I’ll be honest. Five thousand miles is a long drive, especially with a team of dogs loaded up in the truck! For me to justify making the journey from one end of the continent to the other, I better have more than ONE good reason. Well, to tell you the truth, I had several! Sure, it has always been a goal of mine to start a summer tour business in New Hampshire where I can educate the public in a fun fashion about dog mushing and the amazing sled dog, but by returning to this region it gives me a chance to catch up with family and friends who I do not get to see much these days especially when I now consider Alaska home. These people have been so important to me over the years and have helped me grow into the person I am today! Heck, on my 27th birthday my friends and family all pulled together and helped buy my first dog sled! Which on a side note has been sitting in my good buddy’s garage for the past two years in Vermont collecting dust… That is a good enough reason to come home, I love that friggen sled! You will be seeing it traveling on the roof of my dog truck on the way back to Alaska in the next few weeks with its green sled bag made by the one and only Nooksack Racing in Maine!
I’ll be honest again, I have been told that I am a goofball and struggle to show my emotions but this next reason I came home will prove my critics wrong… One of the main reasons I made this drive was for my best little buddy, Tukdog. I’m sure you probably all have heard enough about her by now. By most people’s standards, this dog has led me down every wrong path a person could take. In fact, she rarely ever uses a path! She just goes with an intent that only she knows! I heard her described once as ‘her own dog.’ That is the truest statement ever about Ms. Tukdog. She is not one for confinement or rules, she does best where she and nature can call the shots. Anyways, back to the point, I acquired Tuk as a pup at 6 weeks old from a backwoods farm house in the middle of northern Maine. It was a near 30 below night where the air and the lighting just looked damn cold. I remember the sun setting on the open flats of Maine and it almost winked at me saying, “get ready for a cold one buddy!” Well, I did not know at the time the setting sun was predicting the future more than just the next twelve hours. The sun was cluing me in on the dog I was about to acquire who was going to take me to distant places, and cold was forever in my future.
As Tuk grew, I realized pretty quickly that hiking mountains was really the way to let this dog be who she was born to be. Wild and free! I have always been an avid fan of hiking in Northern New England where the most rugged of all Appalachian Mountains spread through the vastness of our northern forest, but this dog turned hiking into a requirement. Her desire to run without the confinement of society was a true necessity to her well-being. One of my most memorable hikes was when I skinned up Mt. Moosilauke which stands at 4,805 feet above sea level and is the first peak on the Appalachian Trail that has a true tundra on the summit. Well, Tuk and I did this one in January on skis. The snow was deep and the moose were plentiful! She spent half the day chasing moose through waist to chest high snow that blanketed the higher terrain of this mountain. Once on top of the bald summit, where some fine above tree line snow fields awaited to be skied, the winds picked up with a grand New Hampshire fashion! It must have been gusting about 50 mph and my thermometer read ten below. IT WAS COLD! Tuk and I looked at each other, and I hurried to gear up for the elements and get my ski equipment ready for the six mile ski down through New Hampshire’s ‘wild snow.’ I remember my hands going numb as I prepared my skis for the descent. I felt like the fella in Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’ struggling with nubs that once were full of dexterity. Needless to say, we made it back down to the car a while later. With exhausted legs and a tired Tukdog on the front seat. Sure, it was a six mile climb, and a six mile ski down, but for Tuk, you have to add in the energy spent chasing moose through the tight spruce forest in the depths of a February’s snow. I always say that Tuk hikes every mountain ten times to my one!
