It is true that dog mushing in the arctic is an intrinsically cold natured sport.
The fact that snow, ice and frigid temperatures heighten the adventure, might lead one to believe, that we are miserably cold all of the time.
Allen at the CB 300 in January 2010
But.... we are not.
How is that possible?
Allen has worn Northern Outfitters gear through out his entire racing career. He really couldn't do what he does with out it. He is a "warm bodied" person but, when working on a dog sled he perspires a lot.
Most clothing fabrics will soak up this moisture and suck the heat away from his core. If this happened continually, it would be impossible for him to stay warm. So, a 1,000 mile dog sled race would be inconceivable. The Vaetrex technology used in the Northern Outfitters products actually allow him to race.
He wears a Vaetrex pant liner and top liner (in place of long underwear.) The liners have an insulating loft made of closed cell foam. This insulation layer keeps his body heat in and draws the body moisture out. There are varying degrees of thickness for these insulation layers. Allen will choose which thickness to wear according to the current temperature. The "warmest" thickness is several inches of foam.
Allen then wears a Cordura outer shell on the top and bottom. This shell allows the moisture to slowly escape, but also adds a durable exterior.
We met Jim Harrison, the owner of Northern Outfitters, several years ago. He has been to SP Kennel, as well as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest starting lines. He is an avid outdoorsman, so when he, Allen and Aliy began to talk, the stories fly.
Allen and Jim modeling there Outer Shells
Jim was just in Two Rivers last week and stopped for an evening at the kennel. Allen and Aliy had sent him a Northern Outfitters "Wish List" for the season. (And he didn't let them down.) So, now, the Vaetrex technology will not only be working to keep our mushers' bodies insulated and dry, but also their feet and their hands. Mushers will be wearing Northern Outfitters Mountain Pack Boots and Arctic Mittens.
SP Kennel dogs howl because...... well, we don't know....
We know that they howl quite often after meals or when a team leaves the yard. They howl when they hear a distant neighbor howl. Of course, they howl when they are "coaxed" to howl by Aliy or Allen.
All in all, they seem to love howling. Their tails are naturally wagging and their heads are thrown back with ecstasy. Some dogs stay in their houses, some jump to attention. Regardless, of what it all means .... it's a lovely sight and sound ..... for us mere humans.
Alaska is certainly the world of fish and wildlife. One of the tastiest snack that we give to our sled dogs is salmon. In some parts of the world, salmon is actually toxic to dogs, but luckily, not here.
SP Kennel acquires salmon through various means. Often we will drive 80 miles south to a native village, Nenana, and buy Dog Salmon from villagers who operate fish wheels. These fish wheels are huge wooden structures that sit in the current of the river and literally, scoop up fish, as they swim past. We have also driven to state run fish hatcheries. At the hatchery, young salmon smelt are grown and released into the wild, only to return to the hatchery years later to breed. There is no where for these returning fish to actually do their "business" in the wild, so they are mechanically processed and the carcasses are available to purchase. In years past, we have driven back from Valdez with literally tons of fish in tow.
This year one of our good friends, Dave, (who is a summertime commercial fisherman and a wintertime snowmachine/dog musher guide ) found us some Pink Salmon. There were 10,400 pounds of fish stored in a freezer unit in Anchorage - only trouble was retrieving it. If any of you have followed SP Kennel for a length of time you know that the mantra here is "Nothing is easy!"
Dave brought us the fish this past week after a lengthy ordeal of: driving, trailer issues, driving, truck issues, driving .... So, "Thanks Dave!" The dogs will love it!
October at SP Kennel is our " in between" month. All of the puddles and lakes are frozen and there is a scant layer of snow on the ground. But, there is not enough snow to hook a team of huskies to a sled. Therefore, we find ourselves mushing by ATV four wheeler.
The dog team still has to use the same skills and manners to pull an ATV four wheeler as a sled. The primary difference is the action of the musher. The musher must keep the dogs from pulling the machine too fast. Believe it or not a team of 12 or 14 dogs will drag the 500 pound machine at break neck speeds of 17 or 18 mph - if allowed. So, the musher will keep the machine in a lower gear and use the engine to slow the team. When they encounter hills or steep climbs the musher might have to help the dogs by accelerating so their speed doesn't drop too slow. Overall, the ATV 4 wheeler is supposed to simulate the speeds and action of a musher on a dog sled. It takes some practice!
During the final days of September we had a flurry of activity at SP Kennel: visitors, meetings, a trip to Anchorage, a trip to Nome - it seemed constant.
On September 29th a Japanese TV filming crew, Nippon Cinema, came to Two Rivers to shoot a video segment about training sled dogs during the fall months. The crew of eleven producers, camera men, "handlers" and assistants were traveling the state while filming short "Alaskan" video clips. As well as dog mushing, they filmed fly-fishing in Katmai, gold panning in Fox and a trip to Barrow.
Kento Hayashi and Aliy pose for the cameras.
The film star for this show is a very popular young Japanese movie actor, Kento Hayashi. He and Aliy spend over an hour mushing an 8 dog team on the ATV four wheeler. There was a bit of a language barier, but they both smiled and it all seemed to work out! Needless to say, dog mushing in Alaska was very foreign to him.
