Donkeys, Mushers, and Dogs

Photo Feb 19, 3 50 14 PM.jpg

Temperatures have finally taken a nosedive and we've been treated to a little snow. Mushing has been swell. On Saturday, we stayed local and ran up and down the mountain next door. We even spotted a wild donkey along the way! The dogs smelled him before I saw him and I had to make sure to keep them on the trail—so no photo this time. I’m not sure if these guys will act like deer and run or act like moose and charge. I’m not really looking to find out, but I hope to see them again—from a distance.

Photo Feb 18, 4 43 17 PM.jpg

Sunday we were back at Holcomb Valley, this time for a late afternoon run. I prefer running in the early morning not only because it’s cold, but also because there are rarely any people around. Fewer people means less opportunities for trouble, like loose dogs or horseback riders. Since we were going out late, Will came along to act as “handler". As I was getting set up, he noticed two other dog teams making a turn nearby. Surprised, we both trotted over to say hello and see who they were. Both were members of the Urban Mushing group in SoCal—I didn’t see their post about coming up to Holcomb that weekend. One musher was running a 5-dog team on an Arctis Cart, just like me. After socializing, we continued on our own run, completing just over six miles as the sun set.

Photo Feb 18, 5 18 02 PM.jpg

Monday was a holiday from work and a minor snow storm hit the mountain. There was only a thin layer of snow when I woke up, so I decided to sleep in (if 7:30 AM counts as sleeping in). By late afternoon, snow had kicked back up, and there was maybe 2-3” on the ground. I debated taking the sled out, but I wasn’t sure how well covered the trails would be. I also wanted the extra weight of the rig, in case I ran into people and loose dogs (holiday weekend + snow = tourists).

Sure enough, less than a mile into our run we came upon a beautiful loose malamute. I saw his person dip over to an adjacent trail, and my leaders started to follow, but I was able to keep them on track. For a moment, Denali and Willow dipped around a bush to take a look at the loose dog, and they were out of my field of vision. Another loose dog appeared at my side, and for a second I thought Denali had somehow slipped her harness and collar. Then I realized this was a second loose dog—another beautiful malamute. They both retreated back to their person, and I got a better look at them. They weren’t even wearing collars, which gave me a pang of anxiety. They looked so much like wolves, I wouldn’t have risked bringing them out to the woods without a bright orange vest. (And yes, I know the difference between dogs, wolves, and wolf dogs. I’ve worked with them. These may have been low content wolf dogs.)

The remainder of our run was uneventful but beautiful. The snow made things a bit tougher, and I wished I had a rig that could convert its wheels into runners. While out there, I realized I had achieved the perfect combination of clothing to remain comfortable—hot, even—while in bitter cold. The wind was ripping through the mountains at 7,500 feet up and the snow was swirling all around us. I could feel the wind pushing against me, but it didn’t get through. For those interested, I was wearing:

  • Merino wool socks
  • Leg warmers
  • Muck Arctic boots
  • Fleece-lined leggings
  • Singbring windproof/waterproof hiking pants
  • Tanktop
  • Uniqlo thermal long sleeve
  • North Face fleece
  • Columbia Catacomb Crest Insulated Parka
  • Face guard
  • Ski helmet
  • Waterproof, tight fitting gloves (for working with my hands)
  • Mittens (one size up, over gloves)

And that, folks, is how you spend a winter weekend.

Photo Feb 21, 12 09 09 PM.jpg

California Dreamin'

Photo Feb 10, 7 27 11 AM.jpg

We’ve been living in the Southern California mountains for a month now and here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. It’s oppressively sunny. Like, every day.
  2. It’s dry, too. (Lotion expenses are on the rise.)
  3. You’ll feel winded and lightheaded going up the stairs when you live at 7,200 feet.
  4. The dogs feel no difference and demand even more activity given the smaller yard size.
  5. California income tax is the highest in the country. (Who knew? A lot of people. Not me.)
  6. Dry shampoo BURSTS out of the bottle at high altitudes.

