Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Story from Diamond Dogs Ranch

My sled runners sound like the hull of a ship parting cold water. At least that's what they remind me of. They creak rhythmically as they part the snow, matching the cadence of the dogs' jingling collars. We fly down the side of County Road 407 and turn sharply into the woods - the first few miles of our 41 are already behind us.

The Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race is always our first race of the season, and our first test of four months of training. While children anticipate Kriss Kringle's jovial ride down their chimneys, I  anxiously await the first jovial ride on the race runners shortly after, on January 4.  

In preparation for race time, I have been busily preparing many things which made me reflect on all the things required to be a musher besides balance on the runners. Here is a list of occupational vocations mushing has forced me to wrestle with. 

To tackle these last couple weeks of training, and because I have been unable to buy dog booties from my normal supplier in the size I need, I launched into bootie-making, with a lot of help from my mom. I obtained a simple pattern from my mushing friend, Jenn, and set out to make a few dozen booties. How hard could it be, right? 

Future dog booties

Mom sewing booties while I cut them
Making booties ended up being a lot more time consuming and labor-intensive than I originally anticipated. Because of several mishaps with my mother's ancient Singer sewing machine, circa 1962, making one bootie took about two hours. The bobbin inside the machine refused to thread properly.

After several unsuccessful attempts at threading, mom, obviously frustrated with the endeavor, tossed the stubborn bobbin aside with an exasperated sigh.

"But mom," I reasoned. "Think of all the memories we are making."

"All this is making me is p*#sed off!" mom said with a laugh.

Finally, we achieved the end result.

The finished product
One down, 35 to go!


Because my former dog-hauling trailer didn't have tires that could sufficiently carry the weight of dog boxes and dogs to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and back without several hundred dollars in repairs, flat tires and tow trucks in October, I recently invested in a larger, more sturdy trailer for the dogs.

The new-to-me trailer in the process of being converted into dog trailer
Anyone unfamiliar with how sled dogs travel to races? This is how. Each dog has a box which mushers typically call "holes." This trailer will be an "eight hole box" - meaning it will comfortably carry 8 dogs safely in cozy little traveling dog houses.

The beginnings of two new boxes, thanks to my friend Greg for helping!

There are so many vocations mushing has forced me to tackle in life: mechanic (trouble-shooting four wheeler problems is a common mushing conundrum); dietitian (balancing proper nutrition for these high-octane beasts is a challenge!); pseudo veterinarian (administering vaccinations, vitamins, medications); guide (navigating 40 miles of trail and having a good trail sense isn't for everyone).

But the most important thing my dogs have taught me is to be prepared for anything, and to have perseverance in the face of adversity. And that leads me to the other vocation mushing has brought to me: story teller.

Sit down, grab a cup of Christmas hot cocoa, and listen to a story about adversity.

The other day during a training run, I took a different trail than normal and came head on with a fairly large downed tree across the middle of the trail. There was a steep drop to my left and a bog to my right; the tree was long and very thick. There was no going over or around it. And the trail was narrow - too narrow to simply turn the team of dogs around.

I had no choice but to unhook the team from the four wheeler, hook them to the tree, turn the four wheeler around by driving over saplings and other thicket, and rehook the team.

This was only eight miles into a 30 mile run. Translation: the dogs were still quite amped!

Unhooking an entire gangline of nine "hot" dogs from a four wheeler while still keeping them on the gangline is a delicate maneuver. A black lab pulling its owner down the sidewalk on a leash has nothing on a team of sled dogs! I unhooked 6 of 9 tuglines (what the dogs pull with) so they couldn't get the leverage to drag me down the trail; they were connected to the gangline by only their necklines. I grabbed an extra tugline I had stowed in the four wheeler for emergencies and wrapped it around the tree; then I secured the gangline to this rope. Once this was done, I had the four wheeler turned around and backed up to the wheel dogs in no time. Easy peasy....

But when I unhooked the line from the tree, the dogs became excited and pulled me down hard onto my butt, dragging me a good 10 feet down the trail in the mud before I managed to stop the team.

Whoever invented Gortex® is a God.

"Whoa-whoa-whoa!!" I yelled.

Ruffian, my inquisitive and ever-in-tune white lead dog turned to look at me, head cocked to one side slightly. Something was amiss with mom, she could tell.

The team on the trail. Ruffian (left) and her sister, Big Brown (right) in lead

I had a few seconds. In the time it took her to process that, I quickly pulled the dogs back and slipped the gangline back into the carabiner on the four wheeler. Now they were reattached to the 500 pound machine with brakes. Whew! I quickly reattached all of their tuglines, and away we went!

I know many people who do not have the patience or tolerance to sort through a situation like that. Making critical decisions quickly, calmly and efficiently is a life skill I largely attribute to mushing.

