Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Snowmobile

4.7 miles today with the sled. The dogs were great. I went out to a good straight trail that had been well groomed by snowmobiles. On the way home we had a nice long strip where everyone settled into a good even trot and all tug lines were taut. I have more trouble keeping the team pulling evenly as we slow down. Two snowmobiles came up behind us. I was able to stop the team and quickly lead the front dogs to the edge so they could pass safely. One of the dogs, Jag, spooked a bit as they went by. The others did not care at all. The snowmobile drivers were very courteous. As always the dogs bolted off any stop like greyhounds at a track and following those snowmobiles was no different. Over 20mph and I wondered if the dogs were trying to catch them.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Yay, today is the first day of summer! How do I know this?

1 - I wore a ball cap instead of a ski hat when I took the dog sled out this morning.
2 - I shoveled the snow away from the lambing jugs with just a fleece jacket on.
3 - The sun was shining.
4 - Absolute proof, I got a great big coffee ice cream cone on the way to get grain.

Tough Going

Tough run with the sled this morning. We got another 4 inches of snow late Wednesday evening which was thick with a crust this morning. The surface underneath was soft and often gave way. According to the dogs it was hard pulling the sle
d. According to me it was hard steering the sled. We only went 3.3 miles and were all tired. The sled runners got stuck on tracks in the thick crusty snow. I'd finally get it turned off the side of the trail and then could not straighten it so we'd end up in the deep on the other side. Judging from my tracks, wandering from one side of the trail to the other, I was MUI - Mushing Under the Influence. I learned to hop off the runners to steer when we were going slow as it was easier to turn the sled with no weight.

It was good for us, learning to work through some tougher conditions. ("Good for who? We did all the work dragging your lazy butt through that rough surface and you drove the sled like a drunken sailor" say the dogs.) If I can go out tomorrow I'll go to a very straight trail that is likely to have been well packed by snowmobiles.

I took video today, not exciting as the going was tough.  Over 30 minutes for a short run. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Winter of the Dog Sled

I look at the forecast, 50 degrees and rain coming Friday.  This is New England and right now we have a very deep snow base.  It won’t all melt this weekend.  Add some fresh snow on top and I’ll be off on my sled again.  But it is late February, few runs left at best for this winter.

Driving a dog sled is something I’ve wanted to do for years, much like working dogs on stock.  I’ve always been one to go ahead and do what I want, mostly for the better.  Certainly buying that sled last year turned out well for me.  There were hours of work refinishing and re-lashing it, entertainment for the long winter evenings as the sled spent over a month on saw horses in the living room.  Finally complete I knew nothing on training the dogs.  I asked a friend if I could park at his place so I had room to work out the kinks of driving the dogs.  Once we got rolling we could run right up into town forest from there.  Hah, not so easy.  Failed start after failed start, rearranging dogs, finally some 50 tangles later they all started in the same direction.  Shusshhhh, I urged them on and we flew!  Not far, but enough to get the adrenaline racing and give me a high.  It rained the next day.  It was March and that was my one run of the winter. 
This year I started with the first snow.  It was a great year for snow.  Again the sled spent time as the centerpiece of the living room while I installed new brakes, re-oiled the wood, altered a used sled bag to fit, made a glove bag, learned to splice rope and made a new bridle so it would turn better.  Again dark winter evenings were enjoyed working on my sled.  But this year we were always ready to go. 
And go we did.  Little by little my team came together.  My nerves were jangled every time I hitched them, bucking, barking, and screaming like rabid apes at the start.  I learned to tie the gangline off to the van or a tree while hitching the dogs, then pull the release and feel the snap as the sled takes off down the trail.  At first the runs were barely a mile, stopping frequently to untangle the lines.  As winter progressed we’ve gone from 1 to 2 to 3 to 6 mile runs.  As the runs got longer the dogs settled and learned to travel as a team.  Good advice from experienced mushers helped me teach them to work as a unit.  I’ve learned to steer the sled better, work the brakes, ride the trails more smoothly.    The dogs still start out like cheetahs.  Indeed we’ve gone as fast as 24mph, though mostly we travel at a quiet lope and sometimes I can ease them back to a steady trot.  We’ve gone from short runs pieced together from bursts of speed between tangles to long runs that open with a mile of strong gallop and settle to a quiet lope.   I still begin with an adrenaline drenched high as I let them open out and run at the start.  Now I move to the relaxed enjoyment of sliding through the snowy woods, working the turns, feeling the flex of my sled as it slips around a curve, watching the dogs stride along smoothly together, looking down the snowy path as we sweep along in relative silence.  We still have to stop at most intersections so I can lead the team to the correct trail.  I don’t mind.  It gives me a chance to give each dog a rub behind the ears and word of appreciation as I walk back to the sled. 
Who knows what next winter will bring.  Maybe good conditions for our trails, maybe not.  I am not about to start filling my house with Alaskan huskies and give up the stock work.  The few opportunities for my dogs to work sheep this snowy winter have given me and them great enjoyment, though only pushing the stock back into the drifts so I can put out feed.  Regardless I will always remember this winter as the winter of the dog sled.  The winter my dogs and I learned to run together as a team, flying through the snowy woods with unabashed euphoria. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

4th Storm in a Week

Today's run, 4.4 miles including up and down the backside of Blanchard Hill. That was steep. I held onto the handlebar on the sled and let the dogs pull as I jogged up. Thought I might have a heart attack at the top. On the way down I shamelessly had one foot on the drag mat brake and the other on the bar brake. That and the deep snow kept things under control. 

