Monday 31 October 2005

October 31, 2005 Happy Halloween!!

Not that we celebrate much down here in the valley – a lonely mile from the next nearest house and surrounded by howling ‘wolves’ – our place is just not a hotbed for local trick or treaters! We do make sure we have enough candy on hand to justly reward anyone brave enough to venture down here though.

Winter is certainly moving in! It’s still early (4:30 am, as I type) but it looks like the temperatures are going to drop into the minus double digits this morning, as it was –9 when I got up – and it is always coldest right before dawn.

We’ve lost A LOT of daylight too. It doesn’t get light until after 8am now and gets dark again before 6 pm. (Check out this cool chart I found on local sunrise/sunset/hours of Illumination - enter ‘Athabasca’ in as the city). Not that I’m complaining too much. I love the night sky and actually miss it during the summer when it doesn’t make an appearance until long after I’m in bed. The puppies, the ‘Bitch Pen’, Gus and Herman have the most wonderful view and I often take a break with them while picking up bowls to looks for northern lights, favorite constellations and satellites.

It seems the dog yard has been stripped of all color now. First my pails of flowers, with the exception of a few tough pansies (Why is it that pansies have such a bad reputation? They are the hardiest flower I’ve ever seen! I’d be honored to be called a pansy! Next year that is all I’m planting in the dog yard.) have died off and yesterday I went through and removed all the water buckets from the sides of the doghouses. The blues, greens, reds, purple and silver (some dogs eat the colored plastic ones and have stainless steel buckets) really brighten up the yard and things look very dull without them now.
Without water buckets out, our workload definitely picks up. We are back to twice a day feedings – of both kibble and soup. Very time consuming!

We also scurried around like the squirrels yesterday getting other ‘pre winter’ tasks done. Hoses were dragged into the garage to dry out before being stored for the season, the water trough was skidded home from the woods and emptied (it claimed one more squirrel victim just two days before being brought home), the rain barrels were emptied, straw bales used to cover the water line to the garage (which has a tendency to freeze when temps get really cold), and straw for the dogs brought home.
The puppies all got straw in their houses over the weekend. It takes them awhile to figure out that it is better bedding then food and every time I walked by the puppy pens over the weekend, they were running around with stalks of straw hanging out of their mouths.

It was also ‘tattoo day’ for them yesterday – that added some color to the yard, as they are all running around with green ears from the tattoo ink. Because they lick the ink out of each other’s ears, we will have festively colored puppy poos for the next little bit too!

There have been a few additions and subtractions in the dog yard in the last while. Sparky (yes, Sparky – The Cutest Puppy on the Planet) went to live with Colleen and Marty Hovind in Craven, Saskatchewan. He’s living with other NorthWapiti kids – Thunder and Blaze (from the Storm litter) – and Hovind’s agreed up front that he would always be referred to as Sparky, The Cutest Puppy on the Planet. I’m going miss him something FIERCE, but it was the right move for Sparky!

Spottie Dog also returned home from her year in New Hampshire. Along with her came her young son, Nitro (Kelim’s Nitro at NorthWapiti). Nitro is only one day older then Kara’s Superheroes litter and he has adjusted to living with the 7 siblings very well.

Mike Carmichael will be arriving from Utah today. Primarily, he is here to pick up Roary, who they are leasing for a litter, and Bang (from Nahanni/Draco’s Mosquito litter), but he will also stay a few days to train with us (he is bringing his team up with him).

We’ve made a few cuts to the ‘A’ team too. We are now down to 29 dogs in the pool. My next diary entry will introduce you to all 29 and talk about the ones that have already been cut!
All for this chilly morning – I’m off to finish off my cup of coffee and then out to feed dogs!


Friday 21 October 2005

October 21, 2005 Muskeg Trail

Well, first off, I expect some of you are wondering what the heck I’m doing in Perryvale. It is October, what about the yearly pilgrimage to Togo, Minnesota? Well, sadly some delays with our new dog truck (and we have one or two diary entries in the works about that) meant that this year’s trip to Jamie Nelson’s was not possible.

