A Travellerspoint blog

Paging Dr. Mason to the dog yard...

Every so often, if you're someone who throws themselves into the chaos of the world seeking adventure, you might just come across something that speaks to your soul. It might be a place, an activity, or even a way of life, but you'll find yourself wondering how you had gone so long without it, and how you might be able to work it into your life to chase that high for just a little longer. If you're really lucky, it might even be all three.

I guess that makes me pretty lucky then. Because that something for me?

Alaska.

One global pandemic and a veterinary degree later, I have returned to the world of mushing for another season of handling. This year, I can proudly call myself a musher AND a doctor, coming armed with both my competitive spirit and a stethoscope as I balance the racing world with life as a veterinarian. There are lots of exciting opportunities waiting in the wings of this winter show and I cannot wait to see what happens.

As for you? I don't know how many of you are around to read this blog the second time around, but if you're here, then I'm glad to have you back. For as long as I remember to post, I'm excited to take you with me as I set out to achieve everything I couldn't last time.

Stay tuned for fall training highs and lows, premature excitement over early snow that promptly melts, and progress reports as the skin on my hands is slowly taken over by blisters from hours of shovelling gravel.

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It sure is good to be back.

Posted by brokeonaplane 01:21 Comments (0)

She hath returned! Let's talk 300 milers

it's been a crazy few months so thanks for sticking around!

Hello! What was meant to be a brief hiatus over the holiday season turned into 2 months of back to back adventures with very little time to catch you good folks up, but I have a few quieter days here so I thought it's about time I let you know that I am still here and still having an incredible time.
Local views

Local views

I can't possibly tell all of the stories I've collected since I last posted, but the holiday season was one in itself. It was my first time spending Christmas away from my family, however I was kept entertained by the whole Klejka family who joined us here in Wasilla for the festivities. A bustling family of nine leaves little time to feel homesick or lonely and I had an awesome time celebrating Christmas with them and fitting in some mushing too!

On boxing day, I welcomed my best friend from England as she made the trip to come check out Alaska and just what on earth I was getting up to out here! By the end of day one, she was already spending time on the back of a dog sled (but being pulled by a snow machine instead of a dog team!) and we then spent a few days mushing and snow machining around our trails to help continue with training.
Amy on the sled

Amy on the sled


Amy and I bundled up!

Amy and I bundled up!


Happy families

Happy families


Alaska must have heard that it had yet another Brit to impress and it pulled out all the stops; plunging our Southcentral areas into an impressive cold snap, with temperatures reaching -30 for a number of days.
Sub-zero but sunny skies

Sub-zero but sunny skies


Determined to get an authentic experience, we bundled up and got up to all kinds of adventures.
Trading mascara for frozen eyelashes!

Trading mascara for frozen eyelashes!


Worth the cold!

Worth the cold!


Between some fun days skiing, a rather rowdy New Years Eve party and hiking in the sub-zero temperatures (all while driving an interesting vehicular choice for the weather), we had such a great time and it was amazing to be able to show someone from home just what my life over here is like!
Hilltop ski area in Anchorage

Hilltop ski area in Anchorage


Quick stop along the Seward Highway

Quick stop along the Seward Highway


oopsie

oopsie


I'd go into more detail but a) there is a LOT of detail and it would take a full blog series to retell and b) these stories are much better told in person. Trust me.
Nome-ward bound

Nome-ward bound

After saying goodbye, it was time to return to normality (or as close as we get to that around these parts) and a training schedule which had the dogs doing some longer runs as we headed inch by inch towards Iditarod season. The colder weather had blessed us with some good snow for our trails and I was able to take my own small teams out for some runs.
Beautiful mushing days!

Beautiful mushing days!


lazy mushing days

lazy mushing days


Some team loving!

Some team loving!


In the yard, the dogs are split into two teams; the 'A' team and 'B' team. The 'A' team is the main race team, with the endgoal of completing the Iditarod in March, and the 'B' team is made up of both puppies still in training and older dogs which for some reason or another are no longer trained for the most difficult long distance races. They include dogs that may be looking for retirement homes in the near future, or those which are just happiest when running shorter distances! As the 'A' team is the most experienced and valuable dogs in the yard, they are run primarily by Jess and Sam, who have the expertise to successfully train and run them. The 'B' team is mainly trained by Anna and I, and they compete in both of Anna's junior musher races and will be my go to team for a few short distance races that I will be taking part in over the next month or so. As the teams have different goals to work towards, they follow slightly different training plans which includes how many miles they run and at what speed they do so. For Iditarod, the 'A' team will be running 1000 miles in under two weeks. This is broken down into a number of back to back 40 mile runs, with some slightly longer runs along the way. For this reason, these dogs need to be confident and competent at running back to back 40 or 50 miles runs, with timed breaks in between in which they 'camp' to rest up ready for the next run. Along the race, there will be different times spent at checkpoints for recovery, and so the dogs need to not only be ready to run, but also ready to sleep when it's time to! Good rest is just as valuable as good running! For the entire race, the dogs will run at about 8mph, which is also taken into account during training and used as a guide to see how well they're doing in their race preparation.
In comparison, the longest run the 'B' team will be doing this year is a 150 mile race, which is broken up into two 75 mile runs. As the level of endurance needed is lower than for the 'A' team, these dogs do not need to run as many miles overall in training, however they run at an average of 10mph instead of the 8mph seen in Iditarod. So in order to train both teams successfully for their individual races, they need to be run differently, which is where having multiple mushers is useful! The 'B' team still practice their timed breaks between runs and 'camping' skills, however they might camp and only run another 10 miles before calling it a day, whilst the 'A' team heads out on another 40 mile run before being done. It's so interesting to see how training schedules are worked out and how the mileage for each team is calculated so that all dogs will be at peak performance levels for each race.

