Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Ah, misery! One of thy names, at least in the sub-Arctic, is winter rain. Our warming trend has continued and the thermometer has been camped at +40F since yesterday morning. In the afternoon it started raining. The snow is melting quickly and there are puddles on the ice. Just walking is a challenge, the surface is so incredibly slippery. And everywhere, the dripping. Followed by crashes as snow loads on roofs let go and yield to the force of gravity, a hundred pounds at a time or more. I fear for our deck, which sounded as though it had been torn from the house after one such dump last night. The whole house shook from it. Gutters around here need frequent replacement.

The usual weather pattern is for this to continue for a few days and then drop suddenly into single digits (positive or negative) for a hard freeze, which, after the rain, creates a smooth and glassy ice sheet. Ambulation doesn't improve much unless we get a few inches of fresh snow to cover it. This has been a pretty good snow year (some years we get very little), so I am ever hopeful. The forecast is for decreasing temperatures tonight; my fingers are crossed for a drop to the mid teens.

In other news, the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race over in Kenai, Alaska, finished early yesterday morning. Aliy Zirkle came in sixth, and her husband, Allen Moore, was fourteenth. The awards banquet was last night, so they will be driving most of today to get home, twelve hours from Kenai to Two Rivers, with two dog trucks and 30+ dogs. I hope to hear some details from her about how this race went, how the dogs did, etc. It is now just over four weeks until the start of Iditarod. This will be her sixth or seventh running of The Last Great Race; Dutch and I are pulling hard for her to do really well (like WIN!). Yesterday I found a nice interview with Aliy from 2001 on the Sled Dog Central website here.

I made the switch to Blogger Beta yesterday, mostly because I had no choice, and so far it has been painless. I'm still trying to upload the 43-second video clip of the puppy run on Saturday through Google Video. I'm nothing if not persistent; some, including my mother, would say stubborn. Nah.

Sorry, no photos of wet snow and drippiness to share. All my daylight hours yesterday were spent inside the hospital.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Puppy Runs

Southwest Alaska has had a weekend of beautiful weather after a rollercoaster week of highs and lows that included a couple of blizzards. After the K300 Awards Banquet on Monday night, the temperature dropped to minus 20F with a pretty good breeze blowing. It was severely cold as we were loading Aliy Zirkle’s dogs at 5 am on Tuesday morning for their return flight to Anchorage. By Wednesday we were back up to 20 above, and Henry and I took two puppy teams out for a great run.

On Thursday morning a blizzard blew in from the north, with winds over 30 mph and temps below zero. It was so severe that schools, city government, and even the hospital closed down (except the ER and the inpatient unit). The storm had blown through by Thursday night and all was quiet. On Friday the weather shifted, a new storm blew in from the south, and suddenly we had +30 degrees and lots more snow and wind. Since that storm passed, all has remained quiet, and the thermometer has continued to hover around freezing. After 20 below, this feels so warm it is almost spring-like.

Henry and I took another puppy team out yesterday for a short run and it went really well. A “puppy team” isn’t all puppies; two or three of the seven-month-olds are hooked up with five or six seasoned adults. Puppy discipline is the job of the adult that the pup is paired with on the gangline. Puppies are exuberant and tend to jump around and climb on their partners, get tangled in the lines, and sometimes chew their harnesses. With a few growls and a well-placed biting snap or two, the puppy learns to stand in place on the gangline, ready to move out at the musher’s command.

Puppy runs need to be short and fun, to build the pups’ enthusiasm for their work. The trail from Henry’s dog yard to Hangar Lake is about two miles long, twisting and winding through willow trees and over sloughs, and has two challenging spots where the team must pull the sled up a six foot bank coming off of a small lake. It is a very good training run for the young dogs.

At Hangar Lake we turn the team around in a big loop and head back into the trees out of the wind for a short break. The young dogs learn from the old ones that this is the time to sit or lie quietly and rest until it is time to move again. Henry and I pull out thermoses of coffee or tea, and sometimes cookies or dried salmon strips to munch on. After about twenty minutes, we repack the sled and Henry takes a frozen whitefish and a small hatchet up to the front of the line. He has the dogs’ undivided attention as he chops the fish into thumb-sized pieces. He walks back down the line, giving each dog two or three pieces along with head rubs and words of encouragement. He stows the hatchet and we are off in a flash.

The trip home is easier, as those two tall banks are much simpler to run down than up. The whole trip takes only an hour, twenty minutes each way and a twenty minute rest.

All five of the ten puppies we ran this week did well; they pulled hard, ate their fish snacks quickly, and didn’t mess around too much with their line partners. My favorite puppy went twice (inadvertently, because I harnessed the wrong dog). Her name is Butch, named for Susan Butcher. Her mother, Little Belle, is the offspring of the dog I bought from Susan in 2000. Butch was the only female in Little Belle’s litter, and so far shows excellent promise of living up to her prestigious heritage. She may develop into a great lead dog.

Along with these photos, I also shot several 30-second video clips of our run as seen from the back of the sled. Each one is about 60 MB, which is way too large for Blogger to upload. I would love to post them, as they give you a much more realistic feel for the experience of mushing than still photographs can. If anyone knows how to do it, please leave a comment and tell me.

Photos by The Tundra PA. In the photo of the team, Little Belle is the left wheel dog (closest to the sled). Butch at her house.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Canine Malocclusion

When the nose of Aliy Zirkle’s lead dog Bullet crossed the finish line at this year’s K300, it was only inches ahead of the nose of Paul Gebhardt’s lead dog, Governor. Fortunately for Aliy, Bullet has a particularly long nose; it meant the difference between finishing in the top 10 and not.


This photo of Aliy was taken the morning before the race started, with her three leaders of the K300 team, Girlfriend, Donya (my computer doesn’t have an n with a tilde over it), and Bullet. Bullet is the reddish-brown dog on the far right. When you see her head in profile, you can see how looong her nose is.


