Is there room in Mushing for the non-competitive Musher?

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I’ve been mushing for about eight years now. In that time, I’ve participated in about a dozen sprint races. Some were just “fun runs”, but the majority were ISDRA sanctioned, legitimate races with competitive teams. My dogs usually did fairly well, placing somewhere in the middle of the pack—between the slow-and-steady Samoyeds and the gazelle-like Eurohounds. How we did depended a lot on our order out the chute. If we were behind a fast team, we usually did well, since we could chase them right to the finish line.

Sprint races are short and intense, with teams spaced out only by a few minutes and often interacting on the trail. You’ll also be running against all levels of musher—from recreational newbie to competitive pro. Unlike mid-distance and distance races, which seem to mainly be composed of Alaskans and maybe a few Siberian teams, you’ll see all sorts of dogs at sprint races.

For me, there are a lot of variables that make sprint racing stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy attending races and talking to other mushers. I love seeing the dogs run. But when it’s our turn, I’m usually a ball of nerves. 

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The funny thing is that I’ve never had any major issues during a race. My dogs are mysteriously polite during the chaos of getting to the start chute and returning back to the van. In my early races, we did get into a tangle and my bike fell apart (ah, Fair Hill), but we made it out without injuries or upsetting anyone. I wish I could break the nerves, but it just seems to be part of racing.

For me, mushing isn’t about the thrill of competing (or winning). I prefer to be alone in the wilderness with my team—a collection of dogs I picked and trained to work together. Just traveling over different landscapes is a victory in itself. I want to grow my team to go longer distances. I want enough dogs in harness that when someone is tired, injured, or retired, the team can still keep going. I want to breed a litter of pups, so I can hand-pick and raise a future team right from the very beginning (this won’t be for a long time, if at all). 

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I have a lot of goals for me and these dogs: longer miles, overnight expeditions, maybe even some small-scale touring. Racing isn’t part of the plan. Yet, for most mushers, competition is the main goal for their whole operation. Nowadays, sled dog kennels serve little functional purpose other than racing and touring (which tend to go hand in hand—big race kennels often give tours). I don’t know of any mushers who use dog teams for their traditional purposes—fur trapping, transporting goods, etc. (though it still exists in native cultures). 

The “purpose" of these dogs has obviously shifted towards competition. As a working dog, their value is determined by how well they do their job. So, it should come as no shock that whenever I ask for advice from other mushers, it comes to me under the assumption that I’m building a race team. But what if that’s not what I’m after? What if my goals don’t align with the majority of the community? 

These are rhetorical questions because, truthfully, I don’t care. I’m always going to follow my own path, even if it’s an edge case in an already niche hobby. That said, you’ll probably still catch me at sprint races from time to time. You may even see me at a mid-distance race one day. If you do, please pat me on the back and maybe give me a Tums. 

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No Rest for the Musher

Sled dogs are synonymous with winter. What most people don’t realize is that mushing is a year-round event. Fall is for dry land training—either with a cart or an ATV—to prepare the dogs for the season ahead. Winter is when (weather/climate permitting) most races are held and mushers switch to sled runs. Spring is for learning: training puppies on slow, short runs and giving young dogs a chance to lead in front of small teams. 

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Summer is considered the “off-season”, but that just means the dogs are not running. There is no summer vacation for the musher. While the trails disappear under a living blanket of green, mushers are preparing. Gear needs to be fixed or replaced. Holes in the dog yard need to be filled. If you have them, dog houses need to be cleaned, repaired, and re-painted. The dog truck needs maintenance. Some kennels raise litters during the summer. Caring for six tiny new team members is far from time off. The existing team also needs exercise and mental stimulation to get through the warm months, when mushing isn’t an option.

The off-season might be the busiest time of the year.

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This summer is especially busy for team Blue Eyes, as we are preparing to move across the country… again. I’m pre-approved for a mortgage and started house hunting online, but there’s only so much you can do from 3,000 miles away. The properties seem promising, but there’s a long way to go before we’re finally home (for real, this time). 

