Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Summer Project - New Dog Box

Summer is short in Two Rivers, and generally pretty hectic. In addition to the mundane tasks like filling in massive bomb craters dug out by the team in the dog yard, keeping sled dogs reasonably entertained, preventing the grass in the front yard from resembling an Amazon jungle and so forth, each year I tackle a major kennel improvement project. This year's project has been to transform a stack of plywood and other materials into a fully-functional "dog box" for the truck.

My old dog box provided excellent service for quite a long time. Originally built by my friend Mike Green some 30 years ago, it's safely carried dogs over much of the United States, particularly the Northeast, and across Canada and the Alaska Highway to our great State. For the past 10 years it has transported Stardancer dogs and our gear wherever we took a notion to go.

This past winter, however, it started showing signs of aging. Door literally fell off, and at one point an entire panel was left hanging by nothing more than a rusted wood screw when the framework beneath it failed. We were able to patch it together enough to get through the season, but the writing was on the wall. It HAD to be replaced.

I plan to write about the project in more detail later, but here are a few photos to show our progress thus far.

Cutting Materials to Size

Template for the Compartment Doors (jar lid used to draw corners)

Door Template Traced Onto Side
Cutting Out the Window

Door Hardware Installed Before Cutting Out the Corners for a Better Fit
Center Divider Ready to Fasten to Floor
Partitions Between Compartments Attached to Floor and Center Divider

Fastening Right Side to the Floor. It Is Also Attached to Each Partition
Both Ends Attached to Box

Mostly Completed Box Coated and Mounted on the Truck Bed

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Yukon Quest and YQ300 Sign-ups Preview Great Racing

19 mushers signed up to run the 1,000 mile 2018Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on the first day while simultaneously 21 others signed up for the YQ300 miler.  Contestants in both races represent a nice mix of well-known and well-experienced dog drivers as well as up-and-coming rookies and near-rookies.

Let's start with the longer race. The first musher to turn in paperwork on the Yukon side of the border was Rob Cooke, Over the past few years Rob's team of purebred Siberian Huskies has turned many heads in both the Quest and the Iditarod. In Fairbanks, Tok musher and former champion Hugh Neff was first in line. You can see the full roster of day-1 sign-ups on the Yukon Quest website.

My home town of Two Rivers, Alaska is well represented by gifted mushers in both races, including two previous Champions. Matt Hall and Allen Moore both signed up for the 1,000 miler on the first day. Both mushers also have plans to run the 2018 Iditarod.  Ryne Olson, who started her career as a handler in Allen and Aliy Zirkle's SP Kennel and has sinse grown her own team and regularly challenges her giften mentors in various races has also signed up for the long race.

In the 300, Two Rivers will be represented by the only woman thus far in history to win the Yukon Quest, Aliy Zirkle along with up and coming mushers Chase Tingle and Heidi Sutter.

Meanwhile, back at the house....

This summer's major project is construction of a brand new dog box for the truck. I spend most of my last R&R building the basic structure and getting it ready to haul dogs if circumstances require. I'll finish the project on my next R&R and then write more about it.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Checking Out the Back Trail

When one travels it's important to watch the trail ahead, but it's also good to glance back once in a while, to check out where you've already been. That's why we have rear-view mirrors in motor vehicles. This is my quick glance at the 2016-17 dog mushing season.

Maintaining a kennel of sled dogs, even a small kennel such as mine, is expensive. I've tracked my expenses since establishing the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs kennel, and it has consistently cost me about $1,000.00 per year per dog to maintain the team. That includes feed and supplements, veterinary expenses, infrastructure (fences, pens, houses, &c) and mushing equipment. With 20 dogs in the yard, that adds up to about $20,000.00 per year. That equates to a lot of hours at work.

To help meet those expenses, this winter I contracted with Just Short of Magic, a sled dog touring company here in Two Rivers. Rather than maintaining a huge kennel of dogs the owner, Eleanor, contracts with other mushers to run tours. This saves her tons of money in kennel and payroll expenses while ensuring her guests get the quality experience for which they are paying.

