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.