Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Never Let Go of Your Sled

Woohoo!  We finally have enough snow to cover the gravel on the road, provided the township doesn't plow it again as they did on Saturday.  The puppies are now 25 weeks old, which is big enough for some short, easy runs with the adults.  They were introduced to harness a couple of weeks ago and again when I checked fit early Sunday afternoon. 
Dora Sally Wylie Digger Declan
Wylie and Digger were the lucky first two to go with mom, dad, and big sister Dora.  They were a little skeptical of the funny looking wooden object outside of their gate.  Dora's bouncy exuberance did little to reassure them, though it did excite them.  Declan returned to wheel position, where he did fine all afternoon, despite his scare with the cart the previous weekend.  Dora and Sally went in front, with the babies in the middle.  That didn't work.  They may be little, but when Digger and Wylie twisted around to see what I was doing, the girls couldn't move them.  So, I rearranged, putting Digger in wheel with Declan, Sally in the middle with Wylie, and Dora in single lead.  Fortunately for the experiment, she likes to lead once in a while and chose this trip to do so. 
Paired with adults, the babies were fine running out of the yard and down the road with the strange contraption following behind.  If I were a dog, I'd want my first pulling experience to be with a relatively silent sled, too, rather than with a rattling metal cart.  Digger appeared to be pulling the entire time, keeping his line tight and his head down.  Wylie was having a lot of fun bouncing around on, over, and around Sally.  If she were a real sled dog, she would have told him to quit.  Instead, she ignored him.  He did straighten out on the way back. 
Shady Dora Lichen Sally Declan
The next puppies to go were Shady and Lichen.  Using Wylie and Digger as examples, I decided to run Shady with Dora in front and Lichen with Sally in back.  Dora is good going solo sometimes, but I could tell she didn't want to do it twice in a row.  This left Declan alone, but he was fine with that as long as I was on the sled.  That puppy arrangement didn't work.  Shady tried to climb back to see what I was up to, then wasn't happy once we were moving.
Hm.  I didn't want Dora alone.  I had two other adults and two puppies.  Okay, I put Sally back with Dora, the kids in the middle, and Declan where he was.  Perfect.  They all ran beautifully until we turned around. 
Turning around with untrained dogs who were more interested in what the wind was telling them from across the road isn't as easy as it should be.  Don't get me wrong--I only had five dogs to deal with.  On top of that, I have a paranoia of losing my team again.  To make it worse, we were on the same stretch of road where I lost them last weekend.  Soo, I got them turned around.  They were untangled.  Dora and Sally were ready to go, as was Declan.  I walked back to the sled, hopped on, and called for them to go.  Shady and Digger both turned around to the inside to see what I was doing.  Oops.  Now I had to untangle them again.  I tried that twice more before inspiration hit me in the side of the head. 
I got them lined out.  I stood just behind Dora and Sally and in front of the babies.  I checked for traffic.  I eyeballed the distance to the sled.  I calmly said "hike" in a tone meant to soothe.  They took off in a flash, leaving me to hope I could grab the sled and leap on before they lost me.  I managed the grab part, but my feet hadn't been in mukluks for several months and weren't quite able make the leap.  In fact, my feet decided they didn't want to go with me.  I found myself in a new position:  I was watching my team run from below the handlebar and between my hands. 
I told myself I could manage the situation without begging for mercy from my happily running team.  I pulled my heavily dragging body slowly forward, trying to think of what I would do when I got my face closer to the back of the sled.  I needed to control my wildly bouncing feet and legs so that I could get my knees on to the runners.  Once that was managed, it wasn't terribly difficult to get first one, then the other knee onto the appropriate runners.  I was then thankful to be able to get my feet under me and where they belonged.  Yes, the first thing I did after checking for witnesses was look damage to my mukluks. 
The ride home at that point was uneventful, thank Dog.  I tried to reassure the adults that we only had one more puppy to exercise.  They didn't look impressed, but they were game enough once I brought Tucker out to join them. 