As a project manager by trade and a planner by compulsion, I’ve laid out about a dozen check lists for what needs to get done in the next few months. I’m putting myself through the gauntlet of annual doctor visits while I’m stationary. The dogs are getting their annual vaccinations, too. The dog van and SUV both need to be cleaned and serviced for the cross-country trek (the SUV also needs some repairs). I have to sort through all my belongings (again) and sell or donate what I don’t need (two big moves really helps reduce clutter). Everything I’m keeping will be stored in an enclosed trailer until I have a permanent home to put it in. I have to carefully decide what I'll need until then and live out of a duffle bag.

I have about a dozen accounts to update and then update again when I buy a house. I’ll need to switch health insurance plans. And adjust my car insurance. When I’m finally a citizen of New York state, I’ll need a new license and to update all my vehicle registrations. And dog registrations. There’s so much to think about. 

Our road trip east has already been planned and dog-friendly hotels are booked along the way. Once we’re back, we’ll be staying with my parents (in the garage? glamorous) and at the Pawling house, which puts us closer to the upstate NY houses I want to see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the home-buying process goes smoothly and we’re able to close before winter. I need to put up a dog yard and play yard, if I can swing it, before the snow falls. 

The future is taking shape, even though the finish line seem so far away.

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Dog Fights

People often ask me if the dogs get into fights. When you have a buttload of dogs living together, it’s a legitimate concern. I can’t speak for every musher, but I think most have dealt with the occasional fight. Large scale kennels usually tether their dogs to manage their interactions. Others separate their dogs into different enclosures, ensuring they get along with those in the space they share. (For example: my friend has a “wimpy” dog yard and an “asshole” dog yard)

 Don't worry, we're just playing.

Don't worry, we're just playing.

When I entered the world of mushing, my intentions were to keep a small team (ha!)—they were to be pets first, sled dogs second. This also meant keeping them inside the house with me. For the most part, this has been working out just fine, even as my numbers increased. Knox and Dexter would get into an occasional spat, mostly due to Knox’s resource-guarding tendencies. Still, their issues have been easily managed.

We were spending most of our time at the Pawling house when I brought Blitz and eventually Hubble into the mix. Pawling has a decent sized floor plan and an enormous yard for the dogs to release their energy. This is especially useful in the off-season, when it's too warm to mush, but the dogs still need exercise.

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In our move to the SoCal mountains, we knew there'd be a tradeoff: a much smaller house and yard in exchange for trails right at our doorstep. The hope was that I’d be able to occasionally run throughout the summer, since average lows remain much cooler here. Many mushers keep their dogs in enclosures or tethered during the off-season, so I hoped the smaller space would work for my pack. 

As you might have expected by the tone of my posts, it has not worked out.

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One of the major reasons I decided we have to move was the uptick in fights. We’ve had a few between Willow and Denali, which tend to be the scariest. One sent me to urgent care with an infected finger. Dumb move on my part—I couldn’t get them off one another, so I stuck my hand in Denali’s mouth to pry it open. This is a lesson in how NOT to separate fighting dogs. Instead, you should make a lot of noise, throw a bucket of water, or grab the aggressor by the hind legs.

Hubble’s raging hormones are an added bonus in the daily maintenance of hot, bored dogs. Regular playtime has turned into frequent spats*, I suspect because there isn’t enough space for the dogs to get away from one another when they’ve had enough. 

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I already know I want to expand my team, so it’s time to find a property with enough space to keep everyone happy and safe. I’m looking at homes with outbuildings, walk-out basements, and enclosed porches that would be suitable indoor hangouts for the dogs. The plan is to build an ultra-secure dog yard that connects to the house (so I can easily let them in and out). Surrounding the dog yard will be a much larger space (1-2 acres), enclosed with cattle fencing and dig guards, to act as the supervised play yard. Depending on what my team looks like and the space we settle on, I may break up the dog yard into separate runs for even more control over who interacts with who. 

It’s time to eat my words and let my sled dogs be sled dogs.

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*Luckily, the majority of the fights are between the boys. These are both easy to predict/prevent and mostly a lot of noise, spit, and pulled hair. They rarely injure each other. The girls, on the other hand, fight rarely but viciously and without much warning.

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Jess Returns East, Admits Defeat

After my posts about California not working out, several people asked me where I’ll be headed next. I didn’t mean to end on a cliff-hanger. At the time, I was still sorting through the emotional distress that came with the decision.

