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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Adventure

Our destination

Copper and Blueberry the morning after the trek in

Our trek begins!

And the snowmobile starts!

A very tired Copper, lounging in his bed

Neil and Copper


While the sled dogs were being well cared for back at the Gunflint Lodge dog yard, Neil and I took the little dogs for a Christmas adventure to the Points Unknown cabin to begin the trail breaking process in preparation for the Points Unknown Women's Winter Adventure in February. With already nearly 2 feet of snow on the ground it was imperative that the trail breaking took place when it did, otherwise it would have been far more difficult.

We arrived at the end of the mile long, unplowed driveway at 9PM. Neil, never having worn snowshoes before, got a crash course as we loaded up two utility sleds with the items we would need for our first night in, which included the little dogs, together in a small crate, and began our long journey, 20 paces at a time. After the first 40 paces and numerous stops to adjust the constantly tipping dog crate with little dogs inside, we decided that it would be best to let the little guys trudge along with us in our tracks rather then be force fed snow inside their kennel every time the thing toppled over.

There we were, head lamps on, full sleds behind us, walking 20 paces at a time in the dark, trying to make certain not to step on the little dogs with our mammoth snowshoes. Each time they jumped off the newly made trail to investigate something they would disappear in the white fluffy sea only to burst out again a little further along the trail with wide eyes and happy smiles. Copper and Blueberry provided the comic relief necessary with their antics along the trail to keep our spirits up for the 2 1/2 hour snowshoe hike into the cabin.

The cabin was a balmy 20 degrees when we arrived so we quickly started a fire in the woodstove and lit many of the propane lights to help heat up the place. Having decided about 400 paces earlier that we would not even attempt to get the snowmobile going to retrieve the remainder of the items at the truck for fear of getting the snowmobile stuck in the fresh fluffy snow leading to total exhaustion, we waited patiently for the heat to rise in the cabin while we sat thankful we were no longer trudging down the driveway. Copper was happy to be wrapped in a fleece blanket and placed in a chair right next to the woodstove while Blue curled up in a small dog bed on the floor next to the woodstove

At 2AM the temperature reached 40 degrees which made it easier for us to doze off a bit. We took turns getting up throughout the night to stoke the fire. By morning, it was nearly 55 degrees in the cabin. We had hoped to get up early and do some exploring on snowshoes around the area, maybe even do some trail packing with the snowmobile but after our strenuous 2 1/2 hour snowshoe adventure the night before, we opted to make one run out to the road with the snomo for our food supply and stay in the cabin the remainder of the day to rest our weary bones and then cook a nice Christmas Eve dinner. The little dogs didn't leave the couch most of the day as well, having covered more ground than we did the previous day with their running back and forth in our tracks and diving in and out of the snow.

Christmas day was glorious with blue skies and temps in the low teens. Needing to get back to the lodge to do some trail grooming, we packed up in the late morning, made a couple runs out to the truck with the snomo to bring out our gear and then we snowshoed out on a now very compacted trail with the little dogs now sailing ahead in front of us rather than trudging along behind us. It wasn't quite the mini vacation we had anticipated , however it was very rejuvenating and gave us a break from the work we had been doing to prepare the trails and dog yard back at the lodge the previous week.

Trail Grooming

The "enchanted forest" trail

Beautiful section of the trail

Grooming the trail. Gunflint Lake in the background.

A foggy day on the lake

After hearing from the local search and rescue authority that the lake ice was safe, Liz and I shot out on Gunflint Lake on the snowmobile a few days ago to check the conditions. We were warned of the possibility of deep slush so it was necessary to keep the speed up to avoid becoming stuck, creating a very difficult situation as the slush quickly freezes the snowmobile in place.

We did find slush but conditions were not quite as bad as we had anticipated. The slushy spots in the middle of the lake appeared to have frozen over, making a nice crusty top.

Lake ice conditions were again tested the afternoon after our slush check and we were all astonished to find out that in some places the thickness of the ice had actually decreased, leaving us all wondering what mother nature has in play. The lake will not be approved for our client adventures until we can be certain this new condition has reversed and more solid inches of good ice are built up. Having had a few inches of snow the other day, coupled with high winds, we now have mounds of snow on the lake creating insulation. This condition doesn't lend itself to ice build-up without extended periods of temps well below zero. Thankfully, below zero temps have been abundant.

After having had a warm up a few days ago, into the upper 30s, then a dip below zero and a few inches of snow, our established wooded trails are in very good condition. An immediate grooming with the snowmobile with groomer in tow after the snowfall made this trail ready for smooth and fast runs on our fully booked New Year's Eve day schedule.

