So You Want To Be A Sled Dog Handler

The famous Iditarod, a 1,000 mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, is well underway. The stress and frenzy of pre-race requirements – packing drop bags, filled with a musher’s essential supplies, and getting them to the designated distribution center, vet checks, final training runs and meetings galore – vaporized the second each musher pulled their hook at the starting line and their dogs and sled surged forward down the trail.

The handlers, the unsung heroes of racing, packed up whatever the musher may have thought unnecessary and drove their dog truck back to the kennel. They won’t see their mushers again until the finish line at Nome. The unfortunate few may be meeting their mushers and teams at the Anchorage airport, where they will have flown back too after dropping out of the race.

The lesser know Yukon Quest, another 1,000 mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon, finished last month. This race is a nod to the mail carriers, supply haulers, prospectors and adventurers who traveled the rough and unforgiving trails from the Alaskan Interior to the Klondike. It was born, like all good things, over beer and burgers at the Bulls Eye Saloon, which stood until just a few years ago a mere 5 miles from our place.

“In 1983, four mushers sat at a table in the Bull’s Eye Saloon in Fairbanks, Alaska. The conversation turned to a discussion about a new sled dog race and “what-ifs”.

  • What if the race followed a historical trail?
  • What if it were an international sled dog race?
  • What if the race went a little longer?
  • What if it even went up the Yukon River?

As early as 1976, a Fairbanks to Whitehorse sled dog race had been talked of. But it wasn’t until this conversation between Roger Williams, Leroy Shank, Ron Rosser and William “Willy” Lipps that the Yukon Quest became more than an idea. The mushers named the race the “Yukon Quest” to commemorate the Yukon River, which was the historical highway of the north. The trail would trace the routes that the prospectors followed to reach the Klondike during the 1898 Gold Rush and from there to the Alaskan interior for subsequent gold rushes in the early years of the 1900s.

The first Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race tested both race logistics and the talents of all involved. Twenty-six teams left Fairbanks in 1984. During the next 16 days, 20 teams arrived in Whitehorse.  Six teams were forced to drop out along the way.

Sonny Lindner became the first Yukon Quest champion, completing the race in just over 12 days. ” (from the Yukon Quest website)

Our friend, John Dixon, who has run in two Iditarods, getting set to start the Quest 300, which is a qualifying race for the Yukon Quest.

The Quest is a grueling marathon and features several summits teams must climb and historically extreme temperatures that plummet to 40 below and colder. And its start, at the beginning of February, guarantees more darkness than daylight. Eleven of this year’s 26 entrants scratched and two were withdrawn because they pushed the help button on their SPOT trackers both races now use.

Quest mushers and their handlers experience the same chaotic, pre-race activities and every racer tends to look forward to just pulling the snowhook and getting underway. While the teams head down the trail, these handlers begin a very different adventure from their Iditarod kennel counterparts. For them, the following 8 to 14 days, is an exhausting game of hurry up and wait. The reason – several of the checkpoints are on the road system (road is a pretty loose term).

Wait for it……

Soooo, if we need to get to a checkpoint?……

Handlers are forbidden from even touching a dog and if they do, the consequence is that the musher is withdrawn. So what do the handlers do?

Well, they drive and drive and drive. And then wait and wait. They sleep in the cold, in the dog truck. They drink copious amounts of coffee. They eat a lot of junk food. And when there is a signal their musher is coming in, they scramble into action, ready to cheer, cajole, comfort,listen and sometimes be yelled at by an equally sleep-deprived musher. If a musher decides to drop a dog from the team, the vet will examine the dog and determine if there is a need for medication. Then and only then can the handlers take control of a dog and from that point on they are responsible for its care. Once the musher has left a checkpoint, the handlers must ensure that their team’s spot has all dog poop, straw and trash is cleaned up. Sounds glamorous doesn’t it?

A team not far from the Mile 101 checkpoint.

Rolling into a checkpoint.

