Tonight, as the temperatures dropped outside, it warmed my heart to see my seven year old, Elise, outside scooping while I was cutting up deer meat. As I walked outside with two buckets of food for the dogs, she ran toward the kennels excitedly.

"You guys get meat tonight!" she exclaimed, waving her arms in the air, strawberry blond hair flying.

It takes a lot to keep even a small kennel like mine running efficiently and to make sure all our creatures have everything they need to keep them happy and healthy. We all chip in around the Ranch, and I am happy for that. Growing up with animals teaches the kids responsibility and compassion.

Elise brushing Kerouac
Elise is my super helper. She brushes the dogs, scoops the poop, feeds and loves the chickens, and helps feed the huskies. And the best part is, I usually don't even have to ask her. She enjoys her time with all of the animals and being outside.

Elise with our favorite chicken, our Speckled Sussex hen, Peep

Sophie, my 12 year old, is a little more difficult to motivate as far as scooping! But she's happy to go on training runs on the four wheeler or the sled!
Sophie on a training run with me

A few people have commented to me over the years about how I manage everything: being a mom, working, caring for our animals, etcetera. I don't manage everything; it's a family affair here. Some people have even criticized my raising two girls and trying to be a competitive musher on a farm with 20 dogs. If they saw how happy my kids are with our lifestyle, they would not be so quick to judge or to criticize.

Shooting Star

Recently, my father, who will be 72 in a week and has significant emphysema among a host of other health problems, collapsed while heading to the shower. He was unresponsive when my mother reached him in the bathroom, and when paramedics arrived, they found his oxygen saturations at 48% and were unable to revive him.

Luckily by the time my father arrived at the hospital ER, he was awake and his oxygen level was back up to 95%. He has been in the hospital for three days as I type this entry and has a lengthy history of health scares. He is the reason I started this blog so many years ago.

Today, when I talked to my mom, she said my dad had been telling his hospital roommate about me and the dogs. It made me smile. I know my dad is proud of me for what I do, although it's difficult to see it sometimes.

Tonight, I took 10 dogs out on a cold training run. The sky was clear and stars shone bright and all around - a zillion of them. It was a gorgeous night.

As we ran back into the woods on what my kids have nicknamed "the creepy trail," I looked up and saw a shooting star. I said a quick prayer - but then I thought, "I need to see about five shooting stars."

There's been so much going on here lately, I need that many stars to wish on.

Here is a picture of the dogs on our run tonight. I love seeing their breath in the headlights of the four wheeler on a cold night.

As I finish this entry, the dogs are all howling out in the kennels. It's nice and cold here, and they're very happy tonight, with deer meat in their bellies, a nice 12 mile run and fresh straw.

I am thankful for all I have. 


May you see plenty of shooting stars, too.

UPDATE: Here is a photo from a training run this weekend. Of course, it's Elise. Tell me she isn't a natural with my dogs?!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Music Saves (aka "Music for Running Dogs" part II")

Outside the Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Shannon Miller. All Rights Reserved.

Most who know me know that music is extremely important to me.

I usually have songs that randomly pop into my mind that are apropos for any given moment, and I've been known to make compilation CDs for special people in my life.

Growing up, I adopted a plethora of musical influences thanks to the wide variety of music I heard from my family. Yes, I was born in 1972 and was greatly influenced by the musical tastes of not only six older siblings, but also parents who frequently spun Janis and Rod "the bod" Stewart on the turn table. Alice Cooper, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Tom Petty, Berlin, Duran Duran: it was all in my early musical repertoire. To this day, I still know every single word to "Maggie May" and my kids caught me dancing and singing "Disco Duck" in the dining room this evening. 

I remember when MTV first aired, waiting up with my older sister, Colleen. We waited anxiously for the crackling glow of that dude landing on the moon to fill the inky darkness of my parents' living room at 11-something at night. That image will forever reverberate in my head as the beginning of musical history. At least for me. It was 1981, and the radio was still playing Nick Gilder's "Hot Child In the City," and REO Speedwagon's "Roll With the Changes."

But MTV haunted me with eerie progressive new-sounds, like Blondie's "Rapture." Who could forget Rapture? Not only was it haunting, it introduced white kids like me to this thing called rap as the first rap video aired on MTV. Wow. We watched in awe as pale, skinny Debbie Harry danced scantily-clad through a graffiti-covered urban area at night with a ballerina and a black man in a white tux, complete with top hat.

I could go on and on about musical influences of my childhood.

One thing I will forever be grateful for in my childhood is having a family who instilled in me early on an great affinity for all types of music and an appreciation for how therapeutic it can be. They fostered my own natural musical abilities from a young age, and were patient as I picked up and learned to play several noisy instruments, including the piano and my five-piece drum kit which still sits in my basement currently.

My love of music goes on today, and I am rarely without my ipod. On my ipod are several playlists entitled "Songs for Running Dogs." I thought I would share with those of you who love music as much as I do what I've been running dogs and generally rocking out to lately. You can look any of these tracks up on youtube, or by downloading a great software called Spotify free on the Internet. Enjoy!