Training Runs

Training run at the bottom of the "chute".

The "enchanted forest" portion of the trail

Up one of the many hills, with Gunflint Lake and Canada in the back drop

Neil and his very first mushing experience with the trusty Phoenix in lead. McKenzie and Zodiak provided support in wheel position.

Four teams went out on Sunday, December 21st. Our objective was to test the trails before our first client adventure and to get our trainees' feet wet, so to speak. In the morning, both Helen and Neil got their first introduction to the sled behind the snowmobile so they could get an idea of how to handle the sled before dogs were introduced. That afternoon, dogs were added to each sled and off we all went. I was amazed at how both Neil and Helen took so naturally to the sled.

Catching Up!

First clients of the season

As luck would have it, the day after Christmas the wifi system miraculously began working and we are now fully "connected" with the outside world again.

After a week of trail establishment, enhancement and maintenance, we hosted our first guests on Monday, December 22nd. Last year's calendar indicates we were not able to begin our full trail adventures until January so we are a couple weeks ahead due to the snow storm that delayed our arrival. If only it would have been the "right" kind of snow, then all of our trails may be open for use, including the new trail we and lodge guests cut during a November fall clean-up weekend. The snow storm provided a nice layer of light and fluffy snow that doesn't lend itself to sculpting and packing.

Winter trail cutting is an interesting activity with unexpected surprises that only show themselves when the snow falls. As it turns out, there is a portion of this trail that we deemed impassable with clients due to the safety issues that arose after our first test dog sled run last week. When things slow down a bit we will be digging deeper into finding a solution for this section of the trail so it can be added to our adventure offerings. Until then, safety remains one of our goals and it will remain closed until we have the time, man power and snow available to make some upgrades.

Introductions; Sandy Schwartz

Sandy Schwartz and the Good Dog Outfitters team live and train in the La Plata Mountains near Mancos, Colorado. Sandy was introduced to dog sledding in 2003 by Linda Newman, who also helped Sandy acquire her first sled dogs. In 2005, Sandy, husband Mark, and the team moved to Colorado where Good Dog Outfitters was created to introduce friends and families to the joys of dog-powered sports. Sandy most enjoys driving the sled down snowy trails in the Colorado back country.

In her spare time, she skis, teaches Pilates, and maintains websites.

Sandy will be traveling to northern Minnesota a couple times over the winter season to assist Points Unknown with dog mushing adventures at Gunflint Lodge.

Introductions; Hailey Quanbeck

Hailey Quanbeck, 15, has always had a passion for animals and the outdoors. Her household consists of a dog, cat, parrot, guinea pigs, and numerous fish. She loves being out in “the middle of nowhere” with not a building for miles. However, this is very difficult to accomplish when living in the City of Minneapolis and being unable to drive. She had some occasional escapes, such as annual adventure trips into the Boundary Waters, and Isle Royale through YMCA Camp Menogyn (summer 2008, she will be participating in a 21-day backpacking in Yellowstone). But these occasional escapes were not enough, and she wanted something more. Something more came, when August 2005, she met Linda, owner of Points Unknown Kennel, at a Becoming and Outdoors Woman family event. While exploring various other stations at this event, she could not help but return over and over again to the sled dogs. Linda invited her to come out and visit her sometime, the visit occurred, and the visits have continued. Now whenever she has a free weekend, she will visit Linda and the dogs. During the winter, it is more difficult to visit Linda since she is then 6 hours away at Gunflint Lodge, instead of 40 minutes. However she will be helping with the dogs for December 26- January 2, and hopefully will find other times to come and help as the winter continues.

Hailey is a natural when it comes to working with the sled dogs and spending time safely in the remote northwoods. She is calm and assertive with the dogs and always uses common sense and good judgment.

Introductions; Helen Thorgalsen

Helen joins us, she says, during her "mid life crisis/adventure!" She spent the fall at North Wapiti Kennel in Canada where she got her first dog handling and kennel experience. To further enhance her sled dog experience, she has come to work for Points Unknown as a dog handler/musher.

Helen hails from Kennebunk, Maine and has also been living in Northern Vermont most recently. She has two daughters in college and a little Bichon/Poodle house doge who is waiting patiently for her to come home from her adventure in northern Minnesota.

Taking to dog mushing quickly, Helen began running her own small teams within a week of her arrival. She has helped organize various aspects of the kennel routine, making the daily routine run more smoothly. The excellent care she gives the dogs and the hard work she is putting into learning to be a musher for client adventures is appreciated beyond words.