I got side tracked again… I really enjoy talking about my dog. But my point for this drive across North America is based around having one last hurrah with my little girl. We have had so many adventures in the woods of this region and we really needed to have one more; just in case she decides to get old anytime soon…. Tuk will be turning eleven this December, and by most dog standards that is too old to be outrageously physical anymore, but not by a husky’s standard! I drove five thousand miles so Tuk and I could have one last climb up the Northeast’s highest peak, Mount Washington. This is a mountain of Alaskan proportions. It holds the highest wind speeds ever recorded at 231 mph and receives snow every month of the year. It even has permafrost on the summit! Basically, it is one BIG mountain and has been a special place for Tuk and me. For the two of us, we have had tons of adventures in all the weather conditions one could have on this rage. I remember skiing the famous glacial cirque known as Tuckerman’s Ravine with her one of the many times, and I decided to ski out the Cutler River drainage. In most conditions this is a fun, yet technical ski, but this particular season was a low snow year. I had been making turns down what was a known frozen waterfall, while Tuk, whimpered behind me. Her senses told her this was a bad idea. Sure, I had been on this many times and the fact that I am a dumb human, I told her to quit her complaining. I ignored the common mushing belief, ‘When in doubt, trust your dogs.’ I kept making turns, and when I got to the bottom of the steep decline in the fresh powder the ice shelf gave way, and I fell about three feet into the shallow waters of the river! I looked at Tuk, and with wet feet I shook my head with embarrassment… I could only imagine what she was thinking! Needless to say, I trusted my dog from there on out!
Then there was the time Tuk and I introduced Shorty to Mount Washington. We summited the mountain on skis and started our decent. Now Shorty might look like a mountain dog with all of his fur, but to be honest, this dog does not like to move more than the daily requirements of eating and relieving himself on the nearest tree stump. But he did make the summit! On our ski down, we traversed the upper snowfields and started our decent of the famous Tuckerman’s Headwall. This route has huge cliffs and extremely steep chutes down to the ravine floor. Tuk and I have navigated this many times and we’re fully confident in our abilities. We thought Shorty would just follow along. Well, it turns out that the great white Bumble (aka Shorty) does not like steep! I decided to traverse above the headwall's band of cliffs and take the route known as the Chute. Tuk, as usual was right by my side, but it turned out Shorty had an unknown fear of heights! He must have panicked and ran back to the section of the Ravine known as ‘the lip.’ This is my normal route down, but it was spring, and the lip was breaking up and exposing giant crevasses. This was an extremely hazardous route, and I was now hundreds of yards away from Shorty who decided to take this way down! Tuk and I watched in horror as the steepness of the headwall had caused Shorty to begin to slide. He was heading directly for the first crevasse! Some how, his giant arctic dog paws found grip and he stopped just before the opening… He then tip toed around and ended up jumping over the next giant crevasse! I seriously thought I was about to lose the great white Shorty that day, as Tuk and I watched helpless. After I realized he was safe, I looked at Tuk and said, “Lets get him out of here!” We headed down the Chute which starts at a near sixty degree pitch. We charged it to the floor of the ravine with a few turns, and Tuk, as usual straight lined the whole thing with a full sprint…. I wish I had her legs!
I could go on and on about how much Mount Washington means to me and all the mountains of New England’s North Country. That was why this summer’s hike up Mount Washington was so meaningful. Being in Alaska for the past few years, I have really missed climbing up in these peaks with my best little girl and all the adventures we have had. Now a days, Tuk is starting to grow older. She is obviously slowing down but still at almost eleven years old she summited with no problem, and made it down like a champ! I don’t know if we’ll make it back to New Hampshire again after this summer, but now I can say I got at least one last climb up Mount Washington with the dog who has lead me off the beaten path to where I am today! I can’t be happy enough for this opportunity. As I finish writing this, my little girl lays by my side while I drink my morning coffee. I couldn’t tell you exactly what dogs feel for emotion, but moments like this where I sit in my chair writing in the early morning light with Tuk by my side… Well, they are the memories I will cherish forever. I guess I will always remember the time she chased a bull moose right at me in a ten below January day in New Hampshire too!
