Friday, February 25, 2011

Lead dogs and a "snow emergency"

What makes a lead dog?

Famous Iditarod veteran, Martin Buser, says lead dogs show signs of being leaders from puppyhood. They are usually very curious and spunky. As they get older, they show that they like to be in charge and can learn the commands very quickly.

Now retired, Foxy once led during the Yukon Quest

It is also said that leaders possess intelligence, initiative, and the ability to navigate a trail in a variety of conditions.

I've developed my own theory lately about leaders.

It's all in the eyes.

My main leader, Yeti, is only three. I acquired Yeti when he was just four months old from a musher named Mike Murphy. Mike gave him to me for free, and Yeti was extremely shy. I didn't know if he would be a sled dog, and I never dreamed he would be a leader. Our bond was quick right from the start. He seemed to hone in on me, looking up at me with his beautiful almond-shaped eyes that still melt my heart today.

That next season, he was leading 10 dog strings as a yearling. This season, he has blossomed into a true "gee-haw" leader - that is, a dog who definitely knows and follows directions. Still painfully shy, Yeti will break down shaking in a crowd and always gets stress diarrhea at races, but when he is in harness, he never falters. He is certainly the best "free" dog I've ever gotten!

Leaders have a willingness to please beyond other sled dogs. In my opinion, my leaders seem connected so strongly to me with their willingness to please, that it almost seems as though my leaders look at me adoringly. Nothing can sway their focus or loyalty; they are steadfast in their commitment to me and the team.

Take my young up-and-coming leader, Ruffian, as an example.

Ruffian stares at me lovingly. She is only two 1/2 years old and 45 pounds, but already shoulders Yeti into a turn if he hesitates on a command

I acquired Ruffian when she was barely harness broken at 10 months of age from Joann Fortier. She was a wiley, silly yearling, and again, - unproven - so I didn't know what I had gotten myself into

Ruffian as a youngster

Ruffian is supremely intelligent and is one of the few dogs in my kennel I trust completely to free run and come to me when I call her.

I have been so fortunate to have such a great bunch of dogs in my kennel. They all get along and are all super with my kids and very loving and friendly with anyone who approaches them.

In addition to a very strong willingness to please, I have a theory about something that creates not just a great leader, but a happy kennel: social time. Dogs are social animals, and I have always been a proponent of daily free run play time. It helps the pack sort our differences and figure out their place in the scheme of things, as well as blow off steam.

Last night, I went to bed watching a light mist of rainy snow fall from the sky. Nothing to write home about, I thought, and wrote off the talk of NE Ohio getting dumped on.

I was surprised, then, when my phone rang at 5:30 this morning to tell me school was canceled.

I woke up to a winter wonderland! six inches of fresh powder had fallen on our already eight inches over night. The neighboring county declared a "snow emergency." I had to laugh. The only emergency I could see was getting outside to play in the white stuff fast enough!

Here is a small clip of our run today. Until next time,

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"And death shall have no dominion" - a tribute for Etta

How can such a small creature who I only knew for three months make such an impact on so many lives?

Etta bug, as we called her, died in my arms on Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - just two days shy of her three month birthday. Etta began having health problems from an early age when, at only four weeks old, she went into acute respiratory distress.

Etta at four weeks of age, right before she ended up in the hospital

She was diagnosed with aspirate pneumonia and, after intubation, x-rays, oxygen and a fight for her life overnight in the hospital, she was sent home on a course of antibiotics. She refused to eat at first, but I patiently fed her formula from a medicine dropper. And, after awhile, she gained strength and blossomed. She was happy and everyone in the house loved Etta.....even Lucy, our other "runt" who we nursed through a traumatic puppy-hood.

Sophie and Etta

Etta and Lucy

Chris developed a very special bond with Etta. He is always very warm, and through the rough winter we've had this year, Etta was fond of perching on top of him, probably in an effort to keep warm.

Etta was spoiled too. We often slept with her. She had quite a personality.

She scurried around her brothers like a little bug, thwarting their best efforts to tackle her with grace.

Etta thwarting her brothers, Coltrane and Miles

Through the holidays, we thought she was doing well. Our vet remarked about what a fighter she was. She had breathing episodes that went unexplained though - breathing episodes that turned her tongue blue and left her ribs retracting in a fierce struggle for air.

It was definitely concerning.

