Friday, August 10, 2018

Stupidity - It's Apparently Contagious

I used to believe that human stupidity is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder. It's been my admittedly casual and purely anecdotal observaton about one out of every 4 people is too damned stupid to survive to adulthood without the finely coordinated assistance of diligent parents, siblings and benevolent spiritual beings such as gods, godesses or at least an angel or two.

Recently, however, I've seen evidence that leads me to believe that the disease of stupidity is actually an infectious disease, most likely viral and rapidly approaching pandemic propoportions.

Here are just 2 examples that I noticed just today - and I'm at work, over 100 miles from the nearest thing resembling a collective human habitation.

First, from a story in the Anchorage Daily News we have the case of the rocket surgeon who decided it was a good idea to take a selfie with a half-dozen grizzly bears. Don't believe it? Well, here is videographic evidence.




Then there was the case I witnessed, and videographed, this afternoon. I was returning to my station from a patrol when I encountered a pickup truck parked on one side of the road, directly opposite 2 motorcycles on the other and leaving very little room for a semi to fly between. That's stupid enough on the Haul Road, but it gets even better.

As I approached, I saw five people all gathered around at the edge of the road, staring into the brush. I knew long before I saw that they were watching a pair of muskoxen, which were feeding only about 15 feet away. Now, standing around 15 feet away from a wild prey animal that survives by fending off grizzly bears and wolves is stupid enough, but it got even better.

When I stopped to talk to these brain scientists, ALL 5 OF THEM TURNED THEIR BACKS TO THE ANIMALS.

Don't believe it? Well, here is the video-taped evidence. I must apologize for the quality - my dash cam doesn't perform well in gloomy weather conditions, so I had to enhance exposure and brightness, and this is the best I could do with the equipment I have available.




Could it get any worse? Don't ask - these people seem to the question as a challenge.



Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Sled Dogs of the Early Canadian Fur Trade

This article originally appeared in Mushing magazine. I reserved electronic publication rights in order to share it here.


Sled Dogs of the Early Canadian Fur Trade
by Thom "Swanny" Swan

            There is good evidence to suggest that the first domestic dogs to enter North America did so while pulling sleds of some sort.  In the early 1990s archeologists unearthed an ancient hunters’ encampment on Zhokhov Island in the Novosibirk archipelago, and discovered the remnants of a dog harness, some dog sleds, and a very well preserved dog bone.  Radiocarbon analysis of the findings showed that their approximate age was 7,800-8,000 years.

            North America's historical 'Eskimos' (Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik, &c) have been driving sled dogs since the dawn of human memory yet there is no evidence to indicate that Native American or First Nations people, historically referred to as Indians, used dogs to draw sleds prior to the introduction of the European fur-trade.  While the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, historical Native American and First Nations dog driving equipment and methods were much more similar to those of Europeans rather than Eskimos, which contributes to a strong case.  Comparing observations recorded in the narrative journals of John Franklin's first overland expedition with those of his second expedition shows that the Dog Rib people of the Mackenzie River District did not start mushing sled dogs until some point between 1824 and 1826. 

            The best available evidence suggests that French colonists were the first to harness dogs to sleds in the boreal regions, combining types of harnesses and rigs that were well known in their homeland with the Native-invented toboggan.  Dog power was an important feature of daily life in Lower Canada from the 17th century.  In 1688-89 LaHontan observed sleds "drawn by great dogs" were in common use.

            Sled dogs became even more important to French colonists in the 18th century.  Peter Kalm wrote the most descriptive early 18th century account in 1749.   "In winter it is customary in Canada, for travellers to put dogs before little sledges, made on purpose to hold their cloathes, provisions, &c.  Poor people commonly employ them on their winter-journies, and go on foot themselves.  Almost all the wood, which the poorer people in this country fetch out of the woods in winter, is carried by dogs, which have therefore got the name of horses of the poor people.  They commonly place a pair of dogs before each load of wood.  I have, likewise seen some neat little sledges, for ladies to ride in, in winter; they are drawn by a pair of dogs, and go faster on a good road, than one would think.  A middle-sized dog is sufficient to draw a single person, when the roads are good."
  
