Sunday, December 31, 2006

Holiday Classic Sled Dog Race

The last weekend of the year is a big one for local sled dog racers. This is the weekend of the Holiday Classic, a 45-mile race from Bethel to above Akiachak and back. Most of the local mushers who plan to compete in
the Bogus Creek 150 in three weeks run this race as a warm-up.

Henry’s niece Angela [previously known to readers of this blog as Andrea; I am now using her real name, so you can find her in the stats on the K300 web page] has been training a race team out of Henry’s yard for over two years now. She started with a group of puppies and has raised and trained them into a fine looking team. She has done a few races here and there, but nothing big and with a long training focus. This year she decided back in the summer that she would run the Bogus, and she has trained consistently and
intensely for it ever since. The Holiday Classic would be her first real showing of the team.

Mike Williams, our pretty famous local Iditarod musher, has been training a large yard of dogs up in Akiak with the help of his handlers, his son Mike Jr, his daughter Shawna, and his nephew Gillbert. Shawna and Gilly are both running the Bogus, and brought teams down for the Classic. Mike Jr won the Bogus last year, so he gets free entry into the Kuskokwim 300 this year. He stayed in Akiak to run a three-day stage race this weekend, which would put more miles on his dogs.

Mike and family always stay at Henry’s place when they are in Bethel, and arriving with dog teams for a race is no exception. The dogs (sixteen in this case) are tied in the willow trees at the edge of a frozen slough next to Henry’s yard. Henry’s shop is right next to the dogs, and has a wood stove, a spare bed and plenty of floor space, so is very convenient for the visitors.

The race started at 11 am and was expected to take three to four hours before the winner would cross the finish line. It was a mass start, where all teams line up, the flag drops, and chaos ensues as teams surge forward over the icy frozen river. Mass starts are fun to watch, but can be hard on the teams and the mushers.

It was a beautiful day for sled dog racing. The thermometer read -10F and there was no wind. The sky was completely clear all night and the early morning darkness was quiet. Dutch and I showed up at Henry’s at 10 am to be the truck handlers for Shawna’s team. We loaded eight dogs and her sled in the back of my truck in the soft light of early dawn. Her team was composed of the older dogs in the yard. Almost all were five to eleven years old, and some had been on Mike’s Iditarod team four or five times. These are experienced racing dogs; they were all
calm and easy to handle.

We drove the three teams in three trucks to the start line down on the river and were the first ones there. More trucks arrived quickly, and in all ten teams competed.

Shawna got her sled placed with the ice hook firmly anchored in the river ice and the gangline stretched out in front. She and I put harnesses and booties on the eight dogs in the back of the truck, and then handed them off to Dutch, Mike and Gilly to hook up to the gangline in their running positions.

Once all the teams were lined up there was lots of barking, lunging (jumping forward in their harnesses, trying to take off), and high dog energy. They were all rarin’ to go. A countdown might have helped, as some mushers weren’t quite ready when the flag dropped, and then there was a scramble to get going. Angela, Shawna and Gilly all took off well. Fortunately there were no noticeable dog tangles anywhere along the start line, but the teams further out on the ice had to cross some slippery glare patches to get up to the
bank where the trail was. In a minute they were all out of sight around the river bend.

Henry and Mike jumped into Mike’s truck as soon as they left and roared off to follow the race upriver. Angela’s husband and training partner Sean was on his snowmachine and took off overland to try to beat the race to Akiachak. Dutch and I considered trying to follow Mike’s truck, but decided against it. Mike drives like a banshee on the river, and my truck is older than his. We opted to go out for breakfast instead.

e returned to the river just in time for the finish. First and second place were taken by two young mushers from Bethel, Jessica Klejka and Pete Kaiser. Jessica is 16 and has run the Junior Iditarod once; she plans to run it again in February. Pete is 20 and has run many local races. He won the Akiak Dash (50 miles) last year. Angela came in a strong third, and we were all very proud of her. Her dogs all looked strong and lively crossing the finish line. Shawna finished sixth and Gilly finished eighth. Everybody had a good race, solved a few problems, learned a few things. Experience is the best teacher.

We had a celebration at Henry’s after the race and heard the tales of the trail from the mushers and observers. Angela had to stop several times in the early part of the race to deal with loose hardware on the gangline, and shortly before the half-way point, she was dead last. In the second half of the race, she managed to pass six teams to come in third. She was overtaking the second place finisher strongly, and Henry believed that if the course had been the full 50 miles it had originally been, she would have passed him too.

