Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Am I a musher?

The dogs and I returned to the farm in Ohio late Monday evening. It was warm - 47 degrees when we pulled in - and things looked barren and different, yet familiar and for that, comforting. The giant oak in the front yard stood naked against the late December sky. When I pulled out of here two months ago, the leaves were still on the trees.

The last two months have been a blur of "cabin-time." Days run together; I can't decipher one from the next. "Cabin time" seems to seal me off from "real time." Life in the eastern U.P. feels different than life anywhere else. It's as if the little community of Deer Park/Newberry is a dark hole, insulated from the rest of the world, like some Faulknerian hamlet.

I used to think I wanted to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After being there for not quite two months straight, now I'm not so sure. The area along the Lake Superior shores near Grand Marais must see the least amount of sunlight of any place on the planet at this time of the year. Combine that with the isolation, the longing for my children, as well as the lack of nearly any kind of employment, I know I could not ever live there permanently.

Oh Thoreau, going to the woods to live deliberately is good...for awhile. After a couple months, though, I craved things like...dare I say... Stabucks®, a television, a Target®. Oh, and a cell signal.

Life is difficult, but it seems more difficult there, in the isolated area between Newberry and Grand Marais. Things take longer: driving to town and back is a 50 mile round trip and takes half a day. If it's snowing, it takes longer. Days are dark. The silence is deafening.

There is more drama in a place the size of a shoe box than anyone could ever imagine. I've heard stories about poached bears, family feuds, love affairs and scandalous encounters enough to create the label Days of Our Lives, the Deer Park Edition.

There are so many Catch-22s in this sport. In order to train dogs effectively for races like those I run, one must live far away from populated areas in order to have adequate trail access and so as to not aggravate the neighbors.

However, caring for dogs and operating a kennel is expensive, and jobs aren't plentiful in remote areas with adequate trail access.

Likewise, in order to afford this sport, one must have a good job; however, it's near impossible to train the dogs the way one needs to train and maintain a normal 40 hour work week.

I digress.

Coming back to the farm and to my kiddos after two months away has been an overwhelming, emotional experience. I am at a crossroads, and I don't know what the future holds for me or this sport. It seems mushers and mushing are a dying breed. It's just not practical - and seems downright silly if you think about it - to spend so much money and time training a bunch of dogs to pull a sled for hundreds of miles simply for one or two...maybe three races a year. So much is sacrificed. For the first time ever, I'm left wondering if it's all worth it.

Friday, December 14, 2012


I came to this 16 x 20 cabin to find peace and perspective during a tumultuous time of many changes in my life. I came to simplify: work on my book, focus on my dogs and get perspective.

Over the last ten days, I've found just about the opposite. In that time, I've found heartache.

My heart aches for my children. Being away from them for the last two months has been difficult. There have been other struggles, but the distance from my kiddos combined with the consistent gray days in the eastern UP have dampened my spirit and made just about everything difficult.

I have considered folding on the season and selling out of dogs completely, but I am hanging by a thread, trying hard not to make any rash decisions and "stay the course."

I leave for Ohio this weekend, and will be so happy to see my girls.

How do women strike a balance between doing what we live to do, but being mothers as well? It is a struggle that I don't pretend to know the answer to. I've been criticized by some for my decision to come here, and those criticisms have been difficult to hear.

No one can possibly know the things that brought me here or understand why I have done the things I have done. I don't know what the future holds, but I will be relieved to be home for Christmas with my family.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


I blink, and it's December.

Days have become a blur of routine: thawing meat for the dogs, feeding, scooping, miles behind my team, repeat.

Ever since I started preparing to move here, I've felt such a strong urge to rid myself of "stuff." Though all I packed to come to this quaint, 16x20 cabin in the northwoods fit in a 5x8 Uhaul trailer, I find I am still compelled to lighten my load even more. There are so few things that mean much to me anymore, and I find myself full of gratitude for the simple things I have. Friday brought a cord of kiln-dried hardwood, some propane, and some groceries. And I am gracious.

It occurs to me that this is the quintessential antithesis of December in America.

If I am honest, I haven't been thinking too much of Christmas. Except when I have to drive to town for groceries or other supplies. Then the Christmas music assaults my senses.

Perhaps the intended purpose of Christmas music is to remind us, as we stroll down aisles with shopping carts, to buy stuff.

But Christmas music reminds me of home.

Home isn't necessarily a place on a map for me.

Home is a place in my heart where the people I love reside. Some of those people live in Ohio. Some of those people live in Michigan. Some of those people live in other places altogether.

It was January when my grandmother died.

She had spent her last birthday, which also happened to be Christmas, in the hospital. She was dying. We all knew it.

