In March of 2017 and after months of planning, Robert and eight others from the University of Alaska Anchorage embarked on a trip that had never been done before. A week in the Alaskan backcountry by dog team, fat bike and snow machine. What made this trip different was that Robert designed it from the ground up as part of his internship at UAA.
For most people when they see a dog yard they may seem quite different than what they are used doing with their own dogs. Once you look a bit closer you might find the yard is set up this way so that the dogs can foster healthy relationships and a social setting that provides ample exercise and freedom of movement.
Our dog yard is pretty social. We often keep groups of siblings together and dogs that get along well with their favorite friends close by. These dogs thrive on social bonds and family just like we do.
Our dog yard of 38 sled dogs needs to be specifically organized to ensure that each dog’s needs are met. It is not uncommon to see a dog yard set up just like ours throughout the sled dog world. Most dog yards use a tether system with individual houses for each dog laid out in rows. Our dogs are kept at their own house where they can enjoy their private space.
The length of the chain is determined by two factors. The first is to give the dogs tethers long enough so that they can interact and play with their neighbors in the yard. The second is to ensure that the tethers are not too long that they present a hazard to the dogs’ safety. We want to make sure that there is no chance of getting tangled with another dog.
The houses themselves are also carefully thought out. Our houses are build with a small entrance door that provides shelter from the elements (hot summer sun, rain, and cold winters). Our houses have a flat roof and, just like Snoopy this is the dog’s favorite place to be. You will often see our dogs perched on top of their houses catching some afternoon rays or watching the ravens and magpies dance around looking for leftover food crumbs.
We use straw in the houses for bedding and warmth. It is a very exciting time for the dogs when it is straw day. They all love having new straw in their houses and you will often find most of them burrowing their noses in it to make a comfy bed in their houses when the straw is delivered. Our rule is we add new straw for every 10 degrees in temperature change. So if it is -20 we have added straw at least four times.
Our dogs need a lot of mental stimulus especially in the summer when it is their vacation and they are not busy pulling sleds. In the summer months we often will move the dogs around to meet new friends in the yard and free run and play in our yard up by the house. We also have several pens attached to our kennel building and we use these for when females are in season, and on the rare occasion one of the dogs is sick or injured.
In our dog yard we do try to keep the boys separated (for the most part) from the girls. The main reason we do this is to prevent accidental breedings and to keep the young male’s hormones in check. Often they act just like teenagers when a pretty girl is around.
Most of our dogs are very social and the “pet me dogs” are closest to the perimeter. All of our dogs are friendly but some are more shy than others. These shy dogs need more personal space and are housed toward the back rows.
During the winter the fun begins. We have our chute right down the middle of the dog yard. This is where we hook up the teams and hit the trail. During hook-ups it is chaos with all of the dogs barking, jumping up and down off their houses and “yelling pick me! I want to run!”
Our dog spend eight months of they year in harness and most of them will run well over 1,500 miles. During the autumn months we spend lots of time on muscle development and conditioning, similar to how you would when you are trying to get into shape to run a marathon.
We always feed twice a day at Team Ineka. Each day we feed about 40 pounds of raw meat and 10-15 pounds of kibble mixed with water. Each dog is fed at their house using a ladle and a 5 gallon bucket. In the winter we will often triple their calories and feed lots of fish, beaver, fat, chicken skins, and moose. We have four large freezers in the kennel building an two large cans of kibble. We have a food bill of about $2500.00 a month!
Our daily chores take 3 or 4 hours every day, 365 days a year. This does not include running the teams. We are interacting with the dogs the whole time. We spend time each day petting, grooming, and you will often find us just sitting on top of a dog house talking to one of the dogs.
We try our best to keep the noise to a minimum. Usually when the dog yard is loud something exciting is happening. If we are hooking up or feeding the chaos is at full volume, other times, especially in the middle of the night the sound of an excited dog yard rouses us out of bed and down to the yard to check things out. On more occasions than we would like we have chased off a big moose or a pesky fox that likes to hang around. Since we do have a few neighbors that are not mushers we try not to rouse up the dogs past 10 pm and before 7 am. Dogs will be dogs however and there is nothing more cool than when the dogs sing together under a full moon.
People always comment on social media that what we do is cruel and inhumane to the dogs. I beg to differ. We spend hours with our dogs. It is our full time job and someone is here almost 24 hours a day. Our dog’s care is top priority and we spare no expense or time. If you think about it, do you spend all day with your dogs? What are they doing while you are at work?