This has been an unusually warm and snowless winter for Big Bear, as the locals tell me when they find out I’m a dog musher. It’s been below freezing at night and in the morning, but the day heats up quick—it’s been in the 60s most afternoons. Aside from the snow storm we arrived in and one other squall (both happened at night) there’s been barely a cloud in the sky for a month straight. 

Photo Jan 23, 11 48 34 AM.jpg

We’ve settled into a pretty steady routine of mushing the local trails during the week. On weekends, we go to Holcomb Valley for some different scenery and faster, smoother runs.

Hubble has begun some very low-key training with the team. He took to the puppy x-back without issue and did well with cani-cross at six months. As he gets older, I’ll continue to integrate him into our runs, making sure that he sets the pace and we keep mileage low. (Worth noting—when and how you introduce a new dog to mushing is a hotly debated topic that I already wrote about and don’t intend to dive into again.)

Photo Feb 10, 6 42 43 AM.jpg

Since we're keeping things slow, I attempted a brief 6-dog team by throwing Dexter back into the mix. We only went around two and a half miles and our average speed was less than four miles per hour, but it was thrilling to look out at six dogs, working together.

In other dog-related news, I’ve switched the team from Annamaet Extra 26% to Inukshuk 32/32. Since we’re running four or five days a week now (Saturday and Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, plus one additional day), upping the fat content should help the dogs stay fit. I’ve also ordered a tub of fat that I plan to freeze into snack-sized cubes for trail boosts. Poop quality yet to be determined. 

Aside from dog-stuff, the humans have made a couple treks down the mountain into the heat of the Inland Empire. The ride is long but beautiful. The strip malls are not. It’s very weird to mush in a 28°F morning, and in the same day, come out of a movie to a 75°F evening, but I’ve done it. And I don’t mind it.

Photo Feb 10, 5 32 37 PM.jpg
Photo Feb 10, 5 33 01 PM.jpg

Things are a bit more simple these days. I’m no longer bouncing between houses (Pawling, Brooklyn, central New Jersey). I don’t have many plans, but it's kind of nice. I've set a lot of personal goals for myself  out here (freelance design work, make time for art, write more) but, so far, I've been content to just run dogs more.

Despite my semi-secluded lifestyle, I am looking forward to friends visiting—at least one per month for the next few months, it seems! I'm also looking forward to snow on Valentine’s Day. Even if the storm is a flop, temperatures are looking cooler for the next few days. I’ll take it.

Photo Feb 10, 5 40 25 PM.jpg

A Disclaimer

I don’t usually give training advice in this blog. I’ve been writing about my adventures for years now, but I shy away from sharing techniques or how-to's. I rarely feel like I have the authority to advise others. I might explain why I train a certain way, but avoid the details of how.

My last post sparked a debate on Facebook, which I was afraid of and also didn’t really expect from this particular topic. I was honestly surprised to hear how problematic it could be for some teams. It’s good to take in others’ experiences, though, and I don’t want to do the mushing world a disservice by implying my way is the only right way. 

When it comes to using the come-haw/come-gee commands, there are two things I forgot to mention: first, your dogs need to know how to stop (“whoa”) before initiating the turn, and second, be aware of tangles. Tangled lines can be a very real danger for a dog team of any size. Mushers should always carry a knife to free a tangled dog (in worst case scenarios). On our first local run in California, after I had used come-haw a few times, I unhooked my wheel dogs’ neck lines as a precaution. 

I’ve always placed a heavy emphasis on “line management” with my dogs, which is a perk of running a smaller team. New dogs get a very slow introduction to running, starting with canicross well before entering the main string. When we run, the lines must be in their appropriate places. I don’t allow my dogs to cross the center line. I reinforce line-out at all times. It can be exhausting to continually stop and correct a dog, but it seems to be successful in reducing bad tangles. (And, for the record, my worst tangles happened during unexpected head-on passes and when loose dogs attacked us, not during a come-haw.)

