Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Thus, it was in the wee hours of the morning that I finally got back to my cabin, dead tired and looking forward to a cozy, warm, long sleep of my own.
Well, "It's never easy!" around here and I had a little surprise waiting for me. As you will see in this outtake, I had a night of yet another new Alaskan experience, followed by a morning to remember!
Monday, December 29, 2008
Allen crossed the finish line at 1:35 this afternoon, followed just a few minutes later by his daughter Bridgett. As planned, they had taken longer rests than Aliy -- both at the checkpoint and on the trail -- and although they were "training" not "racing" they both finished quite high in the overall order. Congratulations to all three of our super and unbelievably tough mushers!
Here is a little video of Allen and Bridgett finishing the race which also shows Bridgett undergoing the "checking in" process -- making sure she has all her "required gear" -- that is an essential part of sled dog racing:
After we had attended to their dogs, the four of us gathered in the lodge for some hot food and a quick debrief. All three of them were very proud of how well their dogs did on this extremely difficult 200 mile run. They swapped stories of the trail and even had some good laughs -- after the fact! -- about what they went through themselves in dealing with the high winds and bitter, bitter cold. As Bridgett put it, "You can laugh about it when you are back safe and warm, but out on the trail you can't help but seriously question why you are doing it and swear that you'll never do it again!"
Thankfully for all of us, our intrepid mushers will be back on the race trail soon. The Copper Basin 300 Mile Sled Dog Race is just two weeks away... Stay tuned!
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Although the lodge at Paxson may not be the kind of quaint, fancy place you might picture when you think of a wilderness inn, it is a warm and very serviceable oasis in an extremely remote part of the harsh Alaskan interior. The folks who run it are all very friendly and they really went out of their way to accommodate the extremely challenging demands of hosting a sled dog race. Plus, you've just got to appreciate folks whose sense of humor created the sign out front!
The biggest problem for all of us who remained at the lodge -- team handlers, race officials, veterinarians, friends and family of mushers, etc. -- is that we really had very little access to information. The teams are all so far "out there" on a race that even in these days of hi-tech communications we have no direct contact with them. All we had, in fact, was one dial-up connection to the race website which was constantly monitored but seldom updated. Any of you at home had the same information we did, what little there was of it. As a result, there was always a great deal of speculation going on in the lodge about which teams were where, what strategies they were using, when they might get to or leave the checkpoint, etc. After a while it all becomes just a crazy din of speculation, so you find other things to do.
I spent some time preparing these posts so that they would be ready to go as soon as I could get back online at the Kennel. I also helped take care of some dropped dogs, swapped experiences and techniques with other handlers, shared stories with other bloggers, etc. Mostly, though, I found myself wondering -- and worrying -- about the teams. The few reports we got from returning snow machiners and a few mushers who had scratched were all consistent: the trail was very difficult, the winds were extremely high and the temperatures were brutally cold -- as low as -50 in places!
Not having reliable or timely information, you can't make any kind of "plan" to be prepared for when your teams return. For example, you know that they will need hot "soup" as soon as they get in, but you can't make it too soon or it will be cold by the time they arrive. You want to be at the finish line when they arrive, but you can't just stand around in the cold waiting for them. As a consequence, you find yourself napping in a chair for a few minutes then getting up to see if there is any new information on the website. Not finding any, you suit up and go outside to check with the race officials to see if they've heard anything. Not getting any satisfaction there, you wander over to the trucks to make sure everything is still in order. Then, you take a dropped dog or two out for a quick potty break. After that you find yourself back in a chair, nodding off to the din of endless -- and boisterous -- speculation.
I hope this doesn't sound like I'm complaining, because I'm certainly not. My intention is to share just a bit of "another side" of dog sled racing. The mushers and the dogs have the hard job. They're "out there" in the wild, the dark, the wind and the cold. All we handlers have to cope with is waiting, wondering and worrying.
I'd carried a snow machine down to Paxson in the back of my pick-up truck, with a plan to drive it out the Denali Highway to the GinGin 200 Sled Dog Race checkpoint at MacLaren. I figured that I might be able to shoot some footage of the teams in action along the way, and film them on all their arrivals/departures once there.
The "math" of the plan all worked out perfectly: It's 50 miles from Paxson to MacLaren, about five hours for the dogs. If I took off after the last team left the start and drove about 25 mph, I'd be there in only two hours -- well in advance of the dog teams and ready to get some great shots. I would then stay at the checkpoint overnight and return to Paxson before them. Perfect plan, right?
So, after I sent Allen on his way I packed up the dog trucks and put on all my cold weather gear. I loaded some additional gear in a weather-proof duffel and lashed it -- along with an arctic sleeping bag -- to the back of the snow machine, just in case of a breakdown or something. You really don't take any chances in conditions like these.
Having done everything I could think of in preparation, I fired up the sled and headed down the highway. A mile or so out of Paxson I got hit by high winds and blowing snow. Despite all my really great gear, the snow was blowing inside my helmet, clogging up my goggles and frosting up my glasses. Accordingly, I had to slow way down just to be able to see what I could of the faint -- and quickly drifting over -- trail on the roadway.
Even slowed down to about 15 mph, it was a pretty miserable ride. After a few miles I was passed by a string of six snow machines, driven by the experts from the Alaska National Guard. I tried to keep up with them for a while, but soon gave up and chugged along on my own.
About ten miles into my 50 mile trip, I was really starting to question whether or not it was smart for me to continue. It was bad enough that I'd be driving on my own in miserable conditions, but even if I was successful in getting to MacLaren my reduced speed meant I'd make it there after the dog teams, in the dark, and not be able to shoot any decent footage. It was starting to look like another perfect plan was going down the drain.
