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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ready? Let's Go! by Claire Hendry

Claire runs a team with the ATV

        “READY, LET’S GO!”  The sudden explosion of movement forces me back on the ATV, bringing my feet off my carefully chosen spots, rocking my body backwards and immediately silencing my whir of apprehensive, even nervously excited thoughts. The sort of thoughts one might expect when one relocates thousands of miles away from home, away from family and friends, away from a student filled city with pubs and clubs on almost every given street, to live and run dogs in the heart of the North Woods; the famous Minnesotan Wilderness. ‘Am I going to like this?’ I think as I plonk down on the ATV with the dogs attached to the front for the first time. ‘I hope I like this. Oh, what if I don’t like this? I’m not exactly an adrenaline junky… I mean, I cried when I tried to ski every time I went for 5 years. Gah, this better not make me cry, that would be embarrassing. Phew, just chill out Claire. Breathe. Okay, don’t breathe that hard you’re going to look as if you’ve escaped an asylum or something. Breathe in. Is this a good place for my feet? There’s not any other place for them so it better be. Why do I have such big feet! Breathe Out. Am I holding on tight enough? Oh, yeah, I’m starting to lose blood flow to my fingers, probably tight enough. Breathe in. Oh my… okay Linda is getting ready to go. Breathe out. She’s asked me if I’m set to leave…. Breathe in. You know what? I’ve never wanted to do anything more.’ Breathe out. “I’m set”.

        I wish I could describe to you, in sufficient detail, the feelings, the sights, the sounds and the smells of my first fall training run through those woods but I’m afraid my writing skills aren’t anywhere near proficient enough to do so. If they were perhaps I could tell you about how the icy air, which might seem bitter and cruel to others, seemed to welcome me and paint my face with fresh clean kisses. Perhaps, I would be able to share with you the quiet in my mind as I watched a sea of the richest, fullest green unravel before me, interrupted only by shocks of white and black birch. Perhaps I could explain to you the sense of weightlessness my heart achieved as we would jump and spring over rock and stump, or the thrill of evading the sweet smelling slap of a low hanging balsam branch. Perhaps I would find the words to explain the marvel of seeing the team of gorgeous creatures before me, effortlessly and elegantly crisscrossing the lumps and bumps that would probably cause me to break a bone if I ran above a mere trot. Or how humbling it is to be able to witness them in full stride, fulfilling the task they were bred for, still meeting their side of the agreement that was forged thousands of years ago when humans and dogs first worked together, seeing this relationship still benefit both beasts and be carried on from the bare roots. Perhaps I could describe how joyous it is to stop and walk out to praise each dog, their big spooling tongues and wide open mouths like giant grins to expel the heat, making them look like they’re all bursting with laughter at some secret joke. Or perhaps I would be able to thank the people at Points Unknown for giving me this chance to be here, nestled in the quiet embrace of the wood, for filling my heart with the sort of unrivalled love you can only feel for the selfless, loyal creatures that dogs are, or for filling my brain with more than I have ever learnt before, allowing my body to grow stronger and my soul fuller. Yes, perhaps if I could only put it into words you would be closer to knowing just how my first fall training run went. Alas, the metaphors and alliteration and writing techniques I learnt so begrudgingly in high school do not quite match the feeling you can only get from this incredible experience. Perhaps you’ll have to come try it yourself?

“Woah!”. The run was over, we were back at the kennels. Linda jumps off. “How was that?” she asks smiling. I grin, but how could I explain all those feelings? “Good!” I reply, overjoyed at now being able to answer my own initial question: yes, I am very much going to like this.

By Claire Hendry

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rayna's Puppy Journey

Rayna (left lead in the photo) on her last run on day 24

Me and my Arrow

Rayna is a licker!

Arrow leading with White Feather

We’ve love it if you followed along on our puppy journey! So, let’s start at the beginning. We chose to breed Rayna, a Bassich line Alaskan Husky, that came to us three years ago from a homestead 12 miles down the Yukon River outside of Eagle, Alaska. She was brought into the kennel for genetic diversity in our current Hedlund and Zulu line breeding program and we fell completely head over heels in love with her and were smitten not only with her, but with her intense work ethic and leader ability. Arrow was the chosen one for Rayna; this big, burly, thick-coated stud has everything we desire in our dogs. Eager-to-please is by far his greatest attribute, passed down from his papa Oken who is also quite an amazing sled dog. Arrow is intensely strong and trail focused. Becoming a reliable leader, Arrow takes his job very seriously.

Rayna was bred to Arrow on September 26th and then again on September 28th.  After being treated for a vaginal infection after three days of bleeding, a month and a half previously, we were concerned that the current heat was potentially a split heat which means that there was a possibility that she could not have been ovulating, thus no puppies.

Rayna is likely to whelp (have her puppies) between days 60 and 63. On day 21 after her first breeding, Rayna began to refuse her food and vomit was discovered in her kennel. All good signs that she was pregnant!

The food refusal ended on day 31 when she began to eat regularly; however, she became pickier about when and what she ate.

We’re now on day 33 with no real physical signs of a pregnancy but plenty of behavioral signs. Rayna has become more possessive of her things and is also digging when she has not been a digger.

Because we stopped Rayna from working in the team on day 24, we are making sure that she gets lots of other stimulation to keep her active. She is free in one of our big play areas for much of the day with one of her male friends, Phoenix. After dinner, she comes in for the night and spends time lounging on the sofa. As her pregnancy progresses, she’ll be in much more during the day. We’re excited to be putting up the whelping box next week, in one of the spare bedrooms, so she can begin getting used to it. She and pups will remain inside until everyone begins jumping out of the whelping box, at which time, we’ll transition them outside in a thickly strawed and insulated dog house.