Introductions; Melanie Rodriguez

Melanie is an 18-year-old high school senior from Chanhassen, MN.
She has been an animal lover her whole life and is especially fond of dogs,
and horses. She enjoys working with animals and is a kennel
attendant at
a veterinary clinic. She aspires to be a companion animal
and plans to major in animal science in college. There
is a special
place in her heart for shelter dogs and cats and she loves
at a local animal shelter. She also enjoys canicross
hiking with her Siberian
Husky,Annie, cross country running,
and spending time outdoors.

Melanie has been assisting with kennel duties at Points Unknown
kennel for over three
years and ran her first team of sled dogs
last season. She loves photography and many
of her photos have
appeared on the Points Unknown website, blog and recently, one was

printed as a postcard.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Northwoods Arrival!

So much to write about, so little Wifi bandwidth. I am typing this from a nearby resort as Gunflint Lodge has been without internet access since December 7th. Prior to this issue, there was no phone service for 10 days! Such is life in the remote northwoods of Minnesota.

Neil, Chris, the sled dogs and I arrived on Monday, December 15th, a day late due to poor road conditions. The roads were still quite treacherous on our departure day so a 6 1/2 hour drive turned into an almost 10 hour adventure. We did make it to the lodge safely and just a day before our other staff were to arrive, as they, too, were running late due to weather delays.

Liz, driving from Oregon and Helen, traveling from Vermont, arrived on Tuesday. Since then we have all been trying to work out new routines with the dogs, pack trails, cut dead fall on the trails, adjust to our new winter surroundings, get the phone to work and go from place to place to try and access our ever so necessary email accounts. What did we ever do without email?

The Points Unknown dogs settled right in, most remembering their spots from last season and leading us right to them. With a new large pen added to the dog yard this season, Tuki and Isis are in heaven and seem to be so much happier than they did last season. This retired couple continues their "old married couple" antics. All dogs were given bones to keep them occupied until we could get out on the trail. And today was the first sled run of the season for Points Unknown dogs and Briar's Patch Sled Dogs.

The first sled run of the season is always, well....... interesting and today was no exception. It usually takes a lot more set up than anticipated so you can locate all of the necessary gear that has been packed away for so long. We would be running the new trail that we and lodge guests cut in November so in addition to the first sled run anticipation, there was an added feeling of the "unknown"

Written on December 20th and not published until today. The purchased one hour time limit on the wifi system of a neighboring resort ended as the Publish Post button was pushed.......

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Polka; New Line Introduction

Sweet 4 1/2 year old Polka

Phoenix being very attentive to his guest.

Polka in wheel

Leaning into the harness as a good freight dog will

Quiet and calm while at rest

Funny that the last post should be about Phoenix as he is currently hosting a visitor for the next couple of weeks. Polka is from Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, Minnesota. She is the beginning of a new breeding program for the school and contributes an excellent work ethic, dense coat, good structure and size(65lbs for a female is quite a good size), mild and eager-to-please temperament and leader skills. Phoenix will be the sire to a litter of pups with Polka that, if all works as planned, will whelp in early February. We at Points Unknown are also very excited about this breeding because it means an introduction of some compatible new blood to the Hedlund Husky line. We will be bringing one of the pups home on our return from our winter adventures the beginning of April.

Polka arrived last week and has been enjoying her stay. Wanting to make certain she got exercise during her visit, we have taken her out on a couple runs with the team. She has been so adaptable and once harnessed, acted as though she had been running in our team all training season. I was impressed with how she put her head down and pulled with all of her strength when getting started then settled into a nice even pace, never slacking. When stopping the team to rest, she quietly stood, leaning into her harness, waiting for the command to go. When not out running with the team, she enjoys romping free in the backyard with others in the kennel or lounging in her kennel snacking on bones.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Phoenix Turns 3 Years Old Today!

Phoenix with friend at 8 weeks

Phoenix at 12 weeks

5 mos.

First time in lead at 10 mos.

Canicross Hiking at 1 1/2 years old

Photo Courtesy of Layne Kennedy
Freight dog Phoenix, March 2008

Sweet and happy guy

Phoenix was a laid back, big blonde bundle of fuzz when he came to us from Mush Knik Networking in Alaska, with an enormous instinct to pull at a very early age. He is one of the mildest natured dogs in the dog yard and is every one's friend.

When put up in lead at 10 mos, he showed great potential. At three years old, he has now grown up and is really taken to his new role as full-time leader in one of the Points Unknown teams.

Unassuming, quiet, relentless puller, extreme power are only a few of the words used to describe this well rounded boy. He is a true gift to the kennel.

Happy Birthday to Phoenix!

A Day in the Life.....

Sunrise over Oake Lake in the dog yard


Tuloon and Phoenix. Phoenix sports his new "shorty" harness.

