Monday, March 28, 2011

Wrapping Up the Winter Season

Today I have to pack my stuff for a long stint at work.  I'll be doing my regular two-week tour of duty immediately followed by a trip to the Lower-48 for a week of clinical training and a visit with my friend Jance Rollet, the certified canine behaviorist consultant who guides much of the work I do with the team.  By the time I return I suspect the trails will have turned to slush and we'll be in the midst of mud-season.  Consequently, a short little warm-up run I did with a very small team yesterday will probably be the last sled run of the season for the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs.

Saturday I took a six-dog team to the TRDMA Valley Funale, a fun race in our community that is usually the last major mushing event of the season.  It is a chance for us to have some fun on the trails and share the joys and challenges of life with dogs with those who aren't so blessed.  Highlights for spectators and visitors to the world of dog mushing include activities for kids including a hugely popular coasting hill made up of all the snow plowed from the parking area, 10-dog and 6-dog races, two-dog races for the kiddos which is hugely popular, a community pot-luck picnic, and so forth.

As expected, my team of "traveling dogs" earned the red lantern, finishing the 10 mile course in 1 hour, 17 minutes and 12 seconds.  That compares to a mere 39 minutes, 26 seconds run by veteran sprint musher Beth Manning and the red-lantern "runner up" time of 56 minutes, 40 seconds.

To my great delight, my team ran the 10 miles at a moving average of 9.1, which was within my target of 9 to 10 MPH.  Our long finish time was mostly the result of unexpected delays in the trail.  For example, Amazing Grace was misbehaving badly, necessitating a change in leaders to two-year old Capella, who did a marvelous job not only of leading the team, but also of coping with ALL of the various distractions and incidents we encountered along the way.

We got passed by EVERYONE in our class at one point or another.  Race rules require the forwardmost team to stop and yield the right of way to passing teams, so most of those passes required a stop in the trail, some of which became rather lengthy as dogs on other teams, and once in a while in my own team as well, got tangled up.  At one point Roger Champagne's team dove off into the soft snow at the side of the trail, nearly pitching him over the drive bow.  (I have video of that).  While passing my dogs, Mike Green's leaders ran on the "wrong side" of some stout willows, requiring Mike to do some impromptu landscaping to free them while I held my team out and away from his dogs.

At another point, I was trying to help one of our Junior-class mushers and a visiting tourist from U.K. untangle their teams when my guys, growing impatient with waiting, popped the hooks and tried running off on their own.  Fortunately the junior is a very athletic young man and was able to chase them down, because at that point I was pretty much surrounded by dogs and lines and could barely move at all.

My team on Saturday initially consisted of;

Just and Grace in lead
Cassiopeia and Capella in swing / team
Nels and Beau in wheel.

I had initially planned to take Orion rather than Beau, but on Saturday morning young Orion was showing signs of a minor injury to his right front shoulder.  Rather than risk his health and happiness, I elected to take another dog instead.  Orion now seems to be fully recovered from the soft-tissue issue, but of course the season is winding down.

Here is a video showing some of the "highlights" of our Red Lantern run, set to the very appropriate song "Red Lantern" by David Gill (album Moonlight on the Snow):

The important thing is that we (the whole team) confronted the challenges we faced, overcame them, and maintained our good traveling pace throughout the run to finish.  Meanwhile Amazing Grace, who remains quite amazing, has been "demoted" to the swing or team position at least for the early part of next training and running season.  Her consistently poor behavior of slack-line while up front and snarking at her running mates makes it clear she isn't happy running up front, so she can run in a less stressful position until she indicates she once again wishes to be a lead dog.

It's not like I'm hurting for leaders.  Experienced and always venerable Just is very strong up front and at 8 years of age he is in good health and physical condition.  Rose, one of my half-Hedlund Gray Husky x Wil Forsberg dogs, is rapidly becoming a very solid lead dog who enjoys the position and is responding very well to cues.  All three of my two-year-old "pups" are showing tremendous potential as leaders.

Yesterday I hooked up a wee little team of only 4 dogs for a quick little run out of the yard.  I wanted to see how well Capella had recovered from Saturday's adventure and to check out Grace's behavior running in the wheel position beside Seamus.  You can see video and GPS data from that run at my Contour Story-Teller page.

As we go into 'serious' sled dog training in early fall, I try to establish goals for the season and then work toward achieving those goals.  This year my primary goal was to 'bring along' the two-year olds.  This entailed mostly short runs with small teams.  I ran teams of only 6 dogs right up until this month, and then only increased the team to 8 dogs for only a couple of runs.  This strategy seems to have worked out well, as all three of the pups ran well all season long, and all three are showing huge potential as leaders.  Another goal was to bring Amazing Grace and Rose along as leaders in the team.