We leave shortly for our first race. As I wrap up this post, Christmas is officially over. In the last couple days, the dogs and I have logged over 50 miles. This is always our last strenuous training weekend before our first race.

And there, to my team I will give a whistle, and away they will fly like the down of a thistle. And you'll hear us exclaim as we drive out of sight, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Saturday, November 30, 2013

November: make it or break it

November is the month in fall dog training where, in my opinion, the most growth occurs. November is when we move from the shorter, fun runs of October into longer mileage. The early days of November can still be mild, but by this time in the season, the runs are long, cold, and sometimes tedious.

I have changed my strategy this season. In the past, I've been most concerned with the number of miles accumulated on the team. This season, I've focused on consistent, quality hook-ups and time on the trail rather than the accumulated total miles.

The biggest challenge this season has been training exclusively from the farm in Ohio. I have to run partially on roads, and though I have trained the dogs to run on the berm, we still have to rely on roadways to cross into trails. This can really take a toll on paws and joints, so on almost every run, I have been double-booting the dogs to protect their feet.

This can take a toll on my purse!

These are dog booties. Image courtesy of Katy and Troy Groeneveld of Ten Squared Racing.  

Booties range from $1.50 - $2.50 per boot. I currently have nine dogs in training, and covering back feet is imperative for seven of the 9 dogs I have. That's 28 boots. For one run. Dollar-wise, that's about  $42 in booties. Most of the time, I re-use booties. But often, the outer most bootie can't be re-used.

Then, there are necklines, snaps and rope.

A handful of fresh, clean necklines 

I happen to have a team of sharks instead of dogs. They think necklines and tuglines - the rope that connects the team to the mainline that pulls the sled - are dental floss. I have to babysit them while I am hooking up to make sure they don't chew threw my necklines while I'm hooking the rest of the team. I've gone through more necklines this season than I care to count.

So I had an idea.

Secret weapon against neckline chewing?
A bottle of hot sauce costs about .59 cents. I doused my lines with the stuff in an attempt to prevent the dogs from chomping through them during hook-ups. I thought it was sure to work.

Turns out, dogs think hot sauce is the cat's meow. They were licking my line - and their lips - more than ever.

So much for that.

I am currently looking for sponsors to help offset the cost of booties, necklines, and all the other costs associated with keeping the team healthy and happy. All sponsors receive a "thank you" calendar of your choice of photos from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the beautiful land we train and race in or of the dogs.

If you'd like to make a donation to the kennel, click here

Our first race, The Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race, is January 4 along the shores of Lake Superior. December will be busy! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"...there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars...” - Kerouac

I look in the houses as I pass at the televisions glowing in the dim light through picture windows. People warm in their houses watching The Office. I could be home watching television. Instead, I'm out here.

Smoke hangs in the boggy recesses from distant wood stoves. The dogs alert me to things in the woods before I even notice them other wise. My leaders' ears perk up, alert, searching the thicket. Two green dots glow in the woods, something watching me, us. I look over, and the pale beam of my headlamp parts the darkness and finds a lone doe standing, staring at what must seem like a startling spectacle on the trail. A girl and 9 dogs in the night.

I'm tired. After teaching all morning, working for my other job at the medical school, zooming home to be there for Elise when she gets off the bus, and dealing with dinner, it's sometimes difficult to find the motivation to head out into the night and hook up nine screaming huskies hell bent on miles to a line and go.

But once I'm out there, under the stars breathing that cool, crisp air, I'm wide awake.

The dogs chug along, puffs of steam rising from their mouths like tiny train engines. I look up at the stars; it seems like there's a billion visible out here in the night. I think about the upcoming winter.

Mushing is not for those who need instant gratification. It takes perseverance and dedication in training to build up to a place where dogs can go miles and miles once the snow flies. Hours are logged behind dog butts to get to that point, build endurance and good habits and muscle. Keeping perspective is essential. I must remember always what the end goal is. My friend Joann Fortier has a saying for those nights when we don't feel like hooking up the dogs: you just got passed. Consistent hook ups are crucial. Even on nights when we might not want to.

I think of Kerouac and one of my favorite lines: "there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rollin' under the stars."

And we keep rollin, rollin, rollin...

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fall in full swing

Fall is in full swing, and unfortunately, blogging about it has been the last thing on my mind!

October is always my favorite month, and it's a time of real conditioning for the dogs. In the beginning of the month, our focus is on muscle-building, and slow, shorter runs are key. We start out the season with 2-4 mile training runs to get the dogs back in the swing of things, but by mid-October, we're running 10 miles.

Every year for the past seven seasons, I drive up to my friends Bob and Jan Shaw's home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for their annual fall sled dog training session. They live right next door to the cabin I lived in last season. My oldest daughter, Sophie, has grown up knowing them as sort of surrogate grandparents. It was with Jan that Sophie had her first solo ride on a dog sled when she was seven. Hard to believe that was seven years ago!