A sled dog kennel is a dynamic environment with something always going on. We are constantly thinking of ways improving. The next time you see a sled dog kennel take a look around, you may see things differently now that you know what to look for.
Robert is signed up for all of his Iditarod qualifiers this year. It is an exciting time at Team Ineka. We have a core team that is roaring and ready to go and several up-and-coming pups that will add depth to the team.
September 2016: Chugiak Dog Mushers Association Dryland Race Series
October 2016: Speedy Glass Dog Derby at Chugiak
January 2017: GinGin 200 (Iditarod qualifier)
January 2017: Northern Lights 300 (Iditarod qualifier)
February 2017: Willow 300 (Iditarod qualifier)
March 2017: Dreamchaser Expedition
Every year around New Years it warms up and everything melts and turns to ice. It makes it easy to find all the bowls that the ravens have carried off and all the swivels that have be frozen in place on the dog’s poles are now free but it makes clean up chores, a real chore if you know what I mean.
A lot of people say that is what we can expect over the next few years. Maybe so but let’s hope not. The trails were nice yesterday but who knows today. I think we will give the teams a couple days off and hope it gets cold soon.
As always things like this change our plans. We have never really needed or wanted to race and we think that races don’t define a kennel. We just love being out on the trail and sharing our lifestyle and experiences with our friends and supporters. Every year we introduce people to our world and that’s where we find our true joy.
Our dogs are our biggest asset even if they haven’t run thousand mile races. We treat each of them with respect and they give us their all. That is what mushing is all about, at least to us at Team Ineka.
This is Spencer. He is getting a little grey but still one awesome sled dog. He arrived from our good friend, Hugh Neff’s kennel the second year we were in Alaska and has been a solid foundation on our team on just about every training run and race we have ever done.
Spencer is the brother to one of our main lead dogs, Sidney. Spencer is a big lover. He loves to gives hugs and kisses and will nuzzle up to you when ever we are in the kennel.
Follow Spencer and the rest of the team on Facebook
@teamineka on Twitter
Last year we heard about a race from our friend Dan that we knew this year we would have to put on the schedule to attend. It was the Tolsona 50/50. The Tolsona Lake Resort is on mile 170 of the Glen Highway, a couple hundred miles from home. It is one of the checkpoints on the Copper Basin 300 and from what we heard a great place to run dogs.
We were scheduled to take part in the Willow Relay Race with our teams on this weekend but with the rapidly melting snow in Willow and the un-seasonably warm temperatures we made other plans. The Sunday before the race we decided we would enter two teams. Robert (me) and Tyler would run together. Tyler hasn’t ran in a race in two years and it would be good to get him back on the runners and spend some time on the trails with me.
We called Crystal at the lodge, made a room reservation and told her we would be there with two teams in tow.
We packed up the truck with gear, sleds, and dogs and hit the road about noon. Michele would have to stay behind to take care of the remaining dogs and she had several dog training client meetings over the weekend. She would be the designated social media liaison during the race.
I would be running: Frosty-Shock, Bodhi-Raegan, Shifter-Gabby, Spencer-Aussie.
Tyler would be running: TyTy-Vela, Lock-Burton, Barrel-Rasp, Trapper-Valdez
We made it over the rivers, mountains and through the woods in good time and arrived to the lodge at about 4pm. We checked in, dropped the dogs and fed them dinner before heading over to the lodge eat dinner. We spend the evening talking with Dan and his family and playing pool. Nicole had never played before so we tried our best to teach her the new game.
The mushers meeting started at 9am and we drew our starting positions. Tyler would be going out second, behind our friend Karen and I would be going out six minutes later in lucky number 5. Running a small eight dog team it is easy to get things ready to go and it being a shorter race we only had a few pieces of mandatory gear. We were required to pick two of the following: parka, sleeping bag, axe, tree saw, cooker and fuel, or snowshoes. I took the lightest of the group and packed the axe and saw. Same with Tyler.
As the start approached we bootied up a few of the dogs and hooked up Tyler’s team and the countdown begun. With only ten teams entered, we would all be on the trail in short order. Karen pulled her hook and was on her way. Then the fun began!
Tyler pulled his hook and immediately the sled tipped over. The dogs took off like a rocket toward the chute with Tyler being drug down the lake. Several people started to run after him including Nicole with the big Canon camera around her neck. Tyler managed to finally right the sled and was on his way. While it was only a few seconds the whole thing seemed to be going on in slow motion. As he got back on the runners the people watching cheered and Nicole had to run back to help me with my team as I only had six minutes before I was supposed to leave.
