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.

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North Country

We’ve made it to Wednesday; halfway through what might be our snowiest week so far this winter. Between Monday night and Friday morning, we were forecasted to receive two to three feet of snow. Just 30 minutes north of us might get more than five feet by the weekend. Holy hell.

So far, we’ve been lucky. The snow that fell Monday night through this morning was minor—less than 5” total. This is on top of what we already had, of course, so there are drifting areas around a foot deep. Today and tonight we should see more snow, but tomorrow seems like the worst of it. A slight shift in winds could mean snow up to my chest, so here’s hoping we avoid that.

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I’ve been stressing about losing our home trail with all this snow we’re scheduled to get. It’ll be hard to re-break if it’s over the dogs’ heads. Maybe next season I’ll be able to pick up a used snowmobile for grooming around the property. For now, I can try to find a local rider, or pack the trails myself with snowshoes and my gear sled.

Thankfully, and also unfortunately, next week is expected to have another absurd warm-up. Sunday through Wednesday are predicted to be well above freezing, with rain and even above-freezing temperatures overnight. This will annihilate the snow and certainly lead to some flooding. So goes winter in New York state, I suppose. Hopefully we’ll be left with some packed, smooth trails.

On Monday morning, I took the dogs up to Winona State Forest to run on some wide, groomed trails. The Tug Hill Challenge (a sprint race) is held there, and it’s the reason I chose to move to this area. Though it’s been roughly eight years since my first visit, I finally mushed a team through this gorgeous forest.

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Getting to the trail went about as smoothly as I expected. The dog truck was prepped the day before and we woke up well before dawn to head out. Denali and Willow have already mastered their dog boxes. They’re used to being lifted into the top row of crates in the van, so going up just a bit higher into the boxes is natural for them. Hubble puts up a bit of a struggle (and stepped on my face), but I’ve been able to get him loaded with the help of some pepperoni. I didn’t even attempt to load Knox or Blitz this trip—they got to ride in the cab with me. I’m hoping that once they associate the truck with running somewhere new, they’ll be more confident about going into the boxes.

My intention was to run the 4.5 mile race course, but we ended up missing a few turns and going further. In hindsight, I’m glad we did, since we can run that distance back at the house and I’ve been itching to do a longer run. We did 7.5 miles in just under an hour, carrying about 50 pounds of weight in the sled. We also stopped quite a few times so that I could figure out where we were going. Not too shabby for five dogs on a brand new trail! I ended up a little bit late for work, but I’m glad we got this run in before the work of roof raking, snow shoveling, path clearing, and snowblowing eats up my free time.

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Rhythms

We’ve hit mid-January and we’re getting into true north country winter now. We finally got more snow and a cold snap that should keep it around for awhile. It took a few months, but I finally mastered the art of heating this place. I’ve been feeding the wood stove all day, instead of just in the evenings, and the majority of the house has reached a steady 65°F. The wood pile is still stacked pretty high. At this point, the propane is a backup resource that I’m hoping I won’t need to refill until the summer, when prices are cheaper. There’s a pile of wood seasoning outside, another pile ready to be split, and an endless forest to harvest for future heat. But that’s work for warmer days.

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I’m settling into a comfortable rhythm here. There are challenges, but I feel like I’m succeeding more than failing. It could be that I lowered expectations (both for the team and myself), but I’ll take whatever easy wins I can get. A day’s “To Do” list might just be “clear fallen tree from trail”, but taking a chainsaw out into the woods and moving a large tree—by myself—is something I’ve never done before. (And I did it!)

The dogs had their annual wellness exams last week. Whenever I move, it means developing a relationship with a new vet. While waiting to be seen, I could hear the staff in the back room, clearly dismayed at the upcoming task of evaluating five huskies (and Dexter). I brought them in one at a time to make things easier, of course, but even a solo husky is enough to make vets sweat. They’re known for being vocal and hard to handle. I’m happy to report that my gang destroys that stereotype. Each dog was perfectly well behaved as their blood was drawn for tests and rabies shots were administered. I think we won over the staff, which is good news, since I’m sure we’ll be back. The bill for six exams was very reasonable and, most importantly, all the dogs are healthy.