Sophie is a teenager now and has taken an interest in other things besides hanging out with her mom and a bunch of dogs. It's been awhile since she joined me up north, but this season was extra special as she decided she wanted to return to the great north woods with her sister and me for a weekend of running dogs!

Sophie hugs a dog at Nature's Kennel
We had a great weekend running dogs and catching up with all of our mushing friends ... after a slight mishap. On the desolate stretch of M-123 between Trout Lake and Moran, where it's almost impossible to even reach a cell signal, the dog trailer got a flat. It was just after dark, and I had no way to change the tire, for, you see, this is not just any dog trailer. This is my dog trailer: which the previous owner had conveniently rigged to make it impossible to change a tire by bolting the wheel to the axle. A normal tire iron will not work; one needs socket wrenches and tools.

Luckily, I was traveling within 30 minutes of friends I've known but had only just met that day: Sandy and Karyn, who were en route to Shaw's training session, too. I had just enough signal to put out an S.O.S. to them, and they came to find the girls, dogs and me stranded there by the side of the tiny state road.

For the sake of brevity, the cliff's notes version of the story is we managed to double-box some of Sandy and Karyn's dogs two-to-a-box - enough to make room for mine...with some improvising. Four of mine had to ride in the car with the girls and me. I picked the four who I knew would get along splendidly and we finally made it to Bob and Jan's!

It was bittersweet being back on these same beautiful trails that were our backyard last season.

Stopped along the trail, Tosh (right) gets a turn at lead with Big Brown (laying down)

The dogs knew exactly where we were. The trails are so good for the dogs because they're all sand. Great for feet, joints and muscle-building.

The team running in the morning sun

I miss living up in the Upper Peninsula, and it was awesome to spend time with the girls in these old stomping grounds. They're such good helpers and always so good with the dogs. 

Elise hugs Dove aka Dover - a dog I'd known years ago who now runs tours at Nature's Kennel
Here are some pictures taken of the team taking off, thanks to mushing fans and supporters, Claudia and Lee Nowak.

My crazy dogs, amped and ready to roll

And we're off!

Saturday night, we all gathered inside to eat some great food and listen to Bruce Magnusson talk about the Copper Dog 150
And catch up with good friends. My friend, Stan, sits next to me. I was focused on listening to Bruce

Now it's November, and the fun short training runs will give way to longer, colder, and often wetter training runs. We have a lot of work ahead of us in the next two months before our first race. Stay tuned and as always...

Monday, September 2, 2013

Welcome Fall!

Normally training season kicks off for the Diamond Dogs this weekend, but unfortunately it's been too hot and humid to hook the dogs up. For the health and optimal performance of the dogs, a "rule of thumb" is not to run sled dogs when the temperatures are over 55 degrees. Today had me fantasizing about last season. The dogs and I can't wait to start running! Happy Labor Day and welcome fall! It won't be long before we are back in our favorite place: on sleds in the snow!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” ―Benjamin Franklin

My hands are like fine grit sand paper. Cracks, banged up cuticles and swollen fingers. I am a beautician's nightmare; no hand lotion can penetrate this.

Four months of training culminated this past weekend in the Midnight Run. I'm still processing a lot of what happened this weekend, but felt I owed it to some to publish some of the details of our race, what I learned in the hopes that the information can help other mushers, what went wrong, what worked, and what I would change.

Part One: Marquette to Chatham 

This was our second Midnight Run, and we had trained hard from the cabin in the tiny mushing community of Deer Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan since October. The dogs had a solid 850 or so miles under their harnesses, and I felt confident that we could improve our standing from last year's next-to-last finish.

My friend Kathleen drove all the way from Minneapolis to mostly observe and learn as much as she could about a check point race; we met at the banquet and I introduced her to many friends I am proud to call a sort of extended family. As the race committee started the bib draw to decide the starting order for mushers, I said to Kathleen, "I just hope I am not first." Almost on cue, my name was called. I would be bib #1 for the 2013 Midnight Run - the first down the trail! Yikes.

The next morning at the vet check, I was pleased that all the dogs received a perfect score of health from the vets.

Yearling, Tosh, is checked out before the race. All the dogs receive thorough veterinary care before, during and after the race to ensure they are healthy and happy

Despite my nervousness, we had no problems heading down the starting trail in downtown Marquette. I love running along Lake Superior through the city passed the houses. People came out to support the race, camping by little campfires along the trail, wishing us good luck as we passed and it was cold as the temperature dropped and snow began falling.

I held my team back until we were out of the city and into the darkness of night. Once I let them go and took my foot off the drag pad, the Garmin Forerunner on my handlebar told me we were hitting speeds of 14-15 miles per hour. The trail was fast along the lake, and I put my foot back on the drag mat to hold them at a steady and conservative 10 or 11 miles an hour.

