The Great Escape

On Friday afternoon, I got the opportunity live out one of my nightmare scenarios. I wasn't sure I'd write about it, but I decided it's important to show the downside of owning huskies. My posts and Instagram photos paint dog mushing in a pretty positive light, but it's not all beautiful scenery and cute puppies. Before you rush out and buy some sled dogs of your own, you should probably read this.

A few months ago, we got a fence put up at the Pawling house. The yard is large and the ground is rocky and uneven. There's also a lot of gates and decks and tiny spots that needed to be secured. We've kept a close eye on the dogs whenever they're outside, making sure to reinforce any spot that seemed inadequate. And for a time, all was well.

I was off on Friday (work treated me to a 3-day weekend for my birthday), so we slept in while it rained. I finally got up around 11 and let the dogs outside, but they didn't seem interested in being out for long. They came back in, ate, then went back out—all part of their usual routine. I left the back door open so they could come in and out as they pleased. It took about 20 minutes for me to make breakfast, and when I sat down to eat, I thought it was odd that only Dexter was there eyeballing our food.

I called them from the door, but no dogs came running. They don't tend to hang outside when it's raining. I threw on fuzzy boots and a plaid shirt (over my crop top and pajama pants) and walked over to the side of the yard, assuming they were obsessed with some animal they had cornered. But nothing, no dogs.

I checked all their usual hang out spots, but they were nowhere to be found. Now the panic sets in. I couldn't see any obvious breakout point, but I knew they were gone. I ran inside, asked Will to help, and ran out into the woods that surround the back of the house and yard.

A lot went through my mind during the hour or so that they were gone. I also made a lot of weird clothing decisions as I ran back and forth from the house to the woods in the pouring rain. I attempted to have Dexter track them, which he may have been doing, but it's hard to tell with all the peeing and grass eating he did. Will jumped in his van and started checking around the neighborhood.

Now at this point, I'm fully prepared to never see them again. Or at the very least, to not see all four of them again. That was going to be it for me. I'd move away and never get another dog. I had failed them.

Finally, Will called and my cold, wet fingers could barely work the iPhone screen. He saw Willow darting through a pasture. A woman said she saw "all of them" (whatever that meant) around the back of her farm. I just about collapsed with relief, but the details were foggy. He said he'd come grab me if he couldn't wrangle them. I started back to the house with about an inch of water sloshing around my hiking sneakers—no socks, because I couldn't think straight to dress properly.

Luckily—so, so incredibly luckily, he managed to get them all in his van without much trouble. Blitz, Knox, and Denali came right to him. Willow was a little hesitant but came once she recognized Will. Or so I was told. At this point in the story, I'm standing in the house, dripping red hair dye remnants and trying to remember how to breathe.

It took about 15 minutes for him to get back home with the four soggy adventurers because they got that far away. The farm was over a mile from the house, and in the pouring rain, it's unlikely they heard my calls. None of them seemed terribly phased and Willow was eager to go right back outside. Not until we reassess the entire fenceline, of course. We found what we assume was the breakout point, just a small gap that was loosened up with all the rain.

The moral of the story: these dogs fuckin' run. That's why we love them, right? It's worth noting that every one of my dogs has gotten loose at one time or another, but they stayed close or came back when called. They don't really try to escape, except for when an animal is nearby. And since all four of them were together, they had the added confidence to keep on going.

I'm forever impressed by people who have trained their huskies to recall off leash, but I'll never trust it. What happened Friday was enough evidence for me. Please consider your environment and containment plans if you decide to get a husky. I consider myself to be above average (read: neurotic) about my dogs' care. I mean, I've altered my entire career so that I can be around them almost 24/7. And they still got loose. Thankfully, the area around us is primarily woods and farmland, but they very easily could have wandered another direction towards roads. That's a nightmare I hope to never experience.

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Destination West

Over the last three years, I've been visiting major cities across the United States. Specifically, places with young people, nearby "big nature", and tech industry opportunities. The goal has always been to leave New Jersey. I feel like I'm closer than ever, if only because I know where I'm not going.

I've been to Nashville, Austin, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Sedona, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Tahoe, Boulder, Denver, and Los Angeles within three years. And also Reykjavik but that's not really on the table. 

I fell in love with Portland and the Pacific Northwest, but the consistent rainy winters would be too much for me. I thought for sure that Boulder and the nearby Rockies would sell me, but it was hotter and less diverse than I was hoping for. It was also dog-friendly to a fault, which would've made it hard to avoid other people's dogs while out on the trail.

