Ramblin' Ma'am

I keep meaning to write up a new post. There’s plenty of topics I want to write about, or experiences in training I want to share, but my time has been especially limited. As we enter the holiday mania I mean season, I figured I better take a moment and write some things down.

Hubble has been with us for a month now. He’s been an interesting puppy so far. He’s a lot more mischievous than Blitz and Willow. I think those two spoiled me with how easy they were to house train and crate train. Hub made it known that he did not want to sleep in a crate while everyone else piled on the bed. He isn’t too eager to hold his bowels so that’s what he gets. Things have improved drastically over the first few weeks, but something so much as switching up the crate—he’s in a plastic airline style crate while my other crates are packed—is enough to make him howl all night.

Despite all the pee accidents and late nights, I can tell he’s got a really sweet disposition. He’s also the only dog I’ve ever had that chases after the vacuum and tries to bite it, so I expect him to be pretty fearless as he matures. I was a little worried he wouldn’t get along with Blitz (he was the only one to show obvious displeasure in Hub’s arrival), but they’re becoming best buds:

Aside from raising a new puppy, mushing enough mornings to reach the 100-mile mark fairly early, and working a full-time job, I’ve spent the past month preparing for our journey west. My life has been reduced to about a dozen boxes and bags stuffed into my SUV, which will be used to haul an enclosed trailer with Will's belongings. He makes the first jaunt next week, then returns in January to make the final trip with me in our vans—hauling a car and stuffed to the brim.

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As of ten minutes ago, I decided I want to video log (video blog? vlog? what do the kids call it) the trip west, as well as the fist few weeks of settling in Big Bear. I won’t make any promises as to consistency or quality, but stay tuned for that… experience. 

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Let Me Explain...

Just when you thought I was done adding dogs—aw shit! Meet Hubble. Okay, yes, I know. I’ve been working towards a solid 4-dog team and Blitz filled Dexter’s spot. The team is doing great and I’m very happy with all the progress we’ve made. 

Except… two things have been on my mind.

The first is planning for the future—maintaining this hobby (obsession) for the years to come. I don’t know where the years have gone, but Denali will be 7-years-old in March. Knox will hit seven six months after that. While I’m confident Denali will run into her double-digits, I’m not sure Knox will keep up. As a structurally weird rescue dog, I’m thankful for every day he runs. Still, this means I have roughly three more years with the current team. If I’m lucky, Denali and Knox will keep running into their teens, but it’s hard to know for sure. In order to keep running a full team, there will need to be new dogs to take their place upon retirement.

Second is a goal that I’ve mostly kept to myself since I started mushing, because it sounded crazy. Before I even got my first husky, I asked a friend how many dogs were needed to successfully carry a passenger on a cart or sled. She recommended at least six and that number has stayed in the back of my mind ever since. As I added dogs, the thought of having six seemed wild, so I kept that goal a secret. It became a dream for later, when I was “grown up” enough to manage it and to afford it.

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Several years into this sport, I find myself wondering what I’m waiting for. I’ve adjusted my entire life around these dogs. I found a remote job so that I can care for them fulltime. I’m moving to a cabin near a trail system with colder temperatures and less humidity year round. I’m getting paid well enough to follow the dreams I set almost a decade ago. I find myself thinking, “Oh shit, am I grown up?"

As I mentioned in thought #1, the window for my current team is closing. If I want to run a 6-dog team, it’s time to get moving. Denali and Knox have three or four seasons left. Willow and Blitzen are young and (hopefully) have a decade ahead of them. Hubble (and whatever dog I add next) will also have around a decade to run. When Denali and Knox retire, I’ll still have a solid 4-dog team for awhile.  

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I know, I know. This all sounds like an elaborate scheme to have a ton of dogs, but really, that’s what I’m trying to avoid while still pursuing my dreams. As a recreational musher, I want to cap at six dogs, with at least four in harness. That way, when the oldies retire, I can still keep up my hobby. And when they eventually pass away, I’ll introduce new dogs to the team and fluctuate between four and six actively running.

This mushing algorithm sounds pretty cold, but it comes out of love—for these dogs and for the sport. I don’t intend to go large-scale. My dogs are pets first, sled dogs second. While many are perfectly happy living outdoors, I want my team small enough to live inside and travel with me. I also can’t bear to adopt dogs out to retirement homes—they’re with me until the end.

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Ride Along

I finally put together a YouTube channel dedicated solely to the team. Check it out and be sure to subscribe! There's also a link to my old channel under "Featured Channels", if you want to see how far we've come.