It should be made clear that what works for me may not work for a team of 14-dogs running through the Alaskan wilderness or a single-dog scooter running through Central Park. I’m experienced in running a small team (four dogs) on narrow, hilly trails—often used by mountain bikes, hikers, loose dogs, or even shared by vehicles. For much of our history, we’ve been a “sprint” team (if you’re looking for an industry term) and rarely run more than 10 miles at a time. As my team grows to five and hopefully six dogs, I do want to move towards mid-distance running, but that requires a lot of other considerations for us. 

I’m not a competitive sled dog racer. In the eight years I’ve been running dogs, I’ve competed in less than a dozen races—and only a few of them sanctioned. If you’re looking for advice to apply during races, this may not be the place. I run to keep my dogs happy and healthy, and because I love the bond we share when we’re out in the woods working together. When I do compete, it’s usually to help support the clubs I’ve joined. 

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything about mushing. Hell, I still buy lines rather than learn how to use a fid (it’s a goal for this year, I swear). But I have been shaping my life around this hobby. I joined clubs and found mentors before I got my first husky. I’ve read books and watched documentaries. I’ve followed dozens of other mushers via blogs and social media, gaining insight from their successes and failures. I’ve been lucky enough to attend races and trade fairs where experienced mushers have lectured and shared stories. I have incredible breeders just a DM away to answer questions or share their knowledge. I’m a researcher by nature and a project manager by trade, so I’m constantly looking to optimize and improve all aspects of my life. And most of my life revolves around these dogs.

I don't mean to sound defensive or combative with this discussion. I just want to offer an explanation and a bit of insight for those who read this blog. Take all internet advice with a grain of salt and use your head when applying training methods to your own team. I can only share my own perspectives here and hope that it helps others in their adventures. 

Photo Jan 20, 7 29 31 AM.jpg

Around and Around

After receiving some feedback on this post, I decided it was important to include a disclaimer message. Please read the next post if you decide to teach this command to your team.


A valuable command to have in your dog team’s arsenal is “come haw” (or “come gee”—either works, we just tend to haw). Come haw is used when I want to turn the entire team around (towards the left—"haw"). It comes in handy  when you’re running an out-and-back style trail, rather than a loop, but it can also save your butt in difficult situations.

When I moved out west, our first run could’ve been a lot more difficult had my leaders not known how to turn the team around. Since the trail was unfamiliar, we hit a lot of roadblocks trying to complete a loop. We had to turn around at least a half dozen times, which is frustrating for everyone, but they managed it well. We kept hitting downed trees, boulders, and fencing—all stuff the dogs could maneuver around or under, but I could not pass with the cart. So, come haw they did, and we turned back to find another route.

This command also helps in more serious situations. I’ve used it when I saw loose dogs approaching us from down the trail. It has also been useful when approaching road intersections that may not be safe to cross. There’s plenty of reasons why you may need to abruptly turn the hell around, so it’s an important command to train.

 

Teaching your team to turn around starts with making sure your leaders know what to do—so train them alone, or with a small team, before trying to turn around a string of 12 dogs. Use the command when training on a dead-end trail if you can. Find a spot where the trail very clearly comes to an end and the dogs wouldn’t be able to proceed easily forward. 

The first few times, you’ll likely have to dismount from your rig or sled (good brakes, digger claws, or snow hooks are key) and maneuver the leaders around. Once they get the hang of turning around at the dead-end, try using the command on a wide trail that hasn’t ended yet. (A wide trail is easier to turn around on) Be patient—going forward into the unknown is a lot more fun than going back the way they came, so it’s not an easy command to master. Eventually, try using it on narrower trails or when something particularly exciting is in front of them. That’s the true test.

My leading ladies know the command and will obey it... most of the time. Usually, they’re quite good about it, especially when there’s a sense of urgency or an obvious reason to 180. However, they will test it if I try to turn them around simply because they’re slowing down or goofing off. In those situations, come haw becomes a threat—"do your job or we’re going back home". In some cases, it motivates them to pick up the pace and keep rolling… but if I hold the brakes long enough, they’ll roll their eyes and make the turn.

Into the Wild

I’m eager to share photos of our new house, but there’s still a few things to finish. We’ve got furniture that was left behind by the previous owner that needs to be sold (or given away) and a few other things to put together. There’s also an enormous, glorious shed that I will eventually use to store my mushing and camping gear, but it’s full of forgotten Christmas ornaments, paint cans, and other old junk.