As I was pondering this, I came upon the stopped string of Alaska National Guard snow machiners and saw that straight ahead of them were some very large snow drifts that had completely obscured the road. I wanted to take a picture, but it was so cold and blowing so hard that I couldn't convince myself to take my mitts off!
While I couldn't see much else through the blowing snow, I could see that quite a little "meeting" was taking place amongst the National Guardsmen. Well, I had a little meeting with myself that lasted about three seconds, just long enough for my brain to formulate the thought: "That's it, I'm out of here!"
I executed a perfect three-point turn and ran as fast as I could back to Paxson. Upon arrival I was greeted by a few folks in the lodge to whom I said, "Call me chicken if you want, but the heck with going to MacLaren!" None of them called me anything but smart, saying the report they had gotten indicated that even the best of the snow machine teams was having difficulty getting through. I was disappointed that I wouldn't "be there" for our teams, but I figured it was better not to be there than to be stuck or lost somewhere out in that weather.
As it turned out, I seem to have made an excellent decision because this morning I learned from a fellow videographer named Peter Kamper -- who had ridden along with the Guardsmen -- that they never made it to MacLaren either and had returned to Paxson in the middle of the night with only four of their snow machines. Two had been lost along the way.
He said his trip was a nightmare and he wished that he had either not gone along at all or turned around when I did. After that I didn't feel so badly about aborting my snow machine excursion! Peter has graciously allowed me to share this clip that he shot along the way, so you can have a look and ask yourself what you would have done:
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Now, the GinGin 200 Sled Dog Race is organized into a Women's Division and a Men's division. The women start first, so Aliy and Bridgett were scheduled to go out well before Allen. This meant that we only had their two teams starting sequentially -- at two minute intervals -- rather than a triple-start that I will admit I had been a little worried about handling.
When the time came, the race start was pretty much the usual chaos, and maybe even a little more chaotic than usual. With 55 dog teams packed into a pretty small parking area -- actually several even smaller parking areas -- there ended up being various routes to the start line, all of which had some obstacles to be navigated around. Plus, the Alaska National Guard were present in force to help support the race, including riding snow machines around the staging area to help lead teams to the start. I've mentioned this scene in some detail because it makes the performance of our teams even more admirable.
When the time came for Aliy and Bridgett to move to the start line -- over 200 yards from our parking place -- I led the dogs only about 50 yards to a more-or-less open trench of deep powder between two snow berms and they worked on verbal commands -- "gee", "stay gee", "haw", etc. -- the rest of the way. Compared to other teams that were led by snow machines all the way to the start line, I'll admit I had a sense of pride that our teams were so "professional" and navigated the obstacles in such fine manner on their own.
What this starting line location meant, unfortunately, is that I was unable to be there for their actual starts and have no photos or videos to share. I can report, however, that Aliy and Bridgett both had clean, timely starts and were on their way down the Denali Highway when I last saw them from a distance.
About 50 minutes later it was Allen's turn, and we went through the same procedure with the exception that as Allen was passing by me at the entrance to the snow trench he said, "Climb on the sled!" So, I jumped on the back of his runners and held on tight as he navigated the team to the starting line. Once there I was able to hop off, run to the front of the team and help line them out. I was also able to fire up one of my pocket cameras and grab this footage of Allen's team starting the GinGin 200. As you will see, I'm a little out of breath and yammering my usual nonsense to the dogs, but I think you will enjoy being there with me at the actual start.
Well, as you may recall from our recent trip to the Sheep Mountain Race, "It's never easy!"
We found out this morning that Bridgett's flight out of Nome was cancelled so she would not be able to get to Fairbanks in time for us to leave. She thought she might be able to get to Anchorage later in the day, where a friend of hers might be able to drive her up to Paxson. In other words, maybe we would have three mushers in Paxson for the race, and maybe not.
So, we -- Allen, Aliy and I -- had one of our now-customary "plan adjustment meetings" to try to figure out what to do. The big question was whether or not to bring Bridgett's team of dogs to Paxson, and, if we did, what to do with them once there if she could not get to the race at all.
We decided the problem could be solved by me taking care of them in Paxson while Aliy and Allen were out on the trail with their teams. It would limit my ability to take the snow machine out on the trail to video the teams in action, but it was a far better alternative than not taking the team to Paxson just in case Bridgett could make it after all. Also, we figured that if she could get as far as Anchorage but not get a ride, I could make the 10-hour round trip to Anchorage and still have her back in Paxson in time for the race. It would be "a very closely run thing", but it could be done.
With that "new plan" in mind, we set off as originally planned, minus the stop at the Fairbanks airport to fetch Bridgett.
Thankfully, the weather and road conditions were not too bad along the way -- just the usual high winds and blowing snow -- and we pretty much made our scheduled time to Paxson. Along the way, Bridgett phoned me to say that she had been able to make it to Anchorage and that her friend had very nicely agreed to drive here most of the way to Paxson, as far as Glenallen which would be only about a 3-hour round-trip for me.
So, Allen, Aliy and I arrived in Paxson at about 8pm, where I got a cup of coffee and left Allen and Aliy to drop and feed the dogs, then set off for Glenallen. Despite a few, um, challenging moments along the way, I made it to Glenallen at about 10pm and found Bridgett waiting for me at "The Hub", a famous truck stop. We quickly threw her gear in the truck and headed back here to Paxson, arriving just before midnight and very happily uniting the complete team. They were even able to get a few hours of sleep before getting up early this morning to drop/feed the dogs then have some breakfast during the mushers' meeting.
"It's never easy" -- you really have to be flexible and resourceful around here -- but all things considered the trip worked out pretty well, and a lot better than it could have! Here's hoping the actual GinGin 200 Sled Dog Race goes as well!
Friday, December 26, 2008
We will be running three teams, with Aliy, Allen and Bridgett mushing ten dogs each. The GinGin is another short, early-season race which they plan to use as an excellent "tune-up" for the very important Copper Basin 300 in two weeks. So, Aliy and Allen will not be trying to finish at the top of the field, but you just never know what might happen!