Willie Nelson: "The Harder They Come"
The Allman Brothers: "Midnight Rider"
Wilco: "Heavy Metal Drummer"
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: "Home"
Givers: "Saw You First"
The Be Good Tanyas: "Light Enough To Travel"
The Black Keys: pretty much anything by this Akron-based band rocks my socks 
Brandi Carlile: "Dreams"
The Budos Band: "T.I.B.W.F."
Ben Harper: "Blessed to be a Witness"
Neko Case: pretty much anything by Neko is good with me
Damien Rice: "Dogs"
Tom Waits: "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"
Jane Siberry: "Hockey"
David Bowie/Queen: "Pressure"

I'll probably add another chapter to this. I could go on and on....

For now, as always...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Promo Video for Diamond Dogs

I recorded some of our training run this morning to use for a promotional video for the kennel. I am actively seeking out sponsorships for the 2011/2012 season. If you want to be a part of Diamond Dogs, please contact me, or make a donation directly through paypal at!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Yeti: Lead Dog Lingo, and What It Takes to be a Leader, Part II

Fall is really the most wonderful time of year. It bombards the senses with the colors, the smells, and the cool crisp morning air. I love fall!

Fall training in the Upper Peninsula outside Nature's Kennel in McMillan, Michigan is especially beautiful.

I recently returned from another trip up north for some training time with the amazing canine athletes I call Team Diamond Dogs. We have logged many miles toward conditioning goals so far this season, and are looking forward to the time when we head back up north.

My team of amazing canine athletes all muscled up on a training run. Oh, how I love and admire them!

See that dark dog up in front of my team? On the right in the photo above?

Here. This is a close up shot of him.

Look at those eyes. Such intelligent, expressive eyes.

These eyes belong to my main squeeze dogger, Yeti. He has been my main leader since he was 10 months old.

Today, Yeti turns four. This blog post is for Yeti, the backbone of my kennel and my main dude.

I wrote last winter about what it takes to be a lead dog. That post is here if you are interested in reading further. 

Yeti began leading long strings of dogs almost as soon as he was in harness. There are several "types" or levels of lead dogs. At that time, Yeti was a natural trail leader - a dog who naturally is comfortable being out in front and getting a team down the trail. He or she doesn't necessarily know commands, but has a knack for leadership and command.

Then there are gee/haw leaders - dogs who mature into knowing commands and following a musher's directions down the trail. This involves high intelligence levels and a keen sense of direction. Gee, in mushing lingo, tells a dog to turn right; haw, subsequently, communicates a left hand turn. There are more commands, but for the purposes of this post, I will focus on these two simple commands.

Yeti has finally graduated into what I would technically call a "gee/haw" leader. He has logged hundreds of miles on the trail in his four short years - enough to confidently follow my commands, even on unfamiliar trails he's never been on before.

Finally, there are crack leaders - dogs who are like power steering to a musher. They will turn on a dime the second a command is called, without hesitation, even if it means driving into an area that looks like there's no trail. Their command and understanding of words is so precise and finely tuned, that some mushers recount tails of driving large teams of dogs through a slalom-type course with crack leaders.

In just a little over three short years in harness, Yeti has mastered many skills. He passes through large areas of standing water without pause, as is illustrated in the video below.

He's raced through crowds of strange people without hesitation. He's learned how to navigate felled logs and unfamiliar trails. And this past summer, he fathered his first litter of future athletes, and, hopefully, lead dogs.

I couldn't put a price on Yeti. He is such a special boy to me. And what's ironic is, he was given to me.

Indeed, Yeti is the best "free" dog I've ever gotten! Happy Birthday, Yeti!

A word about conditioning
Conditioning with the dogs is a lot like people training for a marathon. It takes months to build up the muscle, stamina and endurance needed to compete in races when the snow flies. The beginning part of the fall is spent primarily on muscle-building. We do this through training with a four wheeler.

There are varied training methods and theories. For me, I generally train my dogs in 2nd or 3rd gear on the four wheeler, allowing them to alternate between slower, harder-pulling training runs to faster, easier-pulling training runs. I may alternate between training slower and in gear on the quad one day to training with the quad completely off and in neutral the next and allowing the dogs to lope more to build up their speed.

Anyone who has ever been a runner knows this routine. And like runners training for a marathon, the dogs have their good days and not-so-good days.

Mostly, we have had great days lately. The mistakes made have primarily been made by me, not the dogs!

My little canine carnivores resting during a 10 mile training run. Yeti (left) and Ruffian (right, standing)

Stay tuned as we up the mileage heading into November!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Find your joy

One of the giant puddles we get to run through around Nature's Kennel
It's been extremely wet in the U.P. since the dogs and I arrived on Monday, with winds and rain almost everyday this week. The dogs enjoy the giant puddles the rain leaves behind for drinking, cooling off or splashing through on our runs, though. We have logged 25 miles in three days, and today the dogs get a well-deserved day off.

Find your joy.

God is most present for me in a forest of conifers in the northwoods. The happiest place on earth, for me, is alone among the beautiful cacophony and chaos of dogs hell bent on miles - hundreds of them. Boisterous,  merry, joyful dogs with an appetite for life in all weather - even this steady- falling cold rain.

Here are some photos from our run yesterday.
The Diamond Dogs resting along a trail yesterday. Yeti (left) and Ruffian (right) in lead
Musher's view: 8 doggers running along the Murray Lake loop
Until next time...