The Dawson checkpoint is different because it is where all mushers take a 36 hour layover. Handlers have spent a few days driving 400 miles from Fairbanks, to Two Rivers and back through Fairbanks to Circle. They have climbed an almost 4,000 foot summit – stunningly beautiful in clear weather, but migraine inducing when the snow and wind start up. The road is notorious for ice, dangerous S-curves and frost heaves that rattle the teeth. Once their musher has left Circle, the handlers double back 155 miles to Fairbanks and then cover 900 miles to Dawson City. Along the way there are dropped dogs to feed and exercise, flat tires to change and brief pit stops for humans.

Do you see the moose?

Breaking down on this stretch of road requires mechanical and survival skills.

Do you see the dogteam? The black specks in the middle of the photo are a team climbing Eagle Summit.

In Dawson, each team is assigned a quiet area, across the river from the town itself, and handlers get to work setting up camp. Every team has its own setup but they all involve a cozy, covered, straw-filled space for the dogs. During the 36-hours, handlers will walk dogs, feed dogs, massage dogs and watch over dogs. Mushers will eat, sleep, wash trail clothes, eat, sleep and of course visit their team. It’s time to rest and re-charge.

Once the musher is back on the trail, the handlers are the clean up crew and can’t get on the road until their site is inspected and checked off. From there, 530 more miles will tick off the odometer as the dog truck motors to Whitehorse, with stops in the checkpoints of Pelly, Carmacks and Braeburn, which has the largest and world famous cinnamon buns.

The dog truck at the top of Eagle Summit. The weather was spectacular!

After two weeks, endless miles, waking up disoriented and shivering in the cab of a dog truck, questionable hygiene practices and a diet that would kill weaker people, the adventure is done. Sort of. There are spring races to prepare for. Training runs to go on. Chewed harnesses to be sewn. Equipment to be repaired. Dog booties to be washed, dried and sorted. Poop to be scooped. Houses to be filled with straw. Massages to be done. Food to be prepared. Puppies to be played with. Dogs to be loved. Hard workers only need apply.

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Old Dogs But No Watermelon Wine

Tappy. Tappy. Tappy. Tappy.

This is the sound of Oni tappy-toeing up and down the hall every night, about 5 minutes after I’ve gone to bed. Soon the noise is in stereo, because Gump has joined her. The tapping is only broken when Oni makes a pass by me and rams her unusually pointy nose into my ribs and Gump roughly rubs his head and face all over my leg. I will scratch Oni’s head and back for a few minutes, then push her and Gump gently away. The tappy, tappy, tappy fades as they pace down the hall, only to intensify as they come back. Back and forth. Back and forth. This night time ritual lasts about 10-15 minutes whether I scold them or not, so I use the time to practice meditation.

Oni and Gump are old sled dogs living out their remaining time lounging on the couch during the day and tap dancing at night.

Oni, not long after I got her. The distrust is obvious.

Fifteen-year-old Oni was a very poorly socialized rescue who stomped into my life when she was just over a year old. It took several years before she didn’t panic any time we touched her. She is on the small size, with horrible confirmation, but her work ethic is giant. Being in harness and pulling a sled was where she found her joy and where her life was good and fair. She has easily out pulled and out worked any dog I’ve ever known.

Oni and Loup on a short run. Loup is a huge Malamute and Oni looked pretty small next to him!

Oni was part of the crew we would bring to Juneau to work on the glaciers, or on land, giving rides to tourists. She was a great traveler, content to be in the dog box on the truck, and only woken to eat, pee or run. The first summer we were hopeful that exposure to people and the daily life of a very large dogyard, would aid in transitioning her to trust people more. Yeah, it didn’t work at all. Eat. Sleep. Work. That is all she was interested in.

One afternoon she got away from one of the staff. With the noise of 250 dogs and 25 people living and working on the glacier, and hundreds of tourists flying in and out on the choppers, it was going to prove an almost impossible task to catch her. Glaciers are very dangerous places and the camp, dogyard and trail were on very stable snow and ice, away from killer crevasses. Thankfully some bad weather rolled in and choppers were grounded in town.

The beautiful view you see flying to the camp on the glacier.

We noticed that Oni had found our tent and wanted to hang out near the door. We placed an airline kennel just inside and put some food right in the back of it. I rigged up a long piece of rope from the door to our bed at the rear of the tent and waited for her to take the bait. She knew I was up to something, but she also knew her stomach was growling. Soon enough her hunger trumped her cautiousness and she ever so slowly crept into the front of the kennel.