I thought you might like to see what we mean when we talk about "loading the dogs" so I've edited this video from a clip I shot a few weeks ago:
At the GinGin, I will be driving a snow machine about 50 miles into the main checkpoint. I'm hopeful that there will be some kind of internet connection which I can use to post updates on the race action, but the checkpoint is so remote that I'll admit I'm a bit skeptical.
You know I'll post if I can, so stay tuned right here!
Meanwhile, for general information you can visit gingin200.com and for race updates you can check out the race blog.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Well, that was all I needed to hear in order to know that something good was on it's way, so I fired up my camera and hit the record button. As a result, I can offer you this little video of Aliy "night tripping" about whether it is night because it is dark, dark because it is night, not night because it is not the right time or not really dark at all.
If you've ever wondered what Aliy thinks about on those long night runs, this may provide you with a little insight.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
It was a perfect week for him to be here, because we started him out with Kennel chores like feeding the dogs and cleaning the yard, and ended up with the Solstice Race which gave him a pretty complete perspective on sled dog racing.
In between, of course, there were lots of other experiences like riding in a sled on a training run, talking with Allen about sled design and fabrication, hooking up teams and just plain dealing with the cold, dark Alaskan climate.
One highlight of his visit was our project to uncover a few hundred salmon that Allen and Aliy had bought earlier in the fall and buried under a tarp to freeze them. Our task was to dig up the salmon -- now under a foot or so of snow as well -- then pile them in the truck and help Allen cut them up into fish snacks for the dogs.
I've compiled this video of the experience -- pretty much from start to finish -- and am delighted to share it with you as yet another "behind the scenes" look at one of the more, um, glamorous jobs in dog mushing.
Kudos to Greg for surviving the week, not only in good form but in good spirits. You, my friend, are always welcome to join me on any of my crazy expeditions!
Monday, December 22, 2008
Out in the dog yard he is one of the sweetest, most peaceful dogs you could ever meet. Always wagging his tail, always ready for a hug and a smooch. You just can't help liking this lovable hunk of a guy.
When he's in harness, however, he is another dog altogether. He's a powerful vocal cheerleader whenever he's on a team, whether getting ready to run or out on the trail. When the going gets tough -- like running up a hill -- he kicks his voice into overdrive and makes noises like something you might expect out of a Stephen King novel!
His voice is so distinctive -- and unsettling -- that Allen calls Manny his secret weapon. When Manny's team is chasing down another team in front of them, his screaming will often make the other team's dogs turn their heads around to see what kind of monster is chasing them, and cause them to lose some speed in the process.
To me, Manny is a dog who is just "letting it all out" and I find that very endearing. I featured him in the recent Solstice videos, but I had an extra video clip of Manny in action, so I thought I'd share it with you as an outtake.
If you've already heard enough of Manny, feel free to skip this video. But if you -- like me -- just can't get enough of a good thing, I'm delighted to present a special feature outtake of "The Mannyac!"
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Aliy had a frustrating outbound leg in the 100-mile race as her main leader first stopped leading then pretty much quit working altogether. Arriving at the checkpoint with the dog riding in the sled, Aliy said she lost about thirty minutes in total along the way, having to first move the dog from lead to swing, then to wheel and finally into the sled bag.
There are so many variables and complexities in sled dog racing that you can never anticipate -- let alone plan for -- all of the contingencies. Losing your main leader, having to carry it in the sled and eventually dropping it from the team is one of the last things you would expect.
Nevertheless, Aliy was able to hold onto 6th place -- out of over 30 teams -- at the finish. Considering that her dogs were only a "B-C" team to begin with -- the "A Teams" did not race this weekend -- this was an excellent result overall.
Here is Part 2 of my video report from the Solstice 50/100 Mile Sled Dog Race:
Saturday, December 20, 2008
As soon as both teams had left the starting point, I packed up the dog truck as fast as I could and hurried back here to the Kennel. In a little race of my own, I have taken the footage I shot this morning and edited it into this video post. (Special thanks to Wilson -- my fabulous MacBook Pro -- for an astonishingly fast job of processing video!)
I have only a few minutes before I must climb into Big Red and hustle up the road to the checkpoint where Aliy and Allen will soon be arriving. So, I don't have time to write about what you're going to see and will have to hope that the video is self-explanatory.
I tried to do a pretty complete narrative while I was shooting, so I hope it works out for you. Please let me know in the comments!
Friday, December 19, 2008
Thursday, December 18, 2008
This was true of one clip as I was recording Allen and Aliy for "Boo Booties" and suddenly had unexpected camera movement that spoiled the shot. Although I couldn't use the clip in the final video, I hated to waste the really sweet moment of film that followed with Betsy -- who was pawing at my arm and was, in fact, the source of the camera movement.
So, I've decided to start another little series of videos which I am going to call "Outtakes." I figure if it's good enough for the Hollywood crowd to include outtakes in their movies, it's got to be good enough for us too.
I hope you enjoy this first outtake featuring Betsy!
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
While getting ready for their "full dress rehearsal" run last week before the Sheep Mountain race, however, I heard just a tiny bit of griping. So, I fired up my camera and asked "What's up?"
The resulting video offers a pretty good insight into the "necessary evil" aspects of putting booties on the dogs, and explains why mushers boo booties. It also gives you a nice little glimpse of some friendly -- yet competitive -- banter between Allen and Aliy.