When we turned off into the woods to head for Chatham, the snow picked up. I could hardly see with the blinding snow in the beam of my headlamp. I love this part of the race. It's so fun to see all of my favorite people and their teams running in the woods at the same time and we chat as we pass each other. The dogs worked hard that first stretch, and I worked hard to help them, running up the hills and pedaling whenever we slowed.

I am not a "competitive" musher. All I ever strive for is a respectable middle-of-the-pack status. I beamed as we crossed under the arch into the checkpoint at Chatham far sooner than I expected, finishing the 45 mile leg at 1:58 a.m. We achieved the solid middle-of-the-pack standing I wanted. Click here for the checkpoint summary at the Chatham checkpoint.

My friend Mike Betz, Kathleen and I quickly fed the dogs and had our vet check as soon as we came in. The dogs all looked great and ate and drank well. We spread straw out, jacketed the dogs, rubbed feet and muscles and covered each fuzzy member of the team with a blanket for our five hour checkpoint. Then I quickly crawled into my sleeping bag for some rest. It was nearly 3 a.m.

It was very cold that night, and I didn't take my parka or anything off before bedding down. All the snow that fell during the first leg began to melt and drip onto my face and I suddenly shivered in the cold. I could not sleep. It seemed like I finally drifted off when Kathleen woke me at 6:30 a.m.

We walked some of the dogs to warm them before our take off time at 7:54. They again all drank well and we began bootying each foot. Everyone looked perky and ready as we headed for the chute to start the second leg.

My team leaving the Chatham checkpoint as dawn broke Saturday morning

The difference between our first leg of the race and the last are as opposite as black and white. There are many lessons the trail can teach, first and foremost is humility.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Chatham to Munising...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Musher as coach: the symbiotic relationship between sled dogs and their person

"I don't believe in team motivation.
I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows
it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field
and be prepared to play a good game."
    -Tom Landry

I have a very young team this season. Out of the ten dogs in training, six are two-years-old or younger. It's been really gratifying watching them transform from puppies to athletes.

For the last two months, as training runs became longer, colder, and more strenuous, an idea began to surface for me.

There were days on training runs when we were breaking trail and moving so slow that it would have been easy (for me and the dogs) to become discouraged. Wading through knee-deep snow to hook up my 10 dogs seemed to take forever.  But the stamina and enthusiasm of the dogs is admirable and catching. Watching the snow cascade over their backs as they leap into the next drift, barking and clamoring for more despite the extreme effort of breaking trail is something to behold.

They inspire me.

But during those long strenuous runs, my role was also to coach, to inspire, to encourage them.

We have a symbiotic relationship. The energy I put into coaching and encouraging them is the same as what they give back. We rely on each other.

We have spent four months training and preparing for next weekend's Midnight Run. I have chosen the team and here's the line up:

Leading will be the dynamic sisterly duo of Big Brown and Ruffian.

Big Brown, who is neither big or brown, demonstrating how a good leader holds the line tight - even a tiny 40 lb one!

To say Ruffian is intense is an understatement. She is the "get up and go" in my team - a real cheerleader, always barking to go and barking more if we don't go fast enough!

In point are two young, up and coming stars and both young. Dirk, who is an older yearling, and my rising leader, and Cinder, who is two years old; this will be Cinder's first race ever.

Dirk, rising star leader for Team Diamond Dogs; the dogs run a full mile per hour faster when Dirk is in lead. He is young, so doesn't know commands yet, but has been a great trail leader

Cinder, who I acquired late in the season, but who has jumped right into training and become a super special girl in the team. Fantastic attitude, great feet, super eater, and beautiful to watch lope!

In team are yearling brothers from the Tak x Yeti litter, Perry and Tosh.

Always gentle, well-mannered and beautiful Tosh.

Big boy, Perry, is always playful and wagging no matter how long or difficult the run is. He has lead a few times and may have a place as a leader for the team soon

Finally pulling up the rear in wheel will be the backbone, veterans Fiona, who is 5 years old and the oldest dog on the team, and Miles, who is 2.

Fiona who is tireless and just getting warmed up after 20 miles

Miles, all brawn and muscle, and always jumping and barking to go

I have done my best to get this young team prepared so it has the confidence to play a good game. Our speed had been less than stellar from slogging through three feet of snow in the Upper Peninsula during the last month of training. And with this young team, I don't expect to win anything.

But we will enter the Midnight Run on Friday with our best paw forward - entering as mostly yearlings and emerging (hopefully) as seasoned canine athletes.