As I’m typing this I know there is a large group of ‘family’ and friends sitting around Button Box Lake in Minnesota and I miss not being with them, for sure, but it obviously was just not meant to be this year.

As for the dog’s training, we will not let it affect them much at all. Mark and I will be working extra hard to make sure that they get some good camping trips, lots of miles here at home, and the other things they need to prepare them for the trip north.

I am scrambling to try and get some of the supplements that I usually pick up at Jamie’s up here to Alberta, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out in time.

Anyway, as I said, Mark and I are working hard to get miles on the dogs. So today we headed out with the intention of doing a 25-mile run. Yesterday, we did the same - heading up out of the valley, back down into the valley, through the small town of Meanook, up out of the valley to the old Landing Trail (now part of the Trans Canada Trail), back into the valley, past the cemetery, up out of the valley, along Highway 2, back into the valley and home.

Looking for something alittle different today, and being a touch overconfident because I had hubby along, we headed west towards the trail we refer to as ‘the Muskeg’. The Muskeg trail is one we use extensively in the late fall and winter. When exactly we can start using it depends, because Muskeg is just actually a swamp in disguise – mucky, murky, disgusting swamp water with a nice layer of peat on top to sucker animals, 4 wheelers and crazy dog team drivers into thinking they can get across it. Should you fall for it and try to get across, especially in a wet year (like this year), you end up flaying around into muck up to your waist and swearing a lot. Sadly, I know this from personal experience – lots of personal experience actually.

Our first experience with the stuff was back when we first moved to the Grande Prairie area and still had our horses. We decided to ride into the nearby town to return a rented movie. As we were riding along the road we noticed a nice wide trail that cut through the trees and decided to take that. Mark’s horse, Shooter took two steps off the road and promptly sunk over his knees. With alittle bit of struggling and A LOT of effort on Shooter’s part we freed him and took the ‘long’ way to town.
A few years later we were riding along the edge of our property near Beaverlodge. We knew the trail was muskeg, but we thought it was set up enough from frost to cross. We decided the second we thought it felt at all spongy we would turn around. Unfortunately, there was no warning – Mark’s first indication that the ground was soft was when his feet – still in their stirrups – hit the ground. Poor Shooter was up to his belly this time. Again we got him out, but after that even a small mud puddle would cause him to hit the brakes – and really, who could blame him!

Since then we’ve had a few close calls checking out trails on 4 wheelers, but have avoided any major incidents quite well.

As we hit the ‘muskeg-y’ part of the Muskeg trail, I stopped and asked Mark what he thought. “Are you sinking?” No, I wasn’t, so off we went.

We came to a spot where two trails join that we know can be soft, but it was fine. However, when I walked back to talk to Mark, I noticed his leaders drinking water that was rising up in the footprints my team had left. Time to get moving.

As I started down that stretch of trail I noticed the dogs were starting to kick up water with every step.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw two tracks of water where my 4-wheeler tires had just been. Maybe the wise thing to do would have been to turn around, but it was only another mile or so and maybe one really bad stretch to go before we hit solid ground again – so forward we went.
As we turned to head west again, I knew that was where one big ‘dog team sucking’ puddle might be, but thankfully it was relatively good. A whistle to the dog and a quick punch on the throttle popped us right out of the worst of it. I breathed a sigh of relief and then noticed some sort of large piece of abandon equipment ahead on the trail.

As we got closer and closer I was trying to sort out what exactly it was – it looked like a ‘Cat’ (a Caterpillar Dozer, to be more specific), but I’d never seen one that short before. I was wondering what the reason for such a ‘short’ Cat would be when it occurred to me - it was a full size Cat, it was just sunk in the muskeg. Not a good sign. Oh well, we had come this far, no way was I turning around and trying to get back over the trail we had just come over (each track through the muskeg brings more water to the surface and makes it tougher and tougher to travel on).