Bullet has canine malocclusion. Her front teeth don’t come together because her lower jaw is too much shorter than her upper dental ridge. She has a terrific overbite. Orthodontic appliances work well to correct the situation in people, but it is a bit more difficult in dogs.


The problem with dogs is that their upper and lower canine teeth interlock when their jaws are closed. In the bite impression of a dog with normal jaws, the lower canines fit in front of the upper canines. When those four teeth don’t come together correctly, the lower canines can actually drill holes in the dog’s hard palate. The problem is solved by either grinding the lower canines flat, or extracting them altogether.


In Bullet’s case, the lower jaw was so short that nothing had to be done; the lower canines are so far back they don’t hit anything. The space where they should fit is easily visible in front of the upper canine. For comparison, our house dog Bear’s bite is completely normal.


Anyone can see from looking at her that Bullet’s malocclusion is not a problem for her. She eats well, runs fast, and is a smart leader. And she is very used to having her mouth shown, though she doesn’t quite get why everyone is so interested.

One more photo from the pre-race photo session. These are three more of Aliy's dogs, Nutmeg, Rolo and Snickers. They are two- and three-year olds, and have great racing careers ahead of them. The experience they got running the Kuskokwim 300 will serve them well in future Iditarods.

My fingers are crossed for Aliy and her husband Allen Moore this weekend; they are both running teams in the Tustumena 200 over in Kenai, Alaska. I'd love to see them take first and second!

Photos by The Tundra PA.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

K300 Conclusion

OK. Maybe I’m not quite done writing about dog mushing just yet. After a week of daily posting and very few comments, I had concluded that Tundra Medicine Dream readers were simply not too interested in the subject. I received a wonderful bolster of support from #1 Dinosaur at Musings of a Dinosaur this morning, and it was greatly appreciated. Dutch also pointed out, “blogs are for writing about whatever you want, and people can choose to read it or not. That’s the beauty of them.” I am still deeply involved in dog energy today, so here is the final wrap-up for a great K300.

As of this morning, there were still two mushers out on the trail, Ben Bruce and David Fitka. They were traveling together and taking long rests, which suggests pretty tired dogs. As long as they complete the course, they will receive prize money, as the K300 pays the first twenty mushers and this year’s race only had nineteen teams.

Most of the 17 mushers who finished the race before the banquet left Bethel on the early plane this morning, including Aliy. We were up at 4:30 am to load her dogs, the sled and the dog kennels into three trucks and deliver them to the airport by 6 am. I came home to a quiet house and a long snow trench empty of sled dogs. It felt a little like a whirlwind had just passed through. The Big Dog and the Little Dog both wonder where their new friends went to.

In the early afternoon, word came from race headquarters that Ben was expected at the finish line about 4 pm. Henry, Joan, Angela, Sean and I were down on the river to greet him.


Ben runs his kennel in Bethel as an animal rescue operation. He takes pound dogs and tries to train them to be sled dogs. He manages to find homes for many of the dogs which don’t work out on the gangline. At the pre-race drawing for position, Ben brought one of the pups he is currently trying to place, and talked about his program. The pup was adorable, about 3 months old, and probably going to be quite a large dog if her feet and forelegs are any indication. I sat next to him at the meeting and handled her a bit. She is pretty serene for a puppy of that age, and paying attention to everything. It may be a case of puppy-love-at-first-sight. I’m planning to visit her at his kennel tomorrow; if Dutch likes her as much as I do, she may have a new home.


Ben crossed the finish line at 4:15 pm with all 14 dogs on his gangline. He was the only musher who did not drop a single dog. His dogs looked tired but in good condition, and adequately rested. He looked very cold.

Our gentle temperatures of the weekend (+10 to +20F) came to an end yesterday. It was zero when we awoke, minus 10 by afternoon, and minus 20 by midnight. Today the thermometer here has stayed on minus 20 all day. That is pretty cold for an exhausted musher and dog team who have been on the trail for 4 days. Ben passed on my offer to load the team in my truck and drive them to his house; he pulled the hook and said “Let’s go, dogs, get up there, you’re almost home!” He mushed his dogs down the river in the direction of his dog yard.

That left one musher still on the trail, David Fitka, who would be the Red Lantern. He is a Native musher from the Yukon village of Marshall, and he ran the entire K300 with only ten dogs.

He arrived in Bethel with twelve dogs, but one died tragically the day before the race, and a second was found by the vets to be too far advanced in pregnancy to be safe to compete. This was the result of an unintended breeding, and David had not been aware of it.

The K300 is a long race to start with only ten dogs, but his team comes from very strong village stock, with powerful bodies and very thick fur, and he had confidence that they could do it. He dropped three dogs in the last 50 miles of the race; the seven who finished looked great, strong and vigorous.

David crossed the finish line at 6:52 pm this evening, officially ending the 2007 Kuskokwim 300. Not a single musher scratched this year, which is unusual. All the mushers agreed that this was one of the finest years for both weather and trail conditions in recent memory. Most of the mushers stated that they plan to be back next year. Dutch and I encouraged Aliy to consider bringing two teams next year so that both she and her husband Allen could run the race. She said she’d think about it.

So the exciting and energizing K300 Week draws to a close. This entire thing is a huge event in Bethel. It is a shot of adrenaline to the town, both economically and culturally. The dog energy around town is phenomenal; I estimated something in the neighborhood of 400 visiting sled dogs for these races. Lots of Bethel residents are volunteers (it takes an army!) and there is dog talk happening everywhere you go. For this week each year, Bethel is dog crazy.

Not only are there just lots of dogs, there are also a lot of famous mushers. The K300 roster each year reads like a “Who’s Who” of professional mushers. Kids run around at the banquet asking them to sign autographs on their sweatshirts.