Just Short of Magic (JSOM) offers half-hour and full-hour sled dog tours and also a two-hour mushing school. The trails on which we run are beautiful and very well maintained.  Here is a video showing highlights of a JSOM Lead Dog (full-hour) Tour. The video is just under 5 minutes.

In order to run for JSOM, I had to have my business license and liability insurance, so in August Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs became a 'real' business, one that is almost certain to give my accountant a headache or two.

Winter was slow in coming this year. We did our first training run with the four-wheeler (ATV) on September 7th, but it wasn't until October that we could start running with any regularity. Even then the combination of warm weather and my work obligations made fall training a bit of a hit or miss operation. By November it was apparent that I would need some help running the dogs in order to get them into good condition for the hard work of hauling people. I was very fortunate to be able to recruit Nick Guy, an experienced musher who's methods are very similar to my own. In exchange for helping with conditioning my team, Nick was willing to trade his work for the use of my dogs to run tours for JSOM during the time I was away at work.

Usually we have enough snow on the trails to safely run sleds in early November, but this wasn't one of those 'usual' years. We began the tour season during the Thanksgiving season by taking guests on training runs with ATVs. We were fortunate to have a big dump of snow just before the Christmas season that made the trails not just usable, but actually quite nice. The video below shows highlights of a tour done on Christmas Day. (less than 5 minutes)

Most years once we have snow on the trails the snow will accumulate a couple of inches at a time. This year was different. Instead of lots of little snowfalls, we had long stretches of no snow at all punctuated by big dumps. The total accumulation was excellent so we were able to run regularly. The down-side was that this was the coldest winter in well over a decade. We had some serious cold snaps (temperatures of -40 and colder) that haven't been seen up here in a long time. Some required us to suspend tours because it just wasn't safe for the guests.

Nonetheless, we were able to work regularly and the team responded to the hard, frequent work better than anyone could ask. For example, early in the season my dogs had difficulty passing other teams. Leaders would stop, team dogs try to meet and greet dogs from the oncoming team, and so forth. With Nick and I both running the dogs and frequently encountering other teams on the trail our guys were soon professionals at going by without hesitation. By the middle of February we didn't even have to cue the dogs to go by. Just keep our mouths shut and let the dogs do their thing.

When overtaken by faster teams we can usually keep moving until the overtaking team starts to go around the sled. Then a gentle "whoa" cue and a bit of pressure on the brake is all that's required to 'give trail' and let the faster team go by. Sometimes we have to stop the team, but frequently we can keep moving while the faster team just sails right by.

We did have some unexpected challenges this winter.  I've already written of the weather and the dangerously cold temperatures that forced us to either modify the routes or suspect tours altogether. There were also some unexpected issues with the dog truck that needed to be addressed.

The dog box mounted on the truck is about 30 years old. Originally built by Mike Green, I purchased it used. It has provided me excellent service for over a decade, but it is now showing it's age. Even though it's always been well protected from weather, some of the wood framing and even the plywood shell is starting to weaken and rot. Poor Nick has literally had a door fall off twice (with a little help from occupants). By mid-season it was apparent that I'll need to completely replace the box this summer. That's a big project but I'm pretty handy at wood working and I have some ideas that should result in a robust and more convenient set up on the dog truck.

When unloading (dropping) dogs from the truck, we use short chains called drop chains to secure each dog to the truck. My set up had eye-bolts secured through the running boards of the truck to serve that purpose. With daily use, those excited strong dogs jerking at the running boards resulted in their near-destruction. They just weren't stout enough to withstand the strain. During mid-season I had to contract with local mechanical handy-man and fabricator Bryan McManus who operates 2Build, LLC, to replace them. Now they are hell-for-stout and look good to boot.

Left side running board with U-bolts to 'drop' dogs

I learned a lot this year. I logged well over 500 miles on the runners, and Nick easily equalled that. That means the Stardancer dogs covered over 1,000 miles with each run carrying at least 150 pounds of person in the sled. Most tours we carried two passengers for a load of 300 to 500 pounds. Through the course of the winter I learned that a heavy sled loaded with a pair of heavy passengers is hard to handle. I also learned that a sled that is too lightly loaded - for example a single small passenger - is also hard to handle. The happy medium is around 300 to 350 pounds.