So, here's another "inside look" that I hope you will enjoy:
Sunday, December 14, 2008
"I'm pleased with the results of my race, but I am especially pleased with the performance of my two year olds. When you have three youngsters in a team of twelve dogs, you never know what's going to happen. My team was really steady, but not super fast. We passed a lot of people going up all the tough hills, but a lot of them passed us going down. I just wasn't willing to run my dogs downhill. We are primarily a long-distance kennel, and I didn't want to put the dogs at too much risk of injury by running downhill in an early season race. Allen was our featured musher this weekend and he had the Varsity team. We are very pleased with his result."Aliy and Allen are taking naps at the moment, prior to the awards dinner in a few hours. The team will travel back to Two Rivers either later tonight or early tomorrow morning.
The 2008-2009 racing season is off to a flying start!
As Allen was speaking to Bridget, a musher with a red "parka" came up to the finish line. Aliy finished with 11 dogs at around 3pm. I have not heard a position or any other details, but both of our mushers and their dogs are safely back at Sheep Mountain Lodge.
More information when we get it!!
Allen arrived back at Sheep Mountain Lodge at 12:36pm, just 6 minutes behind winner Jessica Hendricks. Hans Gatt moved up into 3rd place and Jon Little took 4th. Although they are not showing Aliy in yet, we believe she has finished as well. We are awaiting information from Rhino at the finishline.
Photo by Joesph Robertia
You can imagine my surprise at once again barely making it to the entry chute in time to see him pull up and check in, still in third place and still only a few minutes off the leader's pace. We parked the dogs and he quickly did the snack-straw-meal routine, reporting only that he'd had a pretty good run, gone fast the whole way and gotten really cold at a couple of points. He then headed straight up to the lodge to have some hot stew and get some sleep.
Aliy arrived a few minutes later -- also still more or less in her previous position -- and she, too, performed the ritual checkpoint procedure. She said her run was pretty good, that her team did very well going up the hills, but that the team was mostly "steady" not "fast." As soon as she was finished, she also headed up to the lodge.
So, I am still here in Eureka and they are here again. All is well with the teams, they're still at full strength and either still "in the hunt" or "doing well." In about an hour I will make sure that Allen is up and ready to go get his team ready for the run back to Sheep Mountain. It's the same 45 mile return route, and being now only about 15 minutes behind the leader he says, "It ain't over yet!"
I will help Aliy take off a little bit later, then fire up Big Red again and head back to Sheep Mountain myself. When I get there I will try to go online again to post all the stuff I have put together while in Eureka, then make a hot meal for the dogs and await their arrival. I don't know exactly what will happen after that, but I'm pretty sure it will involve sleep as soon as possible.
Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to this hotly contested race!
Our next -- and last -- activity for this first time through the Eureka checkpoint was to get the dogs ready to go and execute another two clean starts which, I am happy to report, we did. Both teams are still at full strength of twelve dogs for the next leg, a 50+ loop back here to Eureka. Allen is positively possessed with going as fast as he possibly can, and I wouldn't be surprised if he starts to dig in even more and chase down the speedsters.
I've spent another couple of hours since then editing all the media in these past three posts and I'm pretty wiped out. So, I am going to go curl up in the truck and take a quick nap until it is the earliest time that I think Allen could possibly get here. I can't wait to see what happens in this close and exciting race!
Saturday, December 13, 2008
If you are having trouble with the embeded player, you can click here to access the mp3 file directly.
Allen had told me that his strategy was to start out a little easy, noting that the first part of the trail has a lot of hills and mushers who push their dogs too hard too fast suffer later on because their dogs don't have a chance to catch up on energy. Because of this, I was expecting Allen -- who started number 11 in the race -- to arrive in a modest position. So, I was caught quite by surprise when Allen was the third musher to arrive. In his first "taking it easy" portion of the race, he had already moved up eight places!
I hustled down the line just in time to help him park the dogs, then observe him go about his dog tending chores in his usual swift, sure and quiet manner. Based on this experience, though, I was paying close attention when Aliy arrived just 20 minutes later, and I was able to catch some decent night-video of her parking and dog tending.
It all started out so well... We left the Kennel right on time at 1pm yesterday, planning to make the six -- or so -- hour drive to Sheep Mountain and arrive in the early evening to take care of the dogs, have a nice dinner and a good night's sleep. As we began our drive, Allen drove while Aliy sang along to the music that one of my iPods was playing through the radio in Big Red. We also took some time to review the teams, their race strategies, what they wanted me -- as "handler" at my first race -- to do, etc. We also talked about all the dogs, of course, but that probably goes without saying at this point.
After a couple of hours of this happy time, Aliy stretched out on the back seat of the truck and caught a little sleep while Allen and I did what we do best, brainstorm about how to make sleds go faster, minimize time/effort in checkpoints, etc. Just the kind of "guy talk" that happens on the road. What we didn't really want to talk about was having problems with Big Red, but that became an urgent topic of conversation when we tried to go up a hill and lost so much power that we barely made it to the top! In a moment that you'd have to have witnessed to really appreciate, Allen said, "Hey, Sunshine!" and Aliy bolted upright, fully awake and saying "What?!?"
The problem with Big Red persisted, to the point that we doubted we'd be able to make it to Sheep Mountain at all. At first we thought it was a problem with the transmission, but soon decided it was a problem with the fuel "gelling" in the very cold temperatures. We pulled over to the side of the road and considered our options. The best we could come up with at the moment was to turn around, head back to the Kennel, get the smaller dog truck plus another pick-up, re-load the dogs and head back down to Sheep Mountain. This would mean our plans for a nice, quiet, leisurely evening were ruined, but it would give us the highest confidence of at least making it to the race. So, we turned around and headed home.
Aliy called Ray -- Kaz's husband -- in Fairbanks and asked him to pick up some drop chains that were in town being overhauled. We would need the drop chains to attach the dogs to the smaller truck during care-and-feeding stops, plus before and after the race. In the process, Allen described the problem to Ray who said, "Sound to me like you've just got a fuel problem. I'll pick up some 'gunk' to add to the tank and bring it with me. I'll meet you along the highway." Ray to the rescue!
