Van Update

Somehow it's already November and the van's To Do list is starting to dwindle. For the most part, progress has been positive. I finished the floor and installed the desk, which will serve as a cooking station. I finally managed to rip the ancient TV out, opening up a nice chunk of storage space for cooking supplies. Most of my camping gear will live in the van permanently, instead of clogging up my closet.

 Dirty floor and dog gear not a permanent fixture.

Dirty floor and dog gear not a permanent fixture.

The biggest struggle has been trying to find a roof rack. I bought a Thule system, but drilling directly into the fiberglass top freaked me out. It would have also required cutting into the headliner and who knows what else, so back to Thule it went. I ordered a Vantech system designed specifically for high top conversion vans, but the gutters on my van wouldn't fit the foot attachments. So back to Vantech it goes.

I'm hoping I can salvage a homemade rack out of what's already on top of the van. The main goal is mounting my cargo box to keep muddy dog gear outside. I'll figure something out.

A good pick-me-up from the roof rack debacle has been putting up a little bit of decor. Since everything big is mostly in place, I decided to put up my tapestry, flags, and cargo net. Rover is starting to feel like home.

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Surprise: It's a Puppy

Somewhat out of the blue, I came home with a puppy last weekend. While it may have seemed spur of the moment, there was quite a bit of thought behind the scenes. Let me explain.

A large portion of this blog has revolved around Dexter's struggle as part of my little team. He was two-years-old when I first introduced him to mushing. He had some good runs, especially when I added Denali to the mix. He ran fast at races, but mostly to catch up to other dogs. Passing was never something he could master. He was used to wrestling other dogs at the dog park, not ignoring them while running down a trail.

I kept harnessing him up, though. I added Knox to the team, and eventually, the huskies were running faster. Dex would start each run with the same enthusiasm as the others, but it faded. He wanted to pull over to sniff and to pee. Aside from needing breaks, he still kept up, so I wasn't too concerned that he was no longer pulling his weight (literally).

When Denali and Knox hit their stride, I stopped running Dexter in races. I feared ruining someone else's run with his shenanigans. This put me back in the 2-dog bikejor class. Races were never really my thing, so I didn't mind.

Eventually, Dexter started to show signs that his mushing days were numbered. I was OK with bikejor for races, but I really preferred the rig and sled for our recreational runs. I knew I'd need at least one more dog if I wanted to continue mushing, so Willow joined us last summer.

Something I didn't expect happened. When Willow was old enough to run with the team, Dexter was still going. For the first time in five years of mushing, I had my own 4-dog team. I loved every second of it. Running in pairs seemed to balance out all the issues and kept the dogs focused. Shit. I was in trouble now.

That brings us to the start of the 2016-2017 season. Just a few runs in, Dexter was pumping the brakes. He would not run. I had to leave him in the van. I was heartbroken, though not surprised. He ended up having some sore pads, but even after they healed, it became clear that his running days were really, truly ending.

That's when I started putting my feelers out. I wanted to maintain that 4-dog team, this time with a fourth that would actually contribute and enjoy it. I reached out to Willow and Denali's breeder and got myself on her puppy list for spring. It was a ways off, but it kept me hopeful.

Then I saw a post in a Facebook mushing group. Someone was looking for a pup and someone else responded with photos of two he had available from a summer litter. They looked familiar, and sure enough, they had Sibersong in them. The pup's great-grandfather is Denali's father and Willow's grandfather. There were a few other really nice sled dogs in his lines, so I made the jump. Within a few days, we were driving to a Park & Ride in Connecticut to get my fifth dog.

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Still Rolling

Amidst all the van work, I've still make an effort to get the dogs out to run. It will be a lot easier and more enjoyable once the van is complete (mobile coffee and nap spot, aw yiss). So far, it's just been nice having so much extra space. We had a warm spell earlier this week, but it coincided nicely with my trip to Colorado (where it was also hot, ew). Dexter has had some sore foot pads, so a week off from running worked out.

The rain and warm temperatures finally cleared out this morning and we were back on the trails in Pawling. Dexter's feet were back to normal, but I decided to booty him just to be safe. He ran better, but I kept the pace extra slow for him. While he does help on the uphill climbs, I can tell he doesn't want to go very fast anymore. I'll keep running him as long as he's willing and especially if he's howling to go at hook-up, but I'm already beginning to think ahead to next year and what I'll do with my team. I really love running four dogs and each of the huskies runs best with a "partner". So, uh, we'll see.

The team ran almost five miles today, with a nice break at the halfway point to chat with some locals. The dogs got some pets with minimal tangles and I got some tips on other parks in the area to check out. 