This is a picture of a "Cat" in a muskeg, but not the same one, this is from Wikipedia
From Wikipedia:

Well, it must have been our lucky day – unlike the day for that driver when he opted to take his Cat down this trail. The dog teams skirted around the machine on relatively stable ground, but man, that thing was stuck - up above it’s track actually. I have no clue how it will ever be gotten out of there – save finding a bigger Cat to come in and pull it out – definitely not a cheap proposition!! Freeze up is just going to trap that machine further!

I’ve heard stories of Cats being completely lost in the muskeg when they were first building the Alaska Highway. It is possible this one will meet this fate too!

Just further proof in my and my dog team’s mind that dogs are definitely better then cats….

©Penny Blankenship for North Wapiti Kennels

A half-mile later we trotted onto solid ground and proceeded to take the long route home around the Muskeg. Looks like we will need a few more solid freezes before that trail is back in use again.

Shortcuts are not always shorter!

All for today!

A water-soaked layer of decaying plant material, one to
three metres thick, found on top of the overburden. Muskeg supports
the growth of shallow root trees such as black spruce and tamarack.

Everything you want to know about muskegs

Copyrighted Image of a muskeg

Monday 17 October 2005

October 17, 2005 NW Doc Holiday SD

NorthWapiti's Doc Holiday SD
August 12, 1994 - October 16, 2005

We received the sad news this morning that Doc passed away yesterday. For the last 5 years Doc had lived with our friend, and former Alaska 'landlady' Maureen Chrysler. We thank Maureen for giving him such a good and loving home.

Doc was a member of my 2000 Iditarod team and a finisher of many 200 and 300 mile Races.

He will be missed.

Sunday 16 October 2005

October 16, 2005 Can you hear the "Ahhh"?

If you hear a big ‘ahhhh’ when you open this diary entry, it is a sigh of relief for the ‘A’ team and I.
Yesterday morning I hustled into Athabasca very early to see my chiropractor, Dr. Deutscher (don’t you just love a chiropractor that is open at 7 am on a Saturday??).Kurt did a few adjustments and pronounced my back, which has been annoying me for a while this fall, as on the mend. He even gave me the go ahead to get back to my workouts. Good news!

I hurried back home, because staying overnight in ‘The Nook’ was the ‘A’ team’s personal chiropractor, Veronica Devall, DVM. As well as being certified in ‘conventional’ practice, Veronica is certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. Some of you might remember that Veronica was the guest speaker at our Fall Warm Up Weekend this year. She is a very knowledgeable and interesting woman.

I first met up with her on the Iditarod Trail (I think in Skwentna in ’01). Being one of a small group of Canadians on the Trail, we immediately struck up a working friendship. Over the years it has been always been a treat to pull into a checkpoint and find Veronica there. The last couple years Veronica has come up to the kennel for a few visits and even ended up taking home her very own NorthWapiti dog – NorthWapiti Dot Com, now known as ‘Willow’.

On one of those visits this spring we got chatting about what each of us were planning for next season. By the end of the conversation, the NorthWapiti ‘Team’ had a new member!

Veronica is going to be working with the main string dogs through out training and will be coming up to Dawson City for our 36 hour Quest layover to take charge of dog care (Unlike Iditarod, Quest allows handlers to care for the team during the mandatory layover). I couldn’t be more pleased. Veronica’s specialized training and over 10 years experience working with sled dogs (both on the Iditarod and Yukon Quest Trail) will allow us to take our dog care to a whole new level.

Working with the dogs over the years, Veronica has gotten to know many of them, but yesterday’s visit was primarily to let them get comfortable with her handling and ‘adjusting’ them. A few of the dogs were extra wiggly and more interested in washing faces then standing still for their checkup, but in time (and with more miles under their ‘belts’) they will learn to appreciate and enjoy their massage and treatment.

