Ready

Lately, I’ve written a lot about leaning into the mushing lifestyle. About really pursuing this hobby that I’ve been juggling with a “regular” life for almost a decade. That’s what brought me to rural central New York, right in the lake effect snow belt. It pulled me away from the comfort of past relationships, friends, and family. It didn’t always feel like the best decision, but now that the dust has settled, it feels right. I’ve got a house that feels like home, an expanding circle of friends, and some very good dogs.

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The funny thing is, I started writing this post from a hotel suite in Santa Monica. It was 75°F and sunny, but all I could think about were trees changing color and mornings where you could see your breath. I’m still juggling a double life, while I can. Traveling for work is a blessing and a curse. It’s fun and exhausting, stressful and a relief in its own way.

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Los Angeles might be the exact opposite of where I live. It’s consistently warm, always noisy, and full of traffic. The strangest part about travel is all the time I have (outside of work) that I’d normally spend tending to the dogs. It’s weird to have no living things rely on me, except maybe a drunk coworker.

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I always come back to how grateful I am to have my family to watch the dogs while I’m flying all over the place. Realistically, though, it’s a burden I can't put on them forever. I need to embrace these brief travel opportunities. I’ll be leaving the eastern timezone one last time next month, for my friend’s wedding in Seattle. After that, I’m staying as put as possible until work pries me away again.

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Looking ahead, I see temperatures dipping into the 30’s in the extended forecast. I’ve got wood stacked in the garage and the fall furnace checks completed. The propane tanks have been filled. My home trails have been (mostly) cleared. I’ve got my sights set on pups to add to the team (yes, plural—more on that later), new trails to train on, and races to enter. I’ve got the snowmobile ready to pack snow and keep the team moving.

I’ve got big plans. I’m ready.

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Descending into Autumn

July is behind us, along with the peak of the summer’s heat. We’re on the descent now, trending downward into the cooler days of autumn. I feel it, the dogs feel it, and the energy build up is palpable. The dogs have been less satisfied to sunbath and lounge. The dog-den couch has suffered several de-stuffings and re-stuffings as a result.

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Last weekend, I managed to coordinate a mini-getaway with friends. I’m grateful to be back on the east coast, where I can drive my dogs down to Jersey if I need to travel, but spending just a night away is harder to plan. I don’t have anyone local I trust to watch the dogs. Thankfully, my parents like visiting (and escaping the NJ 90°F heat) and agreed to dog-sit up here for me. I was able to venture east for the first overnight camping trip I’ve had in a long awhile.

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Before heading out to camp, I was feeling particularly guilty. I’d be missing the first 50°F morning of the season. (The general rule for mushing is “below 50°F and the temperature plus humidity should not exceed 100”) As I was preparing for my parents’ arrival, a cold front swept through, bringing with it a chilly wind and cold drizzle. It was still too warm for our typical fall training, but a quick 1/2 mile jaunt around the trails I’ve been mowing wouldn’t hurt.

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The dogs were ecstatic, as they tend to be when they see the harnesses come out. They were so happy to lope around the property, winding through the wildflowers and grass three times their height. The mowed trails are slightly different from what we ran last season and you could see the excitement in their body language. By the end of the run, the older dogs were satisfied. The younger dogs would’ve happily kept going, but I wouldn’t risk them overheating. More soon, babes.

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As summer inches into fall, there will be more travel—a bachelorette in Texas, a wedding in Washington, and visits to New Jersey to see old friends. In the meantime, I’ve prepped my mountain bike for bikejoring runs in the mornings and evenings. I plan to take each dog out, solo and in pairs, to help reinforce commands and get them ready for the season ahead. Laika is nearly 7-months-old, and I’ll start her off with some easy canicross runs in the adjustable puppy x-back harness before trying her out on a small team.

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Late summer feels like being a kid on Christmas Eve. Mushing season is Christmas morning.

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Traditions

I’ve always loved traditions. I stayed in central New Jersey for most of my life, not because I loved the area, but I loved the people and the gatherings we created. I especially loved hosting—whether it’s just one friend spending the night or 70 people stuffed in my basement apartment exchanging gag gifts around a skinny Christmas tree.