I went to see her one snowy day in December. She lay in that hospital bed, small, frail, full of angles and hollow spaces where once there were curves and life. Her skin was like paper.

I watched her breathe: shallowly, slowly, half expecting the next breath not to come. But after long pause, the course draw of her inhale made its way back.

Her eyes fluttered lightly in sleep. What did she dream about, there at the end of her life? On the threshold of death, did she dream of my grandfather? Did she dream of driving? She never had driven in life. Was she haunted on her death bed by the dreams unfulfilled in life?

Snow fell as we drove to the cemetery near her house. Her pale blue casket was suspended above the open grave, and we gathered around it that January day. My sisters, aunts, uncles, parents and cousins had all turned out for the ceremony. I watched my aunt sob as the pastor said The Lord's Prayer, the skin on her hands like paper.

Days flow. Life is a blur. Suddenly we're dreaming of the things we never did, the things we never took the time - or the chances - to do. Like being honest with our loved ones. Like being honest with ourselves.

Don't wait. Things don't matter. What lives in our hearts - those things that make us swoon and sob and smile - those things matter.

The poet Ryokan said,

"We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices."

How will you spend your days? Will you leave a trace?

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Winter has finally arrived. 

Two days ago, I sat on the porch of the cabin barefooted writing; today the temperature has dropped 20 full degrees and keeps dropping. Snow covers everything. It is a blustery, frigid cold, with the kind of wind that knocks down trees. Yesterday, the dogs and I almost turned right onto a trail, but some part of me decided against it. As we drove past, a large part of a tree crashed down loudly onto the forest floor. It sounded like a gunshot as it bounced indifferently off the very trail we narrowly decided against going down.

Days seem to slip away from me. A trip to town for straw and then strawing dog houses and keeping a fire going in the wood stove encompassed most of today.  

I think some primitive part of my brain kicks in up here. I seem to think about two things often: warmth and food. Things like showering and how I present myself to the outside world take a backseat to simple survival. Chopping firewood, making and keeping fires going, chopping meat, strawing houses, hunkering down...

Thursday, we celebrated Thanksgiving with Mike and Cathy, who own the cabin I am renting. This afternoon, neighbors Jim and Denise invited me for Thanksgiving dinner. Their cabin is simple and functional, with a steep slanted roof for snow to easily slide from. It is warm, with one main room and a wood stove. Like most of the cabins here, the wood stove is the central focal point in the room. 

I am continually impressed with the frugality and inventive functionality of mushers’ homes. Function precedes aesthetics. Here, Gortex bibs and snow clothes hang from PVC piping dangling from the open beam ceiling, along side of pictures of the star athletes (the dogs) in racing action. Next to a coffee pot (a mushing necessity), a clothesline might be draped across the room with dog booties or wet gloves pinned up to dry.

I’ve eaten meals and slept in quite a few homes of people who’ve opened their doors to me having not known me an hour previously. During training and race season, their humble homes turn into dens full of tired mushers snoozing haphazardly in random places, like bears content during a winter’s nap.

There is lots of cabin hopping going on since winter’s arrival. The cabins of several key mushers in the area are stopping points in an elaborate system of trails linking this cabin to the next. I suppose this is how people survive these long winters.

Last evening Michael and I traversed through the wild, windy frigid night along back roads with the intent of heading to the McMillan tavern popular among the handlers at the Stielstra’s – The Shanty. We stopped quickly at Al Hardman’s cabin to see if aspiring musher, Danny Glen and her husband Bill wanted to join us for drinks. A few beers and good conversation found two hours gone. It seemed much cozier to stay in Al’s cabin around the wood stove than head back out to The Shanty.

I think winter is here to stay. We are all blanketed in a cover of white, not only from the snow, but also the gray-white expanse that is the U.P. sky. The sun is replaced by gracious hospitality of those who live here.

White ground, white sky...

I am thankful for my mushing family – for friends who I feel more akin to than most of my own family. I am thankful for the hospitality of those who live here and only hope I can return their kindness some way.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Brake: A device for slowing or stopping motion, as of a vehicle, especially by contact friction. 2. Something that slows or stops action. v. braked, brak·ing, brakes. v.tr.

It's difficult to believe as I sit in the cabin typing that a winter storm is coming. The days have been mild and spring-like with unseasonably warm temperatures - around mid-50s most days this week.

The dogs and I have resorted to running only at night under the cooling shroud of darkness because of the warmth. This can make for quite an adventure without a means of stopping.

Yes, it's true: I have been training all this fall without much of a brake to speak of on my four wheeler.

Some commands are more concrete to sled dogs. Like, for example, gee. Two nights ago, about five miles into our run in the quiet night, we came to an intersection in the trail. I called "Gee," and Yeti immediately perked up his head and turned sharply right down the connecting trail. No problem.