Last weekend, our 'A' team competed in the Willow 300 sled dog race with Jeremiah (Jess's brother) mushing, and it was an awesome weekend being involved with all the race prep and then supporting the team as they ran 300 miles over three days.
Jeremiah and Jess at the start!

Jeremiah and Jess at the start!


But if you thought race prep only involved running, think again! So much goes into caring for the dogs on the race, including their food requirements, a supply of booties, food and dry socks for the musher and more. But before I get ahead of myself, let me explain how a race such as this one works.

A musher must carry certain items in their sled at all times and the rest of the supplies that are needed are delivered to 'checkpoints' ahead of time to be there waiting for the musher as they arrive with the dogs. In the sled goes a cooker, dog bowls, snacks to be given to the dogs every 2 hours along the trail, dog coats, spare booties for all dogs, straw if needed for mini-camps before reaching the checkpoint, gear for the musher, an axe, snowshoes, a vet kit, sled repair kit and anything else that the musher wants to have on them at all times. We then pack and send 'drop bags' to checkpoints. Each checkpoint had two drop bags waiting for Jeremiah. The first bag had meat and dog food to cook for dinner and food and spare supplies for the musher. The second bag had new booties to be used for the next run and a fresh supply of dog snacks to be taken and fed out on the trail.

In the Willow 300, there are 3 checkpoints at which dogs and mushers will camp before embarking on their next leg of the race. There was an 18 hour mandatory rest period that had to be taken over the course of all three checkpoints, and our team decided to split that evenly and spend 6 hours at each checkpoint. The first run from the start to the first checkpoint was around 76 miles, second run between checkpoints one and two was another 76 miles, third run between checkpoints two and three was 50 miles, and then there was a final 76 mile run to the finish. This race was also super exciting because it involves a 'mass start' in which all 36 teams start at once, taking off across a lake towards the trail. Watching 36 teams all leave at once was so awesome to watch, and even more awesome to see Jeremiah drive his team in front of everyone else and lead all 36 teams across the lake, leaving them in the snow. It made for some incredible videos and photos (all with our team centre stage!), which can call be seen by visiting the Willow 300 sled dog race facebook page. Be sure to check out the footage; it's like nothing else!

To make sure Jeremiah had everything he would need to care for the dogs over the course of the race, I spent days cutting meat and fish with a band saw beforehand into certain sized pieces that would be fed as snacks and for dinner. The dogs are snacked using a variety of pink salmon, beef, bacon and a pup mix made up of liver and tripe and then are fed a mix of beef and the pup mix, along with kibble, for dinner. It takes a lot of time to cut meat ready for races, but the hours needed to do so turn out to be a wonderful opportunity to listen to new podcasts. I've learnt many a new thing while spending hours slicing salmon into ice hockey puck-sized pieces, so it's not all work and no play! Then there's the hours spent folding booties and packing them to be taken on the race. Depending on the team that is being ran, there needs to be a specific number of booties per bag, split into the right number of correct sizes, and folded in a way that allows the musher to put them on with as little hassle as possible. Again, a tedious job that can be easily improved by being done in front of the tv, especially if you decide to experiment with Disney+ at the same time. Would defo recommend.

To pack the drop bags, Jeremiah and Jess had to work out how many snacks needed to be given out and at which points during the race, so that I could put the correct number of the correct meat/fish into bags and then have it ready in the drop bags at each checkpoint. It requires a lot of forward thinking and planning to ensure that the dogs will be fed properly during their run and the musher depends on having exactly what they need and are expecting in each bag so it's super important to get right!

This race was slightly different in terms of having help from handlers because Jeremiah was using it as an Iditarod pre-qualifier race, which requires much more from the musher. To run the Iditarod, a musher must complete two 300 mile races and one other to put their total mileage over 750 miles from mid-distance races. Although he's not sure when, if Jeremiah does decide to run the Iditarod one day then by using this race as a qualifier, he's well on his way to being qualified to do so! With the idea that this race is to be used to prepare for the hardest sled dog race around, the musher is not allowed the same amount of help as those mushers who are not running it as a qualifier. So Jess and I met Jeremiah at each of his checkpoints, day and night, for moral support and to keep an eye on the dogs (from a distance) so that he could at least try to get a few hours of sleep at each stop!
Sunrise at checkpoint number two!

Sunrise at checkpoint number two!


Although it meant that Jess and I didn't get any sleep for three days whilst we drove between checkpoints and home to care for the dogs who weren't racing, it was so awesome to be a part of the race and see first-hand some incredible mushing and dog care from top professional mushers!