And slowly, she began to grow extremely thin. She coughed, and often regurgitated food. We searched in vain to find answers as to why she was so frail and sickly.

This photo shows her resting in my bed about a week before her death.

She began sleeping a lot, and looked emaciated. At the same time, her brothers, Brubeck and Thelonious, began showing the same symptoms, as well as Dinah, her sister who now lives with my friend and fellow musher, Audrey. Several hundred dollars in vet bills later, we still searched for reasons why.

On Tuesday, I came home from work to the excitement of puppies greeting me. Etta learned quickly that with excitement came a breathing episode that sent her gasping for air. Before long, she collapsed under the dining room table. I picked her up and tried doing CPR on her. I worked on her for ten minutes, but it was futile.

I watched her beautiful blue eyes dilate and freeze in a vacant stare that I now cannot get out of my head. I felt so helpless. I wailed.

It has taken me nearly a week to even write about Etta's death. Somehow writing this feels like saying good bye. I wasn't ready to say good bye, until now.

I called my vet to report her passing. Chris pulled in the driveway to find me standing with her limp body. I agreed immediately to have a necropsy done by my vet to see if we could find the answers we needed to save the other puppies' lives.

At the time of this writing, I am still waiting for the necropsy report. But my vet confirmed the diagnosis of megaesophagus, as well as a "thickened" pancreas, and suspicious areas on her lungs - probably more pneumonia.

Pneumonia is a common "side effect" of megaesophagus because the food does not digest; rather, it sits in the esophagus, and any activity or excitement almost immediately causes expulsion of the food, which can then become aspirated.

Etta brought so much joy to us in her short life. Her blue eyes and beautiful white coat made her look like a small lamb rather than a puppy.

I do not know if dogs can feel "love" as we can, but I'd like to believe Etta did love us. She greeted us every morning, as she greeted the day: with excitement, optimism and enthusiasm.

Though I only shared three months with you, Etta bug, I will never forget you. I think about you every day, and love you more than I can express. The pain of losing a dog is one many can relate to. The pain of losing such a fearless and affectionate baby, though, is a pain I don't want to repeat any time soon.

We love you very much, Etta bug.

Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race

A portion of my run in the Tahquamenon Race

*UPDATE: just after I published this post, I realized my friend mentioned in it, David Gill, won 3rd place in the UP200! WAY TO GO DAVID!!! This is definitely your year, my friend!

Mackinaw Bridge connecting the lower peninsula to the upper peninsula of Michigan

What a whirlwind!

Lake Michigan shoreline along Route 2 - Michigan's Upper Peninsula

The dogs and I headed up to the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race for our long-awaited first race. We ran 13 miles on Friday before the race, 28 miles on Saturday for the race, and then 8 1/2 miles on Sunday after the race - about 50 miles in three days.

Ten dogs and I on a 13 mile "warm up" pre-race run

For the first time that I can remember, I never wanted to come in from a run. Even after nearly four hours on the trail, I didn't want it to end. The dogs ran like a well-oiled machine, settling into a groove and an even paced trot. We started out in snow squalls and fierce wind, but half way through the run, the sky opened up, and I could literally envision myself being on the runners all day.

As I raced, I thought of my friend Jodi Bailey who was racing on the Yukon Quest trail. My little 28 mile race was such a dinky little thing in comparison. And yet, this is where it starts: with a love for the trail, being in the woods in the snow with a bunch of dogs.

Along one of my favorite stretches of the Tahquamenon race

I am happy to report we finished the 28 mile Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race with a respectable time of 3 hours, 36 minutes and 46 seconds.

The team catching up to a musher in the distance

And then, in one weekend, winter is over.

As I write, the temperature outside is about 45 degrees. All the snow around the Ranch is nearly melted. The Jack Pine 30 - the race I had planned for this weekend - I've decided not to run because even in Marquette, Michigan temperatures soared to an unseasonable 55 degrees this past week, which deteriorated trails to dirt in some spots and glare ice in others.

What's happened to winter?

Here are some more photos from the Great North Woods - the land that I love:

Tangled up in red

My friend David Gill coming out of the chute at the start of the 12 dog race at Tahquamenon. At the time of this writing, David is finishing up his first UP200 race and doing well despite crazy trail conditions that have left several mushers hurt and their sleds banged up. Go David!