The pros consistently say that the K300 is the best planned, best organized, best run mid-distance sled dog race in Alaska. It has the highest purse of any mid-distance race; only the Iditarod pays more. And one musher, who has run most (if not all) of the dozen or so other mid-distance races in the state, said that the K300 is also the hardest race of them all. Depending on the weather, it isn’t always fun; last year was brutally cold. This year everyone had a blast.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Finish Line awaits the Red Lantern at 6 pm. Ben Bruce and puppy at the pre-race drawing. Ben crossing the Finish Line. Cold Ben. David Fitka at the pre-race drawing. Unfortunately, the Finish Line photos of David were too dark and blurry to post.


Monday, January 22, 2007

A Lovely K300

With an enthusiastic crowd of fans cheering him on, Martin Buser won the 2007 Kuskokwim 300 yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful blue-sky day with the temperature right at +12F; conditions were nearly perfect. Bu
ser was followed eight minutes later by Jeff King, who took second place.

King and Buser were the race leaders from early on. By the second half they had established a two hour lead over the rest of the field. When they left the last mandatory rest stop at Tuluksak, Buser
had a twenty minute lead over King. In the 5+ hours it takes to get to Bethel, King and his team worked hard to catch Buser, and managed to chip away at his lead by twelve minutes—which is huge. Both mushers have won this race numerous times; Buser holds the course record, set in 1994, of 37 hours 4 minutes. His winning time this year was 43 hours 52 minutes. Last year, Jeff King won both the K300 (for the eighth time) and the Iditarod (for the fourth time).

Martin Buser’s second team was run by his seventeen year old son, Rohn, who did very well with them. This was Rohn’s rookie race, and he finished in fourth place; any time a rookie finishes any race in the top ten, it is outstanding. The K300 is a very challenging race; to do it here is especially so. An interesting note is that both of Martin’s two sons, Nicholai and Rohn, are named after Iditarod checkpoints. They were born with mushing in their blood!

After the two leaders finished, the next seven teams were spaced well apart. It was fairly easy to predict ballpark finishing times based on the times out of Tuluksak (a little over five hours away) and Kwethluk (about two hours away). The K300 website was being updated on race stats every thirty minutes or so. I knew Aliy Zirkle arrived at Tuluksak at 11:45 am, so would have her mandatory four hour rest, leave at 3:45 pm, make Kwethluk around 7 pm and get to Bethel about 9 pm. What no one could predict was the incredibly exciting finish she had.

Dutch and Randy went out yesterday morning on snowmachines to get a close-up look at the race. I would have gone with them, but I knew Aliy would have dropped dogs coming in to Bethel in the afternoon that would need to be picked up and cared for, so I waved the guys goodbye to have a good time. They went all the way to Tuluksak (70 miles) and found Aliy just leaving the checkpoint. Dutch said both she and the team looked great—energetic, smiling, and with her characteristic good humor. She was happy to see a familiar face.

Aliy and Paul Gephart ran much of the race in close proximity to each other, leapfrogging back and forth for the lead between them. When they left Tuluksak, Aliy had a six minute lead on Paul. He passed her not far out of Kwethluk, and she stayed right behind him. He said several times, “You wanna pass?” But she said “No.” He had six dogs and she had nine; she felt that his were running just a little bit faster, and by keeping him right in front of her it speeded her team up.

Dutch and Randy got back to Bethel about 8 pm, and he and I headed for the river and the finish line about 8:30; I knew we’d be early by probably an hour or more. Joan showed up in her truck, and Randy and his wife arrived in their truck shortly after. We had a little tailgate party with hot tea and coffee while we waited. About 9:45, someone yelled “Mushers coming! I can see their
headlights!” We all peered into the darkness, and could just barely see two small lights very close together, bobbing in the darkness. The bobbing meant that both mushers were either poling or kicking (or both) to help their dogs.

We all watched, nearly mesmerized, as those two small points of lights came toward us with agonizing slowness. One seemed to stay right behind the other, and we knew the two teams had to be Paul and Aliy, but there was no way to know which was which.

The excitement in the crowd was at a fever pitch. Dutch and Joan and Randy and I were jumping up and down yelling “Go Aliy!” As we watched, the second headlight pulled to the side when the teams were about a hundred yards away. They kept coming side by side. The crowd was in a frenzy. The team on our right inched forward just a little. The dogs were running, the crowd was screaming, the mushers were yelling out, encouraging their dogs. They shot across the finish line in a burst, and Aliy’s lead dog was just six inches ahead of Paul’s lead dog. Her team beat his by a nose. They brought their teams to a halt and gave each other a big laughing hug. At last the race was over for them, and they were both glad for that. They finished at 10:04 pm with an elapsed time of 51 hours 33 minutes 57 seconds for Aliy and 51 hours 33 minutes 58 seconds for Paul.

The local radio station was covering the finish around the clock, so the guy with the microphone corralled Aliy and Paul for a quick interview while Dutch and I took booties off the dogs’ feet, removed harnesses and loaded dogs in the back of the truck. Joan and Randy helped us make short work of it, and got the sled loaded in Randy’s truck as well. We had the dogs home and bedded down in fresh straw in no time. The four dropped dogs which I had picked up earlier in the afternoon were glad to see their teammates.

Today Aliy is little the worse for wear. A bit stiff and sore, but not bad. She really is an outstanding athlete, as are all her dogs. At the moment she is enjoying an excellent massage from my favorite body worker. And she has been drinking water and Gatorade all day.

The final event of K300 weekend will be the Awards Banquet, held tonight at the Cultural Center. There will be a dinner for the mushers, their host families, and all the volunteers who make this race happen. After that will be the awards ceremony, in which all mushers from all three races (K300, Bogus 150, and Akiak Dash, a 50 mile sprint race held on Saturday which I haven’t written about) will come up, say a few words, tell a story from the trail, thank their sponsors, and accept their checks. Aliy’s check will be for $3,000 for a 10th place finish. For more info on the award amounts, go to the K300 website and click on “2007 Race Purses”.