Because most of the other contractors at JSOM are racing mushers with dogs bred for long distance racing, I learned that the old-school trapline dogs such as mine really are much slower. I'm OK with that since we always get where we are going and it's still a lot faster and a lot more fun than walking.

My own sled handling skills are greatly improved as a result of my touring experiences. That's kind of a big deal since those toboggan sleds used for carrying guests are wider, heavier and generally just more "klunky" than the sleds I've driven in the past. I've learned better ways of snubbing the sled to launch the first run of the day, how to trade one sled for another without unhooking the dogs from the gang line, and lots of other tiny details that escape conscious thought.

The dogs have learned to wait patiently on the gang-line in between tours. Like sled handling, that's kind of a big deal since waiting is all part of the game. Most of the dogs have learned to wait patiently for that first launch, though there are a couple of exceptions - namely Thowra and Aufeis. Heck, I've even learned to (mostly) monitor my language when guests are present. Rather than referring to an errant fuzz-butt as a deity-cursed illegitimate child of a bitch I'm more inclined to call him or her a "silly beast" and let it go at that.

Sled dog touring team waiting patient for the next group of guests on Christmas Day.

Guests who go dog sledding seem to fall into a couple of different categories. About half the guests we carried this year are International travelers. The majority of those were Asian, especially Chinese and Japanese. The others were from far-flung places such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and throughout Europe. A goodly portion of the American guests we carried live on the West Coast. Southern California and the Bay Area were very well represented.

Many of our guests were very enthusiastic. They had a strong interest in dog mushing and there was nowhere else in the world they wanted to be at that moment. Some came in tour groups in which dog mushing was just a side-activity, a way to kill time before moving on to the next attraction. For some of guests dog mushing was a 'bucket list' activity. Among my favorites of these was an older couple celebrating the wife's 73rd birthday by dog sledding on a cold, dark winter day. One couple, farmer's from the Midwest (I believe they said Iowa) raise and draft with mules. They were intently interested in drafting with a different specie of animals and the conversation kept my interest throughout the run.  Another favorite was an adventurous young Australian lady, traveling alone and independently of any tour company, who had previously climbed Mount Everest.

Perhaps the saddest was a young lady who was taking a half-hour (Swing Dog) tour on New Year's Day. Riding with her husband in the sled she was trying her very best to have a good time, but the fun ended when she vomited up her breakfast only half-way through the tour. In broken English the embarrassed young lady explained "I had too much to drink last night."

Contracting to Just Short of Magic, which has earned many achievement awards in the local business community and tripadvisor.com's certificate of excellence, was truly an honor. I got to run and learn from some very experienced touring and racing mushers and can honestly say I was mushing dogs with some of the best dog people on earth. There was a lot of hard work involved but the pay was good and the company was even better. It's something I'll be delighted to do in the future.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Dog House Project

 Replacing Dog Houses

 Every dog in the kennel has his or her own house to provide protection from inclement weather. They are simple structures, but important for the health and well being of the dogs. Over the years our dog houses have taken a beating, and it reached a point where we were performing so many repairs to the houses that it made more sense to just replace them.

 An 'extra' week at work netted enough money to replace nearly all the dog houses in the kennel. The design we use is popular among dog mushers. Most of our dogs spend more time on top of their houses rather than in them, so the flat roof gives them a surface where they lie in the sun or sit and look over their realm. They are large enough for the dog to fit, but small enough to retain body heat. The door is off set to one side to provide better protection from wind. A deep threshold makes it easier to contain a thick bed of straw in each house, and the frame around the door help prevents chewing and wear and tear from chains dragging in and out as the dog goes about his or her daily business.

It's a simple and straightforward design, basically a rectangular box on legs. Each house requires only a single sheet of plywood, a ten foot 2 X 4, two eight foot 2X2s and about half a pound of #8 inch and a half rock screws.

The first step of the project was acquiring materials, which of course necessitated a trip to town.

Enough material for 20 dog houses

The second step was to measure, mark, and cut out the panels needed to construct the houses and to build a prototype. In doing so I learned the legs called for in the plan I was using were two short, only 27 inches. By making the legs 32" the house sits higher reducing the amount of snow that can blow or be dragged into the door. Much of the rest of the day was spent cutting out the panels. I just stacked them in in rows, with the parts organized based on the order of assembly. It took me most of a day to cut the panels from all 20 sheets of plywood.

