This site is dedicated to my sled dogs, their well being and their care while we train for and run the 2007 Yukon Quest 300 dog sled race. Particularly it is dedicated to the memory of Talbot and Rocket, two of the most amazing lead dogs ever to hit the trail, now gone to better trails.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

As the winter season draws to a close, I am finding a strong need to get some more training miles on last years puppies. They have had a few sporadic runs over the winter, but with training for the Quest 300 being the main goal, there has been little time for the yearlings.

Opinions vary from musher to musher on when the appropriate time to start training puppies is. Some say not before one year old at all, some say start lightly at 6 months etc etc. My routine has typically been to have them pulling a log or other object around by about 6 months to get the idea of what a harness and load feel like, but not much beyond that. There are a few key things I try to keep in mind:

1: Puppies, like humans, are all individual and will develop at different rates. Fiona and Casper are a good example. Casper seemed to take to the harness at one year old as if he had been born with it on and did not ever let his line go slack, providing I did not ask him to do something beyond his physical capabilities. His sibling Fiona, on the other hand, would pull like crazy for the first 4-5 miles and then have her head up, tail up and a slack line. Gut feeling told me that for some reason, Fiona was not mentally ready to do what I was asking. I decided to leave her out of the team for a while, only occasionally trying her, till one day, she decided that being a sled dog was actually something she wanted to do. This decision took two full seasons for her to make. She now is one of the hardest working dogs on the team. I believe that by not trying to run her till she was ready, I retained her trust and did not frustrate her or myself. I also believe that it did not give her the same oppurtunity to develop bad habits, which are much harder to correct than to prevent in the first place.

2: Keeping in mind that it is work, I do everything to make pulling a sled as fun and enjoyable as possible for the pups. I occasionally stop the team when all is going well to give them all a pat and some congratulations that they are doing a good job. In this way, I hope they get the message that when all goes well there is a positive reward in store. Part of this aspect is to be sure that they are not asked to run beyond their ability both physically and mentally. I have found that puppies have various attention spans for doing this kind of work, from very short to seemingly endless. Matching teams by attention span and attitude seems an elusive art at times. I also have to continually remind myself that they have good days and bad days too and not get too worried when a dog that normally pulls well seems off.

3: Keeping my expectations within reason is one of the hardest things for me to do. We all want a "race ready team" the first time they have a harness on, reality is quite different! Dogs seem to learn from each other, continuous (consistent) repetition, and positive reinforcement. Firm immediate correction of problems is probably one of the hardest aspects of puppy training to master. I do not advocate physical punishment when training as I believe it has a negative effect on the dog. I find the biggest thing to remember in trying to tie all of these aspects together is to remain patient and calm as the dogs will pick up on my mood and respond accordingly.

4: The biggest factor in successfully training young sled dogs in my opinion is to keep my temper and frustration level at bay when things don't go well. I had one of the biggest "ahaaa's" in this regard this past winter with Sarah and Bria. Being relatively new at leading this winter, they did remarkably well, but at times tried my patience greatly. On the way home from a two stage 70 mile training run, they consistently refused to take a new left hand turn which would have lead us up a 4 mile climb and then home. Instead they kept choosing to go back to the more familiar, flatter, shorter route home along the Alaska Highway road allowance. After leading them back around the corner four times, only to get back to the sled to find they had turned back to "their" trail, I lost my temper and let them know with a raised voice that this was not acceptable while dragging them back to where I wanted them to go. It instantly occurred to me when I looked into their eyes that they were now scared and furthermore would always have a negative association with turning this way if I kept up my behaviour. I changed my tactic and encouraged them to go the way I wanted patiently and with praise when they stayed where I wanted longer and longer till finally we got under way, going home the way I wanted to.

A famous Musher, George Attla, once said " if you want to get mad, go to the bar. Don't get mad at your dogs!"

Sound advice (the latter part anyway) I believe.

More on puppy training progress later.



Bison Hunt update #4

Sorry, no photos just yet, but here are two good short web pages that give some more detailed information about the Bison herds in Alaska and Yukon.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Lots to tell, not much time...

