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.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Where are those damned boot straps? Thoughts on grit

"There were others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps." James Joyce, Ulysses

Where does the term "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" come from? I've done a little research, but can't seem to find the exact etymology.

My personal history with this phrase comes from my dad.

Most who know me know I was raised by a Marine. A proud Marine. At 73 years of age, he still wears his U.S. Marine Corp hat when he goes out, and the same logo still sits on the back of his car, the only sticker that would ever touch that metal.

My dad's Paris Island photo, 1958. I grew up hearing stories about Paris Island that make Full Metal Jacket look like a Disney film.

One of my earliest memories growing up was dad quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade: "Yours is not to reason why; yours is but to do or die." And while my innocent childhood question of "why?" was not in reference to war time or weaponry, my dad meant every word of that quote when he said it to me. My place was not to question why. The daughter of a Marine does not question authority. And I was a good daughter.

Until I became an adult.

For a long time, I rebelled. Full of teen angst, I seemed to question everything, the pendulum swinging the opposite direction. As I matured, the pendulum settled back to center.

But lately, I find myself questioning a lot of things again.

This season has found me questioning, for the first time, why I run dogs. I've tried to be honest and forthright about my realizations. If I'm being honest, there has been so much going on in my life personally that this season has really worn me down. I have searched for my boot straps, but haven't been able to find them.

My dad had grit. My grandmothers on both sides had the same tenacious grit. Some would call it simply being fiercely stubborn.

Grit is a character trait that is essential to this sport. We spend so many hours out with the dogs in all kinds of weather training them for races. During the holidays, when most people are thinking about family and gift-giving, we are calculating miles and spending hours on long runs with our canine athletes.  It takes perseverance, dedication, sacrifice and determination to train for races.

I admit it: this year, I almost buckled under the pressure. There have been challenges - both personal and financial - that have almost broken my ability to "stay the course."

But, instead, I have tapped into my own grit.

Grit helps me maintain determination and motivation over extended periods despite failure and adversity. Grit enables courage and stamina despite set backs.

This New Year's Day, I went on a breath taking, beautiful 20 mile run. I celebrated the beginning of a new year in solitude and quiet introspection with my best canine friends, and we were blessed with a gorgeous sunset over a tundra-covered landscape. My camera on my phone was all I had to capture the beauty, and it's blurry and doesn't nearly capture the ethereal light in the west.

Thank you, dad, for teaching me to pull myself up by my own boot straps and passing along your grit to me. Here is a video to celebrate GRIT!

And, as always,