Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Back in the days when I was a kid Labor Day marked the unofficial end of summer. It was certainly the end of summer vacation as, traditionally, school always started the next day. This thought was weighing on my mind through much of the day, as it happens to be the last day of my R&R. Tomorrow morning I’ll be returning to my place of employment.

Yesterday’s tasks were almost all domestic in nature. I like to leave a tidy house so I don’t return from work just to face a major mess. I’m actually pretty good about keeping things at least reasonably organized around the house though you might not agree if you saw my dining table. It is the center of my lifestyle, the place where I park my computer, pay my bills, eat my chow, and fiddle with stuff. Consequently it tends to collect clutter right up through the last day of the R&R, when it get’s cleared down to its wooden surface.

By evening the only thing remaining on the table was the computer, which will be packed up for the trip to my job site later this morning, after I’ve checked my Emails, read the on-line edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, and scanned my favorite forums for new posts while I drink my morning pot of coffee. That may be the only ‘ritual’ in my lifestyle that I can consistently enjoy both at home and at my place of employment.

During early fall, when others seem to be winding down after a summer filled with activities or finishing up summer projects I am actually gearing up for the mushing season. Yeah, I know many of the summertime posts have mentioned tasks that must be done ahead of the cold season. It seems there really are only two seasons in the Interior of Alaska – Winter and Getting Ready for Winter. I’m already putting together my “Must Do” list for next R&R and it’s looking pretty full.

For example, both of my rigs need service prior to the cold season. Oil, lube and filter changes and probably new wiper blades all the way around. The truck needs a new set of studded snow tires – and that’s going to be an expensive albeit predicted “hit” in the wallet. It is a necessary hit as the truck will see more use as we (the team) travel to different trails and new places to explore.

All of my dogsleds need a bit of maintenance here and there. Some of it is stuff I probably should have done sooner, but just couldn’t find the time or motivation. My snow machine, an old but reliable Skidoo Tundra, needs a couple of parts and I’d rather do that during a cool day in autumn than a cold morning when I need to be breaking out or grooming a trail instead of dinking with the damned machine.

All of my mushing gear will need a thorough inspection so I know which items need to be replaced, and which will be good for a full season. Gang lings (called “mainlines” by Lower-48 mushers) need to be in perfect condition. If they fail the entire team can break free and go running off down the trail. Obviously that would NOT be a good thing.

I’ll be ordering some of my winter clothing replacements while at my place of employment. I find that each winter I wear out one or two pairs of silk long johns, several pairs of silk stocking liners and at least 6 pairs of silk glove liners. Two woolen shirts and two pair of woolen trousers are also needed each year to replace the oldest in my wardrobe, which by now are worn beyond repair. My outerwear is all in good condition so I don’t have to worry about replacing my insulated bib coveralls or my Wiggy’s parka. That’s a relief because the best gear also comes with a big price tag. When one spends as much time outdoors during Alaska’s winter as I it isn’t enough to buy the best you can afford – you really must afford the best you can buy.

All of things on my “Must Do” list must be done in between training the dogs. Though a few of us have started training already, nearly every serious musher in Two Rivers will be out on the trails, running dogs with four-wheelers or other wheeled rigs. Dogs can only do what we’ve trained them to do, and wheels give us the opportunity to get an early start.

Moose hunting season opened yesterday in my area. Unfortunately I’ll be at work through the entire season, so my track record of never harvesting a moose remains intact. I’m hoping that several of my friends will be successful, as their donated butchering trim provides bones and good lean meat for my dogs. I grind a lot of that ‘scrap’ and form it into ¼ pound meatballs which I freeze and then toss into a bag in my freezer. When we’re out on longer runs those meatballs make excellent snacks for the dogs to help them maintain the energy needed to work. I’ve never yet seen a dog turn down a meatball or fishball snack.

As we break into the fall routine, I will be spending a lot more time on the stationary recumbent bicycle in the workout room at my place of employment. I have to be careful of my knees, so need to avoid the traditional treadmill as much as I can. Nonetheless I need strong legs to peddle or run (well, waddle) behind or beside the sled when the dogs need a helping hand. By cranking the resistance level up pretty high I can get a degree of strength training in addition to a good aerobic workout. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. I probably should do much more strength training than I normally do, especially upper body work, but the thought of just humping iron for the sake of humping iron doesn’t wrap real well in my brain.

