Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Taking Care Of "Business"

Ok, so now that I have introduced myself and you (my blog readers) and I are no longer strangers, let’s skip the courtesies and get into the nitty-gritty, the not so glamorous side of mushing. Hollywood epitomises sled dog mushing as a somewhat glamorous sport, but we all know there is a lot more to it than just standing on the runners and looking pretty while our brave and loyal companions bound through the snow, frolicking. When I was introduced to distance mushing last winter and we were beginning to up the miles and start spending much of the day on a sled, there was a rather insistent concern I had regarding logistics: how does one go to the bathroom? With a handler, the problem is much simpler – one person holds the brake and keeps an eye on the dogs, while the other goes and takes care of business. Sounds simple, right? Well, the other day I realised that despite the number of measures we take, the dogs always manage to catch us with our pants down… quite literally.
Take my run from a few days ago. Conditions were a little hairy – we had 4 inches of snow on the ground from the previous night which was just beginning to melt, and the road was SLICK. I had just amped up my team from 16 dogs to 18, and they were raring to go. I know the trail well and the turnaround at the end of the loop is not too technical, but preferring to take the safe route, I brought my handler, Dean, along with me for the ride, just in case I got myself into any awkward situations. Oh boy, did I ever. 

Cali and Sumo in lead
Cali is our new leader and at 3 years old she is just beginning to tap her potential. She shows a lot of promise, but generally we run our young leaders with a more experienced leader to show them the ropes. I had her running with Sumo, one of our Alaskan huskies, who tends to be a little… innovative... when it comes to taking directions on the trail. We approach our turn-around at the end of the loop and prepare to run up to the front of the string in case I need to deal with any ‘funny business’.  Sumo takes the corner nice and wide and the whole team completes the manoeuvre with a 10.0 score. Perfect - couldn’t be more proud of them...  I’m happy (and relieved!) with the result and of course I make a big deal out of this and the team is inundated with praise and affection before continuing our merry way down the trail. By this point we have been on the trail almost 2 hours and of course… well... nature calls. I call a “WHOA!” and stop the team – it’s a good chance for them to take a break for a few minutes and allow me to do what I need to do, and I have Dean there to keep an eye on them for me. No dramas. I choose my tree and make my way down the bank to assume the position. Just at that point, I hear Dean call out, and he’s saying something along the lines of, “Uh oh… uh oh!” I look up, and I see my team completing a perfect 180-degree turn in double file, led by Sumo with Cali trotting alongside because she simply doesn’t know any better. Not one disagreement, not one tangle – just my team lined out on the trail silently waiting for me to get up there and drive them forward… EXCEPT THEY’RE FACING IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION. Honestly, I could not replicate a more perfect about-face even if I tried, and I would never even DREAM of turning my 18 dog team around on such a narrow section of the trail unless I absolutely had to. I am still replaying this scene in my mind and shaking my head in disbelief. 
Heading out with 18

Now that my team has turned around perfectly, of course there’s no way I’m going to be able to replicate this again without any issues. Driving the ATV around is the easy part, and fortunately there is a clearing not too far down the road where I can improvise my own trail and get them back on the road, facing in the correct direction. With some creative driving and just a little ‘encouragement’ from myself and Dean, I get the team back on the road, facing in the correct direction, without any terrible snafus. 
Now, on top of all this… I still need to pee. So I march right to the front of the team, drop my pants and assume the position while staring my leaders right in the eyes. “You guys aren’t going ANYWHERE!”
Of course right at that moment a truck full of hunters comes around the bend…

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

G’day, everybody!
First-allow me to introduce myself… my name is Ashlin and I am a true-blue Aussie musher! Yep, all the way from Down Under. This is my second season of mushing/handling and I am absolutely thrilled to be involved in Quinault’s Run for the Red Lantern. Even though I spent all of last season training at a racing Siberian husky kennel in Minnesota, malamutes have always had a special place in my heart (and my home!) and I simply cannot wait to show the world how amazing these dogs really are. 

I met Twila last February at Race to the Sky held right here in Montana. I was handling for my musher for the 350 mile race and had heard rumours that there would be a working malamute team also competing. Of course I had to check this out for myself and went investigating; sure enough I found them. I mean, they’re malamutes – they’re a bit hard to miss! I really had to struggle to talk to Twila though – I had to fight my way through the masses of people who had come to pet and play with the dogs. I can’t exactly blame them though; puppy Gracie, Ozzy and Alanis were absolutely irresistible. In the end I think Twila found me, contentedly playing with the dogs amongst all the chaos. We didn’t get a lot of time to talk – preparing for a race is a stressful time for both mushers and handlers, and I didn’t want to neglect my duties for too long. Fortunately I ran into Twila again at the local bar and grill (where else!) and we hit it off almost instantly. Races are a lot of fun in that way; they give you a chance to meet new dog people and talk about dog people things. At a dog sled race almost everybody there is “the crazy person with all the dogs”, so we’re all on an even footing!

Anyway, at that point Twila invited me out to her kennel in Garrison, MT at the end of the season to attend Malapalooza. I had no idea what a ‘Malapalooza’ was (“Is that some weird American thing?”) but when she put it to me as a whole bunch of malamute people getting together to camp, run trails and train together, why WOULDN’T I go! So I made plans to road-trip out to Montana at the end of the season for Malapalooza, and of course had an absolute blast, met some amazing people and gathered an invaluable array of information. I had intended on spending two weeks out there… a month passed and I was totally disinclined to leave. Twila and I had become very good friends by that point and when she offered me a position at Quinault for the following season, I did not hesitate to snatch it up.
Me with Cass and Slayer at Malapalooza
Thus began my frenzy of returning home, finding a job so I could earn enough money to get me back to the USA, and fast-tracking my visa application to allow myself to get back to Montana ASAP. 3 months and 42 hours of planes and airports later, I made it back and nothing was going to stop me from hitting the trail – not even jet lag! 
I have been here 2 weeks now, and it’s been on the go since then. We have had our first ‘Learn to Mush’ camp for the season and I believe it was a huge success. It really is satisfying being able to help people understand and grasp the fundamentals of running their dogs – we were all in that position at some point and I know I would have LOVED to take advantage of the wisdom and invaluable experience of someone like Twila if I had the opportunity to do so. We have steadily been putting miles on our teams (weather cooperating) and focusing on our individual ‘one-on-one’ training sessions (weather not cooperating). The next few weeks are going to be very exciting with the arrival of the Eve x Boss litter due in the last week of October, our second Learn to Mush camp in early November followed by our Fall edition of Malapalooza, which I know will be equally as fun (if not more) than our previous one. We also have a few other exciting plans in the works to be revealed once the details have been ironed out.
Working with a leader prospect at my first Learn To Mush Camp
In the meantime, we have a lot of preparation to do before winter hits us. Twila insists that we are not ready for snow, but personally I can’t wait to get back on the runners of a sled! We are gearing up to do some tours in the Kalispell area, something I haven’t yet had a lot of experience with, but will be an invaluable (and essential!) opportunity to nurture our Run 4 the Red savings fund. Not only that, but it’s always fun to meet and talk with new people and have the chance to show off our beautiful Alaskan malamutes.
Running the main string!

I would love to hear some feedback from you, our loyal supporters! If you have any questions, please forward them on to me and I shall endeavour to address them in my next blog… I’ll be stuck for a topic otherwise!