Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mission(s) Accomplished

Spring is a season of great change in Alaska, and this year is not an exception. In just a couple of days Trish and I have made changes that represent an improvement at least in our financial status, which frankly sometimes seems pretty grim.

During the coldest part of winter, the heater in the little Toyota RAV4 that Trish and I used as our 'daily driver' went out. When we took it to the shop it was the learn that the problem had little to do with the heater, but rather the head gasket on the little 4-cylinder engine was cracked, and the price to repair the rig was well over $2,000.00. Since the value of the 2002 model car was only about $4,000.00, I decided it would be smarter to find another rig (a "beater with a heater") than invest the money into the Toyota.

That left us only the dog truck for day-to-day transportation. It's a GREAT dog truck, but with the price of diesel fuel being what it is up here (outrageous), it is expensive to drive. With the dog box on back it isn't particularly versatile, either. It's designed to transport dogs, not groceries, a ton of dog food at one time, or even haul garbage to the dumpster. The bottom line is that we needed to replace the Toyota RAV4 with another, more versatile rig.

The replacement rig had to meet several criteria. It had to be spacious with enclosed cargo space for hauling dogs, bales of straw, bags of dog food, and Trish's wares when she is selling at the Farmer's Market or other venues in town. It had to have four-wheel driver (or all wheel drive), because the Alaska Department of Transportation would work in neighborhoods populated by influential politicians and wealthy homeowners than Chena Hot Springs Road, which services working class people and dog mushers.  Of course, it also had to be in sound mechanical condition and most importantly, it had to be CHEAP.

I found an older GMC Suburban that, though ugly as sin and most goD-awful shade of orange paint you ever saw, met those criteria. It's a 1994 model, updated with a newer power plant. The body is rough, but it's mechanically sound with new brakes, a new windshield, and lots of newly upgraded engine parts. I spent $2,000.00 to buy the rig and another $500.00 to put new tires under it, and Trish drove it home yesterday.

The next step was to remove the Toyota from the property so it doesn't become another junker in the yard, and send it off to it's next life. I contemplated selling it to a salvage yard, but those I called wanted me to give it away for next than nothing. Since the car was in great shape other than that damned head gasket, I advertised it for sale in that same classified ad web site. Three hours later an aircraft mechanic who spends his spare time buying, repairing and reselling older Toyotas handed me $1500.00 and with a big jug of water in the back, in case he needed to top off the cooling system, drove the car away.

So, by the end of the day I had accomplished the mission. We now have an ugly beater with a heater that should meet our needs nicely for a couple of years. We got rid of a car we couldn't rely on, and the total cost to us was only $1,000.00 when subtracting the money I got for the little motorized roller-skate car.

Some more good news. A long-time friend of mine who moved to the Lower-48 a few years ago is returning, and planning to rent Trish's place. He texted me from Tok this morning and expects to be in Two Rivers before noon, today. I haven't seen the guy in a LONG time. He's good people and I'm very much looking forward to visiting with him again.

We are enjoying thawing temperatures during the day, but of course it's refreezing at night. That creates some challenges in the dog yard as well as the rest of the place. It also prompts me to be thinking about summer projects that need to be accomplished, yet there is still too much snow and the ground too solidly frozen to actually begin them. I can start some of the prep work, though. I think I'll find enough to keep myself busy during this April R&R.

Monday, March 24, 2014

More March Madness

Profile of 7-dog at work by Veryl Goodnight

Holy smokes, but the last couple of weeks have been very busy around here.  With Trish preparing for her racing debut at the Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association's Valley Funale, and all the other dogs needing to run as well, we've been enjoying March weather out on the trails.

March is my favorite winter month up here. The days are getting longer, day-time temperatures are very pleasant, and clear sky is the most common March conditions. Of course the down side is that we are starting the earliest stages of the spring thaw, leading up to the dramatic meltdown of break-up.