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When I moved to California and, eventually, to NY state, my thought was that I’d go back “home” to keep my traditions going. I could stay at my parent’s for Labor Day and for Christmas Eve Eve and continue hosting the parties I’ve been having for decades. The first Labor Day back east was easy enough, since I was living in my parents’ garage while house-hunting. (I did have to temporarily deflate my bed so we could have the party.) Christmas Eve Eve (a party I’ve had since 2004) was more difficult. I was moved in upstate and had to rely on the kindness of my sister and her then-boyfriend (now fiancé!) to let me use their space, where I used to live and host. It worked out in the end, but it added logistical pressure to the holiday season, which I just wanted to enjoy.

This year, I have a bachelorette trip to Austin on Labor Day weekend. For the first time in maybe my entire life, there won’t be a party at my childhood home. Well, there might be, but not to its usual scale. I don’t expect to hold my Christmas Eve Eve party, either. It stings to skip or end these traditions, but it’s time to close that chapter and begin a new one.

The seasons here are amplified. Winter is about moving snow, stoking fires, and mushing. This leaves little time or energy to plan parties. It also makes it a lot harder for friends to get here safely. Spring is wet, wet, and more wet. The snow melts, the ground thaws, and the rain doesn’t stop. Black flies appear in swarms. I’ve learned that it’s hardly a time I want to be here, let alone have guests suffer through it.

That leaves summer and fall, the seasons far less brutal and soggy. For the most part, summer has been sunny and mild. The black flies disappeared as suddenly as they arrived. Daytime hits between 70°F and 80°F, and the nights sink back to 60°F, keeping the house cool without air conditioning. I hosted my “local” friends to ring in the solstice. None of them actually live that close, but they’re not 300 miles away, and that’s important. It felt like a very real victory to sit around a fire with people I didn’t know a year ago, in a place I didn’t own a year ago.

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The Fourth of July fell on a Thursday this year, and a few friends (old and new) managed to take an extra-long weekend to visit. This holiday has never been one of my traditions, but given the opportunity, it might become one. As luck should have it, the mild temperatures skipped town and we had our first 90°F day. We managed to get by with cold drinks, dips in Lake Ontario, and a garden hose. We even caught some fireworks down in Syracuse.

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Another set of traditions has emerged out of almost all my friends’ visits here: diner breakfast at Artie's, followed by flea markets, and ending with hikes at Salmon River Falls. I first visited the falls before my walkthrough of this house, and it may have sealed the deal more than the walkthrough. The falls and the area surrounding them are like an illustration for what each season brings to the north country. When I first saw them in late summer, hints of autumn were already creeping in. In winter, the face of the falls was nearly frozen solid with long tusks of ice shooting down the sides of the gorge. The ground was under a layer of snow and the moisture from the falls made the trails crunchy and slippery. By spring, everything was surging with the thaw and excess rain water. And now, as summer unfolds, lush green has taken over and the hum of bugs echoes the falling water.

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So it goes, these cycles, the passing of time. Traditions end and new ones replace them. Relationships fade and appear, almost overnight, like wildflowers. You find a new tribe to combine with the old; the ones who stick around and matter most. It makes a foreign, lonely place finally feel like home.

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Wide Open Spaces

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The off-season may be a time for the dogs to relax, but the work of a musher is never done. I had a very successful “staycation” last week, which gave me time to work on house and kennel projects. I’m pleased to announce the Blue Eyes and Spitfire play yard is open for zoomies. The dogs haven’t had this much enclosed space to run since our days visiting the Pawling house. 

I’ve spent the past few weeks collecting materials and tools: fencing, posts, stabilizer mix, a post hole digger and driver, a pneumatic staple gun, an air compressor, and so on. My mom and dad came up for a long weekend to help with the initial construction. After mowing down some of the overgrown spots, we got to work digging holes, securing posts, and raising the fence. The project itself was simple enough, but springtime in the north country provides its own challenges. The ground has been fully saturated by all the rain, so a few holes lead to water. And plenty of rocks.

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It’s also black fly season. These little black clouds terrorize anything breathing; biting and flying into any exposed orifice. We also had the warmest day of the year (thus far), complete with three thunder storms rolling through. Somehow, we still managed to get everything (mostly) done. 

