Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sled Talk With Allen

With Bridgett -- Allen's daughter -- and her husband Scotty coming down from Nome for the Thanksgiving weekend, Aliy and Allen decided to take advantage of their combined mushing abilities to head out on the first long -- over 100 miles -- two day training run of the season. Running four teams of ten dogs each would mean that almost all of the "main" dogs would get a really good workout.

In preparation, Allen spent some time in the kennel shop, making sure that four sleds were "good to go." I've been trying to get Allen on video, so I decided to put him on the spot and ask him "Watcha doin'?" with the camera running.

The result is this little video of Allen talking about sled maintenance -- plus a few other general observations -- and sharing his knowledge and wit on camera for the first time:

(Note: If you'd like to see more videos of Allen, please leave a comment and let him know. He thinks people only want to see Aliy because, as he puts it, "She's the pretty one!")

Friday, November 28, 2008

After Breakfast

Aliy and I had just finished feeding the dogs their breakfast, when she started talking about how she looks at the dogs every day and evaluates their condition. I said "Hold that thought..." and got out my camera.

So, here's another brief "behind the scenes" glimpse of kennel life... Plus a little bonus footage of a few of the puppies here at SP Kennel. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Left Behind!

With more than 60 dogs at the kennel, it is physically impossible for Allen and Aliy to run all of them at the same time. This means that some of them get left behind. Now, I don't pretend to really know "the mind of the dog" but it seems to me that those who are left behind are pretty bummed about it... Some especially so.

I shot this video of what it's like at the kennel "after the bosses are gone" and thought I'd post it to share a little "behind the scenes" action. I think those of you who are fans of Heeler -- "Mr. Personality" -- will find it especially entertaining, and I hope the rest of you enjoy it as well!

(Note: Aliy said the only thing she doesn't like about the video is that it shows what the kennel is like before it has been cleaned. I've assured her that everyone will understand, especially since I ended by saying "it's time to clean the dog yard!" If you'd like a real look "behind the scenes", I'd be happy to share that little bit of fun with you some day!)

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Meet The Dogs: Biscuit

A Professional Dog

After posting the video showing the chaos of dealing with yearlings, I thought it might be useful to offer a little contrast by showing how "a professional dog" does it. So, I grabbed this clip of Teddy -- a true professional! -- getting her harness on and lining out. I think you'll see quite a contrast, and understand a little better why Aliy says "You need to have lots of patience with the yearlings." Enjoy!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Macgellan Is Here!

I'm sure you've noticed the new videos we've posted on the blog over the last few days, and you may have wondered "What's up with that?"

Well, Macgellan -- one of our kennel sponsors -- emailed me last summer to say that he had completed his latest expedition (a 658 day circumnavigation of the surface of the earth!) and was planning his next: To spend the winter exploring Alaska and the world of sled dogs.

He asked if he could start out by spending some time at the kennel and I told him that if he was sure he wanted to be in the interior of Alaska at the coldest, darkest time of year he was more than welcome.

So, he arrived last weekend and has gotten right into the swing of things. Partly he is helping out with kennel chores like feeding, hooking up teams, doing errands in town and the endless process of cleaning the dog yard! Everything he does around here helps us have more time to do what we need to do most: Train dogs!

He is also helping out with our "technology issues" like installing wireless internet in the kennel, adding videos to the blog, etc. We are especially excited about this because it will enable us to bring you much more -- and better -- coverage of the dogs, our training and, very soon, the racing season.

We are happy that Macgellan is here and we look forward to having his ongoing help. We hope that you are too!



When we say 'C O L D', we mean it!

December and January are known as the cold, dark months. Periodically, high-pressure systems flow east from Siberia and stall here in Interior Alaska. The barometer readings are stubbornly high. These systems won’t budge without a hearty low-pressure system to shoulder them aside. Therefore, we will experience "cold snaps" that last for 4 or 5 days. These snaps bring extreme cold temperatures: 40, 50 even 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Luckily the Alaskan Husky is a superb cold weather animal. While training and racing in such extreme temperatures they exert a tremendous amount of energy and burn a huge number of calories (up to 12000 each day during a long distance race). When training at these temperatures, our dogs eat 2 large meals and numerous snacks daily. During races we feed them large meals at every checkpoint. On the race trail we frequently give them high fat snacks, such as beaver, poultry fat and turkey skins.

Dogs do not sweat like humans. Therefore, even in very cold temperatures you will see our dogs panting in order to cool their internal furnaces. Their only sweat glands are in their footpads. This is one of the reasons that we protect their feet with booties during races and longer training runs.

A musher can often estimate the temperature by looking at her dog team. As the mercury drops the dogs start to frost up from the moisture they exhale. At 20 below zero F, a layer of frost coats their shoulders and sides. At 30 below, the frost accumulates on their muzzles and chins. When it is bitter cold, 40 or 50 below, a musher must stop and clean icicles from the dogs’ whiskers and eyelashes. When the team stops for a face cleaning or a snack, "ice fog" will envelop them as the moisture from their panting vaporizes and freezes.