A real highlight has been a visit of fine-artist Veryl Goodnight. Veryl is a sculptress and painter, best known for her works depicting the American frontier west. One of her most well-known and most frequently viewed sculptures is "The Day the Wall Came Down". The monument's composition is five horses, one stallion and four mares, running through the rubble of the collapsed Berlin Wall. One casting was placed in a reunited and free Berlin on July 2, 1998. Delivered by the U. S. Air Force on the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, installed by the German Army, and unveiled by former U. S. President George Bush. The sculpture is a gift of friendship from the American people to the people of Germany. The second or "American" casting is permanently displayed in the central courtyard of the George Bush Presidential Library, adjacent to the campus of Texas A&M University. This second casting was first placed on loan to the state of Georgia for the 1996 Olympic Games and then moved to the new Presidential Library when it opened in the fall of 1997.

You can read the rest of the story behind this amazing work of art by click HERE.

Veryl Goodnight and her monumental sculpture at the Allied Museum, Berlin

 Lately her interest has turned northward and depicting the inter species relationships between dogs and dog mushers. On Sunday I dressed in my most authentic historical clothing and we headed toward one of my favorite mushing locations for a photo shoot. Veryl captured many wonderful images, and I thought it would be fun to share a few here.

With the exception of modern harnesses on some of the team, the images are a fair depiction of a traveling dog team in Alaska between the time of the purchase from Russia through the Klondike Gold Rush.

Cassie in single lead and a rare head-on view of some of our most historically authentic dogs - photo by Veryl Goodnight

Cassie, leading Denali and Capells (swing), Orion & Midnight's Son (team) and Rose & Nels in wheel - photo by Veryl Goodnight

Cassie and I watching the action out on the pond - by Veryl Goodnight

Trish giving the second team a workout. Amazing Grace and Maggie in lead, Selene and Just in team, Seamus and Beau in wheel - by Veryl Goodnight
Amazing Grace enjoying a free-romp through the snow - by Veryl Goodnight

Crusty old-fart heading toward the house - by Veryl Goodnight

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rookie Race Nearly as Exciting as the Winning Finish

The race within a Iditarod race, for the title of Rookie of the Year was a really good one, almost like a movie plot. Nathan Schroeder wearing bib 25 started out ahead of Abbie West as she was wearing bib 69. On the run to Rainy Pass, West overtook Schroeder. When the start times were adjusted during the twenty-four hour layover, Abbie gained an hour and twenty-six minutes on Schroeder although she’d already moved ahead of him.  Nathan Arrived at White Mountain six minutes ahead of West. After the mandatory 8-hour rest they departed with the same margin. West checked into Safety 1 minute ahead of Schroeder but they departed at the same time. Somewhere on the trail, Abbie dropped her bib. Nathan tried to retrieve it but missed. He shouted at West and she was able to return to recover the wayward bib. Nathan took the lead and maintained it to the finish line. 

I have a dog from Abbie's kennel in my team, and he's quite an interesting fellow. When I was first considering bringing him in, Abbie described him as "a big, goofy black dog". She was rehoming him only because he had outgrown his litter mates and his longer stride disrupted the teams rhythm out on the trail. Jay Cadzow, Abby's kennel partner and friend, is an Alaskan Native musher from Fort Yukon who has been maintaining his families old line of "river dogs" all his life. when I asked his assessment of Aumaruq he simply shrugged and said "he runs fast and pulls hard." Both were spot-on in their descriptions.

At this point of the big race, the puppy drivers are starting to stream into Nome, giving us a look at tomorrow's superstars. These mushers are generally handlers or family members of competitive mushers, running teams consisting primarily of yearling and two year olds. The puppy driver's job is to get as many of the young dogs as possible over the length of the trail while giving them a positive racing experience. Allen Moore, Aliy's husband and partner in all things, was the first that I can clearly identify as a puppy driver to come into Nome, with 12 happily grinning, tail-wagging pups on his gangline. Only 1 musher to arrive thus far had a larger team on the gang-line. That was Peter Kaiser of Bethel, AK.

I'd like to share something I've noticed during this year's race that I've either overlooked or just hasn't been so common in past years. Several of the teams that have performed well have been led with a single lead dog, rather than a pair. Running single leaders was common up until the 1960s or '70s, when mushers started putting a second leader up front, usually to obtain the additional pulling power than one more dog in the team offers.

