Thursday, December 22, 2016

Delayed Update--Lots of News!

Hello folks. With the election drama  and fighting my usual winter seasonal blahs, I have kind of let things slip. While I was off track, there have been some real items of news –definitely not fake news here—which have major impact on the sled dog racing world, especially the Iditarod. I’ll share them here briefly. If further developments surface, I will try to keep up to date on reporting them.

First,  the ITC announced in late October that they have made a rule change. Mushers will not be permitted to carry dogs in a  trailer/caboose or other sled-appendage conveyance. Such devices can be used to carry gear and required items, straw or dog food etc. but NO DOGS.  There has been some outcry and a few whines but it has generally been accepted.

I am certainly not going to say this was in response to my letters to the board members last spring but my words may have added a bit of weight to complaints from others and some of the traditional-minded members and mushers who did not think this was a good practice. Safety of the dogs was the main reason cited. (i.e.) Since the dragged item is behind the musher who will be at the rear of the actual sled, s/he cannot keep an eye on the dogs being carried or will be distracted from the trail and the running dogs in trying to do so. I think this is a very good change.

Dogs can still be carried in the actual sled—but that means one or at the most two at a time and most mushers will use this only in the traditional and normal manner—a way to get a sick or injured dog safely to the next checkpoint where it can be dropped and given into the care of volunteers and vets, if needed. This is totally legitimate and not a ploy to rest some dogs while others work!

The new rule allowing mushers to carry cell or satellite phones was upheld. There may be some restrictions but I have not been able to read the entire rule. I have mixed feelings on this but will defer to the board’s wisdom here and the fact quite a few mushers were in favor. A safety net of any kind is probably valid given last year’s events.

On that subject, the trial of the young Mr Denosky who ran into Aliy and Jeff King with his snow machine was finally completed very recenty. He was given a six months’ sentence—most of which has already been served--and a moderate fine. The exact reparations paid to the two injured mushers for their losses and trauma is not clear from the articles I read but there are supposed to be some. I am not sure where those funds are coming from.

In a recent post on her SPK blog, Aliy admitted she is still struggling with the after-effects of this traumatic encounter and that she will never be quite the person she was before it occurred. My heart goes out to her. I still think there are facts that may never be revealed or made public. She did address him directly at the sentencing and found some closure there. He wept and said he was sorry but still insisted he had almost no recollection of the events. I just shake my head. It was a terrible thing but it’s over and done and everyone has to move on and do the best they can. Many felt a harsher punishment was called for but like many states, Alaska has legislated more lenient measures for many situations. Somehow the wrong doers end up with more ‘rights’ than the victims… No, I will stay away from anything even slightly smacking of politics!!

On another topic, there has been a lot of discussion on various sledding/mushing FB pages and blogs etc. about a recent video (film) made in Canada, with considerable financial backing from a government agency. The video is a vicious “expose” alleging the abuse and horrors for the dogs in all sports involving sled dogs from the long distance races to tours and expeditions etc. The film maker obtained a lot of footage on the basis of false assurances and purpose given to a few younger/novice mushers. They feel violated and betrayed, understandably, and the whole community is enraged.

One prominent Canadian official, equivalent of one of our national Senators, is investigating but the agency has allegedly done their own investigation and feels all is cricket. How this will eventually play out is still unknown. My hope is that it will not actually result in any curtailment or lasting damage to the sport and its adherents. The tourism involvement in both Alaska and Canada is huge and a source of income that would be impacted if such occurred.

Last but not least, I have been accepted to serve as a volunteer for the Iditarod and will probably serve my first race in the headquarters offices at the official hotel location in Anchorage. I expect to learn a lot and at least observe the ceremonial start and hopefully also the restart at Willow the next day. I’ll miss following the race on my computer at home  for the viewpoint will be very different. I will of course take one or more devices along to do that when I am not working even while I feel the excitement as the race progresses by following it with the formal organization.

This year’s one litter at SPK is growing and already at the leggy, lanky stage more dog than puppy. Last year’s two litters are definitely dogs now and starting to learn the trails a bit while the Surfivers are going to be running for real this season. Watching them grow and develop is exciting and I’ll be keeping a close watch on all these pups in which I feel I almost have a real interest and investment. Well, I do have a favorite for which I am a “fan” in each litter and contribute a small bit to their care.  Here is a photo from the summer of Aliy with Ginger.  More soon!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A concluding look at a fairly typical Sled Dog Kennel

I've been home now for some time but the memories are still fresh. Last night I submitted my application form to be a volunteer for the 2017 Iditarod. I'll see how that plays out!

Anyway, it isn't exactly true that you see one Alakan kennel you have seen them all but there are a lot
main cabin with solar panel
water tank in front, oil to the left. 
 of common things. The house that the owner/musher lives in can vary from a small simple cabin to a fairly ordinary house-type home. The handler's cabin is typically smaller, simpler and has a fewer amenities. It is usually sited close to the dog yard(s) because the dogs are going to be the focus of the life of whoever is living there. Many kennels are off the grid and this means limited electricity from generators and/or solar. Naturally with only 4-5 hours of sunlight in the winter, the solar is not as effective! But everyone has smart phones, tablets, notebooks or all of the above and a way to charge them. Water is often limited too. There are not a lot of wells because the fuel for pumping would be costly and perhaps the ground water is not readily tapped. You will see water tanks, some insulated against the more moderate cold, but there will normally be one or more big tanks inside. As an adjunct to this, outhouses are common, some a simple little shack and others more elaborate and even heated.
interior-main cabin-propane stove and fridge

Dog yards are very similar. Those neat little square boxes with a hole in one side just big enough for the dog to go in and out are almost ubiquitous. So is the post or pole where a chain is attached--one for each dog. There will be a bowl or bucket in which the dogs are each given food and water, usually together which is most effective in the cold so that they stay hydrated. These dogs only eat huge amounts when they are training hard or actually racing. They are lean--almost looking 'skinny' but you have to remember they are athletes like swimmers, long distance runners, etc where any ounce of extra flesh is just a burden. Lean and mean fits, although few of the Huskies are "mean" despite their high-energy and very vocal behavior. Many are love bugs!  They are socialized from very small puppies and usually very acceptant if not friendly to people. Many kennels will have a few fenced pens although the majority of the dogs are chained. The pens are reserved for females in heat or lactating, old or infirm dogs that are kept by the mushers when they are retired, or one recovering from some vet procedure.  Fencing is expensive and most mushers are hanging on to the fraying end of their gangline! The cost to feed and care for 20-30 or more dogs, get and maintain the necessary equipment and then just to live in Alaska's pricy economy is enormous. Hardly anything is cheap up there!

A few other features: some kind of a truck or truck and trailer equipped with a 'dog box' that holds at a minimum the sixteen dogs normally started in races. Each dog has its small compartment in the 'dog box' and the sled etc. is typically carried on top. Up there you need four wheel drive since the paved roads are still not widespread and there is going to be snow and ice even on them for several months of the year. Everyone has one or more ATVs, a snow machine or two (snow mobile in the lower 48) and usually several sleds. These may be in a shed or garage or covered with tarps when not in use.

