Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas Storm, and a BIG THANK YOU to many

In the 1997 James Cameron classic film Titanic, there is a scene near the end of the film where main characters, Jack and Rose, hang from the back of the sinking ship waiting for its final plunge into the icy Atlantic. In their final moments above water, Jack tells Rose to take her last deep breath before the ship is inevitably submerged under water. Going under is a definite, unavoidable and uncomfortably terrifying fact; survival is not guaranteed. The most Jack and Rose can do is hang on, try to prepare, and keep kicking for the surface. If you haven't seen the film, here is the clip.

This fall, I have thought about this scene often. I could say that we may not be racing this season because of El Nino -like ridiculously warm temperatures, but that would be a lie (although the weather-part of that is true. This has been the warmest fall I can remember in northeast Ohio. Indeed, our first race, the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Classic in Newberry, MI may not happen in January because, for the first time since many Yoopers in Michigan can remember, there was no snow on Christmas in most of the Upper Peninsula, an area along Lake Superior that usually sees several feet of snow by Christmas). 

The truth is, life has hit incredibly hard this fall, harder than I can recall. Mushers are skilled in level-headed coping skills during adverse and challenging times. But sometimes, life sweeps even the most level-headed off of their feet. Such is the case with this storm.

In a matter of a short three month period, the dogs and I have faced some of the most challenging changes anyone can face in life: job loss, the death of a parent, devastating betrayal, being subjected to pathological lies and the death of a marriage. Most people would struggle to cope with even one of these major life changes, but being hit with three at once in such a short amount of time has left me often in panic, unable to sleep, overwhelmed by grief.

The dogs have taught me so much about dealing with adversity. In challenging times, they conserve resources, rationing where necessary and relying on the pack for support.  In a storm, the dogs often curl up in a sheltered spot, hunker down and wait. The hardest part of waiting out a storm is to remember to breathe. Like the final plunge of the Titanic, I've been holding my breath waiting to emerge to the surface.

Christmas found me holding my breath, wondering how we were going to get through this storm. Like the dogs, however, I've learned to trust in my teammates for support. This fall and winter has been extremely humbling, for even thought it's been the darkest period in my life, it's also shown me just how many people are in our corner.

As Christmas has come and 2015 draws to a close, the dogs and I would like to acknowledge a few beautiful people who have helped us in our darkest moments.

Thank you to:
Jim Conway
Dana Plambeck
Linda Mohney
Vanessa Ivy
Karen Wicks
CoeStar Custom Leads
Penny Agner
Dennis Waite
Stan Bontrager
Pawsitive Results Animal Rehabilitation Center
Michael Hawkinson
Tawny Knight
The Clum Family
Connie Starr 
Ivy McDonald

We will not be racing this season. But thankfully, we are getting by with a lot of support from our friends - and we know now who our real friends are.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A post not about dogs...

I smell like lake air. The sun set 45 minutes ago, but I can still see clearly, my eyes adjusted to the shadow enough to paddle my way off the lake and into the narrow canal that leads to shore. Fireflies flicker in the woods on shore. Under the bridge, the lamps of fishermen glow like luminaries.

Fireflies flicker
Ants await
Bubble bees blow balloons

I remember it by heart even now. Miss Spider's ABC's book by David Kirk. I'd read it to her every night before bed, exaggerating the consonant sounds so she would laugh. She was two years old, chubby and needed me. I think I needed her, too. I took her everywhere with me: as a baby, hiking with her in the baby sling and then kidpack; jogging with her in the running stroller, and kayaking. She caught her first fish on my parents' boat when she was just five years old.

Now, she's 16, and she wants to believe she doesn't need me anymore.

Sophie and my mom's cat, Yoda
It was on a trip to Florida over spring break with family that she discovered there was something wrong. A gulp of ocean water took her by surprise, and she realized it was not only difficult to swallow but then to breathe. A quick trip to the pediatrician turned into another quick trip for an ultrasound, which revealed a large tumor within the right wing of her thyroid.

We met with an endocrinologist who said flatly, "I don't want to scare you, but given her age, there is a higher likelihood that this is cancer." A biopsy was inconclusive to rule out cancer, so surgery was scheduled to remove that wing of the thyroid. Then she came down with a summer cold/cough and a viral infection in her throat caused surgery to be delayed. Now, after a long summer, surgery is scheduled for this coming Wednesday.