I had to wait on some more ground stakes before I felt comfortable releasing the dogs into their new space. The fencing is 7 and 1/2 feet tall, but I folded around a foot at the bottom into a 90° angle and drove stakes down to create a dig guard. Just as I was finishing the final few stakes, a deer plowed through a corner of the yard, ripping the fence off the tree it had been stapled to. It flailed around a bit before bouncing out the other side, pulling down a bit more fence as it made its escape. Such is life living in the woods. 

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Thankfully, it’s an easy fix to re-staple and tie the fence back to its posts. I also hung plastic newspaper baggies to add visibility for wildlife (750 feet of flags are on their way, for slightly more attractive-looking visibility). I let Dexter and Knox out into the yard first, since they’re (usually) a bit more reserved and easy to wrangle, should they get loose. Once things were going well, I let Denali and Willow out too. 

Something got Knox excited and he went off like a furry torpedo towards the opposite side of the play yard. He has a history of crashing into fencing, and despite the bag, he didn’t have time to slow down and leapt straight into the fence. The fence came down a bit and a post bent (I used two types of posts, and this was the less solid variety), but the collision was so startling, he immediately booked it back into the play yard. I was able to fix the fence within a minute, unbending the post and re-zipping the fencing to the chain link dog yard fence.

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Since those two minor mishaps, the fence has been doing its job keeping the dogs inside during supervised playtimes. I’ll continue adding stakes and staples as needed, as I’m sure maintenance on it will be an ongoing process. I’ve got almost a full roll of fencing leftover, so I’ll be able to make repairs, too.

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Aside from the play yard project, I’ve made plenty of progress on my off-season To Do list. The dog box has been sanded and repainted, and I now have a set of pool steps to help with training the team to load and unload. My snowmobile has been moved to the barn, ready for next winter, as is my snowblower—with freshly changed oil. I found a local mechanic to swap out the busted wheel on my Arctis Cart; he seems like a great go-to for repairs (which I need… often) and welding. I stacked five more van loads of wood in the garage for next winter. I started a fresh pile of wood for the winter after next. I purchased a weed whacker and got the ride-on mower running. The side garden has been weeded and vegetable seeds have been planted. 

The land has come back to life. It takes work to keep it maintained, but it’s a good, fulfilling kind of work.

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Better Here

I turned 32-years-old last week. I had to think about it, for a moment I thought I was 31. I don’t really like birthdays. After 21, the passage of time doesn’t really seem worth celebrating.

Yet here I am, a week later, feeling pretty proud of what I’ve done in these 32 years. Navigating adulthood hasn’t always been easy and I’ve made plenty of mistakes to get here. I took an enormous leap when I moved to California. And another when I gave up and moved back east. Buying this house, hundreds of miles from anyone I knew, was the biggest leap of all.

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For the first time in my life, I’ve been making my own decisions. I’m not compromising on the things I’ve wanted to do for so long. I’m not waiting on someone else to do them with me—or worse, for me. I’m not curating my personality, my desires, or my dreams to fit someone else’s narrative. I’m not bending over backwards to accommodate a lifestyle I don’t want. I’m not changing who I am to appear more desirable, to a man or anyone. (My dating record can attest to this and that’s fine with me.)

You might be thinking, “Jess, you moved out on your own seven months ago—why the sudden revelation?”

I feel like I’ve finally reached a turning point since settling in here. There were some really dark days along the way. I questioned if moving out here was the right choice, if I had thrown away something irreplaceable, if I could even do this on my own. But here I am, figuring shit out.

Maybe I needed to survive my first winter. Or maybe I needed time with friends around the new BBQ grill (which I assembled myself).

Or maybe it was just realizing I’m better here. This was where I needed to be.

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The Tree Event

I was out in the barn when it happened—BOOM. I peaked outside the door and could see a giant tree had fallen across my driveway. “Shit.” I was preparing to head south for a weekend in New Jersey. In twenty minutes, I would have had the dogs packed into the van and we’d be on our way. Well, that was the plan.

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Living alone in the north country often means nothing goes as planned.

Instead of heading south, I checked the damage. The power line was wedged beneath the tree, pulled off one of the poles. The Spectrum line was also down. I went inside and sure enough, the internet and cable were out. Surprisingly, the power was still on, which meant I had a live wire to deal with. OK, so now what?

