Northern Wilds Magazine
A mid-November storm had us clearing and grooming trails for sleds. This is the most snow we have received this early in our mushing career. | ERIN ALTEMUS
Dog Blog

Teamwork is the Dreamwork

Two feet of fresh snow in mid-November put us on sleds a month earlier than last year. Due to freezing rain before the snow fall and then heavy snow, we spent several days clearing trails, packing the snow, trying to make a passable trail for the dogs to run. Creeks and ponds were not yet frozen, so short loops were all that was possible for the first few weeks of sled season.

The last part of November into December is crunch time. Lack of daylight withstanding, we are burning the candle on both ends trying to get everything accomplished that needs to be done in a day. I gave up on cleaning the house, it is not possible.

My husband Matt and daughter Sylvia left for Thanksgiving so I took over the training, feeding and grooming operations. Wednesday, I ran a team 26 miles by doing three of the same loop. Then I fed dogs and went to work. Thursday, I groomed and cleared the trail on the snowmobile, ate Thanksgiving dinner until I was busting full and went home to run a dog team 26 miles in the dark. Friday I again ran a team in the morning, then buzzed off to work. Saturday, I groomed and cleared more trail, then ran a team. I thought a long weekend at home was going to be quiet and restful and instead I never went to bed before 10 p.m. and I was sore and exhausted. The trail was getting harder and faster by the day. I started out the stretch with 10-dog teams, but by Saturday I dropped down to an 8-dog team. A little fresh snow would have been welcome.

Somehow over the course of the weekend I managed to do the dishes. It was a relief to go back to my day job on Monday.

Now that the trail is ready, sled runs are fun, smooth and sometimes a little too exciting. | ERIN ALTEMUS

We have two sets of leaders. Some leaders are a little better at following directions than others. I find Itsy and Keith to be fast but very stubborn. One day at the beginning of a longer run, we ran to the Kimball Campground where we have a nice big turnaround. From there we either split off toward Trout Lake Road or return back where we came from. As we neared the split, the dogs picked up speed. I yelled, “haw!” They went gee. I was back to a 10-dog team on this day, one that pulled me so hard around a 90-degree turn I flipped, smashing my knuckles into brush on the side of the trail. Now, at this campground split, they out-powered me. I couldn’t stop them with my brake and within seconds we had bypassed the split and were heading towards home. I wanted a longer run, so I made the 8-mile loop and turned back towards the campground again.

This time I was determined to not let the dogs have their way. We approached the split and the team picked up speed. I yelled, “haw!” and they turned gee. I desperately tried to brake and threw my snow hook in the ground. Braking pulled my sled to the inside of the turn where there were a bunch of pipes sticking out from the ground. My sled runners caught these pipes and the dogs were unable to pull me any further. I dragged the leaders over to the trail I wanted. But my sled was hung up and the dogs were pulling, pulling, pulling. I was a bit afraid either my runner was going to break or I would lose the sled once it was free, but somehow, I heaved it off the pipe—the dogs lurched and I went face first into the snow. Just hang on, I told myself. By the time I was upright, I had lost my phone in the snow.

We continued on, having a marvelous run and somehow, I glimpsed my phone when we came back through the campground. I snatched it up and continued on my way.

Other exciting moments in the past month include:

  • Wallaby got loose just as Matt was leaving with a dog team. I ran up and grabbed Wallaby and dragged him off the trail, only to have Matt’s leaders swing over and try to start a fight. Luckily, between the two of us, we straightened everyone out and Matt went on to have a good run.
  • Matt’s brake snapped during a run. He was in front of my team and just disappeared. I went on to try all my males in lead while Matt tried to get home with an amped team, worsened when he had to pass another dog team ending up in a tangle. I too had to pass that dog team with my never-led-before yearling, which didn’t go well at all. Everyone eventually made it home.

I think it’s fair to say we are in over our heads this year. We are training up a lot of dogs. We almost ran two 12-dog teams in the Mail Run until figuring out that we don’t have room to haul that many dogs to the race, and with a couple questionable dogs, it made more sense for me to switch to the 8-dog team. The dogs are acting like it’s spring break in Miami all the time. Their energy level has never been so high—perhaps from the warmer-than-usual temperatures or maybe the adults are getting egged on by the puppies. We look set to receive another huge dump of snow this week, which means that by mid-December we will have as much snow as we do for many entire winter seasons. I’m not sure if I should dance or cry. As Matt says, “there is nothing we can do about it.”

Instead, we just continue the routine: Erin thaws meat, digs out dog houses, scoops, Matt feeds, we take turns running. Matt plows, Erin straws the dog houses. We get Sylvia to school, we get Sylvia from school, then play, play, play. One of us does books and bedtime, the other stokes the boiler. Dishes…. maybe tomorrow. It’s definitely teamwork, sometimes it’s dreamwork. In a few short weeks, we will pack up for our first race.

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