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I appreciate all the advice and suggestions on where I should go to pursue my mushing dream. I don’t want to sound ungrateful (it’s amazing to me that anyone cares at all), but I already know about the mushing meccas around this hemisphere. Alaska, Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the UP of Michigan have long been at the back of my mind, but they’ll be staying there for a bit longer.

When I set out for California, Plan B was always to return to the northeast. When I was leaving, I reassured my Mom that if things didn’t work out, I’d end up in New York state. Specifically, I’m aiming for the Tug Hill region (around an hour outside of Syracuse), which has some beautiful dog sled trails and lots of snow. Properties on several acres are within my price range. Most importantly, it’s within a day’s drive to my support system: my family, (most of) my friends, and a mushing community I know well.

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This should give me a taste of the rural, mushing-focused life I’ve been chasing after for years. It’s a step towards full independence and a more self-sufficient existence. If I love it and want more (more miles, more trails, more dogs), then I’ll put some real thought into those mushing meccas I mentioned above. Maybe it’ll be enough. Or maybe I’ll decide to dial back and move closer to a city again (as unlikely as that sounds). 

Only time will tell, as it always does. 

As for right now, I’m spending the summer out west, where I’ll savor the lack of humidity and mosquitoes. There's still a lot of the west coast for me to explore. The journey east is scheduled for early August. Once I'm back there, I’ll bounce between central New Jersey and the Pawling house once again, until I find my own little homestead. 

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31 Years and Rolling

I stopped looking forward to birthdays after passing all the big milestones—driving, voting, drinking, and, uh, renting a car I guess? After 30, you’re really just paying attention to the first digit. And when that number changes, it’s not really a joyous occasion. It’s more like, oh fuck, wasn’t I just 17?

Of course, at 31, I’m far from old and hopefully far from the cold, sterile lab where my remains will be donated to whatever cause finds use for them. Still, every year is a reminder that life is fleeting. 

I was up several times this morning, well before dawn, hoping to see multiple inches of snow on the balcony. This is (most likely) it—the final hurrah of the 2017-2018 mushing season. It’ll be in the 70s by the weekend, with lows bottoming out at 40ºF, so we're mostly done running. I still wanted that 400 miles. On my birthday. On snow.

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At around 6:30 AM, I could no longer sleep, and decided to make the most of the ~2” that had fallen. At the very least, the dogs would have some fun in the yard before the snow turned to rain. I really, really wanted to take out my brand new Prairie Bilt sled. It arrived last week and I can tell it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s more maneuverable and durable than my wooden sled, with a large bag and plenty of storage space for carrying gear and dogs. This will be our expedition sled and I can hardly wait.

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But, wait I shall. 

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I loafed around most of the morning, ate a large breakfast, and peaked into work to see what I was missing (we're encouraged to take PTO on our birthday). At around 9 AM, I saw our old neighbor walk by with his four tiny dogs (and a broken arm) in the wintry mix. This guy is dedicated. Once he was out of the way, I figured the trail would most likely be empty. Time to gear up.

I harnessed the team and we rolled out on the dryland cart, since the snow wasn’t sticking on the trail. I thought they’d be more fired up, especially since we hadn’t run in awhile, but they seem to be in off-season mode already. Still, we managed seven slushy miles through some beautiful, snowy scenery. 

The tree that had fallen on our main dirt road was cleared, so we got to go further on a slightly smoother stretch of trail. We did encounter some people and a loose dog (of course) but they were in the distance, and got him under control and out of the way well before we approached. Two coyotes also crossed our path directly in front of the team. They're a nice omen from the forest and a boost for the dogs on our return home.

And so, we got our 400 miles (401.7 to be exact). In the snow, on my 31st birthday. Alone, save for the dogs, on the side of a 7,200 foot mountain in Southern California. A strange life, but I’m so happy to be living it.

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Musher's Bod

Every day is a little bit warmer, even a mile up. As I shed winter layers, my bruised and achey limbs are exposed to the world. I carry with me little reminders of the season gone by. 

We should get at least one more run in this week—possibly even on snow. If all goes well, we'll hit 400 miles. After that, any runs we sneak in are a bonus. Realistically, our season is wrapping up.