Hopefully this will inspire me to bring the GoPro along for more of our adventures, and maybe learn how to use video editing software. Maybe.

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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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Two Miles Down

The first run of our season is complete—put it in the books. Mid-August is definitely the earliest we've ever run and the temperatures are just barely there. I woke up at 4 AM to get to a new trail just before 5 AM. It was in the mid-50s in the woods (according to my temperature gauge) but the humidity was rolling in fast, so we kept things short.

Mostly, I was excited to find a rail trail 25 minutes from the Pawling house, with lots of level dirt and gravel. I can squeeze out almost eight miles total in this spot, though we started with a quick 2.4 miler this morning.

The next few weeks look relatively warm (and I'm taking a quick camping trip up to Maine next weekend) so I doubt we'll log any more miles until September. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the calm that only comes after a solid morning run.

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Frosty the Snowvan

When I realized that Rover wasn’t the van for me, I quickly set my sights on a replacement. After all, cramming five dogs into the back of a Mercury Mariner in the dead of summer is not sustainable.

Enter the Ford Transit Connect (XLT Premium, but who cares). I had ruled them out as being too small when I started my initial van hunt, but my needs have shifted. I spent a few weeks comparing the older and newer models and learned that the 2014 (and later) version has less cargo space. The newer model also looks more like a minivan and less like a mini van, if that makes any sense.

I decided on a 2012 model sold by a Massachusetts Hyundai dealership, aptly in winter blue. I will omit the story of how the van was purchased and delivered because it’s frustrating and boring. On to the pictures! 

Some things worth mentioning:

  • The second-row seats fold forward; I keep one down for Dexter and the others stay folded during travel. If I need to, I'll unfold and use this row as a bed.
  • I had a 2" hitch receiver installed at U-Haul for around $200 ($160 for the hitch and $40 labor).
  • The roof rack was a nightmare to put on, despite being made for this van. Key parts were missing and the instructions were full of typos. Avoid "Rola" racks, for sure.
  • Storage space is ample despite being way smaller than Rover. I've got my emergency road kit, first aid kit, air pump, tool kit, tire chains, hiking pole, plastic basin, and a pile of dog hair stored between the crates. The rear door has a handy pocket that I use for east-access dog gear. There's also a shelf right above the windshield/front-row seats.
  • This sucker gets 27 mph highway, whaaat.

I'm more eager than ever for cold weather to arrive. I have yet to attach the roof cargo box or try loading the dryland cart on the back, so I'm hoping that all goes smoothly. I'm also anticipating that my sled will fit inside the van in a way that's easily managed, but somethings tells me it'll be a challenge.

In the mean time, I need to find a new home for Rover. If anyone is looking for a starter adventure van, check 'er out!

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Rover's Retirement

I hate to say it, but my days roaming with Rover are coming to an end. I love this van. It has served me (pretty) well for almost a year now. But in that year, I learned a lot about what I need out of a van—and what I don’t.

The allure of #vanlife may have gotten to me a little more than I’d like to admit. I collected ideas from other van-lifers and I was too ambitious with my setup. The big conversion project, quitting my job, and finding a fully-remote job seemed to imply that I was going to hit the road for the ramblin’ life. Friends were asking, “Where are you going?” or “Where are you now?” Uhhh, home, still.

I’ve always loved a good road trip, but I never intended to live on the road. Furthermore, traveling with five dogs isn’t simple. The van has made it a lot more comfortable, but I’m still limited to traveling during cold-weather. Aside from the risk of overheating, I need cooler temperatures to take them running and tire them out. Otherwise, I’d be rolling with four tightly wound balls of energy, restricted to tie-outs at rest stops and campsites. 

The true purpose of this van is to haul dogs and gear to trails. More than anything, I’ve used this van for day trips. I slept in the bed a grand total of one time. I cooked inside the van a few times, but it’s easier (and safer) to set up the camp stove outside. 

I could do without the cooking desk and use that space for storage. I also don’t need a permanent bed for most of my trips. The ability to roll up and store my bedding would keep it clean and free up more room. Once you take away the 4” thick mattress and interior cooking space, there’s no real reason to have a super high top. As it turns out, there are a lot of bridges and underpasses that Rover can't fit under, especially with the cargo box on top. 

When I bought Rover, I wasn’t planning to relocate to California. There are logistic concerns of getting the van across the country and having it survive the 6,000'+ elevation gains of the San Gabriel mountains, where I plan to live. It’s also unlikely to ever pass California’s emissions.

