Winter is Coming!

I don’t yet have a four wheeler (though I will soon, fingers crossed), but I do have some doggos who need to run– So the current solution is to use myself as the anchor / slowdown-mechanism (which is really all a sled or four wheeler are, in the long run). Acting as a slowdown-mechanism can be a a bit straining. I’ll admit after 4 miles of being pulled by very enthusiastic, full grown huskies, I’m pretty sore today. I’m excited for the four wheeler, although it’s good to get some exercise myself.

The fall is shaping up and cooling down. The colors are gorgeous, particularly around the tundra. I spend a lot of my time getting ready for winter. I won’t have a massively strenuous winter. The goal this year is to run a small team (Ophelia, Hooch, Bonnie and some other additions) and have fun. I’ve had some offers for other teams to train Ophelia this year– She’s a big, strong, enthusiastic girl. But, after a summer away from her, I don’t want to give that time up. This is my girl. Hooch is too old now to be the one to guide me through Iditarod. Ophelia will be the mainstay on that course. This is my kennel and the dream I’ve been working towards. There wasn’t much of a choice in what I could do with Ophelia this summer– she had to go somewhere cooler than Minnesota in high summer– and my buddy Riley is one of the only people I feel comfortable handing Ophelia off to. But still, missing that part of her growth and development has really made me sad and also made me realize that I am not very interested in parting with my dogs at all. I’ve done that for many years in many ways with mushing. These dogs are my team and my pack. And I want to run Ophelia this winter. I got to see her grow as a puppy… Now I want to run with her. The thing that it’s all about.

So to that end, I’m forming a very very small team of adults. I already have Bonnie and Hooch, of course– both of whom I’ve had the privilege to mush with a bunch. They will be good leaders in more ways than one.

This past weekend, I purchased a dog– my very first time venturing into this! I think I found a perfect fit for us. Her name was Candy but I have to admit I’m not super fond of that, so I’m calling her Annie– I figure it sounds similar, and she responds to it well. I’ll have a bio up for Annie soon. She’s a sweet little 3 year old, smaller than Bonnie even, and all white. She was a little shy at first but has gotten to know me. I took her for a try on our runs yesterday and she did great.

Soon, if some plans work out, I’ll have two more young dogs to add to the crew, for a team of six. A six dog team can pull a sled. I’ll be able to do some good runs with lots of camping. Ideally I’ll have four dogs in this group (Bonnie and Hooch being the oldsters) who will be able to carry on with me to Iditarod– and ideally this winter of a small team with lots of camping will let me accomplish some goals:

  1. Teach the youngins (and myself!!) how to camp really really well. One thing I’d like to work on for myself is to become extremely proficient at my camping routine. This is the time for a musher to shine– to get food and sleep to their dogs ASAP in order to maximize rest time at checkpoints and stops. I definitely have some work to do on that. I want to practice it until it becomes something I can do in my sleep… Cuz in Iditarod, I definitely will be doing just that. And, this is excellent for the young dogs to practice to: to get into the routine of bedding down on straw in strange places and taking a big nap. I’m really excited to be able to work on this in a small group setting.
  2. Work on leader training, behavior on the line, and general training. I really believe that you can make a mediocre sled dog a pretty good sled dog with some work and attention. Having only six adults to focus on will help me become better at that kind of training, and will hopefully help them become better sled dogs. Training will include things like leader training, charging up hills, behavior on the line (being focused when it’s time to run), setting a pace for ourselves, and again, developing a checkpoint / camping routine and habit.
  3. Learn learn learn. I have been mushing for over 15 years but I am well aware I have a ton to learn. It’s a lot different to be told: you’re going to run 50 miles today with these dogs, and to have to look at my own group and decide what’s best, what our goals are, and how to get there. I’m in school again, but this is the best kind.
  4. Having FUN!!! I’m so excited to have a season where “JUST MUSH” is the true focus. I won’t be worrying or stressing about any races. Instead this will be training for training’s sake, and for the love of mushing. Basically I get to wander around the north with some of the best people, dogs! And granted, I will be very jealous not to be on races this year!! But that will be the end game. Races are, in my opinion, just a test of the things you and your team work on together– When I race, I’ll be striving for us to accomplish our best personal goals, like for me to execute checkpoint routines like a pro, and for the dogs to have happy, healthy traveling from spot to spot.