See you in Marquette and as always, mush love!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Unbeing dead isn't being alive." e. e. cummings

I am in a laundromat washing clothes that I've lived in for the last three months: thermal underwear, neck gaiters, hooded sweatshirts, lots of fleece. But today, I am wearing a suit; I just left a job interview. I am trying to marry the two very different worlds: the one I have recently emerged from, and the one I am in now.

I recently watched a documentary called Happy that validated a lot of what I've been trying to put words to this season.

When we are asked the question, "what do you want from life?" often the rote response is "happiness." But what does it mean to be happy? Does happiness come from money? Status? What makes me happy might be something completely different than what makes you happy.

I've seen people I love work 60 hours a week literally making themselves sick with exhaustion and stress. They've sacrificed relationships with their families, spouses and even themselves in order to "succeed." We spend so much of our lives in positions that make us miserable simply to afford the  house, the car and the status.

When I abandoned that lifestyle to live in a tiny, one-room cabin in the northwoods for the winter, many questioned my decision. Some were critical of me; they said I was selfish, idealistic, extreme. Some were even more harsh because I am a woman - and a mother of two - who chose to take a sabbatical.

No one can fully understand my reasons for abandoning my old life for a few months of solitude in the northwoods. This time away has taught me many things, most importantly, to not waste time worrying about the naysayers, and that I am a hell of a lot stronger than I thought three months ago. Those who know me and love me understand and know the reasons I chose to leave. I will say this: sometimes the heartache that comes from leaving is less than the heartache that comes from sticking around. Sometimes it takes more strength to walk away from a situation than it does to stay and maintain status quo.

But, the heartache I felt these last three months from missing my children was overwhelming at times. At a crossroads, Sunday, I loaded everything I had in the tiny cabin, packed up the dogs and gear and drove back to the farm in Ohio.  After driving all night, I arrived at the farm just in time to wake Elise up for school.

She opened her big, brown eyes and blinked up at me.

"Mommy!" she said brightly and wrapped her pajamaed-arms around my neck. She smelled like shampoo and clean bed sheets as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

We went outside in the pre-dawn light of 6:30 a.m. and let the dogs out of the dog boxes together. She's always been such a good helper with the farm. She wants to be a veterinarian.

Today, as I watched the fleece and thermal roll absently inside the dryer at the laundromat, I thought about these two worlds and how I have a leg in each. Do these worlds have to be in opposition to each other?

It seems I have to choose: professional vs. musher; skirt suit and panty hose vs. thermals and hooded sweatshirt; mother vs. musher. Is being a dog musher really going against the grain that much?

People have said, "why can't you just run dogs recreationally?"

For me, I am all in or all out. There's no in between. I need a goal of a race or consistent, good training miles to stay focused.

I love my daughters. More than I love anyone on earth. But am I setting a better example by being a cog in a wheel? or by teaching them that women can be strong, take a stand against what doesn't sit well with them, take risks, live in the woods alone?

Not being dead isn't synonymous with being alive

We all have to find out what we're made of and what makes us happy. Money, status, approval-seeking have never made me happy or been motivating.Watching something blossom, take shape, and come to fruition is super gratifying for me though.

The dogs and I have done a lot of work. Non-mushers cannot possibly fathom the amount of time, money, and effort that go into training a team of sled dogs. I do not intend to let the hours and training miles count for naught.

We are running our second Midnight Run on February 15, 2013 in Marquette, Michigan, though I am back in Ohio. Check it out:

Still trying to find a balance....

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


When it's this cold outside, everything creaks. I swear I hear my truck groan as the engine turns over.

When it's this cold, the floor of the cabin is like an icebox. Last night, I sat a bucket down on the cabin floor that had snow on its bottom. This morning, the snow was still intact on the floor, despite the constant wood stove roaring, preserved by the cold air wafting up through the floorboards from the ground below.

Right now, it is -2 at noon. Tonight it will be -19.

When it's this cold, there's not much difference between -5 and -15. It's just damned cold. I splashed some water on the floor as I was filling my buckets for the dogs, and it froze within five minutes.

Every animal has the ability to adapt to its environment in order to survive in its current habitat. For example, the snowshoe hare changes the color of its fur to adapt to winter's white, and a cactus as well as a camel both adapt to a lack of water in their habitat.

Sometimes, people ask me if my dogs are warm enough in temperatures such as the current deep freeze in the Midwest.  I need only remind them of 7th grade science class - and adaptation - for a reply.

It is imperative that mammals who live in climates where the temperature drops this low adapt or they won't survive. Sled dogs have literally hundreds of years of genetic coding behind them that have enabled them to not only survive, but thrive in arctic temperatures. Although sometimes when the temperatures drop this low, I will bring a couple of my shorter-coated dogs inside, my dogs prefer being outside and pace and wait by the door when they're inside.