To me, she is still that chubby little girl, and reading Miss Spider's ABC's seems like yesterday. No parent wants to watch their kiddo go through surgery, or to think about the dreaded "C" word. If this right wing of the thyroid is removed and is conclusive for cancer, she has to go back in for surgery again to remove the entire thyroid.

But we have lots to be grateful for. I've learned thyroid cancer is highly treatable with radioactive iodine. And it seems everyone I know knows someone who had thyroid cancer and went on to live a normal, healthy life.

We remain optimistic and hopeful.

Monday, March 9, 2015

CopperDog recap and top 5 mushing myths debunked

I put my sled away today. The dog trailer is cleaned out and put away as well. It would seem the season has come to an end. And I haven't even updated here!

At the very top of a map of Michigan is a wide strip that runs along Lake Superior known as the Upper Peninsula (U.P.). This area of Michigan is confusing to most of the U.S. population and even some Midwesterners. The U.P. is like no other place I've ever been, and has an identity and culture all its own. Separated from lower Michigan by Lake Michigan and the Mackinaw bridge - the "Mighty Mac," - the U.P. is a stones-throw away from Canada. Once, on a pier in Whitefish Point, I walked to the end and my cell phone thought I was in Canada.

If you continue to look at that map of Michigan, and the U.P., you'll notice at the top of that long strip a peninsula, called the Keeweenaw.

Some call Grand Rapids in the lower part of Michigan the "thumb," but the Keeweenaw is the real thumb. Jutting out into Lake Superior, the Keeweenaw is the "thumbs up" of the U.P. - the fat phalange that says "Say yea to the U.P., eh"; the hitchhiker of Lake Superior; the universal symbol of approval. This particular phalange gets quite cold in February. Best bring some mittens.

Snow whirled around in the arctic equivalent of a dust devil on the horizon as we headed across M-28 again for the second time in two weeks. Only this time, it was a balmly 10 degrees. The dogs were tired of riding in their dog boxes - individual wooded dog compartments that, in my case, sit atop a 13-foot flatbed trailer. A traveling dog condo on wheels. We had traveled 582 miles, and still had nearly 200 miles to go to Calumet, the little thumbnail in the thumb of the Keeweenaw, the very tippy-top of the Keeweenaw Peninsula.

Dog races, for me, are a blur of traveling hundreds of miles, scrambling to mandatory musher meetings, gearing up and heading out on the race trail for hours. This particular race - the 40 mile portion of the Copper Dog 150 - is especially blurry. I worked until 5 p.m. Wednesday evening, and left with eight dogs early Thursday morning traveling 760 miles. Our veterinary check was at 11 a.m. on Friday morning, leaving little time for dilly dally. Or sleeping.  Our start time for the race was 8:18 p.m.

It may all sound exhausting from an outsiders perspective. Many have remarked that it sounds "stressful," or "draining." But this is what gives me energy, fills me up and brings me joy. Which got me to thinkin'...

As I drove across the U.P., I thought of all of the things others have said to me about this sport. These mushing myths are so common, I can't begin to recount how many times I've heard them. Aside from debunking the most common myth -- that sled dogs are all Siberian huskies (that only happens in Disney films) -- I thought I'd set the record straight about some of the other myths I hear so often. Here goes.

5. "Do you ever sleep?" I seem to hear this often. I think it's because most of the races I run are at night. Um, yes I sleep. In fact, I guard my sleep time like a proverbial mother bear guards her cubs. And while it might be true that mushers have a higher tolerance for functioning without regular sleep, most mushers I know make up for the sleep they don't get when they're not racing. I prefer running dogs at night, though on this particular race last weekend, my headlamp malfunctioned. Not to worry: mushers are required to carry a spare as part of their "mandatory gear" for just such an occasion. Only my spare was a cheap-o 80 lumen dim flicker I'd bought at a local feed store for $15. Luckily, unlike the Jack Pine two weeks earlier, we ran under the light of a perfect 3/4 moon and clear, star-filled U.P. sky. But I never want to run a race in the dark again! I've already purchased a new headlamp, and I am catching up on sleep - hence the slow blog post.