While the inside of the house remains a work in progress, I’ll talk about what’s outside. The main reason we chose this house was its location. We’re tucked away from the main drag and tourist attractions in town and literally next door to a state forest. We do have neighbors—it’s a tightly packed little mountain community—but most of them are part-timers. There’s only one house between us and the forest, and the owners only come up a few times a year. Same goes for the house to our left. Only our neighbor in back is a full-time resident, and so far we’ve managed to make friends with him (though not with his German Shepherd, who hates us all).

26238767_1636352103088671_6110217765408501361_n.jpg
Photo Jan 20, 7 29 30 AM.jpg

To run our new local trail, I hook the dogs up in the backyard, open up the gate, and off we go. It’s a quick left turn out the gravel driveway onto a dirt road that runs parallel to the forest. There are a few entry points, but the openings are intentionally narrow to keep ATVs and other motorized vehicles out (and the whole forest is surrounded by barbed wire fencing). It’s a tight squeeze, but I can get my Arctis cart through with some finagling. My sled, on the other hand, glides through with ease.

Once we’re in the forest, it’s about a mile to get through to the other side, where we hit another dirt road. The trail is pretty rocky, so I keep the dogs at a slow pace. The first time we ventured out, I got "lost" trying to complete a loop back to the trailhead. I wasn't really lost, since I had cell service and knew exactly where I was in relation to our house and street. I just couldn't find trails that connected without hitting downed trees or boulders blocking the way. Going forward, I'll stick to the out-and-back routine, until I can map out a loop on foot.

After another mile and a half (headed west) on the dirt road, the trail smooths out quite a bit, and I’m able to let the dogs cut loose. We’re treated to snowy mountain ridges, enormous redwood trees, and brief views overlooking Big Bear Lake.

Photo Jan 18, 6 57 16 AM.jpg

I keep increasing the mileage bit by bit, keeping in mind every mile further is another mile we’ll have to run back. The altitude (7,200+ feet above sea level) is no joke out here, so I’ve been spacing out our runs and giving everybody time to acclimate. The dogs don't seem phased by it, but it I definitely feel it. 

There’s still more road we haven’t covered to the west and almost the same amount of distance to the east that we haven't touched at all. I think we'll be able to pull off ten mile runs without having to pack up and drive, which is a dream come true.

Photo Jan 20, 7 50 18 AM.jpg

Local trails aside, I still like to switch things up, and there are tons of trails in the area to explore. Twenty-five minutes away is Holcomb Valley, which was suggested to me by another SoCal musher. The trails here are smoother and much like the sandy Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. They’re lined with enormous pine trees and full of icy puddle-craters, just like home. I didn’t go too far here (yet), mostly due to inadequate footwear on my part. The dogs practically had to swim through one of the puddle-craters at the start of our run, and there was no avoiding the knee deep icy water to push the cart through. Why I decided against wearing my waterproof Muck boots is beyond me.

Photo Jan 15, 7 20 48 AM.jpg

Despite the frozen feet, the run was so much fun—the dogs got to run fast and hard, and the views were stellar. I even discovered pathways around the puddle-craters, which I wish I had noticed the first time around. Even though loading the gear and dogs and driving can be a chore, I'm excited to go back and explore further.

Photo Jan 15, 7 00 54 AM (1).jpg

Eventually, I'll make the trip up to Mammoth Lakes (five hours north) for some optimal sledding trails. I hope to go even further north—to northern Cali and maybe Oregon—for some west coast mushing meet-ups. But for now, there’s plenty around here for us to see.

Photo Jan 15, 8 30 44 AM (1).jpg

Dog Profiles: Blitzen

16402629_10100970877790328_1446924481306446453_o.jpg

If I recall correctly, the day that Dexter decided to retire (AKA refused to run), I found Blitzen’s litter shared in a Facebook group. There were still two or three puppies available and something about them caught me eye—besides being cute as fuck puppies. 

