Today’s pictures are kindly provided by JR Becko. It was a perfect day for mushing: Sunny, blue skies after a clear, cold night.
It is 6:30 o’clock in the morning. I don’t even need an alarm any more. Every day for the last 3 months we would get up the same time. A brief look out the window: A starry sky means long underwear, fresh snow on the ground calls for snow pants, horizontally flying ice pellets will be met by goggles and a face mask. Though before we leave the house a quick breakfast is in order. Nothing fancy, hot chocolate, bread and jam, sometimes an egg, yogurt, or fruit for variety.
Rubber boots, insulated pants, a long down jacket, mittens, goggles, face mask, hat?
Leatherman, knife, lighter?
And don’t forget the sunblock!
Walking uphill to the kennel we are sometimes greeted by a howling wind out of the west. A few times we walked in a foot of fresh pow, more recently it is more like a dicey mix of rocks and ice… During the longest nights of winter it is pitch dark. Walking by the kennel we are greeted by some sentinel dogs, pacing outside their house, in any weather. The rest is asleep, staying out of the wind.
It is now 7 o’clock. Time to take care of the dogs. Feed, scoop, harness and hook-up. Every musher has their own routine. I walk straight to the barn, grab an empty poop bucket and a shovel. While scooping some dogs greet me with wagging tails, other stay in their houses, watching me barely with one eye open…
Then, when I come with the food bucket all hell brakes loose. Johnny Cash is the first one to spot me coming out of the feed room. A scoop or two for every dog. It’s all gone in about a minute. Some of my pooches don’t eat out of the metal can, some don’t like to eat in the morning, period.
Then there are some general chores mostly related to cleaning the feed room.
Around 9 o’clock our guest arrive. They get an introduction into the history of dog mushing and the story behind our kennel. Once they are dressed appropriately we greet and meet the dogs impatiently waiting for us. As soon as they see me arrive with guest in tow they start a storm: barking, jumping, and jerking on the gang line. Let’s go!
We tuck some guest into our sleds, some will ride with a musher on the runners. As soon as I pull the snub line it all becomes quiet. My dogs put their head down and accelerate from 0 to 100 in a fraction of a second, if I let them.
A 10 mile ride to the hot spring is ahead of us. The trail conditions are different every day. I bring different dogs every day. Except Clumber, my lead dog is almost there every day. Without him my life would be much more difficult. He always takes the right turns, keeps my team straight and is always happy to run. It takes us about 1.5 hours to travel 10 miles, with photo stops and little breathers.
Once we arrive at the hot spring our guest go swimming for about an hour, then come back, have lunch. In the meantime the dogs rest. After lunch we head back to the kennel, mostly downhill. Going home the dogs run a bit faster. After returning to the kennel we say good-bye to our guest, and return the dogs to their houses.
Another round of feeding, storing the sleds, some general chores and that was it, unless there is something to repair for the next day. Another 12 hour day comes to an end.
Today we celebrate the birthday of Ernest Shackelton, who was one of the heroic polar explorers. His expeditions may not have reached their ultimate goals, but he deserves our respect and admiration for unfaltering endurance and fine leadership under the most extreme conditions on Earth.
A friend of mine told me the story of Shackelton’s Nimrod expedition to the South Pole. It was the year of 1907, when Shackelton sailed from England to New Zealand and the Ross Sea. The plan was to drop 3 crews on Hut Point Peninsula. The ship would then sail back to New Zealand, to avoid getting trapped in the ice, and return one year later to pick up the explorers. All three groups had different missions and modes of transportation. Shackelton’s team was planning on using Siberian ponies to reach the geographic South Pole. Under the most adverse conditions they reached a point where they had to turn back, because of exhaustion, starvation, and frost bite. They came within 97 miles of the pole. They lost all of the ponies on their way, becoming life saving food sources.
Even with the occasional pony carcass on the way back the four men in Shackelton’s party lived for more than 14 days off tea, cocoa and a little pony maize. The agreed upon pick-up day was February 26.
“On February 27 Shackleton decided to leave Marshall and Adams behind while he and Wild took off for Hut Point.
When they arrived, they found a letter telling them that the Nimrod had picked up the magnetic pole party and would shelter near the glacier tongue until February 26. It was now February 28. After a bad night, they burned the magnetic hut and shortly thereafter the Nimrod appeared. By 11 am they were on board and three hours later Shackleton led a rescue party for Marshall and Adams. At 1 am on March 4, all were safe on board the Nimrod; they had walked 1700 miles.” [http://www.south-pole.com]
Imagine, they burned the hut, the only shelter they had, in a last ditch effort to send a smoke signal to the ship that was possibly already several days away!
This is just a glimpse in the courage and will of Sir Ernest Shackelton. He documented his adventures (in an understated British tone) in several books most notably “South: The Endurance Expedition to Antarctica”.
Let me finish with a Shackelton quote:
” We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
You are a hero.
“I don’t know where I am going,
but I am on my way.”
Good advice from a brilliant mind. To the point, with a few choice words. Even I can remember that message.
I am at the halfway point with my sojourn as a dog musher. Is it time to look for the next gig already? Where will it lead me? Who will I meet? Not to worry. Life has a plan for me and it will fall into place when the time comes.
There was a time in my life, where everything was “planned”. It was constant hard work, worries, and sweat. An ordinary life.
Then I realized it does not have to be that way. Aspirations and goals are good. Curve balls and forks in the road are parts of life, when taken lightly, they can lead to an extraordinary life.
I have now 2 months and 400 miles of dog sledding under my non-existing belt. Does that make me a musher? I don’t think so.