"Another day in Paradise", says a bearded Blossom.

Mushers, by contrast, are not superb cold weather animals. Humans also exert tremendous amounts of energy during sled dog races. We muscle the sled along the trail, run up hills, clamor down embankments and hustle around in checkpoints, caring for our dogs and ourselves. Unlike our dogs, we sweat profusely. For this reason, it is critical for us to stay nourished and hydrated throughout the race. Dehydration from perspiration can quickly put an end to a musher’s race. Allen has designed an insulated bottle for our sleds that gives us easy access to water. We also hydrate continuously before each race and at every checkpoint. It is imperative that a musher wears quality clothing that wicks perspiration away from the skin. If perspiration is allowed to remain in contact with the skin immediate frostbite can occur at these extreme temperatures.

A musher can also estimate temperatures by scanning their own body and clothing. At 20 below, a musher might start to feel their clothes tighten. This is because any perspiration that exists in the outer layers has frozen and the ice constricts the fabric. At 30 degrees below zero F, a musher’s breath begins to frost heavily. Neck gaiters freeze. (We have learned to position the gaiters above our noses before they freeze solid!) Men’s mustaches and beards build up impressive icicles, if not covered by a mask or gaiter. When it reaches 40 or 50 degrees below zero F, we must worry about our eyelashes freezing together. One technique to avoid this is to periodically blow air upwards. This warm exhale will get trapped in the sub environment of the hooded ruff and defrost your lashes.

"Can there be Paradise at 30 below?" asks Aliy

"I think so!", replies Allen

Yes, our extreme arctic environment presents us with challenges. It requires us to prepare properly and to stay vigilant. We must always be in tune with our dogs, with ourselves and with our environment, especially during the cold, dark months. Years spent outdoors in Interior Alaska, experiencing December and January first hand, have provided us with a firm understanding of these conditions. We practice and prepare and always strive to improve our extreme weather techniques. Amazingly enough, the dogs are genetically programmed to thrive in these conditions........and they do!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Going Training

It's minus 25 degrees outside this morning, so winter is here!  No matter what the temperature, training is a full time job at the kennel. Here's a video that shows you a little bit about what it's like when we are going training!  Enjoy!

Did you enjoy this video?  Is there something special you'd like to see?
Leave a comment using the link below and let us know!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Harness Systems

Racing Harnesses versus Hauling Harnesses

The dogs of SP Kennel are the reasons that we can travel thousands of miles across this vast arctic wilderness. They are the motor, the engine, the power train, …. the sole reason that we move. What enables these dogs to efficiently and comfortably pull a sled, loaded with winter gear and people, is an appropriate harness. In general, there are two harness systems that work well for us.

Why two different harness systems? The fact is that ‘racing with sled dogs’ and ‘hauling with sled dogs’ are two completely different mushing disciplines. SP Kennel dogs do both in the course of one season and we use a different harness system for each mushing discipline. From August through November, we train for the racing season. From December through March, we race in both medium and long distance events. After racing season, during the month of April, we slow down to enjoy our North Slope Mushing Adventures. We must then haul many pounds of gear and clients by dog sled through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where motorized vehicles are prohibited.

When racing, our goal is to cover the longest distance in the shortest time period. Our racing sleds are constructed of lightweight materials and packed with only essential gear. The team hauls very few "pounds per dog". Consequently, the dogs can put most of their effort into running fast and very little effort into pulling the rig. For example, at the start of the Copper Basin 300, a 12-dog team would haul about 300 pounds, only 25 pounds per dog.

At SP Kennel we use the ManMat distance harness for our training and racing. The harness is a lightweight, well padded, half harness with a pulling point about half way down the dog’s back. The attachment can rotate around the dog’s torso, thus eliminating downward pressure on its hips and reducing hindquarter injuries. Each dog is attached to the gangline at only its harness pulling point. There is no neckline and therefore no collar restriction. Each dog can choose its own path to avoid trail hazards both big and small. The system is very "dog friendly", allowing each dog to put most of its energy into running. In our experience, the team runs faster and longer, with fewer injuries. But because of this increased freedom (the ability to circle, sit or even stop) dogs must be well trained to line out and wait for commands while in harness.

Stormy and Heeler show off their ManMat harnesses.

During our the North Slope Mushing Adventures, our goal is to haul food, arctic camping gear and our clients 20 to 40 miles daily, to or from a base camp. We are generally not in a hurry. We use larger toboggan sleds for maximum capacity and frequently tow one or more additional sleds. These sled rigs carry many "pounds per dog". A 12-dog team might be hauling over 1,000 pounds or about 83 pounds per dog.

Three sleds of Student Mushers pulled by one team in traditional harnesses.