Plywood panels stacked in order of assembly

The third step was to cut out all the small parts needed. Each house needs 4 legs, 32 inches long. It needs furring strips cut for all 8 edges and all 4 edges of the roof. Even though I was using a chop saw I was surprised that it took me about 5 hours to cut and stack the small parts. Again, I stacked them in the order of assembly to keep things reasonably well organized.

Legs and nailing strips were chopped and then stacked in the order of assembly

The actual assembly of the houses was the most time consuming part of the job. It was a step by step process, with each dog house requiring about an hour to assemble.

1 - Cut out the hole for the door. I used a combination of a circular saw and a jig saw to do that.

2 - Screw the door frame into place.

3 - Flip over the front piece and screw two legs into place.

4 - Screw two furring strips onto the top and bottom edges of the front panel.

5 - Screw two legs into place on the back panel.

6 - Screw two furring strips onto the top and bottom edges of the back panel.

7 - Screw the two end panels onto the back panel.

8 - Screw the front panel onto the end panels.

9 - Screw furring strips onto the top and bottom of the end panels.

10 - Cut out the corners of the floor to clear the 2 X 4 legs, and drop the floor into the box. (Don't fasten it down, it needs to be removable for seasonal cleaning.)

11 - Screw furring strips onto all four edges of the roof.

12 - Screw the roof to the top edges of the house.

Assembled houses stacked under cover, awaiting paint.

The final step is to paint each house. I used non-toxic latex exterior house paint left over from earlier projects. We had just enough leftover paint to cover all 20 of the new houses. The cobalt blue was from the dog trailer project two years ago, and the lighter blue from repainting the trim of our house earlier this summer.

Painted houses lined up while the paint dried.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Winter Review

It was not the best winter for me, nor the worst. Mostly it seems like I was very busy all winter long, but accomplished much less than I had hoped.

Fall training was interrupted by the higher priorities of raising a healthy litter of puppies and ensuring those we didn't keep for ourselves made it safely to their wonderful new homes. That was our highest priority, and I believe we achieved it. When coupled with mandatory work-related training for me, however, it meant less time available to focus on teams and trails.

The early snow of October seemed to promise a great winter of dog mushing, but that didn't really pan out. It wasn't until December that I felt comfortable running the dogs with sleds and even then the trails were rough and difficult. Subsequent snowfalls were rare - though heavy enough to ensure trails were passable.

In any event, our mushing season consisted of short runs in which we focused on leader training. While they were effective from a behavior training standpoint, they weren't sufficient to build the strength and stamina necessary for cross-country travel. Though there were only a couple of serious cold snaps this past winter, it seems they hit at exactly the wrong times, further preventing additional training for the dogs.

Now, when I finally do have more time to focus on the dogs, the weather has thrown a different monkey wrench into the works, with record breaking high temperatures resulting in more poor trail conditions.

For practical (dog driving) purposes, winter is pretty much done. The snow is melting down, the temperatures too high to safely run the dogs, yet still too much snow to accomplish outdoor tasks around the house. Overall, the best term to describe our winter seems to be "frustrating."

However, that is the past. It's now time for me to look forward to summer projects, complete as much of my work related training as I can now, so I can reserve more time in the fall to focus on the dogs and our mushing goals. Perhaps with better planning I can do a better job next season.

My friend Mike Green often said that "Work is the curse of the leisure class." I appreciate his sentiment. Still and all, if I set my mind to it I can surely come up with better ways to adapt, improvise and overcome in order to do a better job for my dogs and kennel.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Looking Forward to the I'Rod

The Iditarod is coming. The restart is coming to Fairbanks, but I'm at work and will nonetheless have to follow the race like most folks, through media accounts, news releases and features offered on the Iditarod web site, and of course the expensive GPS tracker.

Lack of snow in the Southcentral Region of the State has made for difficult training conditions, and more particularly, virtually no snow at all on the trail north of the Alaska Range has forced the race committee to move the this year's restart from Willow to Fairbanks. This means the race will be run primarily over the Tanana and Yukon Rivers to Galena, then job North to Huslia and then back south to the village of Koyukuk. This will provide a total mileage of 968 as opposed to the normal "southern route" mileage of 987.

