Let the Training Begin

Our fall training season began Sept. 10 this year, on a morning when the temperature dipped below the 50-degree F. threshold that most mushers consider too warm for running dogs. Matt hooked up one team and ran a quick three-mile loop. Still feeling energetic, he hooked up a second team, only to have the tie-rod end on the ATV bust half-way back to home. With a front tire dragging sideways, the team of enthusiastic huskies with a summer’s worth of built up energy to run, pulled the ATV back no problem.

That ATV went into the shop for repair.

The mushers and team enjoy an early morning run on Pine Mountain Road as the fall colors are changing. | MATTHEW SCHMIDT

The mushers and team enjoy an early morning run on Pine Mountain Road as the fall colors are changing. | MATTHEW SCHMIDT

Having no other immediate solution for running the team, and not wanting to delay further fall training, Matt found an old Honda three-wheeler to use. It started with a pull cord and a lot of gas—the sound of which further excited the dogs. We hooked up small teams, starting with six dogs and graduating at eight. I was not so enthusiastic about the three-wheeler and let Matt do the training, especially after Matt admitted he flipped the thing rounding one curve. Three-wheelers, we learned, are no match for sled dogs.

Our four-wheeler came back from the shop, but with another problem—it wouldn’t accelerate. We needed to find another ATV. With a recreational vehicle loan from the local credit union, we hit the trails again.

September wasn’t a great month weather-wise for training dogs. Temperatures barely sunk below 50 degrees F. at night, but 45 degrees F. being good enough, we kept running. Not long after implementing the new ATV, Matt lost most of the team altogether. Stopping at a road to listen for any oncoming cars, the gangline—a piece of cable covered in polyethylene that is essentially one long leash—snapped, releasing the front 10 dogs on the team. Ringo and Cha-Cha, who were directly in front of the ATV, watched in dismay as the rest of their mates leaped ahead without them.

At first, Matt tried to run Ringo and Cha-Cha fast enough that maybe he could catch up with the loose engine, but they weren’t gaining much ground. Matt decided to let Ringo and Cha-Cha run free and speed on ahead. Within a mile, he caught up to the team, 10 dogs sprinting full bore, attached to each other but nothing else. He was able to stop them from the front and reattach them to the ATV. Ringo and Cha-Cha caught up and they all went home.

Since those early disasters, we’ve managed the chaos and kept up a decent training schedule, despite unseasonably warm weather. As I write this on Nov. 7, I believe we’ve only seen three frosts in our neighborhood—the first wasn’t until October. While the ecological implications of this are for another essay, it hampers training, because dogs like to run in cold weather.

Matt and I are changing things up a bit this year. Matt is signed up to run the Beargrease Marathon. I will coach, drive from checkpoint to checkpoint and help handle the team—a task which I’m sure will involve almost as much sleep deprivation as mushing, but without the joy of riding the sled. Matt also signed up to run the Hudson Bay Quest, a 250-mile race that starts in Gillam, Manitoba and runs north over the frozen taiga to Churchill on Hudson Bay. It’s a self-supported race, meaning he will have to carry all his dog food and gear with him for the entire race. When it’s over, the dogs, mushers and handlers all take the train from Churchill back to Gillam.

The other races of the season are still undecided, but will surely include a team or two in the local Gunflint Mail Run in January.

Several new additions to the kennel give us new enthusiasm for a great team this year. Victory, a shy and small female with blue eyes, comes up to me only when I have a harness in hand. If I promise her a run, she is my best friend. Another girl, Phoenix, has more energy than any dog either of us has ever met. Getting a harness on her is like trying to wrangle a bucking horse. Last year’s puppy litter is now almost a year old, and the group of five, named after names in songs—Major Tom, Jolene, Figaro, Dinah and Roxanne—are exceptionally driven young dogs and give us a lot to sing about. They won’t be part of the racing team this year, but training them is pure joy—they knew what to do from the first time we hooked them up. This year is just getting started and I am already looking forward to next.



By Erin Altemus