We finally lost all power, pulled over at the side of the road and waited for Ray. About an hour later he arrived, poured the "gunk" into the tank and within literally a few minutes the engine was running great again. We decided to continue heading backwards to the nearest town where we shopped at an auto parts store, bought more "gunk" and a new fuel filter, then filled up with new fuel and installed the filter while parked at the gas station. By then everything was running so well that we decided to change direction again and head to Sheep Mountain.
So, after what amounted to a five hour delay, we were back on the road, all well except for our "nice evening" plans. We stopped along the way to "drop" -- i.e. "potty break" -- the dogs, and arrived at our accommodations at about midnight. We fed, watered and walked the dogs, then got about four hours of sleep before getting up at 6am to do the dog routine all over again. We then convened for breakfast -- where I was only able to get these goofy smiles from our mushers! -- and drove the last hour or so to Sheep Mountain, arriving well in time -- as I said in the previous post -- to have a careful race preparation and two clean starts.
So, there's the "back story" on our trip to Sheep Mountain... and now you are really up to date!
Allen and Aliy both had nice clean starts at the Sheep Mountain 150 Sled Dog Race!
We arrived at Sheep Mountain Lodge this morning with plenty of time to do careful preparation for the race, but with two 12-dog teams going out only two minutes apart we were hustling pretty fast when the actual start times came.
Allen had a nice clean start with the "A-Team" but we were too busy handling dogs to catch any video. At the last second before Aliy started with the "B-Team", I handed Amy -- a friend of the Kennel who came by to help -- one of my cameras and she grabbed this short but great video of Aliy's start. Thanks, Amy!
There's a lot more to the story, of course -- which I will try to put into a post later today -- but I wanted to make sure you got the most important news right away!
In a little while I will pack up the truck and drive to the checkpoint at Eureka Lake where I will wait for the teams to arrive a few hours from now.
If I can get online there, you know I'll post what I can!
Friday, December 12, 2008
The Sheep Mountain Dog Sled Race is the first competitive race of the Alaska season. It begins Saturday, December 13 at noon, Alaska Standard Time. Teams will finish about 24 hours later. According to Zack Steer, the race organizer, this race is for “early season distance training and competition”. The snow cover is ideal this year and the forecast is for cold, clear weather. Great for racing!
Fifty teams, the maximum allowed, have pre-registered for the race. You will recognize many entrants who are top performers: Jeff King, DeeDee Jonrowe, Hans Gatt, Ken Anderson and, of course, Aliy. The full race field is listed at http://gomush.com/SheepMountain150.html.
This web site also explains the race trail and links to the Sheep Mountain Lodge web site for maps and general info about the area. A simplified explanation of the race trail is as follows: the teams start at Sheep Mountain Lodge; they run 50 miles east to Eureka Lodge; they rest for 5 hours at Eureka; they make a 50 mile loop in the hills east of Eureka; they rest for 5 hours again at Eureka; then they run 50 miles back to Sheep Mountain Lodge.
Since the teams leave the starting chute 2 minutes apart, the starting differential is made up at the first Eureka Lodge rest stop. The team that begins in 50th place, rests exactly 5 hours. The team that starts in 49th rests 5 hours and 2 minutes; the 48th team rests 5 hours and 4 minutes and so on. The teams that start near the front will have longer rests. Our understanding is that Aliy and Allen start in places 11 and 12, so their rest times will be longer than those in slots 13 through 50. This is good!
Aliy also talked a bit about teams and the race strategy. Aliy and Allen will each start with a team of 12 dogs, the maximum allowed by race rules. The dogs have been trained identically and should be very ready for 150 miles. Aliy believes that Allen’s team is the faster of the two.
She emphasized that an important aspect of this ‘shorter’ race is to run CLEAN. Leaving the checkpoints on time and passing other teams without incident are critical, especially in the first third of the race when teams are bunched together. In a 150 mile race there is no time to make up for mistakes.
Aliy says that they must keep the dogs and themselves healthy. In a shorter race, there is a fine line between racing ‘in control’ and ‘out of control’. The Sheep Mountain Race is very hilly (really mountainous) and they plan to pace their teams going downhill, a prime place for knee injuries. To counter this the mushers must then keep up speed on the uphills and the flats by pedaling and ski-poling. This is where Aliy and Allen’s hydration and fitness levels become critical. They have their insulated bottles with long straws ready to pack in the sleds. They have been working out regularly. Aliy thinks that Allen is in the better physical condition.
So it looks like the basic strategy for this race is to run a fast, clean and controlled race for the first 100 miles so they still have 12 healthy dogs (and a healthy musher) for the final 50 mile push to the finish.
So let’s all cheer on Aliy and Allen from afar. The web site noted above will post updates during and after the race. Macgellan will be at the race with the SP Kennel crew. We don’t know what kind of internet access is available in race territory but he will post stories, videos and pictures whenever possible.
ODDBALL and BULLET
Here are the teams as of Friday morning. This could change as they load the dogs into the truck:
Allen – ChaCha, Skittles, Oddball, Tony, Teddy, Venus, Butterscotch, Biscuit, Tatfish, Meg, Rose, Snickers.
Aliy – Bullet, Stormy, JJ, Dingle, Petunia, Spot, Roy, KitKat, Nacho, Chica, Spicy, Garlic.
The race begins promptly at noon on Saturday, with Aliy and Allen starting early in the sequence of 50 mushers. They will then race 50 miles to Eureka Lake where they will take a mandatory five hour layover. After that they will race 50 miles around a loop back to Eureka Lake, where they will take another mandatory five hour layover.
Then, it's just 50 miles back to Sheep Mountain where we will look for Allen to cross the finish line first, with Aliy right behind him! The teams have been training so hard and doing so well that they really have a shot at it, despite what will certainly be tough competition from some other top mushers.
