Quality Over Quantity

If you’ve been following along on this blog for awhile, then you probably remember me mentioning mileage goals for past seasons. Every fall, I’d set a new goal to reach by spring—150 miles, 200 miles, 300 miles, and so on. It meant running a lot, because the trails we ran were short. We got a few runs over 10 miles last season, but for the most part, we’d only run four to five miles at a time.

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When you only have a couple dogs and not a lot of trail to run, you generally run sprint-style (short and fast). That’s the type of races I’ve competed in and that’s the type of training we’ve done up until now.

This season, we’re changing it all up. Instead of reaching an overall mileage goal, I’m training the dogs to run longer each time we go out. When we move up to Tug Hill, there will be more miles of trail around us, but that doesn’t mean we’ll instantly be running 20+ milers.

The dogs need to learn how to pace themselves, or we’ll end up getting stranded. For our past few runs, I’ve held them back at the start so that they maintain a more even pace throughout. I want them to run steady, not as fast as they can.

While we still only have short distances to train on, I’m focusing on getting their average running speed up to about 10 miles per hour. Once we hit that, I’ll increase their mileage, bit by bit. I’d love to see them running 25 to 30 miles at a time by the end of this season.

The key thing is consistency. It doesn’t matter if they blast onto the trail at 17+ mph if they can’t make it back to the van. The Mushometer maps below show our first run (left or top if you’re on mobile) compared to our run from today (right or bottom). Notice how we went considerably faster at our top speed on the first run (17.2 mph vs. 12.8 mph) but completed a slightly longer distance in less time during today’s run. The lines on these maps should be mostly shades of green and a little bit of blue here and there. Six runs into the season, and I can already see less yellow and orange.

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If you’re following along on my Patreon, then you know my other goal is to travel by dogsled for a multi-night expedition. I doubt this will become a reality until the 2019-2020 season, as we’ll need this season to train, learn, and grow. I’m also toying with the idea of entering the CanAm 30 in 2020, just to see how a mid-distance race compares to sprint. Until then, there’s work to be done!

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Slow Beginnings

The 2018/2019 mushing season started with a somewhat anti-climatic rainy morning in late September. Last year we started almost a month earlier and conditions are still pretty awful here in the tristate area. We have yet to dip below 50°F with plenty of humidity, which has kept us off the trails except for two short runs.

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I keep a close eye on the weather at our future homestead. It’s usually about ten degrees colder up there, which is exciting and anxiety-inducing. There’s a lot to get done before the snow falls and the ground freezes, but we’re making good progress. Roy, a musher friend from the area, has been a lifesaver by connecting me with locals for contracting projects, giving me a list of snow plows, and showing me the trail system. He’s also scoping out Craigslist for snow blowers until I get up there.

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 Salmon River Falls—a 110-foot waterfall near the new homestead!

Salmon River Falls—a 110-foot waterfall near the new homestead!

The closing date is approaching (scheduled for October 15) and I’m hoping to move in the following week. I met with a fence contractor on Monday, so we already have a plan in place for the first dog yard which will connect to the house and the attached garage. It’s going to be a bit smaller than I had initially laid out, but it’ll cost less in this Very Expensive Time. I’m not yet sure how I want to divide up the property, and this will give me some time to get used to things before I spend money on more fencing. I “only” have six dogs, so the space will be enough for them to hang out and do their business. Since it’s mushing season, they’ll get plenty of exercise and shouldn’t mind the small yard for now.

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When spring rolls around, I’ll put up a large yard with cheaper fencing for supervised play time, and possibly expand on the dog yard. Depending on the pack dynamics, we may need an entirely separate, secondary dog yard. There’s plenty of time and good reasons not to rush these plans, I just need my OCD to understand that.

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In other news, I’ve purchased a dog box! It’s currently in New Hampshire, waiting on me to get a pick-up truck to mount it. Hopefully that’ll be the next big purchase, after the house closes, so I can handle the upstate winters with 4-wheel drive. Most mushers I know swear by building their own dog boxes. They’re pretty simple to make, I just don’t have the time to pull it off myself. Plus, I’m looking forward to having a pre-existing box to use as a template for my own future constructions. The new homestead has an enormous pole barn with a heated workshop. It’s about time I revisit the wood shop skills I learned in 6th grade.

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We’ve got a few weeks left here in the garage. Temperatures remain steadily warm, but I hope to get more runs in before the big move. I’m crossing my fingers that snow season comes late and stays late this winter, and we’ll make up the miles after we’re all settled in. Here’s hoping that my next post will feature keys in my hand!

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Transitions

It’s the time of year when my more northern friends have begun their fall training. The end of summer has been pretty warm for everyone, it seems, but every day I get a little more hopeful that autumn might finally arrive. I’m eager to get the dogs running again. When they’re happy (and exhausted), so am I. 

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There’s a lot going on this month and next, so I’m a little bit thankful it’s been too warm to start running. Hubble was neutered last week, so he’ll need a few more days before he can do any serious harness work. I contemplated keeping him intact, but his attitude with Dexter and unfamiliar dogs was too much of a risk. We’re moving out of the garage soon and we'll have more space, but he still needs to be trustworthy.

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Speaking of moving—the wheels are in motion for our own place up north. The seller has agreed to my offer, inspections have been completed, and we’re working out the logistics of my mortgage loan. I’ll have more to say after the keys are in my hands, wood is stacked under cover, and a fence is in place. But for now, I don't want to jinx anything.