Sometimes there is a traditional bear proof cache or a storage shed up on stilts with a ladder to access it. Bears do hibernate some but with the current milder winters, many are roaming around much of the time. You will still see the old style sod roofs on many cabins and sheds. This is insulating, practical and kind of pretty in the mild season with grass, flowers or other plant growth there. Fuel oil (diesel) is a widely used for heat -I think more economical than propane although gas is widely used for cooking and appliances. That means tanks--a similar style to the water only smaller for the oil and the familiar cylinder with rounded ends for propane. Alaska exists in a dichotomy between the nineteenth century and the twenty first--so there is a mixture of traditional and very modern everywhere. The cities are just like any city--offices, shopping malls, fast food joints and service stations. I simply pass through them!

Although there are some, Alaska is not a place for those who want a five star hotel and resort amenities on their trips. Sled dog kennels surely do not offer that or any facsimile but for those who do not mind some rougher, primitive accommodations and a taste of 'reality' in terms of adventure, hard work, challenges and extreme in superlatives, it is amazing and will draw you back over and over again. I admit to a life long addiction for which I will require a regular fix for the rest of my days.

Traditional Cache

Diesel Dually F450- "typical" truck,
dog box off for summer.
rustic sod roof cabin background

interior--main cabin with loft
Min cabin, west side
mini-cache and ATV on left
Main cabin interior--main room

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Some technical stuff about mushing

You can hardly talk about the sport of sled dog racing without using some of the terms and lingo that is used. It's no different than football or golf--you need to understand about touch downs and tackles,  par scores and birdies and holes-in-one! So let me cover a bit of the gear and terms.

Lets start with the gang line. This is the line--usually a steel cable about 1/4" in diameter--which
Gang line connection to vehicle
attaches to the  sled, the ATV, the snow machine or whatever the dogs are going to pull., From here on I will just say "vehicle." It is critical and the linkage must be secure. My hostess, because of her background with sailing, knows a lot of knots and hitches which some mushers may not use. She also is ultra careful and cautious about things being secure! However I think most mushers border on being anal about these critical things! Any break or problem can get serious very fast.

Anyway, we have the gang line, long enough to spread out however many pairs or single dogs you intend to hitch. It is stretched out and you check the linking lines that they are secure and  not damaged. Now we get a dog--some mushers hook up the wheelers (the pair right in front of the vehicle) first and others start with the leader(s) who will be at the farthest end of the gangline. Most use a common kind of harness that forms Xs down the dog's back. You can see this well in the final shot. The front part fits much like a simple harness such as I put on my little red dog to walk him--there is a chest strap and one under the belly just behind the front legs that link at the withers (crest of shoulders on the back). Then the rest extends down the animal's back and ideally ends with the loop right at the root of the dog's tail. Harnesses come in several sizes and are identified by the color of the link line at the rear. This is where the harness is linked to the gang line. Often there is a second line linking the dog's collar to the gang line as well.

Training ATV with gang line
If you are using a sled, you need to set your "snow hook" and probably also tie securely to an immoveable object while you harness up. These dogs are raring to go and you don't want them to take off without you. They will if they get a chance! The snow hook is a kind of bent fork on the end of a short line to fall just behind the sled. It has steel prongs that dig into the snow to serve as an anchor. On ice or bare ground it is not very effective, though. Now remember, driving a dog team is like driving the famous Twenty Mule hitch--with no reins!!! You have little to actually control the dogs beyond your voice and the training you have built to instill obedience to various commands to go, stop, turn etc. Actually, well trained dogs are incredibly obedient!
A dog about to be harnessed

Finally you have all the dogs hitched and double check all the links and connections. Now it is time to go! You untie your anchors, and you'd better be ready to roll! The dogs may wait for the signal--and you hope they do. Something like, "All right. Let's Go." And they are off. You yell "gee" for a right turn and "ha" (haw) for a left turn. Probably have to repeat each command two or three times to get their attention but good leaders are attentive to this and respond quickly. The rest of the team follows. To stop you yell "whoa" just like for horses and apply whatever brakes you are using. If they have had a chance to run that first edge of energy off, they probably will halt without too much fuss.

They want to sniff, maybe lick snow or ice if there is some, pee and even rest just a wee bit. They are dogs, after all, with most of the traits our familiar pets have. If you did your preps right, everything works smoothly and you have a great run out on the trails. It is invigorating and addictive--watching those flagging tails and hurrying feet as the brush country flies by. No, it is not car speed but about like a trotting horse--enough to stir a breeze on a still day.  And an afterthought--these dogs truly love to go and those left behind set up a howl of protest while the lucky ones are screaming and leaping while you harness all of them up.
The end result--team hitched and taking a break

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Few Special Highlights of the Trip

Before I go into a fairly technical and detailed discussion of the harness and gear used for sled dogs, I will just take a little track back and cover a few of the highlights of my trip. There are a number of things that will stick in my memory as long as I have most of my wits about me!

I'll start with the first night, chasing around on several intersecting roads around the Fairbanks club, almost an institution, Ivory Jack's, which is at a crossroads where various routes lead on to where a number of mushers live up in the hills NW of town. On weekend nights the area is jumping and a black dog loose in the traffic was a tragedy waiting to happen. Kyia was not about to let that befall. As a passenger I had to go along, but went without protest. When we finally had the wet, scared standard poodle in the truck with us, I tried to sooth her and feel for any injuries before the woman who had bumped her came up and asked to take the dog to the vet in Fairbanks just to be sure. Turned out she was okay and did get safely home. That was a special introduction!

Then there was the night we saw a few flickers of green aurora above the hill to the north so we got on Kyia's big ATV and went chasing around on trails used to drive the dogs and by other ATVers to find the best views. Josh, the young man who was her summer help, and I perched on the back fenders and rack, hanging on for dear life. We did get some good views--brilliant ribbons of silver-green light twisting and twining in the dark sky until close to half the dark dome overhead was illuminated with them. We spent a couple of hours bouncing and bucking over the hills and holes and it was almost like the kid days of joy riding at night with KOMA blasting on the radio except there was no music--just that light show overhead. That was about the closest I came to being cold--it really wasn't but with a clear sky the temps did fall down into the 20s and going maybe 15-20 mph the breeze had a nip. What a blast!

Of course it was a thrill to go around the hill to Lance Mackey's place. Anyone who is a real fan and follower of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest knows that name. He lives no more than a half mile from Kyia. and has cleared off about ten acres--to help keep down fire danger for his home and kennel--and besides the dogs has an amazing array of vehicles in various states of repair and demolition and all sorts of "stuff" He is definitely into "trading and trafficking" as an old horse trader friend of mine from long ago described it--swapping is a fine art and a sport to those who do this! He is getting into some drag racing and stock car type auto stuff now.

Lance is a throwback "hippie" of a guy--a small, compact man about 5'8" (guessing) with his brown hair streaked with gray in a single braid behind like Willie Nelson. He has a droll way of talking and a dry sense of humor, a bit crazy but then most neat people are! He's had an amazing career with the dogs but due to cancer treatments some years ago is growing unable to handle the cold and some of the rigors of the races. He had signed up for the 2017 Iditarod but withdrew while I was up there and many people wept for that. He's struggled so hard and done so much. He is the only person to win both the big races the same year--twice! He still will have dogs though and I got to see the three litters of 2016 pups ranging from the fat fuzzy little cuties to some lanky 'teenage' looking kiddos about six months old. Most of them will probably be sold but he will keep quite a few dogs to give rides and demonstrate for fans and tourists, at least. And I guess never say never, as he has come back before. A lot of wannabe racers want to have a Lance Mackey dog or two in their teams, anyway.

