Saturday, November 22, 2008

Back on the Trail - Back in Bed

Having been under the weather for most of the week, yesterday I decided it was time to cowboy up and get the Stardancer Gang out on the trail again. My normal rule of thumb is to never let three days go by without a run unless circumstances prevent it, and circumstances had prevented it. The behavior I was seeing in the yard reflected the lack of mental stimulation for the team. Amazing Grace was running laps around her circle, Beau was snarfing through the fence at Chinook and Daisy, and the older dogs were showing less patience for the antics of the puppies.

My main issue with this current brand of upper respiratory "crud" is it drains me of energy. I can be feeling pretty good so I'll start a project and within minutes feel as though I've been shot at and missed then s**t at and hit. It's as though someone had pulled a drain plug from my body and let all my energy drain away.

I'm not well suited to a sedentary lifestyle. Sometimes I actually have to force myself to take a day off just to dink around the house and lie back a bit. Even then there are always little tasks that need doing. Even while feeling my worse I've been able to catch up on a few projects. I've mounted new, heavier duty brush bows on both of my 'modern' sleds, making them safer for the musher and dogs. I've installed new lines on snowhooks, getting them set up so that each of my sleds has it's own set of gear. Doing so makes it less likely for me to make a mistake in rigging while moving hooks and snub lines from one sled to another. All the while my frustration at not being able to run and train my dogs has been building up and building.

So, yesterday I got coffee'd up, took some more over the counter cold remedy, and loaded the team for a trip to Lynn's to give them a good run. Never mind that the temperature was below zero. I have good cold weather gear.

Lynn had other plans for the day, so I was on my own without a handler to help get them hooked up and started off. The first obstacle was that in spite of a new battery it was too cold for my four-wheeler to start and run properly. That required me to use Edie and Randy's machine instead. It takes a bit of prep work to get it going, but that went smoothly enough.

Next was harness and hook up. That didn't go quite so smoothly as I had hoped. I intended to run Beau up front beside Torus, thinking that Beau would be easier to line out than my younger dogs. I was wrong about that. Beau wanted to turn around to play with Rose, and got his harness tangled up in neck line in the process. I switched him out for Amazing Grace, who did a marvelous job of helping torus hold the gang line taught while I fastened tug lines to Seamus, Nels and Rose.

I popped the quick release and we had gone no more than 20 yards when Torus and Grace began squabbling. They corrected with a harsh word from me, but in the process Rose got a leg tangled between the gang line and her tug line, so I had to go up and fix that. Meanwhile I was coughing and hacking so badly I couldn't even cue the dogs to get started. They picked up on my intent, though and at that point we hit the trail in a much nicer fashion.

Once we got the ball rolling the team was again transformed into that beautiful, happy, hard-running gang I have so become accustomed to seeing out on the trail. Even Gump was putting his back into it, keeping his doubled-over tug line taught enough to sing like a guitar string.

For a time I was transformed into that timeless state that makes running dogs such a joy. I forgot that I was ill, I forgot that my R&R is starting to wind down, I forgot that there are chores to be done, people I haven't yet visited, things I haven't yet done. Yesterday and tomorrow were gone from my mind, and all that remained was that moment in time. It was no longer Friday or morning or 2008 - it was simply "now".

We did the same 11 miles training run that we did the other day. I never said a word to my team as we charged past Ric Sweson's yard. Only a couple of dogs even glanced toward the cacaphony raised by his jealous dogs. The machine skidded as the dogs dragged it around the 90 degree corner of Ric's big field, and my leaders didn't even hesitate to take the "gee" onto the baseline trail. Baseline Trail originaed as a USGS survey baseline, a guaranteed accurate east/west line across the terrain against which a surveyor can calibrate a compass or circumferentor. It stretches straight as a string for miles, crossing a couple of roads, going past some open fields, all of which went by in due and proper course.

At Pheasant Farm road we turn "haw", taking a more meandering logging road down toward a series of sloughs and an eventual crossing at Jenny M Creek. Jenny M Creek is named for a steamboat that was trapped in the ice near it's confluence with the Chena River in the earliest years of the 20th century. We our route dropped down into the lower terrain near the river I could feel the temperature dropping. It was cold when we started, and colder yet down here in the river bottoms.

As we near the river bottom I see an empty beer case on the trail. Seamus is curious so he noses it on the way past, causing it to rock and slide on the hard packed snow. Behind him, Rose sees the motion of the empty box rocking and shies hard away from it. I'd like to stop and pick up the litter but on this downhill grade my strong could easily drag the machine away from me, and I'm too ill to try chasing it down.

We turn around near the Jenny M Creek crossing and head back the way we'd come. I stopped the team a couple hundred yards after the turn around to walk around and warm my legs and feet and hands, and to capture a photograph of my hard working dogs. By moving ahead of the team I can be confident that even if they do drag the four-wheeler I can catch it on the way by.