I could write more, but I need to put this entry - and myself - to bed! Good night, and until next time...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

*A side note to Tug Hill entry: on racing and dog mushing, and why we do what we do

The previous entry about the Tug Hill Challenge only mentions a portion of the challenges that we faced on the road to Tug Hill, including right up to the starting chute.

I was one minute late to the starting chute, with eight hot dogs fired up and ready to go, and was told I could not race - because I was one minute late to the chute.

My friend Amanda encountered other, in my opinion, unnecessary stresses during her races as well. Which got me thinking about racing.

Several years ago, a friend of mine told me a valuable piece of simple advice. He said, forget racing. Just get out there and run your dogs.

There are many reasons people race. Racing certainly gives us goals to shoot for regarding running dogs. Racing is often the impetus to force us to get out there and run the dogs on days when we're sick or tired or just would rather not.

But when the name of racing takes over the reason why we got into this sport in the first place - when the stress of racing becomes the focal point - then we need to step back and view the bigger picture.

For me, this person's advice was the best advice ever. I found myself recounting the same advice to Amanda this past weekend.

Just get out there and run your dogs.

Because, in the end, it's not about any trophy or time. It's about spending time doing what we love: being outside with a bunch of our best friends - friends who would do anything for us.

More and more, I don't necessarily want to "race" as much as I just want to drive my dogs through a gorgeous winter landscape and experience the peace and silence only a winter wood can bring.

Dog sledding has come under some criticism from some recent media attention. Like any sport, there are occasionally some awful people who do bad things and give all of us reason to pause.

But the majority of mushers take better care of their dogs than they do themselves.

So for those of you who care more about spending time in the woods on the trail than getting to the starting chute, this post is for you.

And to those of you who hold your own in the big races, and still remain steadfast in your love and dedication to your dogs, this post is for you, too.

I don't know that I'll ever be competitive enough to want to win a race. I'm just happy to have won my dogs' respect, trust and loyalty.

“New York is appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire”

Henry James said the above quote. And while I wouldn't be quite so hard on upstate New York (it does have its charms: large old dairy farms, rolling Adirondack mountains...) I was not a fan of New York this past weekend. Here's why:

That's my new dog trailer at Meyer's Towing in Camillus, New York this past Saturday. To make a long story short, we had a tire blow out Friday evening before we even made it out of Ohio. Then early Saturday morning, about 7:30 a.m., the very same tire blew again!

Because of the weird way the wheels were bolted to the axle, it was impossible to change a tire. The very good folks at Meyer's helped to get my trailer in tip top shape and welcomed us all. They greeted every dog as I took everyone outside for breaks.

The girls, Tak (left) and Ruffian (right) stand ready to go at Tug Hill

In the end, I missed my start time for Tug Hill in the 8 dog pro class. I was not about to go through what I went through to get that far and NOT run dogs! So I hooked up seven dogs (my eighth dog was in heat), grabbed a trail map and headed out for a run on the gorgeous Adirondack trails.

My team running along the trails in Winona State Forest, NY

My dogs were so amped after being in the dog trailer and all we'd gone through to get there, they tore around the first corner of the "Pussycat Trail" out of the parking area, knocking over my handlers and throwing me face-first into a hard snow bank. Subsequently, I received my first black eye from dog mushing!

The beginnings of a black eye - my right one

My dogs hooked down and smiling

The best part of the weekend was that Sophie made her first race!

Sophie in her race bib

Sophie was very nervous before starting her first race - so much so that she almost didn't start because she felt sick to her stomach. Like a trooper, however, she rode up to the starting chute with my leaders, Yeti and Ruffian.

Sophie at the race start chute listens to Mark Broughton, Race Marshall, offer words of encouragement

She confessed when she came in from her run that she had thrown up along the race trail! And she kept on going! She made me so proud!

My very good friend, Amanda, raced in the four dog open class with on of our puppies from our litter last year, Bolt - who is now known as Tempo.

Tempo, aka "Bolt" from Gwennie's litter last year did spectacularly in her first race of the 2011 season at Tug Hill. Here she is in wheel (driver's left). Look at her go!

Overall, the take-home lesson from the weekend was this: buck up and don't give up. All of the obstacles we encountered on the road to New York gave me a chance to talk to Sophie about an important life lesson, that of resilience and determination.

My yearling, Aspen, at Tug Hill

There will always be obstacles. But to be successful, we must never give up.