This will be another short update while I am eating lunch. It is an amazingly bright clear spring day here in Haines Junction, no wind and at noon,-2.3c. As Heather and I discussed yesterday, these are the days that make up for the long darkness in December.

As per my previous post, the St. Elias School Group did, in the end, have a successfull bison hunt at 4:20 pm on Friday while travelling to their rendevous point on the Aisihik road. Successfull, to me, in hunting is enjoying the wilderness you are travelling in and coming home safely, it is a bonus if you have the privelege (and I firmly believe it is a privelege) to come home with the animal you set out to hunt. My guess is that many of the participants in this hunt had a good lesson in just that, "the bonus of bringing home an animal you had set out to hunt". When they broke camp on Friday morning, I would suspect that many of them were either dissapointed or had just resigned themselves to not being "successfull". Having hunted for the last 17 years, I can remember hunts that lasted 8 days without even seeing an animal that was legal to hunt and the mixed emotions I have had about coming home "skunked or empty handed". (My hunting partner put it quite succinctly one time after such a hunt when he said"That's why they call it hunting Sean"). I have since learned to remind myself of the gift I have of living in such a beautifull, majestic place and the privelege of just being able to participate in this activity. Not surprisingly, I have enjoyed hunting much more after every time I "tune myself up" with this lecture.

I was correct about some of the information in the first post, the bison were split into four groups in the 1980's to be moved to separate areas. The rationale behind this move was that if the original herd was infected with disease, there would be some "brood Stock" to replace them. The bison actually came from Elk Island National Park and their number in the Aishihik area is believed to be less than a thousand animals. The area is believed to be able to sustain 400 animals.

Reports from various group members all have differing individual accounts of how the trip went, but one important comment is constant, "the kids were a fantastic group to work with". They all worked hard, did their share of the work and participated fully in cleaning the bison once it was shot. Heather was somewhat dissapointed that she had come out by truck rather than going with the group on snowmachine when she found out that they had actually shot a bison. However, she was elated that she had been given a bison hide from another hunt which the hunter did not want. It is approximately 6 feet by 8 feet in area and by all accounts was very carefully skinned and cared for. The Conservation Officer who gave it to her was glad that it would be taken by someone who would appreciate it.

Heather found that the snowmachine riding was a tiring part of the whole trip, but from what I can tell, she did remarkably well to travel as far as she did with little prior practice. This is a characteristic of hers which I saw shortly after meeting her, namely, to accept new challenges and adapt remarkably well to totally new circumstances and lifestyle. Saying that I am proud of her accomplishments is an understatement.

The Bison meat will be divided up amongst the participants and a community feast held at the school sometime in the near future. Some will also be made into sausage for this feast. As far as I know, the students who participated will now learn the art of butchering and sausage making. My guess is that some reading this will have mixed thoughts about the value of such a program in the public school system, but in my opinion it is one of the best life skills challenges these students may ever receive. I am sure they have all learned a considerable amount about living and working in group situations which hopefully will stand them in good stead in the working world as well as just in their day to day lives.

I hope to have some pictures to post in the near future, so tune in again soon.



Friday, March 23, 2007

Successfull BisonHunt
March 23 4:40pm

I don't have much information right now, but apparently the St Elias School group got a bison this afternoon as they were travelling out to the highway. I won't know much more till later tonight when Heather gets home. Sorry I haven't had any other updates this week, but I have been down with the flu for most of the week, and have therefore not been near a computer.

Hopefully we will get some more posting done this weekend.




Tuesday, March 20, 2007

St Elias Community School Bison Hunt update #1.

Although this doesn't have anything (directly) to do with dog mushing, as the season draws to a close we are starting to move into other activities. Heather is away this week with the annual bison hunt that our community school participates in.

A bit of background on the Bison hunt.

(Note: This information is given from a discussion with a local forestry officer and is subject to the vagaries of my memory, but overall it is correct).

Bison are not an indigenous species to the Yukon, but rather were transplanted here from Wood Buffalo National Park in the 1960"s. The federal govenment at the time wanted to preserve the bison in order to get them removed from the endangered species list. In order to do this, four seperate areas were required to move bison into, that had adequate habitat for the bison. The Yukon offered to participate and a herd of bison were moved to the Aishihik Lake area and corralled for two years. The offspring from this group was then released to the wild and the herd has been growing ever since.

