Saturday, January 28, 2012

Make it look effortless

Recently, I met a mushing fan. Yes, there are mushing fans, just like there are fans of musicians and fans of basketball.

And this mushing fan said to me, "Wow, you get to race dogs. That must be wonderful!"

I stared at the wall thoughtfully for a moment, bit my lip, and carefully considered how best to respond to that statement.

At the same time, I had been up late studying the archives of past U.P. 200 and Midnight Run races. Looking hard at the run times. Scanning familiar names. In anticipation of our own rookie Midnight Run coming up in a few weeks.

Doing something well usually translates into making it look effortless to outsiders.

My response?

Yea, some days it's wonderful. A good day mushing is the perfect definition of "teamwork." Things run smoothly, we have no tangles or snafus. No one is in heat or goofing off or chewing necklines or slipping harnesses. Everyone eats well and has wagging tails after our runs and we all bed down for a long winter's nap with sweet dreams.

But, with my dogs - the oldest of whom is five and the youngest is 14 months  - most of our days are anything but wonderful! Eventful, maybe...

We have hours and hours under our harnesses: practicing, training, learning; in sleet, snow, rain, mud, ice; through several hundred miles and God knows how many chewed necklines (thanks to Aspen) and lots and lots of shenanigans, tomfoolery, and general mayhem to get to the two races we are competing in this season.

Freya being a goof ball on a muddy training run

And it's not just the dogs who are learning.

The deeper into this sport I immerse myself, the more I realize how much there is to learn. It's the difference, as an example, between playing a simple jingle on a piano to holding your own in a full-on performance of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Honing this craft takes so much work. Physical work. Disciplined work. And sacrifice. And more work. And it takes mistakes - making mistakes and getting back on the runners in order to right those mistakes.

But I wouldn't have it any other way, because at the end of the day, I know the dogs and I have all grown and learned together. Nothing can take that bond away.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Seventh grade science class in Elizabethtown, KY learns about dog sledding from Diamond Dogs

I am an educator first, before I've been anything else. I have taught grade-schoolers all the way up to middle-aged college freshmen returning to school. I spent seven years doing health education beside the beds of critically ill cardiac, Cystic Fibrosis, cancer and burn patients. I was raised to believe - and believe whole-heartedly - that education is the key to what makes or breaks us in life. It can change beliefs, prejudices, habits and lives.

Embracing my inner geek

I have been pleasantly surprised at how relevant and far reaching education can span within dog sledding. It involves tons of science: biology, genetics, ecology, geography. And one of my favorites: history!

Most know I do lots of educational presentations about dog sledding, but today was the first day I Skyped with an entire classroom of students about dog sledding! Technology offers such cool ways to learn about dog sledding - and science - from afar. I was impressed with the questions Ms. Kim Swickard's 7th grade science class at T.K. Stone Middle School asked me during our dog sledding Skype session today. They asked thoughtful questions, like how do you train the dogs, and how often do people get hurt in dog sledding. They also asked things like what kind of sports I played as a kid, and what I do in my spare time.

Finally, one student asked a question that has been popping around backstage in my mind, the question probably all mushers are asked and entertain at some point: do you ever want to run a long distance race like Iditarod

Almost six years ago, I said I had a short-term goal to run the U.P. 200. I keep running longer races, and no matter how long, no matter how many hours I am out there on the sled, I never want it to end.

I have always said I have no desire to run any kind of super distance marathon like Iditarod - the lack of sleep alone would just about kill me, not to mention it is super expensive: just the entry fee for Iditarod costs about as much as a fairly decent used car.

But something has shifted in me this season. I just keep doing longer races, and at the end of every one of them, I don't want it to end. And, as I said to my friend and mentor, Jodi Bailey, I started thinking,  if my dogs can do a 42 mile race at a 9.1 mile an hour pace, that's kinda like running from one checkpoint to the next in the Iditarod. It always seemed overwhelming to think about until now: 1,150 miles. Holy shit. Who does that? But now, I think, it's just a series of 42 mile, 18 mile, 50 mile, 90 mile runs.