Our preferred hauling harness is a traditional X-back, full-length model. The pulling point is at the dog’s hind end, just above the base of the tail. Therefore, the dog will use its entire body to push into the harness and gain momentum. Since the dog is attached to the gangline at both the rear pulling point by a tugline and at the collar with a neckline, this system is definitely more confining. The dog has no option but to follow the steps of the dog in front of it. This keeps the team very straight and organized. In our opinion, this system enhances team strength to haul those heavier loads. It has the added advantage of team cohesiveness, when the dogs are hearing commands from different student mushers, a common occurrence during our Dog Mushing Adventures.

Teddy models a traditional X-back harness.

There are many other sled dog harness systems available. Some are designed for extreme hauling, some for sprint racing, some for skijoring. New ideas are always in the development stages. So far, the two systems mentioned above are our favorites. But, if you see any new and interesting concepts during your own research into harnesses, let us know. We are always open to new ideas.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Special Kind of Sponsor

SP Kennel is a successful business as well as our passion. In order to adequately train and appropriately care for our canine athletes and ourselves, both of us make the kennel a full time occupation during the winter months. Neither Aliy nor Allen works any outside jobs from November through March. The kennel is our sole focus. Donations from our kennel Sponsors and our summer income enable SP Kennel to operate successfully all winter long.

Our Sponsorship base has been incredibly supportive for many years. They are folks who truly care about racing dogs, the sport of dog mushing and SP Kennel. We are grateful for our Sponsors’ continuing involvement and enthusiasm, especially in these tough financial times. Sponsor support comes in many ways.

One of SP Kennel’s critical forms of Sponsorship is the "In Kind" Sponsor. These sponsors traditionally supply a product or a service to the Kennel, as opposed to a direct monetary donation. Some of our "In Kind" Sponsors supply products that need to be field-tested. We use the products throughout the season and report on the product effectiveness. Other "In Kind" Sponsors provide products or services necessary for the operation of our kennel. These sponsors ask only that we run a professional and honest business and acknowledge their donation.

SP Kennel thanks the following "In Kind" Sponsors for their support and enthusiasm:

Pleasant Valley Store, our local Two Rivers "Mom and Pop" general store has given us an "In Kind" fuel sponsorship. Our dog trucks will log over 5,000 miles traveling around Alaska to various sled dog races. Since ‘all trails lead to Pleasant Valley Store’, it’s always a convenient stop! Thanks, Pleasant Valley Store, for being such a great champion of the sport of mushing in our community.

Nor’West Company, a network of web sites relating to Interior Alaska, hosts our SP Kennel web site. Our thanks to Swanny, Nor’West Company’s proprietor, who is always available to answer detailed, technical web questions and to make suggestions. Check out the new and improved web site by clicking on the link above.

Jim Harrison from Northern Outfitters visited SP Kennel in October. At that time, he fit both Allen and Aliy for new, extreme temperature performance wear. Northern Outfitters’ Vaetrex clothing is recognized as the most efficient insulation material currently available. Allen has successfully used this product for several years. Aliy will also be using this clothing system during this racing season.

Sporthill Clothing has provided Aliy and Allen with winter performance clothing for many years. Sporthill gear suits the range of Alaska temperatures and is both stylish and durable.

Hawthorn Suites, in downtown Anchorage, will again be providing rooms for SP Kennel for several days prior to the Iditarod Start. Our entire "Pit Crew" stays in beautiful, comfy suites and the SP Kennel dogs are given a special and secure roped off area of the Hawthorn Suites parking lot. Having a cozy place to stay prior to 1,000 miles of wilderness is critical to our success.

Dr. Jean Battig performs pre race physical exams on SP Kennel racers.

Dr. Jean Battig, of Chena Ridge Veterinary Clinic in Fairbanks, has been our dear friend and kennel veterinarian for years. She has been instrumental in keeping our canine athletes healthy through training and racing. She is always there for advice and suggestions. Jean has traveled to Nome to greet the team as it crossed the finish line. She has been our partner during times of great success and times of great sadness. She is truly a member of the family. Thanks, Jean.

Our largest "In Kind" Sponsor is Eagle Holistic Natural Pet Foods. Our dogs have achieved tremendous success while eating Eagle Pack foods for over 10 years. This season the company has created a new formula for their high energy performance dog food. As an "In Kind" Sponsor, Eagle Pack sent us a ton of this new dog kibble. We have chosen 15 dogs, of different ages and metabolisms, to field-test the new product. We continually update the Eagle Pack staff Veterinarian about the effects of this new food. Our comments and recommendations will help shape the final formula. We understand that the new product will be available on the market in November.

Aliy packs bags of Eagle Holistic Dog Food into Iditarod drop bags.

We are so grateful to all our Sponsors. We couldn’t successfully operate our business (our passion!) without both our monetary and In Kind Sponsors. But we also would be much poorer without the sponsors who give their physical labor, the sponsors that give valued advice and wisdom, the sponsors who keep us in their thoughts and prayers throughout the racing season. We are all part of the SP Kennel Family.