             Once introduced, the practice of driving dogs caught on fast among Natives.  In order to trap enough fur to trade for the most desirable and expensive items, Natives had to travel further and faster and needed a more efficient means of transporting their furs to trading posts and their purchases back to their camps.  They already had toboggans and suitable dogs, all they needed to do was put the two together. As Native people visited and traded among each other, the practice of dog mushing was introduced, typically about a decade or so before the first fur traders entered a new trading region.

The "Indian" Dogs:

            The most common dogs pressed into sled service in the fur-trade, by Natives and Whites alike, were Indian dogs.   Originally kept by aboriginal people for hunting, packing, religious sacrifices, security and in some cultures even as mobile meals, many of the Native dogs were already well suited for the job of drawing a sledge.   Natives often enjoyed a surplus of dogs and were willing to trade them, sometimes quite cheaply.  For example, on September 16th, 1800 Alexander Henry the Younger wrote that he purchased 3 trained sled dogs for three quarts of watered down liquor.

            In those rare fur-trade documents that mention breeds or types of sled dogs, Indian dogs (often referred to as Indian mongrels) were far and away most common, but those business records did not describe the dogs in any great detail.  The narratives, letters, memoirs and other documents written by explorers, missionaries and other visitors to the fur-trading region during the 19th century are often more descriptive.

            One of the best first hand descriptions of the Native sled dogs used in the fur trade was provided in the memoirs of H.M. Robinson, who wrote, “These animals are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind, large, long-legged, and wolfish with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiry hair.  White is one of the most usual colors, but brown, blue-grey, red, yellow, and white marked with spots of black, or of the other various hues, are also common.  Some of them are black with white paws, others are covered with long rough hair, like Russian setters.  There are others of a light bluish-grey, with dark, almost black spots spread over the whole body.

            James Carnegie (Earl of Southesk) described his team during the winter of 1859-60, writing, "My team consists of three middle-sized Indian dogs, sharp-nosed, bushy-haired and wolfish.  Chocolat, the leader, is dark red; Casse-toute, grey, shaded with black; and Fox, reddish fawn-colour."

            Robert Kennicott and some other historical authors referred to Indian dogs as "geddies" or "giddies", to differentiate them from sled dogs developed by Whites in the later years of the fur trade.  Kennicott wrote that the Indian dogs of the Mackenzie River District.  "... look a good deal like a fox, only heavier and stronger in every way.  They are hardy to a wonderful degree."  Frank Russell wrote, "Most of them are of the wolfish breed known as Indian dogs, or, in the far North, - giddes; these are smaller and more uniform in color than those kept by the whites."

            Pure blood Indian dogs were already nearing extinction as a result of diseases and interbreeding with European dogs prior to the age of photography.  I know of only 2 historical photographs that we can be reasonably certain are of pure Indian sled dogs.  The copyright of one of these is in private hands, but an on-line search for 'Horse Creek Mary' and 'dogs' will usually provide copies of the image as a result.  The second, an image of a nearly starved dog in summer coat is from an expedition report published in1898, is included as an illustration of this article.


A First Nations dog in summer condition, by Frank Russell, published in 1898.

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         The demise of purebred Indian dogs was noted even before 1914, when Alaskan missionary Hudson Stuck wrote "The 'Siwash' dog is the common Indian dog; generally undersized, uncared for, half starved most of the time, and snappish because not handled save with roughness.  In general appearance he resembles somewhat a small malamute, though, indeed, nowadays so mixed have the breeds become that he may be any cur or mongrel."

            My own team consists primarily of dogs that are similar to the historical descriptions and images of Indian dogs. They have been difficult to find even in the remote bush regions of Alaska and Yukon Territory.  Artist Veryl Goodnight's painting "March On The Mail Trail" depicts the author's team in a late 19th century context.  My dogs Orion and Capella are representative of the historical descriptions of 18the and early 19th century Indian dogs.

 
Painting of the author's most historically authentic dogs by Veryl Goodnight.

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Orion and Capella are representative of historical descriptions of late 18th and 19th century "Indian" dogs.
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The "Eskimo" Dogs:

            During the late 18th through the 19th century, a few "Esquimeaux dogs" found their way into the boreal regions.  Compared to the Indian dogs, the Eskimo animals (called "Eskies" and later bastardized to "Huskies") were selectively bred for thousands of human generations for genetic traits specific to hauling heavy loads over long distances.  It's no surprise that the historical Nor'westers regarded the Eskimo dogs as the very best of sled dogs. 