Other commands are more ... fluid in meaning to sled dogs. Like, for example, whoa.

Behind every sled dog is perhaps hundreds of years of breeding churning them forward. Their momentum is not to stop; their very DNA says go! Stopping is, therefore, counter-intuitive to their core.

Mushers in the area joke about my braking system. I carry a large piece of triangular firewood on my four wheeler and throw it under the front tire when we stop. Occasionally my "brake" flies out of the basket on the front of my four wheeler.

My "brake"

I bought new pads for my four wheeler, but before I left Ohio, found out that the drum was worn down so the new pads didn't even make a difference in stopping. And by that time, I didn't have time to do full repairs on the four wheeler. So I have winged it. Good practice for a sled, right?

During a 15 mile training run the other night, I stopped on a hill to water the dogs. It was still humid and warm - about 42 degrees - and when it's that warm, I carry water and stop along the trail to cool the dogs down with a fresh drink. Like clockwork, I chucked the "brake" under my front wheel which was also turned sharply to the left. I walked up the line of 10 dogs, patting heads and giving praise for a job well done, and threw the bowls down to begin watering, starting with my leaders.

Ruffian is my most intense dog, and young leader-in-training, Dirk, is close behind her.

By the time I set the bowls down in front of my wheel dogs, Ruffian and Dirk decided they were ready to go. They began hammering in their harnesses and barking intensely.

Before I knew what had happened, they pulled the quad over the "brake" and were hauling it up hill. Instinctively, I grabbed the gangline and yelled "whoa!" several times. I even called out Ruffian's name and told her "no!" sharply.

To no avail.

Don't worry. This story has a happy (but painful) ending. I ended up stopping the four wheeler ... with my body. I have a large, black painful welted bruise on my right hip to show for it. But I managed to hop on the seat, aggravated, but no worse for the wear.

my right hip. Ouch!

I saw Bob Shaw today. He stopped at the end of the driveway and asked how my adventures are going. I told him this little story.

He chuckled and said, "always an adventure with you!"

Yup. Always an adventure with these crazy dogs!

Monday, November 19, 2012

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ― Rollo May

Here’s what I’ve learned about myself as a writer and artist: my creative energies open up when I am in solitude. Perhaps this is why, whenever I have been in the U.P., my writing flows so easily.

Sometimes the silence here is almost deafening. It wakes me in the night; it reverberates inside my heart, shaking loose its secrets. The silence is a hum that bounces off my soul and allows me to better hear simple truths. My simple truths. 

There is never a time when I feel the fullness of solitude as when we run at night. Sometimes the only thing the U.P. has to offer is solitude and stillness.

As the dogs and I trekked through the woods last night, I stopped to water them and snapped this picture. Right after, I walked back down the line of dogs, 10 of them, all wagging and barking to go. I shut the engine of my four wheeler off and tried to imagine we were on snow and the team was hooked to my sled. 

Ruffian, my intense white leader, barked and called everyone to attention.

"Ready?" I asked, and Ruffian barked again in response.

"I was born ready!" she seemed to say.

The wind blew through the white pines and the dogs looked like dancing horses - all loping in perfect harmony. As we dipped down on the trail, the air seemed to cool and the dogs picked up their already swift pace, moving like a well-oiled machine. We reached 15 miles per hour on the cold stretch, winding in between the birch and spruce and aspen.

ghosts in the woods

Some don't like running at night, but I do. The darkness seems to magnify the solitude. I never feel afraid or alone when I'm out with a team in the night. Solitude is a place I visit often.

Tonight, I walked out of the tiny cabin under the stars. The moon was a hazy sliver in the sky. I looked up and thanked God for this opportunity - for helping me be true to myself. I am no longer living a lie.

Some may not like the words I have to say or the truths I have to speak, but I have spoken the hardest truths in the last six months, and I will always honor myself and those truths now.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Break out the blaze orange

Cathy hit a yearling deer on her way home from work last week. As I walked back to the cabin from feeding my dogs, I stopped to look at the young buck. Mike had already gutted it and hung it in a tree outside his wood shop. Only hours before, it was likely haphazardly grazing with its herd. I touched its soft fur, its eyes already clouded over with death. The button buds of antlers had just begun to sprout.

The deer are on the move. Opening day of rifle hunting is tomorrow, and most mushers steer clear of the woods and take a few days off out of respect for hunters. The dogs and I have run three days in a row this week so we could sit out the next few.

The team is looking great! There are 10 dogs in training: six boys and four girls. The entire pack is fairly young, with four yearlings, two 2-year-olds, two 4-year olds and two 5-year olds. Four members of the team were on the Midnight Run team from last season. Having that many young dogs (and un-neutered boys) in training has given some much-needed umph to the team. I am hopeful that we place at least mid-pack this season.