The summer has certainly had some highlights. I was able to expand the dog yard and make it much more comfortable for the dogs, with more usable space and convenience for me. Installing a second pen was a brilliant idea as that is now “home” to Lucky and her litter of wonderful puppies. I have enough tie-out and pen space to easily house my own team along with a bit of extra space for others that may need a temporary place to stay.

I had a great time at the Alaska State Rendezvous in July. I always enjoy escaping into the past for a few days, and I’m looking forward to escaping again to the Alaska Fall Rendezvous, the last weekend of my next R&R. That one will be in Mendeltna, a bit of a drive but always well worth doing.

My house is nearly as comfortable and snug as I can make it though the high price of heating oil and electricity remains a concern, and will probably be an on-going concern for some time to come. I still haven’t decided wether I will run the furnace in the shop this winter. I might not make that decision until the last moment. I still need to install a bit of weather stripping and cover the shop window with plastic before I make that decision.

That long, wet rainy spell we had in July through early August resulted in one of the cooler summers that I can remember. The blueberry crop sucked and the raspberries didn’t do particularly well, though I did enjoy a couple of meals on them. Tending to the puppies has certainly been a highlight of the season I’ll never forget. They are doing incredibly well. There isn’t a shy pup in the bunch.

Our early training runs have resulted in a surge of optimism for the upcoming season. The dogs seem to be running well, our leaders still remember left from right and brilliant old Torus still remembers what “easy” and “pick it up” mean. Rose and Nels have apparently gained some maturity that improves their potential as leaders, so I can look forward to rotating three different young dogs through the lead position this year, and spending a lot of time concentrating on their training. My goal is to have all three running as “finished” leaders by the end of this season because I don’t know if I can count on Torus being able to run. He might, and if so I’ll certainly let him, but he isn’t a young dog anymore.

Training Opportunities:

Parents are probably already well aware of the concept of “teachable moments”, circumstances that occur in daily life that provide an opportunity to teach their children about important things.

Sometimes dogs provide us ‘teachable moments’ as well. While training our sled dogs we look forward to those unexpected but inevitable encounters with other teams to help train our dogs to pass nicely, or distractions along the trail providing an opportunity to reinforce the ‘on by’, ‘leave it’ or other “pay attention and keep on running” cue.

When scooping feces from the yard, I use a large janitorial dust pan with a handle and a light weight ‘yard broom’ type rake, sized for children. These tools allow me to do the job without having to do a lot of bending.

While scooping the puppy pen this morning several of the puppies were absolutely fascinated with dust pan. I imagine the swaying, swinging motion as it moved at their head level most likely caught their attention, and they found it a fascinating toy to chase around the pen. I decided to take advantage of that fascination to teach them to follow a target stick.

A target stick is just a stick with a bit of contrasting color on the end. In use, the dog is first trained to “touch” the end of the stick. Then the dog can be trained to follow the end of the stick wherever it might lead. From there, the target stick can be used as a sort of conditioned lure to guide the dog through motions we might wish to train (such as left and right turns) or through a wide variety of behaviors. Target sticks are frequently used to train assistance dogs to operate light switches and many other tasks.

If I can ‘shape’ targeting behavior now, while the puppies are so young, I’ll have a huge advantage when training them to walk on a loose leash, to “line out” (pull the main line on a sled taught without actually dragging the sled), walk up the ramp to load into the dog truck, jump up on their houses for husbandry and handling and many other very useful behaviors.

To train these puppies to target, I took a dowel of suitable length and drilled a hole into the end in that I can load with cheese or other “sticky” treat, and used a strip of blue electrical tape to mark the target on the end. I then headed into the pen to begin my experiment. I loaded the stick with potted meat (no spam, than you) and within just a few seconds every puppy in the litter was following the target like ducklings following their mom. I’ve asked my training partner to follow up on the process while I’m away at my place of employment.

When I get back I should be able change the criteria of the game very quickly. Instead of loading the target stick, I’ll load my bag with goodies, and when a puppy touches the end of the stick I’ll reinforce the behavior by feeding a treat from my hand. I’ll also be introducing them to the clicker to develop the value of the “click” as a secondary or “bridge” reenforcer.

But that is then, and this is now. Now it’s time for me to saddle up and start making the trek up the road to earn money to pay for kibble.

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