Moses, being the ‘professional’ he is, already had it down pat, he stood completely still with his head up and eyes closed as Veronica checked his neck and spine and made a few minor corrections!
Veronica and I also discussed my vet kit for Quest. With longer stretches between checkpoints, a Quest vet kit need to be a little more ‘skookum’ then the one I carried on Iditarod. We are also playing with and will be using some homeopathic treatments recommended by Veronica in training and on the trail this year.

All and all, an interesting, informative and relaxing day!


Thursday 13 October 2005

October 13, 2005 Hallowed Ground

The last few runs I've scaled back the mileage a bit as 'The Moms' (Kara and Nahanni) are back in harness and not quite ready to do the 20-mile runs the Main String was doing.

So, aiming for a run in the 15-mile neighbourhood, I headed off towards Perryvale. One of my favourite runs cuts along the highway ditch, then dips into the woods on a hilly, windy, wonderful trail that drops you out near the Perryvale dump - excuse me - the Perryvale Waste Transfer station. Backwoods as Perryvale may be - we are environmental conscious!  Across from the dump is the Perryvale Cemetery - a wooded spot that I think would be a lovely place to spend eternity.

As I was watering my leaders, Olena and Hilda (who have gotten over their hatred of each other and actually now seem to enjoy running together), I noticed a new grave in the cemetery and decided to wander over and see if it was anyone I knew. It was only a few feet away and I could easily keep an eye on the dogs. I opened the small people gate and checked out the marker. It was a name I knew from the neighbourhood, but not one I could put a 'face' to. I spend a moment paying my respects anyway. The grave was covered in slightly wilted roses, pine boughs and even an antler shed - very beautiful, actually.

The only time I've visited the Cemetery was during breaks on training runs. Each time I slip in, I vow to come back and really take a look around. It is really a special place. Unlike the huge cemetery my Dad is in in Calgary, this one obviously has no rules about leaving flowers or gifts on the graves. Fresh, wilted, dead or plastic - the flowers speak lovingly of the people buried there. The child's toy resting on one grave is a poignant tribute - the garden gnome next to another endearing (or creepy, depending on your view of garden gnomes). Some of the graves there date back over 100 years. It is hard not to wonder about the lives and stories that go along with each marker.

I was never far from the dogs and they stood relatively patiently the whole time watching me, but the 10 minutes I spend wandering was alittle too long. As I watered the other dogs, Olena started to get herself all worked up. All the rest of the dogs and I know that Olena worked up is a frightening thing. As I put away the watering jugs and bucket, she started barking and fussing. By the time I was ready to go, her eyes were flashing and sparks of fire shooting from her nose.

Olena - Always ready to go
(Click for a larger version)

I wanted her to swing the team around in a tight circle so we could head back the way we had come. Needing her undivided attention to make her understand what I wanted, I called her name. Her head snapped around and she shot me a sharp salute - "Reporting for duty" - but her attention lasted a nanosecond before she just started trying to guess what I wanted. She swung to the right, then left - a nervous Hilda tried to keep up with her. I told Olena to "Stop" - she did and I gave the 'Haw' command. She shot around to the left and I gave a second command to bring her all the way around, quite pleased at how well this was going. Silly me. At the last second Ollie's focus snapped - she stopped, pondered the situation for a second, decided there was no way this was really what I wanted and darted right - straight under the gate and into the cemetery.

Now, a stretched gangline has a lot of power to it. Martin Buser has a great story about stripping a windshield, rear view mirror and other accessories off of a snowmachine that an unwitting driver parked on the inside of a turn he was maneuvering a big string of dogs around. Just a few weeks back, I flipped over our ½ full horse-watering trough when my young leaders tried to follow Mark's team down a different trail. I was fully aware of all that as I watched my leaders heading for the once peaceful cemetery. I was horrified at what could happen here - visions of tombstones toppling like dominos ran through my head.

Thankfully, the dogs hit the limits of the gangline about a foot away from the first headstone. I let out the breath I had been holding tightly onto. It took a few minutes to drag the Evil One back under the gate, straighten out the team and get everyone pointed in the proper direction. Olena was still vibrating with energy, but I held on tight to her collar, looked into her eyes and told her to 'Settle'. That lasted long enough for us to get back underway and moving was really all Devil Dog needed to do.