I held my breath and forced myself to wait. She crept in and out a few times, frustrated that she would need to commit her whole body to going into the kennel in order to get the food. Finally she crept in, grabbed a mouthful of food and turned around in a flash, intent on a swift getaway. I was faster however and I yanked on my string, closing the door behind her. I had to reel in the line, keeping it tight so that she couldn’t push against the unlatched door. With a great relief, I locked the kennel door and Oni resigned herself to her sudden captivity with a sigh and then finished the food and fell asleep.

A few years ago we had a pretty long stretch of harsh, 40 and 50 below weather and it was obvious she was having a hard time being outside. We brought her into the house where she was warm, but miserable and on edge all the time. The lack of early handling and socialization made her wound tight like a coil and she was ready to flee if we walked too close to her. It was the other house dogs that taught her we weren’t so bad and after a time she began to relax.

Oni sleeping peacefully in her spot on the dog couch.

About a year after moving into the house and securing her spot on the dog couch, Oni had undergone a remarkable transformation. She initiated contact with us. She wouldn’t startle anymore when we walked by the couch. And she had begun to play with puppies or a young dog who came into visit. Oni had been completely isolated as a barely weaned pup and the plan had been to put her down as soon as her then owner could do it. Months went by. She was kept alone, away from her siblings and as a result didn’t learn how to play. I had caught wind of her situation through the grapevine and it was a no brainer to take her in. Her play was stilted and awkward, but it was a joy to see.

One of Oni’s physical issues is that her tail is completely fused, except for the very end. While most dogs can wag their tails, she can’t and so if you want to figure out if she’s having a good time, you have to really pay attention. As she learned how to play, the tip of that fused tail, would wag furiously. Just the very tip. I laugh every time I see it.

The most significant change for us was that Oni could go for a walk with the other geriatrics and, ready for this…….be off-leash with an excellent recall. Our frightened little white shadow wanted to be with her people. And today she really wants to be with us, particularly at 2 o’clock in the morning. Sigh.

Oni will continue to lounge on the couch and tap dance up and down the hall until the end of her days. She has a certain stiffness in her left leg but it doesn’t stop her from being a part of the dancing duo.

Very soon I will introduce you to another of our seniors living in the retirement home we apparently are running for old dogs.

Spud the Dud.



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See You On The Other Side PeePee

It was a note that shattered my already bruised and tender heart into a million pieces.

“Peg – PeePee is dying. Come visit tonight. Euthanized tomorrow.”

The words might appear to be abrupt and written without feeling, but I knew the writer, my friend, was beside herself with grief and that was all she could manage. I was on my way out with Bella, the Labra-dork, to check hare snares, so I grabbed my phone to take with me. For some odd reason I get much better reception in the woods than I do in my house and it was a phone call I needed to make alone.

When I was back in the woods, I dialed my friend El’s number and got her voice mail. I tried to leave a message. I really did, but my voice failed me so I hung up. A couple of minutes later her number popped up on my phone and I barely managed to answer it. We were both weeping as she explained that PeePee had stopped eating a few days before and was refusing cooked chicken, fish, beef and even the people food he loved. El had taken him to the vet that morning and was told what she already knew – it was time. She explained to the vet that she needed to let me say goodbye and since he wasn’t really suffering, the vet gave him some medicine and he went home.

Better days.

And then that damn note was written.

PeePee started out as my dog, but in the end, both El and I belonged to him. He started life in the final days of November, 2004, during the time I lived in the bush, 100 miles from town and 75 miles from my nearest neighbor. Four days after he and his three siblings were born, Cubby, their mom, became very ill with a serious infection. I was on the satellite phone with the vet for many hours trying different remedies but too no avail. The ice wasn’t thick enough to support a small plane to fly Cubby into town and so she took her last breath as I whispered love in her ears and cradled her in my arms.