Of course the first time I helped harness up a team and then scrambled onto the ATV as we blasted off from the homestead was a thrill I will always cherish. Cowboy and Piper in the lead and the others lining out and running up a fairly steep hill, across the one paved road and out on some of those trails. Ears perked and listening to the instructions of 'gee' and 'ha' to take the turn they were not expecting--sometimes it took a slow down and  insistence!--but they went. Often Kyia would shut off the motor on the ATV and let the dogs handle it--which they did easily. I would think the machine and the two of us on it totaled 500 pounds or more but for a couple of hours that is almost nothing. The dogs did not get extra food but did get water when we got back.

Then the morning flying out of Fairbanks heading home and looking down as the first rose rays touched the mountains--range after range of crags and peaks and fierce, daunting mountains that dwarf the Sierra Nevada and make the US Rockies look paltry--the ethereal colors and delicate light and the contrast of those mountains which form barriers that would challenge even the most hardy souls...there is a poem there but I have not yet found the words.  In time I will. Right now my eyes mist just remembering. What a farewell...

I do not have photos of any of this, and I do regret that, but most of it was impossible to capture. Either my camera was not that capable--the aurora and sunrise were far too delicate and subtle and running the dogs, one is too busy to remember the camera half the time. And I flat forgot to take it over to Lance's for which I kick myself still! But then maybe some things are just to be remembered and cherished in the mind's eyes alone.  They are etched into my spirit for the rest of my days.  I may still be a cheechako for I did not make it through the winter but I feel much more a part of Alaska now.  And I promise again that I will be back. So I will just share an Alaskan dandelion and the state flower, Forget-Me-Not which were still blooming through several good frosts--Alaska has hardy flowers, too!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

And Still More Dogs!

This time I will head down to the lower dogyard area at Slow Rush. On the east side there are two more pens with six-seven dogs apiece in them. These are all girls. Then the other side has the boys. All of these dogs are racing type huskies. Some have come from Lance Mackey stock, some from Hans Gatt, another Iditarod and Yukon Quest racer who I think bases in Canada and a few other teams. These are the main group from which Kyia will seek to put together a group of twenty or so to train intensively through the late fall and winter and try to make some of the mid-distance races which are qualifiers for the two 1000 milers.

Okay in the higher of the two girl pens, we have Piper, Lola, Didi, Amy, Lena and Reo.  Piper is black and white, a leader, and kind of got to be a pet of mine. She has a shrill, yappy bark when she wants you to notice her and holds up a front paw, usually the right, and acts like it is hurt.   Down from her is Lola, a solid black dog, and one Kyia rescued but she is a good team dog.  Below her is Didi, another black one and one of the 'crazy' bunch that runs wild circles around her post. I think she is the sister of a couple of the boys who do the same thing.  To her right is Amy. Amy is a small gray brown dog, very small for a husky and I think young as well as a runt of her litter. She is rather shy. Above her is Lena, a larger yellow dog. According to Kyia, Lena is half Golden Lab and half Husky but she loves to run and is a good team dog. Above her and on Piper's right is Reo. Reo has some kind of allergy and snuffles a lot. Her meds have been on backorder for ages and they cannot seem to get them for her. She is another black and white and a team dog.

Down the hill but adjoining on the one side is another pen. In it we have Minto, a gray-brown girl, then Abra, a black dog and Osprey, another gray and tan. To the right we find Ronnie. She is another very small dog and was getting extra feed. She is quite shy and I tried to make friends with her but only half succeeded. Coming back up in a kind of zig zag, we find black and white Heidi, who wails like a banshee when she is feeling neglected--a most hair-raising scream! Above her is black Kyia who is also a circle-er, black and white Pok who's the mom of some of the younger ones,and then another black and white, Cowgirl. Cowgirl is also good leader but loves to jump on her box and shove at you when you come to feed her. She is feisty but good in harness.

The boys are in an open space, fenced on the outside. There is a big water tank in this area and also a shed where the harness is kept. Just past the water tank we find Albert. He is black and when I first came would growl at me and look tough but I hand fed him a few times, just a dozen kibbles or so, and pretty soon he would give me 'hugs' and we'd dance, his forepaws in my hands. He was one of my pets. Off to the side we fine Combo, a tan and gray dog and also lead material. Behind him are Victor and Dillon. Vic is tan and gray and Dillon is black. They are both very active.

Down from them is Chewy. No, he is not Chewbacca--he chews things, especially the roof of his  house which is splintered around the edges. I called him the "giant stride" dog. Did you ever play on a piece of playground equipment where there were handholds hanging from a pole and you could run and swing, sometimes going way out in a big circle? Well, that is what Chewy does on his chain! He is a nut but a good team dog, lots of energy.  Below him we have Beaver, a tan and gray guy with a very deep voice when he howls, the basso of the pack. Then there are Phoenix-black; Whiskey- gray-tan; Cody- gray-tan; Connor and Jackson, more of the same. Then there is black and white Cowboy. He had the cutest way of 'dancing' with his front feet when he was waiting to be fed. His hind end was still but he'd go back and forth, barely lifting one paw at a time from the ground. I wish I had a video! It was adorable. He is also a leader and I think a sibling to Cowgirl.

That is the crew, except for the two "house dogs"--Princess is old and way past any running. She is the mother or grandmother of most of the black and white dogs. She spends most nights inside and stays on the front deck in the day. Ozzy is her son, I think, and one of Kyia's pets. He is a good active team dog still but often gets to go inside at night and sometimes has a pen to himself beside the cabin or a chain below the deck where he climbs on a pile of firewood. I think he is prone to fighting with some of the other males and doesn't get that chance.

The amazing thing if you are not used to being around a lot of animals is how unique and distinct each one is.  No two are quite the same and you learn quickly to see the quirks and traits that mark each dog and make it an individual. Some are friendly; some are aggressive or pushy; some are shy and stand-offish and some just seem to ignore everything except their personal needs. When they are taken out and put in harness, they show different facets but the inner dog is still there. The traits that make some leaders and others totally unsuited for that can sometimes be surprising. Some dogs will run well in any position and others have friends or enemies they want to be near or need to be separated from, It is a special skill to select dogs that will work well together and then hitch them in the right spot! Piper and Cowboy were the leads on the first team we took out.

Here are a few photos.
Albert on his house; water tank behind
West Lower dogyard --boys

East lower dogyard--girls

Mento, female Husky
Piper-female Husky

Ozzy on his woodpile

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

And more dogs

I'll digress briefly here to discuss some of the business of driving the dogs.  Two familiar commands came into the sled dog practice from driving horses and oxen in earlier times. Gee and Haw (hah) are used in the traditional way to indicate right or left to the dogs, especially the leaders who direct the course for the rest of the team.  Different mushers use a variety of different commands for other actions. Nobody says "mush" that I have heard of. The command to get moving can be "Let's go", "All right",,"Hut or "Hike"and more rarely just "Okay". Most dogs are very attuned to their normal driver's voice and inflections so even in races when a number of teams may be in a fairly constrained area at a check point, there are few signs of confusion. They are listening as keenly as the familiar little dog listening to the gramophone in the old trade mark!