Over the spring and summer months, my bruises will fade, but the "reverse" seasonal depression will kick in. The next step? Figuring out where we'll be when next season begins.

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Back on the Trail

I planned to mush as much as possible this week—every day, if I could swing it. The warm spell we were under finally broke and, starting tomorrow night, we'll be cramming into a tiny Venice bungalow for a couple days. This means the dogs will be spending most of their days confined to crates while I attend a work retreat. Luckily, the office is only three miles away, so I’ll be able to check on them. I also spent over $100 on new chews and toys to keep them busy. (And people say sled dogs have it rough.)

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I wanted to run 30+ miles this week, both to exhaust the team before their week of confinement, and to hit the 400 mile mark for this season. Our last two runs at home weren’t great. Last Saturday, I went out well after sunset, and still ran into people and their loose dog. Thankfully it was another husky and my dogs always seem to get along with northern breeds. (Racists? Breedists?)

We ran again on Monday and managed to flip the cart over while maneuvering a rocky downhill section. It was my fault—I was fumbling with my mitten and didn't drop the claw brake. Hubble started pulling (he’s still learning what “whoa” means), which got the rest of the team moving. The cart awkwardly spilled on its side, which is rare, given the shape of this thing. I was still clutching my mitten when I turned it upright, lost my footing, and this time got dragged on my knees (but I didn’t lose the team!). My arms are strained and my legs are now a lovely shade of black and blue—watch out Venice Beach!

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On top of numerous bad experiences on these trails, Blitz and Knox have been pretty spooked about running from our yard. I’m not entirely sure what caused it, but I’m guessing it’s the way the cart bangs out the gate and down our gravel driveway. When we run at other locations they’re both screaming to go, as usual, so I know they’re not calling it quits. 

Though it pains me to see cold days slip away “unmushed” (and to have Denali follow me around the house whining about it), I may give up on these trails for the remainder of my time here. The universe is telling me that they’re unsafe, whether it’s loose dogs, old people, bad terrain, or mountain lions (oh yeah, there was a mountain lion a few blocks away). Something is going to happen and I especially don’t want to risk it while I’m alone up here. 

We'll take advantage of the trails at Holcomb Valley while we still can. It's a lot smoother and I've had very few dog encounters. The only people I tend to see are camped or off roading. It still requires loading everything into the van and driving about 20-30 minutes, but we'll manage with what we've got before warm weather sets in for good.

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This morning we squeezed in eight miles before the temperatures got too warm. I wanted to wake up earlier and hit the road by 5:30 AM, but a local bear was sorting through our neighbor's trash, so I decided to avoid that confrontation and sleep until 6. 

The dogs were exploding with energy after several days off, but I have to keep a close eye on them as we attempt slightly longer runs—especially when temperatures are above freezing. The girls and Blitz know how to pace themselves, so I don't worry about them too much. Hubble is still young and runs at full throttle, which needs constant monitoring. Knox also knows how to trot when he's tired, but there's not much he can do about his woolly coat. Plenty of water breaks and shady trails helped, and the team is now snoozing happily around me.

Tomorrow we'll run again before driving down to the coast. I'm still eager to attempt 6 miles/rest/another 6 miles, but the forecast looks too warm for it. Either way, I'm proud of these dogs and looking forward to what next season will bring.

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Thank You

My last post garnered a pretty big response from friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. I wanted to thank everyone who checked on me—for the encouragement, suggestions, and support. Coming to terms with this decision has put me in a better place mentally, but check back when I start making moves. It will get harder. 

After writing my April 15th post, Facebook’s “On This Day” reminded me of this entry from exactly one year before—when I had announced my decision to move to California. What the hell, man. (I think April 15th will be a personal holiday going forward.)

In that post and several since, I’ve explained why I thought California would work for me and the dogs. If you’ve been following along, you’ve heard my reasoning: low humidity, plenty of snow, close to my employer, cool in the summer, trails near the house, yada yada yada. I did leave something pretty major out: I’m here because Will wants to be in Los Angeles. 

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I don’t talk about relationships in this blog. In the past, boyfriends have had little impact on my mushing life. Most were supportive and interested, which is all I ask of them. But when you get up and move across the country with someone, that changes things.