Having a small team will really allow me to *focus* on the dogs and on accomplishing these goals and more. And, I’ll get to really work closely and bond with Ophelia, and the rest of the crew. I think that bond is a really strong force. I’ve had it with some teams, but I’ve always had to hold it in reserve a bit, knowing I’d be leaving at the end of the season. Not so with this group: these are my guys. I can open my heart to them, give them all I’ve got, and we’ll get down the trail together in a way that is fiercely full of joy.

So that’s the plan– but meanwhile, it’s just fall now. Like I said, I don’t have a four wheeler. So instead, I strapped on my skijour harness and, perhaps insanely, strapped two huskies to my body and took off.

I did a lot of running in the Twin Cities with Hooch and Ophelia. That’s lucky for me: I knew what to expect with two dogs on the line. However, Ophelia wasn’t fully grown by then, so I didn’t quite have all the power two fully grown huskies can bring. All of these dogs are experienced in some way or another– Ophelia has been running tours all summer, Bonnie and Hooch are Iditarod veterans, and Annie has been doing tours and races for three years. Even though I am not a sled or four wheeler, the dogs understand a harness and love forward motion– So I hooked up and away we went!

I sadly don’t have photographic or video evidence of this, because my phone reached maximum capacity right as I was preparing. I’ll post a lovely video of that process on Facebook, in which I look especially dignified!

I did a two mile run with each pair. I chose how I’d set up my pairs carefully. With the goal of building a team that is cohesive and works well together in any formation, i want to get the dogs all used to running with each other. On the other hand, I don’t need to overwhelm my shyer new team member with an over excited yearling. I also don’t need to run Ophelia and Hooch together at this moment– they’ve run together a lot! So I paired Ophelia and Bonnie for my first run. Bonnie is a great leader and kept us on track, but Ophelia does know some commands as well. She provided more power than Bonnie.

On my second run, I put newbie Annie and Hooch together. Hooch is much more settled and relaxed than Ophelia, and friendlier in general than Bonnie– so she’d be a good ambassador to introduce Annie to running with the ATAO crowd. They did good. Annie was an unsurprisingly stellar addition, digging in hard. In fact, even though with small Annie the poundage of pulling dogs on my second run was less, the pulling power was a lot more! She really was ready, and I don’t know if this or general first-run-of-the-season excitement geared Hooch up for the game, but between the two of them I could barely stop when I had to pull over to tie my shoe!

Working two by two is a good exercise in letting me really pay attention to individual dogs and work on some specific habits– and it also gives me a workout! But it will be a bit faster and a bit less pain-producing to have that four wheeler at the kennel. Meanwhile, I’ll probably get tuned up myself and maybe I’ll even be ready to take all four of these guys out on a run together pulling me (I don’t advise this and am probably not thinking about it seriously…).

Oh yeah! Some final notes! Promotional stuff! First of all, I’m really excited to have Cynthia Lovel onboard sponsoring Rey. I think Cynthia’s already totally attached! Which I love. If you do want to sponsor a teammate, you can do that here. Sponsorship goes towards things for the dogs. Projects that are coming up for them (especially puppies!) are a big fenced in playpen so that we can do some free running without running into hunters, a platform for the second puppy pen (because… more puppies!), and dog houses.

Also! Facebook has algorithms! And when you get 500 likes on your page, those algorithms work more in your favor! So– share posts, mention the kennel in your own posts by typing “@ATAO Kennel”, and tell your friends in person to like our page! AND if you do share posts or mention ATAO in your own post in the next ten days, you’ll be entered in our first monthly gear drawing! Share and mention as many times as you want to be entered. You can win a shirt or tote from our gear store!

Okay okay, enough already. Time to go play with puppies!

Happy mushing!