A sled dog rests at a Seney 300 checkpoint
Thick fur, calloused tough feet and long guard hairs covering ears are ways sled dogs have adapted to keep them warm in frigid temperatures.

Biologically speaking, maintaining body temperature in mammals depends on the balance between heat production and heat dissipation. We mammals are equipped with some basic ways our bodies create heat, like, for example, shivering. This is an involuntary response to extreme cold that gets us moving in a basic way to increase our body temperature. The basic respiratory rate of mammals also increases slightly when the temperature is cold.

There are a few ways mushers help Mother Nature out with maintaining heat production in our canine athletes. One is through calories. A basic way our bodies produce heat is through the ingestion and burning of calories. During really cold days, I will increase the amount of food I feed my dogs to help them maintain comfort and their optimal weight.

Another way we help our dogs out is with preventing heat loss through body-to-air gradient. Think straw! Lots and lots of straw or wood chips help the dogs "nest." Additionally, the snow packed around their houses creates a sort of insulation, like an igloo of sorts, which keeps the warmth inside their houses and the cold outside.

Sled dogs are quite naturally equipped to handle frigid cold. If anything it is we humans who haven't learned to adapt to climate changes.
The author, gearing up to go outside in negative temperatures!   

 Stay warm, and as always...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lifestyle: ain't nothing but a mush thang

This is my shower in the cabin.

Living with sled dogs is a lifestyle that is often not for the faint - or squeamish - of heart.

Each day, twice a day, meat is brought in and thawed to form a sort of soup for the dogs. Those buckets and cooler are full of this meat broth. Each day, I rise to make a fire and work to keep it going so the cabin stays toasty. Each day I spend many hours outside in weather most would shy away from with my team.

There are often unsavory things lying around in the cabin at any given time, like wet booties hanging on a clothes line I have strung across the entire width of the cabin, wet mittens and boots. When space is a premium like it is in a 16x20 one-room cabin, function precedes fashion.

And then there's unsavory thoughts. 

Like, right now, I am more concerned with the state of my dogs' poop than a first-time mother with a newborn. It is said that the Inuit people have one hundred terms for snow.  I think mushers have one hundred terms to describe various states of poo. I've concluded that my tiny, 10-dog kennel is currently experiencing its first bout with a virus this season. I will spare you, dear reader, from the detailed descriptions of said virus.

Tonight, the snow just keeps falling and the wind howls. It is -3 degrees outside, and there is a fabulous moon dog around the moon - a halo that only appears on very cold nights.

Just hooking up a team in this kind of snow is a work out that might make Jillian Michaels weak. Trudging through knee-deep tundra, harnessing, and hauling rambunctious sled dogs over to the gangline leaves me sweaty despite the frigid temperatures. Today, the dogs and I went out on what was supposed to be a fast 10 mile "fun run." There has been so much snow, however, we ended up slogging through the slowest 10 miles of breaking trail ever!

Non-mushers could never likely fathom the dedication and sacrifices we mushers make for this sport. It is a lifestyle, as they say, not a hobby. It changes you. I've seen some of the most beautiful sights of my life behind the butts of 10 of my best friends, however. It hasn't always been easy, but it has definitely always been worth the ride.

Here is a clip from breaking trail today. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

But wait...there's more

The landscape here is transformative. It has, no doubt, changed me this fall and winter. But another element is transformative, too: the sense of community here.

Maybe it is because of this harsh landscape that the people who live here -- the people I've come to know as friends -- are the total opposite of harsh.

I have been humbled by the willingness and generosity of the people I am proud to call a community of friends here. Two such friends are Tom and Scott.

I had stopped the team to rest briefly and to offer snacks, and Tom and Scott - who had been expecting me at Jim Warren's cabin - drove snowmobiles out to where I was stopped and met me there. After snacking the dogs, Tom and Scott led me to the trail that leads to Jim Warren's camp, where I had coffee and warmed up. And, at 7:30 that night, in an almost total white out, they led me with snowmobiles down the trail to M-414 where I was back in familiar territory.

We parted ways at the intersection of M-414 and M-410. It was 8:30 when Tom bid me adieu and I ventured off with the team in the blinding snow. My eye lashes were popsicles and I could hardly see passed my wheel dogs, the snow pelted into the beam of my headlamp with such force. At one point, I turned the lamp completely off and ran by the light of a half moon.

My sled runners sounded like the hull of a ship parting cold water. At least that's what they reminded me of. They creaked rhythmically as they parted the snow, matching the cadence of the dogs' jingling collars. Even familiar territory can seem unfamiliar in a night time snowstorm, and it is easy to miss a turn. We flew down the side of County Road 410, finally turning sharply into the woods to head for home.

About three miles from the cabin, as the snow continued to fall in that stillness, I heard a low howl in the not so far off woods beside Seven Mile Fire Line road. This was not the howl of one of the sled dogs from the kennels in the distance. This was a different howl, a lone howl, deep and guttural.