Kyia uses "easy" a lot and "down" to make the dogs calm down and not jump so much. When harnessing up that is nearly almost cause, though. She has a series of commands when you're getting ready or starting again after a break. It goes "Line out" (get back to your place along the gang line,)"Tighten Up"  means tighten your own tug-line and get ready to move. Then it's "Ready" and "All Right" which says the brakes are off and it's time to go.

A few words on the harness and gear, too. The gang line is a cable long enough to space out however many pairs or single dogs you want to run. It's connected to the sled or the vehicle very securely. The tug lines are smaller and shorter, just long enough to give each dog some maneuvering room. This clips to a loop in the rear of the harness at the root of the dog's tail  and is where the pulling takes place. Some mushers also use a short neckline to link each dog to the gangline and it runs from the big cable to the ring on the dog's collar. This is usually used for training new dogs and can be used at other times, depending on the musher's choice and conditions. I'll provide more detail and photos later but now to introduce a few more dogs.

Rudy is a character
We go into the second of the pens near the cabin. The first dog is Rudy. He's a funny little guy, black and white with speckles like you might see on an Aussie Shepherd and some other breeds. He is goofy but Kyia says he is a good leader. Unfortunately he also has seizures and had two while I was there. He  is not a typical husky of any kind but just a unique character.

Behind him we find Duke, another black and white dog but typical of a lot of contemporary huskies. He's rather reserved. Behind him is Sylvester, a brother to Newman and Redford, another older dog. (The three actors--get it?) He's reddish too and somewhat timid and sad looking. Kyia says that is just his way; he has never been abused.

Ting and Tipi

Clyde in the first snow
In the back corner, we find Iluq, another of the 'big dog' litter, the common gray-brown color and markings. He's quiet unless it's time to go. Down from him we find another brother, Tinginik. He too is the gray brown and moderately friendly. In front of him is yet another brother, another yellow-rusty colored guy. His name is Tipinik and he likes to be called by name. He warmed up to me slowly but we got to be pals.  The last brother is next, another darker one, and his name is Quanik.
Then we come to Clyde, another black and white guy, a strong puller and a kind of happy-go-lucky dog.

The whole "big dog" crew went out on one run with a couple of the racing  dogs in lead, Cowboy and Piper.  They live in the lower yards and I'll visit them next time.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's all about the dogs

Of course it is --they do not call it sled DOG racing for  nothing! At Slow Rush Kennel, there are forty four dogs, and quite a diversity of canines they are.  I know I have covered this before but I'll do a quick refresher. There are mainly three kinds of Sled Dogs. The Malamutes are the 'traditional' ones and a recognized breed. They are the 'draft horses" of the sled dog world, big, thick coated and strong. They are not as fast but they can pull like diesel locomotives. Then there are the Siberian Huskies, also a recognized breed, and were used more for racing in the past although some mushers still favor them and still run them. Many feel they are slower but that's an aficionado discussion. They look like what most people visualize when they think of "Huskies"--thick coat, curly tail, erect ears, often the heart shaped mask on their faces and frequently blue eyes.

Alaskan Huskies are not a recognized breed yet because they are high order mutts, mixing the Siberian and traditional native Eskimo/Indian dogs with everything from Labs to Pointers and even maybe a  bit of  GSD and other breeds. They come in yellow, the common gray-brown, white, black, black and white--you name it. They may have erect,  drooping or even flopping ears, sometimes even one of each and brown, amber or blue eyes--or again a mix. Most mushers have a breeding program, some merely to improve their own racing stock and others to sell or lease some dogs while they keep the ones they feel are most promising. Slow Rush has bred in the past but is not actively doing so now. Kyia has also acquired dogs from Hans Gatt, Lance Mackey and other mushers in Alaska and Canada. She also runs a kind of informal Husky Rescue and keeps several that will never race again and maybe only go on the most mild and gentle of fun runs around the area.  With this background, let's get down to individual dogs.

Oh, a word on dog yards first, too. Probably 99% of kennels keep dogs on chains. For pets I do not hold with this but I see many sound reasons why it is done with huskies. Many of them are kept intact for several years while a musher explores their potential; good bloodlines may not guarantee the good qualities have come through. Therefor, fights and unplanned matings are a risk and to be minimized. No two dogs are close enough to each other to more than sniff noses or maybe touch a paw. They are safer this way and it makes managing a big collection of dogs feasible. Each dog has its own house, a box suitable in size to the dog with a square opening on one side for a door. In the winter boxes are lined with straw for warmth. The dog's chain is attached to a pole about five feet high and swivels so the dog can run in circles and not normally get tangled. It can also get in as well as on its house.

Okay, so at Slow Rush, there are actually five fenced dog yards where several dogs are housed with their own boxes and the trampled circle where they run around--and run they do, many are seldom still. Bowls are attached to one side of the box and have a swivel so they can be tipped to one side to empty them such as dump the ice when colder temps arrive. Normally they get both food and water in the same dish.

My first morning I got into each area. The dogs did not know me so some backed off and others charged, trying to jump up on me and see if I was timid. Within a few days since I was feeding them, we got acquainted and several became friends. Today we'll go into the first area, the upper pen on the east side of the main cabin.

The first dog here is Killer. It's a girl and the name is not a good fit. She is sandy color with erect ears and very pale amber eyes, almost yellow. She is not really shy but not given to jumping on you. Someone thought she had pit bull eyes; thus the name. She is really very sweet. Although she has been a good leader, she has developed arthritis in her right shoulder and is getting THC on a trial basis to see if it helps. I walked her on a lead a few times for gentle exercise.

Next is Angie, another yellow dog, a bit taller and very racy looking. Angie is good anywhere in a team and loves to run. She is high energy but does have a problem with occasional seizures and is on meds for them. Kyia usually runs her in wheel, right in front of the sled (or ATV) so she can be taken out of the harness and controlled if she does have a seizure. She has pale grey or 'blue' eyes.

Sesi is another yellow or blonde dog and she is known as the song
She turned just as I clicked!
Marja is behind her. 
leader. If you can get her to howl she will soon have the whole pack singing along. She is part of a litter of 'big dogs' that Kyia raised in Canada who have a lot of Malamute blood.  She is very active as well and delighted in splashing when you came to feed or clean her area so as to sling mud around!

Her partner and sister is Marja, a full sister but a little larger and of the typical brown/gray coloration. Marja is a clown and a bit lazy in team, not always wanting to lean into her tug line. (I'll cover the harness later.) Then we go down to a brother of these two, a big almost orangeade colored guy named Seku. He has the 'mask face' markings and likes to lounge on his house when it is sunny.

Newman; Seku behind him.
Next we come to two of the old guys, both eleven. I think they are brothers. They are both tan-yellow but Newman is a little darker. They still like to get out but both are starting to have some issues and may not be able to do more than a mile or two near home. We took them out one day with Newman in the lead with one of the smaller dogs. He got wobbly in the rear and would sit down ever so often. After a few minutes rest he would get up and go again but we were almost ready to take him out of harness and have me hold him across my legs to get him home. I wanted to cry; he was so game and so wanting to go but he just didn't have the power. His partner is Redford. Red has glaucoma, and gets eye drops daily. That day he was sharing wheel position with Angie and did okay.