Every day is a new day with challenges and surprises. My main lead dog Clumber has been loosing weight and I needed to give him a break to see what’s bothering him. That meant other dogs had to fill in the key position as lead. None of my other dogs have the same leader qualities and attitude as Clumber, unfortunately.
I realized there are two qualities that make a great leader. First, never turn the team around. A wandering or turning lead dog can cause tangled gang lines resulting in injury, dog fights and a confused and insecure team. Today I had to deal with this issues several times and it was not easy to overcome. At one point I was sitting in a pile of tangled dogs, in the midst of one tail-biting snapper, and a bunch of scared pups. Not a pretty sight. In the end we made it and everybody had a good day, realizing that dogs and mushers are not machines but living creatures.
The second quality in a lead dog like Clumber that I appreciate very much is his confidence and trust in me. This trust goes both ways. When I say „Gee“ or „Haw“ he reacts to that command immediately. He will turn, even there is no trail. He will turn, even we have gone 99 times straight before. I hope Clumber is back leading my team, soon.
Running 20 miles every day for 21 days, a few nights with temperatures below -30F has changed the attitude and motivation of some dogs. I am beginning to „see“ their daily mood when I enter the yard with the harnesses. Most dogs are still happy to see me, a few of them prefer to stay inside their houses until I convince them to come out and run with me.
Learning the broad strokes of running a healthy, motivated dog team was easy. Dealing with fatigue, injury, and motivation is a bit more challenging, but hey, that’s what I signed up for.
Gee, haw, never let go.
November 1, I arrived in Jackson, Wyoming with the prospect to become a musher.
What did I know about mushing? Not much…
Last year I saw 30 or so mushers with their dogs on the Iditarod, probably the toughest sled dog race on Earth. I saw them arrive early in the morning, before sunrise, during the day, and in the middle of the night. Calm, hurt, tired, elated, you name it.
I saw them cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a frozen lake for the dogs. The team always comes first. Then they dipped their frozen food into the same pot of boiling water to eat last.
I saw some beaten teams arrive hours and days later. Mushers with concussions, hurt dogs…
Never did it occur to me that I wanted to become a musher, although gliding through a winter wonderland propelled by a group of sled dogs looked appealing.
Sometime in October this year I contemplated what to do this winter. I thought about spending the winter on a warm island.
That did not happen, for whatever reason. Karma? Life is a strange sequence of events, leading us to places that we not even dream of.
I replied to an ad on Coolworks to spend the winter in Wyoming as a dog musher. I had visited Wyoming only a few times before, never enough time to climb in the Tetons, or to make it to Yellowstone. Then, I remember a beautiful climbing trip in the Wind River range. All the more reason to go. Although I had the worst cell connecction during my phone interview I landed a job offer to be a musher leading visitors on day trips into the backcountry of Teton County.
What an experience it has been so far. I was very intimidated in the beginning by the howling, barking, jumping and jerking of these sled dogs. They seem so fragile and small on one hand, but they are powerful and energetic on the other hand. And they have personalities you would not believe it. Pulling a sled is their life purpose. That’s what they are bred for, it’s in their blood. Once they see a sled and some dogs getting hooked up to the gang line they are going „ballistic“. „Take me! Take me!“ they seem to bark all at the same time.
Yesterday was my first ride on a sled pulled by a strong bunch of well behaved Alaskan huskies. They are my new friends.
After preparing sleds, gang lines, and dog houses for 2 weeks, after feeding my hungry and thirsty friends every day, and many other chores I was ready for the inaugural ride. It has been cold for a while now, one major snow storm dumped the first foot of snow, which was then blown around by blustery winds. The trail conditions were wild. Anything from windblown to deep powder and blank rock. My friends worked marvelously. Maybe we rode only 5 miles but that was pure bliss. Yes, I dumped my fellow musher out of the sled once, and I had to run a bit uphill, but it was worth the experience.
After the first run, I got to be the passenger in the sled. Another thrill. Being so low to the ground all seems so much faster. You see these small, strong creatures running gracefully and power, following the trail… Simply amazing.
Looking forward to the next snow storm, more runs, crispy mornings, sunny days, starry nights and all that.
It is 5 AM in Kingman, AZ. The dust has settled, literally. Last night the weather service issued a sand storm warning, discouraging all driving. A brown wall of desert sand was looming over Kingman, several hundred feet high. Visibility was low. This was my first sand storm. It must have been a baby storm that barely touched us. Somewhere out there it may have been outright gritty…
We also had our farewell dinner with our fellow travelers. A long drive to Los Angeles is all that is left. We had an all-American diner experience with Chicken-fried steak and gravy, molted chocolate cake and such. I am starving for some decent home-cooked meals. Anybody?
After Zion and Bryce, we visited Canyonlands, Arches, Monument Valley, Betatakin, and finally the Grand Canyon. The Southwest in 17 days…
A few hick ups here and there, a lot of broken gear, and many great sites. Every day there were amazing moments, even for the seasoned desert rat, mountain goat, or city slicker.
Little time for us, the tour guides, to take pictures, or take a breath. No time to reflect. That has to wait.
My van has been decorated on the outside with dry marker, showing all the places we have seen on this trip. I will take a picture before going to the car wash 🙂
“Three or four years ago I came to the conclusion that for me, at least, the lone trail was the best, and the years that have followed strengthened my belief.
It is not that I am unable to enjoy companionship or unable to adapt myself to other people. But I dislike to bring into play the aggressiveness of spirit which is necessary with an assertive companion, and I have found it easier and more adventurous to face situations alone. There is a splendid freedom in solitude, and after all, it is for solitude that I go to the mountains and deserts, not for companionship. In solitude I can bare my soul to the mountains unabashed. I can work or think, act or recline at my whim, and nothing stands between me and the Wild.”Everett Ruess