Klaus and Journey

Ilu and Oken

Icoa and Zodiak (legs!)

Klaus giving his usual 110% even while at rest

One of our distractions on the trail today. The horses enjoyed the "show".

Today we awoke to the most amazing sunrise over the dog yard. It had been cold enough that a complete layer of ice formed on Oake Lake over night and the sunrise reflected on it. The dogs howled to welcome the new day before breakfast was served.

After breakfast, the dogs rested two hours before we began to load for our training runs. It would be out second run after resting over a week during deer hunting season when being out on the trail is just plain dangerous. We would be trying some new harnesses for the very tall dogs that would free their hind ends from the downward pressure that comes with being tall and pulling a heavy load.

The "shorty" harnesses as we began calling them are actually called saddle back harnesses because they rest on the dog where a saddle would on a horse. Our big wheel dog, Ilu would be testing one as would all of our tall boys Klaus, Phoenix, McKenzie, Oken and Zodiak. After using them, I was impressed with how some dogs took to them and how they seemed to fit quite nicely, however on other dogs, it was very difficult to adjust them to make them fit. More testing is needed. Every dog using them seemed to pull just as hard except for Klaus and it could be because of an improper fit. Once back in his old X-Back harness, he seemed to feel much more at home.

Oken, the just over a year old pup, was up in lead with uncle Klaus today and we practiced "gee over" commands which means move from where you are to the far right side of the trail and hopefully stay there until another command is given. His attention span was fairly short so he moved back to point position behind the leaders and Journey took his spot. Journey is a year and a half old and hasn't been up in lead for several runs. She forgot nothing and did the most wonderful "gee over" down the trail with Klaus.

Tuloon and Phoenix are the leaders of the second team. This is Phoenix's first year in full-time lead and is giving Tuloon a run for her money. Tuloon, being the princess she is, sometimes decides what is best for her rather than what is asked of her. This happens for but only for a moment until she hears the ever so familiar "aaah" sound make from deep within my throat or the "on-by" command which means, "no, you can not take us into the field of horses" or "yes, there are cattle down that ravine looking up at us but let's not bother them and just stay on the trail" Phoenix, on the other hand, straight as an arrow, takes us down the trail with complete focus.

Both Phoenix and Tuloon took commands wonderfully today. Since I want them to work independently of each other, I don't use a neckline. When one of them appears confused about which way to turn the other may go behind them and pull them in the proper direction, reinforcing my command. Otherwise, if neck lined together, one may be hesitant to invade the space of the other to move in the proper direction because being tied at the neck, they can't go behind each other without a severe tangle. On the other hand, there is a time and place for neckline use with leaders as in the case of Klaus and Oken. Oken needs all of the reinforcing direction he can get, being a big boy puppy, and Klaus needs to learn to have the confidence to push into him or pull him from the neck when a command is given that Oken hasn't yet learned. In this case, a neckline is used. Each situation needs to be assessed and each dog needs to be worked with in a way that works best for them. After one too many missed commands on Oken's part today and an appearing frustrated Klaus, the neckline was removed so Klaus could have free movement again to go behind Oken to make a turn, if necessary versus constantly having to pull or push him from the neck. Klaus just needed a break.

Ilu got his first chance out of wheel in ages and was placed behind the leaders with Journey and then Oken once the leader swap was made. Ilu took advantage of his new freedom on occasion and tried to pull the team over one way or another to check out something neat but quickly corrected himself when "asked".

After two successful training runs the dogs were unloaded, placed back in their kennel groups, had their collars taken off for safety and were fed a light snack with some water baited with fat.

Tuki and Isis, two of our retired dogs, were then exercised in the yard, and ran wildly around and around. Zulu, another retiree, was taken for a walk with his grandson Zodiak. After the retired dogs were exercised it was time for the evening feeding after a short one hour break for the mushers. The evening dinner consisted of a Redpaw 32/20, a Redpaw 38/25, a Redpaw Balanced Fat and some rice in various quantity combinations based upon the individual dog. After which is a second round of watering with fat baited water. Poop is scooped as it is numerous times throughout the day and then tonight, straw was added to all of the dog houses.

The evening ended with a contented howl from the dogs as we said good night and see you dark and early in the morning!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Introductions; Jon Williams

Jon with his well behaved team of Malamutes

Jon Williams, 53, is a clinical pharmacist at the Great River Medical Center in West Burlington,Iowa. At an early age, he discovered how much he loved exploring the outdoors, through camping, hiking, fishing, and canoeing. This led him to spend 20 years of volunteer time serving on the Des Moines County Conservation Board and Partners for Conservation Foundation.