The trail leading to the cabin is a quick 90 degree turn off Seven Mile Fire Line road. The dogs know it instinctively because it leads to home, and never fail to take it, even when I don't want them to. As the low howl in the distance became louder, we came upon the turn off for the trail to home.

Normally my leaders fly into that turn. Not this time. They passed it.

"Whoa," I called out to my leaders and gave a sharp "Gee!" command, telling them to turn right for home. Again, they refused. Their ears perked up, and the hackles raised on their backs.

The howling in the distance stopped in an eerie silence. My dogs insisted on going straight ahead up Seven Mile Fire Line, and for once, I didn't argue with their judgment.

Later that night, back in the cabin, I woke at 3 a.m. from the distinct sounds of coyotes yipping just outside. Big Brown, my lead dog who has become "cabin dog" woke from a dead sleep too and went wild, jumping for the door to see out the window. The mirthful-sounding coyotes seemed to be laughing outside as the snow piled up around us.

Ever mindful of the fire, I rose briefly to add another log, then retreated back into my fleece sheets for slumber, safe and warm in this quiet Heaven.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure." Joseph Campbell

The dogs and I headed out yesterday for what I intended to be a routine 35 mile run/camp out. I had planned to run 17 1/2 miles over to a neighboring sled dog cabin owned by Jim Warren, let the dogs rest for an hour or two, and then head back. It had been six years since I had run the trails that lead to Jim's cabin, however, and last summer, a huge fire, known as the Duck Lake Fire, wiped out much of the wildlife on the trails between the cabin I stay at on M-407 and Jim's, transforming the landscape into something almost totally unrecognizable to me.

A good musher is a prepared musher, and I have learned to always pack in case of an emergency. Before any long run, my sled bag always has the following in it: sleeping bag, camp pillow, fire starter, waterproof matches, emergency blanket, axe, bolt cutters, compass, map of the area, water, one meal/snack, one cup per dog of dry kibble plus chopped meat blocks and dog bowls for the dogs. I also never leave without my cell phone (even though I very rarely get reception anywhere up here), and GPS. I also always travel with a multi-tool, two snow hooks (anchors that stop the sled), a snub line (a rope to secure the sled to a tree or other stationary object), extra booties and necklines/tuglines for the dogs and my sled, just in case.

As I headed out yesterday, I was packed for an emergency, but have never actually considered I would ever be in an emergency. I had a hand-drawn map a friend had given me the day before to help guide me to Jim's cabin, and the first ten miles of the route is a system of trails the dogs and I are quite familiar with and have traveled all fall and winter. It all seemed very simple. Right?

I turned left onto M-414 and headed toward M-435. All was going as planned. But somehow, I missed a very subtle turn off about 12 miles into our run. I ended up on M-423 toward the Rainbow Lodge, a main site of decimation from the Duck Lake Fire last summer.

This is not where I needed or intended to be.

It is exceedingly easy to become disoriented in the labyrinth of trails along the Lake Superior shores. This particular day, it was even more so. The wind was blowing fiercely from the northwest off of Lake Superior in 25-35 mile per hour gusts. The temperature was about 10 degrees, and with the wind, it was below 0. And it was snowing heavily - so heavily, that my tracks were all but covered by drifting snow shortly after passing through an area of trail, and at times I couldn't see for the snow.

I found myself in the middle of the area that had been burned in the Duck Lake fire, on M-423, a dirt-based, seasonal road that was a solid sheet of ice. The juxtaposition of the ice next to the barren landscape that had been charred only six months prior was eerie; I felt like I had entered an entirely different country.

I had turned off on several trails and roads, and realized I had completely disorientated my sense of direction. The wind was blowing across the barren and desolate landscape in a way I had never experienced. It was already 3:30 p.m. I had to consider my options. If I continued on, I would undoubtedly become more lost. I decided the best thing would be to turn around. Most lead dogs are excellent and following a scent trail, especially when it leads back the way they came, and my leaders are no exception.

The only problem was, I was on a solid sheet of ice, in a barren land. There was nothing to either hook a snow hook into or tie a snub line to in order to turn the team around.

I came to an area beside a large pile of stacked lumber. This provided a little break from the wind and I stopped the team and searched for something to hook to briefly. I took my big over mitts off, threw my snow hook in between two giant logs in the wood pile, said a quick prayer, and headed up to the front of my team toward my leaders.

Just then, Big Brown and Yeti, my two lead dogs, saw me and, on their own, turned the team around and headed toward me! Quickly, I ran back toward my sled so the force of their turn wouldn't snap my hook, but before I could get back on the runners, the hook popped and the team started back down the road of ice. I hooked my left arm into the handlebar of the sled, catching it just in time, and rode on my knees down the ice for a few seconds before righting myself on the runners.