Everyone who saw her team in action on the trail used the same description: smooth. Once the hardware problems were solved, she was in the groove, and had the mental toughness to stay focused and competitive from last place. What a comeback!

The Kuskokwim 300 and the Bogus Creek 150 are 19 days away. The excitement builds…

Photos by Dutch and The Tundra PA. Mostly, we were so busy with dogs we didn’t have time to take pictures. For more photos and race stats on the Holiday Classic, go to


Monday, December 25, 2006

Riding on the Ice Road

Southwest Alaska is finally in the comfortable clutch of winter. It is the season that this land knows the best, and is most at home with. When the land is frozen, the air and the people seem to have a liveliness that is missing in the warm months. And the landscape, both in Bethel and in the wild, is much gentler under a forgiving blanket of snow. Winter is good. To be happy here, one must love it.

Sunday, December 24th, was a beautiful afternoon to go out for a truck ride on the river. The weather has been consistently colder than +10F for several days, and the wind has been quiet for the last two days. The day dawned clear and bright just before 11 am and the sun shone strong and low in a deeply blue sky all day. It was a perfect time to be out.

Henry came by in mid-afternoon to see if Dutch and I felt like a short river trip. People have been traveling on the river in cars and trucks for about two weeks now, and the word around town is that the river is safe and the Ice Road is in good condition.

The Kuskokwim River is huge. Eight hundred miles long, up to a mile wide at some points, and anywhere from a few inches to over forty feet deep. In all that eight hundred miles, not a single bridge spans it, not a single dam impedes it. During the winter, the top five feet or so are frozen solid, and the river becomes a highway for all kinds of vehicular traffic. Even heavy fuel trucks are able to drive on the river. It is a little unnerving at first, to be driving a truck where you were driving a boat only a few months earlier, but you kind of get used to it.

Because the lower Kuskokwim is a tidal river, the danger spots from unexpected water are not so much in the center of the river as at the edges. Further upstream several hundred miles, the river is narrow and fast and the center often has open spots due to the churning current. The lower Kuskokwim is much broader and slower; the current does not prevent the center from freezing.

The tidal influence exists for the last ninety miles or so before the river empties into Kuskokwim Bay on the Bering Sea. Once the river’s surface is frozen, the incoming water of a rising tide oozes over the surface of the ice along the edges of the riverbank. It is called “overflow” and may be several feet deep. The surface of this standing water may also freeze over an inch or so before the tide recedes, sandwiching water between the thick plate of river ice and the thin skin of the frozen overflow surface. Snow machines and dog teams can get into serious trouble by breaking through this. There is no current, so you are not washed under the ice to drown. However, if you get wet to the waist in zero degree weather, serious hypothermia can follow if you don’t get dry quickly.

Tidal changes and the natural seasonal decrease in the amount of water in the river also cause the huge plate of ice that is the river’s surface to drop, sometimes five feet or more. This causes large ragged shelves of ice running along the river banks. They must be crossed to get out on to the river where the ice is smooth. In some years, chain-saw ice sculpting is required.

The type of weather we have in October and November determines the quality and character of the Ice Road each year. Each year is different and no two are alike. When we get cold fast and stay that way, the river tends to have a smoother surface overall. This year we had the opposite. Warm weather lasted well into November, with lots of dips and rises above and below freezing. The ice plates that were forming would soften during the warmer hours; then current and wind would shove them together. A temperature drop would freeze everything in place, creating a rough surface of jumble ice that looks somewhat like the moon’s surface.

Depending on the condition of the river ice, the Ice Road may go as far upriver as the village of Aniak, 150 miles away, and as far downriver as the confluence with the Johnson River, about 20 miles. Most years it gets as far up as Tuluksak, about 75 miles away. It always gets to Kwethluk, 15 miles away. In the past, the Ice Road was maintained by the State of Alaska and the City of Bethel; road graders went out on the river and plowed the road to keep it well defined and free of drifting snow. There were even reflective markers occasionally frozen into the ice. The road is no longer maintained, due to liability issues. You’re just on your own out there to find the road and stay on it. Sometimes that is easier than others.

The state of the Ice Road is a popular topic of discussion around Bethel. With the word out that it is in good shape this year, Henry and Dutch and I were curious to check it out. Henry had a thermos of coffee, so we jumped in his truck and took off.