There wasn’t a lot of time to grieve because there were four newborn pups to care for. I managed to create a formula out of milk, eggs, vitamins and oil and began to bottle feed. Every two hours. For days and days and days. After feeding I would rub their backs and burp them and then hand them off to Uncle Caleb – a confused and neurotic border collie cross who thought he was a mom. He had the job of licking their butts because newborn pups can’t relieve themselves without that stimulation.

Against all odds the puppies not only survived, but they thrived. They grew fat and thankfully as they aged, the time between feedings was lengthened. They slept by the woodstove, in a straw filled box fashioned out of wood, with Caleb curled up protectively around them. When they were about 4-weeks-old they were introduced to puppy porridge – ground up kibble, soaked in warm water – and they were eager eaters. Caleb was happy too because the pups were incredibly messy and were generally covered ears to tail in food, which meant he got to lick them all over.

Meatball and Puppers – PeePee’s siblings.

Even though there were several bowls and pans to feed puppies, they always ate as a group and moved from dish to dish. PeePee is the pup in the top right…..the spot on the butt.

Soon enough they were spending their time in the sheltered kennel – playing and growing and generally causing trouble. PeePee was especially bonded with me and when he figured out not to use the floor of my wall tent as a bathroom, he spent many happy days just hanging out. He was sensitive and mischievous and earned his name because of that combination. If he was scolded too harshly he’d pee. If he got too excited he would pee. There simply was no other name for him.

PeePee and siblings (second from left) commandeering an empty house in the dog yard.

A ray of sunshine and a pile of straw is the perfect place to have a nap.

The following May, PeePee and canine crew, traveled with me too Alaska where the job was to live and work on a glacier giving dogsled rides to fly-in guests. Puppies are slowly introduced to being in harness and pulling a sled. Runs are short and fun. The glacier was the perfect place to learn because the rides were less than 2 miles and the guests loved on the dogs afterwards. PeePee took to it like a fish too water. He LOVED to work and LOVED all the people. They even forgave him when he peed on them.

PeePee learned how to be part of, and to lead, teams on the glacier.

My intention was to return to the bush after summer was over, but Darrel and I met, fell in love, swore to each other ours would be a summer romance and were married six months later. So Alaska became our permanent home.

PeePee’s mom, grandmother and great grandmother were all lead dogs, but I wasn’t sure if he would be because of his sensitivities. As he got older I often ran him beside Diablo, his half-sister. She was a handful that dog and even though she damn well knew the various commands, she would choose to ignore them if she felt the trail was too boring. While it was exasperating, that stubborn streak came in handy when we had difficult situations and trail we had to push through. I looked and looked for a hint of that in PeePee, but it was nowhere to be found – until the day we were in a fun race and Diable attempted to drag the team over to the BBQ area where the smell of charbroiled hamburgers wafted over the crowd. I yelled for a “haw”, a left-turn in dog language, which Diable promptly ignored because the burgers were to the right. PeePee, bless his heart, jumped over his sister and pulled her and the team hard left. That was the moment the heart of a leader was born.

Sasha (left) and PeePee (right) having an adventure with young musher Amy.

We had so many grand adventures PeePee and I. Living and working on glaciers. Giving land tours in Alaska’s coastal rain forest. Traveling the historical trails of the explorers who searched for the Northwest Passage. Running miles and miles on the most amazing trail systems where we live, including a section of the Yukon Quest trail. And on pretty much every single trip, PeePee was at the front of the team. He became so good at his job that he would run single lead – a rare thing for a sled dog.

Uncle Caleb and PeePee – his first run.

A couple of years ago I was traveling out of State for critical medical care and it so happened my friend El was beginning what would turn out to be a massively successful dogsled tour and yurt stay business. She was looking for some dogs and it was wonderful that she was able to give many of our crew jobs, so I could concentrate on the business of getting well. She was also in great need of another good lead dog and that is how PeePee came to know and love El as well.

He was a charmer with guests and admired by the other mushers. His gentle nature won her heart and when he needed to be retired last year, we made the decision that he should stay with her. PeePee became the ambassador of her kennel, visiting all the working dogs before breakfast and then greeting guests as they arrived. While teams were on the trail, he had luxurious, heated, straw-filled accommodations in her barn and hung out there with another old timer. They even had a doggie door which lead to an outdoor play area. At night he checked all the working dogs after chores were done and then trotted indoors to love and be loved by his humans.