The foliage wasn't too shabby, either.

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It takes a Village to Renovate a Van

Renovating a nearly 30-year-old conversion van from passenger vehicle to dog-hauling camper is not a simple task, especially when you have very specific modifications in mind and a limited amount of time to do anything. Between working in New York City and mushing upstate, progress has been slow going. Luckily, my family and boyfriend have been a huge help.

First step was removing the second and third row seats. Should be simple enough, just unbolt them and out they go. The catch? The bolts were rusted, corroded, and uh, nearly 30-years-old. My Dad and sister's boyfriend helped majorly in this step, leaving me with the job of holding the nuts (hah) underneath while they loosened the bolts up top. 

Dad butt #1

Dad butt #2

The middle row seats were harder to unbolt, so I paused on the interior to yank more stuff off the outside of the van. The spare tire had to come off, along with the metal step in the hitch receiver, so I could mount my dryland dog cart. This presented an unexpected challenge: lighting the license plate. My super handy boyfriend was able to help fix the wiring, and boom! We have illumination:

I rage-pulled the carpet up after a stressful day at work and took Rover to my mechanic to get the remaining seats out. He ended up lifting the van and blow torching the bolts off. Best solution? I don't know, but it got the job done. I threw the seats on Craigslist's free section and they were gone within 24 hours. I highly recommend doing this for free junk removal.

The plywood beneath the carpet was in mostly good shape, we just needed to replace one piece towards the back. I filled in some holes left by the seat bolts and began the process of de-gunking the carpet glue and fuzz. Initially I tried using a degreaser spray, but switched over to Citristrip gel. This stuff works wonders on ancient, disgusting carpet glue and grime. I left it on overnight and it did strip some paint, but I was planning to repaint the floors anyway.

After pulling up the carpet along the door frames, I discovered the hole.

 The orange stuff is carpet glue and Citristrip gel

The orange stuff is carpet glue and Citristrip gel

It started as a small rust hole in the front passenger door step area. I started poking and the small rust hole became kind of a big, scary rust hole that I could see the ground through. Woof. I'm still debating whether to have it fixed professionally or hold off with a DIY patch job. For now, the area has been thoroughly cleaned, repainted, and will be doused with anti-rust spray until I figure out what to do about it.

Onto happier things. While I was at work, my Mom was nice enough to start on the laminate flooring. I initially bought the type that snaps together, but was warned that they would be nearly impossible to work with, especially in a van. I returned them and bought these 1' by 1' peel and stick tiles. They're cheap and easy to cut into all the different shapes I need to cover the floor. 

Tomorrow morning I fly out to Colorado for a few days, so most progress will be on hold. Once the floor is done, I'll be securing the dog crates into the back of the van between the wheel wells, leaving just enough space between them to store the spare tire and jack. My Dad has volunteered to help me build a bed frame over the crates, though I haven't decided how it'll be positioned just yet. I also put together a desk that will function as a kitchen area behind the driver's seat. 

Original concept for the bed frame/crate area

"Kitchen" - the storage underneath will be concealed with a curtain

The van seems to have a never-ending "To Do" list, but making progress feels pretty satisfying. There's still the roof rack to attach, a TV to remove, bedding to buy, and oh yeah -- a giant rust hole.

I'm the type of person who obsesses over projects and likes to get them done as quickly as possible. This renovation has been teaching me to chill the fuck out and enjoy the literal ride in between each step. Driving the van has proven to be more fun than I anticipated and I think I will always own a van from now on.

Oh, and these guys like it, too. And I guess that was the whole point.

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The Advanture Begins

I initially titled this post "Step One: Buy a Van" but that's hardly been the first step in this long process. After months of research, lurking forums, and scouring Craigslist, I finally bought a van. The next step was getting the van insured and registered so I could get her from Long Island to New Jersey. Aside from a few MVC hiccups, things went smoothly, and now this beast resides on my little dead end street.

She is a 1989 Ford E-150 Econoline Club Wagon... a "Starcraft" model, apparently. Sticking with the space theme, she will be dubbed the Lunar Rover, or Rover for short. OK, I actually chose the name "Rover" months ago while watching The Martian. But she is a spaceship and it fits.

The interior will need some remodeling to accommodate myself, dogs, and camp gear. Luckily, I am not starting from scratch with a contractor van, so things like insulation and wall cover will be at a minimum. The second and third row seats will be yanked out, along with the carpet. Although it's in decent shape, it won't bode well with dog hair. Everything else about the van's body is basically pristine.