The path on to the river ice is currently good at the small boat harbor. No rough jumble, big dropoffs, or overflow problems. The trail is easy to see and follow. Not much traffic was out; every ten minutes or so, we’d see another car, truck or snowmachine. Every time we stopped to take pictures and drink some coffee, people would stop to ask if we needed help. Every single vehicle. Every time. Not a single person passed us without inquiring. It is very reassuring that if you get stuck, someone will help you.

About five miles upriver we came around a wind-swept bend in the river to find ourselves on the craters of the moon. The jumble ice was so rough and big the road took a serpentine path that quadrupled its length to cover the distance. We bounced slowly along at walking pace for about two miles before the ice was smooth again. Halfway through this section we came upon a man with an ice chisel in his hand, working all alone out on the river. We stopped to talk when we passed him; he said this part of the trail was just too rough, so he was smoothing it out a little. On our way back about two hours later, he had made quite a difference.

The sun was not far from setting when we left town about 4 pm, and much of our ride was in twilight with the moon rising. It was a perfectly beautiful afternoon. Calm and clear with no wind, about ten above zero. Completely quiet, except for the occasional passing truck. We made it almost to Kwethluk before we turned back. It was wonderful to have a little wilderness injection in the midst of the holiday weekend.

Photos by The Tundra PA


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Blessed Winter Solstice

In a land where the daily amount of sunlight varies wildly throughout the year, people are very attuned to its presence or absence. In southwest Alaska, somewhat below the Arctic Circle, we have nearly 22 hours of daylight in midsummer, and only about 5 hours in midwinter. Outdoor activities in the winter are either compressed into that short span, or done wearing a head lamp.

As the planet’s major source of heat and light, we have a strong connection to the sun; our survival depends on it. During the half of the year from June to December as the daily amount of light is waning, we often feel a cellular level of forlornness at its loss. People who are particularly sensitive to this loss of light may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that settles in during the darker months of the year. Fortunately, artificial full-spectrum lights are both helpful and affordable.

Even those who do not experience SAD are attuned to the gathering darkness of winter. Many embrace it as a time of rest and renewal, a time of self-assessment and internal nurturing and healing. There is something very focusing about the long, dark nights, especially when it is very cold out.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. The great blessing of the winter solstice is the return of the light and warmth of the sun, as the days will begin gradually to get longer. The winter solstice marks the first day of winter and portends the coming of the deepest cold of the year; but because it also marks the beginning of the return of sunlight, the day brings us great hope and joy.

The solstice occurs at a slightly different time each year, but always between December 20th and 23rd. This year it occurs on December 21st, at 3:20 pm Alaska time (UT-9). In the sub-Arctic where Bethel is located, we will gain back daylight at an average rate of 5 minutes per day. In a few weeks there will be a noticeable difference. With each passing month, we will gain over two hours of daylight each day.

Another interesting sun-related phenomenon that occurs here is that the sun's path across the sky varies widely between summer and winter. In the summer, the sun rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. Because of our very flat landscape, we have a crisp horizon, and the precise location of sunrise and sunset is easy to pinpoint. From our westward-facing deck, the sun sets far to the right at the summer solstice. In the winter, the sun rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. In our five hours of daylight it makes a flat arc low across the southern sky, giving us a very slanted angle of light and quite long noontime shadows. On the winter solstice, the sunset seen from our deck occurs far to the left.

Knowledge of the summer and winter solstices is very ancient to humankind. We have long known how to calculate their precise moments. The monument at Stonehenge in England served just this purpose. The ancient pagan spiritual traditions celebrated the solstices as the anchor poles of the cycle of seasons. The sun’s life-giving connection to the earth was recognized and honored at these celebrations, which were (and still are) usually marked by big bonfires, dancing and feasting.

Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, the winter solstice is a very real and tangible moment of hope, especially here in the far northern part of the earth. The sun is returning; we will soon see and feel the lengthening hours of daylight and their promise of warmth to come. It is an occasion to celebrate.

Photo of Stonehenge at the Winter Solstice (photographer unknown) found by Google Image search at this url:,GGLG:2006-06,GGLG:en%26sa%3DN

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Grand Rounds Volume 3 Number 12

The Christmas edition of Grand Rounds is up at Nurse Ratched's Place. Her theme is A Charlie Brown Christmas, and she serves up an excellent collection of posts from the medblogosphere. Nicely sized at thirty posts, it is readable in a couple of hours. And I am delighted to have made the cut, though I did not write a Christmas-themed post. Nice work, Mother Jones, and thanks for hosting!