Two mushers with single leaders really stand out in my mind. Aliy Zirkle ran her marvelous microhusky leader Quito in single lead much of the race, and particularly during the bad blow on the coast. Allen also ran Quito in single lead through most of his victorious Yukon Quest run and he loves to quip that "There ain't no 'quit' in Quito." Quito is just a wee little thing, but it isn't the size of the dog in the race that matters nearly so much as the size of the race in the dog.

Wade Marrs, now a 3-time finisher who broke into the 'Top-20' this year and is in contention for the Most Improved Musher award ran his dog Puma in single lead, and crossed the finish line in 16th place, ahead of Abby and Nathan. Puma also faced the blow alone at the head of the team.

Conventional wisdom is that lead dogs gain confidence from each other when paired. I agree that in many cases they do. On the other hand, I believe that they display that confidence, sometimes to an astonishing degree, when given the opportunity to work alone, without the interference of another dog at their sides. I think the old time dog mushers had a reason for running single leaders, and it's being rediscovered by some of us today.

Over the past couple of months I've given each my three 'born Stardancer' (from the only breeding I've done thus far) opportunities to run in single lead and I've been impressed by all three of them. Cassiopeia had her first opportunity during one of those days when I ran several teams, and was simply running out of qualified gee/haw leaders. I decided to try her in single lead to see what might happen, and she gave me a nice, solid run in front of a small (5-dog) team. Capella got her chance one day when I was running a tour for our friend down the road. Cassie was planned to run beside her, but during hook-up Cassie slipped her collar and then her harness. Rather than spend time trying to get her redressed and hooked back up I elected to run 'Pella alone to get the darned outfit moving. Her performance that day, in front of a big team with two tourists in the sled, was eye-popping.

Yesterday Orion had his chance, leading in a 7 dog team trying to stay ahead of Trish's potential 6-dog race team. Holy Smokes - he knew exactly what he and his team mates needed to do the run. He launched well under control, which is in itself remarkable as he's an outrageously exuberant dog during hook up and launch (and hard to handle due to his sheer excitement). He picked up the pace at the right time, when muscles are warmed and everyone is ready to expend some excited energy, and then he slowed to a nice working pace at the right time, before all that extra energy is wasted in a burst of unnecessary speed. He hit every single direction cue spot-on and gave us one of those runs we remember - the kind that reminds us of why we do this stuff.

Since my own goal is the accurately demonstrate historical mushing practices between the years 1763 and 1963, the ability to run single leaders in front of sizeable teams is important, and I feel that we've reached a milestone toward that ultimate goal. Like Aliy and Wade and several other mushers who relied on a single dog to guide their teams, I think we've rediscovered something those old timers either learned or just intuitively knew. 

Trish and I both had a rough night last night. Damned leg-cramps. We both spent a lot of time trying to ease the cramps and chugging tonic water (quinine in tonic water is helpful for leg cramps) and grabbing sleep in fits and starts. The dogs are going to be fed late and I don't know if I'll run a team today while Trish is at work or not. All of the dogs save 4 have had good training runs two days in a row. I really should give Just, Chetan, Selene and Friday a run today. I'll just have to see how the day progresses. A nap might be a smarter idea.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Out on the Trails, Here and There

Yesterday I ran three small teams short miles over the hills to help the dogs settle their brains a bit. Trish and I are going to working them considerably harder through the remainder of my R&R but I'm hoping their short runs yesterday will help them contain their emotions during hook-up for our longer excursions.

Beau, an older dog (we don't know exactly how old) suffered a shoulder injury yesterday, so he's out of the line-up for a while, maybe even the rest of the season. We'll just have to monitor him and see how he does over the next few days.

Everyone else fared well. It looks like the "puppy" Friday is finally figuring out that he doesn't have to do all the work singlehandedly. He's learning how to run as a team member rather than working himself to exhaustion early in a run. It took Orion a long time to figure that out so I'm pleased to see it in the young one.