Tomorrow will be an early start: Aliy’s dogs must be delivered to the cargo carrier by 6 am, and then her flight leaves at 8 am. It has been a delight and a joy to have her here, and I’m already looking forward to next year. Perhaps in the meantime Dutch and I will make a trip over to the Fairbanks area and visit Aliy and her husband Allen Moore at their place, SP Kennels in Two Rivers. I’d love to see her entire dog yard, and to meet Allen and her sister Kaz, who helps run their program.

So for those of you who have no interest in dog mushing, this little intensive is just about over. Thanks for your patience. We will shortly return you to Tundra Medicine Dream’s regular programming.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Martin Buser, Jeff King, and Paul Gebhardt at the pre-race draw for position. Surrealistic photos of Paul and Aliy's photo finish. More race photos on the K300 website linked above.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bogus Creek 150 Update

The Bogus Creek 150 finished yesterday afternoon to a cheering crowd on the Kuskokwim River. The winner was Jackie Larson of Napaskiak with a time of 18 hours and 39 minutes.

The first six finishers came in with quite a bit of time between them; no photo-finishes there. The three women in the race, Angela, Bev and Jessica, were leapfrogging each other for the last five hours. Henry and Joan made it back to Bethel by snowmachine well ahead of Angela, and found Dutch and me at the finish line to give us an update. They reported that Angela’s race had gone well and she had no serious dog problems. The three she dropped at Tuluksak each had minor concerns; then she dropped two more in Kwethluk, so was down to the minimum finishing number of five dogs. Henry knew that with only five dogs, she wouldn’t be passing anyone on the way home.

As we waited at the finish line, I climbed up on top of the wooden rails on the back of my truck with the binoculars to get a better view. The last two miles of the race are visible from the finish line. Jessica Klejka finished in sixth place, so we all knew that Bev Hoffman and Angela would be next.

Two teams came out of Straight Slough on to the river together. The larger team was in front, so that had to be Bev. As we watched, Angela stayed right behind her. Angela was poling to help the dogs, Bev was not. With what seemed agonizing slowness, they marched around the curve of the river toward the finish. A hundred yards out, we saw Angela pull to one side and pick up a little and they were neck-and-neck. We held our breaths. Did her team have enough gas left in the tank to actually pull ahead of Bev? It seemed a possibility. We watched, straining forward, mentally trying to pull the dogs to us.

In the end, it was not to be. Bev finished a few seconds ahead of Angela, for seventh and eighth places, respectively. Theirs was the only close finish of the race. The Red Lantern (last place) came in a little over three hours after the winner.

The course record for the Bogus Creek 150 is 16 hours 23 minutes, set in 1999. The slowest winning time was the first year of the race, 1989, when it took the winner 23 hours 25 minutes. Angela’s finishing time as a rookie of 20 hours 35 minutes was well within those brackets, and a good showing for her first long race. She finished with a smile on her face and felt it was a good race. She’ll be back next year for another go at the Bogus 150.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Jackie Larson and team; Angela leaves the finish line.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bogus Creek 150

The Bogus Creek 150 Sled Dog Race is less than two hours from its projected completion. At the just-past-half-way point, Henry’s niece Angela Denning-Barnes was in fifth place, about 45 minutes behind the leader. There are 13 mushers and dog teams running the Bogus this year. Angela is one of three women mushers in the race. She has trained hard for this, and Dutch and I would love to see her win.

The Bogus is a completely different kind of race than the Kuskokwim 300. Because K300 is a qualifier for the Iditarod, it is organized like Iditarod: mushers must take complete care of themselves and their teams with no outside assistance. Dropped dogs are left with the checkers at the checkpoints and flown back to Bethel as part of the race’s organization.

The Bogus Creek 150, on the other hand, is a handlers’ race. Each musher has a team of handlers who follow the race on snowmachine and get to the checkpoints ahead of their musher to take any dogs the musher wants to drop. At the 75-mile turnaround point on Bogus Creek just above Tuluksak, there is a four hour mandatory rest. The handlers get there ahead of time and set up tents, cook dog and musher food, and take complete care of the team while the musher rests. The snowmachines are pulling sleds behind them with dog kennels lashed on to carry the dropped dogs. It would not be possible to run the Bogus 150 without a team of handlers.

Angela’s handlers are divided into two crews. Her husband Sean and their friend Jenny are the camping crew. They went up to Bogus Creek the day before the race started and set up a wall tent with a small wood stove in it. They have food to prepare for her and the team, and bales of straw for the dogs to rest on. They will break down the camp after Angela leaves and pack it home.

Henry and Joan are Angela’s trail crew. They are on snowmachines pulling sleds, and will be at each checkpoint prior to Angela’s arrival, in case she needs to drop dogs. The Bogus 150 is a ten-dog race, and she had all ten on the team when she left the four-hour rest/halfway point at 4:32 this morning. She dropped three dogs at the next checkpoint. Three is a lot to drop at once; I hope she is not having any illness problems with the team. Racing sled dogs get stress diarrhea with attendant dehydration sometimes; it happens more easily if they are poor feeders to start with. Henry has always taken pride in the fact that his dog teams are good eaters and have “good butts” when they race (meaning no diarrhea).

Dutch and I will be heading to the finish line down on the river in a few minutes to be a cheering squad for her. Hopefully, she has passed a few teams and will finish in the top three. More to come…


Friday, January 19, 2007

K300 Race Day

The 28th running of the Kuskokwim 300 is off to a good start; the race is just about 4 hours old. It will be won in something like 37 hours, so sometime early Sunday morning. The Bogus Creek 150 started an hour and a half earlier, and will finish in about 17 hours, so sometime tomorrow morning. The weather is just about as close to perfect as we could ask for: +10F. The prediction is for slightly colder temps in the next two days, possibly down to -5F. That would be perfect; ideal temps for racing sled dogs is -10 to +10F. The day was clear and sunny, but by race time had clouded over and started to snow quite steadily.