The race trail was said to be fairly difficult due to punchy snow, which demands good driving skills to avoid dog injuries, and despite a slight detour on the last leg of the race (adding ten miles to an already long run!), Jeremiah came into the finish with high spirits and 12 happy dogs with an incredible result, placing 7th out of 36 teams!
Happy finishers and a proud dog mom!

Happy finishers and a proud dog mom!


After spending the entire weekend watching the sled tracker online and monitoring his every move, Jess and I were there at the finish to give all dogs and humans some high praise before taking them home for some well deserved rest! Cuddles with the race finishers!

Cuddles with the race finishers!


Mushers work so hard on these races, all to make sure their dogs are happy and healthy, and it was awesome to see each and every musher the following morning at the awards banquet exchanging stories from the trail and congratulating each other on another successful race! It's quite the community.

Determined not to be outdone, the 'B' team put their race booties on and completed the Willow Jr. 100 sled dog race with Anna this weekend.
Anna at her race start!

Anna at her race start!


As a shorter race with one checkpoint, all the race preparation was the same just on a slightly smaller scale! Anna and her team placed 5th in a very close finish, a feat made even more impressive when you hear that her sled brake broke halfway through the race and she was delivered a new sled last minute so that she could continue the race back!
Anna and her leaders at the finish!

Anna and her leaders at the finish!

Whilst Anna raced other teams, Jess, Sam and I raced against the clock to squeeze in our own 100 mile mush with the 'A' team dogs; we returned from the start of the race at 5pm and had until 11am the following morning to be back for the finish. We got home, packed two sleds (and the snow machine!), hooked up two small teams, and headed out towards a cabin owned by Sam's parents 50 miles of trails away. It was a beautiful night, with the brightest full moon around, and we arrived at the cabin just after midnight. The dogs camped on a small lake below the cabin whilst us three humans attempted a quick power nap, and then we woke up at 4am to mush home! It turns out you don't need much sleep when you have something as incredible as mushing through the night to excite you and keep you awake! We returned to the dog yard at 9am, put the dogs away and then hopped in the car to meet Anna at her finish!
More race cuddles!

More race cuddles!


It was quite the adventure, and my first technically challenging long run, and I can't wait to do it all again! But maybe a slightly longer layover would be okay too...

So that's pretty much what's going on here! The crazy will continue for the next month as we get closer to Iditarod, with many more hours of meat cutting, folding booties and mushing at midnight in store! I'll be sure not to take another two month break from posting - there's too much going on to not talk about it!

Posted by brokeonaplane 00:06 Archived in USA Comments (0)

So Louise...tell me, just how different is Alaska?

very.

Acknowledgements: this post is proudly sponsored by my dad, who is forever entertained by my stories of just how different life in Alaska is compared to life in Bristol.

As someone who can happily call both England and the USA home, I figured that I was in a pretty good place to uproot my life and commit to the wilds of Alaska. With a lot of fond childhood memories from living in Maine and Massachusetts, I was excited for the snow and cold weather that England so rarely sees, as well as friendly locals who seem to be more common across the states than back home. I had to explain to someone the other day that whilst the British are a polite bunch, the well-known politeness is coupled with a unique passive-aggressiveness and love of keeping oneself to oneself, especially in the South. Nowhere else can you find an orderly queue, all but epitomising the well-mannered British, made up of grumbling people who would rather complain relentlessly to others than make a constructed argument to someone in charge. Such is life.

Over here, as I noticed growing up and now whenever I return to visit, people will ask you how you are and expect a reply other than you just repeating the question back, ideally simultaneously, so that both people are spared from having to actually reply. It's much more plausible to believe that you had a conversation with your cashier, or a stranger on the street, than it would be at home without someone asking you if the other person was a complete weirdo that you couldn't avoid. Now Alaska may not be quite as hospitable and outgoing as some of the southern states, but it definitely still reflects the attitudes of the lower 48 more than England. It probably also helps that 90% of the people I have interacted with since being here are also mushers, which means that conversation topics are always easy.

Louise's guide to conversing with Alaskan mushers:

  • In a winter such as the one we are experiencing at the moment, you can't go wrong with a comment on the weather. In this way, the Alaskans are VERY much like the British. example 'man I can't believe we have no snow!', 'still on four wheelers, wish there was snow!', 'boy, it is glare ice out there', 'poor dogs, it's just so hot right now', 'we're working around the weather for running dogs' etc etc. I guarantee you will get at least a minute of talking if you open with one of those.
  • Ask about their race schedule! This was my tactic at the aforementioned ACE race party and it worked a treat. One of the benefits of this approach is that even if you have absolutely nothing to contribute (aka you have no idea if you will be racing in the near future), the other musher, provided you choose your partner wisely, will have both stories of upcoming races and then multiple opportunities to segway into stories of past races. I'm quickly learning that mushers love nothing more than telling you about the adventures that they have experienced, which they are certain are unique solely to them, and will not spare a single detail. Buckle up, you're in for the long haul if you choose this route.
  • And the ultimate topic to complete the golden trio - exchange stories about your dogs and every individual personality that you have in the yard. Even if you have a boring dog or two, with 30 dogs to talk about, it will easily add up to a fascinating and never-ending novel that is bound to captivate your audience. The other musher, most likely with even more dogs, will feed their stories back to you and before you know it, three days have passed and you've only just finished talking about the main race team. Bonus points if there is a recent litter of puppies to discuss, or some note-worthy developments involving the training of last years litter. A conversation based on this quickly becomes a battle of stamina - it will not end until one person decides that they can no longer listen to the entire life story of every dog the musher has ever interacted with. You've got this.