This year has been all about downsizing and simplifying. I went big out of fear that I wouldn’t have enough room, but now I know how I can condense. Rover taught me exactly what I need out of a van and I don’t regret the purchase one bit. 

After diving back into van research and visiting a cargo van depot, I've landed on the Ford Transit Connect XLT (2010-2013 version). They’re small (as far as vans go), affordable, fuel-efficient (compared to Rover), and from this decade. If it were just me traveling in this van, I’d probably stick to something older and "cooler", but I need something dependable when I’ve got five dogs traveling with me. I’m going to salvage what I can out of Rover’s build and transfer it, so most of the money I put into the conversion will not be wasted. Oh, and if anyone's looking to buy an empty '89 Ford E-150...

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Food for Thought

Despite unseasonably cool temperatures, our mushing season has come to an official end, marked by Blitz’s neuter surgery. His recovery is going fine, but it looks like we’re headed into a heat wave next week.

Since I won’t have mushing to talk about for a bit, I've decided to start blogging about some other daily aspects of owning a bunch of athletic dogs. To start, I’m going to answer a pretty common question I get:

“How do you afford to feed so many dogs?”

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Siberian Huskies are remarkably efficient beasts—they were bred to be. My active sled dogs get about two cups of high-quality dry kibble a day. Right now, I’m feeding Annamaet Extra 26%, (a $66.99 40 lb bag lasts about five weeks) which offers "increased fat content making it even more appealing to active dogs, canine athletes, working dogs and bully breeds”. Retired Dexter has been getting various weight-management kibbles because he’s prone to chunkiness. Right now he’s eating Whole Earth Farms Grain-Free Healthy Weight Dry Dog Food. (the 12 lb bag lasts five weeks)

Some of the dogs can be picky eaters, so I usually add a spoonful of canned food to their kibble. I’ll switch this up from month to month to give them more variety since they do seem to get bored with the same thing all the time. I’ll also look for higher fat and protein foods during the season, then switch to regular formulas during the off season.

I’ve been feeding a lot of Nutro Max canned dog food, as it’s priced pretty low (around $16 for 12 cans) while still having good ingredients. The dogs were enjoying it for awhile, but they started to lose interest. This month, the Chewy Influencer program* hooked me up with some free Taste of the Wild canned food. I’ve wanted to try this brand for awhile, admittedly because of the wolf artwork on the cans, but it was pricier (almost $30 for 12 cans) than I wanted to spend for a kibble-topper. 

For nearly double the price of the Nutro cans, I hoped the dogs would really dig into the Taste of the Wild food. So far, I’ve had mixed results. The first feeding at home went over well, probably because they hadn’t been getting any canned food toppers for a day or two. Now that we’re up in Pawling, Denali is back to her usual picky tendencies. I have to watch or Blitz will clean off any uneaten bowl. 

I listed the first five ingredients of each below:

Nutro Max Beef & Rice Dinner: Beef Broth, Beef, Beef Liver, Chicken, Wheat GlutenTaste of the Wild Southwest Canyon Canine Stew (beef): Beef, Beef Broth, Vegetable Broth, Beef Liver, Dried Egg Product

Overall, Taste of the Wild is better if you’re looking for a grain free solution, but my dogs don’t have any dietary issues with grain. Beef as the first ingredient is also better, but overall both are pretty decent options. If your dog can handle wheat and grains, and you’re looking to save some money, I’d go with Nutro. It should also be noted that my dogs rather gnaw on groundhogs or eat garbage, so their taste-testing ability is a little questionable. 

I have Chewy.com auto ships set up, so my paychecks get funneled from my bank account directly into dog food that’s shipped to my door (the paycheck to poop turnaround is remarkable). There are very few stores that offer the brands I buy and I certainly don’t have time to pick up food every month. The total cost isn’t as bad as you might think to feed five mouths—efficient metabolisms combined with auto ship discounts keep things reasonable.

Aside from their morning and evening meals, the dogs get a variety of chews, biscuits, and treats every day. I tend to try something new each month, along with regular ol’ Milkbone dog biscuits and Dentastix before bed. Oh, and they often get bits of raw meat here and there, depending on what I have in the fridge.

After writing all that, it does seem like quite an ordeal. After years of owning multiple dogs, I think I’ve got the process down pretty well. Their annual wellness exams show they’re maintaining healthy weights, shiny coats, clean teeth, and strong muscles. So I must be doing something right.

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*I received Taste of the Wild canned dog food free of charge from Chewy.com in an exchange for my honest review.


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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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