We were not able to be at the start for Angela’s race, but hopefully she launched well. Henry and Joan are handling for her, riding the course on snowmachines and carrying dropped dogs for her if she needs them to. Almost six hours into the race, she is in fifth place according to the Leader Board on the K300 website.

Getting Aliy to the start line was a smooth and easy process. Aliy is such a professional; she was completely organized and calm the entire day, and her energy transferred to the dogs and they were calm as well.

Dutch went in to work this morning, but Aliy and I both slept late. We drank coffee and chatted until Dutch came home at midday, and then had a nice big brunch together. There were still race details to attend to; each dog has to wear a tag on its collar (provided by the race committee) with the team number (#4) and 2007 K300. We got those all attached. The sled must have the team number on both sides, so we wired the small square plaquards on each side with the approved and provided wires. Aliy had her food and the dogs’ food all packed and ready, so no problem there. She repacked the sled at least three times before she was satisfied that she had everything she needed and knew exactly where it was. We even had time for a photo opportunity with the dogs.

At five o’clock we started loading dogs and sled, with the able assistance of Randy and another of Dutch’s foremen, Joe. Smooth as silk, we had all 14 dogs into their harnesses and into the truck with the sled loaded on top. Aliy lounged on the tailgate with the dogs, as if to say “piece of cake, you guys!”

We arrived at the start line at 5:15, so had plenty of time to get ready. Dutch and our handling crew got the sled unloaded, positioned, and attached to the truck with a quick-release, gangline strung out and tug lines straightened. Aliy put ointment on each dog's feet and bootied each one. The race committee came by and gave Aliy her race bib (#4) and checked that she had the required ax and sleeping bag. Aliy changed into clean, dry socks, her racing shoes, and her overparka, and she was ready. Timing was perfect.

Dutch and the handlers had hold of the gangline, and as soon as the previous team cleared the starting chute, they walked Aliy’s team into position. Going out so close to the front, it wasn’t far to walk. I went to the spectator end of the starting chute to get photos of Aliy and team leaving the startline. Though I took quite a few, not a single one came out well. Poor lighting and lots of motion led to blurry photos. And I likely did not have the best settings.

Once Aliy was out of the chute, I felt an amazing amping down of energy. There was nothing more I could do; it was all up to her and the dogs now. The rest of the teams took off, and Dutch and I watch from the sidelines, cheering for Mike Williams Senior and Junior.

After the last musher and team left the startline, all the lights were turned off and the fireworks display began. For a half hour or more, we sat in our truck on the frozen river—along with perhaps a hundred other trucks—and watched the beautiful fireworks crashing into the sky over the Kuskokwim River. Randy joined us and brought a flask which we passed around with a celebratory toast for Aliy expressing our hopes that she will have a great race.

Go to
www.k300.org for race updates.

All photos by The Tundra PA. 1. Aliy and dogs, ready to go. 2&3. Race spectators. Sorry there are no startline photos.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Race Preparations

The last two days have been a whirlwind of preparation for the races, which start tomorrow. Aliy’s dogs are comfortable in their spot. They howl a short song every now and then, but mostly are quiet. She feeds them a meaty soup every twelve hours and gives them a small frozen fish or meat snack a few times in between; they also get a warm meat broth for hydration.

The other end of the feeding process requires attention too. Each dog poops three or four times daily, so regular rounds with the shovel are required to keep their area cleaned up.

These canine athletes also get regular massage and joint stretching, ointment rubbed into their pads, vitamin supplements, and play time where two or three at a time get to run loose out on the tundra while Aliy walks with them. They are all healthy and fit, and very friendly and happy dogs.

Yesterday morning the vet team stopped at our house to do the pre-race inspection. The team of four veterinarians examines each dog on each team prior to the race to certify
that all dogs are in good condition. They talk to the mushers about any problems, make recommendations, and check the rabies vaccination certificates. The vets stayed for about a half hour, and confirmed that Aliy’s team looks very good.

In the afternoon, Aliy and I went ove
r to Henry’s for a visit. Aliy wanted to take a look at his dogs, and to see the new sled he has built in the last two weeks for Angela to use in the Bogus 150. It is a beautiful small racing sled, very light and hopefully very fast. When we returned home, one of the local mushers who is also running the K300 stopped by to look at Aliy’s dogs and to talk race strategy; he wanted her to come and look at his dogs also, so they went over to his yard for more dog talk.

Soon after, more visitors stopped by to bring some lovely covered hot dishes to help out with the musher-hosting effort. Dr. H is one of the physicians I tremendously enjoy working with; his wife and two young daughters had visited last year when Aliy was here, and their four-year-old fell in love with her. She was excited that Aliy was back and couldn’t wait to come over to see the dogs. Dr. and Mrs. H spent their day off cooking and brought over a bounty to help feed the musher. (Thanks, you two! It's fabulous!)

In the evening there was a benefit concert at the cultural center to raise money for the big fireworks display, which will happen right after the last two mushers leave the start line. The concert is pretty much of a local talent show, with singers, skits, and comedy routines. For a small town, Bethel has a nice range of performers who put on an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

The first task on today’s list was to get Aliy’s food drops delivered to the small charter plane company that will fly them to the checkpoints. She had about 65 pounds of dog food and spare gear for each of the three checkpoints all bagged up, complete with return postage attached on the inside for mailing the gear back to her.

At 4 pm there was a mandatory meeting of all the mushers to go over details about the trail, the trail markers, the availability of hot water in the upriver villages for cooking dog food, and general race rules. Many of the top professional mushers are here for the K300; they all know each other, since sled dog racing is a pretty small world. Of the nineteen who are registered to race tomorrow, Aliy is the only woman.