And I guess that's how it starts. When you can look at that 1,150 miles and not see that number, but as each piece as a stepping stone to the big picture. Right?

And I can see that now. My mind has shifted.

And, as Jodi replied, "The mind shift is the first step, something goes from impossible to plausible to possible, and then you're doomed *hehehe*"

You can learn more about one of my favorite people, Jodi Bailey and her husband Dan and their adventures here

So, to answer the question, yea, I can see someday possibly attempting a race like Iditarod. I have lots of races that loom in the distance as long-term goals: The International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, Montana's Race to the Sky, Minnesota's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and, closer to home and more immediately attainable, The U.P. 200 and The Copper Dog 150....

That's it. I am, indeed, doomed :)

For more information about how you can use mushing in your classroom, please visit any of the race sites linked above, or click on the following:

Polar Husky

Will Steger Foundation

The Iditarod: for Teachers

Outward Bound Wilderness Expeditions

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An ode to dogs: a commentary on Seasonal Affective Disorder

The snow is falling lightly, haphazardly floating through the cold air like a daydreaming grade schooler.

It is 27 degrees, and the dogs are amped, pacing back and forth as I grab a three-pound bag of frozen meat and begin to soak it in steamy hot water for them. Some are barking, some are howling. Miles and Freya are my worst pacers. They circle their houses all day long, itching to run and begging for more when we stop running.

I need the dogs' enthusiasm. They ground me, keep me focused during the dark winter months.

It started when I was young, about fifteen. Winter felt like a shroud that engulfed me. I slept too much, but still felt tired. I was listless, despondent. I pushed my friends away inadvertently.

In college, it grew worse. Without the structure of my parents' home and daily routine, I fell into a deep depression that first winter away. I gained weight and skipped classes just to sleep. And northeast Ohio winters didn't help.

Many people experience this in the winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D)affects people most commonly between the ages of 15 and 55, and women are more at risk. It is thought to be triggered by lack of sunlight.

I admit, sometimes I struggle with these feelings even now.

But, this is one proactive reason why I got into dogs and winter sports.

One way to combat S.A.D. - or any depression - is to get active! 

Having the dogs here, with their endless energy and vivacious appetite for living motivates me. They make me happy. Seeing them doing what they love, watching them grow and training them from puppies to be the amazing athletes they were born to become - this is happiness to me.

Being outside with them is the best medicine for almost anything that ails me. 

My new leader, Big Brown, being bossy on the trail

A dog doesn't question why. A dog is the moment. 

Perry, one of Tak's six month old pups, howling out of the roof of his kennel. We had a huge wind storm with 45 mph winds at the Ranch recently, and it partially blew the roofs off some of the kennels.
Traveling to distant beautiful places to train and race is one of my favorite things.

Crossing a frozen lake on the Jack Pine race trail in 2010

Dogs are the ultimate Zen animal. Neither looking to the future nor reminiscing about the past, they move in the pure joy of the here and now. They work hard when they work, play hard when they play, and sleep hard when they sleep. And they want nothing more. 

I am thankful every day for my dogs: for their spirit and lust for life. Here's to my amazing dogs, to life, and to dogs everywhere.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It takes an army to put dogfood on the table

We are in the home stretch of training/racing season, and have spent a lot of money training this fall.

Unfortunately, I lost my job this past September. Money is extremely tight here on the ranch. Without the support of generous people who have helped us to the starting line at each race, we would not be able to do what we do.

Please consider donating to the kennel. Follow this link for an easy way to donate.

If you can't donate directly, please consider passing this link along on your Facebook or Twitter accounts.

We've never asked for sponsors, and honestly, I'm still a little uncomfortable doing it. But it takes an army to put dogfood on the table. Thank you for everyone who has helped us along the way.

And, as always,

Monday, January 16, 2012

Honest dogs

There is a phrase in mushing that I love. Honest dogs

Honest dogs are dogs who give 110% all the time, every time they run.

