Talking Dog at the Trade Fair

Last weekend, the pack and I piled in the van and drove four hours north to the Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars in New Hampshire. I've been mushing for about seven years now, but never had the chance to attend the trade fair. Realizing this might be my last opporunity if I move west, I decided to make the trip.

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This was also the furthest I've ever driven without another human along for the ride. I expect to do a lot of solo traveling in California, so this was a good trial run—just me and the dogs. Four hours (well, more like five with traffic) wasn't a bad drive to do over a long weekend. Hell, I did four hour round trip commutes when I took trains into Manhattan, and that was all in one work day.

The trade fair was a really fun experience and definitely something any beginner should make a point to attend. It's a great place to learn about the sport, stock up on gear, meet experienced mushers, and run your dogs. For more seasoned mushers, it's nice to see familiar faces from throughout the northeastern mushing community. And of course, who doesn't want to talk about dogs for two days straight?

Jaye and Hanky go over harness fitting.

Jaye and Hanky go over harness fitting.

Besides seeing old friends (and meeting internet friends for the first time), my favorite part of the event was the seminars. Jaye of Sibersong (Denali and Willow's breeder) gave a great talk on the mechanics of dog mushing. Even though I'm not new to the sport, I still picked up some useful tips. Lisbet Norris (3-time Iditarod finisher) spoke about her mushing heritage and how her family has preserved the function and appearance of the Siberian Husky in Alaska for over sixty years. I might have teared up several times during her talk. My favorite seminar was by Charles J. Berger. He spoke about "the big bang through chihuahuas", and basically wrapped my two favorite subjects (evolutionary science and dogs) into a beautiful presentation. Unexpected and delightful.

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There was plenty of dog talk, dog gear, and dog friends to occupy my time, but I can't forget the dogs themselves. Aside from being a little bit overexcited to see other dogs while on the dropline, they were easy to manage and faired well in the cold, rainy weather. I walked the purebreds around the trade show and had them visit with their breeders (Blitz's reunion was especially sweet). We even got to do a quick training run with some Sibersong relatives and their musher, Megan, on Saturday and competed in a dryland fun race on Sunday.

Photo snapped by Steve Renner of Team Snowspeeder

Photo snapped by Steve Renner of Team Snowspeeder

The most surprising part of our race was how well the dogs passed another team. They've always been good about getting to the race chute and returning to their dropline afterwards, but passing during a run has been hit or miss. I was especially curious to see how Blitz would do, since he's never ran a race before—or even trained alongside other teams. I think he must have been the missing piece of the puzzle, because he and Knox (who is prone to being a jerkoff) passed flawlessly. I hope I don't jinx it, but I couldn't be happier with how they did. We got third place behind two very speedy Alaskan Husky teams, completing a 0.8 mile trail in 2 minutes and 43 seconds.

We're back home now and picking back up with fall training. We have plans to head back up to New Hampshire later in the month (or beginning of next, not sure yet) to attend a camping weekend with some of the same mushers from the trade show. I've got a lot of big plans in store for the remainder of this year and beginning of next, so stay tuned for what will (hopefully) be our most interesting season yet.

Two Miles Down

The first run of our season is complete—put it in the books. Mid-August is definitely the earliest we've ever run and the temperatures are just barely there. I woke up at 4 AM to get to a new trail just before 5 AM. It was in the mid-50s in the woods (according to my temperature gauge) but the humidity was rolling in fast, so we kept things short.

Mostly, I was excited to find a rail trail 25 minutes from the Pawling house, with lots of level dirt and gravel. I can squeeze out almost eight miles total in this spot, though we started with a quick 2.4 miler this morning.

The next few weeks look relatively warm (and I'm taking a quick camping trip up to Maine next weekend) so I doubt we'll log any more miles until September. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the calm that only comes after a solid morning run.

Frosty the Snowvan

When I realized that Rover wasn’t the van for me, I quickly set my sights on a replacement. After all, cramming five dogs into the back of a Mercury Mariner in the dead of summer is not sustainable.