He was such a remarkable dog and so when the phone rang a second time that late afternoon of the note, I had to brace my heart. In between sobs, El told me that PeePee was fading and that she was taking him to the vet within the hour. I walked out of the woods and waited for her to stop by. When I walked out of the house, she took my hand and we walked to the top of the driveway where her truck and PeePee were waiting.

When she opened the door I knew it was indeed time. He wasn’t distressed and in fact his weight was healthy and if you didn’t know any better, he appeared to be a dog simply laying in the back seat. But he had “the look” that dogs seem to be able to convey that they are done. I could see that the spirit that made him PeePee was already on its way. It comforted me somehow.

I spent several minutes with my face buried in his fur, just talking quietly to him. I told him many serious things. Sacred things. And then I reluctantly gave him a final kiss and told him I’d see him on the other side.

As El said, and I agree, dogs are amazing creatures. They live and love in the moment. They get on with that business every day of their lives and when they’re done, they’re done. We could learn from that.

PeePee. Forever loved and missed.

“It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” Author Unknown



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Here’s To New Beginnings

It’s been a while. There are a variety of reasons mostly related to health, so I won’t bore you.

Spring will be here in 19 days! It seems that on the one hand, winter has flown by; but on the other hand, it feels like she has been around forever. We haven’t had it hard at all this year in terms of really cold weather and there have been only a few weeks out of the many where temperatures have crept down to 40 below. An abundance of warm weather (by Interior Alaskan standards) has brought snow, snow and snow. It’s been several years since we’ve had this much of the white stuff and according to the weather forecast, we aren’t finished yet. We are expecting another series of storms early next week that will dump more snow. It is becoming challenging to find room to push snow out of the driveway and the city of Fairbanks has pretty much filled the areas they normally deposit the snow plowed off the roads.

Here’s a photo of one of the dog houses. Now snow was shoveled off it in December, just before we had our annual crappy “winter” weather that features rain and ice, instead of snow. We like the snow to bank up around the houses and on the roofs to provide extra insulation in addition to all the straw bedding. This weekend we’ll shovel the roofs again because now that it’s warmer, the dogs like to lounge on top of their houses.

The sun has returned in her full glory and the gloomy, half-light days are well behind us. We are even noticing that the rays are warm again and south facing windows have curtains pulled way back to help heat the house.

Bella, the Labra-dork, and I try to go for a walk in the woods every day to check snares, take photos and look at animal tracks. Well, I do all of that. She runs around, nose to the ground, or dives into the deep, soft snow in a mostly vain hunt for the voles and squirrels she can hear underneath the drifts. If you’ve ever seen a fox leap into the air and then go head first into the snow, then you have some idea of what my weird dog gets up too.

Is this my best side? Actually she was watching ravens and ignoring me.

The look of an unsuccessful vole hunt.

As the weather warms I see a lot more evidence of the animals moving. We see the tracks of voles, squirrels, snowshoe hares, owls, ravens, moose, fox, marten and lynx. It may seem quiet out there, but the woods are teeming with creatures living their lives. With the deep snow, the moose are frequently seen on trails and they are also pretty cranky right now. Food is harder to find and cows are heavy with unborn calves.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking down to the dog yard in the dark to feed the sled dogs, when a cow moose and a yearling calf exploded out of the willows, not more than 15 feet to my right. I was so thankful she chose the trail to our neighbor’s yard and not the one I was standing on! I backtracked to the house, grabbed the shotgun (just in case) and walked down to the dog yard, talking away and pulling the food sled with one hand and holding the shotgun with the other.  It was unnerving to shine my headlamp in her direction and see her just standing there, head lowered and staring at me. Moose are very dangerous, but especially so at this time of the year. I fed dogs and when I walked back up to the house, she was in the exact same spot, standing and staring. Until the snow melts, I need to pay better attention to the world around me!

Looks like spring!