I have no idea what -- if any -- internet facilities will be available in the area, but you can be assured that if it as at all possible I will make posts to this Dog Log during the race. So keep your web browser glued to this page and refresh it often!
You may also want to check out the race information that is available at the Sheep Mountain Lodge website, and look for Race Updates here.
That's all for now, I'm heading out to help load the dogs...
We're going racing!
Thursday, December 11, 2008
(Note: Aliy has been beating her self up lately about not writing more posts for this website and not answering more of the questions you have been asking via the comments and email. She really likes all the videos we have been doing, but she is concerned both that we can't "do it all" in video and that some of you have dial-up internet connections that are too slow to be able to watch them. The problem, of course, is that it takes a really long time to write things up and, frankly, she just doesn't have the time to spare in the frantic pace of the Kennel, training dogs and preparing for the racing season.
So, when I was in Fairbanks the other day, I picked up a slick little digital recorder and gave it to her, suggesting that she start using it as a way to communicate with you. I've pointed out how good she is at describing things "real-time" in the videos and proposed that if she just "talks into the machine" in the same way, she can cover much more -- and better -- in a tiny fraction of the time it would take her to "write it up." I have also promised that I can post the audio in a format that everybody can listen to, no matter what kind of internet connection they have.
Well, she gave it a try today, and the result is this little audio piece in which Aliy talks about lead dogs. I think she did a great job, and I hope you like it too. As you can probably tell by the title of this post, I'm already thinking that this should be an ongoing series called "Aliy Talks About..." If you think so too, please leave a comment and let her know. I think that with just a little encouragement we may be able to get her to do it often. Also, if we really push her, we might be able to convince her to make recordings while she is on the sled, in a race, etc. Now that would be fun and exciting to have, don't you think?
Anyway, for my part I have done the best I can to fulfill my promise to make this audio work for everybody. I have compressed the audio all the way down to a 24kbps mp3 format, so it should stream well even over dial-up. The audio quality suffers a little, but I think universal access is worth the trade off. Also, I have embedded it in a Google player so any web browser on any machine should be able to play it. Please let me know in the comments if you have any problems.
Now, with no further verbiage or delay, I offer you "Episode One" of "Aliy Talks About...")
If you are having trouble with the embeded player, you can click here to access the mp3 file directly.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
(Note: This post is by Aliy... As she was rushing out the door to go on her daily 50 mile training run, she handed me the text and asked me to post it for her. -- Macgellan)As always, “We’ve got a lot to do!” -- this is our mantra every morning over coffee -- but during a Race Week we have even more to do than usual. In addition to running dogs every day, we have to prepare our gear, pack supplies, load the trucks and do a million other little things. But, no matter how much we have to do, we always have to stay focused on our most important priority: the dogs!
This is the first time in the season when we really have to make some tough decisions about who will go racing with us and who will stay home. If you’ve ever had a child on a soccer team or basketball squad and you’ve had to look them square in the eye and say “You are not playing today” then you know what this feels like to me.
Although we have some particular goals for every race this season -- Sheep Mountain 150, Gin Gin 200, Solstice 100, Copper Basin 300, Tustemena 200 and Iditarod -- all of them have one thing in common: We start with the full intention of competing hard and doing our team’s overall best.
For most races we will run a Varsity Squad and a JV Squad:
The Varsity dogs will always be the best dogs in the kennel at race time. The roster will vary throughout the racing season -- because you never know when a dog might have a bellyache or step in a hole in the trail and twist a wrist -- and only on the day before a race will the Varsity Squad be chosen. Most often they will be veteran racers with tremendous knowledge, drive and experience.
The JV Squad will vary depending on the race. We will use some of these races as “stepping stones” to help younger dogs learn. After all, there is no better way to teach a 2 year old rookie how to deal with the stresses and issues of a race than to actually compete in a race. But, we must also limit the chaos created by their youthful enthusiasm by combining them in a team with at least some knowledgeable veterans. At race start, it sometimes seems like there are two stoic veterans sled dogs in lead, an experienced musher in the rear and a whole bunch of “Frat Boys on a Friday night” in the middle.
So, think of us this Friday as we walk through the dog yard admiring our wonderful canine athletes. I promise you, I may look some of the dogs straight in the eyes and say, “Get in the truck”, but there will be others who will burn a hole in my back with their stare as I try to avoid their gaze. Next time….. I promise….. next time.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Monday, December 8, 2008
So, while I was in Fairbanks the other day I shopped for a camera that is more "purpose built" for the cold, snow, etc., than my existing gear. I found one by Olympus called the "Stylus 1030 SW" -- the "SW" stands for "Shock and Water Proof" -- and it is supposed to operate in temperatures down to -10 degrees. Hoping for the best, I bought it and determined to put it to the test right away.
As Aliy and Allen were getting ready to head out on a training run yesterday, I noticed a small rock in the Kennel's exit chute. With the claim of "shock and water proof" in mind, I propped my new camera down on the snow in front of it, hoping to get some footage from an unusual perspective. Actually, I was still just hoping for the best.
By now you know that the dogs are pretty excited to get going just before a run, some of them to the extent that we have to hook them up at the very last second or they will make a tangled mess out of the team. This is particularly true for Tatfish. For reasons that you will see, this little video is dedicated to Tatfish and my new camera, both of whom deserve better than they get!
Special thanks to Jonathan Coulton -- who somehow always has just the song I need! -- for the use of "Why Don't You Take Care Of Me?"
Sunday, December 7, 2008
The problem, of course, is that there are so many dogs to train at the Kennel and they all need to be run -- as you know from the "Training Schedule" video -- almost every day. As a result, I have been going out on training runs with Aliy, riding on a second sled that is literally tied to the back of her so that we can have more control -- double brakes, double weight -- and can run more dogs at one time.