I'm well aware that for most of you, a survival guide to talking to mushers is probably just as helpful as a step-by-step guide on how to butcher a moose. But if you were wondering how I aim to so seamlessly blend in at mushing events, there you have it.

For someone who to talks to other people only a handful of times in a week, I sure have a lot of tips on how to do so efficiently. I guess I've had plenty of time to reflect and make notes for future interactions. Always helpful to have.

One of the reasons why interactions are somewhat limited is because I do live, quite literally, in the backwoods of Mat-Su valley. Before coming up here, I was speaking to a bank manager in Maine who was very excited to hear about my upcoming adventure. She exclaimed that 'Alaska is so much like Maine!' before finding out that I was a vet student and steering the conversation into questions about her dogs health. A relatively standard conversation really. I could imagine the similarities; beautiful mountains, lots of woodland, large properties, excellent opportunities for winter activities and getting outside. But it turns out that the sticks of Maine are positively city-like when compared to the sticks of Alaska. I have to add that as Alaskan sled dog kennels go, I am hardly as remote as the majority, having talked to handlers who live in cabins in Denali 30 miles from any city-like dwelling (and when they say city, you say small English countryside village). However it is still a 30 minute drive for me to reach the grocery store, which for someone who is used to walking for one minute to get to a store for late-night snacking purchases, takes some getting used to.

There are a few other properties in my neighbourhood, and it is always an exciting time when I spot one of the neighbours whilst out mushing. I think I have now seen 4, which is kind of a big deal. It's even more intriguing when they emerge out of well-hidden shacks in the woods, behind abandoned cars and trailers. I may not get invited inside for a cup of tea, but they all seem friendly enough.

One of the most fascinating things for me is the road systems out here. A huge proportion of the state is not even on the road system, which means that many cities and villages are accessible only by plane or four wheeler/snowmachine/dog sled. English country lanes may only be large enough to accommodate a single car (at a push), but you can drive across the country with a pretty clear sense of certainty that you won't run out of roads that will take you to where you need to go. Not so much here. Alaska has a total of four highways, which connect the main major cities and not much else. From Anchorage airport to the house, you drive on a total of three roads, which is perfect for this wanderer with an appalling sense of direction. I never thought that I would take something as simple as roads for granted to be able to explore via, but I guess I should! As inconvenient as it may sound, it is probably what keeps so much of Alaska such an untouched beauty, which we should definitely be thankful for. But watch out any eco-warriors - Alaska is not a very green place when it comes to exploring. I was amazed to hear stories of high schoolers in villages having to get on a plane just for things like track meets and competitions! Flying is by far the most common way to travel around the state, and often the only way, which is pretty different to England. Drive for 24 hours back home and you can find yourself in any number of European countries. Drive for 24 hours here and you'll probably end up somewhere in Canada, which will very likely look exactly the same as wherever you drove from.

The other day I was asked if the mountains that are visible from the dog yard are 'like those in Bristol'. For the Bristolians here, you can imagine my response. I am still in awe of the scenery here every time I go outside and seeing a moose still gets me as excited as Shelby seeing her 27th squirrel on a ten minute walk. My list of wildlife spots includes moose, bald eagles, porcupines and a sneaky wolverine that was right outside my bedroom window one night. For everyone else, a moose popping up beside a trail is 'just another moose' but for me, it's an incredible opportunity to witness
wildlife in it's stunning natural habitat. I may eat moose daily (cookbook pending), but it doesn't mean that I don't also appreciate them alive! One of my most amazing spots was a bald eagle on the telephone pole beside the house the other day. I had only seen one or two from a distance before then, and being able to watch one so close as it looked around before spreading its wings and flying off was just beautiful. A majestic national symbol if there ever was one.

For someone whose soul is replenished by nature, Alaska is a dream. Although I may spend a lot of time at the dog yard, the views from the yard alone are enough to ignite my passion for the outdoors. Even walking the trails around the property for ten minutes is such a perfect way to take a minute for myself and feel fully refreshed, no matter what the day had brought or still has in store. And for those quiet afternoons when the dogs are all asleep in their houses, there are so many places close by (I mean, close by Alaskan standards) which are perfect for exploring. My current favourite place here is Eklutna Lake, located in Chugach State Park.
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Only about an hours drive away, and you find yourself at a beautiful lake nestled between snowy mountains and, whilst I've yet to find time to complete the 26-mile round trip, there's also Eklutna glacier which I cannot wait to check out sometime. I mean within three hours you can be admiring the beauty of Denali which is pretty awesome in itself! I'm so excited to explore more and more of this beautiful state over the coming months and can't wait to see what I find.

