Talking Dog at the Trade Fair

Last weekend, the pack and I piled in the van and drove four hours north to the Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars in New Hampshire. I've been mushing for about seven years now, but never had the chance to attend the trade fair. Realizing this might be my last opporunity if I move west, I decided to make the trip.

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This was also the furthest I've ever driven without another human along for the ride. I expect to do a lot of solo traveling in California, so this was a good trial run—just me and the dogs. Four hours (well, more like five with traffic) wasn't a bad drive to do over a long weekend. Hell, I did four hour round trip commutes when I took trains into Manhattan, and that was all in one work day.

The trade fair was a really fun experience and definitely something any beginner should make a point to attend. It's a great place to learn about the sport, stock up on gear, meet experienced mushers, and run your dogs. For more seasoned mushers, it's nice to see familiar faces from throughout the northeastern mushing community. And of course, who doesn't want to talk about dogs for two days straight?

Jaye and Hanky go over harness fitting.

Jaye and Hanky go over harness fitting.

Besides seeing old friends (and meeting internet friends for the first time), my favorite part of the event was the seminars. Jaye of Sibersong (Denali and Willow's breeder) gave a great talk on the mechanics of dog mushing. Even though I'm not new to the sport, I still picked up some useful tips. Lisbet Norris (3-time Iditarod finisher) spoke about her mushing heritage and how her family has preserved the function and appearance of the Siberian Husky in Alaska for over sixty years. I might have teared up several times during her talk. My favorite seminar was by Charles J. Berger. He spoke about "the big bang through chihuahuas", and basically wrapped my two favorite subjects (evolutionary science and dogs) into a beautiful presentation. Unexpected and delightful.

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There was plenty of dog talk, dog gear, and dog friends to occupy my time, but I can't forget the dogs themselves. Aside from being a little bit overexcited to see other dogs while on the dropline, they were easy to manage and faired well in the cold, rainy weather. I walked the purebreds around the trade show and had them visit with their breeders (Blitz's reunion was especially sweet). We even got to do a quick training run with some Sibersong relatives and their musher, Megan, on Saturday and competed in a dryland fun race on Sunday.

Photo snapped by Steve Renner of Team Snowspeeder

Photo snapped by Steve Renner of Team Snowspeeder

The most surprising part of our race was how well the dogs passed another team. They've always been good about getting to the race chute and returning to their dropline afterwards, but passing during a run has been hit or miss. I was especially curious to see how Blitz would do, since he's never ran a race before—or even trained alongside other teams. I think he must have been the missing piece of the puzzle, because he and Knox (who is prone to being a jerkoff) passed flawlessly. I hope I don't jinx it, but I couldn't be happier with how they did. We got third place behind two very speedy Alaskan Husky teams, completing a 0.8 mile trail in 2 minutes and 43 seconds.

We're back home now and picking back up with fall training. We have plans to head back up to New Hampshire later in the month (or beginning of next, not sure yet) to attend a camping weekend with some of the same mushers from the trade show. I've got a lot of big plans in store for the remainder of this year and beginning of next, so stay tuned for what will (hopefully) be our most interesting season yet.

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Off to the Races

This past weekend was our last race of the season, which barely managed to squeak by between a small snowstorm and temperatures soon to be in the upper-70s. It was also Willy's first race, and she did phenomenally well. 

I was apprehensive about running on Saturday. About three inches of snow had fallen, with the possibility of melting and freezing overnight. It sounds weird to be concerned with snow at a dog sled race, but for a dry-land event, snow and ice aren't great under wheels. Luckily, the race crew worked tirelessly and managed to make the trail safe.

I ran Denali, Willy, and Knox in the 4-dog pro class, basically just against ourselves, although there were two other teams running in 4-dog sportsman. We were passed on day one by a very speedy team of Siberians (Steven Davis of Milestone Kennels -- awesome dogs), but managed to stay ahead of them on day two. Out of the three teams, we obviously won first for pro, but came out second overall.