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I called National Grid and they had a maintenance worker out within an hour. He informed me that the tree had fallen “beyond the box”. This meant that it was technically my problem. Genuinely unsure of what to do, I asked if it was at least safe for me to begin working on the tree with my chainsaw. After inquiring about the whereabouts of my husband—hah—he realized my predicament, and offered to help free the wire (the least he could do). Working together, we cut a gap in the tree trunk and passed the wire through so that it was in the air again. He also helped me clear the middle of the tree that was blocking my driveway. A kind gesture despite the mild sexism, exposed butt crack, and accidental flatulence.

I spent another three hours cutting down the remainder of the tree and moving it into a pile. I managed to get the saw blade pinched only once, which required me to then hack through a limb with my axe to relieve the tension on the blade. I almost phoned in help, but unleashed my spinster rage to do the job. The battery on my saw died before I could finish the entire tree, but I did enough to feel accomplished.

Later that night, a Spectrum technician came out to fix the cable wire and get my internet up and running. I was able to get up early the next morning and continue on with my original plans to visit family, despite the brief setback. I’ve since cut the remainder of the tree. Now I just need to rehang the power line, split the wood, and stack it for seasoning.

I guess I can check “cut down tree for future firewood” off the list.

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Into the Light

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After our first winter in the North Country, signs of spring are creeping in. Patches of green grass and moss are emerging, along with buds at the ends of bare tree limbs. I found a patch of Hen and Chick succulents sprouting up next to the house. The snow has melted everywhere except deep in the woods, in the valley that doesn’t see a lot of sunlight.

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Laika is here and settling in with the pack. She’s been holding her own with the bigger dogs. It took about two weeks of crate rotations and muzzle time with Hubble before I trusted him not to hurt her, either on purpose or by mistake. He still needs to be supervised when she’s loose, but she’s a tough little spitfire.

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My spring To Do list is daunting. Looming projects have always been a burden. What’s the opposite of procrastination? I’m plagued by the need to get everything done. I can’t do it all at once; time and finances won’t allow for that. So instead I just make list after list, move cards on a Trello board, break projects down into pieces so that I can feel like I’m accomplishing something. I project manage my entire life as a coping mechanism.

I’m going to abandon my plan for chickens this season. It occurs to me that I don’t need to add the stress and expense of more animals, though I really look forward to homegrown eggs here one day. The same will likely go for the bee hive. If I learned anything this winter, it’s to start small. A garden will be enough work for now.

My latest raise kicks in this upcoming paycheck, and once I pay off some bills, I’ll be ready to start with the play yard fence project. Thankfully, it’s still cold enough to run the dogs with the Arctis cart, so we’ve got time to spare. I hope to have a safe, enclosed space for them to “free” run by the time temperatures are too warm to mush. Here’s hoping it all goes as planned.

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A Day in the Life

A few months ago, Blair Braverman wrote a Twitter thread documenting what her days look like while training for the Iditarod. More than just sharing cute dog pictures, Blair offered an inside look at the sport of dog mushing. Animal Rights groups like PETA are constantly spreading propaganda against the Iditarod and dog sports. Dog sledding isn’t something that’s easy to stumble across in suburbs and cities. Without exposure to mushing, it’s easy for people to fall for PETA’s misrepresentations.

Mushers like Blair, her husband Quince, Mari of ATAO Kennels, Alice of Wolf Moon, and many others have begun sharing their lives and their dogs. By being transparent about the sport we love, I hope those who question mushing will see our side.

I am by no means preparing for a distance race like the Iditarod (which Blair is currently running—GO BLAIR!), but many have asked what it’s like to take care of so many dogs. So in the spirit of bringing visibility to mushing, here’s what a typical (winter) day looks like for my little team.

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The dogs and I usually wake up around sunrise. The dogs sleep indoors, so it’s a mad dash to get out back into the dog yard. Many winter mornings involve fresh snowfall.

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While the dogs are outside stretching and playing, I come back in to get a fire started in the wood stove. On the coldest days, where highs barely reach double digits, I keep the fire going all day long. When it’s milder, I tend to wait until evening to get her burning.

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After the fire has been lit, it’s back outside in full winter gear for chores. First I scoop poop while the dogs continue to dance around the yard.

