Sunday, 28 May 2006

May 28, 2006 Kodak Moments

(from Rookie Handler Colleen Hovind)
A request from Ann Hernandez for photos from my 2006 Iditarod experience as Karen’s handler has sparked this entry. Since returning to Saskatchewan, I have enjoyed sharing my Alaska story with family, friends and basically anyone interested in listening to me babble about my “experience of a lifetime”. The reality is that a lot of my favorite memories of the trip are stored in my memory rather than in photos or video. I kept a diary of my experience, so will share some of my favorite Kodak moments with you.

Saturday, February 18
Moses in Single Lead
Karen decided that Mo would run single lead and left the yard with 10 dogs. (Moses is the first North Wapiti dog that I fell in love with when I met Karen for the first time a few years ago in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Canadian Siberian Husky Specialty.) On returning to the yard a couple of hours later, Karen claimed that Mo was trying to kill her, but she was grinning from ear to ear. Turns out, Mo hadn’t run lead for a while and Karen figured he was reminding her that not running him in lead was a mistake on her part. Karen figured Mo was having flashbacks to his days as a sprint racer. I think I might have seen a couple of the team dogs picking their lungs up off the ground after having to maintain Mo’s idea of a “swift pace”. Everyone received extra snacks that day – pieces of salmon were flying everywhere.

Sunday, February 19
It was a clear night as Karen and I took one more walk out to the dog yard to make sure everyone was tucked in. Both of us were in awe as we looked up at the night sky. Karen showed me how to find Orion. Later that night when I was walking back to my sleeping quarters, I was looking for Northern Lights but instead found Orion, shining bright. Big smile from the tired handler.

Tuesday, February 21
My first experience at loading and unloading the North Wapiti kids from their truck boxes. Karen shows me how it’s done, we load the 22 Olympians into their respective boxes and we’re off to Iditarod Headquarters to visit the Vet Techs. The parking lot at Iditarod Headquarters is a sheet of ice – thank God for my ice cleats. Karen is inside with the techs, Mark is reading in the truck and I am attempting to pretend to know what I’m doing – retrieving dogs from boxes a few at a time, putting them on drop chains, relaying them to and from the make-shift clinic, then putting them back in their boxes. Easier said than done. I think I’m doing not too bad. I’ve managed to get five or so in and out without incident. The “chicks” are on the top layer of boxes because they are lighter and it is easier to lift. Enter Nahanni. I open her box and get a firm grip on her collar. Just as I fully open her door, she flies out of her box and before I know it she and I are both sailing through the air. I remember the sacred rule of mushing – never let go. I hit the pavement first, she lands on me but somehow we right the wrong and manage to get to our feet. I shake myself off and am checking to make sure Nahanni is okay when I hear a voice “are you okay lady”. A guy walking out of Iditarod Headquarters witnesses the Kodak Moment – great. When he realizes we are okay, he bursts out laughing saying he wished he’d caught it on video – I think his exact works were “that was worth a million bucks”. He and I have a good laugh while Nahanni and the other furry faces note the incident to report back to Karen.

Saturday, February 25
Crunchie’s Burp and The Need for Speed
While we are feeding this morning, a few snowflakes start to fall. Karen gets very excited and counts the three flakes that have fallen on her jacket. We consider doing a “snow dance” to motivate the Snow Gods. No dance needed. By late afternoon there are several inches of fluffy white stuff on the ground. We hook up a team of 10 and Karen invites me to come along. This will be my first sled ride with the dogs, although I have been on a couple of 4-wheeler training runs with Karen back in Alberta. The snow is still falling as we head out. We pass over lakes along the trail and Karen points out her favorite spots. I can’t believe this is happening. I’m in Alaska, out on a sled with the North Wapiti team. Karen and I chat back and forth, commenting on the dogs and the scenery - both are breathtaking. Karen stops along the way to give the dogs a break and a much deserved roll in the snow. We admire the sun that is peaking out from the snow clouds and for a few seconds all is silent. I think to myself this is a moment that I will remember forever – then the silence is broken. I believe Crunchie is the culprit. He let’s out the biggest dog burp that I am sure echoes across the lake. The sound catches the dog’s attention and everyone gets back into position from making their snow angels. A few more seconds, and we’re back in motion. I laugh to myself thinking what a perfect way to end a moment in time. Further down the trail, Karen decides to let the dogs go at warp speed as a reward for their hard work. They voluntarily take the opportunity and Karen clocks them at 20 mph. Ohhhhhh yeaaaaaaaah!!!