So that's the rounds of the first group.   Here some of them and some others were hitched to the ATV.  I was holding the brakes on while Kyia checked the dogs. Angie and Redman are in the "wheel" position right in front of the machine. I think this was the first time Newman had some trouble and she was checking to see if he was bad off or not.  Sharing lead with him was a black and white girl named Piper; more on her later!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Living it Up, Rustic Style

Alaska is a mosaic of paradoxes and contrasts. You land somewhere between the gold rush days of over a century ago and the leading edges of the modern world.  At one side, you land in a modern airport that could be dropped into any US city, get your gear and go out to climb into a high wheeled 4-wheel drive SUV or truck. You move thorough paved streets lined with Walmart, Home Depot and Burger King, gas stations and mini-marts before you roll out into forest and mountains. The road morphs to a gravel two-laner and then maybe a muddier, potholed track that serves as a Jeep or ATV trail in the summer and a snow machine and sled dog route in winter.  Now you’re at the edge of the bush.
The lights fade until all you can see is the low hazy fog and clouds or on a clear night—all flights seem to land in Alaska at night—a midnight sky with more brilliant stars than you ever imagined and maybe the flickering silver-green ribbons of the Aurora, twining and twisting, swirling and shifting above.  As you emerge into a clearing, usually on a hillside because there is not a lot of level land in Alaska,  the dogs greet you—or really the familiar vehicle they know the boss man or lady is driving. You hear a building chorus of howls from soprano to deepest bass, ever more voices joining until the entire canine population is taking part. I love the sound; it touches some inner primal spot in  my soul. I miss that almost more than anything else.
There are not a lot of lights—maybe the beam from a ubiquitous headlamp or two, perhaps a string of Christmas style bulbs in a cabin window. These are preferred since the newer LED type use little power.  There are cabins—maybe modern frame and maybe traditional log. Inside it is warm with a wood or oil burning stove heating the compact spaces. There will be a bunk, inviting after a long day’s journey. You shed your outer clothes and crawl into the nest of blankets or the sleeping bag and slide off to sleep perhaps to the lullaby of another collective howl.
Every Alaskan, even those out in the deep bush, has a cell phone, smart phone, a tablet, maybe all of those and more. Verizon and a couple of other carriers provide surprisingly wide coverage and although there may not be running water or normal electric usage, they will have at least a small generator to provide power to charge those devices. That communication net is a form of security today. It is valued highly.
It will be chilly when you wake up the next morning so you scramble into your cold, stiff  clothes and make sure you have at least two pairs of socks on inside your boots as you stumble off to the main house or cabin. There will probably be coffee and maybe some breakfast. Perhaps you just gulp one fast cup and collect the bucket for the kibble and a scoop to measure out the correct portion for each dog. You or another worker will tote buckets of water and put a dipper or two into each dog’s dish where you dump the kibble in too. This helps insure each dog gets the hydration it needs.
Interior-battery bank on shelf by window
Back to the dichotomy—there may be a large flat screen TV on a wall in the main cabin but there is probably no reception. Entertainment is provided by a video player and a collection of DVD and even some VCR movies and old TV programs. But there is no running water; the outhouse sits some yards from the cabin—nothing but utilitarian although some mushers prefer it to be heated and some even have a sauna in the same structure. There is no shower or bathtub or even wash basin in most cases. You may be able to heat a kettle of water on a stove and use a pan or basin for a quick wash up. That’s if you are lucky!
Interior--bunk in fore
In the main cabin, the cook stove may be wood or propane and there is probably a propane powered fridge. Most mushers eat more from the store than from the land these days although you may be served moose, caribou and salmon which was stocked up during the summer and fall hunting seasons. It’s likely you’ll use paper or plastic plates and table ware—it is faster and cheaper to discard it than to wash a pile of dishes. Practicality is a big value to most mushers and they cut corners where they can on work and/or expense and juggle them to the best advantage. You will soon learn what your musher values highest—after the dogs and training/racing gear, that is. Creature comforts beyond a few basics are rarely high on the list.
After a few days it begins to feel less strange. Humans are adaptable creatures and we can exist in many environments. You sleep in your base layer (normally long underwear and socks of merino wool, which is itchless, very warm, moisture wicking and fast drying) and probably spread out things like gloves and outer socks near the stove so they will dry overnight. You forgo the niceties of a morning face wash and certainly do not give a thought to makeup or styling your hair. You have new priorities: visit the outhouse (in the real cold season most people will keep a can or bucket in the cabin at night and empty it in the morning), get some coffee, do the first set of chores, eat and plan out the day—which seldom goes exactly as planned, and then start off on the day’s work.
Evening comes much quicker than you expect. The dogs are fed and settled for the night. You be sure you have your headlamp before dark and collect in the main cabin for dinner and maybe watch a movie and visit until the yawns begin and everyone drifts off to his or her bunk. The musher will get a dog or two in for the night—usually right after the meal because huskies are incurable beggars and love to eat ‘special’ things! Sometimes a handler may take a favorite dog in for the night as well. Maybe just before bed you step out to gaze up in awe at the neon display overhead—mostly green with a silvery tint but occasionally red, blue or purple, depending on what particles are energized with that particular magnetic storm. You are not a real Alaskan yet but you are getting a feel for it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Some of my recent aventures

I got up very early on the 17th of September and left El Paso about 7:30. Further stops at Phoenix, Seattle and Anchorage ended with my final flight from there to Fairbanks. It was a long tiring trip but I was not totally wasted when I reached the baggage rack and there met my hostess.

Kyia Bouchard is one of those almost larger than life people in many ways. She is a valkyrie, six feet tall, lean and rawboned, with long and wild white hair--she has always been a white blonde and was very striking looking as a girl and young woman. She still is but more rugged now than glam. I never did get a good portrait type shot of her and apologize for that. She had texted me to "look for a tall, homeless looking blonde" which wasn't totally accurate but close enough. She does not have any false pride or stuffiness about her.

In her life she has done an amazing number of things--raced a yacht and crewed on larger vessels, trained horses to drive for show, managed a recording studio in New York and the last fifteen years or so, been much into sled dogs. When one lives in the Alaskan bush, you do not dress fancy, spend an hour each day putting your face on, or give much if any thought to your appearance. I did  not apologize for myself!! We went out and scrambled up into her shiny black F450 (I think that is the largest pickup Ford makes) diesel dually and headed out of town.

A few miles up some of the network of roads which mostly go up into the hills where many mushers reside, we came to a line of backed up traffic. This gradually unwound itself and turned out to be the result of a black standard poodle, scared and running wildly all over a couple of fairly busy roads full of weekend partying trucks. We chased her back and forth for close to an hour, witnessed her bumped but not badly hurt by another vehicle and finally got her trapped against someone's garage and got her in the truck. The person who had bumped her then finally insisted on taking her and went back down to town to have her checked by a vet. That was my near-midnight adventure and welcome to mushing alley and specifically Kyia's Slow Rush Kennel.

It has been in the current location for about two years and previously was near Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada for about a decade. Dawson City is a key point on the Yukon Quest course and near midway of that race where all mushers take a mandatory 36 hour layover for much needed R&R for both them and their teams.