I don't have much to say about our runs. They were smooth and without any real trouble. On day two, some deer ran out in front of us, which almost sent the dogs off course into the woods. A quick "ON-BY!" got them back on the trail, though. Willy was especially impressive: not only did she run in lead with Denali, but she kept the momentum going right through the finish line. Even when Knox and Denali were starting to slow down, Willy kept running hard.

The race was two 3.8 mile heats, which we finished in 19 minutes 6 seconds on day one and 18 minutes 32 seconds on day two. It's hard to really judge considering we were the only team in our class, but compared to the 6-dog and bikejor/scooter classes, we had a very respectable run. Of course, the Alaskan/Hound teams blew it away with times well under 15 minutes, but we did quite well for a team of three rag-tag little Sibes.

Mushing season is slowly dwindling down now, though I hope to have a few more runs before we pack things in for the summer. I'm already really excited for the fall and running Willy as she matures, but I'll be sad to lose Dexter to retirement (though that's up to him). I'm already thinking about another Siberian to round out a little 4-dog team, but that's a dream for another day.

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Mt. Misery Mush

We had our first race this past weekend, and despite the name, it was not miserable at all (except maybe waking up at 5 AM). I brought all the dogs with me, but I only competed with Denali and Knox in the two-dog bike-joring class. They're really my all-stars when it comes to the race environment, whereas Dexter is much more suited for leisurely runs. Willow isn't old enough to run yet, but the race was a great way for her to socialize with lots of other dogs and people.

The Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club had a really great turnout for this race. I've never seen so many dog trucks and teams at our humble little spot. This season has had a rough start, as far as temperatures go, so I was happy to see so many people still made it out. It was great seeing some familiar faces I haven't seen in awhile, like Johnn and Nancy Molburg. I haven't seen them since I bought my sled from Johnn at the 2011 Fair Hill Challenge! I also got to meet some new friends, like Emily Ferrans, her father, and their awesome 12-year-old pooch, Dutchess.

The weather held out pretty well for most of the morning. The scooter, bike-jor, and canicross classes were held later in the day. Both of our runs were after 12 PM, which wasn't ideal, especially for Knox with his woolly coat. But, we managed!

Saturday's run was fantastic: we finished 3.8 miles in 15 minutes and 43 seconds. For perspective, when we run this distance with Dexter, it usually takes more than twice that. The dogs ran beautifully, and even passed a team without hesitation. They started to lose some steam towards the end, allowing a team passed us. This worked in our favor, though, and gave them the boost they needed to finish strong. So, no complaints from me!

 
Day 1 start, video taken by Emily Ferrans ( Full video here )

Day 1 start, video taken by Emily Ferrans (Full video here)

 

Sunday wasn't the best run. Knox pumped the brakes around halfway, so I slowed them down and let them dip their feet in a puddle. I could tell the heat was getting to him, so I let them take it slow. After another mile or so he seemed to get a second wind, and the two of them were running in perfect unison. It was such an awesome sight to see them loping effortlessly in front of me, I didn't even care that we were competing.

Photos by Bonnie Smagacz-Starnes

Photos by Bonnie Smagacz-Starnes

At the last turn, we had a small mishap with a trail help dog getting in our way, but the dogs handled it well and it didn't really affect our run. We finished in 19 minutes, 1 second on day two. 

We placed third out of four teams in the pro class, or third out of seven including the sportsman teams. Considering my bums are not super speedy hounds, nor have they been training for speed, I think we did a fine job! 

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Race Day

We had a great time at the Betty Carhart Memorial Race this weekend. I ran Denali and Knox in the two dog pro bike-jor class. Dexter came along as our cheerleader, but he didn’t run. He’s made it clear he prefers slow-paced runs, so I’m not going to run him competitively for the time being. 

The race was Saturday and Sunday, with our run on Saturday being one of our fastest to date. We were technically second out the chute, but the team before us didn’t show up, so we went first. Two other teams started behind us, including a team of super-speedy hounds. We had a very strong start, and right as the dogs began to slow down, the hound team passed us.