            Archaeological findings on Zhokov Island and other sites indicate that the ancestors of the modern Inuit Sled Dogs likely drew their owner's goods and supplies across Beringia 7800 to 8000 years before modern time.   Professor Jean Aigner, head of the University of Alaska Fairbanks anthropology department, has asserted that there is firm evidence that Alaskan Natives have been using dogs to draw sleds for at least the last 1,000 years.   An illustration on the frontspiece of the 1657 edition of Martin Frobisher's Historia Navigationis includes an image of an Eskimo dog in harness drawing a sled.

            In 1749, Kalm was describing the Eskimo people in the region of Labrador when he wrote, "For many centuries past they have had dogs whose ears are erected, and never hang down.  They make use of them for hunting, and instead of horses in winter, for drawing their goods on the ice.  They themselves sometimes ride in sledges drawn by dogs.  They have no other domestic animal."

            In describing the array of dogs at a Hudson's Bay Company post, H.M. Robinson wrote, "It sometimes happens, however, that among this howling pack of mongrels there may be picked out a genuine train of dogs.  There is no mistake about them in size or form, from foregoer to hindmost hauler.  They are of pure Esquimaux breed, the bush-tailed, fox-headed, long-furred, clean-legged animals, whose ears, sharp-pointed and erect, spring from a head embedded in thick tufts of wooly hair.  These animals have come from the far-northern districts, and have brought a round sum to their owners.  They are of much more equable temper than their wolfish brethern, and frequently have a keen appreciation of kindness."

            Describing his own Eskimo dogs, missionary Egerton R Young wrote "The pure Eskimo dog is not devoid of beauty.  His compact body, well furred; his sharp-pointed, alert-looking ears; his fox-like muzzle; his good legs and firm, hard feet; his busy tail, of which he often seems so proud; and his bright, roguish eyes, place him in no mean position among the other dogs of the world.  His colour varies from the purest white to jet black.  I owned two so absolutely white that not a coloured hair could be found on either of them. ...  The working weight of my Eskimo dogs ranged from sixty to a hundred and thirty pounds.  It seemed rather remarkable that some of the lighter dogs were quite equal in drawing power to others that were very much larger and heavier."  

Drawing of an Eskimo (Inuit) dog by Edwin Tappan Adney, published in 1900.
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            Although still referred to as the Canadian Eskimo Dog by the Canadian Kennel Club, the preferred term for pure blood Eskimo dogs is "Inuit Sled Dog".  Among dog mushers they are known by their Inuktituk name of "qimmiq".  It has been estimated that in the 1920s some 20,000 such dogs were living in the arctic regions of Canada alone.  A combination of cross-breeding, disease and an apparent attempt by the Canadian Government to eradicate the breed resulted in fewer than 200 animals left alive.   The breed might have gone extinct if not for the efforts of the Eskimo Dog Research Foundation created by William Carpenter and John McGrath.  The foundation purchased dogs from remote Inuit camps and began breeding them to increase their numbers. 

            Most modern Inuit Sled Dogs are found in the arctic regions of Canada and a few working kennels in the upper Midwest region of the United States.  A few mushers in Alaska have some Canadian Inuit dogs or mixes as well.  One of my own dogs, a mix of Canadian Eskimo Dog and Yukon River Dog named Innoko, has the general appearance and temperament of the ancient Eskimo dogs.

Innoko is a Canadian Inuit Dog, similar to historical descriptions of "Eskimo" dogs.

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The Mixed Breed Dogs:

            By the early 19th century, European breeds of dog were present at least in small numbers at some of the furthest and most remote posts of the fur-trade.  In 1805, Alexander Mackenzie, nephew of Sir Alexander Mackenzie who explored the river that bears his name, was headquartered at Great Bear Lake.  Among his personal possessions was a retriever who amazed the local Athabascans by fetching shot birds from the water.