Capella is proving herself a capable albeit slow single leader, guiding a team of only 5 dogs confidently around the loop we chose for yesterday. she is probably the best gee/haw leader in the yard, though Cassie is a close second.

Yearling Thowra is learning to contain himself during hook-up. Since he's such a large dog that calmer behavior is greatly appreciated. I'm hoping that as he matures Aumaruq will also learn to mellow out a bit before we launch. That may be asking a lot - Orion is still a wild child at hook up, and he's no puppy by any means.

Out on the Iditarod trail, mushers are continuing to trickle in to Nome. I was surprised to see that Hugh Neff ended up scratching when his team stalled in the high winds outside of Golovin. Jeff King and Hugh Neff's team demonstrate once again that dogs always have the option of just saying "no".

This morning we have another close race happening out on the Iditarod Trail. Abbie West is in head to head competition against Nathan Schroeder for the Rookie of the Year title, and placement in the Top-20. The top rookie title is important for lending credibility to an up and coming musher seeking sponsorships, as is that Top-20 placement. As I write Shroeder's team has a slight edge over Abbie's, only a few feet really, and they are only about 6 miles from First Avenue in Nome. Everyone loves a photo finish and it looks like Abbie and Nathan may provide one.

Both contending rookies are well ahead of former champion John Baker. Beating Baker up the coast is worth some bragging rights when seeking financial assistance, too. Abbie could certainly use some of that sponsorship help. This year she had to skip running in her beloved Quest in order to afford to race in the Iditarod.

Mike Ellis, the only purebred Siberian musher left in the race, is resting his dogs way the heck back in Koyuk looks good for a 40th place finish. It's too early to tell if Blake Freckings record for the fastest run by a pure-bred team is in danger. Karen Ramstead was withdrawn by race officials in order to tend to a badly damaged hand, and Lev Schvarts scratched after his sled was destroyed on the Farewell Burn. This has really been a tough year for the Slowberians.

Hell, it's been a rough year for EVERYONE. Top-notch mushers and their teams have been battered into submission. This one is a year for the record books in every possible way.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I do NOT belive this!!!

I do NOT believe this!!!!

When I knew that Aliy Zirkle had checked in and out of the Safety Point checkpoint I was so confident that my friend and mentor was going to win the race that I smiled smugly and then tucked myself into bed for a few hours sleep. I was astounded, flabbergasted, totally blown away when I read the headline on our local newspaper website proclaiming "Seavey wins mad dash to Nome; Zirkle only minutes behind".
 I couldn't believe it. I thought it had to be some sort of cruel joke until I looked at the Iditarod site to confirm it. I'm still having trouble understanding and accepting the fact that Dallas Seavey, with only 7 dogs left on his gangline, beat Aliy Zirkle with her big string of 10 dogs lead by superdog Quito running in a single lead position, by less than 3 minutes.

How did that happen? Well, Mother Nature decided to step in and change the outcome of the race much as she did back in 1985 when Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod. Libby won when a storm forced the front-runners to stop and seek shelter. She kept mushing through those nearly impossible conditions to claim the prize. This year it was Dallas Seavey, who didn't even realize he was doing so, who kept marching through the blizzard to unknowingly claim his victory.

When I checked the weather forecast for the coastal region yesterday, the forecast included a brisk wind advisory, calling for winds in the range of 30 mph and a wind-chill of minus-35 F (-37C). The gaps along the hills just off the coast sometimes funnel those winds through "blow holes" that blast across the sea ice at incredible velocity. Apparently the weather service underestimated the amount of wind the region would see.

Jeff King, with nearly an hour head start, was mushing along the coast, perhaps oblivious to the opened carabiner that could have cost him his team, when a gust of wind blew him and his team completely off the trail and into a pile-up of drift wood. In the blowing snow he couldn't begin to see the trail, and when he finally got the dogs untangled from the driftwood they refused to go forward. They just quit. He was eventually able to flag down a passing snowmachine to get word to the village, officially scratch from the race, and get some help to move his dogs to shelter at Safety Point.
Image captured by Sebastian Schnuelle show open gate on carabiner attaching gang line to sled as Jeff King leaves White Mountain.