Photo by Steve Renner

Photo by Steve Renner

I checked, and sure enough, the lineage included Sibersong on the sire's side (where both Denali and Willow came from). And yes, I can now identify dogs that are related to other dogs just by looking at photos on the internet. The little black and white pups were great-grandkids of Tristan—Denali’s dad, Willow’s granddad. The sire (Sibersong’s Storm) was bred out of Lightning and Victor—two dogs I knew of well. Lightning was awesome in harness and Viktor was a strong but submissive male. That combination was exactly what I wanted to take Dexter’s place in my team. And, at this point, running at least four dogs had been pretty much solidified for me. There's no going back now.

14859684_10100887764649728_8404501674325419509_o.jpg

I reached out to the breeder (Steve and his family—Team Snowspeeder) and made plans to scoop up the little Lightning look-alike after Halloween. At the time, we were rolling in my old Ford E-150 camper van (still half-finished inside). We drove a few hours north to meet Steve and his wife, Tuesday, and the new addition to my team.

Blitz was shy at first, but I quickly won him over with a French fry. Even though we had crates in the back of the van, he rode the whole way home in Will’s lap. The two of them have been pretty bonded ever since.

File Jan 15, 1 25 55 PM.jpeg

As a young pup, Blitz integrated into the pack without much issue. He and Willow became instant buddies (they’re only a year apart in age) and he even gets along well with Knox (who tends to be a wildcard). 

19905461_10101125951446478_9054561271233916071_n.jpg

When it was time for Blitz to join the team, I didn’t have any doubts to his ability. From his very first hookup, he’s been the strongest puller I've ever seen. I often brag about Denali and Willow’s work ethic, but Blitz runs on jet fuel by comparison. He leans into his harness and digs in harder than any of my other dogs—making our runs instantly more fun and a hell of a lot faster. And at the end of every run, he unwinds by doing his signature roll (a trait he apparently gets from his father). 

16179744_1300875536636331_3145165109956600874_o.jpg
16601980_1321359151254636_1566403560974578969_o.jpg

I couldn’t do a full profile on Blitz without mentioning his most, um, intrusive quality. He’s a crotch bandit. If you enter my home, within seconds you’ll have a nose in your crotch and/or butt, and my money is always on Blitz getting there first. We had hoped his nosiness would subside after getting neutered, but that habit remains. He likes to get to know you.

15895580_10100950056087188_7744896449799609908_o.jpg

As Blitz matures (he’s one and a half right now), he’s been prone to policing Dexter’s behavior, but otherwise remains sweet and submissive with the other dogs. He still loves Will and has recently become much more snuggly—especially at night, when he wants to be spooned in bed. We suspect that adding Hubble to the mix had something to do with it.

17342701_1352878994769318_5886407012289260061_n.jpg

Jess Goes West

The past week has been a whirlwind of driving, sneaking dogs into motel rooms, more driving, beef jerky, gas stations, more driving, unpacking, and settling into California. I think my sleep cycle is still on the eastern timezone. (At least I'm having no trouble getting the dogs out for 6 AM runs?)

Photo Jan 05, 9 53 08 AM.jpg

We left the east coast right after a snow storm and two weeks of “arctic blast” temperatures. We slept in Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arizona along the way—and just about every morning was below freezing all across the country. I had initially planned to do some mushing, but since I was keeping pace with Will towing a trailer, I didn’t want to venture too far apart. The goal was to get to California as quickly as we could.

For that reason, my plan to vlog kind of fell apart. I did take some videos, but it’s just me, at the start of each morning, saying where we were and what day it was. I was driving alone and couldn’t record unless we stopped. All our stops were at gas stations, restaurants (only for dinner), and motels—none of which were particularly scenic. Except maybe that stop in New Mexico:

Photo Jan 08, 11 22 13 AM.jpg

I’m really proud of how the dogs handled four and a half days of travel. We stayed at dog-friendly motels, but all of them had a two dog limit, so we had to be sneaky getting the dogs in and out of the rooms. Next time I make the journey across, I'll stop to mush and maybe have them sleep in the van, or book a campsite. There were definitely some turds dropped indoors (and pee... and barf...), but they did their best with limited outdoor time. The older dogs handled everything like pros—they're used to traveling in the van and snooze the whole way. Hubble, on the other hand, would do his moo-howl after about five hours of driving. He still held it together pretty well for a rambunctious five-month-old.