Of course, there are also some glaringly obvious differences when it comes to weather and the like. One thing that I'm told my dad finds very fascinating is the sunrise and sunset times here. If you thought the UK was bad, trying getting out of bed at 7am knowing the sun won't be up for at least another 3 hours!
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And then you best get on with your day because by 3pm you'll find the sun returning to bed. Although it can be hard getting up in the dark and the cold, what's really remarkable is how, due to the slow sunrise and sunset, the sun never seems to quite reach the top of its path and so the entire day turns into one long golden hour. Sunrises and sunsets are almost always beautiful light shows of pinks, purples and oranges and so whilst you may not get much light, the light you do get makes up for that.
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One complaint I do have is that I have not yet seen the Northern Lights, which I am assured are usually very active and easy to spot. Maybe the Northern Lights and our snow haven't quite realised the date and will arrive together!

Being a well-accustomed city-dweller, one thing I was interested in finding out about was how the Alaskan nightlife scene compares to elsewhere. I've been told that the main cities have their bars and clubs like everywhere else, but there are a few things in Anchorage especially to keep an eye out for. In Bristol, a night out can get kind of sketchy depending on where you find yourself, but I've always felt pretty safe out and about, even in the more questionable neighbourhoods. So when I got here and asked about city life, and was told to always be careful and not go to certain places/certain bars/talk to certain groups of people, I figured that that was just a pretty standard clause attached to any city. What I didn't realise was that the trouble these guys were referring to included gunfights in AND outside of bars, frigid temperatures that can kill a lost soul in a miniskirt and heels, and actual moose wandering the streets of downtown Anchorage when they hope most people have returned home. Now I like to think I've got a pretty good head on my shoulders and the smarts to go with it, but even the slickest street smarts won't help if you drunkenly find yourself facing down the barrel of a gun, or the seemingly innocent gaze of a 1000lb bull moose. It might sound like a great story to tell, but hopefully it's not one that you'll hear from me. 'Wasted British student picks a fight with a moose after it knocks a drink out of her hands' would be the title to watch out for though.

So there's a somewhat cohesive summary of my impressions so far. It's really entertaining and eye-opening for me to be able to experience a life that is just so different to anything you could find in Bristol and, although I may miss the convenience and ease of living in a city and all of the fun that comes with it, it hasn't stopped me from fully embracing life at the dog yard and everything that makes Alaskan living so unique and adventurous. I still find myself taking a minute to adjust to new situations, and sometimes needing more than a minute to lean into it, but if nothing else, I will definitely return home with the confidence and practicality of a musher, which are skills that are always valuable to have! Mushers are a lot like farmers in that respect; both can operate on no sleep, wake up in what feels like the middle of the night, take incredible care of their animals, and find many uses for some baler twine and cable ties. Who knew mushing would boast such useful transferable skills?

If I don't post again before Christmas rolls around, me and all 28 dogs here at Tailwind (plus two bunnies, 21 chickens and a cat), would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas. I never thought that I would be spending Christmas halfway across the world with a surrogate family of mushers and yet here I am. I have no doubt that this holiday season will be one to remember and I can't wait to tell all of my stories at many Christmases to come.

Happy Holidays xo

Posted by brokeonaplane 22:27 Comments (1)

ACE Race 2019

featuring musher Louise Mason's first time on a sled!

Hey pals,

So this past weekend I made a concerted effort to see how many 'Alaska Bucket List' things I could tick off in two days.

Explore Denali National Park? Check.
Go on a dog sled? Check.
Compete in my first sled dog race? Check.
Drive a snowmachine? Check.
Get run over by a snowmachine? Check.
See a moose on the trail? Check.
Party with mushers in a lodge in the middle of nowhere? Double Check.

The Alpine Creek Excursion Sled Dog Race is an annual event that kicks off the race season, and it was definitely an awesome one to kick off my mushing adventures! It is a 62 mile race along the Denali Highway, which goes through the park, and finishes at Alpine Creek Lodge. The next day, it is the same 62 mile mush back to the truck, however the mush back is not timed and makes for a nice fun return with plenty of time to take in all the beauty of Denali!

The fun started at home though, with the challenge of packing up sleds, equipment, and supplies (as well as 26 dogs) into the dog truck. The dog truck here has 20 individual dog boxes, with each dog box needing a layer of straw in it for the dogs to be comfortable while travelling and sleeping in the night before the race. The truck is then packed with everyone's gear (which when every person has parkas and snow pants and winter boots tends to take up a lot of room pretty quickly!) and once the inside is ready to go, the sleds are hoisted up on top of the truck to be secured down! And then comes the fun of dog loading. For those of you trying to picture this whole operation, the dog truck has rows of five boxes and two rows running parallel to each other on each side of the truck. So the biggest boys in the yard tend to go on the bottom row (to save you lifting 40lbs of wriggling muscle above your head!) and the smaller girls up above. For the mathematicians among you (hi Felicity) you're probably sitting there wondering whether I've realised that 20 boxes doesn't equal 26 dogs. Our planning had also had to include who we thought would be good travel companions and could share a box for the ride and the layover night. Some pairs were easy, like Jenna and Feta (mother and daughter and also the two smallest dogs in the yard!) but some other pairs were more trial and error. For the most part, everyone was super well behaved and didn't object to having to share with anyone. Although I'm sure much like siblings, they grumbled among each other about how it wasn't fair the smallest had to share. Parents out there are probably nodding along in agreement right now.