Following the mushers’ meeting, everyone trooped over to the local TV station for the televised drawing of starting positions. It is actually not so much a drawing as a choosing. In the order in which they signed up for the race, each musher went on camera for a brief interview, and then picked the starting position he or she preferred. Both long races have a timed start: the teams go out two at a time, every two minutes, until all teams have left. The number of minutes each team starts before the last team is added to that team’s required rest time later in the race, so there is no time benefit to starting early. Some mushers like to go out early, others prefer to start late. With nineteen teams racing the K300, starting two at a time every two minutes means it will take forty minutes for all teams to get started; so the first two teams will have a forty minute longer rest at the six-hour layover than the last team to go out. Aliy likes to start early to give her dogs the additional rest at the layover; she chose position number four, and will be leaving the start line with Jeff King (winner of eight K300s and three Iditarods).

Aliy is a very competitive dog musher, but her goal for this race is not so much to win as to give her young team some needed experience for the Iditarod. She is driving the “junior varsity” squad of her kennel. Her husband, Allen Moore, just completed another mid-distance race last weekend, the Copper Basin 300. He was driving the varsity squad, and they won the race! Yee haw! Aliy was quite excited about it. Those twelve dogs will be the nucleus of her Iditarod team in March, along with the best four performers from this race. For even more sled dog stuff (can you stand any more?) visit the website for the Copper Basin,
www.cb300.com. There is a nice photo of Allen, and if you scroll down the front page of the website, there is a great photo of a dog team running directly at the camera. I love that photo.

Tomorrow should be a pretty leisurely day. There are no commitments or requirements prior to loading the dogs in the truck to drive down to the river for the race start at 6:30 pm. Plenty of time to sleep in, eat well, and get ready to race.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Aliy and dogs; Aliy chooses starting position. For more photos and info, go to the race's website at www.k300.org.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Aliy's Here!

Aliy Zirkle and her team of 14 sled dogs arrived yesterday amidst a confusion of last minute flight changes and rearrangements. It is great to have her back; she is a delightful houseguest and simply lots of fun to have around. The energy level is just amped up a notch when she is around.

The dogs arrived via one of the cargo shippers about 9:30 yesterday morning; Aliy arrived on Alaska Airlines at 3 pm. The dogs had been crated two to a box since 2 am, and could have waited for her arrival, but she and I both wanted to get them out as soon as possible. So Dutch and Randy, one of his foremen, met me at the cargo shipper’s at noon and we uncrated 14 dogs and loaded them in my truck. The sled was tied to the top rails over the dogs’ heads and just barely cleared the cargo area door. The dog crates went into Randy’s truck, and all were delivered safely to our house.

We had the visiting dog motel ready: a 60’ long snow trench parallel to the driveway, with small willows along one side and a 2’ tall plywood wall to break the wind. There was a nice cushy layer of straw spread down the floor of the trench for warmth, and a single strand of outdoor Christmas lights strung through the branches above the trench for light. A small shed sits at the near end of the trench which is perfect for storing dog food and gear.

Our warming trend has continued and the temperature is hovering above and below freezing. Yesterday we had a blizzard of heavy, wet snow. It was just starting as Dutch, Randy and I worked furiously to get Aliy’s drop line strung out and attached at each end of the trench, and all 14 dogs attached to the drops. They were very well behaved in the truck, and nobody did any pooping, but as soon as they got on the drop line, each and every one took a big dump. Ah, the joys of sled dogs! The shovel was ready, and clean-up was quick. Each dog got a panful of plain water (some drank, some didn’t), and then I had to get back to the hospital for the afternoon.

The blizzard was in full swing by that point. I was concerned that Aliy’s flight would be canceled, but she came in on time at 3 pm and Dutch was there to pick her up. Her dogs were overjoyed to see her when she got here.

The snow lightened up considerably by evening, and the temperature remained steady at +30F. There was a light wind, but it was fitful. Being outside in light gear was comfortable, and we spent a while out with the dogs, settling them in, meeting each one and trying to get all their names straight. About half are returnees from last year’s K300. Aliy is full of info on their lineages, health histories, performance skills and racing experience. She loves her dogs, and she just glows when she talks about them. And they are all gorgeous dogs. They run to the small size, I would guess about 40 pounds each; very muscular and trim. They all settled right down and were quiet all night long. After telling each one goodnight with pets and sweet words, Aliy threw her head back and howled at the sky, and all 14 lifted their noses to the sky and howled with her. It was a lovely song which they carried for a minute or two, and then let the sounds drift away to silence. Their song left us all with smiles.

Photos by The Tundra PA. The first two are from last year's visit when it was twenty to thirty below zero. The last photo is from yesterday, thirty above.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Water Truck Roll Over

When the roads get slippery with ice, vehicles start sliding. Even four-wheel drive won't help when you are going sideways; as my dad says, "four wheel drive is not four-wheel stop!" We drive on ice so much here that you get used to a sort of "loosy-goosy" feel with some slips here and there. The problem is when it is more than a little slip.

Cars that have plowed into a snowbank are a frequent site around Bethel. It is a minor inconvenience as long as no other vehicles are involved. Someone will pull you out, usually with minimal or no damage.

Sometimes, though, it is more than a little slip. A few weeks ago, a Ford Explorer went off the road and landed smack on top of the exposed water and sewer pipes. It caused a rupture in the line a short way away, and a major effort on the part of the Public Works employees to get everything contained quickly. Dutch's guys are a dedicated crew, and they don't stop until the job is done.

The mishap pictured here was a bit more involved. The water truck hit a patch of glare ice, slid sideways off the road and rolled on its side. The water trucks are huge; they carry 3500 gallons of water. They are custom built for us in the lower 48, and each one is valued at about $130,000. This one was half full when it rolled. The driver, fortunately unhurt, was able to crawl out of the truck and dump the load of water.

