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.



Blogger babe said...

could you post the video on you tube? i'd love to see it.

Monday, January 29, 2007 1:19:00 AM  
Anonymous CasesBlog said...

You can upload the video clips to Google Video and then use the "post-to-blog" feature to show them on your page here. It is easy and free.

Monday, January 29, 2007 3:42:00 AM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Thanks for the suggestions! I tried Google Video this morning. When I hit the "Upload" button, it said this would take a few minutes. So I waited. And waited. Thirty minutes later I was still waiting, watching the little colored balls race back and forth. I gave up at that point and cancelled the upload, but I'll try again. I'm totally unfamiliar with You Tube, but if Google Video doesn't work, I'll try it.

Monday, January 29, 2007 7:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your race descriptions and training runs take me back to my childhood. To remember those special years up north is good. Thanks.

Monday, January 29, 2007 7:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey!I'm from a land that doesn't snow at all,and all the stories I've heard of dog mushing are either from the movies or books..just to let you know that I really enjoy your posts on them =)

Saturday, February 03, 2007 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger Ellen said...

For the video, if you can't get Google Video or YouTube to work, you can also upload them to or, and then people can download the video for up to a week. I for one would love to see them!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007 4:44:00 PM  

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