Down Time

Every season, there's always some down time. We're a recreational team, so I try not to stress too much when the dogs don't get out. Our yearly mileage goal is just for fun. When we do compete, it's always sprint races, which don't require long-distance conditioning. 

Still, I always feel looming guilt, especially as the forecast starts to warm up. This season, we lost some runs during the holidays (which is normal) plus a few days while I was in California. 

Today was our first run in a week, this time thanks to injuries. Knox has been having issues with one of his toes (infected nail bed) and Willy woke up with a swollen cheek. 

They both earned a trip to the vet out of it and went home with anti-inflammatories. Knox also has a toe care regiment that he's not too pleased about.

Everyone seems to be recovering smoothly. Willow's face is still a little bumpy, but she's been acting normally (despite how depressed she looks in the above photo). Knox's toe is looking better and he's acting his normal amount of weird, rather than super depressed weird. He'll be running with a bootie on just in case.

I probably could have biked with Blitz and Denali while everyone else was benched, but things are pretty chaotic in my life, outside of the usual dog mayhem. Then next big adventure? If all goes as planned, we'll be moving!

There's still a lot to be figured out (like, uhh, where we want to go), but step one was finding a fully remote job. I secured that after an over-night trip to Los Angeles. I think 2017 is going to be an interesting year.

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We Out Here

I finally got a chance to take the van out for her first overnight camping trip. I decided to only book one night at a campground I'm very familiar with, assuming this would be a sort of "test run". I've camped in plenty of tents, but I'm new to this whole van life thing.

We rolled down to the NJ Pine Barrens just after noon. I had first dibs for the dog-friendly sites, and not surprisingly, didn't see another soul the entire time. 

As soon as I got the dogs out to stretch, they started yodeling, so any plans I had of setting up were quickly dashed. I hooked them up and set out for a brief run, which accidentally turned into over six miles.

I've been limiting Blitz's runs, so I wasn't planning on doing more than four miles with him on the team. Somehow, I took a few wrong turns and our quick run became much longer. If you've never been to the Pine Barrens, you should know that it all looks exactly the same. It's taken me dozens of runs on a specific trail to recognize its features, so starting at a new spot threw it all off. Even with a working GPS, I couldn't quite figure out where we were.

We did make it back, of course. Blitz had no trouble and proceeded to dig a giant hole while the other dogs rested. 

After our run, I attempted to put up a hacky awning I had thought up. The plan was to attach a tarp to the roof of the van using suction cup clips and to prop it up with 8' tent poles. This failed entirely; the suction cups would not stick to the van's roof at all. Aside from that, the tarp I bought off Amazon was utter crap. The grommets were on nylon webbing, which tore off immediately. I didn't even pull the tarp taut - just lifting it to the roof of the van made them tear away. I threw it in the trash and was thankful I didn't actually need overhead cover. I'll have to revisit the awning idea.

Winter camping has its downsides*. In other seasons, I tend to go to sleep after it gets dark and rise with the sun. Can't really do that at 5:00 PM. I built a fire and cooked up a veggie burger, but once I was out of wood, I decided to load into the van for the remainder of the night.

The dogs weren't too sure what to do. After a bit of shuffling around, I got each of them settled. Just like at home, Dexter, Denali, and Willow slept in the bed and Knox and Blitz slept beneath us. 

The cold started to creep in around 7 or 8:00 PM, so I plugged in the little electric heater the van's original owner gave me. It helped, but not quite enough, so I used my propane camp stove to make tea. (Remember: ventilate if you cook inside a van or tent! Or you WILL die.) This warmed the van up enough to be comfortable while I read and avoided reality for a little while.

Sleeping in the van was surprisingly comfortable, if you consider being cramped between three dogs comfortable. Their warmth was welcomed, though. At one point I woke up spooning Willow, with her head tucked under my chin. (This is cute and totally not depressing or weird.)

My phone crapped out pretty early, since I wasn't charging it and the temperatures were low. The next morning I couldn't get it to stay on, so we set out for a brief run without any GPS to save us. I played it safe and managed four miles (like I had originally planned) by running a big square.

Once we got back to camp, I was eager to get back home, but Rover had other ideas. The condensation on the windows had frozen over night, and for whatever reason, the heat wouldn't turn on. Usually it kicks on when I start driving, but alas, I could not see to drive. My lazy desire to grab a Wawa breakfast sandwich was defeated, and I cooked up some eggs and coffee to defrost the ice.

Ultimately, the first overnight in the van went fairly well. There's definitely things I need to consider for the future, but overall, it was a nice little escape. 

 * LOL I know what you're thinking, what are the upsides of winter camping? Well, if you're not a dog musher, there are some other perks. Zero bugs, for one. And you pretty much have the entire woods to yourself. Because you're crazy and it's 25 degrees.

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Four-Dog Strong

All of my huskies have started training with the team at around six or seven-months-old. They're obviously still growing at this point, so we start out doing very short, slow runs with lots of breaks and positive reinforcement. In the beginning, it's all about building confidence and getting them comfortable. Willy was initially freaked out running with a bike, but she quickly calmed down when she joined the team, and now she's my strongest runner.

Blitz has reached the 6-month mark, so today was his first practice run.

One benefit of running a small, recreational team is that training puppies has been easy. They aren't dragged along against their will on a string of eight or ten dogs, some of which they might not know very well. Instead, Blitz was right behind his best bud (Willow) and knew what to do right away.

The dogs did great, despite the muddy trail conditions and the temperature being too warm for January. Blitz was still pounding into his harness when we reached the final stretch of our run, so I think it's safe to say he's a sled dog.

He also found a dead bird to roll on, so it's been a pretty good day for him. (Yea, don't worry, I got it away from him. We also found the top of a deer skull with antlers during our run. What can I say, we love dead stuff.)

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Winter Blues

Blogs and social media feeds often romanticize different lifestyles. The "van life" scene leaves out the rust holes, how every single item will wiggle and move while you're driving, and shitting in the woods. For the record, I haven't dealt with that last one just yet. 

When I share my mushing experiences, I try not to use rose-tinted glasses. Except my photos don't show the tangles, the bruises, and the stress. Waking up before dawn when it's below 20°F is never easy for me, but this morning was especially hard. It took every molecule in my body to get out of bed. I had a restless night, full of weird and unsettling nightmares. 

Usually I snap out of my morning grogginess once I'm dressed, but this morning was different. I started to question the decisions I made that lead me to this lifestyle. I wanted to crawl back into bed and disappear, but I knew I'd only feel worse if I missed an opportunity to run on snow. So I loaded up the dogs and away we went.

Once I had my feet on the runners, every ounce of doubt and existential dread melted away. The dogs were flawless and the trail was beautiful. This was exactly the run I needed to clear my head and calm my freaking soul.

We ran almost six miles, including parts of the trail we can't normally reach on the dryland rig. The area is designed with mountain bikes in mind, so there's a number of narrow bridges with no railings. The rig is too wide to make it over (and I usually don't like fording the streams), but the sled can make it without much problem.

When we got back to the van, a few strangers walked up to say hi to the dogs and ask questions to me. As lonely as mushing can sometimes be, there's plenty of opportunities to meet people and share this weird hobby. 

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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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