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Next, I deal with whatever new snow has fallen. For smaller storms, I’ll clear my entire driveway myself, but for bigger dumps I’ll call in a snowplow. Either way, the snowblower still comes out to clear walkways and the space in front of the garages.

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Every couple of storms, I have to bring the snowblower into the dog yard to fling snow out. Most of the time, I shovel around the perimeter. The dogs appreciate the pathway, and it ensures snow doesn’t pile up so high that the dogs can jump out.

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Finally, after all the chores are done, it’s time to mush! We run straight from the dog yard and the distance depends on how much trail breaking we need to do. Once trails are packed down, we can go for four to five miles right around the property. I made the late-season discovery of an entirely new trail, which should add a few miles. Next season, after the ATV club has cleared up some logging debris and I (hopefully) acquire a snowmobile, we should be able to go even further.

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After their run, the dogs cool off in the yard while I put away the sled and peel off my layers.

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Once everyone is sufficiently relaxed, it’s food time! The team eats Inukshuk 32/32 kibble with some canned food, Nupro glucosamine supplement, and bone broth. Dexter gets a sensitive stomach recipe kibble with lower fat content, because he’s not nearly as active.

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The dogs head back outside after breakfast in their crates. Now it’s finally time for me to eat something. Some mornings look like this. Others involve a bowl of cereal and a gallon of coffee.

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After the fire is lit, poop has been scooped, snow has been cleared, dogs have been run, and we’ve all been fed, it’s time to start my work day. I devote roughly 40 hours a week, sometimes more, to a remote tech company as their project management lead. My time consists of organizing development team features and fixes. And roughly a half dozen video calls every day.

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While I’m somewhat bound to my desk for eight or nine hours, I’m still able to take breaks to roll outside with the dogs, clean the house, do a load of laundry, or any of the other dozens of household chores that exist outside of snow-stuff. Some days, I won’t get a chance to run the team until my afternoon break. On even busier days, we don’t get to run until sunset.

After work wraps up, the dogs let me know it’s dinner time. The feeding routine repeats and I usually do a 45 minute workout—unless it’s Tuesday, which I devote to art-marking in the evening.

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I’ll scrounge up some dinner and a fruit protein shake for myself while the dogs find their spot for the rest of the evening. Couch space is a hot commodity, but the dogs rotate pretty often. The fire keeps this room toasty and they can only stay tight little donuts for so long.

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This is what a regular weekday looks like for me and my team. There are days when I pile everyone into the dog truck and venture out to new trails well before dawn. There are days when freezing rain is pummeling the house and we barely step foot outside. We’ll see what warmer weather brings!

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Thinking Ahead

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We still have a solid month left of winter—realistically, more like two up here in the North Country—yet I’m already planning out next season. I set some pretty lofty goals for myself and the dogs, and I’m disappointed that they (probably) won’t be met come spring. Moving across the country, buying a house, completing renovations, getting the dog yard up, and figuring out our new trails took a lot of time and energy. Warm weather and crappy conditions didn’t help. We’re expecting another round of mid-40s and rain this weekend, which could be why it already feels like spring.

I decided not to race at the Tug Hill Challenge, not only because conditions were uncertain (they ended up being fine by race day), but because I didn’t feel like the dogs were ready. I still went to watch and a lot of the mushers I spoke to had equally crummy seasons. Maybe it’s the new norm with climate change, but I’m hoping not. My main concern was passing other teams, especially in a class with 20+ entries. Between spending a lot of time in the Hudson Valley and then moving to Southern California, we haven’t trained with other teams in quite awhile.

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I’ve already made plans for passing training with another musher in my area for next season. I’m also hoping to attend more training meetups and even organize some, seeing as I won’t be overwhelmed by house stuff next fall. I’m determined to get my dogs comfortable running with other teams on the trail. Most of them have done it before, so I’m not too concerned. The only wildcard is Hubble. I have a Baskerville muzzle for him if he decides to be an alligator to passing teams.