My favorite part of the van is the wood dashboard. It has a lot of character and it's been kept clean, despite being nearly 30-years-old. Some fun additions: musical horn, GPS, fan, and a lucky penny thermometer from Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

I haven't had too much time to work on her yet. So far, I've removed some of the old electronics (VHS and CD player; TV is putting up a fight) to make more storage space. I also took out all the wooden cup holder/ash trays, since I won't need them. Removing the seats is the next big step, but it'll require another human or two.

I've got a roof rack and other goodies on the way (my Amazon wish list is starting to actualize). There's plenty to do, so here's hoping she holds steady for at least a few years.

Stay tuned for progress updates!

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Van Ambitions

I love my Mariner, but it's just a little small.

Since the end of last season, I've been on the prowl for an additional mushing/all-around adventure vehicle. The goal is to find (or build) a van with some basic camp necessities: stove, sink, storage, and a bed. Plus it will need room for containing the dogs and all our mushing gear. While I love camping, the ease of rolling in and out of a spot without all the setup and breakdown is a big draw for me, especially when I'm looking for different trails to run. One end goal is to drive out to mushing spots late at night, wake up to run, then work from a mobile hotspot all without leaving the woods.

My first thought was a Volkswagen Westfalia. They fit all the requirements and the pop-top would allow me to sleep above the dogs. I spent several months stalking Craigslist, checking forums, ogling Instagram feeds, and collecting photos of about a dozen Westies I saw in California. I started learning to drive stick so that I could broaden my range of possible vehicles. I also read a lot of horror stories about these vans spontaneously catching fire and rolling into buildings.

 A Volkswagen Westfalia

A Volkswagen Westfalia

Despite loving how these dumpy little vans look, I hit a turning point. There's a reason very few exist in the Northeast. The model I like is 30-years-old. Snow, salt, and humidity would certainly eat any Westy I brought back to Jersey. Westfalias aren't cheap, either. I couldn't justify spending almost $20K on a van that I could possibly ruin. Oh, and the pop-top is not much better than an ordinary tent and creates condensation throughout the vehicle in cooler temperatures. Gross.

So, the Westies are out.

I decided to shift my focus to a conversion van, which are plentiful and cheap. I'll need to build out the interior to fit my needs, but it's a task I think I'm up to. My first run through of The Vanual made me shy away from a project like this, but it seems to be the best option.

Step one, find a van. I'm hoping to land something like this:

 1989 Ford E-150

1989 Ford E-150

In fact, there's a possibility I'll get the van in this picture, if things work out. If not, there are plenty others. The Ford Econoline series seems to be my best bet, and I'm not against buying a beat up old work van. The high top conversion "camper" type would require less work, though. Chevy and GMC make almost identical models, so like I said - there are plenty of these things out there.

Step two, gut it and build. I plan to take everything out of the back and put down more dog-friendly flooring. Next, dog crates built under a bed frame. 

After that, I'll have to construct some kind of cabinet to (hopefully) hold a small sink, camp stove, and some sort of cold storage (either a cooler or small fridge). The sink will likely be the trickiest part, as I have no idea what I'm doing, but there are plenty of DIY instructions out there.

Beyond that, there's a lot of other neat campervan upgrades to make, like solar panels and roll out awnings. There should be plenty of little nooks and crannies that I'll optimize for additional storage, too. I've already purchased a roof cargo box for mushing gear, since it tends to be muddy and hairy and not something I want inside any vehicle.

 Whoops, I bought a coffin.

Whoops, I bought a coffin.

I have a long way to go before this will come together, but I'm mapping out a lot of steps and I think I'm on a good path to have this actualized before the end of this season.

Let the advanture begin.

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And It Begins

Our mushing season generally ends in May, when temperatures stay consistently warm. We don't start back up again until September (or October, like after last year's hellishly extended summer). The downtime only lasts for roughly three months, but it feels like an eternity. Especially towards the end of August, when mushers in colder parts of the world start their training and it's still 90 degrees in New Jersey. Serious mushing FOMO. 

This year, I am lucky enough to crash a stronghold in Pawling, NY. This puts the dogs and I two hours north of South Plainfield, where it's been consistently colder. So much colder, we were able to start our season off the day before Labor Day.

I'm still figuring out where we can run around Pawling, but a hot tip put us out near the nature preserve at roughly 6 AM. My weather apps couldn't come to a consensus, but all approximated it was somewhere around 50 degrees. Out in the darkness of the woods, it felt even colder. (Side note: thermometer ordered)

This trail is actually a (mostly) gravel road with very low traffic, in between the preserve and a few residences. I can get about seven miles total (out and back), but we started off with a brief 2.6 miles. I didn't want the dogs to over do it on their first run and the return trip was somewhat uphill. 