            In 1814 Alexander Henry the Younger wrote, "Mr. Franchere brought down the dogs belonging to this place (Fort George, formerly Astoria)....  They are of an excellent breed of the Mastiff kind....  The bitches are of the Hound kind, all famous watch dogs."  Seven years later Captain John Franklin observed European dogs at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River.  Franklin wrote, "This morning the sporting part of our society had rather a novel diversion: intelligence having been brought that a wolf had borne away a steel trap, in which he had been caught, a party went in search of the marauder, and took two English bull-dogs and a terrier, which had been brought into the country this season."

            In the early 19th century fur-trade dog mushers began intentionally mixing European breeds with Indian dogs in hopes of creating dogs more suited for the job at hand.   Reduced staffing and more efficient business practices instituted by the Hudson Bay Company's George Simpson provided incentive because fewer laborers, longer distances and heavier cargoes demanded larger, stronger dogs.

            There appears to have been a strong preference for large, molosser type dogs such as mastiffs, Newfoundland Dogs, Saint Bernards and similar breeds.  That is evidenced in the DNA of modern racing Alaskan Huskies, a majority of whom carry genes normally associated with Anatolian Shepherd Dogs. The Anatolian is a large molosser livestock guardian breed developed in Turkey, but not known in North America before the 1950s, and even today is still quite rare.

Seamus is an Anatolian Shepherd Dog x Alaskan Sled Dog cross

            The most notable of the crossbred dogs were the dogs of the Hudson's Bay Company's Mackenzie River District.  By the 1860s the Yukon River Dogs (later referred to as "Mackenzie River Huskies") were known and respected throughout the Northland, even at locations far removed from modern Yukon and Nunavut Territories. 

            In 1861 Robert Kennicott described his Yukon River Dogs. "The original stock has probably been some large, strong dog, and they have become hardier by a very slight intermixture with Indian dogs.  Of course the best dogs are bred from, and thus at last the general stock has come to possess peculiar strength and powers of endurance.  This breed of dogs is now carefully kept distinct from the Indian dogs, or "geddies" as they are called, even though they have originally been improved by an intermixture of geddie blood....  Two of mine are quarter geddies, and one of them, though very large, is almost exactly the shape of a geddie....  My other two dogs are pure-blooded 'Yukon dogs,' as a particularly fine breed, mostly found at this post, is called.

            Frank Russell wrote, "The dogs of the Mackenzie District are the largest and best trained of all that I saw in the North.  They have been bred especially for hauling upon the established routes of travel, where weight, rather than endurance, is desired."

            The fame of these dogs continued well into the 20th century, even as more out-crossing with European breeds created additional confusion.  This is demonstrated in Hudson Stuck's 1914 description.  "Many years ago the Hudson Bay voyageurs bred some selected strains of imported dog with the Indian dogs of those parts, or else did no more than carefully select the best individuals of the native species and bred from them exclusively - it is variously stated - and that is the accepted origin of the 'husky.'  The malamute and the husky are the two chief sources of the white man's dog teams, though cross-breeding with setters and pointers, hounds of various sorts, mastiffs, Saint Bernards, and Newfoundlands has resulted in a general admixture of breeds, so that the work dogs of Alaska are an heterogenous lot today.  It should also be stated that the terms 'malamute' and 'husky' are very generally confused and often used interchangeably." (Stuck 392)

            Today the famous Mackenzie River Huskies are exceedingly rare though a few dedicated fanciers are making every reasonable effort to preserve the breed. 


When the Job Changes - the Dog Changes:

            Three 20th century events combined to threaten the existence of the historical working dog breeds that were once common throughout the far north.  The first of these was the development of organized sled dog racing. 

            Established in 1908, the Nome Kennel Club held the first "All Alaskan Sweepstakes" race - from Nome to Candle and back - offering serious prize money to the winner.  In 1909 the first teams of Siberian huskies were imported to Nome by Charles Fox Maule Ramsey.  Those two teams took first and second place in the 1910 event.  The winning team, driven by John "Iron Man" Johnson, set record that stood until the centennial reenactment of the race in 2008.   With serious money on the line, so many Alaskan dog mushers sought out Siberians for their breeding programs that today it is nearly impossible to find a racing sled dog without some degree of Siberian husky in his or her DNA.