I was looking through the International Rocky Mountain Stage Stop page tonight - the place where I learned about mushing initially. Wyoming. And many of the same mushers who were in the race I was in last weekend are running the Stage Stop. Fast teams. Fast dogs. Dogs who win trophies and money.

Trophies lined up at the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race Awards Ceremony

I really don't have "fast dogs." We've won two trophies and $50 in our entire six years of mushing.

But I have honest dogs who work hard, and I am proud of them.

Our time at Tahquamenon with all of the stops, attempts to hook down, capture loose dogs and general mayhem was still 9.17 miles per hour. Had those things not happened, my dogs likely would have run a steady and respectable 10 or 11 miles per hour.

We can't hold a candle to teams that run 15 miles or more an hour.

But, I don't really want to.

We are what we are. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Be yourself; ...Listen to that inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for."

We are great at venturing out into the woods with only a wanderlust and our lonely spirits to guide us.

Eight fur kids on a portion of trail used for the Seney 300 Iditarod qualifier and training run
We try to be gracious to those who have helped us along the way...

Accepting the Red Lantern at the Tahquamenon Race and publicly thanking fellow musher, Liza Dietzen for capturing my loose dog
We try to be forward thinking, not harping on the past, but learning from our mistakes and looking to the future...

One of Tak's puppies from last July, Tosh, and Elise. Tosh is Elise's sled dog :)
I am not competitive when it comes to mushing. I'm happy wherever we place, as long as my dogs are happy and healthy. Because they're good dogs.

Honest dogs.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Never give up, no matter what is going on, never give up..." - His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

(aka the harrowing tale of Aspen's get away)

Sometimes, something happens that throws even my own story telling abilities for a loop. Lots of people have asked for updates about our first race, and when I sat down to tell the tale, I didn't know where to begin. So, I did what I suggest you do: grab a cuppa joe, sit back, and read on for the harrowing tale of Aspen's get away. 

The dogs and I arrived in the Upper Peninsula on Thursday - just enough time for a short 15 mile run to stretch the legs before race day on Saturday. I had been fretting before we left because one of my main dogs - Tak - had come into full standing heat. I decided to bring Aspen, who I had dropped from training for obnoxious behavioral issues like neckline chewing, and turning around on the gangline. Aspen was also coming into heat, but was not as far along as Tak.

Our pre-race run went off without a hitch. The team looked great, and I was only going to take them 10 miles, but they looked so strong, I let them go a little further.

My team stopped on the trails outside of Nature's Kennel

Things seemed beautiful on our short run, with more than adequate snow cover - enough to hook down with snow hooks. When we arrived at the drivers' meeting Friday night, however, we received a different message. Trail boss, Bob Shaw, went over the trail conditions for the race course, warning that there were bare spots and lots of ice in the beginning right out of the starting chute. Conditions up at Rainbow Lodge where the race start is held can be very windy, which was the case the morning of the race start. Wind had apparently blown much of the snow cover off the open parts of the course, and with the mild temperatures and thaw a day or so before the race, and then the freeze again, the start was an ice rink.

I spotted my friends Larry and Joann Fortier parked in the 8 dog pro parking area and walked up to Joann.

"Have you walked the chute yet?" she asked.

"No," I replied.

"Go walk it. It's scary," she said.

Sure enough, it was every bit what Bob Shaw described. Barren with mostly ice, some rocks, and a big mound of dirt/sand about 30 feet from the starting line.

"Okay, it is what it is," I thought. "We will make the best with what we've got."

Mushers always have the option of not running a race course if they think it is unfit or are worried about it for whatever reason. But, I had driven nine hours for this race, and it is always one of my favorites. Tahquamenon country is some of the most beautiful winter country I've ever experienced on a dogsled. Not running it was not an option.

The Start
I was super delighted to be joined by my friend and supporter, Dennis Waite, at the race site. Dennis has single handedly contributed more to our success this season than any other sponsor. For whatever reason, Dennis believes in me. He says I have "grit." :)
Dennis and me with overstuffed pockets at the race site before the Tahquamenon race
The race site was barren. I wondered briefly if we'd even be able to make it to the starting line, there was so much grass exposed.