It's been fun working with the yearlings and watching them blossom. Primarily, the boys from the Reggae Litter (July 2011, Tak x Yeti) are looking phenomenal, with the same smooth, straight gait as their father. Two of them - Tosh and Wailer - have had a chance to lead and are proving to follow in their dad's paw prints. And up-and-coming star, Dirk, has led all three runs this week! So, with three main leaders and three leaders-in-training...I'm feeling pretty good about our ability to navigate. Can't have too many leaders!

Yearling, Dirk (right), next to Big Brown during a training run this past weekend
We were greeted with two inches of lovely white stuff two days ago, which caused the dogs to be extra happy and speedy. 



Can't wait until we can actually switch to sleds! Hopefully soon!

But for now, the dogs and I are going to enjoy some time off! 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

“It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance . . . I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” – Annie Dillard

I do some of my best thinking while making necklines. 

Some have been critical of my decision to take this sabbatical in the woods. They
ask when I’m going to stop “hiding out in Michigan,” or offer (mostly unsolicited) advice and suggest gently that I consider if I am “running away.”

What they don’t know is that I have been running away from myself for the last ten years, searching for peace outside of myself: through a marriage that didn’t work, through a job that didn’t last, through pretending to be something I am not.

Here in this cabin, I am no longer “hiding out.” I am authentic.  I am more completely and contentedly my self here than anywhere. I have little, and yet, I feel more grateful and satisfied with my life than I ever did when I was climbing some proverbial corporate ladder. When you strip away the clutter, gluttony and overabundance of life in America in 2012, you see the beauty and grace in simplicity. The less I have, the more complete I feel.

But, what I miss the most – what hurts the most – is the space between my two girls and me.
Last night, while weaving the black six millimeter poly rope into the small “O” shaped tethers that will attach to 10 of my best friend’s collars on the gangline, I thought about my children. My human children.

In June of 1999, I spent most of my days (and nights, it seems) walking the floors of my apartment on the backside of the Teton Range in Victor, Idaho with an intolerant, wailing infant Sophie.  I sometimes held her to my breast for hours just to have some quiet from her incessant crying. 

My Sophie Queen is now 13 1/2 and has blossomed overnight into a beautiful young woman who I am proud of. She is funny, sensible, smart and beautiful. 

Sophie's summer portrait, 2012
In May of 2004, Elise was born,  and she's always been my spunky, fiery little strawberry blond. My girls are totally different, but both beautiful and make me proud.

Elise's fall portrait 2012

I am a lot of things, including a mother. Why is it sometimes the things we are conflict with one another?
Sometimes it is necessary to heal ourselves before we can be good parents, role models, and providers.

I pray every night that God keeps my girls safe and happy while I am away. I do not take this time lightly. I am using it to get strong, realign my soul with my life, and come clean from ten years of running. Stopping here in this cabin in the woods, I am cracked open by God’s grace, and have come clean from pretense.

Those who criticize or judge I have no use for. Be my friend, or be nothing at all.

*                                    *                                    *                                    *                        *

Today is ridiculously warm. The sun emerged from its nest of clouds and warmed us up to 62 whopping degrees. It’s been a lazy Sunday. I spent time sitting out in the dog yard beside each dog singing to and loving on them and relaxing in the mild temperatures. 

Nova play bowing with me

We did a hard, slow run on Friday and the dogs felt it the next day. Tomorrow we're back on the trail. 

With love from the U.P. - I miss my girls! Love you Sophie and Elise! 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

In a space as small as this, function dictates form.

I have no cupboards, but I have an oven which has become a damned good storage space. I have no closet, but these magnificent, huge beams cross the entire width of the cabin. Some rope tired between two beams, and voila! Instant closet!

my "closet"

my bed, and the wood stove

Function dictates form: antlers make a great hat rack
Today, I drove to Manistique for a free chest freezer for the 50 pound blocks of meat I received recently for the dogs. Chunks of meat are chopped off with an axe and thawed in buckets...and once again, function dictates form: the buckets go in the shower.

Yes, buckets of beef thaw in my shower.

A word about the showering process.

The small six gallon water heater

It is far easier to live modestly in this small cabin that most would likely think. Even with a six gallon water heater, I've not once missed the large farm house I left in Ohio. I did worry about showering with my long crazy curly hair though. But it's been simple.

Step 1. Heat the cabin well with a toasty fire in the wood stove. This is important :)

Step 2. Get naked

Step 3. Turn the water on. I already know the exact location on the knobs for the perfect temperature quickly. Get everything - including my long crazy hair - wet

Step 4. Turn the water off. lather up the crazy hair

Step 5. Turn water on and rinse the crazy hair. Conditioner.