            Developments in the field of aviation in the 1920s led to dog teams being replaced by airplanes for the long distance transportation of mail and freight to many of the isolated bush villages of Alaska and Canada, considerably reducing the demand for freight hauling teams.  This led to the demise of the big mail and freight hauling operations, though smaller "trap-line" or "village" dog teams remained plentiful until mid-century.

            Finally, during the last quarter of the 20th century the widespread adoption of mechanical snowmachines  changed the role of sled dogs forever.  As the older, traditional dog mushing trappers and travelers died off, so did their dogs.

            Today the roles of sled dogs in the North are primarily racing, followed by backcountry touring - particularly in regions where snowmachines are not legally permitted to travel.    The modern racing Alaskan Husky is a mix of any type of dog who loves to run and pull.  Although Alaskan huskies are incredibly athletic and tough, most bear little resemblance to the sled dogs of history. 

            Currently tourism combined with a strong interest in preserving Inuit tradition and culture in the Canadian arctic, especially Nunavut Territory and the area around Churchill, Manitoba seems to be sufficient incentive to maintain a viable population of Inuit Sled Dogs.  A handful of bush-dwelling trappers, a few back-country tour operators and a handful of fanciers such as I are trying to maintain breeding populations of "village" or "trap-line" dogs similar to historical Indian types, though such dogs they are becoming increasingly rare and difficult to obtain.  Whether our preservation projects will succeed is seriously questioned.

            There are days when I despair for the future of the historical types of sled dogs that contributed so much to the fur-trade and to everyone who lived in the boreal regions of North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.  When those dark clouds of doubt start seeping into my brain, the only sure cure is to don my historically authentic clothing, harness a team of my most authentic "Indian" dogs to my 'cariole' or 'traveling sled' and pull the hook.  As the team settles into the mile eating trot that is their preferred pace and the sunlight filters through a cobalt sky and sparkles off the hoar frost coating the bushes and trees, the experience refreshes my mind and my spirit.  Some worries just can't compete with the timeless experience of mushing the dogs.


Illustration Credits:
Adney, T: The Klondike Stampede:  Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York and London: 1900.

Russell,  Frank: Explorations in the Far North; Being the Report of an Expedition Under the Auspices of the University of Iowa in the Years 1892, 1893 & 1894: Univeristy of Iowa: 1898.

Goodnight, Veryl; "March of the Mail Trail", painting 2014.


Historical References:
Carnegie, J (Earl of Southesk): Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains.  A Diary and Narrative of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, During a Journey Through the Hudson's Bay Company Territories in 1859 and 1860: Edmonston and Douglas: Edinbrugh: 1875.

Coues, E (ed): New Light on the History of the Great Northwest; The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson: Francis P. Harper: NY: 1897.

Franklin J: Narrative of a Journey to the Shorts of the Polar Sea in the years 1819, 20,21, & 22:  M. C. Carey & I. Lea, A. Small, Edward Parker, McCarty and Davis, B. & T. Kite, Thomas DeSilver, and E. Littell: Philadelphia: 1824.

Franklin J: Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Seas in the Years 1825, 1826, and 1827: Carey, Lea, and Carey: Philadelphia: 1828.

Kalm, P: Travels Into North America: John R Forster, translator: Volume II: T. Lowdes, London: 1772.

Keith, L; North of Athabasca; Slave Lake and Mackenzie River Documents of the North West Company, 1800-1821; McGill-Queen's University Press; Montreal; 2001.

Kennicott, R: Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences: The Chicago Academy of Sciences: Chicago: 1869

Robinson, HM: The Great Fur Land or Sketches of Life in the Hudson’s Bay Territory: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; New York; 1879.

Russell, F: Explorations in the Far North; Being the Report of an Expedition Under the Auspices of the University of Iowa in the Years 1892, 1893 & 1894: Univeristy of Iowa: 1898.

Stuck, H: Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled; A Narrative of Winter Travel in Interior Alaska: Charles Scribner's Sons: New York: 1914.

Young, E: My Dogs in the Northland: Fleming H. Revell Company; New York, Chicago, Toronto: 1902.


About the Author:

            Thom "Swanny" Swan is a recreational dog musher and historical reenactor. He, his wife Trish, 23 dogs and two very cautious domestic cats share the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs kennel in Two Rivers, Alaska.

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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.