We went for about a mile walk along part of the route afterwards. It had been snowing so hard you could not tell we'd been there before. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Stop Right There

A good stop is essential on a working dog. Not only does it allow you to control the stock, it also allows you to stop the sled team on a winding trail before the sled gets pulled into the rock or tree or ravine on the inside of the curve. Today I was thankful for good stops.

New trail, winding and very pretty. At points I barely had the sled around one curve when my leaders were going around the next curve. Just over 3 miles today.

I'm beginning to take a run with no tangles for granted. I spend more time taking in the snowy woodlands, hearing the birds, the footfall of the dogs, and the quiet swish of the sled.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

iPhone on the Lam

Good dogs waiting patiently while I look for my iPhone. I dropped it between the runners when fumbling trying to take pictures while simultaneously hanging onto my big mittens. I saw the phone slide under the drag mat brake. I assumed it was back behind me, but in fact it had snagged under the mat so that when I stood on it to brake I was standing on the phone. I think perhaps I should check to be sure I took out the "complete coverage for the complete idiot" policy on my phone. The good news is the phone survived just fine. They really are tough little buggers.

All this and the moving photos were blurry. Not a lot of light and the sled vibrating I guess. 5 miles today and not a single tangle. Two road crossings. My leaders attempted a couple side trails on the way home, but we were moving at a moderate pace so I was able to stop them before the entire team was committed.

Friday, February 14, 2014

1 album, 5 songs

I get a chuckle that Beethoven's 9th Symphony is described as "1 album, 5 songs" on my iPhone.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Another Snow Storm?

I took the dog sled out this morning for a quick local run before the snow gets too deep on the trails. The dogs did great. They are really learning to travel as a team. I would have had a lot more fun if I had bought the new goggles BEFORE I went out. I was blinded the whole way, squinting and blinking. How did the dogs see? 2.5 miles and they were all organized and pulling the entire way. Only one tangle, right at a place where the sled goes over some big rises as we go around a turn, easy to get some slack lines as the sled drops. We seem to consistently run at about 20 mph at the start. Probably no big deal for real mushers, but to me it feels worthy of Cape Canaveral. 

I got a fresh trailer load of small bales over at the field this morning too. It’s a bit dicey backing the trailer up to where I can park it out of the way of the drive. The van was sliding sideways on the snow, usually a bad thing. It actually slid at just the right point to drop that trailer right where I needed it with no corrections. Must be a good day!

Sheep have enough feed to keep them till mid-morning tomorrow. Dogs are exercised and happy. I’m ready for the storm, I hope.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Back to Shepherding, at least part time

This weekend I had to put aside my musher persona for a bit when I remembered that lambing is coming so it was time to do CDT shots and see if any ewes needed worming. Did the CDT yesterday on the way out to go sledding. Today I wormed, again on the way out to the trails. Levi displays BC versatility going from packing the ewes in for me to wheel dog in my sled team. All in a day's work.

5.9 miles today, and all on the trails I planned! I've gotten much better at riding the curves on the sled. If I get my weight right the sled just sets on that inside runner and arcs around the curve. If not, well I flipped it again today. Who would have thought "face plant" would be a term I'd be using to describe my dog driving experience.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Tried a new trail today. The start was a problem as parking was across the road with enough traffic that I could not just drive them across. Meant a fair bit of scolding which I hate to do. 

Then I got lost. The good part is this meant the dogs pulled me along a curvy trail up a big hill. I jogged along for a bit but could not keep up so parked my feet back on the runners and let them pull my lazy butt up. I let them loose to run around a bit at the top while I took pictures. Not a good idea. That gave them time to replenish the crazy juice so when I hitched them to go back down the steep and winding trail they were loaded for bear. I stood on the drag mat brake as hard as I could the whole way down. I should have used the bar brake, much stronger, but to use the bar brake I had to take my foot off the drag mat. The hill was steep, the dogs fast, and the curves were coming at me one after another. I was afraid of that un-braked moment I needed to switch to the better brake.  

Then I got lost again finding the way home, missed a turn. So we went back and forth a bit until some cross country skiers told me how to get back. We went over 6 miles. All this distance and work got them well settled so we actually had a good strip where we were trotting along with the team strung out nicely. And since they were all calm I was able to take a picture one of the times I was off the sled trying to figure out where to go next.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Musher Math

I've made some investments in control. The line is tied off to the trailer hitch of the van. This allows me to hitch the dogs while they buck and scream and try to start. When I'm ready to go I just pull the stick and I'm released. First time I stop I tuck the stick back in the sled bag. The flat mat is a drag mat brake. I use that to slow them down. I've been known to stand on it with both feet. The horizontal bar closest to the sled is my new bar brake, finally installed. Took some work on my sled to get that on correctly. That can stop the sled quite well in a variety of conditions. You can flip the drag mat brake up out of the way so that it does not act like a snow plow or get in my way if I need to jog along up a hill.

Here is today's video installment. Very deep snow and not well tamped by snow machines yet. Just skip from 6:05 to about 9:50. That is me deciding that there is no viable outlet and turning the team around. Our usual trail was deep and the sled just got stuck. Now I know why they have those toboggan style sleds so in deep snow the sled rides up on the snow rather than gathering snow beneath it like a plow. Though I threaten Jag (wheel dog on the left) with his life several times, he did manage to control himself so lives to run another day. He loves to bolt off early, taking the team and sled with him.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Magical Day Sledding

Today was one of those magical days when the air was soft, the colors rich, the light lovely through the trees. You almost expected to see Mr. Tumnus watching from the woods. We ran out 2.5 miles, going smoothly with Pi and Marcus in lead. Then I unhitched and walked back the way we came, giving me time to savor and record some of the scenes along the way.

Towards the end of the walk back I found this little stream bubbling along under a delicate layer of ice. Watching the bubbles gurgling along under the ice was addicting.