Getting the truck righted and back on the road required two loaders and a grader--the loaders to pull and the grader to hold the truck steady so it wouldn't roll again. Big machines; heavy chains; powerful forces. It took a dozen guys over an hour to get the truck back on its wheels.

The tank that holds the water was not damaged, but the undercarriage of the truck and some of the water-pumping machinery on the back was. About $10,000 worth in all. This truck will be off-duty for several weeks until it can all be fixed.

When all of them are running, Bethel has ten water trucks to deliver water six days per week to over 3,000 homes. At any given time, one or two are off-duty for routine maintenance. The unexpected loss of service from one of these hard-working behemoths makes a tight schedule even tighter. Somehow the water truck drivers will manage, and most folks in town won't even have a late delivery.

Photos by Dutch


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Warming Up for K-300 and Bogus 150

The weather in southwest Alaska has followed one of its favorite patterns. We went from thirty below to thirty above in the space of about 48 hours. A southerly front moved in two days ago, bringing us heavy clouds, snow, and then wind. After such intense cold, this feels amazingly warm. Hatless, gloveless, unzipped jacket kind of weather. At +36F last night, water was dripping from decks and railings. At least, so far, there’s been no rain (deeply dreaded in mid-winter).

Warm-ups like this usually occur a couple of times during the winter, and are generally welcome as long as they don’t last long and it doesn't actually rain. Once things soften up, it is much easier to shovel off the decks and to clean out dog houses in the dog yard, flip the floors over and put in fresh dry straw. Unfortunately, the warm-ups often bring rain, which melts the snow into slush. And then the warm-up is generally followed by a hard, fast freeze which takes the thermometer back down below zero and turns the land into a slick sheet of ice. If we’re lucky, it will snow again after that so we can get some traction. Walking is perilous. Winter rain is just the pits.

This weather pattern seems to happen consistently during our big sled dog race week, which is coming up. We have lovely cold weather for the weeks leading up to the races, and then a big warm-up comes and soups up everything. One year the water was so high at the edges of the river and in the sloughs that the Kuskokwim 300 was referred to as the “Kusko-Swim”.

The K-300 and the Bogus 150 are eight days away, and dog-mania is building around Bethel. Dog teams out training are a frequent sight. The organizational machinery of the races is in full swing. Guest accommodations for the visiting mushers and their dogs must be arranged, truck transport for dogs and sleds coordinated, plane transport for dog food drops to the checkpoints scheduled. There is a small army of volunteers who come together for this big event and make it happen.

Dutch and I are the host family for our favorite musher, Aliy Zirkle. She is an outstanding long-distance sled dog racer who has done numerous Iditarods, and she was the first woman to win the Yukon Quest. Last year was her first K-300, and she stayed with us for ten days, due to the time delays from the severe cold.

Aliy is a delightful and charming young woman, and a very easy guest to have. She fit right in to our little dog world here. Her sixteen sled dogs were lined out along the driveway with lots of straw and a good windbreak behind them. They were comfortable and the location made loading and unloading them quick and simple. And she could see them from her bedroom window.

We are planning the same set-up for this year, and the get-ready is in process. The snow trench must be dug, windbreaks set up, lights strung, wiring repaired. It will be a busy weekend. Aliy and the dogs will arrive on Tuesday. Musher meetings and vet checks for the dogs occur on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as a benefit concert Wednesday night. The two big races start on Friday the 17th, and the shorter Akiak Dash (50 miles) will be on Saturday. More info and photos are on the website here.

Those of you who are not interested in dog mushing may want to skip this blog for the next two weeks. I probably won’t post about much else until its all over. We’re in dog heaven!

Grrrrr...grumpy Blogger refuses to load my photos, either in Firefox or Internet Explorer. If I switch to Blogger Beta will it be nicer to me? And does anyone know where my sidebars have gone? They just disappeared one day.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Grand Rounds Is Up

Grand Rounds is up at an early hour this week over at the blog of Dr. John LaPuma. His theme is diet and food, and he presents an excellent collection of posts. Drop in for some good blog reading at the weekly roundup of the best of the medblogosphere.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Cold is Relative

When the thermometer in the tree next to the house again said -30F this morning, I began to wonder if the needle had gotten stuck. Five days at minus thirty is a long time for us. My daily (outside) hour of contemplation has been getting cut to twenty-five minutes, which is about how long it takes my fingers to get totally numb. Snowmachine traffic goes way down, and hardly anyone is walking around town. The cold has us in a grip that suppresses activity.

Yesterday, Henry wanted to try to get to his ice fishing net a few miles upriver, to get it out of the water before it freezes in completely. The river ice is now as much as five feet thick in some places. It has been too cold to go by snowmachine for the last five days; he thought we might be able to get there by truck.

The Ice Road was in beautiful condition, and had even been plowed since our last ride on the river. The road went smoothly and cleanly to Kwethluk, but bypassed the turnoff to Akiachak, which was the direction we needed. We never made it to the fish net, but we had a lovely drive on the river. There was a fair amount of traffic on the road, despite the bitter cold; we even passed a big fuel truck headed up to Kwethluk.

Much of the traffic was probably due to Slavik, the Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration which begins today and lasts for a week. Kwethluk has historically been one of the central villages for the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska, with resident priests and a large and beautiful sanctuary. Many people from surrounding villages gather in Kwethluk for Slavik.

Our great good fortune during this cold snap has been the lack of wind. It has been very quiet and nearly windless for most of the five days since the thermometer dropped to -30F.

The weather forecast has been predicting a warm-up over the next few days. Possibly even to +30F by mid-week (I hope not; +20F max). When I was outside this evening, it definitely felt just a little bit warmer. The thermometer read minus twenty. Part of me was pleased that I could actually feel the difference, and part of me was in disbelief that I could find minus twenty to be warmer than anything. When we get to zero, it’ll be time for shorts and flip-flops. Cold is relative.