Pour yourself a celebratory beverage of choice and enjoy this week's best of the medical blogosphere.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Practicing Bush Medicine

Southwest Alaska is a huge geographic area within which to provide medical care. It the size of the state of Oregon, and contains one single small hospital. The health aides in each village are the starting point of a system of care which works well most of the time. Health aides consult daily with their village’s assigned provider (physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner) regarding the patients they see in their small remote clinics; these consults are collectively called Radio Medical Traffic (RMT), which I have described previously. The primary question to be addressed for each patient through RMT is whether that patient needs to come to the hospital in Bethel or can be observed and treated in the village. Many times that question is not easy to answer.

The first consideration is always: how sick is the patient? Any person in any village who is seriously, emergently ill will be medevac’d (weather permitting, of course, and sometimes it doesn’t). Health aides are very astute at differentiating the patients needing medevac from those who don’t. They stabilize the patient to the best of their ability, maintain frequent phone contact with the ER physician in Bethel, and pray for clear weather while waiting for a plane to come and get the patient. That wait may last an hour, or a day. If the patient is a pregnant woman in pre-term labor, they may deliver a baby before the plane arrives. The health aides in one of the Yukon River villages successfully delivered a 36-week double footling breech infant during a bad snowstorm when the plane could not land.

For patients who are less acutely ill or injured, the decision to come to Bethel for evaluation has other considerations, primarily financial. It often comes down to who has Medicaid or private insurance, and who doesn’t, especially for the residents of the more distant villages. Doing a quick mental tally, I believe there are nine (out of 58) villages that are within a thirty mile radius of Bethel, and so reasonable to travel in by boat or snowmachine for non-emergent health needs. The rest must come by small plane.

Any patient in our region can make an appointment in the Family Medicine Clinics for any reason at any time, if they choose. By treaty agreement with the federal government, Alaska Natives receive 100% free health care, including all prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, any needed supplies for things such as wound care, and any necessary medical equipment such as home hospital beds, nebulizers, wheelchairs, home oxygen concentrators and bedside commodes. Transportation to receive the care is the weak point in the system. If the appointment is not considered necessary by the provider in Bethel doing RMT, then the patient will have to buy the plane ticket—generally one to three hundred dollars round trip, depending on distance. Neither Medicaid nor private insurance will pay for transportation beyond the closest point of contact where service is available. They will not pay for a trip to Anchorage if the needed service is available in Bethel, or a trip to Bethel if the service is available at a sub-regional clinic closer to the patient’s village. If the patient simply wants to go to the higher level of care, they may do so at their own expense.

For the provider doing RMT on non-urgent patients, there are several agendas going on which must be kept in mind. From the hospital’s perspective, the RMT providers are the floodgate-control operators. They can direct the health aides to send in every patient with puzzling or slightly concerning symptoms for further evaluation. When one is new to RMT, the temptation is very strong to do just that; the questions of “what if the patient gets worse quickly?” or “what if the weather goes down?” are always present in the back of one’s mind. The problem is the overwhelming volume that would create. Two to three hundred patients per day are triaged through RMT. The hospital’s outpatient clinics and ER are already operating at or near capacity most of the time, with a medical staff that is undersized for the job we face, and overworked.

From the health aide’s perspective, a moderately ill patient in the village who is being watched and rechecked daily increases the likelihood of pulling an all-nighter at the patient’s bedside and then having to work the next day. When any patient is challenging the limits of their ability to give care, the health aides (understandably) do not want that patient in the village. The difficulty for the RMT provider is in assessing just where that line lies. Some health aides, whether by the nature of their personality or by the amount of experience they have, are less comfortable with even mildly ill patients being treated with watchful waiting, with or without oral antibiotics. Health aides sometimes lobby hard for their patients to be “trafficked” in to Bethel, even though the physical exam may not support the need for it.

From the patient’s perspective, traveling in may be highly desirable or absolutely despised. If the patient doesn’t really feel terribly ill, and could use a shopping trip to town, he or she may be pressing the health aide to request further evaluation in Bethel. If the patient does feel somewhat ill (or “sick-weak-and-tired” in the language of the Community Health Aide Manual), getting on a small plane in often marginal weather to be bounced around for an hour or so and then waiting an hour or more in the always-crowded hospital lobby with other sick and coughing people is not a welcome suggestion. Some patients would rather stay home until they get sick enough to need medevac.