Step 6. Turn water off. Lather up everything else.

Step 7. Turn water back on and rinse everything off.

Sometimes I stand there for a few minutes of bliss under the hot water that remains. But mostly, I am thankful every day for a hot shower and to be clean, and thankful for a lesson in simplicity.

Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

My crazy 10-dog team stopped for water on a training run

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Falling in love...on election day

I have fallen in love with birch trees. 

While trekking down the trail this morning with the dogs, I thought of birch trees. 

So, after running the dogs, while the rest of the country squabbled over politics and stood in long voting lines, I grabbed my camera, hopped on the four wheeler and drove deep into the woods.

The sky was a whitish-grey, overcast and cold, seconds away from snowing all day. I drove down to what I call “Pretty Pond” on the far side of the “woods loop” of our training run route.  When I turned the four wheeler off, the silence filled my heart like a drum. I walked down an embankment blanketed with pine needles to the edge of Pretty Pond.

Freeze up has begun.

The aqua-bluish-green water that fills Pretty Pond has begun to slow down, grown dense, hushed by the silence of winter’s approach. A thin skin of ice covers the surface of the pond; random shards jet out along the top. Underneath, all is still. Lilly pads and foliage are locked in ice; I look for signs of life under the water’s surface, but can see none aside from the plants. Hoof prints dot the edge of the water, some thirsty ungulate – a deer – pawed at the surface of the pond for a drink in vain. 

As I hiked away from the frozen pond, I spotted a long thin felled birch. I thought it would be perfect for a curtain rod in the rustic little cabin. I rode back to the cabin with it, like some weird jockey riding with an earthy javelin.  

So many textures in the woods today. 

I'd much rather be here than in the voting booths. But thank God we live in a country where we can exercise our rights and express our opinions through democracy! I am thankful for that...and the woods!


Monday, November 5, 2012

Coyote and Bob Shaw

We are plunged into darkness, as if these cloudy, overcast days weren’t dark enough. Daylight savings time. Whose brilliant idea was that? Random, very faint snowflakes fall haphazardly from the sky. It would be easy to miss them, they’re so tiny.

Last night, I woke at exactly 2 a.m. to the sound of coyote frolicking very near the cabin. Their excited yips and barks were loud and made me think of laughter. I smiled to myself, threw another log in the wood stove, and snuggled back into my fleece sheets.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard my dog yard explode. Miles is the alarmist. On the edge of the beginning of the dog yard, nothing gets by his keen ears and he is quick to bark to warn the others of any activity. First, I heard Miles, then all the dogs began barking. There are several types of barks, and this was definitely a hackles-raised kind of bark. One of my females is in standing heat right now, and I worried that Mr. Coyote might try to breed her. I was just about to hop into my truck with a headlamp and a leash and go retrieve the female in heat, when as suddenly as it began, the barking stopped.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with Bob and Jan Shaw. Bob never tires of teasing me. He is jovial, with a pot belly and a fuzzy gray beard that gives him a Santa look that is endearing. His blue eyes sparkle with mirth. He began showing me pictures his trail cam had taken from his hunting cache, mostly funny stills of portly raccoons in mid-heist, and black bears.

One series of photos left a lasting impression, however. Bob had found a large roadkill deer and dragged it back into the woods in the last month to get it off the main road. He set the trail camera on the carcass, and the slideshow that followed was an eerie illustration of how handy nature cleans up after herself. A flock of turkey vultures descended on the carcass, stupidly unaware that they were being filmed in their decadent feast. One large bird seemed to look right into the camera, as if to pose, its large red face blank and expressionless.

A flock of raven then appeared. Within just two or three frames, the raven had skillfully peeled back the hide of the carcass, exposing the deer’s large rib cage ominously.

The next frame showed a large, beautiful coyote standing at attention next to the carcass. Its fluffy mane and strong stature made it look regal. In several frames, Coyote appeared startled, cautious – perhaps he’d heard the “click” of the trail cam going off. The temptation of the carcass was too much, and soon, he was gorging himself: first sharp canine teeth visibly tearing into a hind leg, then diving into the belly of the deer.

The last clip from the deer carcass series made the hair rise on the back of my neck. Throughout probably 20 slides, the deer was shown in various stages of decomposition. But, quite suddenly, on the last slide, the entire deer carcass disappeared. There was no evidence that the carcass had ever been there; not a trace remained, only the backdrop of conifers on a floor of pine needles and orange leaves that had once cradled the deer's lifeless body.

Nature is indifferent. She does what she does – whether it is hurricanes or carrion – apathetically and matter-of-factly.  She cares not. And we animals do what we must to survive. Even if it means carrying off whole carcasses to feed our families.