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Salmon, Kibble and Fish Guts

I like feeding our dogs; especially this time of year. It’s dark and I work in the beam of a headlamp. There is just something about the crunch of snow underfoot, the breath of barking dogs that hangs in the air and at times, the Northern Lights dancing overhead, that has me wishing it all could be captured somehow for everyone to see. As I move from dog to dog I am greeted with tapping, excited feet and a “woof” or “woooooooooo.” Hearing them slurp and gulp and snarf their warm, nutritious meal makes my heart glad.

We buy 50 lb blocks of meat to use as snacks for the dogs. Yummy!!!

We buy 50 lb blocks of meat to use as snacks for the dogs. Yummy!!!

A band saw is a musher's best friend!

A band saw is a musher’s best friend!

Tonight my ears tuned into the dogs around me. Glacier who is physically an intimidating giant, but is in truth the biggest baby I have ever had, gets fed first. After he eats, he spends the rest of the time whining and carrying on about how he is STILL starving (Yeah he gets almost twice as much as every other dog because of his size.)

Nodd, who adopted me about 13 years ago, barks once or twice but that’s it. She came from a neglectful situation and I think she learned early not to draw attention to herself because there were always consequences.

Off on the other side of the yard, I can hear old Peanut barking at her bowl, stomping her front feet into it and then tossing it in the air. I think she is convinced that this is how the food shows up.

Some of those barks are echoes of generations. Daisy, Pepe, Hippy and Scoot all sound like their dad and grandpa Trophy. Listening to them a person might be convinced we have hunting hounds and not sled dogs.

Daisy taking a break on a fall run. Experienced sled dogs learn to just relax during our breaks.

Daisy taking a break on a fall run. Experienced sled dogs learn to just relax during our breaks.

Hiccup spends her wait time growling at any other dog who even looks her way. Like her sister Bob, now gone, she is quite convinced that there is a canine conspiracy to steal her food and so she initiates a preemptive strike. Silly girl.

Bob - I miss this silly girl.

Bob – I miss this silly girl.

Beaker and Blue, who are young sisters, don’t bark. They scream. Molar loosening screams. Their grandfather, Zen, who was very un-Zen-like, made the same grating sound. These two are crazy, happy dogs, but the noise – oh my. I try to feed them as quickly as I can!

Meanie, who really isn’t, whines. And whines. And whines. Bless his heart. His mom, Lucy, does the same thing. Maybe it’s some secret language.

Tyson, aka, Buckaroo, well, bucks. It’s the funniest thing I have ever seen a dog do. In the dark what you hear is, “thump, thump, thump” as he lands on the ground. Then there are the quiet dogs – senior citizens who understand the food bucket comes by pretty much on time and there is no need to worry. Charlie, Gump and Blackie all just chill and wait. Blackie sometimes doesn’t even get out of his warm, straw-filled house until I am filling his food pan.

Charlie sort of looks like Jeff Dunham's Walter doesn't he?

Charlie sort of looks like Jeff Dunham’s Walter doesn’t he?

One sound I have been missing a lot is the “woo woo” from Diablo. She died this summer because of a brain tumor. We had a ton of adventures she and I – living in the bush, working on glaciers, following a caribou herd on migration and traveling on historical trails. I miss her a lot and I think even more so, because her area remains empty. Maybe it’s time to move some dogs around. She will never be forgotten but her spirit was adventure and I don’t think she’d mind.

Our last expedition in Canada before moving to Alaska. (photo courtesy of my friend James)

Our last expedition in Canada before moving to Alaska. (photo courtesy of my friend James)




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Tis the Season……for Frostbite.

The mercury has crept downward to more normal temperatures around here. We were spoiled by a very warm fall, after a miserably wet summer. It’s 8 degrees below zero F (-22 C) as I write this, which overall isn’t that bad. Heck it could be 50 below right now or 30 degrees and raining, creating impossibly dangerous road conditions like a few Thanksgivings ago. We were all home and icebound for 5 days then.

The sun will rise tomorrow at 9:49 a.m. and set at 3:24 p.m. – a loss of 6 minutes and 11 seconds from yesterday.We will continue to lose daylight until that magical day of winter solstice – December 21st – and then we start to slowly gain light. That’s a ways off though, so it’s best just to focus on the here and now.


I never tire of a winter sunset.