The summer is about fun. We certainly are not training the dogs in the hot season to run great distances by pulling ATV’s or carts… What we mainly focus on is letting the dogs play and have fun. But possibly unknown to them, we look at each play session as an opportunity to train. Sure, the dogs run around like third graders at recess and sometimes they seem to run with so much excitement that it seems nearly impossible to control! This is where we as mushers separate from being dog owners. Being a musher is not someone who rides on the sled taking in the scenery of some of the planet’s most wild places nor is it someone who has a yard full of dogs in the woods. What defines a musher is our bond we create with our dogs. We know everything about them and because of this, we are able to get on the same page with each and every one of our dogs and guide them as a team. Even on free run walks where control seems unattainable! Now, I am not saying we are perfect dog trainers. We certainly make mistakes and misjudge our dogs at times. Here is a side story, I may or may not spent half an hour trying to convince Willie ‘Jeep’ Nelson to come to me the other day. He felt it would be in his better interest to run around biting at wildflowers in a horse pasture occupied by five horses. One of which is a rather large fella named Captain. This horse weighs in at 2,200 pounds! Willie might be a big dog, but in comparison he is a very smalllllllllllllll horse. Willie wanted to play with what he thought were some big dogs, but when he got close he realized pretty quick that playing slalom through towering horse legs was probably a bad idea. Now, I eventually got him back, but this was after I looked like a complete fool standing out in a horse pasture holding a leash calling my big boy to come to me! Willie taught me a lesson on this experience. He taught me that Willie needs a little bit more training! So, I as a musher will spend a considerable part of the summer working on recall training with my goofball of a dog!
My point is, summer is a time when we can work on this sort of training. We want our sled dogs to behave like perfect ladies and gentleman so when it comes time for racing our dogs they are true professionals. We spend time exposing them to crowds of people that in a way simulate checkpoints in a race. We also expose them to wildlife (or in this case, giant horses) as well as other situations. We want our dogs come September first to be fully prepared for fall training where we begin conditioning our amazing athletes for long distance racing.
After all of this, when the temperatures do drop, or during a cool rainy day over the summer, we take advantage of this as a chance to hook up the dogs as a team to the front of our ATV and take them out for short training runs. In my situation, one of my goals this season is to develop some leaders out of my Jeeps. Especially after seeing some amazing potential with Comanche, Cherokee, and Rubicon who all have amazing genetics from proven one thousand mile leaders. I feel I have a good crop of young ladies ready to take the helm. My two current ace’s up front, Abby and Okie are reaching their golden years in competitive dog sledding. Quite possibly in a year or two both may become fully retired from the race scene and spend the rest of their days being couch potatoes and guide dogs for outrageous puppy walks. So I need to get my young Jeeps ready to lead the way for the future. Abby and Okie have been doing a great job training my lovely young ladies to be the next generation up front. After all their miles last winter taking turns guiding one Lady Jeep at a time up at lead, we had a defining moment with team Tukaway a few days ago. Abby ran in team and Okie stayed home at the kennel and Rubicon and Comanche lead the team out of the kennel! Folks, these two ladies are almost a year and four months old! They left with true confidence on a 3 mile run while running on the right side of the trail and taking gee and haw commands almost like veterans!
As a musher, this is a proud moment. I remember when these two pups were born, it was the start day of Iditarod 2014. They were just little balls of white fur about the size of a hamster. Now, they are pounding at their harnesses saying, “LETS GO!” while leading the team. Now, they are not perfect lead dogs, but that is what the summer season is all about. Fine tuning our canine athletes into true professionals. By fall when we return to Alaska, I hope to be turning heads with my two lovely ladies up at lead as we have head on passes with all the other great teams of Two Rivers!
As for Willie, our main goal for the summer is not leader training quite yet. For him, it’s all about convincing this big boy that he is in fact not a horse!
The Summer Months
Being a dog musher, one must be a true fan of the winter months. Forty below zero has to be viewed as nothing more than a bump in the road rather than an all-out Los Angelos caliber traffic jam. We embrace the cold as dog mushers. Although, I find the concept of loving the cold hard for me to agree with. It is more what we can do in the cold that gives us the desire to be in it. For mushers, the opportunity to hook up a team of sled dogs and head out into pure wilderness surrounded by the silence of forty below and its pure clarity, is what draws most of us into a way of life that does not seem conventional to modern society. The cold is a season when we as dog mushers for a moment are allowed to venture on the same page as our canine athletes, who have inhabited the north for thousands of years and find a bond between the past and present.