By the third attempt at gently introducing puppies to pulling a sled, I hadn't learned much.  I threw Tucker in front with Dora and had Sally and Declan at the rear.  The poor fellow didn't like being unable to follow and was very disturbed by the sound of the brake.  He ended up in wheel with his daddy and chasing his mama and big sister.  That worked very well. 

On the way back to the house, I happened to glance up into a tree on the east side of the road.  There, watching us with great skepticism, was a pair of Ruffed Grouse.  I would like to say that they have learned to distinguish between hunting and mushing, but the reality is that the wind was from the other side of the road--The greatest impediment to turning them all around was getting the girls to point their noses north, rather than southwest. 

Tucker Takes Command!
Getting back into and up the driveway to the dog yard is always a challenge.  Sometimes the dogs go by and have to be led into the drive.  Other times, they'll go in, but then they stop halfway up the drive.  One would think it possible to lead the dogs up the driveway--a bad habit to get into.  It isn't really possible with these guys, though, because Declan won't go if he believes whatever is behind him isn't under control.   

Returning with Tucker changed things a bit.  The three adults quit moving.  Declan had his feet planted and wasn't going to let that sled move an inch until I was on it again.  The girls wanted to graze on the dead grass.  Tucker wanted to move move MOVE!  If I can convince him to run in lead, I just might have what I need to get the dogs back to the starting point. (Video of Tucker's Run)

Happy trails!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Things I Learned This Weekend

It's a good idea to check your cart's tire inflation before driving to the trail you plan to run.  

I loaded the dogs, hooked up the trailer, and left home on Saturday afternoon to try out the Sturgeon River Trail system.  After parking the van and opening the door so the dogs could get some fresh air, I started unloading the cart.  Uh-oh.  Both rear tires were flat.  Hmm.  I wished for the tire pump and, even knowing exactly where it was in the garage, checked the van for it.  Nothing.  We headed home.

Always be suspicious of the sound of escaping air.

It was so late in the day that I didn't bother with the idea of going back to Sturgeon after filling the tires.  I hooked the dogs up in the driveway and off we went.  It wasn't until we were about a mile out that I realized there was some strange tire noise from the right rear.  It was, in fact, completely flat from a hole in the rubber.  That would explain the sound of escaping air while I was filling it earlier. 

Waiting to Cross the Bridge:  Dora (l), Sally (r), & Declan


Never let go of your rig.  

I turned the dogs around and stared at the tire for a bit, willing it to be my imagination.   It wasn't.  I tried riding with all of my weight as far to the left as I could without being on that tire.  If I held the right up by using the handle bar, I could get the tire off the ground, but that created the type of problem one would expect with a three-wheeled cart.  I tried leading the dogs from the front, but without anyone steering it, the front end zigged and zagged, making Declan nervous.  I tried walking beside the rig on the right.  The girls kept making a sharp left across the road, so I switched sides.  Then it happened.  

Even well-behaved Irish Red and White Setters will take off on you.

Dora and Sally looked at each other and took off.  The dogs left me in the dust.  That cart, which zigged and zagged while I was leading the dogs, tracked true once the dogs reached what must be crucial velocity.  I ran a short distance before accepting that I would never catch up with them.  My heart was in my throat as the crossed the road while going up a blind hill.  Once they were over the hill, I figured they would only be hit by someone deliberately doing so. 

A mile is a long way to walk if you aren't sure where your dogs are.

I walked home.  It took a lot longer than I thought it would.  I didn't know where the dogs would be.  Logically, they would have gone home, but it is always difficult to get them to make the turn into the driveway.  For a while I couldn't see their tracks on the hard-packed road.  It was with relief that I saw our mailbox open with what turned out to be the Land 'O Lakes Kennel Club dog show premium lying on the ground.  Believing Scott to have caught them, I was confused to find him blissfully scooping poop in the dog yard when he should have been coming to my rescue. 

I never allow enough time. 

I dropped Scott off at a friend's house so the two of them could go mountain biking in Duluth.  I stopped at the local fleet supply store to get a new tire which I successfully put back on the cart myself.  The dogs and I finally made it to the Sturgeon River Trails on Sunday afternoon, a mere two and a half hours before I was due to be watching Breaking Dawn, part two, with my friend Louise. 

