Trail Work

This week, “The Core Four” have been getting in some very interesting training– Namely, I’ve used the team to go out and do trail work! The Two Rivers 200 started today, and part of the trail crosses a creek near the ATAO homestead in Two Rivers. During the final Two Rivers Dog Musher’s meeting before the race was put on, various mushers and others volunteered to help put in different parts of the 200 mile course. I said I’d help where I could, and was asked if I could deal with some overflow at a creek crossing and on a nearby trail which, when frozen, would cause sleds and– more importantly– dogs to slide towards outcropping branches and deadwood.

Last week, I took The Core Four + Hooch out to see the lay of the land. Mostly what I knew is that I’d be dealing with overflow. Overflow is creek, swamp, or river water that is forced out from under frozen ice when certain weather conditions come together. Sometimes its caused by cold weather, and sometimes it’s caused by snow which pushes down on the ice, forcing moving water up and out. The water is usually a lovely yellowish hue, and becomes slushy-like fairly quickly. Eventually the overflow ends up freezing, and creates what we call “glaciation” on the trail. As you can imagine “glaciation” is slippery for dogs and sleds alike. If there’s any slant to the ground, traveling across such glaciation usually sends the whole team slipping towards the downhill portion of that slant.

I was expecting slushy like conditions when I went to check out the trail, but instead was met with the glaciation effect. I crossed the Jenny M creek crossing first, and the situation there was “ice rink” like– Just smooth, slippery ice. I was more interested to see the trail section, so continued on with my little team until we got to that part of the trail, about two miles further. Once we made it there, the glaciation was slanted towards one side of the trail. With only five dogs, I could slow the team way down and make them pick their way across the ice, but I could see where it would be good to create some padding for teams slipping towards pokey, branchy edges of the trail– In one section, the lowlying portion was a fairly large dip, probably where the trail crossed a tiny flowing creek in warmer months. I stopped right after this dip and tied my team down, connecting the back section with a line, and disconnecting the dogs’ tug lines so they’d know it was time to rest.

I had brought straw sent out with me by Aliy Zirkle, who was the one who had asked me to work on this part of the trail– Despite working a ton of hours putting together two stellar teams for mid distance and thousand mile races this year, Aliy went out of her way to help the dog club get this race trail in. The least I could do was help out with this small section. I laid the straw out in clumps on the downward side of the glaciation, where dogs might slide and potentially get scraped or poked by protruding deadwood. I also kicked and chopped a lot of deadwood out of the downward side of the trail.

The dogs, not being trapline or otherwise practical dogs, were a bit confused by this. Trapline dogs, or dogs who go out to haul wood, understand the concept of taking a break while the human does whatever dumb human things humans do. Racing dogs don’t really encounter this idea except at checkpoints, and at only three miles into our run, and with no lovely bedding for the dogs, this clearly wasn’t a checkpoint. Most of the dogs settled down pretty quick, understanding after some initial caterwauling that we were stopped for a second, but Nala and Ophelia were more or less beside themselves. I had tied the team down on the front end, too, so they wouldn’t decide to go traipsing in the woods, or think that perhaps turning themselves around would solve this “stopping” problem. Eventually, even Nala and Ophelia settled down. Everyone on the team helped a little bit by chewing on the various branches sticking up from the side of the trail, and all the dogs watched me while I went about my weird human tasks.

At the bottom of the big dip, I used most of the bale of straw I had to pad the downward side of the trail and to also create a bit of a barrier. The glaciation here could slide you right down into the woods. I hoped the build up of straw on the downward side would help keep dogs and sleds on the trail, and maybe eventually even the slant out, if more overflow came and built up against the dam I was basically building.

I also marked the trail with X’s to show that there was an obstacle ahead, and with some markers with paper plates– But like a dummy I only had one permanent marker, and it didn’t work, of course– So my “warning signs” were blank. I planned to return again and make sure all was well the day before the race anyway, so I decided to mark the signs then.