2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Map

That's plenty of miles, but this year's route doesn't include the steepest and roughest terrain for which the Iditarod is noted. I think that could have a serious impact on the final results of this year's race.

The last time the Iditarod started in Fairbanks, Norwegian musher Robert Sorlie became the first non-North American resident to win the race. Sorlie's style of dogs and style of running proved very effective over the relatively level terrain and warm temperatures. Like Sorlie, Martin Buser has very 'houndy' dogs that love to run fast between camps and checkpoints but don't seem to fare so well in rough terrain or colder weather. The route change may give Martin and/or his son Rohn an edge this year. Martin placed 4th in 2003.

Jeff King placed 3rd that year, so it's evident that his team back then had no problem traveling over the river route. Jeff was forced to scratch at Pelly Crossing in this year's Yukon Quest. He had traveled as far as Stepping Stone, but then returned to Pelly where he explained he was concerned with the amount of dog food needed to mush his team onward to Dawson City. While that might seem a good reason to suspect he may have issues in the Iditarod, let's remember that the temperatures during that part of the Quest were brutally cold. His dogs needed even more than their typically high caloric intake to deal with the temperatures while running. His dogs may be high maintenance, but on easier terrain in warmer temperatures I doubt his Quest scratch is particularly informative. As they say in TV commercials, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance. I think Jeff could be a contender this year.

Like Jeff King, Ray Redington Jr. also scratched in the Yukon Quest, pulling the plug at Dawson. With only 7 dogs on the line, and some of those looking stiff and sore, he felt it best for the welfare of his team. His dogs may also fare better on the river than over rough terrain.

Ken Anderson took 5th place in 2003. He's been below the radar thus far this year, I haven't seen nor read much about his training season. I can't really venture an educated prediction, but I wouldn't rule him out as a contender.

Mostly I want to consider the teams that have just finished the Yukon Quest. Brent Sass' 'Wild and Free' team came into the Quest finish strong. Strong enough to change a 2 minute deficit into an hour and 10 minute advantage over only 74 miles. I was honored to check the first two teams into the Two Rivers Checkpoint, and both Allen Moore (leading at the time) and Brent Sass had teams of dogs that were lively and running strong. I really couldn't have called the race at that point.

However, by the time the two teams passed in front of the Pleasant Valley Store it was evident that Brent's dogs were more focused and running faster than were Allen's. That's important because Allen's wife, Aliy Zirkle, will be running some of those same dogs in her Iditarod bid. She's been a strong contender the past few years, but unfortunately some have taken to referring their SPKennel as "Second Place Kennel".

Brent's teams always seem to perform best in rough conditions, be it tough terrain or tough weather. Their reputation was bolstered this year in the Quest. While the brutal cold encountered during the first half of the race took a toll on other teams, Brent and his dogs came through like gangbusters, earning Brent more than a 6 hour lead by Dawson City which he extended to 9 1/2 hours by Circle City. Unfortunately he lost most of that lead by oversleeping in a camp on Birch Creek just before the checkpoint at Central and he lost the rest of it while resting at Mile 101.

The fact is, Brent Sass proved he has a faster dog team than does the SPKennel during the Quest. Now the question is whether he can out-think Aliy in the Iditarod. While winning both races back-to-back in the same year is rare, Lance Mackey has proven it can be done and Brent Sass is every bit the dog man as Lance.

Aliy and Allen may be the most famous couple in long-distance sled dog racing, but they aren't the only couple to share a passion for the sport. Third place Quest finisher Ed Hopkins is partner's with Michelle Phillips, who has signed up for the Last Great Race. Though she has yet to break into the Top-10 in the Iditarod she will be mushing a team of proven performers on a trail that is unfamiliar to nearly everyone in the race. It should be interesting to watch how she and her team perform.