The dogs did great for their first time out in months. Dexter is still managing to keep up with the speedy huskies, though just barely. I had to ride the brakes a bit to keep them from going too fast. That said, I want to keep their pace steady so they don't burn out too fast. 

I'm so impressed by how Willy's turning out. She runs like a tiny rocket. Five-year-old Knox and Denali are as solid as ever. Denali easily turned the team around at the halfway point, despite having never run this trail before. I'm always grateful for her "come-haw" command.

I'm looking forward to running more this season. Though the next week or so looks a bit too warm, I'm hoping we can sneak in a few more early mornings before October. I have big plans for a mush-ready adventure van and exploring new trails, with a season goal of over 200 miles by spring. Let's roll.

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Season Wrap-up

The 2015/2016 mushing season is wrapping up now that warm temperatures have been rolling in.  We might still have a few cool mornings left before I pack up the gear for the summer, but for the most part, we've transitioned into hiking mode.

This season had a lot of milestones for my little team. The biggest was definitely the addition of Willow and transitioning to a four dog team.


We competed in two races this season: the Mt. Misery Mush on bike and the Betty Carhart Memorial Race on the rig. I'm not a very serious competitor, but I'm proud of how well the dogs did in both races.

This season I finally caved and bought an Arctis Cart. Aside from the obvious perks of being more easy to transport and safer to run, its detachable jump-seat allowed me to share this weird hobby with more of my friends. 

Denali and Knox ran a total of 185 miles this season, with Dexter at 168, and Willow at 119. I'd love to sneak in 15 more miles and reach 200, but I'm not sure we'll make it. We well surpassed our 150 mile goal, and I feel confident in bumping next season's goal to over 200 miles.

Along with running more miles next season, I hope to travel more with the dogs and explore trails in different states. I am toying with the idea of purchasing a camper van to make road tripping long distances more comfortable, but that may be a more distant dream.

In the mean time, if you're a musher in the US, leave a comment and tell me where you train - maybe I'll come visit!

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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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If All Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge...

I haven't had too much to write about as mushing season starts to dwindle down. We've had a mixture of polar-vortex cold and unusually warm days, but we're still getting out pretty consistently. Despite an overall not-great winter, the dogs are already at 148 miles. We'll definitely surpass our normal season goal of 150, and it's a good sign for my plan to increase the mileage next year.

Today's run at Six Mile was extraordinary and worth the quick story. We got out extra early because warm temperatures were creeping in, and the dogs were running extra well. Even Dexter had a tight tugline the entire run. We spooked a herd of deer and chased them through the trail, which probably contributed to Dexter's good morale.

By the time we reached our usual turn-around spot (two miles out), I decided to keep going further. As I've mentioned before, this requires crossing a bridge. I've done this a few times on my lightweight Chambers rig, but I hadn't tried it on the Arctis. And for whatever reason, I neglected to consider the difference in width between these two rigs.

Denali and Willy lead the team across the bridge without hesitation. I got about halfway onto the bridge and realized the back wheels of the rig wouldn't fit at the same time. Shit.

Now I was in a little bit of trouble. Denali and Willy were almost completely across the bridge. Dexter and Knox were holding steady in the middle. And I was stuck, with one back wheel hanging off the side and teetering toward the water.

It's hard to really describe the situation without pictures, but the stream and bridge are maybe eight or nine feet across.  The bridge is elevated quite a bit, very narrow, without guardrails. It's designed for mountain bikers. The embankment on both sides of the stream is steep and completely saturated with mud.

I knew the rig wouldn't make it across the bridge without tipping over, so I decided our best bet was to forge directly through the stream, Oregon-trail style. But this meant getting the team to turn around enough so that I could pull the rig back and safely down to the water.

The bridge was narrow -- about two dogs wide -- so they didn't have much choice. I gave Denali the "come haw" command, and she did exactly what I needed her to do. She leapt, without hesitation, straight off the bridge into the stream. Willy followed her lead, as did Dexter and Knox. This gave me enough slack to pull the rig off the bridge and push it through the stream.

The challenge didn't end there. I needed the dogs to pull through water up to their chests and haul the 90-pound rig up the muddy embankment on the other side. And they did it, just like that.

I need to stress that my dogs are not water dogs. In the dead of summer, Dex and Knox might wade around in streams to cool down, but none of them would ever jump into water like this. Especially not Denali. 

Today's run wasn't a miraculous experience. It wasn't luck or chance. It was years of work and training to build a team of dogs that trust me with total confidence. They don't always listen, but I'll remember this moment when I'm frustrated or struggling.

Good dogs. 

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