I guess my point is the cold months are why we follow through with the tradition of dog mushing and all of the sleep deprivation, frozen finger tips, and frost nipped faces that accompany the season. It is when this season comes to a close and the snow pack melts off, frozen rivers break up, and the green vegetation pokes through what was previously dead barren ground that we as mushers strip away our parkas and bibs. It is this season that we take time to soak up the sun’s rays along with our dogs.
After bringing team Tukaway to my home state of New Hampshire for the summer we have been enjoying the warm weather to its full potential. With day time temperatures in the 70s and the nights dropping down into the 40s it has allowed us to do short training runs in the late evenings and early mornings. It is also a great time to let the dogs be the monsters that only they can be with wild free running experiences around the beautiful grounds of Mahoosuc Outdoors. It has been a blast! The experience of free running dogs in the north woods where they can tromp through mud and weave through tight spruce forests gives them an amazing natural playground where they can exercise their muscles and agility for the upcoming race season. We even have Ayla’s Pond on the property where they can take a dip and try out swimming! Which for sled dogs isn’t always something they chose to do… Willie ‘Jeep’ Nelson ran full speed into the pond only to realize the water would not hold his 80 pounds of weight and sank below his head! Watching a dog learn to swim for the first time is always hilarious. He paddled with all of his might with his two front paws splashing water all over the place. After making a fool of himself he soon realized he had two other paws that could help keep him level and propel himself back to land. Let’s just say, Willie is learning….
The summer is always a great time for the dogs to do some off leash socializing where than can chase each other around and play the canine version of tag. Imagine a fourth grade recess times a million as far as the energy that goes into saying, ‘”YOUR IT!” Watching our Alaskan Huskies twist and turn at full sprint really shows just how amazing these animals are. They cut with the ferocity of Barry Sanders weaving through a defensive line before breaking free. Little Cherokee is probably the hardest to catch. Her speed and her agility is so far unmatched. Yet Sahara currently holds the top end speed title. She still cannot catch Cherokee due to her quickness and sudden change of direction. Larry and Willie being the ‘boys’ of the bunch run with the agility of my Ford F-250 at times as they learn their strength and abilities of their bodies. Sometimes they falter and land on their faces, or just run into a parked tree…. When walking through the trails of Mahoosuc Outdoors, I imagine the cost of repairing my ACL if they were to collide with either of my legs. They are true dufuses! Comanche and Renegade are always there to please, as they play with their brothers and sisters. Both like to routinely check in when walking through the woods and make sure everything is okay.
Then there is Rubicon ‘Rubi.’ This little girl, who has a fire inside her to go in no other direction than forward when hooked up to the sled, has an off trail adventurous mentality during trail walks that makes me excited. She is always setting out on her own. She seems to be a little separate from the rest of the gang as she goes to explore new places rather than just run like idiots crashing into trees and stumbling in mud pits. She is on her own agenda. Of course, the other dogs pick up on this and sometimes she gets picked on for being the ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ of the bunch, but we love her for that. She has the princess values of her mother Teva. She knows she’s cute, and she is developing a calm personality that clicks into a full hard driving chaos when it is time to go to work, just like momma!
As for the adult dogs, they slink along in a much more relaxed manner. They circle around and smell the wildflowers as they come up throughout the summer season. I think this morning Skor took a number two on a pile of some of my favorite flowers known as ‘Indian Paint Brushes!’ Abby gets to run around at dinner time as she checks out what is happening in the woods. This morning while I was drinking my coffee next to the remnants of last night’s camp fire, the name sake of the kennel Tukdog, came flying out of the woods at a lighting speed which impressed me! I havn’t seen her near eleven year old legs move that fast in sometime. (Now I am not saying she is old, but this is a dog I have clocked at 35 mph in her prime!) She came sprinting by me soaked to the bone. She looked like she decided to take a dip in Ayla’s Pond this morning which is a quarter mile away. Knowing Tuk, she probably left camp to follow last night’s moose sent. We have been having a guest moose visiting dog camp for the past week during the night hours. Rubicon ‘Rubi’ has been waking us up every half hour to make sure we know that! For those wondering what Shorty has been up to in the summer months, well… He has found a nice spot under the back bumper of my Ford F-250. Shorty does not move much folks. I am not saying he can’t, for he did catch Steph’s speedster of a dog Kinley the other day playing, but most of a summer day the famous ‘Bumble’ spends laying around in the shade.