There isn’t much snow to speak of. A couple of inches really. Everyone is still running dog teams with the four wheelers which gets old pretty quickly. Old and cold.


Polar on our run yesterday. She tires Bella out because she loves to play and run at the same time. This is a field where I have to keep a watchful eye out for moose.

I took Bella and Sasha for a free run this afternoon, just about sunset which is my favorite time of day. I was wearing long johns, jeans, sweatpants, 2 pairs of socks, boots, hoodie, fleeced jacket, parka, hat, headlamp and gauntlet mitts with heavy fleece and a canvas outer layer. I realized on the way home that I hadn’t stuffed my neck warmer, which I can pull up over my face, in the belly pocket of my parka. I realized it when I felt the sudden sting of freezing skin. Sigh.

Frostbite is a fact of life if you spend any lengthy time playing outdoors in this part of Alaska. As much as we take measures to avoid it, the cold has a way of creeping in to find exposed flesh. I once froze part of my wrist where the tiniest line of skin had been exposed at the point where my parka cuff ended and my glove began. I’ve had frozen ears, toes, fingers and cheeks too. The thawing is the part that really hurts and the skin remains tender and swollen for a while. It is also very vulnerable to re-freezing and so care must be taken. My cheeks didn’t get it too bad today – just a mild case – but enough so that I have a very rosy face at the moment.


At the beginning of our adventure today. All layered up and snug as a bug.

A few more folks have been on the trails judging by all the four wheeler tracks and yellow snow (don’t eat it by the way!). We haven’t run into anyone yet but I am always ready to call the dogs and step off the trail. It’s more usual for us to meet teams further down the trail than we go right now, because there is a large community of mushers there – 1,000 people and 6,000 sled dogs! It is a skill to have teams pass without incident and after each successful meet up a musher is always thanking the gods that they have good leaders!

Being passed from behind is usually a pretty smooth deal. Dogs are naturally competitive and so the passing team will just surge on by, while the other mushers rides the break ever so slightly to slow their team down. Head-on passes are another matter entirely. The dogs have time to see each other and all it takes is one of them to hop over the line of the on-coming team or to suddenly stop to sniff a butt and mayhem ensues. It is up to the leaders to keep the team lined out nice and straight and to pull their teammates right on by. We’ve had a few tangles over the years but thankfully canines and humans kept their cool, tangles were sorted out and everyone went on their way.

Today though, was uneventful. We saw tracks and left tracks and let the land soothe our spirits.

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Seasons and Silence

I’ve been sick all week – like pneumonia and say nice things at my funeral or else, sick. Sasha (aged 10ish and with a trick elbow), Spud (aged 11 and fattest husky in the world) and Oni (aged 12 and just a strange little dog) are quite happy simply having quick potty breaks out back and then back on the couch until next time. And then there is Bella – aged: puppy. For being so young and rambunctious at times, she really does take a lazy day quite well. A day. On the second day she is looking for mischief and is adept at finding it.

So this week I have bundled up like Peter Billingsley’s (no relation) “Ralphie” in “A Christmas Story” and hopped on the ATV so that Bella could get her 4 or 5 mile run in. The fresh air has been good for me, as has moving around. Laying around allows the lungs to continue to fill with fluid, so a little exercising them helps them heal.

Yesterday as I putt-putted along and watched the dogs I was reminded again of much much joy I get from just being outside. There is something about taking deep breaths in the cold that brings a flash of a memory.

One breath and I am here again, running dogs in the Canadian Arctic (photo by my friend James).



Next breath and this memory comes rushing back – living in a tent during our wonderfully adventurous and funny Homeless in Alaska period.


Inhale and I remember that these days are coming very soon!


It’s been snowing for a good part of the day and there is a certain silence that descends on the land with that first blanket of the white stuff. I rode into a little piece of woods right beside the river, turned the ATV off and just sat. Even the dogs took a break and we were still and silent.

It is quite profound what can be heard when you “just be.” The snow falling on my jacket. A sudden, sharp crack as the ice on the river splits. Chattering and chastisement from a miffed red squirrel who clearly reminds dogs and human that the midden under that spruce tree is his. The drumming of wings from an unseen grouse in the grass across the water. Abundant life that is easily missed.