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This past weekend, we started exploring deeper into the trails that cross the back of me and my neighbor’s properties. The dogs were starting to get bored, so adventuring further has got them fired up. I’m just as excited to get familiar with the land around us—especially the back of my own property. We’re far from our goal of an overnight expedition or mushing 30 miles at a time, but I’m seeing fundamental pieces fall into place.

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Once I know my own land well enough, I can cut a trail towards the back of it for next season, and that will be our “test” campsite. I’ll have the dogs run the trails they’re most familiar with, camping gear packed in the sled basket, and we’ll do our first overnight right on my property. This seems like the safest, most sensible first try. Once we’re comfortable with that, we’ll take those skills out to another trail.

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Onward

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I’m struggling to find the words to adequately sum up 2018. It was one of the most overwhelming, exhausting, and difficult years of my life. But also one of the proudest and most ambitious. If you’ve been following along, I started last year by driving across the country to live in Big Bear, California. The mountains were beautiful, but they would eventually break my gear, spirit, and heart. Southern California was not meant to be and a hard decision lead me back east, alone, to buy a house in upstate New York.

That’s all the recap I care to do—you can read past posts if you want to know more. I’m looking forward and in the words of Mari of ATAO Kennel, onward. I’m ready to dig into mushing: longer miles, colder temperatures, more gear, and new trails. The team has a lot of catching up to do and new things to learn. Dog box training hasn’t gone so great, but every dog has at least been inside a box, so that’s something. We don’t have much snow right now, and no promising storms in the forecast, but we’ll keep chugging along the best we can.

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When I bought this house, it filled my head with big, exciting ideas. I didn’t have to abide by parental concerns, or California laws, or landlord limitations, or even the consideration of a partner’s feelings. Finally, I could do what I wanted.

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As it turns out, there’s always going to be something in the way. Being completely on my own creates new complications. I have no one to dog-sit if I want to spend a night away from home. If something breaks in my house, I’m the one who has to fix it. I’m the only income provider, so I’m covering every bill.

I’m not complaining; I’m doing fine. I still have my emergency fund intact. After the usual January bills are paid and the dogs have their annual wellness exams next week, I’ll be able to start saving money again. Starting this month, I have better health insurance coverage, and none of it will be coming out of my paycheck. I’m also due for a raise.

In 2019, I’ll be moving forward in this solo, dog-centric life, but proceeding with caution. I need to think twice before mushing on trails that might be dangerous due to ice or lack of snow. If I get hurt, I won’t have immediate help to come rescue me. And if I’m injured long-term, I don’t have anyone here to help with day-to-day dog care.

I also realize that I can’t expand the team as quickly as I initially thought. I wanted to add a yearling this season and two puppies in the spring. This would round off a 6-dog team and have replacements for Denali and Knox’s retirement on deck. The wildcard I didn’t expect was Hubble’s attitude towards dogs he doesn’t know and making sure he adjusts to any new team members. I also need to focus on the big play yard this spring. Once the season ends, the existing dog yard won’t be enough space to keep the dogs I currently have exercised, let alone three new ones.

Outside of mushing, I have a lot of other work to do this year. I should be getting a promotion soon, which means more income, but more responsibilities. I need to continue writing my book and setting time aside for art. I want to grow food—lots of it. I hope to have gardens, bees, and chickens on the property by mid-year. And then there’s firewood to cut and stack for next winter.

Right before ringing in 2019, my friends and I gathered for a diner breakfast, as per tradition. We wrote down our past years’ achievements as well as goals for the upcoming year. We’ll meet again next year to check off the goals we accomplish and start the lists over again. So let’s go, forward and onward, into that unknown trail. Don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

Photo Dec 31, 2 22 34 PM.jpg
Photo Jan 01, 7 53 31 PM.jpg

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