Training with Friends

For the past two winters, Hey Moose! Kennel has been lucky enough to become Hey Moose! Checkpoint every so often. Friends from near and far have traveled to Healy to explore the trails around Denali and enjoy our neck of the woods. This time, it was Mandy Nauman of Douglas Fir Mushing and Laura Allaway of Trail Breaker Kennel – both out of Fairbanks. It was an adventure from the very start.

Because Hey Moose! doesn’t have road access, the two parked their dog trucks a mile away at Earthsong Lodge, a great place run by our neighbor Jon Nierenberg. They called and we coordinated putting booties on and harnessing our dogs all at the same time – they from the parking lot and me from home. As the minutes ticked down until our scheduled meeting time on the trail, I put my 12th dog into place and pulled the hooks. There are 15 dogs in the Hey Moose! racing team, but our exit trail is a narrow, winding, tree-filled path, and I wasn’t yet ready to take that many dogs down it right off the bat. Dogs are so amped up by the time we pull the hook that it can be an uncontrollable situation.

I let out a sigh of relief as I rounded the last 90-degree turn of our exit trail and swung out onto the mushing trail that takes us out to the main road. Within a minute I could hear their two 14-dog teams barking like crazy and my dogs sped up. We struck out across the tundra and then came to a stop as Mandy and Laura pulled their knots and fell in line behind me. The sky was streaked with neon pink as the sun set behind Denali, creating a giant triangular shadow on the clouds above. We kept a steady pace toward Sunday Creek and the settling dusk, gliding silently through snow-caked trees and tundra.

Night fell and the dogs became a singular pack, moving as one and perking up at signs of fox, wolf and ptarmigan. They love to run at night, and can’t wait to see what’s around every corner. Their excitement is contagious, and no matter how cold or dark it is, it’s impossible not to have fun.

When we arrived home a few hours later, we set up droplines around the house for Mandy and Laura’s dogs, gave them straw and fed everyone. We made a plan to get up in the morning and each run a 14-dog team to our dog trucks, then head out to the Denali Highway for a 50-mile run. In so many words, running three 14-dog teams out of a tricky exit trail and then stopping them after one mile out on the open tundra is, well, INSANE. And the dogs let us know what a crazy idea it was as we loaded them into the dog trucks one by one. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and almost dark by the time we had our sleds loaded atop our trucks. With an hour to get to the DH, another hour to booty and harness the dogs again, six hours or so to run 50 miles, an hour drive back and the prospect of hooking all those dogs up again only to run one mile at the end of it all, I said what we all were thinking: Let’s just run them here! We can easily do 50 miles on these trails. Laura, looking exasperated, said, “Well, at least let’s go get a pizza and a beer first.” We had already driven our trucks a few miles into town, so we parked at the local pub, grabbed some grub and made a new plan with full bellies. Unexpected craziness is good for dogs training to run races anyway, we reasoned. Another night run later, we were back at home, planning our next run in the morning.

We were on the trail by sunrise and climbed the ridge north of our house. We crossed a frozen lake and turned west, the team drenched in rare sunlight as the vast north boundary of the park and the distant Kantishna Hills unfolded before us. Thin, high clouds melded together above us, pushed by wind, as our packed trail suddenly disappeared. Norton and Andy-dog were unsure at first, then full of disciplined resolve as they plunged shoulder-deep into a trail apparently broken by a single dogteam days ago. Every time I stepped off the runners to push the sled forward, I fell into bottomless snow. Somehow, the sled floated right through it and the dogs maintained a steady pace. Two miles later, we gee’d onto a hardpacked snowmachine trail and I hollered with joy. Every dog received hugs and kisses as their tails wagged with accomplishment. Dogs are so humbling, the way they make the most mountainous of tasks seem like no big deal. The way they accept the simplest of things, like a pat on the head, as payment in full for their hard work.

