(By Colleen Hovind)
On Friday, September 1, 2007, people, dogs, dog trucks, tents and trailers started arriving at North Wapiti for Karen and Mark's Annual Fall Warm Up Weekend. A few had already arrived when we pulled in around 5:00 p.m. With us came 7 of our 11 dogs - all North Wapiti kids. This year was our third time attending the Fall Warm Up Weekend - a weekend that we start looking forward to during those hot July/August days.
Before I start with a rather long recap of the weekend, I want to first send a huge thanks to Karen and Mark for hosting the Fall Warm Up Weekend. Opening your home, yard and trails to a record crowd takes a huge amount of work and patience. As usual, the weekend went off without a hitch and I know that everyone who attended is very grateful for all that you do to make it happen. So THANK YOU.
For the most part, Friday night is spent settling in. Humans busy themselves setting up camp and tending to the dogs - the dogs are just as busy making sure they have the best sleeping spot on the picket line, which usually involves much digging.
Saturday morning begins the ritual of everyone gathering for a quick coffee and visit between 6:00 and 6:30. By 6:45 the yard is full of commotion. Four larger teams of 10+ dogs head out of the yard with Karen's team in lead. A few minutes behind them, we head out with our team of seven. One of my favorite sites of the whole run occurs before we even leave the yard. We pass by the puppy pens on the way out onto the trails and the morning just wouldn't be complete without saying "good morning babies" to the little fur faces that watch intently as we go by. Too cute. Being the first run of the year for us we take a shorter route and do not see any other teams until we're back in the yard. As usual, the trails are beautiful and the smell of Fall is in the air. Back in the yard, a few people are hooking up one and two dogs to scooters and venture out as well.
Everyone arrives back in the yard and then it is time to free run puppies. OMG!!! Karen tells us that Kluane's litter of four (the Cree litter) is fast and smart enough to do the trail without chasing the quad. They have done it enough times with Karen that all she has to do is ride behind them and they do the loop on their own. The trick is to have four bowls of kibble waiting back at their pen when they return. Sure enough, within a few minutes of them taking off out of the yard with Karen following on the quad, we see four little puppy bodies booking it down the trail and back into the yard heading straight for their pen where we stand calling and shaking a dish of kibble. Into the pen hop the puppies and the gate is quickly shut while they devour the kibble. Anyone who hasn't seen Karen free run puppies is in awe of just how fast these little bodies can travel. A few more visits in the yard while we pick up harnesses and ganglines, then everyone heads up to the house for breakfast. While running dogs is the primary purpose of the weekend, a close second is humans consuming copious amounts of food. Breakfast is a virtual buffet of anything you can imagine and everyone is hungry after a good morning run.
A few more trucks arrive throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, including Maggie, Keisha (spelling?) and Zak and their six dogs from California. Precisely at 1:00 p.m. a horn sounds and the annual scavenger hunt begins with Mark and Karen laying out the ground rules. Teams of two and three spend half an hour searching the North Wapiti grounds for numbered golf balls and collecting numerous bits from nature and elsewhere (live bugs, yellow leaves, an item of clothing with "Iditarod" on it, etc.). Each item on the list is given a point value. Teams turn in buckets of items then one team member has several tries to shoot pop cans off a log while the other team member goes in the garage where Karen has a jar filled with sand and upwards of 30 small articles. The goal is to jiggle around the jar and sand to expose the items and identify what you find to Karen. Once all is done, Karen heads into the house and does the final tally of scores. We then all gather in the house for the awarding of prizes. This year, I must say that the prizes were very generous. With donations from Eagle, Mountain Ridge, Dogbootie.com and Karen and Mark, every team comes away with a great catch.
The rest of the afternoon is spent visiting around the campfire while a few people run dogs with scooters and carts. Supper is a pitch fork fondue which involves a huge vat of oil brought to a dangerously hot temperature. A few people cook chicken and steak on long stakes but I am one of a few less patient folks and chose to dump several pieces of chicken into a smaller vat that is then submersed into the hot oil. Everyone brings a potluck side dish or dessert so again we eat very well and there are lots of leftovers that will be around for Sunday supper.