My plunder and I were offloaded at the main Handler's Cabin, the dogs gave me a good full-throated howl and I met Josh Amey, the young man who had been Kyia's summer help. I crawled under a couple of comforters on the bunk in the base layer of my clothes and went out like a light.  Thus began my new Upper 49th visit. To be continued!!
The Alaskan monster truck

The main handler's cabin.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Leaving on a jet plane---

I have to get up at oh dark thirty tomorrow to catch a flight out of El Paso at 8:30. It's about 70 miles from home to the airport on the SE corner of the city..Four plane changes later I will be in Fairbanks where it was 46 a few minutes ago compared to 87 here in Alamo. I am carrying a shirt-jac although it will look dumb in Phoenix. I will just say I am going to Alaska!!

I've been working on this for over two years now so to have it finally coming to pass is a near-miracle. I am so excited--scared but eager, too. I am very grateful to have this opportunity and will do my best to make the most of it. I still do not know how long I can and will stay but that is really not important now.

It will be special to meet some new dogs and get up close and personal with them--like feeding and picking up after them and maybe riding behind a few of them. I do not presently ambition to actually drive a team although that may be remotely possible. I would not risk it unless I was sure--and my hostess also--that I would not let the dogs come to any harm and hopefully not me!

I just stopped by the SP Kennel site and looked over the dogs and puppies. The new three are not up yet and the "fan club' does not open until October. There will be some changes in the lineup since a few more of the old timers have retired and will not race this year and the Surfivers are past two now and some of them will be running more this season. Whether I will get out there or not remains unknown. I do not think Slow Rush Kennel is all that far from Two Rivers although closer in to Fairbanks but I won't have wheels and will probably be kept pretty well occupied. For this trip, my purpose is those
'boots in the snow" I have mentioned and as much hands on experience as I can manage in a few short weeks--and when I am back home, by mid-December at the latest, I will feel it was very short, I am sure.

I hope to be able to post here fairly often and include some photos each time. That is also not certain yet. At any rate I am truly very grateful to have this work out and believe it will be a big step toward making "Women Who Run With The Dogs" into a real book in another year or so. I look at my picture with Aliy and Deedee and know that I too must dream it, dare it, and DO IT!! Thanks to them for their inspiration and to my very supportive brother who will keep the home fires warm and take care of the Red Dogs while Mama is off on her crazy adventure.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Big Events and News!!!

Yes, this area has been silent for some tieme but I have been busy behind the scenes. I just did not have enough firmed up to share for awhile. It was not real easy to manage but I now have a place to go --a real live kennel so I can get that boots in the snow feel for this whole adventure. I will be flying to Fairbanks on September 17!

Most of  the major mushers want young, active, wanna-be racers to come aboard for helpers and handlers. I totally understand that and did not ever try for many of the help wanted ads posted on the  "Sled Dog Central Help/Handlers Wanted" site. But I did try a few; many did not even deign to reply but one called me shortly after she got the email--it was about 1:30 NM time--that is the o-dark 1:30!
And she called again before I got the call returned the next morning. We talked for thirty or forty minutes and she agreed to have me com up. She has two regular helpers, one there I guess full time and the other due in October. We will be sharing a couple of cabins and worring hard but I think having fun as well.

I will be staying at Slow Rush Kennel and will be a kind of working guest. The owner, Kyia Bouchard, has also run a mushing museum in Fairbanks which she has just closed as of the end of August. For some reason, attendance was very poor and not enough income to pay the rent on the building. I find this both sad and perplexing. I do have a few ideas to pitch to her while I am there and have slight hopes of getting things back up and going by next summer with this. We'll see. The museum in Knik with a large amount of iditarod stuff is barely hanging on as well; what we need is to get some deep pocketed folks whoa re serious musher fans to step up and help with this to perhaps create a central one-stop place for visitors to learn and observe "all about sled dogs" and the history of mushing around the world.

Kyia has done many things in her life and was a late arrival to Alaska and dog sledding--she's put in about ten years there now. No, she has no big race wins and not even too many small race finishes but she does have a kennel of about 45 dogs and makes a point to have many different kinds from the current speedy "Alaskan Husky" mixed breed dogs (some retirees from well known kennels) to the Siberians and a few of the big, heavy Malamute type freight hauler dogs, the "Percherons/ lydesdales" of the sled dogs.

The kennel is off the grid and I think they use solar in some weather and generators for power. I expect it to be rustic and can deal with that. I am not sure how much internet time and access I will have but intend to keep up both this blog and my FB posts as best I can. No promises except to try! If I don't get much done, expect a barrage when I get home. I may try to get an extra car for my camera so as to be able to save a gazillion shots! But can also download them to my trusty little Acer travel netbook.

At present, my return date is set for 13 December--I had to set one when I made my flight reservations--but that is subject to change. Since I am not the only helper or even a regular one, I won't feel bad and like I am letting my hostess down if I find I have real issues dealing with the lack of sun and the cold.  I'm just going to give it my best shot. I've acquired quite a bit of cold weather attire and can borrow a few things and maybe buy a few more locally before real winter sets in.

I feel that ninety days is the most I can fairly be away from home since I have my fiction work to continue with, other duties and activities, and my brother will be keeping my two dogs--one of whom is now on special eye drops just like I am. Turns out Ginger has extreme dry and irritated eyes just like her mom does! So that is probably the latest possible return home--before the holidays. It could be sooner but I want to learn as much as I can and get as much experience and understanding of the back-of-the scenes stuff that all the mushers have to do. It doesn't matter if they are long distance racers. sprint  racers, expedition folks or simply hobbyists--the care and training of the dogs is very much the same with only a few minor adjustments for what you expect them to do.. I may get to see a few of the major mushers in the local region while I am there--a number of kennels are scattered around the Fairbanks area.  SPK, Page and Cody's Squid Acres,  Lance Mackey, Jody Bailey etc.

Anyway, next Saturday or Saturday week will see me arriving about 9:00 p.m. local and being picked up by Kyia and taken out ten miles or so to the kennel. In time there will be lots of pictures and reports, so check back every few days and see what is going on!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Saved the Best for Last?

In a lot of ways, second to the meeting with Deedee and Aliy, Tuesday, June 28 was the highlight of my trip. That morning I picked Helen up at her sons' auto shop on the north side of Wasilla, actually not far from the Big Lake turnoff. The previous evening I had called Jan Steves and arranged to come visit, arriving about 10:30. It was a good thing Helen was familiar with the area around Willow. She had actually lived there for awhile and since we were early, we drove out aso she could show me where she had lived. The neat little house is vacant and although I could not afford it, I felt a tug--what a nice place to live. However when winter rolled around I would probably feel differently!

We continued on up the Parks Highway a few miles and came to the area where the 2015 fire had been. Black matchsticks that had once been spruce and deciduous trees stood stark over ground still bare and dry. It was not pretty. We took a side road and drove to the west, into the heart of the burned area. Soon we saw where many of the mushers who lived out there were busily rebuilding, The ground is still raw and barren. Dogs are staked by their neat little houses with no shade so they dig deep holes and tunnels to find coolness when the sun shines,.It was overcast and sprinkling off and on that day. Unfinished houses, barns and other buildings stand, some just frames and trusses, others with siding in place but unpainted. It was not pretty but there was something affirming about the spirit and determination expressed in every bit of work. Phoenix-like, the community rises again and most of those people will continue to raise, train and run their dogs because that is their life.