My understanding is that the herd is approaching 1200 in number and may be getting close to outstripping the available food source, hence the annual bison hunt. This hunt is done on a "lottery basis" whereby a hunter wishing to hunt bison enters their name in a draw and if chosen is allowed to hunt a bison from one of two areas and only at specific times of the year. If they are drawn in any given year, they are not eligible for a draw again for five years. In this manner, the government is hoping to control the population of bison and keep it at a sustainable level. It is also my understanding that the bison have not yet been removed from the endangered species list. I will be checking with a renewable rescources officer this week (once he is back from the hunt) and may update or change this information if I find out some of it is incorrect.

Students at St Elias School who participate in this program go through a training regime which has them learn various skills. Although none of the students will actually do the "hunting", they are required to take the Hunter ethics and education course that is provided by the Yukon Government. They also learn proper operation and maintenance of snow mobiles as well as a number of other outdoor related activities.

Heather, as an educational assistant was chosen to go on this trip both as an "EA" and also because she holds a wilderness first aid certificate. Being the adventurous and enthusiastic person that she is, Heather has been anticipating this trip for weeks with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The excitement part probably needs no explanation, the trepidation stems from a number of factors. She was concerned that, having only ever driven a snow mobile once, she would not be up to the task of doing a 135 kilometer trip on the first day and then various lengths of day trips for the five day duration of the hunt. When she went by my place of work yesterday morning she seemed to have things well in hand in the world of snowmobile operation from what I could see. I just talked to the school principal and was informed that they made it to their base camp safely yesterday. She was also concerned about being able to stay warm enough both during the day and at night. Gathering from the enormous duffle bag that I helped lug to the school yesterday I doubt this will be a concern at all. She has taken my new double goose down sleeping bag which should be more than adequate, especially given that they are sleeping in wall tents with wood stoves in them. She and I also invested a considerable amount of money this year in down clothing and proper winter boots which served us well during training and the Quest 300. Nonetheless, the temperature at home this morning was

-25c and was more than likely colder where they are.

I will try to post information daily as I get it from various sources. Please check back.

The black line on the map below shows approximately the route that they took yesterday to get to their base camp. I just talked to one of the parents who's son and husband are out on this trip and she had heard from them by sattelite phone last night. They had not seen any bison or tracks on the way in. A few of the snow mobiles got stuck in overflow on one of the lakes and a few people got wet getting them out. For those who do not know what overflow is, it is a layer of water below the surface of the snow that you don't know is there till you are into it. Some times when you realize you are in overflow you can get out of it by powering the snowmachine up to full throttle to get back on top of the snow, however, this is not always successfull. One of the causes of overflow is the weight of fresh snow on the lake pushing down, thus displacing water up to the surface. Usually, overflow will freeze when it gets to the surface, but this can take days depending on the temperature. Overflow can be a significant danger in that it can lead to hypothermia and frozen body parts if you become wet as a result of being in overflow.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Update on Fred and Silver Sled news.

Happily, Fred went to see Dr Rick Brown at Alpine Veterinary clinic (Fred's usual doctor and personal sponsor, Dr carolynne Fujda was away), to review his condition and try to come up with a course of treatment. Rick felt that Fred had probably not had a stroke as his vision and hearing did not seem affected and also his appetite and ability to swallow were fine. He felt that something (possibly a disc moving) had caused Fred to lose some of his coordination in his limbs. We decided against a course of testing to try to come up with conclusive results as considerable time energy and money might be spent and nothing concrete might be the outcome. More importantly, Rick felt that Fred's quality of life was still good and that provided Fred continued to show some signs of improvement and was not in any pain, he still was probably a pretty happy dog. Fred now gets prednisone every day and we see small improvements in his coordination on a regular basis. Fred is moving well enough now that when I let him off his lead to come in at night he runs for the house and doesn't stumble as much as he first did. Needless to say, Heather and I are both relieved and happy that the outcome of Fred's visit to the clinic was as positive as it is. For me this is a reminder that every day with these dogs is a remarkable gift that is not to be taken for granted.