It took just over an hour to get the truck packed and dogs loaded, and then we were on the road! The dog truck is an interesting drive...there were a few flashing messages on the dash that we mainly ignored, and no working speedometer, but when you have a GPS from the dog sled who needs a working dash? The drive took about 3 hours, and then we parked up only a couple metres from the start line ready for the next morning. Once we were all parked and settled, the dogs were lifted out of the boxes, the sleds brought back down from the top of the truck, and we did a quick 5 mile mush for everyone to stretch their legs. Then it was time for dinner (dogs first!) and then once they were all happy, the humans got to eat and relax a little bit. We were lucky enough to have a heated trailer to sleep in (courtesy of some friends who had joined us for the weekend) and so after putting the dogs back into their boxes for the night, everyone pulled out a sleeping bag, played human tetris to find a spot to sleep and then settled down for the night.
Hanging out in the trailer

Hanging out in the trailer


I'd love to say I got a wonderful nights sleep in preparation for the weekend, but in reality I was up for most of the night trying 1.) not to slide off of the leather car seat (aka my bed) in my sleeping bag and 2.) wondering whether I would be at all successful on a sled and enjoy it as much as I'd dreamed about! But soon enough it was 6:30 am and time to get moving - the race started at 8am, from which point mushers could set off from anytime until 10am.

Now for some brief anatomy of my race team: as it was my first time doing almost everything, I was paired with another musher (in this case Jess's brother, Jeremiah) with each of us being on two different sleds. There's the front sled, which is hooked to the dogs as you'd imagine, and then there was a tag sled. The tag sled is what I was on; it is attached by the tag line which is hooked to the front of the front sled, runs under the front sled, and then hooked to the front of the tag sled. Still with me? So the tag sled is perfect for beginners because it allows them to watch what the musher in front of them is doing, get a feel for being on the sled in general, and practice things like braking and passing teams without being fully in control in case something doesn't quite go to plan.

It was all systems go once we woke up - the dogs had to be unloaded from their boxes for breakfast, and then we had to get the sleds set up and packed ready to go. All of the dogs had to get booties put on, and then we harnessed and hooked up and my team was off at 8:15am. There were 14 dogs pulling Jeremiah and I, and we started at a great speed. This race was the first time the dogs had been hooked up to the sleds this winter, and they definitely turned around on the hills looking at us as if to ask what had happened to the helpful acceleration of a four wheeler! It became obvious rather quickly that mushing on a nice straight road posed little risk of falling off the sled, but there were a few big hills that required us to help the dogs out! When going up inclines, the musher can stand on one runner and kick with the other leg to give the dogs extra power, or can jump off the sled and run alongside pushing the sled themselves, which gives the dogs a boost and lessens their load at the same time. Our first big hill wasn't for a couple miles after we started, which meant that I could get to grips alternating my stance and moving back and forth across the runners ready to have one foot off kicking, or a foot controlling the brake, when needed. Being on the tag sled meant that I could copy Jeremiahs technique in front of me and work out when and how he was helping the dogs and everything else. However it turns out that copying an experienced musher means that it always looks super easy. You know when you're sprinting on a treadmill and jump on and off the sides for breaks between sprints? Jumping on and off of the sled was a lot like that, except the runners are narrower, your feet sink through a few inches of snow which you then have to keep running through, the dogs immediately pull a bit faster because they don't have your lazy butt on the sled and you remember that you're roughly the size of a young blue whale with all of your winter layers on. So that's a skill that's going to require some refining.

After about 40 miles, Jeremiah and Anna, our junior musher here at Tailwind, swapped on the front sled to lighten the load for the dogs. We then carried on until there were about 5 miles left, at which point Anna left, along with the tag sled, and left me on the front sled to bring the dogs into the finish! The dogs definitely enjoyed having only one sled and human to pull and we came flying into the finish where Jess and Anna were waiting. I then signed in and had a photo with the boss and that was my first race complete!
Signing in at the finish

Signing in at the finish


At the finish with the boss!

At the finish with the boss!


ACE race posing with the leaders

ACE race posing with the leaders


It was such a huge thrill to have driven the dogs by myself and all of my worries about being on the sled from the night before disappeared. The dogs looked happy, my team had placed 17th with a team of 8:35 and I was still standing and raring to go. I'd call that a success!

The dogs were then camped - spread out along the gangline, straw put down, dinner fed and then they all settled down to sleep curled up in race coats. They definitely deserved their rest! Once they all seemed happy, the humans brought their stuff into the lodge for the night and then had dinner and drinks at the lodge bar. Whilst at the bar, there was an awards presentation and I was surprised to have my name read out! I received a certificate congratulating me on completing my first ever dog race and it was an awesome way to round off the day. I had a great time meeting and hanging out with fellow mushers before calling it a night and I definitely slept pretty well that night!

The next morning, we were up at 7am again and got dressed ready to head down and rouse the team before starting our 62 miles back to the homely dog truck at the other end of the highway. Wanting to give the dogs a nice easy run back, we only hooked up one sled to the team of 14 and Jeremiah mushed with Anna sat in the sled bag. Cue another new experience: snow machining!
Quick snow machine stop!

Quick snow machine stop!