The evening is low key and people mull around their campsites, at the main campfire or in the dog yard visiting woofs. The schedule of feeding the NW dogs is untouched by the bustle of the weekend and 8:00 p.m. sees a lot of dust flying as the dogs do laps on their stakeout chains waiting for their dish to arrive. With four or five helpers, the yard is fed in record time with Karen filling dishes and giving directions as to which bowl goes where. Once all the bowls are picked up we head off to the puppy pens to visit with the Kara's litter of four and Hilda's litter of seven. Hilda's seven babies (more is better) being the youngest litter gives them the edge of being the most popular (sorry Kara), but there are enough cuddles to go around for everyone. By 9:00 it is pitch dark, so a few more visits with humans around the yard, then it is off to bed to dream about the events of the day.
Through the night it begins to rain lightly but by 6:45 it is down to a drizzle and by the time we are on the trails it has stopped. Marty and I are sure to have our seven dog team hooked up in time to head out with Karen's team and another two larger teams of 10+ dogs. With other teams arriving yesterday, there are a few more teams than yesterday morning and they head out on other trails after we have left the yard. As I sit on the back of the quad and watch our seven (Smiley, Sparky, Blaze, Caly, Doc, Thunder and Charm) make their way down the trail, practicing passing, etc., I am so proud of them. This is the first year we have run an all NW team and it warms my heart to think of how lucky we are to have these quality dogs in our lives and be running along side Karen's team as well as Mike and Kathy Carmichael's. Not to think for a moment that we are in the same league as Karen or Mike’s team, but it is sweet nonetheless to be out on the trail with them. We do a 3.5 mile run, stopping to rest the teams and give them a drink before the other teams head off for another mile or so while we head back down the driveway into the yard.
Sunday breakfast is a feast of Karen's wild blueberry pancakes (with berries from Karen and Mark's property). Everyone gorges themselves then it's outside to get some two dog teams heading out on scooters. There are enough takers that we spend the better part of a couple of hours matching up dogs that have less experience with some of Karen's dogs. It's all a bit of a blur, but I recall a variety of breeds including Australian Shepherds, Alaskan Malamutes, a Samoyed and two Chinook Dogs along with the ever popular Siberians. Karen goes out on the quad ahead of the scooters and someone is on the back of the quad to encourage the dogs and take photos/laugh at near hits and misses as the driver maneuvers the scooter around the trail. The rain earlier in the morning has damped the sand enough that the trails aren't as dangerous as I recall from last year.
Later in the afternoon, Marty and I along with friends Sandy Cairns and Mark Dakin from Red Deer, Alberta, take two quads and head out on the trails to sight see. After not finding the spot we are looking for, we head back to the yard and seek out Karen for directions. She offers to hop on our quad and away we go with Kathy and Baby Brook Carmichael on their quad. We find the scenic spot we have seen while out on the trails with dogs other years and oooo and aaaaah at the view. Karen decides to show us some other beautiful spots in the area and she takes over driving our quad - which should have been the first warning sign. Basically, she tries to kill us all (not really but my mind does go there for a few seconds) and takes us to an area we have not seen before. We head down (way down) to a spot in the river that can be crossed with quads then back up (way up) the other side to a spot where we can overlook the property. The view is breathtaking, however so is a portion of the ride. We joke with Karen when we stop, just making sure she hasn't forgotten that we are from the Prairies and not used to hills or heights. She laughs, but seems just a bit too pleased with herself which keeps me on guard for the rest of the trip. Baby Brook who will be two years old this winter is a little daredevil and is grinning ear to ear as we make our way along the trails. It could also be that she was laughing at me who was hanging on for dear life. In any event, we make it safely back to the yard and it's time for supper. The evening routine of visiting and feeding/playing with the NW dogs is over before we know it and then it's time to relax by the campfire before turning in for the night.
Monday morning is much like Sunday - overcast and drizzle but it stops just in time to run. Having run with "the big dogs" yesterday, we watch as the larger teams leave the yard then we head out with our team for a shorter, low key run. Once we are back, Marty helps Maggie and Keisha from California hook up their six dogs to our quad and the three of them head off onto the trails. Back at the house for breakfast, everyone enjoys Karen's famous Feta cheese scrambled eggs along with a multitude of muffins, toast, bacon, etc. Then it’s time to do up the breakfast dishes, pack and load the dogs for the trip home. As usual, it takes a bit longer than planned to say good bye to everyone - some new acquaintances that we've gotten to know from previous Fall Warm Ups, others we have just met this weekend but feel like we've known each other forever. A few more laughs, hand shakes and hugs and we are back on our way home to the Prairies. The dogs and both of us are tired but in the best way. I spend a lot of the 10 hour ride home, going over the events of the weekend and thanking my lucky stars to have had the opportunity to spend a few days with great people and great dogs on some of the most beautiful trails I know I will ever see. How could it get any better?