A single RMT provider may triage as many as a hundred patients in an afternoon. When the traffic is heavy and the faxes are coming in from the health aides by the handfuls, it is important to move quickly, scanning the Patient Encounter Form for serious concerns or exam findings, and establishing a plan of care and follow-up. With such heavy volume, it could be easy to miss crucial details; fortunately that doesn’t often happen because health aides don’t miss much and are strong advocates for their patients.

Doing high-volume telephone triage with health aides through Radio Medical Traffic requires a bit of juggling to balance the actual needs of the individual patient, the collective needs of 160 health aides in 58 villages, and the capacity of a small hospital to provide top-notch medical care in a severe and remote location. There is not a lot of fat in the system; we operate most days with very tiny margins. To the credit of the entire team, we usually make it work.

Photos by The Tundra PA


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Definitely Winter

It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know it's coming, it's only a matter of when. Last night when we turned out the lights (around midnight) the thermometer read an almost-balmy ten above zero (-12C). My favorite winter temperature range is zero to ten above; not cold enough to be overly harsh, but plenty cold enough not to have to worry about melting tundra.

This morning we awoke to just about minus ten degrees (-23C), which is headed toward sharp. Minus 20 (-29C) is truly sharp. Your nostrils just want to slam shut and stick together to keep out the cold air. Understand that I am not whining (yet); Fairbanks has already been down to -40 this month.

Though a little slow to arrive, winter is definitely here. Daylight crept in around 10 AM and will fade away around 4:30. It is hard to believe that we are already so close to the winter solstice.

Today's day-off agenda includes a number of errands to run, so it is time to plug the truck in for an hour or so before starting it up. The plug connects to a block heater, an oil pan heater, and a battery blanket. An hour's worth of current before starting is a great kindness to the engine. Twenty minutes of warm-up with the heater going full blast is a great kindness to the driver, even at $4.65/gallon for gas! Money well spent, as far as I am concerned.

Cold hardening is a process that begins early in life among the Yupik Eskimos.

All photos by The Tundra PA


Monday, December 11, 2006

Home Again

It was an exciting few days in the Big City, and as always, I am very glad to be home. Anchorage is just too big a place for me, and I find it tiring to be there. Too many people, too much noise, too much traffic. It is a city in a beautiful setting, surrounded by huge mountains and the Gulf of Alaska; I intended to pick up a postcard with a nice aerial view to post here, but forgot until it was too late.

The wrestling tournament went well. It was held in a beautiful new sports complex in Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage. Henry and I drove up on Saturday morning in a nearly white-out blizzard that dumped about four inches of snow in a few hours. We were there for 12 straight hours, to watch Michael wrestle for 12 minutes (two matches). He won them both, and wrestled well. He was seeded third at the start, due to a last-minute weight class change by a high ranked wrestler (he had been second). He lost one pivotal match on Friday by a single point, and finished in third place. Not bad for a junior; both of the guys who beat him are seniors, so he has high hopes for next year.

Henry and I managed to see two movies in the three days we were there. The new James Bond flick, Casino Royale, was very good. A different kind of Bond than the previous ones; I wasn't sure at first, but in the end I liked him. Then we saw Blood Diamond. It is hard to imagine any one film having more violence in it than this one. At several points I had to simply cover my eyes. I don't need or want those kinds of images in my brain. I wish we had chosen something different.

For restaurant choices we went for variety. My favorite steakhouse, a lovely Italian place, a good basic Mexican place, and Henry's favorite seafood place (twice). It is such a thrill to experience Fine Dining; we just don't have that here. And to be able to have a glass of wine with dinner--what a treat!

In the end there was not much time for shopping, and it mostly consisted of utilitarian stuff (household goods) over holiday shopping. I checked one bag going over and three coming back, so clearly managed to pick up a few things. The retail bombardment this time of year wears me out.

Our experience dealing with Big Medical Center went well. Henry has given me permission to write a post about his health issues, which are mostly of interest in the context of access to care, about which I have written before.

Our flight in last night was nearly on time (always a blessing, and never to be counted on). It was wonderful to see Dutch's warm smile waiting for me at the gate. And some exhuberant dog love waiting in the truck. It is good to be home.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Unexpected Trip

This week did not begin with any plans for travel. I have the week off, and intended to spend it at home, writing, blogging, mushing with Henry and doing house projects. It happens that the state wrestling finals are being held near Anchorage this coming weekend, and Joan’s son Michael is competing as the number two ranked wrestler in the state in his weight division. Joan is unable to go over for the event, but Henry was planning to attend, as he is going over for a medical appointment on Friday (more on that in a later post, if he agrees). Betty had planned to go with him, but at the last moment her work schedule intervened, so he asked me to go with him. It was serendipitous good fortune that I am off work and able to go.