Meanwhile, Aliy never even saw Jeff or his team as she passed by the scene of King's catastrophe. She and her team marched past and into Safety. With the horrendous weather, Aliy decided to hole up at the checkpoint and wait out the storm. Two hours later Dallas came straggling in. Seavey, who believed he was racing for third, said he decided to go through the storm to give his still young dogs a good learning experience. He signed in and then out, without knowing that Jeff had scratched and Aliy was in town. With no power in town due to the storm, he couldn't see her team in the checkpoint.

 It took Aliy nearly 20 minutes to prepare her team to give chase, putting them into insulated dog coats, booties and so forth. Although she gained ground on Dallas throughout the 22 mile run, it wasn't enough to overtake him and his abbreviated team.

Here is how one reporter described Seavey's finish.

Seavey, 26, jogged beside his sled down Nome's Front Street to help his dogs, one hand on the sled and the other on a ski pole.

After crossing the finish line he sat down on the back of his sled and leaned his head on his handlebar, exhausted.

"How did you do it?" an Iditarod Insider videographer asked.

"What'd I do?"

"You just won the Iditarod."

"What? I thought that was my dad behind me. Where's Jeff and Aliy?"

Read more here: ... rylink=cpy

As I write, Dallas' father, Mitch Seavey, is just a few miles out of Nome heading for a third-place finish. All of the other front-runners are still in White Mountain. Instead of waiting out their mandatory layovers they are wisely waiting out the stormy weather that has had such a dramatic impact on the finish of this year's race.

Even having read the news accounts, perused the Iditarod website for information and insights on how the race literally unfolded, all I can say is I STILL do NOT believe this!!!!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Setting Up for a Dash for the Cash

I feel like I've been racing hither and tither the past few days - mostly because I have been. Trish and I went to the Chatanika Challenge 200 finish banquet last night and afterward still had our own kennel chores to complete before we could call it the end of the day. That's when I posted the last update. While I've felt like I've been going nonstop, and the Iditarod racers have certainly been going nonstop, and for considerably longer than I.

This morning Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle still racing very closely. Jeff is holding on to his lead and is now about 20 miles outside the checkpoint of White Mountain, where he can give his dogs a solid, mandatory 8 hours of rest. Aliy Zirkle is still just two miles behind, keeping up the pressure. Only 7 miles behind Aliy, and charging along at nearly 10 mph, Dallas Seavey has overtaken some of the best teams in the world and is giving chase. Though he has only 8 dogs, one of the smallest teams in the front, it's obviously the right 8 dogs.

11 miles behind Dallas, the 'Buser Bullets' have clearly lost their high velocity punch. Martin's team is slogging along at only 5 mph. He still has 12 dogs on the gangline, but one can only go as fast as one's slowest dogs and at this point that would apparently include every animal on his team. Only 2 miles behind Martin Mitch Seavey is also moving up in the standings, traveling along at 7 mph and almost certain to pass Martin between here and the checkpoint at White Mountain. Mitch is followed by Sonny Lindner, who has also slowed considerably.

These musher's closest rivals are still 18 miles out of Elim. Joar Liefseth Ulsom and Aaron Burmeister are traveling closely together, and for practical purposes can be considered non-players for the championship unless something truly catastrophic happens on the trail ahead of them.

While I'm preparing to head into town for my annual physical exam, I'm kind of glad that the leaders will be taking their mandatory time in White Mountain. Otherwise I'd be so involved with trying to update the race on my stupid little 'smart' phone I'd have no time to focus on Dr. Kohnen's sage advice nor the other errands I intend to accomplish during my trip to Fairbanks. Heck, I might even be able to get some housekeeping done this afternoon. It's hard to run the vacuum cleaner while trying to reach over and hit the "refresh" button on the computer.