4. "Your dogs must love the cold!" While it is true that Alaskan huskies are made for cold weather, not all of them are equipped to run headlong into a blizzard at 30 below. Like people, their coats vary; some of them are shorter coated, have less body fat or just prone to being chilled. In fact, we mushers carry just about as much gear to protect our dogs from the cold and wind as we do for ourselves. We slather goop onto our dog's paw pads and cover their feet with booties to protect them from ice and snow. During the race this past weekend, I ran two of my dogs in custom-made jackets to protect them from the temperatures. And, when it gets really cold, mushers have special covers made to protect a dog's "private parts" from frostbite.

3. "I expected your dogs to be bigger." This is probably the number one thing I hear at sled dog demonstrations, races and from non-mushers. I can't speak for other musher's teams, and the sizes of Alaskan huskies varies, but, in general, the average size of my males is about 55 pounds and 45 for the females. My main leader, Big Brown, is 37 pounds. The dogs were bred for speed and endurance, and the fact is, Malamutes are pretty darned slow! My typical response to this comment is "you don't see many large marathon runners, do ya!"
My tiny main leader, Big Brown, on my bed

2. "You must love this weather!" a coworker said to me as several more inches of snow fell the week before we left for the race. My retort is always the same. There is a Swedish saying "there is no bad weather, only bad clothing." 

Taken during the "storm Neptune" a few weeks ago, do I look thrilled? No. 
Mushers have no higher tolerance to cold than anyone else. And, with back problems and a family history of Rheumatoid arthritis, I feel the cold, lemme tell ya! When you go swimming, you dress appropriately, right? Well, the same is true for mushers - or any other winter athlete. If you're going to spend hours outside in the cold, you dress appropriately. We invest in good gear, and that usually starts with excellent base layers, wool socks, winter parkas and snow pants specifically made to protect against severe winter cold.

So many people seem to shut themselves off to the unique beauty, awesome silence and pristine views of winter. As we ran the last 15 miles of the race last weekend, I turned my headlamp off (trying to reserve some of the battery). Shadows danced with us across the snow-covered forest and on as we ran along a frozen lake. The moon seemed to reflect off of each tiny crystalline snowflake that rolled on into the distance as each tree, bush and rock created long shadows across the white tundra. I thought about how many would never see that beauty simply because they shield themselves off from winter. I want to be open to take in all of life and what it has to show me. In all seasons.

1. "What kind of dogs are those?" This is, by far, the number one remark I hear. Numero uno. The most common myth - that all sled dogs are fuzzy, blue-eyed beasts - is one propagated by Disney. This is not to say that there aren't Siberian huskies at sled dog races; there are. But the more common type of dog is the Alaskan husky, a "mutt" if I'm being honest. Alaskan huskies are not an AKC registered breed. But they have pedigrees carefully traced back to some key recognized players in the sport of dog mushing: Roxy Wright-Champaigne, Doug Swingley, Lance Mackey, Mitch Seavey. Some Alaskans have blue eyes, but some have brown or even gray and gold colored eyes. Some Alaskans have fluffy gray coats, but others have shorter coats that are black, brown, spotted, or any variation or combination in between. Alaskan huskies are a varied breed.

So, to recap, we placed 10th in the Jack Pine in a veritable blizzard the likes of which I've never run dogs in. We placed 14th out of 21 in the Copper Dog in a very fast field of teams. Considering I didn't think I would be able to race at all this season, I am quite pleased with the fact that we were able to manage two races and place solidly in the middle-of-the-pack.

That's a wrap on the 2014-2015 season! Stay tuned for puppy harness breaking! And as always...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Eben Ice Caves and The Midnight Run - some photos

The day after winter storm Neptune swept dramatically through Marquette, the snow cleared and the sky became beautiful and blue. We decided to stop by our friends, the Curtices, who live in Rumley, a tiny place (can't really be called a "town" because as far as I know, there is only a general store) about 30 minutes outside of Marquette just outside of Chatham. My daughter Sophie and I decided to take a hike with Caitlin Curtice to the Eben Ice Caves, a place I had always wanted to stop but never had been to. The following are some photos from the Eben Ice Caves.

looking up

looking up again

A wall of ice

I also shot some photos of our friends at the Midnight Run....

