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!"