Tuesday, February 28
Hector’s Post It Notes
This morning is Vet Checks at the Big Lake Veterinary Clinic. Today we will go through a similar routine as we did when the dogs visited the vet techs. I will drop dogs and bring them one at a time into the clinic. The difference today is that Mark feels well enough to be out and about, so he will be able to give me some tips on what needs to happen and when. In retrospect, I think Mark was actually getting a little bored and needed some entertainment – well he got it. My first of four mistakes that day as “rookie handler” occurred early on in the process. We use dog food bags to collect the “dumps” that the dogs make while out on the drop chains. After getting the first set of dogs onto their drop chains, I got out the dog food bag and placed it behind the truck along with the scooper. Thinking everything was under control I went into the clinic with a dog. When I came out Mark was standing at the back of the truck with a smile on his face and said he had something to show me. There were a million bits of dog food bag scattered around the parking lot and there was Hector, busily shredding more and totally unaware of our presence. Seems I had placed the dog food bag too close to Hector’s well muscled front legs and he had managed to keep himself quite busy making Post-It Note sized pieces out of the bag. Oh, he is so cute. I wrestle the paper bits from Hector’s clutches and spend a few minutes cleaning up the mess. Mark walked away with a particular skip in his step that had nothing to do with carrying around a cast. I consider kicking him in his good leg, but decided that if anyone needs a kick it is probably me for leaving a paper bag close to a Siberian. After four hours at the clinic and an “all clear” from the vet, we head off to Wasilla for lunch to reflect on the morning’s events, including an entertaining recap of my rookie handler errors.

Friday, March 3
The Collar Ceremony
Today was a particularly busy day with another successful open house. Once the majority of visitors were gathered in the house visiting, I started the task of giving each dog a new red collar that includes their official Iditarod tag. As I made my way around the dog yard, it dawned on me that this was a very important right of passage so to speak. As I struggled to remove the old collar I wondered why it was so hard to get the buckle to slide. I don’t have this problem taking off my own dog’s collars which are the same style. Then it occurred to me that these collars have been with these dogs for an entire year, through every step on their stake out chain, every mile of training, every moment of the last year. My head starts to conjure up a sentimental journey. For those dogs that went on last year’s Iditarod, I can make out faint traces of their names that were printed on the cloth last year. I give each dog a scratch under their old collar and then carry on with the ceremony. Of course ceremony for me always has to come with a few tears, so the dogs help me wipe them away and they seem to enjoy the extra salty taste. After all 22 are sitting with bright new collars, I decide that it wouldn’t be a ceremony without a song, so I convince Hector to lead the group in a celebratory howl. Later in the day, I confess to Karen that I got all emotional while changing the collars. In true Karen fashion, she smiles and says she understands.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

May 18, 2006 Photo Diary

This evening after feeding, despite the fact that the light was quickly fading, I brought my camera out to play with.

I recruited Mark so I could get in the puppy pen with Lexx and Mysty, hoping for some nice shots of them, but this was all I could manage.

(Awful nice that I could play without wasting film!)