So we were headed back, but without my favorite Outdoor Research over mitten - the left one. I had dropped it on the quick about face my leaders managed. My cheeks burned in the blowing snow and wind, and my left hand, which was now exposed, burned as well.

As we headed back, my trail already covered by blowing snow, I thought to myself about why it is I live for this.

This is fun to me. This is what gets my blood pumping: to be outside in the elements, far, far away from "civilization" and "society," in solitude where anything can happen and to be self-reliant. I am thankful for what my dogs have taught me, for even in the blowing snow and bone-chilling wind, they never faltered; they simply leaned into their harnesses, put their heads down and trudged on. They do not wonder why, even as their faces are covered with an icy mask of snow.

I celebrate the ability to deal with adversity and patience necessary to think fast here. I have a healthy respect for this landscape. It is harsh and indifferent, and so remote, there is a real threat of becoming lost here.

Perhaps I am a thrill seeker.

Here is one of my main leaders, Big Brown, who is neither big nor brown, enjoying some much deserved rest in the cabin after a hard day's run!

Here is a video clip of the wind and my team trudging along M-423.

As always...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The art of fire

Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self
                          -- Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Scene V

I wake and fire is my first thought, whether it is 3 a.m. or 8 a.m.

Fire is a priority. Tonight, it is very cold, with a blustery wind blowing down from the northwest, the wind chill sitting right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and a winter storm rolling in. 

I've mastered the art of regulating air in this fairly tiny wood stove to fan the flames of my life source. For awhile, it was a struggle. The cabin was either an 85 degree inferno or 50 degree ice box.

I'm no stranger to wood heat. The furnace at the farm in Ohio is a wood furnace. But it kicks on electronically and with loving regularity once a fire is going, forcing warm air throughout all parts of the farm house. A tiny wood stove in a 16x20 cabin is different. This fire takes patience. It takes attention, and like a devoted lover, my mind never strays too far from thinking about fire.

Tonight, I miss my children. My mother called me up, begging me to return to Ohio. I felt drawn, my focus pulled away from training and racing and to my family.

I gave each of my dogs a few extra flakes of straw tonight with their dinner, then came inside, sat down in front of the small wood stove in the tiny cabin listening to the wind whip around me and did what made sense to me. I lit a candle, made some tea, turned off my phone and deactivated my Facebook account temporarily, and prayed.

Sometimes, the only thing left to do is be quiet and pray.

I came here seeking solitude and a safe place to grieve a failed marriage. I came here to this tiny space to be quiet and listen for how to move forward. And this landscape, with its arid expanse of tiny lakes, tall white pines and wildlife has changed me undeniably.

I went to my friends Ed and Tasha Stielstra's kennel last weekend to photograph a women's expedition/adventure group from Ohio on their first dog sled ride. While having lunch with them, I realized how foreign my lifestyle must seem. They discussed frustrations in their corporate lives, compared manicures, joked about husbands and fussed for twenty full minutes with toe warmers and garb to head outside for a dog sled ride.

As I listened to them, I realized I could not go back to that life. That life.

I cannot go back to the chaos of my former life, cannot go back to the woman I was before. There has to be a place in the world for simplicity like this. I deny emphatically a world that says I have to be something other than what I am. I have not once longed for a television here. All fall and winter I hear occasionally of epidemics of flu or crimes and they shock me, so insulated am I in this tiny vortex of life. It is as if the world goes on somewhere else, and this community here along the shores of Lake Superior is isolated from it.

I am exceedingly thankful for things like the beech trees that heat this cabin at night, the sound of the wind through the white pines, the ocean-like Lake Superior, great friends who have made this season tolerable and my amazing dogs who have made it an adventure.

Tonight, the wind and the snow swirl outside. And I throw another log on the fire, and wait.

Friday, January 11, 2013


The cabin is like a sauna.

Outside, it's as if spring has come in January. The beautiful snow we had for the Tahquamenon race has all but melted. It was 42 degrees and raining here today. I was quite down yesterday when the snow began melting for numerous reasons, and not just mushing dogs. It seems like winter is getting harder and harder to come by. Those who depend on winter for their livelihood in places like this are suffering.

I've learned so much these last three months.

I landed a job at a local restaurant/bar waiting tables and tending bar the week before last. But without snow (and snowmobilers) I only worked three days before receiving a text that the owner didn't need the extra help after all.

As I type, rain falls on the tin roof of the cabin. The trails have turned to pure ice. The dogs have been off for four days because of risk of injury when running on the icy trails.

I spent some time during these mild days traveling up to Grand Marais with a couple dogs to watch the sun set over Lake Superior.

Miles (right) and his girlfriend, Cinder

So much depends on the weather, still, for some people and ways of life.