Photo Jan 09, 6 36 42 AM.jpg

When we crossed into California, we found a spot off the highway to drop the dogs for their midday break. It happened to be right next to a dirt road, so I hooked them up for their first official west coast run:

Photo Jan 09, 12 32 18 PM.jpg
Photo Jan 09, 12 32 51 PM.jpg
Photo Jan 09, 12 43 02 PM.jpg

It was an extremely short run, as it was in the upper 50s and I didn’t want to overheat them, but they did great. Will ran alongside us with Hubble for a short sprint and he looked so ready to join the team (not yet, little dude). The run was just enough to get them through the last leg of our journey, which was also the most annoying.

The last few miles took us up 7,000+ feet into the mountains surrounding Big Bear. This winter had been bone-dry for the most part (except for the last time Will got here) but we arrived during a snow storm. Of course. We weren’t sure we’d make it up to the house, but decided to spend the money on snow chains and see how things went rather than give up and stuff the dogs in another motel.

The road was mostly clear until we got into town. The rain at the base of the mountain gradually changed over to snow as we ascended and night fell. My 4-cylinder van struggles up hills and Will, towing a car trailer, was being extra cautious. When we made it to our part of town, we had to go downhill then uphill to where the house sits. Literally 0.2 miles from our doorstep, our vehicles got stuck, and we had to give up. We put “I’m sorry!” signs on the windshields in hopes that we wouldn’t offend our new neighbors with our stranded vans and dragged our necessities up the hill.

Photo Jan 09, 5 27 02 PM.jpg

Luckily, the next day warmed up quick, and the roads were clear by noon. We got the vans to the house and got to unpacking. I'll have more to say about the house and our new local trails in another post. Until then, there's still so much to do.

Dog Profiles: Willow

16251833_10100970877780348_6609340942535562705_o.jpg

After reaching the 3-dog mark, things were pretty quiet for awhile. The dogs were learning how to be a team and I was learning how to be a musher. As Denali and Knox matured and got faster, I could see that Dexter’s interest was fading. I knew I wanted to keep mushing, so I started thinking about dog number four.

There was a second litter planned between Denali’s parents and I was excited by the prospect of owning another well-bred, easy to manage dog. Sadly, the breeding didn’t work out, but I was given the next best thing—an opportunity for a pup bred out of Mia, Denali’s sister. 

Mia and Denali are very similar. They’re great leaders and both have boss bitch attitudes. I didn’t know much about the litter’s sire (Merlin out of Kelim Siberian Huskies), but I trusted they’d make great offspring.

11231316_10206979831158851_1923534438427916429_n.jpg

Willow (originally “Snow”) was born June 10th, 2015. I was told I had first pick of the girls after the breeder made her choice. I knew right from day one that I wanted the oddball with the mismatched ears. 

Two months later, Willow was ready to join my pack. My cousin and I piled into my SUV with Denali and drove up north to camp in New Hampshire for the weekend, with plans to nab the pup on our return drive. We hiked the Franconia Ridge Traverse that Saturday—a hike that truly destroyed our asses. The next morning we packed up camp and headed to Sibersong, where Willow was freshly bathed and waiting. (I wish I could say the same for us.)

11947395_10100613674448688_2197689008466357313_n.jpg

Denali was very confused by this new little girl, encroaching on her all-dude pack. It must have been very stressful for little Willy—her mom looked almost identical to Denali and yet this new, strange dog gave her nothing but grief.

Despite the rocky beginning, Denali learned to tolerate Willow’s presence. Knox, on the other hand, was thrilled to have a pup around that was willing to play with him and wasn’t Dexter. 