Out of breath, Nicole managed to get my team on the line with a minute to spare and I was on the trail on time.
The race would be 50 miles each day with Sunday’s heat running in the reverse direction. The teams would also be starting in reverse order. Meaning the last team to finish on Saturday would be the first team to start on Sunday.
We were on Tolsona Lake for just over a mile before we made a sharp gee (left) turn into the woods and down a hill towards the creek. We were told that the creek had some open water and if we wanted we could make a sharp left turn and go over the bridge but a tree might be in the way.
Our dogs are used to running through a lot of open water during the rainy fall training season so we skipped across the creek soaking my Neo’s (boots) up to my calves. There was a bit of glaciation as we made our way to the very wide trail. The trail for the next 10 miles or so was as big as a two-lane road and is much used by snow machines and freighting gear to the cabins along the lakes.
Teams started passing each other as we made our way down the trail. At mile 8 I saw Tyler pulled over and changing out leaders. I yelled out. “are you okay?” and he said his shoulder was hurting real bad from the fall.
At mile 13 we made a sharp haw (right) turn and the trail crew was there taking pictures and recording times. I was in ninth place at that point with only Tyler behind me. We made our way through a winding wooded trail for several miles before coming to Crosswinds Lake. It is huge! We were on the lake for three or four miles and the trail was getting a little soft in the afternoon sun. As soon as we got off the lake we started up hill. The next twenty or so miles would be up and down, up and down. It as getting really warm and the dogs slowed down to about seven miles per hour. At about mile 30 I switched Shock out with Aussie in lead. I could see Dakota’s bright orange jacket in the distance so I knew I wasn’t too far behind the next team.
After all the hills we made a sharp left turn away from Lake Louise and headed back toward the intersection. As I approached the trail crew still there taking pictures and recording times I asked them how I was doing. They said I was about 30 minutes behind Dakota.
We were back on the wide trail and 13 miles from the finish and Reagan was slowing way down and dipping snow. I stopped the team and loaded her up in the bag on the sled. She didn’t want to go willingly but she finally settled down and we made our way back to the creek. We flew through the water and up the hill toward the finish line. I ski-poled a lot during this race and my arms were burning as we got closer to the truck.
We finished strong and I checked in with Greg, one of the race crew, on how we did. He thought we looked good. About the time Nicole and I were done snacking the dogs and putting them back in the truck Tyler came in with his hand in his pocket supporting his sore shoulder.
Once we got his team snacked and unhooked we could tell he was in a lot of pain. His shoulder was dislocated and I helped him get it back in place using the hood of my truck. He screamed in pain! He then pulled up his sleeve and had a huge ice rash up and down his arm that bled through his sweatshirt. He ran 50 miles with a dislocated shoulder. That’s a musher for ya!
We finished our chores and headed up to the lodge for a most excellent Prime Rib dinner before getting back to the room and retiring for the night.
Tyler decided that he wouldn’t be running the second day with his hurt shoulder and the fact that one of his leaders, Vela, was just too slow in the heat of the day to be effective on the team.
The Race Marshal said we could trade out mushers, and have Nicole run, or let me use some of Tyler’s team on mine. I didn’t think it was right to change the rules up for us so I declined. I decided to start with seven dogs, leaving Reagan off the team. There was no reason to push them too hard as this was mainly just a fun training run for us all.
We started the day off in reverse order. I was heading out first now that Tyler was out of the race. I was followed by Dakota and Karen.
Shortly before the creek Dakota passed me. When we got to the creek it was fully open by then and Dakota had to wade through knee deep water to get his dogs across. As we were waiting for him to do that Karen decided to take the bridge and got her team tangled in the tree. She recovered nicely as I passed her by on the slick icy trail. I asked her if everything was okay and let her pass me a mile or so down trail.
By the time we were at the turn off all the teams had passed me and I was comfortably at the back of the pack. I knew the next 37 miles or so would just be me and my team on the trail and I settled in for the hills. I turned on my iPod and started listening to a mix of Godsmack and Rob Zombie, my trail favorites and slammed at 5-Hour Energy shot.