Joann and Daisy

Larry and Zeus

Martha and Bebop

Another of Martha and Bebop

Mike Bestgen preps lead dogs while Amy is ready at the helm

Friends Mike and Meagan before the race.

Next stop: CopperDog 40

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When the heart says yes, but the body says no

The snow falls effortlessly, slowly gathering on his gray head as he sits on the roof of his house. It's quiet, save for a dog barking in the distance. He appears stately, as almost a statue, until he slowly raises his head skyward, opens his long mouth and howls.

Soon the others emerge from their houses, shaking off sleep and greeting the day. Bright-eyed and eager, they join his lonely song, a cacophony of 16 dogs singing, and they say "let's go." But there is no going for me.  They see me and stop their chorus in unison. They eye me, all looking at me expectantly, waiting. When are we going. There is no going for me, and that is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking beyond what I'm able to convey. Days like today are what mushers - and sled dogs - live for.

I'm not one to let pain stop me. I joke often that my middle name is "tenacious." A very special person once told me that I train and race dogs "against all odds." I pride myself on that.

But sometimes, things happen that force our hand. Like a football player with a sudden injury forced to sit out the season, I now mull over the "should haves" and "if onlys." I should have worn the back brace. Regret is a bitter pill.

A bone density scan showed degenerative disc disease in 2007. I get it honestly. My mother's mother had rheumatoid arthritis, her fingers curved in deformed "S" shapes. Still, she crocheted. My aunt had back surgery when I was young. I remember hearing stories of her in traction. My mother has the tell-tale signs of her mother's genetics as well. And, two years ago, I saw my first rheumatologist.

For the last two years, I've struggled with the glaringly obvious effects of this "disc disease" - what I call the result of a life well-lived. Backpacking, long bouncing rides with my mountain bike, and miles and miles of cross-country running in college undoubtedly jarring tiny fragments into my L5. The last nine years on the back of a dog sled undoubtedly further eroded bone, like water washing away rock. This erosion. Spine turning to dust.

I was in denial. This past spring, I took up trail running again, determined to be stronger for the upcoming dog season. It hurt like hell, but with my back brace - a black nylon support wrapped around my waist - and firmly gritted teeth, I could bite through the pain. I worked up to four mile runs, sweated out sets of crunches to firm my core and stabilize the spine, muscles forming support for bone. I was determined. Tenacious.

Friday, winter finally set in. Excited, I loaded nine dogs in the dog trailer, strapped my sled to the roof, and we headed to Punderson State Park for our first run with the sled. I met my friend Ron there with his dogs. In my haste, I forgot the back brace. I never went without it last season on any sled run.

The trails were gorgeous, and despite the lack of a good base, I hooked six dogs for a 10 mile run, then another.

My six dogs with Ron and his six leading ahead of us
On the second time out, I noticed my sled kept tracking to the right. To compensate, I rode with more weight on my left side. I also noticed during that second run that the area in my back with the herniated disc began to hurt. Our second run was short.

When we returned to the staging area, I hobbled through the pain to unhook, unharness and put the dogs away. I put the rest of my gear away, but mentioned to Ron that I was in a lot of pain. I felt better on the 40 minute drive back home, but as I started to get out of my car once at home, my left leg practically gave out from under me. Breath-taking pain shot through my back and down my leg. I limped inside.

Saturday morning found me in excruciating pain and unable to walk. I ended up at the emergency room where I received injections of morphine and toradol, both powerful pain relievers. I filled scripts for vicodin, two kinds of muscle relaxers and an oral steroid for inflammation, and was on bed rest for the remainder of the weekend.

The best laid plans of mice and men. And mushers.

At the time of this writing, I am still awaiting results from x-rays. But the tech allowed me to take a peek at them after I had them done, and what I saw wasn't pretty. Spinal stenosis - a narrowing of the spine - with a possible fracture on the vertebrae, and undoubtedly, sciatica - a pinched nerve that shoots pain down the leg.

For the safety of my dogs, other mushers' teams and myself, I have withdrawn from my favorite race, the 90-mile Midnight Run. I am able to walk now thanks to medication, and I am still debating on running the IronLine and Copper Dog 40, which are shorter, six-dog class races.

My heart wants to be out there on the trail with them. More than anything. But my body says no. And the argument that has ensued between the two is heartbreaking. 

Where my heart longs to be