The hours flowed by with the trail and before we knew it, it was dusk again – pale lavender fading into denim fading into navy blue . Slate Lake a white spectacle of loveliness set against a ring of mountains backlit in embers. As we made the loop around the lake, I looked back at Laura who silently raised her fist in the air in celebration. Three of the luckiest gals in the world and their beautiful dogteams. A few tiny specks of happiness in a vast, winter wilderness.

Road Closed

“All right, we have to get out of here in the next two hours,” Andy says as he shuts the cabin door against a gust of wind. The dog truck is parked at the end of our trail, which meanders through black spruce a distance of 600 feet from our cabin to a dirt road. Out in the dogyard the wind knocks snow from the spruce boughs and swirls it all around the cabin. Dawn is just beginning to break, but you can hardly tell for how thickly the blowing snow occludes the sunrise. We pack everything we need for a day on the trail in our sleds, hook up our teams and speed down the exit trail. We stop at the truck and tie off the teams, then begin loading each dog into the dog truck. Fifteen minutes later, our sleds are tied down on the dogbox and we are busting through drifts as high as the grille of our Dodge Ram, high-tailing it for Stampede Road – the state-maintained main road that bisects our neighborhood in Healy. I close my eyes and pet Solo, while Andy says he hopes I enjoyed our last drive down our road for the next six months. This is it. Winter’s here.

From Stampede we turn south on the Parks Highway in a maelstrom of white. Every few minutes we glance in the side-view mirrors at our sleds perched high atop the truck, making sure the wind isn’t taking them away. An hour later we arrive at a pullout occupied by a handful of dog trucks. The Road Closed sign on the Denali Highway is formidable. “Travel Not Recommended Beyond This Point.” “Tell Someone Where You Are Going.” We unload the sleds, tie them together, tie them off onto the dogtruck and begin putting dogs on the gangline. One by one, everyone is bootied. One by one every dog faces forward excitedly, ready for an adventure. Ready to run. The Denali Highway is perfect for distance training because it is one long, unbroken ribbon of trail for 135 miles. It is well-traveled by snowmachines and is a good way to get long miles on the dogs with a low risk of injury, since the trail is usually nicely packed and smooth.

Andy and I signal to each other through the din of barking dogs that we are ready by patting the tops of our heads. We pick up our snowhooks and off we go, standing on the brakes to keep the dogs at their big, smooth trots. The sky is a deep blue, almost purple, with a thin veil of swirling snow hovering on the mountains of the Nenana River valley. It is twelve degrees above. It is silent. Giant black ravens swoop down into the road ahead of the team, almost playful. The dogs pick up the pace and try to chase them. A small herd of caribou stumbles into the middle of the trail, forming a circle around their young. We stop the team and the dogs go crazy. The caribou decide, in their indecisive way, that leaving the trail is a good idea. They disappear into the taiga and the dogs lope past their footprints, sniffing the air, ears alert. They are having a blast – this pack of young dogs starting to form a cohesion that can only come with training together for hundreds of miles.

Three hours and seventeen minutes later we are back at the dog truck. We remove everyone’s booties, give the dogs a snack of frozen meat and load them into the truck again. Sled are hoisted, ratchet straps are tied off and we are driving north again with three hours to go until the neighbors show up for dinner. The storm that we left in Healy has remained there all day. We can’t drive faster than 50 mph because the snow is blowing directly into our windshield and we can hardly see. We turn onto Stampede Road and can’t believe our eyes. At least a foot of new snow is piled upon the pavement. If it looks like this down here, at the bottom of the hill, there’s no telling what kind of chaos lies ahead. A nearly unbroken blanket of snow reaches across the shoulders of the road and out onto the tundra. We arrive at our street and can barely tell where it is. Our neighbor a mile away from home lets us park at his place in the winter, so we back into our spot and unload the sleds. I tie off my sled to the front of the dog truck in the dark, snowflakes darting across my headlamp. I can see about 50 feet ahead of me and not much farther. As I unravel my gangline, I see a headlamp smudged by windrift. It’s our neighbor Mike and his dogteam, plowing through two-foot drifts out on the tundra. We exchange a wave and I think to myself that there’s just no better place to live. I get my dogs on the line and tell Littlehead and Solo to do their best to get us home. They plunge into the drifts and we sled into the night. There’s so much snow I lose my footing and dump my sled a couple times. Then we hit Mike’s trail a few hundred yards away and arrive home at the cabin within minutes. Andy’s team comes in behind me and everyone is fed and settles down for a good night’s sleep. The neighbors arrive as Andy washes dishes and I put the finishing touches on green chile enchiladas and shove them into the oven. Andy and I lean into each other and shake our heads, exchanging a silent glance that sums it all up. “We are crazy.”