I love summer in New Hampshire. It is a beautiful season full of lighting bugs dancing in the dog yard at night and warm summer breezes blowing through The White Mountains. But occasionally the winds shift and a cold arctic wind blows down from the north. The bite to this air reminds us of our true reason for our team of dogs, to train for the upcoming race season and prepare ourselves for our own ‘Yukon Alone.’ The cold season with frosty furs, and frozen eyelashes, with the dancing auroras overhead is where we find comfort in our cabins after a long night’s run at forty below. It is here we witness the building of frost on the insides of our windows and the on the interior plates of our light sockets. We do love winter. We love it because it is the season of the dogs, when they can truly be all they can be.
After 5,000 miles of driving over mountain passes, blizzards, and the awe of the flatness of the prairie, we have made it to my home state of New Hampshire! It has been two years since I have been able to enjoy some extended time in good ol’ New Hampshire. After all, the ruggedness of the ‘Live Free, or Die’ state is where I learned to run sled dogs nearly ten years ago! It really feels good to be home. Seeing the grandeur of the White Mountains and the beautiful purple lupines beginning to pop up throughout the lowlands is a great reminder of how much I love Northern New England! Although, it does not quite have the same mystique as the remoteness of Alaska, it certainly comes close! As a region, the North Woods of Vermont/New Hampshire/Maine really do rival some of the most wild places in North America. While venturing around, we have already come across bears, moose, and a pack of coyotes attempting to sing along with the howl of the dogs of Tukaway in the evening twilight! We have also been greeted by the amazing persistence of the bugs of the North Country! Sure, Alaska is known for its mosquitos, but here in the Northeast we not only have those, but also black flies, horse flies, AND moose flies! All of which bite with a veracity that draws blood every time! Haha, sure is good to be home!
We have settled in nicely at our summer kennel at Mahoosuc Outdoors in Milan, New Hampshire. We have been given permission to build a kennel on the top of a hill looking down on horse pasture that surrounds the old New England barn and the rustic Mahoosuc Inn. Here, guests can come and book a rafting trip on class II-IV rapids in both New Hampshire and Maine as well as go horseback riding on well kept and scenic trails. If an adrenaline rush on the rapids or a horseback ride is not your thing, just walking the trails and enjoying the view of Mahoosuc Mountain Range where the Appalachain Trail runs right over is not a bad option! The Inn is always open to anyone venturing into the North Country and we had the pleasure of staying in a room for a couple of nights while we were building our kennel and it surely is a five star place to stay!
As for us, and the dogs of Tukaway… It has always been a dream of mine to help promote the amazing sport of dog mushing and have a summer tour business doing just that! Seeing folks come in and meet real sled dogs and learn about a way of life that Walt Disney just doesn’t do justice is something that has always been so important to me ever since I started as a guide many years ago. Now that I have a kennel of my own dogs, I thought it sure would be fun to come back home and help promote the sport of dog mushing in New England. What many do not know is New Hampshire’s state dog is a sled dog! Although New Hampshire’s history with dog mushing is not nearly as vast as Alaska’s, it really does have some famous moments in the tradition of dog mushing. Educating the non-mushing community of this rich history as well as show off my amazing dogs and our racing goals in Alaska over the next few years just seems like a fun meaningful way to spend a summer!
If you find yourself in northern New England this summer and want to meet the finest sled dogs in the world (I might be a little biased) then come visit us in the beautiful North Country of Northern New Hampshire this summer! We are still planning on heading back to Alaska sometime in the fall to get ready for race season at our home in the mushing mecca of Two Rivers, Alaska. I’m sure by fall it might be hard to pull this New Hampshire boy away from the beautiful mountains of the region, but as much as I tell myself how nice it would be to settle down in familiarity, I am reminded by another red headed fella named Willie Nelson, “I just can’t wait to get on the road again!”
P.S. This is my first blog...... shhhh......