12010520_10100626124862958_5788046175373219101_o.jpg
11884969_10100615613742328_369664771794407497_o.jpg

My first run with Willow on the team was magical. I had never run four dogs before, and her presence even seemed to give Dexter a boost. Each dog ran better with a partner at their side. Denali was more focused in lead with Knox and Dexter was less intimidated by his female running mate.

It wasn’t long before I bumped Willy up to the lead position with Denali. She’s fast, smart, and intense—and runs in perfect unison with Denali. She’s every bit the rockstar sled dog I wanted, with the added bonus of being a really sweet pet.

12823487_1044938455563375_8912838307339319388_o (1).jpg

If an evil Disney-style witch turned me into a dog, I’m 100% sure I would be Willow. She’s a serious worker when there’s a job to be done, but take the harness off and she’s a lovable weirdo with a tendency to expose herself.

She can be a bit nervous, though, especially around strange men. (A girl after my own heart.) She doesn’t like to be squeezed and gets a bit anxious if you try and hold her—same. After all, she’s the smallest one in my pack, weighing in at a whopping 38 pounds. 

People often ask me if I have a favorite dog, which is hard to answer (other than “not Dexter”). I’d definitely take a dozen more Willows, though.

12604915_10100695000949728_5151047115907292515_o.jpg

Dog Profiles: Knoxville

12967961_10100743441908658_8297466912918666943_o.jpg

My plan was to adopt, buy, adopt, buy, and so on with my dogs. Knoxville isn’t a total disaster or anything, but I don’t think I’ll be adopting any more puppies in the future. There's definitely something to be said about sound, well-bred working dogs.

Knox started out as a tiny cotton ball of a pup. I found him on Petfinder, when I knew I wanted to keep growing my little 2-dog bikejor team into something more. He’s just six months younger than Denali, but they couldn’t be more different. They both love to run and to kill, but the similarities end there.

When I brought Knox (originally named "Keiko") home, his paperwork said he was around 8-weeks-old, but it didn’t sit right with me. He seemed much too small for the date given as his estimated birthday. I was seriously worried he was half Pomeranian and considered returning him to the rescue. After consulting a few breeder friends, they concluded he was probably closer to 6-weeks-old, which explained his size and how difficult he was to train. (He liked running across my couches while peeing.)

322143_719064063098_1932852640_o.jpg

From tiny teddy bear, Knox morphed into an awkward llama before he finally grew out his guard hairs and became the magnificent beast he is today. Since adopting him, I’ve found a handful of other huskies that look suspiciously similar—all from the southern United States. My guess is that someone is breeding up these crazy, woolly, agouti Siberians because they look cool, without much consideration for their temperament or physical health.

383016_741939864808_588951922_n.jpg
409249_767589966798_812791064_n.jpg
422076_791505998878_834295944_n.jpg

Knox does look cool. People have stopped us on hikes to take selfies with him. But he’s got some behavioral issues I would’ve liked to avoid. He plays rough and a lot of dogs are intimidated by his bite-your-butt-and-roar move (sorry, Strudel). He resource-guards and hoards everything (mostly from Dexter, he doesn’t care that much about the other huskies). He wedges himself under chairs and tables and into small spaces… for whatever reason. Out of all my dogs, his personality is closest to the wolves I volunteered with at Howling Woods Farm. I don’t think he has an ounce of wolf in him, to be clear. He’s just always been a bit of a recluse. He’s currently outside alone while the other five are curled up tight around me.

555818_864241256838_2007281853_n.jpg

Despite how beautiful his fur looks, it’s actually a bit of a nightmare to deal with. It mats up if I don’t brush it often, and of course, he hates to be brushed. In the winter, I have to wax his paws to avoid snowball buildup during our runs. Whoever bred him didn’t have mushing in mind. That said, he’s been a solid sled dog. He isn’t cut out to lead, but he’s a strong and steady follower. The colder and more miserable the weather, the more he loves it.