The wrestling tournament will go on all day Friday and Saturday. Michael is expected to do well; he is strong and confident at this point. I have known him since he was eight years old, as both friend and health care provider, and I have been proud to watch him grow into a fit athlete and a fine young man. I am glad that Henry and I will be there to root for him, especially since his mother will have to miss it.

It has been eight months since my last trip out of Bethel to “civilization”. Leaving is kind of a big deal. We are fairly isolated here, and traveling out is expensive; a round trip ticket to Anchorage costs about $500, so folks don't generally dash over on a whim. There are four daily planes to Anchorage, but weather can quickly move in and shut down service; you can be stuck here, or stuck trying to get here. Anchorage is not a really big city (population about a quarter million), but it feels big compared to Bethel. Bright lights, traffic, concentrated human energy.

Henry and I will fly over on the afternoon jet tomorrow. Our agenda includes shopping (Costco…a real bookstore…a bike shop…a health food store…oh, joy!), eating in some nice restaurants (you know, the kind with carpet on the floor and cloth napkins?), seeing some new movies (Bethel has no movie theatre), maybe even stopping at a bar and having a real adult beverage (no alcohol is sold in Bethel). Ah, the lures of civilization!

We will return Sunday evening (weather permitting, of course). I plan to take my laptop, as the hotel has wireless internet, but don’t know how much time and energy I’ll have for blogging. I’ll definitely post an update on our return.

Photo: Michael is the lighter-skinned, blond headed wrestler. This was taken by a friend of his at last week's regional competition in Akiachak. Dutch and I did not make it up there for the meet; snowmachine travel was still a bit edgey due to our recent warm spell (fortunately now over). I love this photo of him.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Training Sled Dogs and the K300

Maintaining a well-trained team of sled dogs is a year-round endeavor, but the fun part is in the winter. Fortunately for those of us in southwest Alaska, winter lasts for seven to eight months. Late summer/early fall training consists of trucking the dogs out to open tundra and hooking them up to a four-wheeler or an old beater sled and letting them drag it around for a half-hour or so at a time. Though they shed much of their thick undercoats during the summer, they can still get overheated easily in warm weather, which is very bad for their attitude and their work ethic.

Summer training runs are usually short, and the goal is strength training. It is slow, hard pulling on bare tundra. The dogs love riding in the truck and the chance for an outing. Henry’s dogs can be released from their chains and will run directly to the truck and jump in the back for the ride. The summer routes usually involve splashing through streams, ponds, mudholes and deep brush; the dogs come home muddy and happy, and the musher, muddy and tired. Summer training runs are a lot more work than winter runs.

By October the ground is starting to freeze up, and the sled moves more easily, but the ride is pretty rough. Even when the dogs are hooked up to a four-wheeler it is pretty bouncy. Everyone starts praying for snow—lots of it. Some years we get it, some years we don’t. So far, this is a year when we don’t.

For those mushers who plan to race (that would be most), training must continue throughout the fall, regardless of conditions. The local mushing clubs begin holding sprint races in mid-December. These are ten- to twenty-mile races with no required stops. For the local sprint teams, the training goal is to compete well in the Akiak Dash in January, a 50-mile sprint race with one required one-hour rest at the half-way point. The Dash is usually won in under five hours.

For mid-distance racers, training consists of longer and longer runs, and includes rest breaks, sometimes overnight. By December the team should be able to run for about four hours with little or no break. The general wisdom about running mid-distances (150 to 300 miles) is to give the
dogs equal periods of running and resting, so a four-hour run is followed by a four-hour rest, and then another four-hour run, and so on.

A racing sled dog quickly learns to make good use of the rest periods. Most mushers carry a half bale of straw in the sled and will scatter it about for the dogs to sleep on, and they quickly curl up for a snooze. A thumb-sized piece of frozen fish gives them some quick water and protein while they wait for a small portable stove to heat up a soupy meal. They sleep until it is ready, eat fast and go right back to sleep until it is time to go. If it is really cold (below zero or colder) the musher may throw a small fleece blanket over each dog to help maintain body warmth. While they are sleeping, the musher will check each dog for foot problems or sore joints. If the musher is organized and efficient, he or she may also get an hour’s rest before the break is over.