Shady at Big Aspen

Grass trails are harder to pull on than a hard dirt road.

I got the dogs hooked up in the parking lot, and after some directional issues, managed to get them onto the beautiful grassy boulevard.  I immediately noticed that the dogs weren't going as quickly as they had the previous weekend at Big Aspen, which has similarly wide but gravel and rock trails.   The trails along the Sturgeon River are not only rocky, but also pocked with holes and tree stumps which are all hidden by grass.  The cart was bumping and bouncing so much that I thought I would bounce right off! 

You should sometimes accept the dogs' decision.

I resigned myself to a slower-than normal ride.  I wasn't keen on taking the curves very fast, anyway. However, I can't deny loving it when the dogs finally found a section of trail they liked well enough to stretch out on.  I said to myself, "I can take these curves.  I'll just make sure I have my foot near the brake in case of an emergency."  It was a thrill to zip and zoom around the curves, anticipating excitement at every turn.  That was before the girls decided to turn right onto a logging road rather than continue on the trail. 

You should put your weight to the inside when making sharp turns at 15 MPH.

If you aren't going to accept your dogs' decision, you shouldn't steer as if they were going to change direction.  I did what I usually do at home, which is turn the cart in the direction I want to go.  They will then look to see what the problem is and change accordingly.  Well, that doesn't work very well on rough trails at high speed.  The dogs' momentum jerked the cart to the right which then propelled me to the left. 

You don't slide along the ground when you land.  

I would like to say I glided along the ground to a graceful stop at the base of the trail marker, but that wouldn't be true.  I landed on my left side with a resounding THUD.  I must have scared the wildlife for miles around.  The dogs turned to look at me beyond the overturned cart.  They were somehow disappointed.  They were, in fact, downright inconsiderate.  I could have been dying on the trail and all they cared about was being dragged to a stop.  I was torn between wanting a witness who would make sure I was alright and being glad nobody had seen my poor handling of my team and rig.  I confess to looking around for a witness before deciding not to cry. 

Know when to turn back.  

Not being smart enough to turn back then, we continued on our way through the woods.  The bouncing was now more painful but I am strong and can handle anything, which is why I went to the chiropractor this morning...  The dogs continued to run well until we got to the section of trail nearer the river.  This meant more noticeable ups and downs.  That is when I noticed Declan, my wheel dog, spending so much time looking over his shoulder at the cart that he was tripping over obstacles in the trail.

Having a dog quit is worse than getting a flat.

I promised him that I wouldn't run over him, but he didn't believe me and soon quit running altogether.  It is very difficult to move forward when one of the dogs is pulling back.  I tried unhooking his neckline and he crouched in front of the rig.  I tried tying him to the stanchion, and he pulled back.  The girls were determined, however, and he very reluctantly came along. 

The girls are a lot tougher than I thought they were. 

Dora and Sally pulled more strongly than ever, never once quitting on me.  We hit some of the rockiest and most hole-filled section of the trail while trying to get up away from the river.  I had decided to look for the forest road which ran back to the parking lot.  We ended up going the wrong way a couple of times but finally made it. 

I never allow enough time.

We got back to the van and I hooked the dogs up on the picket line to cool off and get some water while I loaded our gear back in the van.  That little Nine Squared rig weighs a lot more when you've bashed your shoulder in the ground!  I didn't have the sense to put the front in first, perhaps because I was in a hurry to meet Louise for the movie.  I rushed everything into the van, threw the dogs in, and got on the road.  I arrived just in time for the first preview.  

Tucker, Ready to Help

Try to recreate a runaway experience from the dogs' perspective.

After talking with Scott, I realized Declan had probably been hit by the cart on Saturday.  It would have gained on them as they ran down the other side of the big hill.  Declan would have had no way to get away from it.  If I had realized that, I might have taken a different course of action on Sunday.  Now, it is possible that he will never pull again.  Bummer for all involved.