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...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some belated photos from our first training session out of Nature's Kennel

In the midst of fall training, I fall behind posting updates to this site. Fall is such a very busy time for me and the kennel.

On September 27, the dogs and I left for the first of several training trips up north. Because dog sledding is like marathon running for dogs, the dogs have to train for it much like a marathon runner has to train. We start with short runs of about two miles with the dogs hooked up to my four wheeler, gradually building up to 40 - 50 miles. It takes a lot of conditioning, time and discipline, and getting the miles that we need to race the type of races we do is difficult to do from our home in NE Ohio.

We are super excited for the opportunity to train out of Nature's Kennel this season! For those of you who aren't familiar with Nature's Kennel, it is the home of Ed, Tasha and Nate Stielstra and over one hundred or so Alaskan huskies. Ed has successfully run the Iditarod, the annual dog sledding marathon across Alaska's interior, six times since 2004, and Tasha has competed in some serious sled dog races such as Michigan's own UP 200 and France's sled dog marathon, La Grande Odyssee. Their kennel is located in the heart of the eastern UP with a labyrinth of trails connecting them to many other mushers in the area.

My nine core dogs on a training run on the beautiful trails outside of Nature's Kennel

I was super happy to see Big Brown taking charge in lead with Yeti on one of our training runs. Big Brown led for me some last season, but this season she is following commands well.

Team Diamond Dogs, with tiny Big Brown co-leading with Yeti along Michigan 422
Here are some of Team Diamond Dogs at Nature's Kennel


Big Brown

Freya "freight train"


Yearling Miles


When I wasn't catching up on miles with the dogs on these beautiful trails, I was able to attend my first Midwest Sled Dog Symposium and see tons of good friends who are dear to me.

My good friend and first sponsor, Dennis Waite, with me at the Symposium.

My other good friend and mentor, Jodi Bailey, who is the first woman and rookie to successfully run both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod back-to-back on her first attempt

Ed Stielstra (left) moderates a panel regarding sled dog legislation
My Iowa buddy, Tim Looney, and I at the Symposium. Tim has Kerouac's sister, Maggie, from our first litter

My good friend, RJ
And my good friend and fan of Nature's Kennel, Cici

 Here are more scenes from the Symposium

People "talking dog"
and, of course, dogs
I am returning to Nature's Kennel this coming weekend for more miles. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birthday, minus nine years

I used to look at my wedding photos and have hope. I used to hold on to early moments in our relationship during bad times like a security blanket or a life raft, looking to those moments to keep me afloat and weather through hardships. I am no longer fooled by disillusion.

I remember my 30th birthday, sitting in my crappy, tiny apartment listening to him screaming at me through the phone about God knows what. We had only been dating for three months at that time, and I listened as though he wasn’t screaming at me, as though I was an omniscient objective observer, and I remember thinking, “girl, you better run.” 

It was one of those poignant moments in my adult life where I saw two distinct paths, and I chose to go down the wrong one. For nine years.

Nine years I have lived with that screaming, condescending, critical voice. And there’s no denying: it has changed me.

But, coming up on my 39th birthday this week, some things have not changed. He’s still yelling. And I’m still half listening, observing. I’m still broke and struggling to have my “career” take flight. But there are some distinct changes. I am older, stronger, more discerning. I choose most of the time not to engage or react. And I know now there are choices, and we choose how our life will go down.

Looking back at my wedding photos with Sophie in them, I am filled with grief.

I thought that marrying was the best thing for her and for me. Two incomes, more stability, a family, right?

Wow, was I wrong.

She looked to me, trusted me to make the right decisions on her behalf. We do the best we can with what we’re given. I thought I was making the right decisions.

One night six weeks before my wedding, I almost called it off. My dad said to me, “the most important decision you make in life is who you marry.” I made a choice to marry the wrong person, and it has cost me the biggest sacrifice a mother can lose: the trust of her daughter.

After years of hearing his critical screaming voice at her, she is finally fed up. She has said, “it’s me or him.” Obviously, my loyalty is to my daughter.

But the damage has already been done. And I fear it is too late. Damage to me. But most importantly, damage to my daughters.

Sophie, I wish so much for your sake that I could go back and reverse that decision. Hindsight is 20/20. If I could, I would take it all back, reverse these last nine years. I would do anything to go back to that crappy, tiny apartment, when it was just you and me, Sophie, and you loved me whole heartedly, and didn’t question my allegiance to you. I would give anything for a fresh start.

But I can’t. I can only move forward, try to learn from my past mistakes, and heal. both myself and my relationship with you. 

So I put it all out to the Universe, and pray for forgiveness and to somehow find a clean slate. 
I put it all out there. I'm tired of hiding the truth.

May this birthday find peace. And no screaming. And no criticism. Peace. Only peace.