Anyone who feels that nature intently focuses on us, stalks us, or even cares one way or the other about us humans is a fool.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Updates from the north woods: "Weather changes moods" - Kurt Cobain

The dogs and I have been here nine days as of this posting, and have begun to settle into a rhythm. I haven’t seen a sunny day since I left Ohio, though, and this morning I woke with a heavy heart partially because of the constant rain, I think. It’s common for the skies to be cloudy this time of year in the Upper Peninsula, but this rain and lack of sunlight is kinda getting to me. 

The dogs LOVE the overcast cloudy skies, though. 

Tosh, quite comfortable under the cloudy U.P. skies
Everyone looks great, and they're in their element on these trails. Tosh has been showing good focus on our runs, and with lots of leaders in his background, I decided to put him up front for a mile of our 10 mile run yesterday. He was next to his dad for guidance and did great!

Fifteen month old, Tosh (white) lead for a bit yesterday with his dad next to him

Note worthy:

1. I've gotten good at mastering the art of showering with a six gallon hot water tank. I am thankful to have a shower at all, because at first, I didn't. I received a call from Mike Murphy, purveyor of the small cabin I am living in for the season shortly before I left Ohio saying that the hot water tank in the cabin was kaput. Thankfully, my friend Michael Betz, who was on his way down state from St. Paul, picked up a small hot water tank from craigslist and stopped over on his way down to help mushers and friends, Jerry and Ali Papke for the season. It's really not as bad as I thought it would be showering with such a small capacity of water, and makes me realize just how much water we use and waste every day of our lives in "normal" society.

2. I've also gotten good at the art of managing a fire in a small wood stove in a way that I don’t roast myself out. This was far more challenging than learning to shower with a small amount of water. The first few nights, I created (inadvertently) a veritable sauna in the little cabin. With all of the cold rain, warmth was a welcome relief...but I had to eventually open the window to breathe. I've gotten better at it now, though.

3. Those who know me know I have long been a vegetarian. Until I come up to the U.P. I'm not sure what has happened to me, but I have turned into a genuine meat eating machine like the dogs! Something about being outside working in the cold makes me crave meat. Gracie, my little house dog, has gotten really good at sniffing out the beef and begging. 

Gracie says "Where's the beef!?"
Today the dogs had a day off from running. We woke up to a beautiful dusting of snow that made it feel like winter. Tomorrow, we're back on the trail. 

As always,

....from da U.P. :)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?" William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

It is pouring rain as my headlights part the darkness along county road 407, a small paved road that snakes through miles of Jack Pine forests and connects Newberry to Grand Marais, Michigan in the eastern Upper Peninsula. I am still in shorts and a t-shirt from an unseasonably warm Ohio day when I arrive at the cabin, and I curse myself for my lack of forethought. I've already broken one cardinal rule of the great north woods: always be prepared.

I scramble onto the porch of the cabin in a futile attempt to evade the cold rain. The wooden door squeaks open, and I peer inside, flicking on the light switch but nothing happens. The power has been knocked out by the storm. Along with my warm clothes, my headlamp is also lost somewhere inside the labyrinth of boxes in the back of the Uhaul trailer. Along with the rest of my life. Luckily, I find a smaller headlamp in the console of my truck, strap it to my head and dart back onto the porch.

The small cabin smells like a familiar mix of burning wood and propane. It is only one room, 16x20, and made entirely of giant logs pulled from Hiawatha National Forest. The rain falls steadily on the tin roof, making the darkness feel even more lonely. There is a bed, a small wood stove, a simple table and chair set, a stove and fridge and a tiny bathroom. I sit down on the naked mattress, happy to have arrived after the ten hour drive.

This will be my home for the next five months.

I think of my children who are back in Ohio. What is it that makes a person feel at home in such a remote place? What is it that led me here to this tiny cabin near Lake Superior?

The wind picks up outside as the rain falls more intently on the tin roof. I snuggle up with my small spaniel/lab mix, Gracie, and try to sleep, but I am haunted by the things and people I've left behind and those yet to come.

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?  
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming  
That can sing both high and low;  
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,  
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—          
Every wise man’s son doth know.  
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;  
Present mirth hath present laughter;  
What’s to come is still unsure:  
In delay there lies no plenty,—          
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,  
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Richter scale of my heart

The Richter scale of my heart is through the roof right now. 

My emotional seismograph reverberates with anxious energy. The last leaves have changed around the Ranch, setting the surrounding hills all aglow, which seems to magnify the intensity of whatever mood the sky happens to be in. Today my mood matches that of the sky: brooding, cloudy.

Leaves dance and spin in a small corner near the old barn, and I can't help but feel akin to that spinning. In the last six weeks, plans have changed so many times, it's left my head spinning.