Denali Highway

We are privileged to live in the most beautiful place imaginable, with miles upon miles of wilderness unfurling from our back yard. Mountains give way to broad swales of tundra, spruce & birch boughs arch & hang overhead, & serpentine rivers wind their way through it all. It is, in a word, breathtaking. But as we wait for more snow & the ability to break out our sleds, we are relegated to predictable loops & trails. After a certain point, the dogs make it clear that a change of scenery would be greatly appreciated, & we humans are easily convinced.

We’ve been running small teams with the ATV, so we decided to hook up all fifteen race dogs to the truck & take them for a spin on the Denali Highway over the weekend. The DH spreads west to east from Cantwell to Paxson over roughly 135 miles & provides fine training for distance mushers due to its wide trail, solid snow base, & varied topography. More snow underfoot means less risk of injury, & since we use the term “highway” pretty liberally around here, it’s good to remind folks that they don’t maintain it after October. That means you can run a truck on it just until the snow really dumps, & then you’re either on a sled or a snowmachine if you’re out there at all. Two lodges stay open year-round & provide incredibly hospitable services to mushers on training runs: the Alpine Creek Lodge & the Maclaren River Lodge. They’re spaced out so that during long training runs, while the dogs are bedded down comfortable & warm in beds of straw, their mushers can bed down within warm cabin walls.

Our run was short enough that we’ll defer that comfort for another date. In the case of truck training, for those of you who haven’t seen it done, we just hook the gangline up to the truck & drive behind the dogs, giving as consistent a control as we can with the gas pedal. We keep the windows down for commands & keep our eyes steadily on the dogs. On Saturday, we passed several other dog teams heading the opposite direction, which is invaluable practice for our guys. It’s a great way to see the whole team move together, & a great way to maintain solid braking control while being able to provide all the amenities of a dog truck if necessary. It doesn’t hurt to have the heater on or the music playing either, I don’t suppose.

Moving along

We had Kitty along in the cab with us as the mascot for the whole run. Miss Kitty did a fine job of sleeping, acting as talent scout, or giving Solo kisses. As for the team, Norton & Littlehead led a focused charge the whole time. We always try to select some all-stars from each run, but in this case, since everyone performed so well, it was easier to just note that Hoss, in spite of his size, is still a puppy & that Tinman was in a mood of easy distraction. All fifteen dogs showed no sign of being tired at the end of the run, with some notable harness-bangers still howling to go.

Kristin, Kitty & Solo

It was, all in all, a lovely run. The skies with pending twilight were various hues of blue, with the soft roseate alpenglow along the ridges & the rare seam in cloud cover where sunlight seemed to shock the snow. The dogs, with an exception or two, settled in to an easy trot & showed genuine joy at the new scenery. A team of happy dogs glancing back at you makes any effort worth the while.

Back home, we harnessed everyone up again for that long 600 yard run into the cabin, where a warm meal & fresh straw in their houses gave way to contented moonlit howls. We humans, tired but thrilled at our dogs’ performance, cooked our own dinner & sat down by the fire to start drawing up teams for the next day.

Copper Basin 300

We relied on a our trusty puppy alarm to wake us up just after midnight last night in order to sign Kristin up for the Copper Basin 300! We’re thrilled after a long, deliberate build-up to finally be able to join in on some of the races that we’ve followed so avidly for years.

Here’s to Hey Moose! Kennel’s debut at the Copper Basin 300!