Finally the dogs were very excited for me to let them run again. I gathered all of my supplies and we carried on down the trail until I found a good place to turn the team around. I really dislike turning teams around– It gives the dogs the idea that this is something that’s even possible. However, the next loop option was a good chunk of miles away, up some really  steep hills. I have dialed the dogs back quite a bit, miles wise, to work on leader training and “fun,” and I had Hooch with me, who I know would re-tweak her problem shoulder coming down steep hills. So I bit the bullet and turned the team. Turning a five dog team around is a lot easier than a bigger team, but it still involves some logistical shenanigans, mostly involving your snowhooks and snub lines. We got turned around and headed home. It was a really good experience for the team to see that kind of strangeness– Stopping and doing work on the trail. I think new experiences are super beneficial to dogs. I want them to see as much diversity of obstacles as I can show them– That’s part of why we will do free play in the summer, and why I like the dogs to come into the house, go up stairs, travel in the car. All of those new things allow the dogs to overcome obstacles and even problem solve, and doing all of those things with me builds the bond between me and the dogs. So it was a double positive to work on the trail and also get some different experience under my dogs’ belt!

Since last week, I’ve been really focusing with The Core Four on leader training, especially on training to “Line Out.” Lining Out is when the leaders maintain their “forward” position when you are stopped. This is a tricky thing to learn when you are full of wiggles and want to get pet! And the petting person is behind you! Ophelia learned “Stay” in her tenure as a house dog, which has been really useful to teaching “Line Out.” Nala and Annie, though, have definitely had a learning curve with this one!

Well, we were lucky to again get to go check out the trail for the race yesterday before the start. This time, I left Hooch at home and decided to raise my level of expectation of The Core Four– to see how their training was doing for them. I did also bring my “front hook” which allows me to secure the leaders so they can’t take diverse paths when we’re stopped on the trail.

Once again, we stopped in the big dip on the trail. The temperatures fluctuated quite a lot over the week between my trail work times. On Saturday, I’d driven a car to the Jenny M creek crossing (the crossing goes under a highway overpass) so that I could spend some more time working on the section of trail there. With really high temperatures, the “ice rink” had morphed into a slushy slip-and-slide. I put some markers along the trail on this section and tried to lay straw down for some traction. Hopefully that ends up being helpful. I fell while I was working on this!

I waited til the last minute to recheck the trail section I’d originally worked on, because it was still warm as of Wednesday night, and I wanted to see the trail after the overflow had frozen again so that I could fix any other outcropping branches. I was very pleased when The Core Four and I traveled up there Thursday night to see that all of my work with the straw and markers had held up remarkably well, and that the “padding” was working exactly as one would hope. I didn’t end up needing to do a ton of work, except to mark the paper plates, and add a bit more straw padding here and there.

The Core Four had a tough time being patient! And, Annie and Nala REALLY didn’t want to line out! In fact, they ended up breaking the line that secured the front of the team, and so suddenly could go any which way– But, maybe because I was in front of them working on the trail at that point, they didn’t go backwards, which was great!

The trail work went so fast and we had generally done so well that I decided to put a few extra miles on, and continue to do some more lining out work with Nala and Annie. We traveled another five miles, stopping now and then, and I’d test the girls’ abilities to stay facing forward. For whatever reason, this trail-work run was the run where it really clicked especially for Nala, and she did a great job in the last five miles of holding the line out like a pro! It’s so cool to see the dogs progress. I think a lot about how these four especially will truly be the core of my team going forward– I’m going to rely on them to teach the younger dogs what’s what, and will lean on them to guide the team in races. Their attitude and example will set the tone for the rest of the team. Getting to work with a group so closely and in such one on one proximity is really a gift.

Maybe I’m finally getting the hang of dialing things back and relaxing a little, and especially in focusing on this very small group of amazing dogs. My little four dog team seems powerful enough to do anything. And I’m sure these girls and I will travel amazing miles and see some amazing sights. I can’t wait.


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