For once, words fail me, but what I lack the words to express, my body speaks for me loud and clear: my neck is stiff and tense from lack of sleep. I wake in the middle of the night anxious about this move. This is a time of transition, and it's certainly not without its challenges. But finally, on Thursday, I am headed north.

I am heading to a small 16x20 cabin in the great northwoods not far from Muskallonge Lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This is not unlike what I do every season. But this time, it is different. This time, I'm not coming back.

I've committed myself to 140 days of solitude in this cabin in the woods.

In preparing to move to this small cabin infor the next six months, I have begun the tedious task of paring down on all of my material possessions. I started in July with clothes - bags and bags of clothes from both my and my kids' closets donated.

Then I started going through drawers and cabinets. I found things I'd held onto for years - silly things I simply held onto under the guise of not being "wasteful": oodles of paper clips, old grade books from my teaching days, incense sticks from my college days, old compilation CDs people made for me, endless drawers of scrap booking and office supplies, coupons I'll never use and old receipts, all dusty and yellowed from time.

Here's the thing about things: they pass through us, coming and going, and ultimately there are very few things in this life that matter.  Even things I thought would never lose their meaning have. 

At this moment in my life, I want to live bare bones, to strip myself of all that's unnecessary.

Because, when all the "stuff" and distractions are stripped away, what you're left with is the undeniable confrontation of coming face-to-face with all of the fears and demons, weaknesses and haunts locked inside your meaty heart.

Like many, I've used things to distract myself: from being honest, from looking at the truth.

Thursday, I retreat to the woods for a sabbatical from ... almost everything. I hope to finish my first book in that time, and emerge from the woods changed. 

This is a time of enormous growth, and with that growth has come pain. But, Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living."

Have you examined your life today?

Thursday, October 11, 2012


This summer has brought a lot of changes to the kennel. I had to look hard at my goals for what I wanted to accomplish this season as well as make some tough decisions about some great dogs. Some of my dogs were better suited to recreational mushing homes, and others better suited to distance mushing homes.

What's the difference?

Well, first of all, recreational mushing dogs can be any dog breed. Some people mush with Golden Retrievers, Labs, or any kind of dog who has a propensity for pulling and loves to run. 

When it comes to competitive races, however, there are several types of races that mushers compete in. Sprint races, which are the shortest distances, are run with super fast dogs who are often crossed with hounds, like greyhounds. These dogs sometimes reach incredible speeds of 20 miles an hour or more, and run full-throttle for distances that are usually a mile per dog. For example, a four dog sprint team would run four miles. Open class unlimited sprint racers can run any number of dogs, however. The dogs that run these types of races tend to be shorter coated and sleek, leggy, fast machines. A popular sprint race in Alaska is the Fur Rondy.

The super endurance, distance races, like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, go over 1,000 miles. The dogs that tend to run these marathons typically have a dense coat and are heartier and muscled-up compared to the sprint dogs.

The kinds of races I ran last season and plan to run this season (and into the foreseeable future) are called mid-distance races. Like the name suggests, these races are in between sprints and distance races. The races I compete in are between 90 and 150 miles, and the dogs, like the race, are a blend of the best of both the sleek, fast sprint dogs and the woolly, muscled-up distance dogs. They tend to have finer bones than those who run ultra marathons, but are still beefy enough to break trail.

It might be worth noting that in mid-distance and distance races, mushers camp out with their dogs at certain mileages. A fourth type of race is the Stage race.  In these races, dogs and mushers rest at certain mileage points, just like in mid-distance and distance races, but mushers aren't required to "camp out" with their teams; they can check into their favorite hotel and snooze in a cozy bed. A well-known stage race is the International Pedigree Stage Stop.

Part of my paring down this summer was out of necessity due to life changes. But these changes gave me an opportunity to really study all of the dogs to discern who was the best fit for my race goals.

In the end, I was left with what I think will give me the best shot at stepping up my goals this season and being competitive.

I parted with seven beloved pack members since the end of July. But they all went to awesome homes - and several are now full-time house dogs, which makes me happy.

This also left me with only seven race dogs.

So...soon three new dogs will join Team Diamond Dogs. I can't wait to introduce them! Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving." Lao Tzu

I am a good traveler. I sometimes joke that I missed my calling as a long-distance truck driver, I'm such a good traveler. I enjoy new places, living out of a backpack, following my wanderlust.

What I've not been so good at, I admit, is making plans. Plans (to me) are tentative ideas. Fluid, not fixed. Translucent. My more rigid friends may find it frustrating to attempt to travel or make plans with me.

Schedules are also slippery.