We’ll be giving more frequent updates on Rayna and all of the dogs at Points Unknown on the Points Unknown facebook page so please visit us there!

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Day in the Life by Rachel Sicheneder

Rachel runs a team with Rayna and Phoenix in lead

A Day in the Life; Dog Handling in the Northwoods

As I walk into the dog yard cold air hits me in the face. I take a deep breath in of the cool crisp air; feeling myself waking up bit by bit; waking up with the morning. My headlamp illuminates the kennels in the weak early morning light. Dogs pace back and forth; anxious for their first meal of the day. Even though it’s too dark for anyone to see I smile broadly. I love feeding in the mornings; saying hello to each of the dogs has become a centering way for me to start my days.

I open the first kennel and the two dogs within it burst out as if exploring the dog yard outside is the sole reason they woke up. I laugh out loud watching them run and play. Friendly growling, tail biting and chasing each other around, the two dogs are bright and alive. I call their names and they both lift their heads. Theirs ears perk up for a second as they register the command and then turning in a circle both of them barrel back into the kennel. It’s breakfast time! I hug each one of them individually. Feeling their ribs I check for anything that might be abnormal. After I am sure nothing is amiss and no one is gaining or losing any more weight than they should be I grab the five gallon bucket full of kibble. Immediately all eyes are on me. One of the dogs in front of me stamps her paws and whirls her head around in circles; a little happy dance I only get to see at feeding times. The other dog sits patiently and cocks her head. Her eyes glance from mine to the five gallon bucket and then back to me “It's kibble time! Look at my good sit! Feed me!,” she seems to be saying. I giggle and scoop out food for each of them. As I slowly make my way through the kennels the sun starts to peaks its head out of the woods to the east. Vibrant pink and red hues paint the sky above me and for a moment, with dogs running around me and giving me kisses, the world is complete and vivid and full of magic.

After feeding I set up the ATV for our fall training run that afternoon. I take care to ensure that the gang line, quick release, tug and necklines are all in working order and safety attached. I’ve learned to do this task slowly and methodically. A fray or loose carbiner can have disastrous results for a dog team and even though the tasks are now routine I take special care with each connection; making sure everything is secure.
In the afternoon when it is time to run the other handler working with me, Claire, and I walk into the dog yard with leashes. As I walk past kennels dog ears windmill and eyes follow me, “she has a leash! Is it me! I want to run! I want to RUN!” There are some excited yips and as I approach the kennel I’m headed to the dog whose name I’m speaking hears me and jumps into the air in a triumphant leap “I’ve been chosen! I’m going to run!” I let the dog out of the kennel and marvel at how fluidly he runs towards the gate. Every time I see one of these dogs run it feels like a special present, their limbs and muscles respond so fluidly with the rest of their body; sometimes it takes my breath away. 

Claire and I hook all the dogs up to the ready line and start to harness them. Nervous yips and barks abound. The dogs are anxious and excited and amped up and ready. One big floppy eared beauty, Wyakin, lies down after he is harnessed but continues to make small yips of excitement. Other dogs stay still but tremble with anticipation for what is to come. I spend time walking down the line and petting each dog. Dogs that are not normally affectionate seem to lean into me on the ready line; needing support and reassurance.
As we start to hook up the dogs to the gang line the noise level rises in the kennel. All the dogs still in their houses howl and pace. Their turn to run will come but still they’re jealous of everyone out of the kennel. The leaders of the team look back in anticipation at the ATV. They are still holding the line tight, but they too tremble with eagerness for what is to come. Their position in front of the team is not an easy one especially at hook up; with all the noise and dogs behind them they need to stand forward; keeping the team tight and in line.

I start to wrap the quick release as Linda hops on the front of the ATV. Excitement and butterflies rise in my stomach as she starts the machine. Starting off running, even in the fall, always gets my adrenaline pumping. With a “Ready, let’s go!” from Linda the team is off. The ATV jerks a little as the team accelerates; the downfalls of fall training are such that the ride is not very smooth. But in my mind I imagine what we are training for; sleds and snow and clean cold rides through wonderland. Regardless of the rocks or gear changes however, running the dogs still thrills me. Their long bodies trot and lope down the trail effortlessly. I am reminded yet again why I love mushing so much; animals doing what they were made to do; what they love to do. Like watching a musician play or a famous basketball player shoot hoops to watch sled dogs run is to watch nature in its element.

We stop for water halfway through the run and panting dogs eagerly lap at the bowls I put in front of them. With their tongues splayed out everyone looks like they’re smiling. Mud dots some of their noses adding a comical look to the wheel dogs. I pet and check in with everyone giving praise and checking to make sure no one looks like they are hurting or tiring to easily. Finishing the run with a “Whoa” we unhook the dogs and take them back to the ready line. In stark contrast to how amped up everyone was an hour ago now most of the dogs are lying down; waiting to be taken back to their houses.

As the day closes and we finish all of our runs the dog yard quiets down. Everyone got out and now dogs lay relaxing on their houses. Some of them curl up like cats with their tails tucked in, dozing off and waiting for evening feeding.  I breathe in deeply, inhaling the clear air of the woods around me. My muscles are tired and sore as I stretch my arms up to the air above me. My body too feels the run we did today and the stiffness feels good, reminding me of the work I accomplished. 

As Claire and I enter the dog yard for evening feeding I laugh loudly in response to the eagerness the dogs show for their kibble. Each dog’s personality is strikingly different; making it hard not to think of them as little people. We play and hug and say good night to each dog, softly talking with each other in between kennels. As we enter the final kennel Claire starts to sing quietly. Her clear voice seems to echo among the trees and I close my eyes briefly. Calmness descends with the end of the day. The sky once again blazes hues of orange, red and pink and with one final howl the dogs tuck themselves away in their houses. 

Rachel Sicheneder
Points Unknown Dog Handler