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'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.


  1. Swanny good to see you posting again. Unfortunately with a job change all I was able to do last year was atv training and go to three races as Jerry's handler. And ran safety on the snow machine. Didn't make on the runners at all when there was snow on the ground. Jeff

  2. Thanks for sharing all your adventures this past Winter! Good to read about your kennel and experiences! Dave in NC mtns

  3. Old e-mail not working, new e-mail