10860939_831598583564031_5136146616342116992_o.jpg

In our early years as a 3-dog team, I had a bit of trouble with Knox passing other teams. He would bark and lunge, though he never actually made contact with another dog. The one time we did get tangled with another team, he stood there silently and didn’t make a move—so I think he's all bark and no bite. I pulled Dexter from the “race team” (due to his own, er, inadequacies) and went back to bikejoring with the huskies and Knox’s attitude changed completely. Ever since, he’s been able to walk by teams to get to the race chute and pass on the trail without issue. I’m not sure what psychological drama went down between Knox and Dex, but I'm glad I'm learning how to manage it.

12823487_1044938455563375_8912838307339319388_o.jpg
22279586_1544247485632467_476981567343031153_n.jpg

I spoke in a previous post about Knox’s future as part of our team. Since he wasn’t bred for this, I wonder how long he’ll keep up. He’s more prone to foot injuries and overheating, and it’s hard to say how much his weird structure affects his running (he’s got sort of a German Shepherd hunch under all that fur). I’ll let him decide when he’s ready to retire, but I hope that’s many years away.

23559818_1580471765343372_6391331978754752418_n.jpg

Dog Profiles: Denali

Photo Dec 28, 12 19 31 PM.jpg

It took a bit of time before I found my first true sled dog. The mushers of the Jersey Sands Sled Dog Racing Association were able to give me both experience and referrals. Combined with my volunteer work, I finally had the “northern breed experience” I needed. Now I just had to find a reputable breeder with a litter planned.

Sadly, finding a good dog breeder isn’t easy. Most people breed dogs because they like their dogs or the breed. Not because they’re knowledgeable about genetics or care to improve the breed as a whole. I didn't want a frumpy pup from unproven parents—I didn't even want a dog that fit the typical show standard. I wanted a dog that was built to run. (I won’t even get into the world of pet stores and puppy mills, since I know to avoid them.)

Eventually, I found Jaye of Sibersong, based out of New Hampshire. Her huskies were leggy, muscular, and athletic. The races she competed in further proved their health and abilities. Out of her entire kennel, two dogs stood out to me—Weyekin and Tristan. Oddly enough, a litter was planned between the two, and a NJ mushing friend was able to connect me with Jaye as a trusted buyer.

189492_1939736777714_6779082_n.jpg

On March 10th, 2011 Denali (then “Summer”) and her siblings were born. When she was only a few weeks old, her mother picked her up and managed to cut her face, near her eyelid. She’s had a scar there ever since, but it doesn’t affect her vision or bother her at all.

In late May, I drove up to New Hampshire with my then-boyfriend to scoop up my new puppy. I think we went fishing before heading to Jaye's kennel the following morning. Even though it was already late May, it was still cool out and she was able to take us for a run with her team—on the back of an ATV. It was exhilarating to be around so many sled dogs and to be trusted to help handle them. It must’ve been obvious I barely knew what I was doing at the time. I only had Dexter and a bike back at home.

After the run, we met the puppies. I had two to pick from, but I always knew the bi-eyed, scar-faced pup would be the one I chose.

222008_2012461035775_2838909_n.jpg

Denali was perfectly well behaved on the seven hour drive back home. Dexter loved her immediately. She was a no-nonsense dog from the start. I barely remember her as a puppy because she was so smart and well-mannered, but she still liked to wrestle.

331826_689578073258_1794595_o.jpg

Denali grew up in the blink of an eye. When she was old enough to run, it clicked with her right away. She learned commands by following Dexter and soon she was the one leading him. 

422172_288705267853368_1721451056_n.jpg

As I added dogs to the team, Denali somewhat faded into the background—not because she isn’t great, but because she requires very little effort. She remains a strong leader, like many of her siblings and relatives. She has ran in ten races (some sanctioned, others just "fun runs") and has always done beautifully when competing.

396353_288700744520487_1630504416_n.jpg
12371220_1000165310040690_8756314436083362899_o.jpg
12829107_1044938462230041_8268634333134909132_o.jpg

Her love for running is only matched by her love of hunting small animals, which is really her only bad habit. When she isn’t running or hunting, she’s snoozing or policing the younger dogs. Or demanding pets from whatever human is nearby. 

She’s the closest thing I have to a full-time handler—she just has four legs instead of two.

23331226_10101224824379328_6947282810888514374_o.jpg