It’s really happening! We’re putting the pieces together. First things first, get back to Alaska.
You may or may not know that Hooch and Ophelia are already up in the 49th state, enjoying summer Alaska-style. Hooch is staying with her original kennel-mom Judy Currier and is reportedly having a great time hanging out with some of her original litter mates, AND her mom Wilma! The family is back together. Hooch comes from the “Harry Potter” litter who went on to do some pretty remarkable things in various Iditarod teams. Many of them have been with Pete Kaiser through the years. I actually bought Hooch from Pete. She really excelled in Scott Smith’s program the years I worked with Scott, including helping lead his 10th place team in Iditarod in 2016. Hooch is getting up in years and is happy to spend the summer being a lounging dog. Look at that happy smile!!!
Ophelia, meanwhile, is at sled dog “boot camp”… kind of. The fun and easy version! Maybe better known as sled dog summer camp. She is up on the snow of the Denver Glacier, high above Skagway, Alaska. My good friend Riley Dyche took Ophelia under his wing for the season and is pretty literally showing her the ropes. Ophelia works on the line and give 3-4 sled dog rides a day to tourists, along with some of Riley’s other four-legged buddies. This is through a company called Alaska Icefield Expeditions. I worked for AIE my first summer back in Alaska in 2013, and had an awesome time. If I hadn’t stumbled into working for Out of a Jam, I’d probably go back to giving tours on the ice. It’s incredibly beautiful, you are fed and housed on the glacier, and you get to share your love of sled dogs to hundreds of people.
Even though Ophelia is only ten months old, it sounds like she’s a real pro. Riley let me know recently she had been running in swing, even, which is the position right behind lead.
In case you don’t know, I brought Ophelia and Hooch down to Minneapolis with me for this past winter. It was rough to miss out on what sounds like a great mushing season, but I needed the mental health break. To keep the girls happy and active, I ran them both almost daily. Hooch was of course a pro, as she’s run dozens of distance and mid distance races, but I was surprised how fast a pretty young Ophelia took to our outings. And of course also not surprised– it’s what she’s bred to do. There were some initial distractions involving squirrels and street pizza (we were running mostly through inner city Minneapolis), but pretty soon Ophelia was screaming to just RUN RUN RUN– MORE RUNNING! Like most things, I didn’t teach Ophelia commands directly, but she was running side by side with Hooch, and she picked them up fast. The first time I took Ophelia on a solo run, she made zero mistakes on her turns. I think that was when she was maybe 8 months old. It was pretty exciting to see.
Having the girls tied to me was an interesting training method. I was able to slow their pace down a LITTLE– but it was actually pretty perfect. The ideal situation for a distance sled dog is for them to be able to do a mile-eating trot. The difference between a trot and a lope is pretty distinctive. When a dog lopes, their front feet and back feet go outwards and then inwards at the same time– Imagine a cheetah running: that’s a lope. When a sled dog trots, their front feet alternate, as do their back feet. Some teams actually like to maintain a lope, but I prefer a good trotting team. I like when the dogs learn to pace themselves. Excited, young sled dogs tend to have to really learn this– they prefer to be running all out, fast as they can, as long as they can.
When you are training a team on a sled or four wheeler, you can teach them to trot by slowing the team to a pace that works better for trotting. Usually that’s somewhere between 5-7 mph. Well, good news, that’s about how fast I can really run, so running with the girls was a great way to help Ophelia learn to achieve this pace. Don’t get me wrong. Our runs started out as nutty speed-fests, because there’s only so much I can do against 100 cumulative pounds of raw sled dog power. Running a 6 minute mile was not new (I’d been running with Hooch for a while), but it is wild! My body is always surprised to be moving so fast without wheels.
Anyway, the long story short is that of COURSE Ophelia is doing awesome on the glacier– She already has some miles under her belt! Of course, I might also be biased.
Regardless, I’m grateful to Riley and Judy for watching out for my compatriots as I finish up my surprise tenure in Minneapolis. I’ll probably say more about that whole journey when I get around to it in my other blog, ATAO Adventure— now it’s time to look forward.
What is there to do?
Shawn Goggins (partner in crime, elf-friend, and infamous singer) and I have a lot of packing to do. We’ll try to squeeze our lives into a Subaru and then trek towards Alaska with my mom, who will be meeting us July 11th before we head North and West. Next, trying to get internet at our new digs. It’s a bit trickier than you would guess, because it’s Alaska. Then, I’ll be focusing on building puppy pens to prepare for our new kennel mates coming our way in September. Then, puppies! And ensuing madness. It’ll be a winter of socializing, puppy walks, and everyone learning the ropes. It’ll also be a winter of building up equipment. Running Iditarod takes a lot of investment ahead of the thing– raising and training pups is not a small feat. I expect to eat a lot of Raman in the next five years.
Get ready for the madness! The countdown to Alaska begins.