Thursday 6 October 2005

October 6, 2005 Barq! Barq! Barq!

One of my very favorite Jamie Nelson sayings is “If it’s worth yelling about, it’s worth stopping and correcting!”. See most people ‘nag’ way too much at their dog teams. You’ll hear them at corners yelling ‘GEEGEEGEEGEEGEEGEEGEEGEEGEEGEEGODDAMNITGEEGEEGEEGEEGEE’. The command is ‘Gee’ and if the dogs don’t listen to it the first time – definitely by the second time – you really should go up and show them what you want rather then continuing to yell (especially during training). Dogs are a lot like humans in this regard, if you constantly nag at them, they eventually just learn to tune you out.

Believe it or not, I’m pretty good at being quiet while running dogs, especially with my veteran teams, but sometimes when working with young dogs, teaching them new tasks, I slip. I got an unexpected slap on the wrist in an interesting way the other day…

This is the time of year that I really focus on lead dogs, virtually every dog in the main string gets a try in lead – and that’s what I’ve been up to for the last few weeks. It’s been an interesting, rewarding, pleasing, frustrating, aggravating and hair pulling time. During the ‘frustrating, aggravating and hair pulling’ times, it is easy to slip back into some old bad habits and I realized I was doing that the day I had Barq in lead. Let me say first that Barq, despite his status as our resident ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ dog, has been showing GREAT potential as a lead dog. He holds a team wonderfully at hookup and sets a great pace, he even seems to have alittle bit of an understanding of ‘Gee/Haw’, however when he thinks it is time to take a break, he simply veers into the bush and drops to the ground to rest (I don’t believe in neck lining leaders together). This has provided for some interesting tangles as the rest of the team continues on down the trail.

I found that if I yelled at Barq whenever he looked at the woods, I could pretty much keep him in check – but really, the theories I believe in for training a team dictate that I should let him make the mistake, stop and go up and ‘correct’ him for it (which really is nothing more then dragging him out of the bush, placing him where he should be and giving him the ‘up front’ command) each time. He needs to be ‘responsible’ for his behavior, not relying on me to constantly be ‘reminding’ him of his job. I was unconsciously slipping into ‘nagging’ behavior.

It hit home to me after I heard myself yelling “BARQ, BARQ, BARQ” as we were heading down the trail. How STUPID does that sound?? I was sounding like a bad soundtrack in a ‘Disney does dog sledding’ movie. I immediately became conscious of the habit and stopped it – luckily before I tried Eeek in lead. One of the neighbors might have dialed 911 if they had heard me in the woods shouting ‘Eeek, Eeek, Eeek’. 

Now, before I give everyone a ‘status’ report on the ‘rookies’ and how they did on their first attempts leading, it is important to remember that not all dogs step into ‘leader’ roles at the same age. Just look at Buddy and his brother, Spud. Buddy started to lead at about 8 months of age and Spud just took us all on wild ‘squirrel’ chases through the woods every time I put him in lead until he was about 5. After that he was a ‘staple’ in front of my teams for many, many years. Same deal with Orion and his brother, Draco.

So far I’ve had everyone except spunky little Dare and Zackery in lead. I think Dare stands the best chance of having a good first experience with levelheaded Kara up front next to her. Kara is still ‘catching up’ on miles since weaning her puppies, so the opportunity to put the two of them up front together hasn’t arisen yet and I honestly just don’t think Zackery is ready for lead dog training yet, but I will give him a shot soon.

Jinx, Holly, Pepsi, Q, Eeek and Barq all did really well - Barq in particular.

Vortec lasted about 2 miles before making it very clear to me he wasn’t up to this task yet.