Silver Sled.

Well what can I say about the Silver Sled??? Silver Sled is our local 100 mile race that I helped start and have remained an active player in since 1997. The 11th running of the Silver Sled was another major success in many ways. Despite the cold (-40c) Saturday morning, 17 teams turned out for the long race and 3 for the Chilli Paw (16 mile race). trail conditions were excellent and as the day wore on, the air temperature warmed up to the point that a light jacket and glove liners were adequate for me to stay warm. Unfortunately, Sindbad and Casper decided before the race to settle some sort of disagreement with their teeth as dogs are occasionally known to do. As dog fights go, it was not an exceptionally bad one, but Sindbad had to be left behind with Heather to get a few staples put in his cheek. Casper on the other hand appeared to be fine all the way to Silver City, not missing a step all the way. However, when I got there he refused to drink and just did not appear to be well at all. After much poking and prodding around, the vet technician on duty (Sandy from Alpine Veterinary services) discovered that he had a cut inside his mouth that was becoming infected. We instantly scratched and headed home to get Casper into a warm place and get some antibiotics started, which were kindly loaned to us by fellow competitor and dentist Paul Geffrion. As it turned out, Casper eneded up going to Whitehorse on Sunday night with Sandy and had his mouth stitched up and a drain put in his chin. He is now sporting a shaved chin and an elizabethan collar to prevent him from affecting the drain area. He is on the mend and will be going back in the kennel soon. Sindbads cut is healing well and the staple can be removed fairly soon.

Although one of the least enjoyable aspects of this sport, dog fights do occur occasionally, both among the males and the females. Much is said about them being the result of genetics, tension caused by females being in heat, poor training, hierarchy etc. Regardless of the cause, prevention is what I try to focus on. I am not sure what caused Casper and Sindbad's altercation as the season has been almost free of such incidents, so it really took me by surprise when it happened. Prevention in this case, will be to have them tied in such a manner that they can't get at each other from now on.

No matter how much one learns in this sport, the dogs will always show you that you have more to learn.


Thursday, March 01, 2007


It is an incredibly important element of the bond between a musher and their dogs. Although it can't be quantified physically, such as blood pressure or heart rate can, it is, in my opinion one of the most important elements of dog mushing. My experience over the years has been that if I lose the trust of one of my dogs by not caring for it properly or getting into a situation that scares a dog badly, or any one of a number of other situations, it is very difficult to regain that trust and may well be impossible in some cases.

At the start line of the Quest 300 I had a few minutes in the starting chute with the dogs to be able to look them over, straighten out lines and just give them a pat and a hug and tell them that despite all the commotion and confusion of the start area, everything was fine. Sarah my little blue eyed leader gave me a look that I have never seen before. It was a peculiar look, somewhere between perplexed and (maybe) scared or possibly apprehensive. At the time I didn't give it much thought as there was so much going on and I was still a bit worried about why Fred had suddenly taken ill and had to be dropped. However, I do remember very clearly that it was not a look that rang any warning bells. A short while later, travelling along the Yukon River, after the team had settled into a brisk trot, I realized that probably what Sarah's look meant was that she was looking at me for reassurance that I was not going to ask them to do anything they were not capable of or trained for. I believe it was the look of 100% complete and total trust, looking for a bit of reassurance that it was warranted. I believe she knows that for her to do her job, lead the team, I must do mine, guide the team.This realization (if in fact I am correct), coupled with a strong emotional response from looking at this beautifull string of dogs all working to the best of their abilities brought me to tears for a short while. I found it overwhelming for a short while to have fully realized that although my leaders were 65 feet away from me attached through a series of cables and ropes, we shared a communication and cooperation that allowed us to travel through terrain we had never been through comfortably and safely. It is not a response that I can explain logically, nor do I care to, but it was sobering in that it made me realize just how delicate this whole scenario was in terms of me being the "leader/guide" and they relying on me to make all the right choices and decisions.

Of all the lessons learned from the Quest 300 this year, that one will remain with me forever.

Thanks to Scott Chesney for these two photos.

Sarah and Bria resting at Braeburn

Entering the Braeburn Checkpoint at -30c.