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Aside from healing scrotums and house paperwork, I’ve been busy with work, friends, and family since returning back east. I flew to Portland, OR for a work retreat, which was more of a fun trip than an actual work trip. And thank goodness for that, because I needed a few days to unplug. Back on the east coast, I’ve been pushing myself to make plans and see people while I'm still close-by. It's not always easy for a introverted forest witch, especially after months of near-isolation, but I’m doing my best.

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With Labor Day behind us, the chaos of summer will hopefully die down and I can start gearing up for what’s to come. There will be a new (and possibly never-ending) list of shit-to-get-done once I close on this house. Most will be a mad dash to get settled before the lake effect snow dumps several feet on us. As long as I have a place to let the dogs out, wood to heat the house, internet for work, and a 4WD truck to get around, my mind will be at ease for this coming season.

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What's In The Box?

Alright folks. I know I left you all at the edge of your seat. A box arrived today. What could it be?

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I mentioned it was coming from Oregon. Some of you knew what that meant.

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But wait! Arctis isn't manufacturing carts anymore! How could this be?

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To make a long story short: earlier this year, Will reached out to Henning about making one last cart. He really wanted to get me a model with a suspension to handle the rough California terrain. Things didn't quite work out as planned, but Henning was able to put us in touch with someone selling a lightly-used Arctis that matched my specs. Even though I ended up leaving the rough SoCal mountains, Will was still on board to fulfill my new cart dreams.

So, without further ado... our new (to us) Arctis with rear suspension, Magura and Brembo brake component upgrades, and rear fenders:

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It looks black in the above photos, but it's actually a shade of dark green.

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I'm extremely lucky to have another one of these rare carts and so grateful that Will funded this venture. And that Henning and Claire were able to get this thing shipped over to me on the east coast.

Since I know people are wondering; I will probably sell my previous Arctis Cart at the end of this season. I'm holding onto it for now, mostly because it's in storage and won't be unpacked until I have a house. You'll see a post in Mushers of the Northeast when I'm ready to part with it.

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Grand Canyons and Garages

I’m writing this post from a desk in my parent’s two-car garage. The couch I left behind is also out here, along with an air mattress and a few other pieces of furniture that make it more livable. There’s an A/C unit in the window and a mini fridge in the corner. 

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For now, I’m a grown-ass woman depending on family and friends for shelter. My sister and her boyfriend live in the lower half of the family duplex with their cats, lizards, and dog—so we’re out here. When things get too cramped, we’ll take trips up to the Pawling house to regain some personal space. 

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I expected this to feel like hitting “rock bottom”, but it hasn’t been so bad. Not yet, anyway. It’s a little embarrassing to take video calls for work in a garage-turned-studio apartment. The upside to being in my 30s is not caring what other people think anymore. Buying a house, sight-unseen from California, wasn’t an option. For now, this is home. Again.

I spent last week with my parents driving back east and then spent the weekend catching up with friends. I’ve seen more loved ones in a week than I have in the past seven months. This is probably why I don’t feel too sad (yet).

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The dogs handled their second cross-country road trip well. In January, the entire country was in an unusually cold spell. Last week, by contrast, the entire country was in a heat wave (it was 120°F in Arizona). The dogs definitely preferred the cold.

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We swung by the Grand Canyon and camped at Monument Valley for the first night, and stayed in hotels the remaining three nights. At this point, the dogs are pros as sneaking into Motel 6’s and Super 8’s (both are dog friendly but have a 2 dog limit). The 3,000 mile journey flew by after a few dozen podcasts. I recommend Guys We Fucked, Stuff You Should Know, and Reply All. 

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So now we’re in the next phase of this strange adventure. In between house hunting, fence research, and new dog truck plans, I’m preparing for the 2018-2019 season. I’m leaning heavy into mushing now that I’m flying solo and planning to move to Tug Hill. I’m going to beef up our Patreon content and rewards, and hopefully, have a lot more dog-related stuff to share here, too. 

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I’ll leave you all on a cliffhanger—a big box is on its way to us from Oregon. Check back in a week or so to find out what it is!

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Get the Show on the Road

So it begins, again. I took down all my framed prints, tapestries, and decorative knickknacks and packed them up. All of my kitchen cookware and appliances are in an enormous, 200 quart storage bin. I filtered through my book collection for the second time this year and created another pile to donate. (Only a small pile—I can’t seem to let go of most of them) These things won’t see the light of day until I'm settled into my next home, wherever that may be. 

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My parents are flying to Las Vegas later this week, where they’ll vacation for a bit before heading my way. On Monday morning, we’ll set out on another cross-country trek. This time, we’re taking a more northern route—stopping at the Grand Canyon and camping near Monument Valley before heading north and east through Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and finally, New Jersey.

Driving across the country is daunting, but we know what to do. And it’s not nearly as daunting as buying a home. Thanks to Will, I was lucky enough to have a place to live without the financial commitment of home ownership. This time, I’m on my own. A large portion of my savings will go into a down payment, closing costs, and putting up a dog yard. Once the house is settled, I’ll be selling my SUV and buying a 4WD pickup truck to handle the upstate winter. The dog van will likely get sold next year so I can set some money aside for a non-dog vehicle. Beyond that, there’s hopes of fencing in an acre or two for a play yard, an ATV, and more dogs. Always more dogs.

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When I was a kid, I dreamed of having my own little farm. Sled dogs weren’t part of the plan, but I knew there’d be plenty of animals. Even then, I didn’t envision a usual nuclear family. But I didn’t expect to be buying my first home by myself. I thought I’d have a partner at my side for this.

This whole situation is a little bit sad. And a little bit scary. But more than anything, I’m proud of myself. I’m making decisions based solely on what I want for the first time in my life. Could it all be a huge mistake? Definitely! But I need to find out.

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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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