Friday, January 29, 2010

This should be the year of the dog

Hope this finds everyone happy, healthy and enjoying the new year. Growing up, the New Year’s tradition for my family was to have a "special" dinner together and go around the table having everyone share their New Year’s resolution. Black eyed peas were always involved in the meal of course, for good luck. This New Years played out a little bit different. No resolutions were shared and no black eyed peas were eaten. Regardless of the tradition, I came up a resolution anyway this weekend (sometime in Jan 2008) and just had to share.

It is the New Year again, 2010 has come at lighting speed. This year it was spent in Swakopmund, Namibia. Realizing I haven’t been writing much in the past year, I wanted to pull up some stories that I had written to my family over the past couple of years to post on my blog and to inspire me again. Alaska, my time and experiences there are something I think about on a daily basis. Here is one experience that left a big impression.

As a dog handler it is part of my job to train the puppies and the young dogs (yearlings) so that they learn what they should and should not do and how to run with a team. Of course, the puppies and the yearlings get trained differently but the goal that is always in mind is to make them into the almighty RACE DOG. That means putting a lot of miles on the yearlings so they are physically and mentally capable of being trained in a couple of years to go a thousand miles in two weeks. This past weekend the yearlings and I had a fantastic training session. We went on a hundred mile camping trip with the race dogs down the Denali Hwy to the Susitna river and back. In essence this was like taking a Cub Scout troop full of 10 year olds on a hike across the Grand Canyon. The first 50 miles were fantastic. My leaders were two out of shape old women and my team was the craziest bunch of lunatics we have in our yard. The 8 of us blazed down the Denali hwy at a whopping 6 miles an hour, getting us there well after the other 3 teams (even though we were second to leave). It was a nice leisurely run with a beautiful light show from the aura borealis along the way.

After taking care of my dogs and me camp shut down at 3am so we could all get some sleep. With only two cots in the tent we were at I opted to take my sleeping bag outside, throw some straw down next to my sled and get some shut eye. Sleep was intermittent with the cold toes and cold head I kept getting. Some 3 hours or 30 minutes later, hard to say when you get very little sleep, Ramy walked by which I assumed meant it was time to get up and water the dogs. Jumping up in a rush, I headed to the tent to find the fire had died and a melody resounding from the chorus of snorers. I fiddled with the fire to get it going again and hung around in the warmth to get feeling back in my toes and fingers. Some 30 minutes or 3 hours later the announcement was made that it was time to water the dogs and get underway. I made my way back to my sled to find that my dogs were in a tangled mess beside my sled and on my sleeping bag, digging through my sled bag looking for food. They ripped a huge hole in the sled bag to get a bag of fish out, the lid off of my dry kibble bucket and my measuring cup for scooping kibble out. The damage was not too substantial, the bag could be sewed and measuring cups aren’t too expensive, it was just very annoying. This was the start to the longest day of my life.

Funny, here in Zambia I have had some long days that would rival this one and some others that I had in Alaska. The long, hellish days in Zambia are usually due to transport difficulties. The same could be said in Alaska for the long days, its just that my transport there was much different. Sled, 4-wheelers, snow machines, and skiffs led to some frustrations for various reasons. Here in Zambia it is canter trucks getting stuck in the mud or breaking down, buses not leaving when the conductor says they are going to and just waiting for hours in general to get anywhere. I am starting to see a pattern with my life.

An hour later, they were fed, untangled and I was on the runners and we were underway. Having the slowest team I ended up taking one of the gimpy race dogs so that he could go slow and hopefully not re-injure his shoulder. I was up to 8 dogs now; 2 old ladies, 1 injured teenager, and 5 hyperactive children. We were making headway until 25 miles out and all hell broke lose. Again I was the last team, bringing up the rear. Abby, Ramy and Cathy’s eldest daughter had stopped for some reason and was almost in tears by the time I got to her. She was cold and tired. This run was pushing her limits just as much as it was the dogs and mine. We bundled her up some more and got underway again. After what seemed like only a few minutes I caught her again, this time her leader quit on her, she just didn't want to pass another team again. Having a mentally-fried lead dog is just as bad as having a mentally-fried musher and the two usually go hand in hand. With a little pep talk and a commanding voice I finally got Abby’s leader underway again, but her leader just kept quitting, Abby was tired and miserable and I was starting to get there as well. After Abby and I had been out there for 5 hours snow machine support showed up, the race dogs were already back. Upon seeing that the driver could be of no help and with mounting concern that he was going to run out of gas, I sent him back to base just to let them know we were still 25 miles out and would be a little while.

Our dogs were physically and emotionally spent, both teams kept stopping on us. Not knowing what else to do and getting frustrated with the situation Abby and I switched leaders to see if she could control mine better. Coaster became my lead dog after the switch, she must of not been happy with the situation because she just would not budge for me. It took me a good hour and a half to go a 1/4 of a mile. I pulled my team up the hills, and down them. The gimpy dog started limping again, it was so bad that made me want to cry. Unfortunately I couldn’t put him in the sled because my dogs couldn’t carry that extra weight when they were barely moving themselves. I snacked them 3 times hoping a little food would get them excited enough to keep running. By this time I was truly spent, I had been through the full spectrum of emotions. I had taken off my heavy coat because I was over heating, I had to pull out the headlamp again (which I thought I wouldn't need again until the following day). I was nice, I was mean and everywhere in between. Finally on the verge of a mental break down and with 16 miles left to go and preparing for another 3 hours on the trail a light appeared before me. Faint at first then brighter then it circled around and stopped. It was pointing away from me and then there were flashes. It was signaling me. Oh my god there is a god. Well close enough anyway; it was Ramy on the snow machine making sure that I was at least moving. He had just picked up Abby 14 miles in and since she hadn't seen me for an hour and a half the search team was launched. By this point I was near tears. But now I only had 2 more miles to go, not 16. I cried, I laughed and it was all over. Needless to say we didn't make it the 100miles we set out to, but we came damn close. Sometimes close is good enough.

What is my resolution you ask. Patience. Patience for intense situations for crazy dogs and for life.

Funny thing about re-reading this e-mail, my new year’s resolution this year was the same. Patience. Patience with amaguys, conductors and drivers. Transport is a generally stressful situation, regardless of what type of transport it is. It appears to be high time to take this New Year’s resolution seriously. No matter how frustrating some situations become it is ultimately out of my control and I just need to let it go.

Happy and Healthy New Year. I miss every single one of you and think of you often.

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