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The president of a local ATV club stopped by my house and asked if they could continue using a trail that runs through my property. This is part of the trail I use with the dogs and it used to connect to a state forest behind my neighbor’s land. The club hasn’t had a chance to maintain it, which is why I haven’t been able to find the connection. This spring, they’re planning to re-open the trail, so they’ll be cleaning up downed trees and removing the overgrowth that’s hiding the route. A symbiotic relationship: the club will maintain the trail during the mushing off-season, and come October 1st, it’s all mine again (well, mine and my neighbors). If things work out, I should be able to mush much further, directly from the house. This would make training for longer distances a lot more feasible, especially during the work week.

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So, we’ve got passing training planned and we’ve got longer trail access in our future. The next step? As you might have been expecting, more dogs. Part of the reason I bought a house on 18 acres was to expand the team. This spring, I’m planning to bring home a little girl pup from Kelim Kennels. She’ll be the sixth member to round off my team. This has been the plan for awhile, so I’m excited to see it come together!

Photo by Kelim Kennels

Photo by Kelim Kennels

Photo by Kelim Kennels

Photo by Kelim Kennels

That said, a more recent development would be getting yet another dog before next season. My goal is to run a team of six capable of doing 30+ miles at a time. I’ve been keeping a close eye on Knox, especially as we ramped up training this past week. His tug line isn’t as tight as the others. In his defense, his body wasn’t bred to be a fine-tuned running machine. Who knows what his body was bred for, really. His fur alone makes it harder for him to run and he often has issues with his feet. He and Denali will both be 8-years-old by next season, so realistically, it’s time to start thinking about their replacements on the team. Denali has generations of sled dog breeding behind her genetics, so I hope she'll stay in harness for awhile, but I won’t expect the same from Knox.

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If all goes well with our springtime puppy, I’ll start looking for another—potentially an older puppy or a yearling. I’ll get an 8-dog gang line, run a team of seven (Denali/Willow, Knox/Blitz, New Girl Pup/TBD Pup, Hubble), and see how Knox does. I’ll train him to ride on the cart or in the sled bag, so he can still join us, and run as long as he wants to. Heck, it’s very possible he’ll keep up all season. Either way, it’ll be good to have an “alternate” if he decides to throw in the towel.

I’ve mentioned plenty of times how races aren’t important to me. I’m mostly interested in accomplishing some overnight camping expeditions with the dogs. Yet part of me wants to try a mid-distance level race, at least once. My experience has been sprint races, which are fast, intense, and anxiety-inducing. A longer race, 20 to 30 miles, seems more my speed. As a gear junkie, I like the concept of carrying mandatory emergency items in the sled. These races are more like mini-expeditions, which sounds more fun.

I might be jumping the gun by announcing all these plans and goals, but this season feels like a wash. I might as well start working towards the future. Here’s the TL;DR (but why wouldn’t you read?) for next season:

  1. One to two new team members

  2. Training with other teams

  3. 30+ mile runs

  4. Overnight campout

  5. Compete in a mid-distance race (Canyon Sled Dog Challenge? CanAm30? We’ll see!)

Now that they exist outside my brain, I have to make them real!

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The Thaw

The team and I made it through another snowstorm and another polar vortex. We came out of last week relatively unscathed; we were lucky and only got about a foot of new snow. Drive ten miles north and they had double the snow we did. A little further north saw double that—around four feet. I managed to clear the entire driveway (twice) with just the snowblower and a shovel. The house stayed warm despite winds that sounded like a freight train.

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Since climate change is all about extremes, we’re now midway through a week of above-freezing temperatures. Another reason I’m thankful we didn’t get too much snow. All that snow is going to melt and that water needs to go somewhere. My garage drained much better this warm-up. The driveway was an ice rink for a day or two, but it has melted down to dirt again.

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This weather is wreaking havoc on our trails, as well as the trails up north in Winona. We put in so much hard work trail breaking over this past weekend and now the snow is nearly gone in spots, punchy and icy in others. We didn’t even get a single smooth run out of it.

The Tug Hill race is less than two weeks away. Evidently, a lot can change in that time period, but we still have three days of rain to get through. There’s snow in the forecast for next week, but I’m not sure it’ll be enough to fix the mess.

When I’m not mushing, days start to blend together. I’m going through the motions: chores, work, exercise, eat. When my head returns to my pillow each night, it feels like I had just been there minutes earlier, without any new memories. I think I need to do something about that.

Photo Feb 05, 4 44 33 PM.jpg

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