"Quito" was his favorite dog and got quite a lot of "camera time". What we wonder is in the world of translation .... what will "Quito" be in Japanese? Quito is short for poquito, which means small in Spanish. She was the smallest pup in the litter. But, poquito is gramtically incorrect because, in Spanish, the word should be in the feminine form, since it is girl's name. It should be poquita. But, there just isn't the same ring to it .... when we say....
"There's no quit in Quito!"
If this seems complicated in English... imagining explaining that to a Japanese translator!
After a long summer of dogs playing in the dirt and gravel of the SP Kennel dog yard - the yard looks pretty poor. There are huge holes and craters that are a hazard to both dogs and humans. So, in order for us to avoid broken legs and sprained ankles while hooking up this season we needed to fix the yard.
Every year, we rent a small bulldozer and replace dirt and gravel. There is, of course, a lot of manual labor that goes along with this task.
We were shoveling and smoothing out the back of the yard when Mac, one of our yearlings, started playing with the dirt. We were able to catch some of this on video, so I hope that you enjoy.
The other dogs in the video are Hummer (sitting on his dog house), Newt (white dog standing face the camera) and Willie (white dog to the left running in and out of the screen.)
Alaska Dog Mushers Association holds its annual sled dog symposium this weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska. The presentations draw folks from across the mushing world. The talks this year were varied and covered topics such as; health care, nutrition and training. Other topics included hunting by dog team in Northern Alaska and Marathon Humans versus Marathon Dogs: How do we differ? The Yukon Quest holds it's annual "Birthday Bash" as well. There was quite a bit of information to be had and many of the top names in the sport were on hand to ask questions.
Aliy was a moderator for a panel of nutrition/dog food experts. The speakers were (from left to right) Rob Downey (Annemaet Dog Food), Alreigh Reynolds (Purina Staff Veterinarian) and Lloyd Gilbertson (Caribou Creek Dog Food). Each of these gentleman have spent years studying various canine diets as well as racing as competitive dog mushers.
It was good to see many of the top distance mushers and sprint racers in the world chatting socially over a cup of coffee!
The pups turn one today. Has it been that long already? It wasn't that long ago when we played "hide and seek" on the oriental rug. Was it?!?
The life of a sled dog pup is pretty fun. It's mostly play, chew, eat, poop and sleep. We like to bond with them as individuals and we like for them to bond together as dogs. For this reason, most of our puppy walks include at least one human and one adult dog (more visitors are always welcome.) They were taught what a harness was over the winter and even ran in a small team. But, never too often or too far.
Now that they are officially "yearlings", they are part of the dog yard. Each dog has his or her own house. They are still next to each other, except Scooter, whose best friend is Kipper. (You can choose your friends, not your family?) They are still quite leggy and uncoordinated. But, over the next few months, they will become serious athletes.
Their training regime has been slow and steady so far. Schmoe, Spoog and Sissy were literally, perfect, their first run of the season. Scooter was confused at first and needed a little "Special Ed". After taking some time to ease her anxiety, and partnering her with a comforting adult partner, she began to pick it up. "Forward???? Oh, forward!!" By run three, she was barking in harness and lunging forward. Anxious to go!
By mid September they were working in harness as part of a team. We will take it slow with them - for they are still youngsters. But, they are our future and it will be fun to see their talents as the season progresses.
The primary reason the we at SP Kennel mush sled dogs is that it is fun, exciting and we all LOVE to do it. Of course, our kennel is a professional outfit and we have obligations, races and commitments, to fulfill. But, the bottom line will always be .... we love it & the dogs love it.
It is hard to describe the "zone" that a sled dog enters when they are running - in a sense, they are utterly encompassed by the desire to pull. Nothing else matters. Sometimes, this is hard to see, especially when you are standing on the side line, watching a team zoom by at break neck speeds.
However, in this following video, you can watch Hummer (a 3 year old from the car litter) run on a treadmill. You will see that he is fully engrossed in his "job". This was only his third time ever on the apparatus. He was a little nervous at first, wondering why "the Boss" was standing right at his side and a noisy fan was blowing in his face.
But, when asked "Ready?" Hummer tightened his tug line and started to pull forward as the belt went under his feet. The speed immediately jumped to 7 1/2 miles per hour (a slow, but comfortable pace). You will see that he looks around just a little at his circumstance. But, in less than a minute, his eyes glazed over, his natural instinct kicked in, and he lopes on the treadmill with out a care in the world. Amazing!
The Treadmill is owned by Oklahoma State University. It is housed in Denali, about a 3 hour drive south from SP Kennel. Dr. Michael Davis, a professor and director at the Comparative Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the University, has done amazing research in Equine Sports Medicine. He now has several labs in Alaska that are geared towards examining the "finest athlete in the world", the Alaskan sled dog.
We are involved with several physiology studies this year. Most of the research will be done either before or after the busiest time of the racing season. However, we fully expect to truck the dogs down to the Treadmill to "practice" several times this winter. It is amazing to watch how cooperative and enthusiastic the SP Kennel dogs are as research subjects.