I really just think of these updates as elongated weather reports… So here is the update. Summer is almost upon us! Snow becomes puddles. Dog exercise is primarily free play or leashed walks as we wait for trails to be less smooshy (then I’ll probably do some fourwheeler runs in the early morning, as long as it’s cool enough!). The puppies are all growing into big, responsible doggos, and developing more and more of their own personalities and characteristics. And I am falling more and more madly in love with them all. The waves of knowing that these friends are my best buds who I get to stick around FOREVER hit me over and over, and I feel deeply grateful.
I am also becoming more of a hermit. People are fine and all, but I really just want to spend time with the dogs. I day dream about having hundreds of acres of land where my friends (the dogs) and I can just roam around without worrying about running into other people or their properties. We are definitely not in an urban area out here in Two Rivers! When I went to Anchorage a couple weeks ago, I felt like the amount of people there was an onslaught of civilization. But, in my old age, I’m starting to feel like the amount of people here is too much! As long as we can figure out our places to walk and play, I think we’ll be okay. We are lucky to be in a great neighborhood, close enough to Fairbanks for Shawn to work, and far enough from people for me to hang out with my doggos.
In the words of Iron Will, “Training begins now!” Our puppy program is over. Hopefully we did right by our two litters, providing socialization, stability, love, and good nutrition. I certainly learned a lot from that stage! There are a few things I might do differently, but I’m pretty happy with how the two litters turned out.
Now we launch into our initial level of race training, the yearling year. This year was Ophelia and Nala’s yearling year, and I think it was a big success for them. Next year will be slightly more ambitious (because we have a bigger team), but will follow a lot of the same tenants. There are plenty of different philosophies out there about training yearlings: some folks don’t run their dogs more than 15 miles at a time, and some put successful yearling teams in Iditarod. The main thing is to provide a lot of quality, happy, instructive runs, and, I think, to do a lot of camping.
Of course, that’s all winter time stuff. The training that begins now is the opportunity to work with my crew in a more one-on-one fashion, to work on the bond of the team overall, and to work on myself as the weakest member of the pack.
With a lot of daylight, there are plenty of chances for walks and free play. One on one walks lets each dog get used to me, get special attention, and practice things they might not be so comfy at. Furiosa is full of bluster but strange obstacles are scary to her! (“WHAT IS THAT PRIUS!!!!! WHAT IS PRIUS??”) Ophelia is a little too comfy wandering far away. With one-on-one walks I can help each dog work through whatever she might need to.
Group freeplay helps the team bond, provides an essential outlet of exercise, and is just plain fun. I had split the group into two so that I was taking 6 of the 12 main team members (plus Bonnie and Hooch) on each free walk. Yesterday, I tried out taking 10 of the main team members, plus Bonnie and Hooch. They did great!
Who was missing? Egret and Ophelia have both been temporarily suspended from free play. Egret isn’t perfect off leash… The only time I gave her a chance she bolted in complete and utter ecstasy and ended up running three miles home. It’s very good she knows her way home and knows that ATAO is a safe and happy place! But I will need to work with her to teach her to stick around the group when we are freewalking. Learning this can be an essential skill down the road. If dogs get loose during a race, it’s important that they understand to stick around “the pack.” Ophelia also isn’t too interested in sticking around the group. While she used to be kind of a scaredy-cat, Ophelia now feels big, bold, and ready to explore waaaaaay too far away. While the rest of the dogs do all stick together and within sight, and follow the pack leader (me) around while we free play, Ophelia will check in and then take off. Byeeeeeeeeee! It’s good, again, that she does check in, and if I wait long enough, she will come back, but because we do live near people, it’s not a good idea to let her potentially go exploring other properties where she might not be welcome. Ophelia is way. Too. Smart. For her own good. When she was a puppy she learned how to sit and shake *from Hooch.* I never taught her this, she just saw the Hooch got rewards for doing it and started doing it herself. She is very very teachable. Most sled dogs don’t really learn to sit or stay, or do normal “house dog” tricks. Ophelia already
knows those things. Now I’m going to take the summer to work closely with her one on one to get recall and some other things really tuned in for her. Ophelia has inherited a good amount of sassiness from her father’s side, but she also has the brains from both parents. I know that with investment on my part, she is going to become an incredible leader.
Speaking of other weird and fun training, Annie is such a lover and gets super excited to come running and jumping to say hi to me. The other day while I was out with the big group, I was kneeling down petting everyone, and Annie put her paws on my shoulders from behind. She’s little and likes to jump up into my arms. It occurred to me that I might be able to teach her to jump on my back. I made a table with my back and pulled her up. She balanced like a little surfer until I said, “Okay!” and then she jumped off and ran around in zoomies. Maybe Annie can become a trick dog. She sure is a good girl.
It’s really fun and exciting to get to do this kind of one-on-one stuff with my group. Having only 12 race dogs means I can focus on everyone individually. This has always been a vital tenant of my mushing philosophy. I believe that with investment and training, most sled dogs can achieve amazing athletic feats, especially with the support of a strongly bonded team around them. Of course everyone has a physical threshold. Furiosa may never be as *fast* as Ophelia. But my goal isn’t to go as fast as possible: my goal is to have as happy and contented a team as possible. I truly believe that dynamic can lead to the most successful race.
Meanwhile, I, the weak two-legger, have some catching up and training of my own to do! Over this past winter, I let my own running slide. I had a lot of excuses. Some of them are viable enough. Depression is very convincing… Even though I know in my brain that running helps manage that mental health stuff. I broke my habit though, starting last fall. All that means is that I have the opportunity now to gain it back.
I have been tricking myself on the daily to put my running shoes on and get out and get some miles. Something that is really wonderful is that my old ladies, Bonnie and Hooch, can come with me off leash on runs. They are great companions. Hooch will keep exact step with me, and Bonnie usually scouts ahead. I work on not being too hard or holding too high of expectations for myself. Because I have built back up from 0 before, I know that I have to start with a mile and work up. I am getting back into a regular habit, and I will admit it feels great. (I couldn’t do any of it without Active Soles Performance Footwear, by the way…!)
Along those lines, I’m also attempting (as ever I occasionally do) to eat healthy again! For now, that literally means just eating SOME FRUIT. EVER. I’m starting to get on a smoothie kick, which is a useful way to force grown things into my diet. Also, I am now drinking up to two glasses of water a day! Honestly, that’s about the extent of my progress in the world of health food (for me, that’s major progress). I keep considering cutting processed sugar out of my diet, but I haven’t gone round that bend quite yet.
One of the things I miss most about Wasilla and Minneapolis is my boxing routine. I have a lot of the gear to do some boxing here, but it’s hard to force myself into a regular practice. I’ve looked into boxing gyms in Fairbanks, but it seems most of them are MMA gyms. I’m hopeful that down the road, I’ll be able to set up a punching bag and return to a semi-regular routine. I’m lucky to have learned a great circuit from my coach Mark of Mark’s Boxing Gym in Wasilla. If you live in the Mat Su and are at all interested in learning to box, you should check Mark’s operation out. He’s a great coach!
That’s pretty much the update from ATAO! Oh! I guess I should mention that we are doing some fun things on the website these days. We are doing a “Dress a Dog Day” each month. This month we are dressing up Mad Max, based on your suggestions. You can make suggestions here, and then there will be a vote starting Tuesday May 1!
Also, every Monday starting this week, I’ll record a quick “Ask a Musher Monday” video to answer any mushing questions you may have! You can submit questions here!
Thanks everyone as always for following along! I’m counting down the days til the official race season begins…