Much to the chagrin of my family and friends, I am almost always late for everything. While traveling, I often pull alongside of some small, single lane highway (what my friend Sherry has nicknamed "blue highways" - those thin, blue ribbons of highways that snake in switchbacks along the pages of standard maps) wandering along the roadside to shoot photos of some haphazard beauty that caught my eye. Like this one, at Spirit Lake, Wisconsin.

Spirit Lake

I traveled recently to Wausau, Wisconsin for a job interview. There is nothing more beautiful than the Midwest in the height of fall.

All the pretty horses
It should be no surprise, then, given my proclivity for digression, that it's barely October, and my great plans for the season have already changed.

It seems this way every season. Mushers have great plans. This will be the year! But as all things with animals and people, plans change. Best to remain fluid and flexible.

So I've decided not to publish any kind of season goals until I'm further into training and can better gauge the dogs' training. We are signed up for the Beargrease Mid-Distance race in Duluth, MN, but that is also subject to change.

Stay tuned and keep rollin' with the changes!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Foxy: A Tribute. 12/28/96 - 8/30/12

Writing about grief is difficult for me. To be honest, I get squirrelly. I learned how to compartmentalize uncomfortable feelings well from working in hospitals for years. It's not necessarily a skill I am proud of, but one of self-preservation - a necessary evil when working around the tragedy of the human experience.

But this is not a tragedy. This is a heroic tale of an amazing canine athlete, one exalted to magnificent heights; indeed, Foxy lived a full and amazing life. I had to take some time away from this subject in order to write a proper tribute. In the quiet of a rainy post-holiday, it seemed the perfect time to slip away and lose myself in reflections of Foxy.

She would have been 17 on December 28. Seventeen in dog years is...119 years old. She was born on what I'm told was one of the coldest nights ever in Eagle, Alaska: December 28, 1996.

There are many stories from many people about Foxy and how she touched their lives, but I will start with my own.

I first met Foxy in September of 2006.

She was the first sled dog I bought. Her dense, woolly coat was unlike anything I'd ever seen on a dog; it seemed to almost glisten with an oily sheen that protected her skin and kept her dry and warm. Her huge paws had long tufts of hair growing out from between the pads to protect her feet; the same tufts grew out of each ear. Everything about Foxy made her perfectly equipped for the tundra of Alaska.

She had been transported from her home in Eagle, Alaska by one of the few other mid-distance mushers in Ohio, Tom Roig.When I brought her home after buying her from Tom, I spoiled her in ways she'd never been. She adjusted quickly to life inside, however. ...

I had hoped to use Foxy for at least one season, but when I got her, she was already nine years old, and pretty much done with being a sled dog. And really, she had earned the right to relax on the sofa. After all, she had run 950 miles of the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest sled dog race in single lead for Wayne Hall in 2002, and had literally run thousands of miles in her lifetime to that point.

She was in a book. She was in a movie. And she became the educational ambassador for my dog sled presentations; as such, she touched the lives of so many. Here are some photos from the many dog sledding talks we've done over the years:

Foxy learned quickly how to "work the crowd" in our talks. She walked up and down the aisles during our talks, stopping to visit each member of the audience for a pat on her fuzzy head. She taught Miles, my current education dog, how to work a crowd too.

Miles at only four months of age during one of my dog sledding presentations

A couple years ago, Foxy developed painful arthritis and retired fully from everything, spending her days sleeping peacefully here at the Ranch and wandering our seven acres.

This spring at the Ranch. A week old hen watches as Foxy walks by

Over the last week of her life, she woke me up crying out in the night - something Foxy never did. Her body was finally failing her after almost 17 amazing years. Her body may have been elderly, but her heart was still strong and refused to give up. Finally, I had to make the painful decision to ease her into the final stage of life.

Mushers have such a special, unique relationship with their canine friends and team mates. We spend so much time with them, are responsible for their happiness, health, and often witness as they take their first breath. But, we also have a responsibility, I think, to be with them when they take their last. I am honored to say I was right beside Foxy when she took her last.

Foxy lived a very full life. She touched the lives of so many, first with her athletic prowess and sharp mind, and later in life, with her gentle demeanor and patience with all people. I am honored to have had nearly seven years with Foxy, and to know well her life story. I am honored to have worked beside her both when she was in harness and in the classroom. She brought such joy and light to everyone she met.

My eight-year-old-daughter, Elise, bravely came with me to the vet on the final day of Foxy's life. As I knelt beside Foxy crying in the sterile office, Elise said, "don't worry, mommy. I've said a prayer for Foxy."

"What was your prayer?" I asked through my tears.

"I asked God to take away Foxy's pain, and take her spirit up to Heaven where she can run in the snow like in Alaska, forever and ever like a puppy again."

Here's to Foxy, with mush love.