The experience with Newt was pretty amusing. Newt was never sold to me as a lead dog and you could sure tell that by the look on his face when he found himself in front of the team during hookup. I’m sure if he had had a cell phone and an agent, he’d have been on the phone asking for clarification on his contract. Sadly for him, all ‘contract negotiations’ go through me. 
I had put Draco up front with him. Draco doesn’t like Newt very much and I knew he would have no qualms about pushing Newt around on corners and such. Indeed, Dra seemed to really enjoy the moments when he was dragging the big, obnoxious Newt around. Everything was going on the poor side of fair (but going) until we made the corner at the water trough. Newt tangled the whole front end of the team and ended up next to Hilda and Olena. When he discovered the ‘ladies’ were back there, the end was at hand. This was not to be Newt’s day to be a lead dog.

Now, I have saved the best for last – Jr. He was so good in lead that I came home and started combing through my old training logs and diary entries to see how much leader experience he actually had (some – but not much). He is doing outstanding! His new role has also helped him step up in overall confidence. Watching a young dog like this ‘come into his own’ is really the most rewarding part of training for me. I am so proud of him!

Anyway, that is the story for today….

Wednesday 5 October 2005

October 5, 2005 Feeding Bowls

During the summer the pace around here is alittle more relaxed and every second of the day doesn't seem quite as planned out as in the fall/winter. Once we hit this time of year, we start to look for ways to steal extra minutes out of the day.  

Our routine for feeding has always been somewhat more time consuming then many big dog yards. Many kennels just leave the bowls with the dogs or mount 'feeding cans' on the sides of the dog's houses. Both are very viable options, but just not the way we like to do things. We have a feeding table where all the bowls are kept and where we take buckets of kibble out to. I measure out meals for each dog, then we walk around and hand out the bowls of kibble - then go back and collect all the bowls. Bowl collecting time is a chance to spend visiting with the dogs and often we take more time collecting bowls then it takes to actually do the feeding. It's a nice relaxing way to 'wind down' the day in the summer. 

However, when training kicks into full gear things change, not only do we follow up the kibble feeding with a serving of 'soup', the 'A' string dogs are also getting fed at least twice a day. So, our ½ hour - 45-minute evening ritual turns into about 1 - 1 ½ hours at least twice a day. When Mark is working nights, I feed on my own, which stretches things out even longer. 

A couple years ago, because of a tip from Martin Buser, I bought a 'tipping dog dish' from Cold Spot Feeds that mounts on the side of the dog's house (Dish Saver 3-qt from I didn't like the fact that you couldn't take the dish out of the holder to clean - and they were very expensive, but it would save time, it did keep the dishes off the ground and stop the boys from peeing in them (a disgusting habit that most of our boys have). The dish floated around our garage, as we hoped it would provide us with some inspiration for something that would be similar, but suit our way of doing things a little better. 

Well - VOILA!! After a over year, it seems Mark has come up with the solution for us! (Pictures will be included when this entry is put up on the web). 

The dog's dish is not attached to the ring holder, so I can take them out for cleaning every now and again and in the summer the ring slips out of it's holder, leaving just a flat bracket on the dog house, so we can go back to our normal summer routine.

bowlholder.jpg (119404 bytes) surgebowlholder.JPG (165405 bytes)
Surge demonstrates the new feeding bowl.

We tested the concept out on our 'A.D.D.' dog - Barq. We figure if he didn't find a way to tangle himself up on the holder, didn't remove the dish from the ring and couldn't pee in the bowl - it would work for the rest of the 'A' team. Sure enough, the holder has passed the 'Barq Test' and now all of them have their bowls mounted on the sides of their houses. I'm not quite to the point of morning waterings (although I imagine we will be within 10 days to 2 weeks), but I have been feeding the main string using this system for the past 2 nights and it is working great. 

The routine hasn't changed for the retirees, yearlings, puppies, etc - they still have their bowls collected after feeding and get their extra visiting time, but not picking up the bowls is saving us about 20 minutes with the Main String (and they get extra attention when running anyway, so they aren't losing out there either!) 

Over the winter, with 3 feedings could save us up to an hour a day. And in my world - that is a big deal. 


©Penny Blankenship