We passed the Jonrowe place. At the ITC on Saturday Deedee had been joking about her deep tan. "There is no shade," she said. "Whatever I do outside is out in the sun. There's no shade." A short ways farther, we came to Jan Steves and Bob Chlupach's place. The house is nearing completion and a shed, also with raw outer walls, stands between the two dog yards. "His" are on one side and "hers" on the other. Although Bob apparently does not race now, he still trains and runs dogs and works with aspiring mushers of which Jan was one when they met a few years back. She was cleaning up the dog yard when we arrived and that was when I took the one picture. I then got too involved in talking and listening to take more. Maybe next time.
Jan Steves in her dog yard

It was very encouraging to me to hear some of what Bob had to say. He raced back in the first two decades and although he did not win he is still well respected in the mushing community and served for thirty years on the ITC rules committee. He cannot get back on now; perhaps some deem him too reactionary! However he is in full agreement on the 'carrying' issue and chided me for backing down on the Idita-Support page. I explained I did not want to alienate too many folks and was not sure for awhile that I was actually right.

Jan simply lights up when she talks about her dogs, about the feeling of racing through a snowy landscape, all alone except for your team and the beauty of the night. It has been a dream brought to life for her to come to Alaska and get involved with it. She's had a lot of personal issues besides being burned out --and they did not have insurance although they do now--but she is not about to give up racing and has entered for the 2017 Iditarod, did so on the 25th. Even after the very serious injuries she received in the accident early in the 2016 race, she is determined to musher up and go at it again. She's finished once and wants very much to do so again and start improving her record. You can bet I am rooting for her! She's  now one of my heroines too.

They both agreed that I should not have any trouble finding a place to work for however long I can commit to doing so this fall. Kennels always need help and the middle and lower tier  mushers cannot afford to pay much but are grateful for any support and help they can get. Running the qualifying and either of the two big races is hugely expensive and even if you win, until you amass some strong sponsors to help sustain you, you cannot exist on the prizes paid. For most if not almost all, the whole project truly is a labor of love.

Normally I am not at all in favor of dogs on chains. However this is pretty standard with the sled dogs. Each one has its own little house lined with straw for warmth and cushioning. They have their own food and water dishes and each is staked to a post a few feet from the house but with plenty of length to go in, romp around and dig! In every bunch there will be some that do not get along and others that share close bonds. If all were not restrained, there would be fights, sometimes serious.And if  they were allowed to run loose some would be lost, chasing game or getting into other harm. About the only alternative, a separate chain link pen for each dog, would be terribly expensive. Anyway  most dogs  run daily for exercise and conditioning, are taken for a walk, or let out with a few friends while the musher watches and voice-controls them. They are not neglected or ignored!  Many pets should be so fortunate.. Mother dogs with puppies are usually kept in a pen until weaning time and young puppies are often kept together for several months too.

At any rate, time flew by as we talked and drank coffee and I left feeling like I had more new friends. It was a very good experience and helpful as well. Bob has already made some suggestions that will improve my book and I think I can count on them for a recommendation when I start seeking a position for fall.

Helen and I took the afternoon to drive down below Palmer and Wasilla to the Eklutna area. It is a native settlement which also included Russians in the 1800s. Quite picturesque.  However we drove up to Eklutna Lake, which supplies water for Anchorage. It is fed by a glacier which can no longer be reached by car since the road was closed and removed some years back. It was a beautiful place, very peaceful and quiet despite there being some people up boating, fishing and playing along the edges of the lake. I continue to be in awe of the natural beauty of Alaska, its astounding mountains which dwarf even our Rockies and so much water! You could almost be in New England, around the Great Lakes or in the northwestern states of the lower 48 but everything is just bigger and more,  on the grandest scale!

Coming back to Palmer, we took the back road to avoid a traffic jam due to construction and rush hour traffic and Helen pointed out a few more things to me as we went along. I would have hated even more to see it end and say goodbye but there is no question that I will be back. Unless I pass away or become incapacitated much sooner than I expect there will be many more trips. I look forward to them all.

Lake Eklutna, glacier out of sight to the right.

Mtns on north side of Lake Eklutna

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Further Trip Reports

Let's see, I took a a break for July 4 and dealing with a case of hives.  Back again; today would have been my parent's 74th wedding anniversary! Yikes. Never mind--but I admit I was a honeymoon baby LOL.

First a few more impressions on meeting Helen and then our Monday travels. Some of this is probably old news and repetitious so skip what you've read before.

I tend to be very intuitive about that first face-to-face with anyone. This time totally good vibes came at once. I was so pleased to feel them! We went in and sat down in a booth to wait for another of Helen's friends who was joining us.Actually I think I joined them. Well, no matter. All three of us are booklovers  so there was a lot of talk about literature, Barbara, Helen's friend whose last name slipped right out of my holey brain, is a born-Alaskan with several generations of ancestors in the area. She works in/runs a book store and several other endeavors. Another busy lady..I gave each of them a book although neither one read much genre fiction but I hope they will at least give these a try.  Helen got Back to Tomorrow and Barbara received Relative Dangers.

More names cropped up, other books and it felt as if we were just three friends who had not gotten together for awhile. A bit of background on Helen. I did post earlier about the Idita-Support Facebook page/group, I know. Helen is the owner/moderator, just one of her many projects,  and kind of came to my rescue when I got a lot of the mushers there on my case with my 'carrying dogs' proposal. I just stumbled onto that site as a "recommendation"from FB which clearly already knows way too much about me! Still, it has proved to be one of those amazing serendipity non-coincidences which have marked this whole project from the first and really most of my life. I was meant to get acquainted with Helen Hegener and she with me.

She has her own multimedia publishing firm, Northern Light Media, and so far it focuses on her own writing and a video done with a former husband on the great musher, Lance Mackey. Lance won both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest four times and both in the same year twice! That is a unique and amazing accomplishment. Helen is a tireless historian and writer, researching with meticulous care and collecting old documents, photos and such to illustrate her books.  Can you guess where this is probably going? Yes, I think it very likely that Women Who Run With the Dogs will be a Northern Light book in time.

By about 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 27, I was in Wasilla, just about ten miles over a couple of ridges from Palmer. We met in a parking lot on the main drag, familiar to me since that was where I caught the bus to go to Anchorage for my flight to Fairbanks in 2014. We went to a nearby Starbucks and chatted while trying to decide where to go, We ended up first at the ITC Headquarters. Helen knows Raymie and Barb Reddington well. They are the couple who operate the cart ride service for visitors there at ITC. He is a son of Joe Reddington and Barb is a Native Alaskan. They have a dozen or so dogs there and puppies when they have some available
Barb Reddington and dogs

Hayfield Flats toward Chugach Mtns

Lake Lucille; Sarah Palin's home is
across the lake. (FWIW!) 

Barb remembered me from 2014 and we three visited for a bit. I had to get a few pictures of the dogs, of course! We had thought of going to the Knik Museum but it is only open Thursday through Sunday and the main lady, Diane Williams lives up at Big Lake and was not able to come down to do a private opening for us.  I had been there and Helen never had, which is like me with Tuzigoot Ruins in the Verde Valley!

We ended up just driving around while Helen pointed out various things to me and we sat for a bit above the Hay Fields slough which sank to become swampy due to the 1964 earthquake which changes a lot of topography and almost trashed Anchorage off the map. Of course there were few moments of silence as we continued to talk about a zillion things.