Enter the Ford Transit Connect (XLT Premium, but who cares). I had ruled them out as being too small when I started my initial van hunt, but my needs have shifted. I spent a few weeks comparing the older and newer models and learned that the 2014 (and later) version has less cargo space. The newer model also looks more like a minivan and less like a mini van, if that makes any sense.

I decided on a 2012 model sold by a Massachusetts Hyundai dealership, aptly in winter blue. I will omit the story of how the van was purchased and delivered because it’s frustrating and boring. On to the pictures! 

Some things worth mentioning:

  • The second-row seats fold forward; I keep one down for Dexter and the others stay folded during travel. If I need to, I'll unfold and use this row as a bed.
  • I had a 2" hitch receiver installed at U-Haul for around $200 ($160 for the hitch and $40 labor).
  • The roof rack was a nightmare to put on, despite being made for this van. Key parts were missing and the instructions were full of typos. Avoid "Rola" racks, for sure.
  • Storage space is ample despite being way smaller than Rover. I've got my emergency road kit, first aid kit, air pump, tool kit, tire chains, hiking pole, plastic basin, and a pile of dog hair stored between the crates. The rear door has a handy pocket that I use for east-access dog gear. There's also a shelf right above the windshield/front-row seats.
  • This sucker gets 27 mph highway, whaaat.

I'm more eager than ever for cold weather to arrive. I have yet to attach the roof cargo box or try loading the dryland cart on the back, so I'm hoping that all goes smoothly. I'm also anticipating that my sled will fit inside the van in a way that's easily managed, but somethings tells me it'll be a challenge.

In the mean time, I need to find a new home for Rover. If anyone is looking for a starter adventure van, check 'er out!

Rover's Retirement

I hate to say it, but my days roaming with Rover are coming to an end. I love this van. It has served me (pretty) well for almost a year now. But in that year, I learned a lot about what I need out of a van—and what I don’t.

The allure of #vanlife may have gotten to me a little more than I’d like to admit. I collected ideas from other van-lifers and I was too ambitious with my setup. The big conversion project, quitting my job, and finding a fully-remote job seemed to imply that I was going to hit the road for the ramblin’ life. Friends were asking, “Where are you going?” or “Where are you now?” Uhhh, home, still.

I’ve always loved a good road trip, but I never intended to live on the road. Furthermore, traveling with five dogs isn’t simple. The van has made it a lot more comfortable, but I’m still limited to traveling during cold-weather. Aside from the risk of overheating, I need cooler temperatures to take them running and tire them out. Otherwise, I’d be rolling with four tightly wound balls of energy, restricted to tie-outs at rest stops and campsites. 

The true purpose of this van is to haul dogs and gear to trails. More than anything, I’ve used this van for day trips. I slept in the bed a grand total of one time. I cooked inside the van a few times, but it’s easier (and safer) to set up the camp stove outside. 

I could do without the cooking desk and use that space for storage. I also don’t need a permanent bed for most of my trips. The ability to roll up and store my bedding would keep it clean and free up more room. Once you take away the 4” thick mattress and interior cooking space, there’s no real reason to have a super high top. As it turns out, there are a lot of bridges and underpasses that Rover can't fit under, especially with the cargo box on top. 

When I bought Rover, I wasn’t planning to relocate to California. There are logistic concerns of getting the van across the country and having it survive the 6,000'+ elevation gains of the San Gabriel mountains, where I plan to live. It’s also unlikely to ever pass California’s emissions.

This year has been all about downsizing and simplifying. I went big out of fear that I wouldn’t have enough room, but now I know how I can condense. Rover taught me exactly what I need out of a van and I don’t regret the purchase one bit. 

After diving back into van research and visiting a cargo van depot, I've landed on the Ford Transit Connect XLT (2010-2013 version). They’re small (as far as vans go), affordable, fuel-efficient (compared to Rover), and from this decade. If it were just me traveling in this van, I’d probably stick to something older and "cooler", but I need something dependable when I’ve got five dogs traveling with me. I’m going to salvage what I can out of Rover’s build and transfer it, so most of the money I put into the conversion will not be wasted. Oh, and if anyone's looking to buy an empty '89 Ford E-150...