For this run Aliy said, "We need to drive a big rig today... 18 dogs!" So, we harnessed up a huge team -- even larger than a full 16-dog Iditarod team! -- and headed out on a four hour, 40+ mile run. With two sleds -- each carrying two large bags of dog food -- and two humans, the total load added up to about 700 pounds. As you will see, these powerful Alaskan Huskies pulled this "big rig" like it was nothing!
About five miles out from the Kennel we passed by the entire town of Two Rivers where Aliy offers a bit of a guided tour. I'm sorry that the audio is so poor, but the speed of the dogs creates such a wind effect that it overwhelms the tiny microphone on my camera. I've added a few sub-titles to help you understand what Aliy is saying. (Note: I'm trying some experiments to fix this problem, but if anybody has a solution for it I would really like to know about it. Please leave me a comment!)
A little further into our run, Aliy put me in the lead sled where I was able to give you a bit of a true "musher's-eye view" then turn around -- with my back to the wind! -- to film Aliy looking forward for a change.
I hope you enjoy "Driving A Big Rig" with us!
Friday, December 5, 2008
Aliy and Allen just got back from Anchorage where they joined their good friends at Horizon Lines in support of Covenant House, and made a presentation about life with sled dogs. Horizon Lines is a major kennel sponsor, and the teams proudly wear the Horizon Lines logo on just about everything from the team trucks to dog booties and wind jackets.
When I asked Aliy how the trip went she said:
"It was a great visit, and everybody really liked the presentation. It got me thinking that we should make a video that we can send to schools and other places when we can't visit in person. We could start with how we dress the dogs up in their racing clothes!"So, with many thanks to all the folks at Horizon Lines for being such an important part of the team -- and for helping us look so good on the trail! -- here's a little sample of what we have in mind for the presentation video, a scene called: "Sled Dog Race Wear"
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I hope this video answers some of your questions, and we all look forward to more of your requests along the way. Thank you!
Monday, December 1, 2008
After an initial look at the media, my first thought was to see if I could get Bridgett to do a narrative voice-over for it. But, after simply dropping it all into a movie timeline it seemed to me the media tells the story pretty well all on its own:
A family of four packs forty dogs and their gear into trucks, drives to a remote location in the Alaskan Interior, then mushes into the evening. They all camp out over night, then hit the trails hard all the next day. The scenery is beautiful, the dogs are magnificent and the family is happy doing something they all love together.What could be more straightforward than that?
So, I just took a fabulous song called "The Journey" by my good friend Stephen Jacob and laid it in as a soundtrack. The result seemed perfect to me and Bridgett agreed, so here it is: A "music video" of the first overnight training run at SP Kennel
Thanks, Bridgett, you rock!
(Note: This video is something a little different from what I have been posting recently, and I am curious about whether you like it. Please leave a comment to let me know if you like "something a little different" -- even a little "artsy" -- from time to time, or if you'd like me to stick with the "normal" documentary kind of stuff.)
Follow-up Note: As you've probably noticed, YouTube did a very poor job of converting my video to their format and it looks really, really bad. I'm sorry about this, but there's nothing I can do to control how YouTube does things. So, as an alternative for those of you who have reasonably hi-speed internet and a reasonably recent version of QuickTime, you can stream the hi-quality video directly from my server by clicking here.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
In preparation, Allen spent some time in the kennel shop, making sure that four sleds were "good to go." I've been trying to get Allen on video, so I decided to put him on the spot and ask him "Watcha doin'?" with the camera running.
The result is this little video of Allen talking about sled maintenance -- plus a few other general observations -- and sharing his knowledge and wit on camera for the first time:
(Note: If you'd like to see more videos of Allen, please leave a comment and let him know. He thinks people only want to see Aliy because, as he puts it, "She's the pretty one!")
Friday, November 28, 2008
So, here's another brief "behind the scenes" glimpse of kennel life... Plus a little bonus footage of a few of the puppies here at SP Kennel. Enjoy!
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I shot this video of what it's like at the kennel "after the bosses are gone" and thought I'd post it to share a little "behind the scenes" action. I think those of you who are fans of Heeler -- "Mr. Personality" -- will find it especially entertaining, and I hope the rest of you enjoy it as well!
(Note: Aliy said the only thing she doesn't like about the video is that it shows what the kennel is like before it has been cleaned. I've assured her that everyone will understand, especially since I ended by saying "it's time to clean the dog yard!" If you'd like a real look "behind the scenes", I'd be happy to share that little bit of fun with you some day!)
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Monday, November 24, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Well, Macgellan -- one of our kennel sponsors -- emailed me last summer to say that he had completed his latest expedition (a 658 day circumnavigation of the surface of the earth!) and was planning his next: To spend the winter exploring Alaska and the world of sled dogs.
He asked if he could start out by spending some time at the kennel and I told him that if he was sure he wanted to be in the interior of Alaska at the coldest, darkest time of year he was more than welcome.
So, he arrived last weekend and has gotten right into the swing of things. Partly he is helping out with kennel chores like feeding, hooking up teams, doing errands in town and the endless process of cleaning the dog yard! Everything he does around here helps us have more time to do what we need to do most: Train dogs!
He is also helping out with our "technology issues" like installing wireless internet in the kennel, adding videos to the blog, etc. We are especially excited about this because it will enable us to bring you much more -- and better -- coverage of the dogs, our training and, very soon, the racing season.
We are happy that Macgellan is here and we look forward to having his ongoing help. We hope that you are too!