Once the cold crept into my consciousness it was loathe to leave. The throttle on a four-wheeler is just a thumb lever below the right handle bar grip, leaving the thumb exposed to the wind. It's always cold, and today my thumb felt the numbness as we climbed back out of the bottoms to regain the baseline. Back past the fields near Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore's kennel the dogs trotted along, still as strong and happy as when we started our journey.

We crossed the Grange Hall road and trotted past Bill and Donna Greenslade's place, their dogs raising a ruckus and my dogs ignoring them as though they didn't even exist. I suppose in their world they probably didn't. No time to celebrate, though. Up ahead I saw the headlights of two approaching machines, no doubt each with a string of dogs up front. I called up my team to pick up the pace in anticipation of back to back head on passes. We approached the first time and I simply cued "gee by". With no more encouragement than that my gang charged past the team of young huskies like the pros they are quickly becoming. I cued the second pass. Grace was curious and turned her head, and Seamus stepped out of line in hopes of a visit, but no one balked or hesitated and by the time they might have thought about trying to tangle us up the pass was done, the other teams were a part of "then" rather than "now", and we continued our foray.

Although impossible to recognize faces to heavily covered against the cold, I believe the teams we passed were driven by Ric Swenson and perhaps his lady or a handler. We've passed them several times before this season, and I can't help but wonder if they don't use our presence crossing past the back of the yard as a cue to get their own teams on the trail in hopes of creating a passing opportunity.

I used to dread head-on passes with other teams, fearful that my gregarious dogs might tangle with those in an on-coming team causing a big ball-up on the trail. Sheenjek used to be pretty snarly toward other dogs, but that is no longer the case. I think as he's become more confident in me (and I in him) his temper has mellowed a lot. Seamus is every dog's friend, and feels duty bound to sniff every canine butt he encounters. Gorgeous Amazing Grace is young and playful and unpredictable. There is always a risk that someone on my team, or on another, will be unable to resist the temptation to visit and interact, prompting a big tangle with strange dogs and a potential for flared tempers and hurt feelings with mushers who I know and respect, or who I don't know and with whom I don't wish to have a conflict.

Now I don't fret nearly so much and in fact I look forward to these encounters on our busy trails. My dogs have proven they can pass another team many times, and though it isn't always "pretty", we always get by and no one gets hurt. Dogs can only do what we train them to do, and every time we pass a team we are training our dogs to do so. Each pass gets easier than the last as the dogs figure out what we are asking of them.

As we neared the end of Swenson's field the leaders wanted to turn "haw" to follow the same route we took coming out. I call for "straight ahead" and the leaders accept the cue to continue down the Baseline. I frequently watch my leaders and any time I have the option I will cue them to take a turn opposite the direction they want to go, a way to train them to listen to me rather than follow their own inclinations. Dogs can only do what we train them to do, and I try to train my dogs to pay attention to the their musher's wishes.

We turned "haw" at the Pleasant Valley Road extenstion and head back toward Lynn's yard. I was tempted to ask the team to take a "gee" to a cross-over trail that would add another mile or so to our run, but by then I was cold, my right thumb and a couple of fingers were numb, and I decided it was time to finish this run. They took Lynn's feeder trail as much out of habit as on cue, and ran right up to the back of our truck.

Damn, but my hands were cold. The chemical hand warmers I'd stuffed into my mittens weren't all that effective, and I was clumsy as I gave each dog a 1/4 lb. meatball for a snack. Getting the dogs off the gangline and hooked back onto their drop chains on the truck was an ordeal, but I soldiered through the task.

That's when I realized I was more ill than I had realized, and that running the team might not have been the brightest idea I've had in a while.

This morning I'm paying the price for my folly. I'll get out and about a little bit today, but I won't be running any marathons, and probably won't be running any dogs. I'll do some more of the chores that are needed here at the house, perhaps pay a visit to the youth mushers who have organized a rabies vaccination clinic at Pleasant Valley Equipment, near the post office. Maybe I'll indulge in a Latte' from Mariska's "What Not Shop". Mostly I'm going to try to rest and recover a bit. After all, tomorrow is a new day and dogs need to run.


  1. It's too bad that those "just living n the Now" moments don't come very often in todays world. I'm sitting in summy Ga and almost (snicker) wish I could come "up" for a visit. You know me. Love snow, Hate cold. We had our first good frost this past week. Sure wish I could come fix you Mom's cold remedy so you could feel better, faster. But as we age, it takes us longer to get better as well, I think.

  2. Thank you so much for coming up to visit the Rabies Clinic. It was a long day but totally worth it (and of course using your shoulder for a moment didn't hurt any)...thanks for being a good friend. It means a lot! Tonight, I believe I will finally sleep.