The 'calm' before the storm (Lexx)
I particularly like this 'Around the head ear attack' technique (Mystique).
Shots from around the yard...
I love pansies and because they can withstand late frosts, I have already started to plant some.
The lilacs are close to blooming.
Some of the antler sheds I've collected in the woods around here.
The Cabin (aka "The Nook")
My lovebird cats, Gristle and Take Out.
I think the last in this series is my favorite photo of Gristle and Take Out.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

May 7, 2006 Camilla

Kara and I are away for the weekend at a show (where we are actually getting our butts kicked - but that is another story) but I thought I'd take a moment to tell everyone about Camilla.  Mark had to rush Camilla into the vet on Friday morning for  emergency surgery due to a condition called Pyometra. Basically what that is an infection of the uterus. It is very dangerous, as the infection can just brew in that closed environment  (the uterus is open during a heat cycle and that is when the infection can start) and then it gets to the point (often VERY quickly) where the uterus ruptures, and the infection is let loose.  That is what happened with Camilla.

Camilla has been spayed and all the infection flushed from her body.  She spent Friday night with the vet, but was back home Saturday. She  is on a whole bunch of meds still and is alittle down, but Mark says  she is settled in nicely to being a house dog. Although he did call  looking for the carpet cleaner once, so it could be taking alittle adjustment. I'm sure just 'cause the Chicken Dog (as we have always  called Camilla) isn't feeling 100%.

Anyway, please keep Camilla in your thoughts as she works her way back to full health.

(The next day...)

Well, I'm back home and can better fill everyone in on Camilla now.
She is doing quite well - just ask TakeOut the cat, whose life she has been making hell everytime she goes outside. Unlike Kara, Camilla is not cat tolerant.

However, the vet made it very clear when Mark picked her up that she is not out of the woods yet. He told Mark that they have seen dogs in better 'shape' then Camilla die from this.

She is getting daily shots, which will switch over to pills tomorrow.

Much to Kara's disgust, she will be living in the house full time for the time being.

We will keep everyone updated. Thank you to all for your concern and kind thoughts for her.


PS. The 'Chicken Dog' title isn't as exciting a story as it sounds. That litter was named after Muppets.

Camilla was the little white chicken that Gonzo was in love with on the Muppet Show, so for most of her live we have called her "Camilla the Chicken" or 'The Chicken Dog" - even though she was never a chicken about anything. She is one tough sled dog - every bit the equal to her brothers, Grover, Smiley and Gus - in fact, she is the most crack 'Gee/Haw' leader I've ever driven.

(The next weekend...)

Camilla is doing very well. I've been threatening to toss her back out in the kennel, but I'm thinking she and Mark have other plans. Kara remains disgusted at the invader in her house.
©Penny Blankenship for
©Penny Blankenship

Monday, 1 May 2006

May 1, 2006 Dog Yard Changes

I was shocked when I realized today that it has been over a month since we got back from Alaska. For the amount I’ve accomplished, you would think it has only been a couple weeks. Motivation and enthusiasm has been alittle slow coming back this spring! Oh well, slowly, but surely I’m getting there.
I know of greatest interest to most are the dog changes that have been occurring in the yard. This is always a time of re-evaluation and reconsideration of all the dogs in the yard – this year especially so, as I reported when we first got home, the kennel was bursting at the seams.

The first to leave will be a surprise to many – and definitely was the hardest parting for me - Skor went to New Hampshire to live with Kim and Kelly Berg. In order to make room for exciting new young dogs in the yard, it happens that we occasionally have to place some good, experienced dogs. Skor fit the bill, as although he has been a solid leader for me, finished a number of mid-distance races, and started 2 Iditarods with me, I felt he had a few physical limitations that made the kind of racing Kim and Kelly are doing a better fit for him.

I’m always asked how we are able to part with puppies, as they are all so cute and cuddly, but I’ve got to say, parting with dogs that have been part of our lives for a long time – and that I have numerous shared adventures with – is, by far, the hardest for me. Many tears were shed as I loaded Skor into his crate and turned him over to Air Canada.