Once Jess's team had set off, the snow machines needed refuelling and the snow machine sleds had to be packed with all of our stuff and then the remaining four of us set off down the trail. Although the day started with heavy snow, it slowly cleared to reveal the true beauty of Denali and boy was it breathtaking!
What a beautiful background!

What a beautiful background!


It was so much fun being able to fly along the trail on the snow machines and be able to stop everytime a new stunning backdrop came into view (which was roughly every half a mile). I alternated between snow machining and mushing for the trip back, and it was just incredible to be on the back of the sled mushing through one of the most surreal places I have ever visited.
Stopped in the snow!

Stopped in the snow!


Looking up the trail

Looking up the trail


It sure made me feel so so blessed to be able to experience something that so many people around the world would love to do. It's a feeling I can hardly explain, and as much as I would love to try for all of you readers, there are really no words to give it justice. Our planet really is a beautiful home.

With it not being a race on the way back, there was plenty of time to get up to all kinds of shenanigans along the way!
Nothing but the open road

Nothing but the open road


Packed in one of the snow machine sleds was an inner tube, which had been spontaneously brought in the hope of creating a fun pastime involving dragging someone behind a snowmachine while they sit on the tube and hang onto a rope for dear life. Fun right? It definitely livened up our snow machining, with everyone having a go, and it was a lot harder than you might expect! Everyone had a riot, between being on the tube and filming others valiant attempts to hang on before inevitably letting go and flying off, spinning across the trail. There was even the added exhilaration when on the tube of not being able to see as you let go and spinning right into the path of a snow machine. But I think we can blame that on the snow machine driver (*cough* Jeremiah *cough*) who was filming me as he ran me over. No phones while driving kids!

Nice spot to enjoy the sun!

Nice spot to enjoy the sun!

I mushed the dogs for the last 20 miles or so and we got back to the truck just as the sun had set and a beautiful almost-full moon had risen over the mountains. Once back at the truck, the dogs were fed and we gradually packed everything up ready to head home. The dogs were then loaded back into the truck and we said our goodbyes to Denali as we pulled out. Although I was sad to be leaving so soon, I will say I was most definitely looking forward to being reunited with a shower and a real bed!

The weekend and all of the fun and adventures that came with it has quickly become one of my favourite weekends ever, and although I know there's much more mushing to come, I think it's a memory that I will treasure for a very long time. I think if anyone had the pleasure of running into 8 year old me and showed them the photos and told them stories about the race, I would've been in awe and probably written a slightly-butchered retelling in my journal at school. 'This weekend I went on a dog sled. It was cold. The dogs ran fast. It was fun.'

I hope these photos and my mushing journey serves as inspiration for anyone who has ever thought about travelling to somewhere like Denali to go and experience the magnificence of it for themselves, or be brave enough to take a leap of faith in hope of doing something they've always dreamed about, like mushing. It may be a hard job and tiring at times, but weekends like this one make me so incredibly thankful to be doing what I'm doing.
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And as a quick side note - mushing, as it turns out, is pretty darn good for fitness! Between the attempted hill runs, kicking and leaning on the sled, my muscles were definitely worked hard and I could tell by the next morning! Move over gym, I'm all about functional fitness. As my previous coach said when I talked to her about it 'cardio cannot be bad when it involves doggos'. Wise words from a wise gal.

I'm sure I could spin my stories into a 300 page novel, but right now I have a yard full of athletes waiting for me to get out there and feed them and they are really the heroes of this adventure so I can't let them down. That's the other inspiring thing about this job - no matter how tired you are or how cosy your bed is, the greeting you get from 30 hungry dogs makes it well worth it!

Until next time friends,
Lou xo

Posted by brokeonaplane 12:10 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The art of putting together a good dog team!

*one that I have yet to master, but I'm trying*

You may think that hooking up a dog team is as simple as choosing the desired number of dogs, sticking harnesses on them and then attaching said dogs at random to the line and hey presto, you've got yourself a dog team ready to go. In reality, putting together a team feels a lot like having to choose groups to work with in school. There's cliques and crushes, boneheaded boys and catty girls (can one describe a dog as catty?? unknown) and if you try to make two dogs work together who have zero intention of cooperating, it's going to be a very long run for everyone involved.

When I first got here, I had to learn about all of the individual personalities that there are in the yard, which has become super important when creating a team to be set up for success. Take the inseparable sisters, Siri and Cortana. These two live in pens next to each other and don't go anywhere without the other. I sometimes even find them both curled up next together in a single dog house when everyone else is off playing. But don't be fooled by the adorable nature of sisterhood - Cortana can be the meanest girl in the yard and has little time for others antics, especially tiny Feta who tries to be as cool as Cortana and ends up getting kicked to the curb pretty swiftly. There's a lot of strong females in the yard and trying to mix them is a recipe for disaster. Lone feminist wolves if you will.

And then there's the interesting complication that entire dogs can bring to the yard (dogs that have not been neutered). Male dogs can mate at any time, as long as there is a receptive in-heat female around, and the fun always starts when a boy starts being just a little too interested in one of the girls. Then you have to start thinking about making sure that an in-heat female is not next to a boy that may use any opportunity, say a five minute breather whilst on the trail, to get busy. Dogs are pretty good at picking their moments and getting down to business before a person has time to intervene. And as cute as you and I both think a surprise litter of puppies would be, I don't think it would be very well received by my boss. So we're always keeping notes of who may be in heat and therefore who to segregate so that everyone stays friends and no one can go further. Isn't nature such a beautiful thing?

