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,