The local mid-distance teams are training for our annual sled dog extravaganza, the Kuskokwim 300 (K300) and the Bogus Creek 150. The Dash, the Bogus, and the K300 are all held the same weekend in mid-January. It is Dog City in Bethel for that week.

The K300 is one of Alaska’s premier mid-distance races. It started back in 1980 and has been run every year since. With a $20,000 purse for first place, the race draws an outstanding field of racing teams. Most of the top professional mushers return to Bethel each year to compete. Jeff King, Susan Butcher, Rick Swenson, Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Doug Swingley, Aliy Zirkle, Mitch Seavey, Ed Iten, Charlie Boulding, Mike Williams have all run the K300 over the years. Many of them will be back next month to do it again.

The course for K300 goes from Bethel to Aniak (150 miles upriver) and back. Mostly in the dark. The race will be won in something under 40 hours; there will be daylight for about eight of them.

There are seven checkpoints along the course where each musher must sign in. Food drops which were sent ahead can be collected, hot food and sleeping spaces for the mushers are provided, and race vets are available to check any dogs which the musher is concerned about. Dogs who are injured, tired, or not performing well may be dropped at the checkpoint and will be flown back to Bethel. A six hour rest is required somewhere around the half-way point (musher’s discretion) and a four hour rest is required at the next-to-last checkpoint about 70 miles from the finish line.

Each team starts with 14 dogs and must finish with at least five. Dogs cannot be added to the team once they leave the start line. With twenty or more teams running the race, there are a LOT of dogs at the start. K300 has a staggered start; teams start in pairs every two minutes. The time advantage gained by starting early is added to each team’s required rest at the midpoint.

Mushers in K300 are not allowed any outside help during the race; they must haul their own water and straw for their dogs and do all necessary dog care. They may not accept hospitality on the trail except for that offered to all mushers at the checkpoints.

K300 is a stepping stone (for those who need it) to the long-distance races, which require completion of two mid-distance qualifiers in order to enter. The twin queens of long-distance mushing are the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race. Both are over a thousand miles long and require nearly two weeks to finish. They are the supreme tests of musher and dog team against the elements.

The Bogus Creek 150 and the Akiak Dash start on the same day as K300, but several hours earlier in the day. It makes for one big day of sled dog racing! After the last team has left the starting chute, spectators are treated to Bethel’s big yearly fireworks display (we don’t have them on the 4th of July because it doesn’t get dark until 2 AM). In the cold night sky, the fireworks are beautiful.

Click here for an excellent and humorous article on the 2006 K300 by journalist Sherry Simpson in Alaska Magazine.

The 2007 races will begin on January 19th, only six weeks away. There are lots of training miles to be run before then.

All photos by The Tundra PA


Saturday, December 02, 2006

On Dogs

Rural Alaska is a great place for dog people. Most families have one or more dogs as pets, some who live in the house and some who live outside. People tend to include their dogs in their daily lives. Dutch and I have two dogs living in the house; Henry and Betty have four; Trevor and Andrea have two. When we all have dinner together at Henry and Betty’s, there are eight dogs lying around the living room and all is quite congenial.

The dogs are personalities in our lives as much as the people are. Betty says with a laugh that nowhere else do people energetically discuss whether you’ve “met” someone’s new dog yet. Our dogs say a lot about who we are, and our interactions with them reveal aspects about ourselves that are not necessarily evident in our human-human interactions.

I absolutely love dogs. They are truly amazing creatures, loyal, devoted, dedicated, hardworking,
and endlessly forgiving. The very best person I can be is the person my dog thinks I am; who could not benefit from such a mirror in their lives?

I was late in coming to recognize myself as a Dog Person. We had family dogs throughout my childhood—two standard Schnauzers, a Doberman pinscher, a standard poodle—but they all ended up being, really, my mother’s dogs. She was home with them all day and they related to her. I did not acquire my very own dog until my early forties; prior to that, I considered myself a Cat Person, and had as many as six cats at any one time.

The first dog to be truly all mine was Pepper. She was one of an undesired litter listed in the paper as “free to good home”. It was early in 1994 and she was 10 weeks old. She was described as a black lab/husky mix, but that was smoke and mirrors to dispose of the litter. Her mother was a black dog that looked way more Irish setter than Labrador retriever; supposedly she was seen coupled (tied) with a husky male, but in all likelihood he was not the only father of that litter.