My eye caught evidence of busy beavers. Three birch trees patiently chewed on until they fell.


It is beautiful to see the river change from day to day. Here it is yesterday:


And 24 hrs later, the same river:


There is a certain sacredness to the changing of the seasons. Oh, I know the science of it all but the sacred is found in legend. Here is a Mi’kmaq story about the seasons. It is one of my favorites.

Long ago a mighty race of Indians lived near the sunrise, and they called themselves Wawaniki—Children of Light. Glooskap was their master. He was kind to his people and did many great deeds for them.

Once in Glooskap’s day it grew extremely cold. Snow and ice covered everything. Fires would not give enough warmth. The corn would not grow. His people were perishing from cold and famine.

Glooskap set forth for the far north where all was ice. Here in a wigwam he found the great giant Winter. It was Winter’s icy breath that had frozen the land.

Glooskap entered the wigwam and sat down. Winter gave him a pipe, and as they smoked the giant told tales of olden times when he reigned everywhere and all the land was silent, white, and beautiful. His frost charm fell upon Glooskap and as the giant talked on, Glooskap fell asleep. For six months he slept like a bear, then the charm left him. He was too strong for it and awoke.

Soon now Glooskap’s talebearer, the Loon, a wild bird who lived on the lakeshores, brought him strange news. He described a country far to the south where it was always warm. There lived the all-powerful Summer who could easily overcome the giant Winter. To save his people from cold and famine and death, Glooskap decided to find her.

Far off to the southern seashores he went. He sang the magic song which whales obey and up came an old friend—a whale who served as his carrier when he wished to go out to sea.

This whale had a law for travelers. She always said: “You must shut your eyes while I carry you. If you do not, I am sure to go aground on a reef or sand-bar and be unable to get off. You could be drowned.”

Glooskap got on the whale’s back and for many days they traveled together. Each day the water grew warmer and the air softer and sweeter, for it came from spicy shores. The odors were no longer those of salt, but of fruits and flowers.

Soon they found themselves in shallow water. Down in the sand clams were singing a song of warning: “Keep out to sea, for the water here is shallow.”

The whale asked Glooskap, who understood the lan- guage of all creatures: “What do they say?”

Glooskap, wishing to land at once, only replied: “They tell you to hurry, for a storm is coming.”

The whale hurried on accordingly until she was close to land. Now Glooskap did the forbidden; he opened his left eye, to peep. At once the whale stuck hard on to the beach so that Glooskap, leaping from her head, was able to walk ashore on dry land.

Thinking she could never get away, the whale became angry. But Glooskap put one end of his strong bow against the whale’s jaw and, taking the other end in his hands, placed his feet against the high bank. With a mighty push, he sent her out into the deep water.

Far inland strode Glooskap and found it warmer at every step. In the forest he came upon a beautiful woman, dancing in the center of a group of young girls. Her long brown hair was crowned with flowers and her arms filled with blossoms. She was Summer.

Glooskap knew that here at last was the one who by her charms could melt old Winter’s heart. He leaped to catch her and would not let her go. Together they journeyed the long way back to the lodge of old Winter.

Winter welcomed Glooskap but he planned to freeze him to sleep again. This time, however, Glooskap did the talking. His charm proved the stronger one and soon sweat began to run down Winter’s face. He knew that his power was gone and the charm of Frost broken. His icy tent melted away.

Summer now used her own special power and everything awoke. The grass grew green and the snow ran down the rivers, carrying away the dead leaves. Old Winter wept to see his power taken away.

But Summer said, “Now that I have proved I am more powerful than you, I give you all the country to the far north for your own, and there I shall never disturb you. Six months of every year you may return to Glooskap’s country and reign as before, but you are to be less severe with your power. During the other six months, I will come back from the South and rule the land.”

Old Winter could do nothing but accept this. So it is that he appears in Glooskap’s country each year to reign for six months, but with a softer rule. When he comes, Summer runs home to her warm south land. When at the end of six months she returns to drive old Winter away, she awakens the north and gives it the joys that only she can bestow. (from




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