I knew from day one that Will was destined for a warmer climate. He warned me early that he didn’t stick around for winter and wanted to make a permanent move out of New York City. I didn’t know, specifically, what that meant—but I figured we’d cross that bridge when we got there. And that bridge took us to southern California.

A mountain is the only ecosystem that could potentially sustain us. Will would have Los Angeles for warmth and city life and I’d be (roughly) two hours away and over a mile up. When we visited Big Bear in the winter of 2017, it was snow covered and full of potential. (We also ate donuts, which may have clouded my judgement.)

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I had to give this a shot and I'm so grateful for everything Will has done to try and make this work for me. While he isn’t going to be up in the frosty, predawn hours to run dogs, he has been the most supportive fan of Blue Eyes and Spitfire thus far. When we were still in the Hudson Valley of New York, he put a fence up around his property so the dogs could run. He traveled with me when I got both Blitzen and Hubble from their breeders. He’s dealt with hair, poop, pee, muddy paw prints, and dead groundhogs throughout the house. And about a thousand chewed up socks.

He drove across the country twice—the second time so I wouldn’t have to do it alone. He bought this house so that I’d have somewhere to live with the dogs, since renting is not an option. He put up another fence out here, to keep our neighbor’s dog from mauling mine through the chainlink. He’s secretly purchased a tougher dryland rig and a metal sled to help me survive this rough terrain. I don’t think I could ever repay him for everything he’s done for me. And that’s just the dog-related stuff.

That’s all I want to write about this. I don’t like talking about relationships here (or, uh, at all) and I’m sure this will make him feel weird, too. Still, it’s a piece of the puzzle and part of this story. If you weren’t aware of it, you’d probably raise an eyebrow as to why I made the choice to move here.

So, there you have it.

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Dog Mushing Will Break Your Heart

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If your only interaction with a person is through social media, there’s a good chance you’re not getting the full story.

Instagram is criticized as being a false representation of peoples’ actual lives, and a breeding ground for envy. Think about it—the main feature of the app allows you to apply filters and modify reality to look better. It’s an accessible version of Photoshop (or Lightroom) for the novice photographer, or, well, just about everyone these days.

I get annoyed when I see the #vanlife posts with perfectly designed van interiors, lined with succulents and knickknacks. I know from experience that each and every item shakes and jiggles and falls when you’re in a van that actually moves. Van-lifers also pass off these amazing tailgate views of National Parks as “just woke up from van-camping” shots, while just outside the frame are tourbuses, restrooms, and parking lots. Oh, and you can't actually park in that spot overnight.

I try to be authentic when writing this blog, but I’ve been leaving out some of the rougher parts. This lifestyle doesn’t come easily. It requires almost all of your time, physical strength, piles of money, and sacrifice. 

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No one wants to live on a rural chunk of land, tucked away in a forest, far from the conveniences of even a small city. No one wants to dig out from snowstorm after snowstorm. No one wants to deal with negative 20°F windchills. No one wants to wake up hours before dawn to train dogs. This life means solitude.

I recently read Thru-hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn and I can relate. It's about the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico all the way to Canada. Over on the east coast, my friend Brett recently hiked the Appalachian Trail. As we speak, my friend Maxine is making her way north on the AT. A common trend in thru-hikers is a feeling of disconnect after the trail ends and trouble acclimating back home. Once you get a taste of that primal, wild life—how do you go back? 

I’ve always been inspired by thru-hikers, but it’s not the path for me. Instead, I’ve realized my adventure will be with the dogs (duh). I’ll grow the team and increase their endurance. We’ll go for longer runs, over greater distances. I'll plan an expedition by dogsled and spend the days running and the nights camping. We’ll endure whatever Mother Nature throws at us and rely solely on the contents of the sled to make it through. (I’ve started a Patreon that will document this more, but, I’ll still write about it here.)

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I’ve come to terms with wanting and needing to do this. Still, I’m taking a leap into unknown territory. I’ve held onto the “recreational” musher label for almost a decade. I’ve exhausted myself trying to live a double life. I've stuffed half a dozen sled dogs into suburban households where I could still see friends, be near family, and have relationships. For four years, I juggled a job in New York City while still mushing. I’ve tried (and often failed) to maintain a social life—going to bars at night and prying myself out of bed before dawn to run dogs.