Hooking up eight mutts
I was most nervous about the very beginning. But, really, it was clean sailing through the starting chute. It was afterward that things began to get hairy, and it had nothing really to do with the trail initially.

Leaving the starting line
Yeti, my big male leader (on the left in the photo above) has this habit of stopping the team on a dime to poop. When this happens, I have to quickly react with the brake - otherwise, I have a tangled up bunch of dogs on my hands. Ruffian, my other leader (white dog on the right in the photo above) has an equally annoying habit of turning around to look at the team and me when we stop for Yeti to poop. Within the first mile, this scenario happened, except, we were on solid ice - nothing for my brake to grab onto in order to stop abruptly. Before I knew it, I had a tangled mess up front, and no way to stop the team in order to fix things.

I frantically began looking for a tree or anything to hook to, but there was nothing. The eight dog pro class was full with 20-some teams signed up, including Ryan and Erin Redington, and blazing fast competition. While I struggled to find anyplace to hook to, the competition was flying past me and my dogs became increasingly tangled. And furious with each other.

Tangled dogs tend to blame their neighbor for their entrapment. It's like they can't wrap their doggie brains around what's happening and have to lash out at someone in their frustration. This situation was quickly happening between Ruffian, and Gwennie, my point dog just behind Ruffian who were beginning to fight. I desperately needed to right this situation, and fast.

I finally took a chance. I managed to vaguely hook down on the berm along the icy roadside and jumped off the sled, running up to my leaders and whoaing the dogs repeatedly praying to God they didn't take off without me. They were so tangled, however, that they likely couldn't have gotten very far if they had taken off without me. I got my leaders and point dogs untangled, but missed Aspen, in wheel, who had other things in mind.

Aspen's Getaway 

Remember I said I had dropped Aspen from training? She had probably chewed through thirty necklines this fall alone. I tried everything - running chains so she couldn't chew for a month, doing mock hook ups to correct the behavior - but as soon as I put a poly neckline back on her, she was back at it, chewing her way through the thin 6 millimeter rope in one snap.

Unbeknownst to me, while I busily untangled the mess I had in the front of my team, Aspen was chewing away like a beaver in the back of my team. In a flash, suddenly, she chomped through her neckline, backed out of her harness, and was gone loping beautifully and freely up the trail without us like some wild and gorgeous gazelle, all legs and flash.

I have to admit, it was a sight to see, watching her loping up the trail next to other teams. She was having a blast! And luckily, I free run my dogs daily, so she comes faithfully when I call her.

Only, this time, she had apparently lost her hearing...or she was just having too much fun to pay attention to me, because she didn't seem to notice me screaming her name.

I hopped back on the sled and off we went, chasing Aspen up the trail.

We chased her for a good mile before we came to a turn off where the trail goes into the trees. Former musher-turned-trail-help Lyle Ross stood at this turn off.

"Did you see a loose dog?" I yelled at Lyle

"Yea," he said nonchalantly. "There are people at the first road crossing. They'll catch her."

We turned the sharp left into the trees. I saw Aspen two teams up still loping along joyfully. Then, she stopped abruptly, looked at me, and then suddenly darted into the woods. I feared the worst. If she didn't come back to me, I would be disqualified. Worse yet, I didn't want her loose in those woods, which are populated with wolves.

I began to get a bit angry. I thought, "if I catch Aspen, I am dropping her at the first dog drop! That's it!"

But then I remembered my own mantra: they're just dogs. 

It wasn't Aspen's fault she was causing such chaos. She was having fun cavorting about with her fellow doggie friends. She was just being her silly, flirtatious, fun-loving doggie self.

We turned the curvy, winding trail and I continually stopped to attempt to hook down. In vain. I thought if I could just stop the team and call her, she would come to me and I could hook her back in the team. Meanwhile, teams kept passing me. Once, while I attempted to hook down, Bruce Magnusson, winner of the 8 dog pro race, suddenly came up behind me and his leaders necklined the back of my knees. He apologized profusely, but I felt bad too as if my dog wasn't loose, I wouldn't have been trying to hook down in the first place!