The hills weren’t nearly as bad on day two as we were going in the opposite direction. It was much more decent than ascent. We were averaging about 9.8 miles per hour when we reached Crosswinds Lake. I stopped the team and let them have a quick five minute break and switched Shock next to Bodhi which was an open spot on the line since I left Raegan at the truck. Now Frosty was in single lead.
We ran across the lake and through the wooded trail to the intersection. I saw the trail crew and asked how I was doing. It was about the same as the day before.
I ski-poled a good portion of the wide trail and was making decent time even though we slowed down to about 8.5 miles per hour.
We crossed the creek which was even deeper now and the sun was still warm. I look off my wind-shirt and headed toward lake and the finish.
We finished strong again.
It was almost 3 pm when I finished and we were just in time for the banquet. I rushed to the room, packed up our gear and changed clothes.
The banquet was great. The lodge had a spaghetti dinner for us all. The awards ceremony started and everybody got their prizes. I got a certificate for “the whitest parka” for my white wind jacket and even Tyler got a certificate for the “best start.”
We were back on the road and home by 7:30.
What we learned
As I always do on my race recaps I list what we learned during the event. I do this to hopefully learn from our mistakes and to show our rabid fans things we see and do along the trail. I am a firm believer that we all can learn from each other and this is as good of a way as any to do so.
- We have always been a team that runs the best at night. With our training schedules worked around our jobs and schools almost all of our runs are made when it is cool and dark. This hurts us every time on races and has cost me to scratch on a few occasions. I have said over and over this is our weak link. I am unsure how to fix this. We don’t have the luxury of not having to work or go to school.
- Another one of our big problems always has been the lack of hill training. Living in Willow it is relatively flat and the trails are winding wooded trails and over lakes. While Nicole had a great experience during the Junior Iditarod with all the hills of the Denali Highway we just didn’t have enough of this type of training this year to make a difference.
- I thought overall my dog team did very well. Even though it was hot, all of them were eager to run and wanted to finish.
- Vela is the slowest of all of our leaders. While I have known this since our Tustumena Experience a few years ago, we just haven’t had great success with training up and coming leaders, except for Shock, to fill that roll. That is a major training goal for this coming off season.
- One of my proudest moments was when an Iditarod musher who was parked beside us said, your dogs eat like robots! That is great! I wish our dogs ate like that! This is great to hear from another musher. One of the things you must train for is for your dog team to eat heartedly and mightily on trail. This little thing can make or break a dog team and the success or failure on the trail.
- Never let go of the sled! This is the number one rule in mushing and Tyler did great! He managed to get the sled back on the runners while the team was running as fast as they could at the start of the race. We have taught this rule to our kids since the first day they were on a sled and Tyler did a remarkable job in controlling his team.
- Use the ski pole more. I really enjoyed using my ski pole during this race and this was the first time that I have ever used it for many miles. Next year I plan to use two ski poles in training and in races.
- Speed. I have no idea what I need to do to get our team to go faster. Looking over the training logs for the entire season using the Suunto Ambit2 it shows we are a consistent 8/9 miles per hour. While this is a decent pace for a long distance team we were half as slow as the winner of this race who was racing at over 14 miles per hour! I am sure it is a variety of factors including genetics, older dogs in our team who are used to and Iditarod/Yukon Quest pace and they are training the younger dogs to run slower.
- Frosty is one awesome little sled dog! Frosty has ran in every race and most of the training runs this season. He came to us in the fall from our friend Hugh as a leader prospect and Nicole did a great job working with him. Just in the month of March he finished the Junior Iditarod, 800 miles of the Iditarod trail with Hugh and this race in single lead. Being only three years old he is the future of our team in lead along with Lock, Shock, Barrel and Burton.
- It is always fun to run these types of races among friends. I knew just about everyone we raced with and spent a while talking with each one. To me that is what mushing is about. Hanging out with friends and making new ones learning from each other and sharing experiences. It was great to spend time with Dan, Kim, Dakota, Greg, Zoya, John, and Karen.
- The future of this sport may well depend on races like this. These smaller, no fuss, no pressure races is what this sport needs. Everyone is not concentrating on running the big races and with the qualifiers filling up in a matter of minutes, races like this could very well save this sport. I encourage every club, lodge, organization to think about putting on races like this in the future.
Lastly I want to thank the folks at the Tolsona Lake Resort and to everyone there that made this possible. Their hospitality was top notch and they are a great place to visit if you get a chance. We will be back next year if the calendar allows. We had a blast–even if I was lead to believe this was a race around a lake! (wink, wink…)