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