Out of all these places, I wouldn't have expected Los Angeles to be the answer. And I guess, in a lot of ways, it's totally not. But it does have a mountain right next to it, with considerably colder temperatures and (seemingly) affordable housing. It's got the potential for human contact—my new job is based out of Santa Monica and I know friends out there already. I could take long weekend trips to some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, like Yosemite, Big Sur, and Zion.

But Jess, what about your sled dogs? How can you move to southern California?

Well, that's the thing. There's snow.

To be clear, my fate is not the city of LA or the surrounding suburbs. For one thing, there's a three dog limit per household. I'm looking at the mountain towns along the Angeles Crest Highway. I think I could get used to this.

There's also a community of recreational dog mushers in SoCal (which is even more surprising than dog mushers in NJ). The coastal inversion layer keeps temperatures relatively cool even when you descend from the mountains. New Jersey skyrockets to 80 degrees pretty fast each spring and with it comes plenty of humidity, so I might even have a longer mushing season out west. When the heat does arrive, I can always trek northward to Mammoth Lakes or even up to Tahoe. My job would still be remote, no matter where I end up. 

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Spring

I've been hesitant to write my usual season wrap-up post, mostly because we're still rolling. We passed my 200 mile goal and will likely reach 220 by the end of this week. As long as the mornings stay cold, we'll keep on going. Even if it's just around the neighborhood.

The gears are in motion for some upcoming (and still uncertain) changes. Halfway through this month, I left my job in New York City for a fully-remote position with a company based out of Los Angeles. For the first few weeks, I worked Pacific hours, which allowed me to run the dogs almost every morning. We even got a surprise snowstorm in the mix.

On the fourth day of my new job, I planned to drive up to Pawling before my shift, stopping to mush near Harriman State Park along the way. We made it to the seemingly deserted park, eager to try out an unplowed road, but the park workers warned against it. Apparently the road is used by snowmobilers with reckless abandon. Not wanting to get run over, I kept the team confined to the area around the parking lot—actually, it was the (unplowed) parking lot.

The snow was deep and relatively untouched, which made things difficult for the dogs. We only ran for about half an hour (with every member of the park staff spectating) before loading back up and continuing our drive north.

We were roughly 20 minutes and ten miles from the Pawling house when the van stopped chugging. The power steering failed and Rover slowed to a stop right next to a very pretty lake. Unfortunately, she wasn't just stopping to take in the view—she was dead. After a few unsuccessful attempts at jumping her, I called AAA and got her towed.

 At least the view is nice.

At least the view is nice.

Luckily, the backup van arrived and escorted us the remaining distance. And I was only an hour and a half late to my brand new, remote job. Damn. 

 Always have a backup van ready.

Always have a backup van ready.

 Thanks for the lift.

Thanks for the lift.

As it turned out, Rover's issue was minimal and she was back in service within a day.  The power wire for the ignition module had worn out after almost 30 years of driving. $250 later, she was back on the road.

These are the troubles I've learned to expect from owning an old ass van. I certainly could have bought a newer model. E-150s are a dime a dozen around here, but there's character in this old Ford that I couldn't pass up. Here's hoping she provides us with some good adventuring this off-season and beyond.

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Nevertheless, She Persisted

We're nearing the end of our 2016-2017 season and I seem to be enduring overlapping problems. To start, my wrist has been aching for a few weeks and the rocky trails I've been running surely haven't helped. I should see a doctor, but who has time to do things like that.

The van nearly overheated due to an ongoing coolant leak that I lacked the sense to properly mitigate. That's been addressed, but now she's fussy at start up — possibly due to her fancy new headlights. We'll see what's going on with that.

 The battery, as it turns out, was just fine.

The battery, as it turns out, was just fine.

My dryland dog cart lost a bolt, washers, and wing nut on the trail yesterday. I'm not quite sure how it popped off without me noticing, but I ran a considerable distance with the cart partially collapsed. Replacements have been ordered by my magnificent boyfriend.

Finally, and the least of my woes, the handlebar bag I use to store small items while out on the trail finally blew out. The velcro attachments were torn to shreds from months of yanking on them. This has already been replaced, so my phone and keys will not get lost on the trail.

 Rocky roads.

Rocky roads.

Despite the struggles, we're still rolling. And in happier news, Willow's mysterious face lump has disappeared. Knox's toe issue is almost fully healed, at least enough for him to rejoin the team with a bootie. Temperatures took a nose dive over the weekend, which allowed us more time on the trail. We're less than ten miles away from our 200 mile season goal, which shouldn't be a problem to reach. The Mariner, while small, has served just fine as my backup vehicle while the van is acting up. We'll be okay.

Fun run at a new spot: Nepaug State Forest.

Beautiful, dense pines.

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.
— Confucius

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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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