Finally, after at least 45 minutes of attempting to hook down in vain, my friend Liza Dietzen came up behind me. She passed me and asked if I was alright. I explained briefly that my dog was loose, and just then, Aspen appeared on the trail. Liza and I somehow managed to hook down - me to a tree and I'm not sure how Liza stopped. Liza reached down and gently grabbed Aspen's collar, and I ran up and grabbed her. I thanked Liza, telling her I owed her one, and she was off.

In seconds, I had Aspen back in harness, a new neckline attached to the mainline, and had her back in the team. I hupped the dogs, and around this time, we headed into the trees where the trail was more normal for this time of year in the U.P. Aside from a little bumpy ride at the first road crossing, and a little icy section through a logging yard, the trail was gorgeous, and everything I remembered. We had a fairly uneventful rest of the 42 mile course. Before I knew it, we had reached the road crossing back that marked five miles left of the race. And for all of the craziness, I had a blast.

A beautiful photo by my friend and fellow photographer, Aladino Mandoli, of my colorful team running down the race trail

A little bumpy ride at the first road crossing leaves me looking a bit nervous :) Another beautiful capture by Dino - thanks Dino!

Red lantern

No matter how long I'm out on the trail, I don't ever want our runs to end. I started running dogs thinking 10 miles was long. We gradually moved into 20 and 30 miles because I just couldn't get enough. I can honestly say, at the end of this 42 mile race, I didn't want it to end.

I said when I started this journey six years ago that I wanted to eventually run the U.P. 200 - a 240 mile checkpoint race and Iditarod qualifier. I have also said I had no interest in ever running the Iditarod.

But, for the first time, not only can I see that goal of running the U.P. 200 becoming a reality, I am not opposed to doing a super marathon like the Iditarod. Someday...

I don't care where we place in our standings. I knew going into this race that the competition was fierce, and that we would likely be at the back of the pack. I don't race to hurry through and get to the end, never seeing the beauty all around between the start to the finish line.

We ended up finishing the 42 mile race course in 4 hours, 58 minutes and some seconds, and winning the red lantern. But I am super proud of my fur kids. They held a steady pace, and finished tired but happy and healthy, which is all I could ask for. And five hours out on that beautiful trail wasn't possibly enough, so after a day off, we headed out for another 20 mile run :)

And, maybe I shouldn't even race, because really, I just love being out there in solitude with my dogs in the woods. It's the ride I adore, not the end point.

And, after all, it's just a ride...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's." J.D. Salinger

Resolutions can be dizzying.

We want things to change, to cast off that which is bothersome, cumbersome, or otherwise painful. We look at the mistakes we have made over the past year, and we resolve to do better as parents, employees, sons and daughters, spouses and friends. We promise ourselves we will get healthier, lose weight, save money, but,  our commitment to those promises is often lackluster.

Like the 80's U2 song says, "nothing changes on New Year's Day."

Tonight I am thinking hard about honest resolutions I can keep. I resolve to be true to myself. So often we get caught up in worrying about what others are doing, especially in competitive sports. But, I've always been secure in moving at my own pace, and I refuse to get caught up in comparing myself, my dogs or our runs to any others. I am not in dogs for that reason. We do what we can, and as long as my dogs are happy and healthy, I don't care where we place.

I resolve to have courage to face adversity - whether on the trail or in life.

I resolve to embrace the weather, no matter what the day brings: rain, snow, ice, sun, heat, humidity. I will try to be thankful for each day - although I struggle with the heat and humidity :)

I resolve to put my family first, including all two and four legged beings in my care.

And I resolve to continue to root for the underdog. I've always had a soft spot for the underdogs in life: those who manage to triumph against the odds, who find victory despite challenges and probable failure.

Happy New Year, and may you find peace and the courage to meet your resolutions for 2012!