Quest musher Damon Alexander Tedford won Rookie of the Year, finishing with a team of 12 dogs from the kennel of Mitch Seavey. Tedford described his team as Mitch's "B-team" in several interviews. If those are his "B-team" dogs we can expect a strong showing from the stars in his kennel. I haven't heard much about last year's champion, Dallas Seavey, this season. He's been busy playing TV reality star but his training and team have been flying under the radar. I suspect he and is dogs will be 100% prepared and he will definitely be a player in this year's race.

I think that if Hugh Neff can exercise some discipline he could also be a force to consider in the Iditarod. His performance in the Quest wasn't particularly impressive this year, but he already admitted it was his own fault, for pushing his team too hard early in the race. Hugh likes being up front, and it's not uncommon for him to push hard early - sometimes to his chagrin. The thing is, I doubt he will make the same mistake twice in the same year. Although he only had 7 dogs on his gangline between Circle City and Fairbanks, he was able to coax them over Eagle Summit and finish the race in a respectable 5th place.

Training conditions have been even tougher for coastal mushers than for those in the Southcentral region, and I really don't have much information on which to assess the teams of mushers such as John Baker, Richie Diehl or others living and training in the more remote regions of the State.

The fact is, there are just too many things I don't know to make predict who will thrive and who will dive during this year's Iditarod. By my estimate, any one of at least 25 experienced mushers could win, and we aren't going to know who it is until the nose of the first lead dog crosses the line beneath the burled arch in Nome.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Memoirs of 2014

The past three months have been a real whirlwind, and I apologize for not keeping my blog up to date. There just isn't time for me to do everything I'd like to do, and sometimes updating the blog ends up toward the bottom of a never-ending "to do" list.

So, to catch up, I'm going to start and end and work my way back to the beginning. Since I last wrote my life at work has been focused on work, and my life at home has been focused on puppies and some more work.

Fall and early winter sled dog training has been a real 'bust' this year. The wet summer persisted into September and resulted in a lot of erosion and damage to the trails. Combined with my work related travel obligations, we just weren't able to run the dogs as often as we should. By the time my schedule settled down it was already late in the season. The result is that our dogs are very much under-trained for this time of year. I'm hopeful that we can remedy that situation between now and the end of the winter.

The puppies are, of course, the highlight of the fall and early winter. Chetan proved to be a wonderful mother, and all six of her babies have thrived. We got our first 'sticking' snowfall of the season just days after they were whelped, so these snow dogs have never yet seen ground that wasn't covered in snow. Today, at 12 1/2 weeks, they are HIGHLY mobile and all are responsive to humans as well as to other dogs. Trish and I are keeping 3 of them here at the Stardancer Kennel.

Because the puppies are the result of an artificial breeding using frozen semen, in other words are 'pupsickles', we decided to name them on an ice related theme. The three we are keeping will retain their puppy names probably for the rest of their lives.

Aufeis is our female from the litter. From the day they were born she was the largest female, and second in size only to "Jumble", who is now known as "Griffin" and growing up in a mushing kennel in Minnesota. Aufeis has always been the boldest of the puppies. She was first to explore the world outside her whelping house, first to explore the world outside her pen, and remains the boldest today. Just two days ago she figured out how to climb over the low fence that separates the puppy play area from the main dog yard, to go romping about with the big dogs. She's a bit of a handful but I think she has promise as a great leader if we can focus that curiosity and bold attitude toward the job of a sled dog.

Aufeis, learning how to "run the ramp" to load up in the truck.
Glacier was the 2nd largest puppy of the litter. His eyes sometimes appear blue and sometimes green and his reddish buff colored coat is striking. He is the puppy most attuned to humans, sometimes preferring the company of people to that of other dogs. He's almost as bold as his sister and every bit as cute.

Glacier has striking eyes, sometimes blue and sometimes green.

Hardpack was originally selected to go to a local touring kennel, but life changes for that operation resulted in a change of plan. Trish and I have decided to keep him with us rather than search for a different home. He was born with a classic Hedlund Husky gray coat, but today his undercoat hides that silverish gray underfur. He is less bold than his littermates, more of a thinker than hell raiser. Once he joins the party he's all about being in the middle of the fray. He's a quick study and may prove to be relatively easily trained.