Some folks get upset when teams pass them, but this was a victory for us. I pulled to the side of the trail and commanded the dogs to let the other team by, and they listened. There was no issue, no tangles, no attempts to mess with the passing team. Then, we got the added bonus of a team to chase to the finish line. Yes, we finished second, but our time would not have been what it was without those speedy hounds in front of us. 

Sunday was about 20 degrees warmer, so I kept the dogs running a little bit slower. The rest of our class didn’t show up, so we were the only team to complete the two day race (in two dog bike-jor). We were guaranteed first place, but I’m still very proud of how the dogs performed.

I’m looking forward to our next race, held in the same spot (Mt. Misery in Brendan T. Byrne) but by the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club. January 10th and 11th, mush on!

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Race Day

I can’t believe it’s already December! We already had our first two races of the 2013-2014 season, and I guess you could say they went “fine”. 

Our first race was the Betty Carhart Memorial Race. It was cold. Now, when I say cold, I don’t mean normal, November-weather cold. It was in the teens, with a bitter wind all day long. A week prior to the race, I was in 80-degree Florida for vacation. I developed a pretty nasty cold when we got back. Let’s just say, eight hours in bitter temperatures probably wasn’t a smart move on my part. I felt like DEATH the following day, and didn’t make it in for my work meetings.

Our run wasn’t terrible, but it felt pretty disappointing at the time. We were second out of the chute, and the dogs took off like lightning. All three were running smooth and hard for about three miles. We caught up to the team that was first out, but I didn’t let them pass because we still need work on that. Plus, they run better when they’re chasing after another team.

At around three miles, Dexter slowed down and needed to poop. This was right before the toughest part of the trail, as we approached a hill. We lost sight of the first team, and the team that went out third passed by us. They provided a quick boost of chasing-speed, but that fizzled quick. We never got the speed we needed to finish strong.

Our overall time wasn’t terrible. We were about seven minutes faster than our previous training run on the same trail. We were two minutes faster than we were last year during a training run at the end of the season. So, I can’t really be upset. It just would’ve been nice to end the race as well as it started.

The Pine Barrens Dryland Run was the following Saturday, and it didn’t really go any better for the team. We were the first ones out of the chute this time, which I knew would be problematic. They still ran hard, but they fizzled out much quicker. Early on, Denali got distracted by some animal and tried to run off the trail. By the time I finally got her moving, the team behind us was in sight. They caught up with us quick, and after a messy pass (my team’s fault), they did keep a steady pace. I expected this would happen, and I had hoped to keep them in chase mode until the end of the race.

The last mile or so proved to be tough on Dexter, and I can’t really blame any of them for getting tired. They’re used to doing about two miles at a time. We got passed up by two bikejoring teams, which (at the time) felt devastating because there was a five minute gap between the three dog senior class and the bikes. 

In the end, our time was only about a minute worse than the first race, and those bikejorers were just really, really fast. 

Going forward, my game plan might be to run Denali and Knox in the sweepstakes bikejor class, then do sportsman for the three dog senior class. We’ll see how our training goes. I’m hoping to get out to longer trails more often now that it’s cold throughout the day. If Dexter improves enough, we’ll continue to run competitively in the three dog senior class, but I’m not counting on it. 

I feel the need to write a disclaimer. This entry makes it sound like I’m primarily focused on racing with the dogs. That’s not the case at all. I don’t really like races – they give me anxiety! I compete in them to support the clubs and to stay an active member of the mushing community. Mushing has the potential to become a very solitary activity, but I do want to keep the social aspect of it going, and that’s where races come in.

My real dream is to acclimate the dogs to distance runs. I’d love to take them out for hours at a time, over several miles of trail. For that, speed isn’t a priority. Instead, I need them to build up endurance and focus. They’re used to hiking several miles at a time, so I know this is possible. 

That’s all for now! Our next race won’t be until January, but I’m looking forward to lots of morning and weekend runs to come.

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