Now I usually run a 12 dog team, and Jess a 14 dog team, with the dogs roughly split between an A and a B team. There's a real mix of experience and abilities out in the yard, with some dogs having run the Iditarod earlier this year (a gruelling 1000 mile race) and some only having done a couple hundred miles with much still to learn. So Jess takes the all-stars (they're quite literally her babies) and I take the ones still in training or better suited to slower speeds etc.
The team nicely lined out

The team nicely lined out

A quick breakdown of a dog team; there's the lead dogs at the front, either one or two, and these are the dogs who listen to the mushers commands and guide the rest of the team as instructed. They often also set the pace for how fast the team will run. This position requires smarts and concentration and so not all dogs will have leader potential. Those that do are vitally important and we try to rotate our leaders between runs to give those thinking minds a rest. Behind the leaders are the swing dogs. These two are also very important and are often ones who also understand commands and help the leaders out. It's hugely beneficial to have good dogs up here because if anything happens to the leaders, the swing dogs are often swapped into lead to help out. Then there's team dogs in the positions behind, until you get to the wheel dogs. Wheel refers to the position just in front of the sled. The dogs here, and towards the back of the team in general, are usually pretty strong and responsible for a lot of the strength that is required to pull the sled. It's a tough life for wheel dogs because being just in front of the sled means that they are usually forced into tighter turns and whipped around corners more than dogs at the front of the team. So because of the effort that wheel dogs exert, they should also be rotated around so that no dog is in wheel for more than one or two runs at a time.

Okay, so you have a list of dogs and it's time to put a team together. I always start with who I want to be leading my team on that particular run. The leader candidates range from Iditarod dogs to puppy novices, and at this time of the year, it is super helpful to use those experienced ones alongside novices to help train them.
Bailey - an Iditarod veteran-lead dog!

Bailey - an Iditarod veteran-lead dog!


Mother and Daughter leader duo!

Mother and Daughter leader duo!


So I often pair a great leader with a great leader-to-be, and work with them during the run. Peer learning is pretty effective even in the dog world! Then for swing I pick two dogs that also could act as lead dogs if needed, and again one more experienced and a novice. Having a strong team at the front is awesome because if anything goes wrong, or a leader decides to act up and misbehave, you're spoiled for choice as to who to swap them with and still be able to carry on with no problems. The four pairs behind swing are relatively interchangeable, with the general rule of thumb being that more poorly behaved dogs, or ones who needs to be trying a bit harder, go further towards the back. Wheel isn't a position suitable for everyone; for instance it would be pretty mean to stick a small girl back there and expect the same as you would from a much bigger male with more power. So I then think about who I can put in wheel, thinking about how well everyone has been doing and who was last in wheel and how many days off they may have had between runs. There's a few dogs which seem to be core wheel dogs, however if there was a specific dog which acted up or wasn't putting in a lot of effort to pull previously, moving them back to wheel for a run can be super useful to keep a closer eye on them and it encourages them to really pull. It's definitely not just the leaders who are important!

Of course, whilst thinking about positions you also have to think carefully about the pairs in each position. None of our bold females go next to each other, no girl in heat should go right next to an interested boy and some boys are better friends than others, so that's also something to think about.
Leonard and Phil love running together!

Leonard and Phil love running together!


When I was first introduced to the magic behind creating dog teams, I thought it would be a long time before I knew the dogs well enough, and the logistics behind mushing itself, to be able to create my own team and take out of the yard with no reservations. However lately, I have been drawing up my own team plans for future runs, and also confident enough to change dogs around if we start hooking up and realise that someone is maybe more grouchy than previously accounted for.

It's so cool for me to be able to look out at the dog yard and put together a team that has been created with every individual personality and need in mind. Although one of the most basic skills to have, remembering how overwhelming it was even a month ago makes it seem pretty sweet now that I can stand in front of them and visualise a good team in my head. What's also fun is being able to recognise what an example of a solid team is and, for the days when I feel a bit more adventurous, how I can switch things up to see what certain dogs do when put in a different situation and test them a little bit. It may not always work, but it's a great pay off when you go out on a limb, stick someone else in lead or put two unlikely friends next to each other, and end up having a near-perfect run.
A successfully put-together team!

A successfully put-together team!

Right now, I have 12 team combinations written out next to me to use for the runs scheduled for the next week or so. Not all may go perfectly, and there's always the potential that I've forgotten about some playground falling-out between two dogs that might hold things up, but I guess that's all part of the mushing learning curve!

I am grateful that the dogs can't talk back to comment on my team assignments because, if they could, I'm sure it would be on par to the 'feedback' teachers get when they announce that they pre-made groups for group work in school. Speaking as a previous student, and I'm sure you all would agree, there can be some very strong opinions voiced and I'm sure dogs are no different in their thinking. Absolute outrage that best friends in the dog yard aren't allowed to run next to each other every single run.

So there's your mushing lecture for the day! I'll be sure to report back on how (hopefully) successful my team ideas were!

Louise xo

Posted by brokeonaplane 10:01 Comments (1)

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