Photos by The Tundra PA


Yupik Eskimo Diet and Obesity

Obesity and diabetes used to be virtually unknown among the Yupik Eskimos of southwest Alaska. Their traditional diet reflects their hunter-gatherer lifestyle: it consists mostly of meat, fish, berries, and a limited selection of greens and vegetables that grow wild on the tundra. Some Yupiks still eat a predominantly traditional diet, and have little trouble with obesity.

The infiltration of Western culture into this region has brought many changes, most of them good. Medical care is far more accessible; infant mortality rate and death from infectious disease are greatly reduced. Transportation and communication are much faster and easier. Availability of goods and services from outside the region is greatly improved. The arrival of the Western diet, however, has had deleterious effects on the health status of the Yupiks.

Western culture got its first modern-day toehold in this region about 150 years ago, with the arrival of the Moravian missionaries in the 1860s. For the first hundred years or so, the number of Caucasians was small enough to have little effect on the Yupik culture outside of the religious arena. Fifty years ago, the only noticeable effect of Western presence on diet was the addition of flour, sugar, and margarine, available from the white traders. Bread, either fried or baked, thickly spread with margarine and topped with sugar became the usual breakfast of many Yupiks.

In the 1950s, Bethel had a population of about 800 people, of which less than 20% were non-Native. Today Bethel’s population approaches 6,000, and half are non-Native. This influx represents a huge injection of Western culture in the region. From a dietary perspective, this means soda pop and candy in the grocery stores, and hamburgers and pizza in the restaurants.

The effects are felt in the villages as well as in Bethel. Almost every village has a store or trading post which sells canned and packaged foods which are ordered from the stores in Bethel or Anchorage. By far, the most-shipped item by weight is soda pop. Tons of it are shipped to the villages every year. It is not uncommon to find children who drink six or eight cans daily. Combined with candy and irregular tooth-brushing behaviors, the effect on their teeth is predictable. Many children here have full-mouth silver capping of their deciduous teeth, done in the OR under general anesthesia.

The other effect of so much sugar in the diet is obesity. It has practically exploded as an epidemic in the Yupik population in the last twenty years. Of course, sugar is not the only culprit. Pasta, rice and Crisco have also become staples of the Yupik diet.

Activity levels in daily life have also changed with the advance of Western culture. Snowmachines and four-wheelers have decreased the amount of walking that most people do, and there are far fewer dog teams to care for because of them. There is less need for chopping wood and hauling water with the advent of oil-burning stoves and indoor plumbing. Children’s entertainment more often involves television and video games than active physical activity.

The Yupik people as a whole tend to put on excess weight as truncal obesity—the classic “apple” shape. They refer to themselves as “top-heavy” when they are obese. A three hundred pound woman may be huge from shoulders to hips, but have relatively skinny arms and legs and practically no butt. When she sits, her pannus may come nearly to her knees. Overall, the Yupik are also fairly short people; average height for women is 60-62 inches, for men 64-66 inches.

One of the strategies for making inroads into the obesity epidemic among the Yupik is to encourage a return to traditional culture. “Stop eating Western junk food, you weren’t made for it; eat your traditional diet,” is what we advise. There is a strong resurgence of pride in their culture going on, and many younger people want to focus on this. The difficulty is that their traditional diet is a lot more work to acquire. The grocery stores don’t sell moose, beaver, swan or salmonberries. Dried pasta, on the other hand, is cheap, light to pack and has a shelf-life of years.

The diabetes education team is working hard to bring home the message about the connection between obesity and diabetes. The team includes a registered dietician who helps people adapt ADA (American Diabetic Association) recommendations to the Native lifestyle. They have folks wearing pedometers and striving for “thirty actives minutes per day”. Bethel residents are encouraged to join Weight Watchers and to participate in the hospital’s Biggest Loser program.

In short, the obesity epidemic which is overtaking Americans is not limited to the lower 48 or to the non-Native populations. An endless supply of cheap food which is always available, combined with decreased activity levels overall, has gradually fattened us as a nation. A tendency to turn to food for comfort in times of stress, isolation or despondency contributes to the fattening in the high-stress times we live in. The bottom line is as simple as it is difficult. Eat less. Exercise more. And curse your genes if you come from a long line of fat people.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Deep Winter

It has been two weeks since the winter solstice, and the small increase in our daily ration of light is already noticeable, and welcomed. It definitely helps when the thermometer is plunging. Wednesday morning's full moon was setting just as the sun was rising about 11 am, when I took this photo. It was a quick trip outside before the camera lens froze shut! A few minutes later I went back to get this shot of the thermometer so you wouldn't think I'm exaggerating.

Once you pass minus thirty, you're in the "pretty darn cold" part of winter. Life becomes survival focused to keep cars running and houses from freezing up. Frozen water and sewer lines make winter life much more difficult. Dutch and I are very lucky (knocking on wood here) that our house doesn't freeze easily; our only problem is with the bathtub drain when it is colder than -10F. The drain freezes shut between showers. Fortunately, the drainpipe is accessible from underneath the kitchen cabinets, so each shower requires a twenty minute session with a heat gun trained on the pipe to keep the water flowing. Crawling halfway into the cabinet with the heat gun is the challenge.

Sled dogs do amazingly well in this weather. They have pretty thick fur (most of them, anyway), and as long as their houses have plenty of straw and are faced away from the wind, the dogs stay warm. The Big Dog is both an indoor and an outdoor dog; he spends his days "on guard" outside the house. When it gets colder than -20F, I hate leaving him out. Dutch often takes him to work with him, where he is petted and adored by most of Dutch's staff, and particularly his administrative assistant. She feeds him Cheetos and potato chips (deep sigh). Big Dog doesn't mind.


Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

This is the thermometer on Henry's front porch this afternoon about 4 pm. The needle hasn't moved from that spot for three days. It's cold. (And yes, I need to remember the framing distortion caused by a viewfinder at close range!) A happy and healthy new year to all!