He has backpacked the North Western states, Alberta/British Columbia, and Isle Royale. Rock climbed in Wisconsin and Idaho with the Iowa Mountaineers. With his wife Jane, they have canoed extensively through out the BWCAW and Quetico over the last 20 years. In 2000, Jon canoed the Hunter Island route, which circumnavigates the BWCAW and Quetico.

Jon always enjoyed X-country skiing and ice fishing in the wintertime, but wanted to find a way to explore this time of year even more. So in 1986, he bought his first Alaskan Malamute puppy. After reading a couple of books on sled dog training he was able to get his first dog to pull a sled full of ice fishing equipment and accompany him on his many ice fishing excursions. Several Malamutes later, he realized more training was necessary. He wanted to see if he could handle winter camping with sled dogs so he spent a week learning how at Paul Schurke's Wintergreen in January of 1997. Next stop, was completing two of Jamie Nelson/Ann Stead's mushing boot camps in northern Minnesota. The boot camps were an unbelievable "dog and musher," learning experience; also a way to meet people from all over the country and gain mushing friends from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Over the last several years Jon has enjoyed winter camping and mushing with his friends in northern Minnesota. Currently, Jon has 11 Alaskan Malamutes that make up his Ravencrest Kennels in rural southeast Iowa. There he trains his 10 dog team and is always looking for new adventures with them up North.

Jon is also a pilot and enjoys flying from the grass strip airfield near his home to visit friends all over the Mid West. This will be Jon’s first season with Points Unknown, assisting with client adventures. When first meeting Jon several years ago, I was impressed with his well behaved team of Malamutes and know he and his team will be an asset to our winter program.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In-Between Days

Trumpeter Swan family of eight

Today is the first of many of those "in-between" days. Not quite fall and not quite winter. We awoke to a skim of ice on Oake Lake and the dogs' water buckets had frozen a good 2" on top. The dogs have warm and cozy nests of straw in their dog houses and seem happy to spend the day inside resting and waiting for the sun. This week is deer hunting season and in these parts, we stay clear of the trails until it's over so the dogs get a week of vacation from training.

As I watched the light snow fall through my office window this morning I noticed the family of Trumpeter Swans that had apparently stayed on the lake over night. They had kept an area on the lake of about 10 feet by 20 feet, free from ice by their movement. As the day went on, temps became warmer and the wind picked up, there were other areas on the lake where the skim ice was opening up. One of the adults of the Swan family was seen walking daintily across the skim ice to another open area, hoping for the rest of the family to follow, as it appeared. No one did. Instead, the other adult, with 6 adolescents in tow, swam through the ice, plowing a channel of her own to meet up with her mate on the other side. The photo above was taken when they reached the other member of their family.

It would be interesting to know what each Swan was considering when they took their path of choice. Why did one walk across the ice and the other plow through it? Was it the consideration of safety in the second Swan's mind? Not wanting her (assumed to be her) six babies to fall through the thin ice and experience a hardship, she then lead the way.... a different way than the first.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Gunflint Lodge Work Weekend

Blueberry and Copper lounging at the Musher apartment

New pen in the dog yard

Distant view of the now complete dog yard

The dog truck, a 17' cube van, was unloaded of its dog transport items including 12 large plastic dog crates, a fall training cart and all associated gear . It was then reloaded with fourteen bales of straw, five wooden dog houses, four plastic dog houses, the brush cutter, other miscellaneous trail cutting tools and various tools needed for the dog yard. On Friday the sled dog mascots and I headed up to Gunflint Lodge for a special work weekend in that loaded cube van.

Each year, Gunflint Lodge has a work weekend planned where guests can come for two nights for a discounted price in exchange for five hours of work on the property. This weekend Points Unknown had a total of fourteen very eager and hard working trail clearing and dog yard workers. With Jason, the maintenance supervisor at the chain saw, me at the brush cutter, eight "lopper" specialists and four log and debris movers, we managed to clear 2+- miles of new dog sledding trails in under five hours! Even though trail clearing is quite a lot of work and winter had blasted in the evening before, sending flurries throughout the day and cold wind chills, we all had fun clearing, chatting and laughing along the way. The evening ended with a complimentary buffet for all workers. I saw a lot of tired and happy faces this evening.

As the people worked most of the day, the sled dog mascots lounged comfortably back in the musher apartment and enjoyed four short walks during various breaks throughout the day.

Yesterday was spent in the dog yard unloading the truck, installing a new dog pen and preparing the chains and hardware for many of the axles. With the help of Robert who lives at the end of Gunflint Lake Road, this was accomplished in a few short hours.

Many thanks to Robert and all of the hard working trail clearing and dog yard workers! Your help was much appreciated!