I'm predicting that once the teams leave White Mountain, fresh and well rested after a long break, that we will see a three-way, head to head dash for the cash. I couldn't possibly predict which of the three mushers will ultimately prevail. Each teams has their own strengths and weaknesses. Young and incredibly fit and with a relatively small and therefore more easily managed team, Dallas Seavey in famous for his own personal athleticism, which lets him run beside his sled for hours at a time, reducing the load his dogs have to carry. Aliy is no slouch in the human athletic department, and it's something she and Allen Moore have made a high priority over the past couple of years. That amazon of a woman has a tremendous team of dogs, but they aren't the high speed sprinty types of dogs that are drawing Jeff King up the trail and Aliy herself is injured, having tweaked an ankle in an ice hole prior to Shaktoolik.

What Jeff lacks in personal physical conditioning, he more than makes up for in brain power and dog savvy. With 12 dogs on his gangline, I wouldn't be surprised at all if he were to drop as many as 4 of his slower dogs at White Mountain.

Equipment condition is also a factor at this point. These are not very good trails. I'd bet that all three of these mushers will be changing out the plastic "shoes" under their runners as the ones currently under the sleds have to be in pretty poor shape.

No matter how I look at it, I just can't give any one of these teams a strong advantage over the others. It truly is going to be a nail-biter all the way to the finish line.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Now THIS is an exciting dog race.

This has turned into a real nail-biter of a sled dog race. Aliy Zirkle led Jeff King into the checkpoint of Koyuk by only 1 minute. Then Jeff left Koyuk at 17:50, and Aliy at 17:51. Aliy is currently only 2 miles behind her rival. I'd bet you dollars against donuts that she's running with her headlamp off, letting Jeff lay down an easy scent trail for her dogs to follow and just keeping the pressure on. Jeff deals with pressure well, but he doesn't like to be pushed and will sometimes react by running harder than he originally planned. 

Martin Buser left Koyuk in 3rd place after giving his team 4 1/2 hours of rest. He posted the slowest run time to Koyuk, only 6.4 mph. My personal feeling is that the "Buser Bullets" have become the Buser BBs - I think his team has hit their limit and he will be struggling to just keep them moving for quite a while.

On the other hand, Dallas Seavey has been pouring on the speed, having made the run to Koyuk with an average speed of 8.2, faster than either Martin or Aliy. He then gave his team a 4 1/2 hour rest before hitting the trail again. I suspect he shed his Wiggy's mukluks (overboots) in favor of his running shoes, and he is one of few mushers who can actually help his team by running at their pace.

Sonny Lindner has fallen back into fourth place. With 13 dogs, he still has the largest team of any of the front-runners, and he doesn't rely so much on speed as he does on the endurance of his dogs and himself. He's still a threat and one to be reckoned with.

Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister and Joar Liefseth Ulsom are all into Koyuk and appear to be giving their dogs a long break.

All of the leading teams are on pace to break the race record. With a mandatory 8 hour layover coming up only two checkpoints ahead for the leaders, they can afford to run harder than they might otherwise do. They are definitely out there putting it all on the line.

As a historical note, Jeff King has some unhappy history with the checkpoint of Elim. A few years back he was catching a nap when Lance Mackey came in. Lance took off his gear, hung it to dry and generally acted like he was also going to settle in for a long wait. Then, while Jeff was snoring Lance redressed and snuck out of town, gaining just enough time to win the race. Jeff seemed to be pretty upset about it at the time, and still talks about it from time to time today. I suspect that Jeff was mostly upset because he didn't see it coming, he fell for the oldest trick in the play book, and he didn't think of it first.

One of our front-runners is out of the race. Nicholas Petit scratched from the race prior to reaching Unalakleet. According to an I'rod press release
Petit indicated to Race Officials that his team was fatigued and that he felt it was best that he call it a race and try again next year. Petit's team is being transported to Unalakleet by Iditarod volunteers.

Read more here: ... rylink=cpy

That statement is Iditarod "officialese" language that basically means Nick's dogs had enough and quit on him. When dogs don't want to run any more they just quit running. It really is that simple. Jeff King has had dogs quit in the race, heck, everyone who follows the race knows excellent mushers who have had teams just quit on them out on the trail.