Pack Rattin'

When I set out to build my camper van, one big concern was storage space. I was worried I wouldn't have enough room for all my mushing gear on top of my camping supplies and everything else a van should have.

I lucked out with this conversion van. Unlike a bare contractor van, it had plenty of built-in storage space already. I tore out all the antiquated tech and filled every nook and cranny with gear:

When you add the space under the bed and the extra storage in the cargo box on top, this van can pretty much haul everything I'd ever need. To live in the woods, at least.

Frozen Puddles and Scrambled Eggs

It's unusual for dog mushing to exist in the state of New Jersey, so it should come as no surprise that our races frequently get canceled. The Mt. Misery Mush was postponed until March due to freezing rain in the Pine Barrens, though it snowed a bit where I live. It's weird to explain that your dog sled race was canceled when the weather outside seems perfect for it, but so it goes.

Even though I still haven't had a chance to camp out in ol' Rover, she did make her maiden voyage down to the Pine Barrens before the storm rolled through. After an icy cold nine miles, it was nice to cook up some eggs, toast, and cup of hot tea right on the spot.

The end of December always proves difficult for mushing, but it's time well spent with friends and family. Rover still got plenty of use as we traveled around three different states between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, dogs included.

The new year brings a lot of change with it. My guy has shipped off to California for the remainder of the winter. I won't be spending nights in the city between in-office days. I'll have more time to mush, work out, and get my shit (more) together. Blitz will be joining the team for some light training runs soon. I've been investigating the possibilities of life outside the northeastern US. My insides are a tightly wound knot of anxiety and determination.

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!
— Dr. Seuss

Camper Life

After just over two months of owning Rover the van, the interior conversion is complete! My Dad built a solid (and only slightly crooked) raised bed frame over the dog crates. I was worried there wouldn't be enough room with an almost full-sized bed raised over two feet, but the van proved to be gigantic enough. 

The frame still allows me to access the side windows to help air out dog breath. There's room along the wheel wells for storage and a spot for the spare tire in between the crates. I can even slide some stuff between the crates and the plywood support layer. Most importantly, the bed is actually comfortable.

Outdoor rug fits nicely underneath the bed.

I even found lantern patterned sheets!

Another victory from the past month was finally securing a roof rack for my cargo box. I ended up buying cross bars and attaching them to the van's existing U-shaped rack. Now that the cargo box is up there, the van is just under nine feet.

Watch out, low clearances!

Watch out, low clearances!

Since all the major work is done, I've begun to develop an irrational (okay maybe somewhat rational) fear that the van would die on me. I took her in for an oil change and maintenance check, and surprisingly, everything is in relatively good shape. 

Our first overnight trip will most likely be for the Mt. Misery dryland dog sled race in the Brendan T. Byrne in a few weeks.  Fingers crossed she keeps on chuggin' along!

Huntington State Park

I finally got out to Huntington State Park with the dogs this morning. Temperatures were below freezing when we loaded up and stayed cold for most of the morning. 

Bed frame goes in tomorrow, hopefully! 

Upon arrival, I was excited to see some other mushers preparing for their run. I had met them before at a race in the Pine Barrens and it was nice to get some insight before hitting an unknown trail (Thanks Julia!). 

Our run was momentarily delayed by, well, a bunch of barf. I'm guessing the winding, hilly roads didn't agree with the pile of food Blitz wolfed down. While I was behind the van cleaning out the crate, Dexter started going off in the middle of the van. His batch of vomit was mostly bile and a very small piece of beef hoof he had managed to break off and swallow. Cool.

I cleaned out the mess while trying to field questions from curious onlookers. I realize I've become a bit of a spectacle. I started out with two dogs, a bike, and an SUV. Today I have five dogs, a giant rig, and an enormous van. So much for being discrete.

Our run went very, very well for being a completely unknown trail. I'm only running the three adult huskies at this point, since Dexter is mostly retired and Blitz is still too young. The attitude of the other dogs has shifted quite a bit without Dex. It was a fairly busy trail and we had to deal with passing several other dogs, head on. In the past, this would have been nearly impossible. Dexter and Knox would get fired up and send the whole team charging. Not a great experience for someone out for a leisurely stroll with their dog.

Knox is a different dog when Dexter isn't there to cause trouble. He passed by the other dogs without even leaning in their direction. It also helped that the trails we took were steep. By the time we saw anyone, the dogs were too tired to care.

In total, we ran 5.4 miles, which was our longest run so far this season. I plan to keep increasing the distance, especially now that it's been consistently cold out. I have a loose goal of 200 miles this season, but it may fall short when Blitz joins the team. He'll still be young and I don't expect to go too far with him until next season. Until then, we'll keep rolling.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.