That was only partially successful.  Rose had been doing a tremendously good job in lead, but in recent runs Grace has not.  She tends to "lollygag" along up front, keeping a slack tug and being over-run by the swing dogs, and continues to be outrageously snarky at her running mate.  I've come up with a way to manage her snarky behavior, but her lack of drive when in lead is an issue not so easily managed.  That will pretty much relegate her to running back in the team somewhere through at least the first half of next season before she gets another leader trial.

Orion needs to learn how to pace himself, as he works way too hard early in the runs and then tires later on.  All four need to learn all of the cues associated with running in lead, and much of that work can be done over the course of the summer and into next fall.  Thus I can already start planning to start out our fall training regimen with LOTS of "gee / haw" work, running trails with a lot of intersections requiring the dogs to respond to those verbal cues.

At this point I am working on arrangements to bring two new dogs into the kennel.  One is an 8-year old superstar from a well known Iditarod racing team, who will be coming here for his "retirement" onto a recreational team.  He's a very special guy and I look forward to sharing details once he is here and settling down.

The other is quite young, still a yearling.  Selene (the Goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology) is about 20 months old currently, and is a mix of Hedlund Gray husky, bush "trapline" husky, and a Great Pyrenese.  She has been enjoying her "puppy training" runs with Kim Ferguson down in Palmer and from all reports she is just a delightful, sweet little girl who loves life, loves other dogs, loves humans and shows positive traits from all sides of her ancestry.  Selene is the bi-eyed, larger of the two dogs in this photo.

Selene's current owner is Rose Rosenberg, who is active in the Hedlund Husky Preservation Project.  Selene will probably be coming to the Stardancer kennel in May.  I'm very excited about meeting and working with this gorgeous, strong little girl who is showing so much potential as a traveling dog. By the time we start our early season training Selene will have reached her full skeletal development and will be able to safely pull heavier loads.

I'm please to report that those heavier loads will consist of camping gear and supplies rather than a heavier musher.  Since November 1st I have been working on a serious weight loss project, and have lost nearly 70 pounds through the course of the winter.  I have another 20 to go before I reach my target, but I am fully confident I will do so.  I'm pretty sure the dogs appreciate it.

In addition to Selene and the superstar, I am still looking for at least one puppy to raise, and I'm preserving a slot for a Hedlund husky puppy or two.  Those of us in the Hedlund Husky Preservation Project are planning to attempt another artificial insemination of Canyon the next time she comes into season as a breeding between her and Phoenix represents our best chance of capturing full-bred Hedlund DNA. 

Largely as a consequence of weight loss (I believe), I have had basically an injury free season.  At least, I haven't lost dog training opportunities due to personal injuries.  I have had a few "Ibuprofen mornings" here and there, but the NSAID has not been a daily part of my meals this year.  I have been feeling the cold more acutely, but a friend of mine who once lost over 120 pounds tells me that he also suffered from the cold during his first year of weight loss, and that it was a very transient effect.

It has been a tough year on equipment.  I broke a runner on my pretty basket sled early on (back in early January).  I had a pretty nice, light-weight "tunnel basket" sled that was very fun to drive, right up to the point where a tree jumped out in front of me early in this R&R.  I don't yet know if that sled will be repairable, or will become parts for another.  With the trails much to icy for my flat-bottomed historical toboggan, I've been down to 1 runnable sled, an freighting type toboggan sled, that drives like a brick, but is darned near bullet-proof.

I have a new basket sled on order from Dave Klumb, and expect I'll receive it sometime over the summer.  Between that and the big toboggan sled I should be in great shape for gear by the time we start fall training.  I'll share details about the specifications of that custom built sled once I receive it and can share photos as well.

This summer will only be moderately busy around the ol' home place.  I plan to install two more 200-square-foot 'free run' pens in the yard, which will allow me to house a total of 12 dogs in pens rather than on tethers.  That will free up some additional space in the main yard so more dogs can run free and play together whenever my handler or I am available to supervise them.  I also plan to reposition my 'drop line' and launch zone to make it easier to get teams hooked up and out on the trail.  That project will require me to change the fencing along my feeder trail, but it will ultimately result in safer "launches" with overly stimulated and excited dogs.  If time and resources permit, I'd like to build a tool shelter and some sort of structure for equipment storage as well.

Some of the necessary building resources may come from the back of the house, where I need to thin out a considerable number of spruce trees for fire-protection purposes.  I don't want to denude the place, but I do need to thin the forest a bit just in case wildfire burns through the area.  I still have a few 10' long posts from the last thinning project available, so I'm not lacking fence posts or posts that can be used for building a pole shed.

Between projects, dog training, work and my training obligations to my employer I suspect I'll be kept plenty busy over the warmer months.  If "Idle hands are the Devil's workplace." I don't think I have very much to worry over in that regard.

All of that is for the future.  Today I need to run into town for my haircut and "return to work" errands.  I have to pack two suitcases (1 for work and 1 for my trip Outside), load as much as I can into the little car, tidy up the house so it's not a total wreck when I return, and generally button up a few little details.  I'm sure I'll have more to write as things progress.


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