December and January are known as the cold, dark months. Periodically, high-pressure systems flow east from Siberia and stall here in Interior Alaska. The barometer readings are stubbornly high. These systems won’t budge without a hearty low-pressure system to shoulder them aside. Therefore, we will experience "cold snaps" that last for 4 or 5 days. These snaps bring extreme cold temperatures: 40, 50 even 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Luckily the Alaskan Husky is a superb cold weather animal. While training and racing in such extreme temperatures they exert a tremendous amount of energy and burn a huge number of calories (up to 12000 each day during a long distance race). When training at these temperatures, our dogs eat 2 large meals and numerous snacks daily. During races we feed them large meals at every checkpoint. On the race trail we frequently give them high fat snacks, such as beaver, poultry fat and turkey skins.
Dogs do not sweat like humans. Therefore, even in very cold temperatures you will see our dogs panting in order to cool their internal furnaces. Their only sweat glands are in their footpads. This is one of the reasons that we protect their feet with booties during races and longer training runs.
A musher can often estimate the temperature by looking at her dog team. As the mercury drops the dogs start to frost up from the moisture they exhale. At 20 below zero F, a layer of frost coats their shoulders and sides. At 30 below, the frost accumulates on their muzzles and chins. When it is bitter cold, 40 or 50 below, a musher must stop and clean icicles from the dogs’ whiskers and eyelashes. When the team stops for a face cleaning or a snack, "ice fog" will envelop them as the moisture from their panting vaporizes and freezes.
Mushers, by contrast, are not superb cold weather animals. Humans also exert tremendous amounts of energy during sled dog races. We muscle the sled along the trail, run up hills, clamor down embankments and hustle around in checkpoints, caring for our dogs and ourselves. Unlike our dogs, we sweat profusely. For this reason, it is critical for us to stay nourished and hydrated throughout the race. Dehydration from perspiration can quickly put an end to a musher’s race. Allen has designed an insulated bottle for our sleds that gives us easy access to water. We also hydrate continuously before each race and at every checkpoint. It is imperative that a musher wears quality clothing that wicks perspiration away from the skin. If perspiration is allowed to remain in contact with the skin immediate frostbite can occur at these extreme temperatures.
A musher can also estimate temperatures by scanning their own body and clothing. At 20 below, a musher might start to feel their clothes tighten. This is because any perspiration that exists in the outer layers has frozen and the ice constricts the fabric. At 30 degrees below zero F, a musher’s breath begins to frost heavily. Neck gaiters freeze. (We have learned to position the gaiters above our noses before they freeze solid!) Men’s mustaches and beards build up impressive icicles, if not covered by a mask or gaiter. When it reaches 40 or 50 degrees below zero F, we must worry about our eyelashes freezing together. One technique to avoid this is to periodically blow air upwards. This warm exhale will get trapped in the sub environment of the hooded ruff and defrost your lashes.
"Can there be Paradise at 30 below?" asks Aliy
"I think so!", replies Allen
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Did you enjoy this video? Is there something special you'd like to see?
Friday, November 14, 2008
The dogs of SP Kennel are the reasons that we can travel thousands of miles across this vast arctic wilderness. They are the motor, the engine, the power train, …. the sole reason that we move. What enables these dogs to efficiently and comfortably pull a sled, loaded with winter gear and people, is an appropriate harness. In general, there are two harness systems that work well for us.
Why two different harness systems? The fact is that ‘racing with sled dogs’ and ‘hauling with sled dogs’ are two completely different mushing disciplines. SP Kennel dogs do both in the course of one season and we use a different harness system for each mushing discipline. From August through November, we train for the racing season. From December through March, we race in both medium and long distance events. After racing season, during the month of April, we slow down to enjoy our North Slope Mushing Adventures. We must then haul many pounds of gear and clients by dog sled through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where motorized vehicles are prohibited.
When racing, our goal is to cover the longest distance in the shortest time period. Our racing sleds are constructed of lightweight materials and packed with only essential gear. The team hauls very few "pounds per dog". Consequently, the dogs can put most of their effort into running fast and very little effort into pulling the rig. For example, at the start of the Copper Basin 300, a 12-dog team would haul about 300 pounds, only 25 pounds per dog.
At SP Kennel we use the ManMat distance harness for our training and racing. The harness is a lightweight, well padded, half harness with a pulling point about half way down the dog’s back. The attachment can rotate around the dog’s torso, thus eliminating downward pressure on its hips and reducing hindquarter injuries. Each dog is attached to the gangline at only its harness pulling point. There is no neckline and therefore no collar restriction. Each dog can choose its own path to avoid trail hazards both big and small. The system is very "dog friendly", allowing each dog to put most of its energy into running. In our experience, the team runs faster and longer, with fewer injuries. But because of this increased freedom (the ability to circle, sit or even stop) dogs must be well trained to line out and wait for commands while in harness.
During our the North Slope Mushing Adventures, our goal is to haul food, arctic camping gear and our clients 20 to 40 miles daily, to or from a base camp. We are generally not in a hurry. We use larger toboggan sleds for maximum capacity and frequently tow one or more additional sleds. These sled rigs carry many "pounds per dog". A 12-dog team might be hauling over 1,000 pounds or about 83 pounds per dog.
Our preferred hauling harness is a traditional X-back, full-length model. The pulling point is at the dog’s hind end, just above the base of the tail. Therefore, the dog will use its entire body to push into the harness and gain momentum. Since the dog is attached to the gangline at both the rear pulling point by a tugline and at the collar with a neckline, this system is definitely more confining. The dog has no option but to follow the steps of the dog in front of it. This keeps the team very straight and organized. In our opinion, this system enhances team strength to haul those heavier loads. It has the added advantage of team cohesiveness, when the dogs are hearing commands from different student mushers, a common occurrence during our Dog Mushing Adventures.
Teddy models a traditional X-back harness.
There are many other sled dog harness systems available. Some are designed for extreme hauling, some for sprint racing, some for skijoring. New ideas are always in the development stages. So far, the two systems mentioned above are our favorites. But, if you see any new and interesting concepts during your own research into harnesses, let us know. We are always open to new ideas.