Also making the trip down to the Bergs was Rainy. Rainy has turned into a gorgeous girl, but the tip of her left ear just refused to stand up. After a good amount of thought and discussions with Mark, I decided that the criticisms and accusations I was likely to incur running a dog with a flopped ear were not something I wanted. A tough decision, but one that I think is the right one for our team and kennel.
Both Skor and Rainy are settling in well at Kelim Siberians, as we knew they would.

Fill in Handler Extraordinaire – Colleen Hovind made a trip up to the kennel to pick up her and hubby, Marty’s 4th NorthWapiti kid. Well, that was the plan, but it ended up being their 4th and 5th addition – as Colleen left with littermates Doc (the planned addition) and Calypso (the unplanned addition) from Tolsona’s surprise winter litter.

Colleen reports all is going well with the kids, although the ‘evil gene’ does make occasional appearances.

Next to leave was another of Tolsona’s ‘Villians’. Although the biggest in the litter at birth Cassandra Nova (aka Nova) went on a hunger strike at a young age. Despite a clean bill of health from our vet, she just kept wasting away until Anna Husch took over and began hand feeding her. Luckily, Nova again started eating on her own and hasn’t looked back since, but the episode left her considerably smaller then her littermates – and firmly earned her a spot in Anna’s heart. So, it was only right that Nova has moved across the highway and into the Husch household.

We haven’t seen Anna since she picked up Nova, but her brother Marcus stopped by to visit on the weekend before heading into the bush for his summer job (he just finished his first year of the Forestry Program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) and reported that Nova is one very spoiled pup. We expected no less – and I kind of think this was Nova’s plan all along.

This past week saw two more dogs leaving – but kennel numbers only dropping by one, as Donna Finner accompanied Chester back from his 6 month vacation in New Hampshire. Donna stayed for a nice 5-day visit at the kennel before heading home with her and husband, Doug’s newest addition, Koyuk. She also took home for us Kluane, who will be visiting the Twin’s (Kim and Kelly) kennel for the next year or so.

My stress level is lowering as the numbers work their way back down to our ‘normal’, but watch for a few more of the kids to be leaving in the next month or so.

Looks like there will be some new additions soon too. As some may remember, Hilda was bred to Draco while I was on Iditarod this year. Although she is not due for another 11 days – she has a HUGE belly. It will be interesting to find out how many she is hiding in there!

Mark, myself, Snickers, Kara, Nova (before she left), Lexx, and Mystie went into St. Albert a week or so ago to do a presentation to Mrs. Surmon’s class (and a few other classes) at Muriel Martin School. We – and particularly the puppies – had a blast. The kids were obviously excited, asked thoughtful questions – and rocked when answering questions (for dog booties) at the end of the presentation.
I got a terrific and fun thank you card from them in the mail on Friday, so I think they had a good time too!

Despite everything that has been going on, I have managed to get a number of runs in with the dogs. The Iditarod crew loves the short 3 – 5 mile trips with the puppies – and the puppies are doing really well. I’ve not worked my way through all yet, but I imagine all last year’s pups will get a chance to test their ‘sledding legs’ in the next few weeks.

We have a number of fantastic ‘2 year olds’ (I consider all dogs that will be turning 2 this year to be ‘2 year olds’) coming up into the main string that I’m very excited about. Watch for stories of Watt, Runner, Charge, Boom, Lingo, Tess, Piper, Spider, and Pacer soon.

Next weekend Kara and I are going to be hitting the show ring in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Although most of the kennel is starting to blow their winter coats, Kara is being nice and hanging onto hers alittle longer – so maybe we stand a chance of having a decent weekend.

I finally got sick of spending a bunch of bucks on photofinishing, broke down and bought myself a nice digital camera – so watch for some updated pictures of the dogs on the website soon!
Well, I think that brings everyone pretty much up to date on happenings in the yard. I promise it won’t be a month before I up date you all again!