Pepper grew to be a medium-sized dog weighing about 35 pounds. She is smart and a little stubborn (some say not unlike her owner). She was tw
o years old when I moved to Spokane, and I enrolled us both in obedience classes and then in agility classes with the Spokane Dog Training Club. She excelled at both, and earned the Canine Good Citizen award.

She loved agility training. Agility is a competitive sport for dogs, and is a lot of fun to watch and to participate in. It is a timed event in which a dog must run an obstacle course with a wide variety of challenges—jump a series of fences, crawl over an A-frame, jump through a tire, run through a blind tunnel, snake through a series of weave poles, cross a tall narrow bridge, sit or lie on a table until commanded to continue, walk up a teeter-totter until the up side comes down and then walk off without jumping off.
The handler runs through the course with the dog, giving directions and encouragement at every obstacle. It requires obedience, attention, and athleticism on the dog’s part, and a fair amount of endurance on the handler’s part. A well-trained agility dog with a good handler is great fun to watch perform.

Pepper was just reaching the competitive level in agility when I left Spokane in 1998, and that ended her training. Bethel doesn’t have a dog training club, obedience classes, or agility courses. I tried her in harness when we moved here, to see if she had any sled dog genes buried deep somewhere, but she wasn’t interested. She behaved well on the gangline and ran with the team without tripping up, getting dragged, or causing problems; but she never pulled, she just ran al
ong. Her tug line was totally slack.

She is now thirteen years old (75 in human years) and still very fit and active. She jumps into and out of the back of the pick-up truck without help, and loves to go for a run across the tundra. Her hearing is not as good as it once was, and she is starting to develop some cataracts, but she is quite lively and I hope to have her in my life for at least another five years. Actually, ten, but that is probably pushing it.

And then came Bear. He was special from the very start. In the fall of 2001 I bought three sled dogs from the same village musher I had purchased six dogs from the previous year. That made nine village sled dogs plus the beautiful young female I acquired from Susan Butcher who had just delivered a litter of six puppies. Sixteen sled dogs total.

Bear’s mother was Brownie, one of the three new village dogs. She was a good sturdy sled dog, not a leader but a strong team dog. About six weeks after her arrival I left for a two-week vacation. When I returned, the young man taking care of the dog yard said “Hey, you got a puppy in that dog’s house over there.”

Say what? A puppy? One? Yep. Unbeknownst to the musher who sold her to me, Brownie had been pregnant when she arrived from the village; her litter consisted of a single, gigantic puppy. His eyes were just opening, putting his age right about ten days; he must have been born on Halloween (as it was then November 9th), which has always seemed appropriate for him.

Right from the start, he was the darling of the dog yard. He lived with his mother in her dog house and for several weeks he just got bigger and bigger. He had eight faucets for suckling and no litter-mate competition. He was nearly six weeks old before his legs got long enough to lift his fat belly off the ground.

He had free run of the dog yard and was coddled by all his aunties and uncles. He slept in their houses, ate from their food bowls, chased their tails and chewed their bones. Nobody minded. He was the happiest little puppy in the world, and with tongue lolling had a perpetual grin on his furry face.

He was put into harness at six months of age, along with the puppies of the Butcher dynasty, but apparently he decided early on that he was not meant for a life of work. He not only would not pull, he simply lay down and allowed the team to drag him. He looks like a sled dog, but he is actually just a Pretty Boy. When he and his mother could no longer fit in the same house, he moved inside with me and claimed a toasty sleeping spot next to the stove, officially cementing his status as a
house dog.

Bear has always been friendly, but he never bonded with anyone until he met Dutch. He was nearly three years old (that would be 25 in human years) when Dutch moved to Alaska to live with us, and it was apparent right away that Bear had claimed Dutch as his chosen master. He prefers to be at Dutch’s side at all times, follows him from room to room, and lies in wait by the front door if Dutch leaves the house. They make a handsome team, two big strong males with warm, loving hearts. I am doubly blessed to be loved by them both.

Bear is now five years old, and in his prime. His weight is ideal at 65 pounds; his ribs and hip bones are easy to palpate. He is a very nimble dog for his size, and can jump over the truck’s closed tailgate from a standing position. His long legs make him an incredibly fast sprinter and he is pure joy in motion to watch running.

Companion dogs have become an integral part of my life, and one that I will never again be without. I still love cats, and birds and turtles and snakes and hamsters and all the other creatures people call “pets”. But for me, dogs are essential, the rest are not.