Hardpack showing his "happy face"
Of the other 3, Frazil (now Tonrar) is now enjoying the life of a very active pet near Minneapolis, looking forward to a long career as a skijoring pet, and 2 are home with Phoenix's owner at the Points Unkown kennel near Hovland, Minnesota.

Trish and I personally delivered Terra (Nilas) and Griffin (Jumble) to Linda Newman, the owner of Points Unknown, in November. It was our first opportunity to travel together, and we had a wonderful time not only getting to know Linda, her handler, and the dogs that have played such a huge role in the development of our kennel, but also exploring the surrounding area.

Linda lives only a few miles from Grand Portage National Park, which played a huge role in the historical Northwestern fur-trade. We had an opportunity to meet up with Karl Koster, who works at Grand Portage as an historical interpreter. Essentially we got the up-close personally guided tour of a historical site that I've long wanted to visit.

A big portion of my October R&R was spent in annual paramedic training. This year's version included the alphabet soup of courses I've described in the past on this blog. ACLS (advanced cardiac life support), BLS (basic life support) - pretty much the full meal deal.

Now that we've gotten caught up on the news, we can consider the rest of the year. Simply put, summer just wasn't summer. It was one of the wettest and coldest summers on record up here, which put a damper on a lot of plans and projects. The only major project I accomplished was the new chicken house, which seems to be working out well for us.

Dog yard maintenance was a nightmare this year. During the rare moments when the yard wasn't a sea of mud and muck, I was unable to acquire fill dirt to fill in the holes that sled dogs can't resist digging. Our local quarry operator essentially went out of business and created some legal problems that will likely result in long-term incarceration. The tractor got good use recovering as much of the packed earth as we could and repositioning it as best we could, but I was never really happy with the result.

Spring was a lot of fun, especially during Veryl Goodnight's visit and of course the races were very exciting to follow.

Probably the most important event of 2014 was work related. In January I transferred from site I had worked at for nearly 20 years to a new workplace, north of the Brooks Range. Learning a new job that is more active than the old one has been challenging, and generally a lot of fun. While my old position had me sequestered in a guard shack 12 hours each day, the new one sees me out on patrol keeping an eye on about 60 miles of pipeline and the infamous Haul Road, the Dalton Highway of television fame.

Like most years, 2014 was a mixed bag of the good with the less good. I can't use the word "bad" in that sentence at all. We've faced some challenges but so far we've been able to overcome them. I won't even venture a guess as to what 2015 might hold in store. All I can say with certainty is that I am looking forward to seeing whatever may come our way next.

This brings us back to the present moment. As I alluded to earlier, lack of sufficient snow has made it difficult to train sled dogs, not only our own team, but racing mushers in the area as well. As often occurs, many mushers have been trucking their teams to distant trails in order to prepare for races.

Some races, such as our own Two Rivers Solstice 100 / 50 have been postponed in hopes of more snow and better trail conditions. In our local case, the result was better trails for the race that is scheduled for this coming week-ened. Also coming up this weekend is the Gin-Gin 200. This will be our first opportunities to see which teams are most likely to be competitive in the more famous long-distance races later in the winter.

Arguably the most important of the early season mid distance races is the Copper Basin 300, scheduled to start on January 10th. All 50 places in the maximum field are filled, with 12 other teams on a waiting list, hoping someone else will withdraw to give them a chance to compete. Notable teams signed up for the CB-300 include Paige Drobny and Cody Strathe (Squid Acres Kennel), Matt Hall (Smokin' Ace Kennels here in Two Rivers), Ray Redington Jr (Redington kennels), Sebastian Schnuelle (who apparently hasn't retired after all), Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore (SP Kennels).

Perhaps the most exciting news I've heard the past few weeks is that Lance Mackey has signed up to run the 2015 Yukon Quest, which will start February 7th in Whitehorse, YT.  This marks another comeback for Lance's Come Back Kennel, which has not fared well the past few seasons. There are currently 28 mushers signed up for the Quest, including previous champions Allen Moore, Hugh Neff and Jeff King. Brent Sass, who was literally knocked out of the running in last year's race due to a head injury, is also signed up for the race.

So, exciting times are certainly coming on the long-distance race circuit and I'm sure they will offer plenty of stories worth hearing for years to come.