After I dropped Helen off at her car which we'd left to use my rental, I went to the Wasilla library and looked at all their Sled dog related collection. It was not very large and I jotted donw a few titles to seek thru Interlibrary Loan or Amazon and other venues. Though lower key that the 25th, it had been a very good day!

I did not get a photo of Helen; Like me, she is clearly more at ease behind the camera than in front of it but I've included  a few shots of our travels etc.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A fortuitous connection

I am pretty sure I have mentioned Helen Hegener at time or two earlier. Her FB page Idita-Support was the vehicle for us to encounter each other. I made a post--my first--which hit some of the musher folks in that group very wrong and they were not shy about telling me to shut up and take a time out.
Wow!! I wasn't wearing my asbestos undies but should have been!
Bless Helen. She came to my rescue in her gentle but also very forthright away and we began to correspond both there and on some of her other pages. This lady has more irons in the fire than the King Ranch on branding day!

She reviewed my initial book proposal and liked it, with a few suggested changes and talked a bit about her books. She has a dozen or so all true history tales about Alaska. The north 49th has been her heart's home since she moved there with her parents at age fifteen. And she has a quick, steel trap mind, a head for facts, figures and information and a way of meeting and dealing that is awesome. We had both been looking forward to a face-to-face meeting when I made my trip.

That finally happened the afternoon of Sunday, June 23 and the day after the big ITC HQ events. I drove down to the Mexican restaurant where we were to meet and arrived just a few minutes before she did. When she got out we met with a big hug and both saying how great it was to finally get together; it seemed a lot longer than the few weeks it had really been since we discovered each other's existence.  And, from that beginning, we were not strangers but just long-separated friends. Her friend Barbara joined us shortly and we did a lot of book talking since Barb is a book store manager as well as wearing several other hats. She is also a native born Alaskan and descendant of a multi-generation Alaska-rooted family. And yes, Palmer does have a very decent Mexican restaurant!

Lake Lucille, behind ITCHQ
By the time we left La Fiesta, Helen and I were planning to spend more time together. We did just that for the better part of two days. It was so much fun but also very educational. Helen is an excellent tour guide and has been a huge mushing fan for years, served as a volunteer and collected all kinds of stories, memorabilia and old photos and documents. She knew Joe Reddington when she was a young bride and got involved in the whole Iditarod creation project. I just got her Alaskan Sled Dog Tales book before I left and will have some more soon. She still owns a retired Husky named Chena. Next time I will have to get at least a selfie of us together since I failed to do it this trip.

Lake Eklutna in Chugash Mtns
glacier fed source of Anchorage water
I share here a couple of shots from our travels over the two days. Next post I will cover the  first day and maybe into the second when we visited Jan and Bob at their kennel, lost to the fire but rebuilding better than ever as most of the Willow mushers are doing. The frontier can-do spirit is alive and well in Alaska for sure.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

More on the ITC Day

Of course they had a table set up right away for the musher registration, one of the big events going on. And I did hang around there quite a bit. I know there were some folks I wanted to meet and just missed chances. Everyone looks so different in summer clothes versus bundled up in "Eskimo" or Native style when they are racing. I did recognize and at least said hi to and in some cases snapped a photo of several.

One was Nik Petit who has run at least four Iditarods. He is one of the imports and grew up in Normandy; shoot, I should have asked if he knew of the Breton music group, Tri Yann. He had one of his leaders with him, a beautiful and gentle girl he calls Lolly who although free was never more than a few feet from him. She even likes to be a  lap dog!

Anna Berrington was there, a big lanky gal with a long blonde braid, one of the "Seeing Double" twin sisters who makes the news for being the only twins who race together. Her sister Kristy was off at her summer work. She had people all around her constantly but I did say hi and got a photo. About then came lunch which was delish--the 200 pounds of salmon on the grill that Mr Seybert always has flown in from his fishing crew at Bristol Bay was to die for! I had a big chunk and could have left the hot dog, beans and such for more but it went fast.

More mushers appeared after that. I watched Cindy Abbot sign in with her mentor beside her. her hubby is off climbing to add a few more summits to his list. Anyway i shook her hand and said I was so happy for her finish in 2015. She tried several times but got the Red Lantern that year and will no longer be a rookie. As far as I know she is the only person who has scaled Everest and also completed the Iditarod. Since she has a rare disease for which she is a very active poster gal, that is very impressive. She won one of the two free entries this time also. Must have been her lucky day as she also won some donated dog gear.
Cindy Abbott-in green shirt

Martin Buser was there--a charmer and a fun guy. I asked him about his son Nik who has made an amazing recovery from his terrible auto crash last February and is now home. They say he was dancing at their Solstice Party the previous weekend.

And then suddenly there was Deedee Jonrowe and also Aliy Z! I made a beeline for Deedee and gave her the long delayed hug. She thanked me for the small quilt I sent last year and we chatted briefly but she knows everyone and fluttered around like a hummingbird to see them all. I think this next will be her 33rd start!? So next I caught Aliy and talked briefly about her Ginger. She says they've been running her in lead a little bit in some mild summer type training runs and she is shaping up very well. I do think the Surfivers will be leaving a mark on the SPK teams in the coming years. Their mama Chica has retired but she, Quito and Olivia have whelped 3/4 of the current dogs or more! Grande dames indeed.

A bit later I saw the two of them talking and went over to get a picture. One of the teachers--the day also honors the past and next "Teacher on the Trail" women and local area teachers who come--had a friend take her photo with the two of them and I got brave enough to ask the same gal to take one for me! So there I was between two of my all time greatest heroines, as thrilled as if it were any rock or sports star or celebs you can imagine.  You can bet that is one of my favorite photos ever and I even managed a decent smile LOL. I'll print an 8x10 to frame and hang for inspiration.

If you look at the lower right corner of the pic with Deedee and Aliy you will see an Aussie. He was with a guy riding a motorcycle and when they left was up in his little seat behind the driver with goggles and  headphone style ear gear! I wish I had gotten that on film! I did go by and scratch his ears. Still love my Aussies even if Huskies are a current focus.

Wandering around some more I saw a woman and heard people call her "Jan." On a hunch I went up and introduced myself and asked if she was Jan Steves. Indeed she was and we had a lovely talk. She had a terrible accident this past race, about three checkpoints in and had to scratch. A rope came loose on her sled and tangled around a runner, ripped off the plastic insert and flipped the sled--and her--smash onto ice and rock. She had broken ribs, a broken collar bone, punctured lung and other injuries but went on for a bit to the next checkpoint. Trying to change booties on her dogs she realized she was one hurt puppy and ended up being med-evaced. The upshot was I was invited to come visit at the kennel she shares with her partner Bob Chlupach out at Willow. They were among those burned out but are rebuilding. He no longer races but still has about twenty dogs and mentors other younger racers, an awesome guy. More on them a later installment.

In short, it was a very good day and I felt I made some significant progress on my project and plans for a stay in Willow area when fall training time rolls around. I will also plan to be up there next March with a volunteer job to do (while I follow Aliy in a win--thinking positive!!) Hopefully I can crash with Bill, Svetla or maybe Helen--who you will meet in further reports-- if need-be. Hike, hike!! We are off to the next checkpoint, running good!