I thought California would be the answer. The mountains held promises of snow and low temperatures, even in the peak of summer. I’d have some friends and co-workers within a few hours—but with plenty of wilderness to explore.

Three months in, I have to admit I’m unhappy here. There are trails right outside my door, but they’re far from secluded. The neighborhood is tightly packed with retirees, dogs, and tourists. Trying to mush when there’s tiny or loose dogs on the trail is a nightmare and we’ve already had our share of bad experiences. 

Even if the trails were empty, they’re rocky and dangerous. The dogs have been able to maneuver them, but my gear has suffered. The terrain rattles me to my core and makes my joints ache. My wool sweater gave me rug burn on my wrists from the vibration. (Who knew that could happen?) There's also the potential for rattlesnakes, cougars, and fires as the weather warms up.

My mushing adventures won’t expand here—they simply can't. While it’s no worse than the suburbs of New Jersey, I am ready for something far better. I’m nearing my 31st year on this planet. I just got a raise at my fully remote job. I have a solid savings account and my credit score is killer. It’s now or never.

The future is uncertain and I'll be embarking alone, but I've got to see where this adventure takes me.

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Adventure Everyday

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California is a beautiful state. Drive in any direction for a few hours and you’re bound to see some epic nature. Drive several hours and you’re likely to pass through several entirely different ecosystems. This past weekend was full of exploring—something I need to take advantage of way more often.

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Friday evening and Saturday morning were spent mushing. I was nervous to see how the newly repaired dog cart would hold up, but it did just fine. The dogs were on fire Friday evening after having a few days off. Saturday morning was a different story. We went out to Holcomb Valley and tried some new trails. It ended up being mostly slow-going, with a lot of uphill and washed out trails. The team still did great, don’t get me wrong, they were just keeping things steady instead of exploding out onto the trail. (Probably for the best when exploring new routes and navigating giant ice-craters)

Once the dogs were thoroughly exhausted, Will and I went out for a short but strenuous hike up to Castle Rock. This is one of the more popular trails in Big Bear, but we managed to hike beyond the flatlander chaos and found some pretty solid viewpoints. Hiking in early spring was always a bummer on the east coast; you’re so eager to get outside, but everything is muddy and grey and brown. There’s some mud from snowmelt out here, but everything is vibrant conifer green and red, and trails dry out quick.

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On Sunday I had planned to hunker down and figure out some self-promotion. I’ve set up a Patreon for dog mushing and a Kofi for art. The thing is, I don’t feel like a “real” musher, worthy of collecting money from people to pursue this hobby. And I don’t feel like a good enough artist to accept donations for drawing, either. I’m putting a pin in these ideas, until I figure out something that actually makes me feel good. (If anyone has suggestions, feel free to message me)

I had the urge to detach from both my computer and Big Bear, so we took a day trip north. After researching mountains (as one does), I learned that Mt. Whitney—the tallest peak in the lower 48—was just over three hours away. I have zero interest in climbing mountains, let me be clear. I am no mountaineer. Still, I love seeing mountains, and decided the tallest peak in the continental United States was worth a day of driving.

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And she sure was.

Mt. Whitney is listed as being part of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest. Except you can’t really get a good look at the peak from entering these parks. Apparently, the place to go is a tiny town called Lone Pine. We drove up the eastern side of the Sierras, which is primarily vast desert landscapes, to reach this little portal town. 

The dogs came along for the ride, even though the majority of it was spent in their van crates. We could have left them crated at home, but this way, they got a brief run and water break midway through the day. (And a chicken nugget each, for being such good sports)

Of course, I couldn't miss out on these photo ops.

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After the cross-country trip, they’re all pretty much pros at travel. I say “pretty much” because Hubble managed to pee in his crate roughly 10 minutes away from home. He alerted us earlier on when he had to go, and we pulled over. Not so much the second time. 

Urine aside, this weekend’s adventures were a nice reminder that there’s a lot to explore while I’m out here. Even if California doesn’t end up being home forever (will there even be such a place? I guess the dirt, when I’m dead), I’ll make the most of big nature while I’m out here.

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