A Special Year, A VERY Special Team

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Last season was a VERY disappointing and difficult year.  Long about September, I met one of my mushing friends on the island and decided to take my big boy, Yuki, for a hike to test out his wrist which had a ligament injury from the previous season and kept him on the bench.  I was so hopeful that it had healed sufficiently to allow him back on the team, because I really needed that boy’s strength, but primarily because I really missed him not being with us.  He had one of those personalities that can only be described as a gentle giant, a stable, loving dog who I never saw ruffled, even when strange dogs would charge.  He had a way about him that just diffused bad situations and more often seen, infused a JOY into my pack by initiating “the games”.

I noticed at the end of our hike that he seemed just a bit gimpy… barely noticed a little something that I was afraid was that stupid wrist ligament swelling.  A couple days later I left town for the weekend, and when I came back and walked through the door, I instantly knew something wasn’t right with my sweet boy.  I didn’t even need to see him stand up… I just saw it in his eyes. 

It turned out that he had chondrosarcoma that we treated him for with radiation, which bought us a very short but very very special 3 months.  He was actually able to run on his team a few short times, and I got to see his HUGE smile as he was exploding off the truck.  He was only 8 years old, and I was not prepared to lose him.  He taught me many many things, mostly about how incredibly deep a love can be between a woman and a dog, and how inspiring they can be to watch them live out the traits that I strive for (and fall so far below)- forgiveness, love, joy, peace, selflessness, and not taking one day for granted.  I see now that just because our dogs are healthy and happy right now, there’s absolutely no guarantee that tomorrow will be the same, so we better be appreciating this time we’re blessed with.

So, last summer it was time to start re-building the pack (with my husband’s blessing), and it took two dogs to “stand in” for my Yuki (although I know he could NEVER be replaced).  Enter Tkope, a very smart 7 month old who was a stray and saved off the side of a dark highway with perserverence and Thai food!  He was a handful (and still is at times), and even though he looked like Yuki (NOT the reason I chose him) his personality is quite different.  He is not stable or confident or socialized with people or other dogs, but was welcomed in by my pack and tries repeatedly to appease the new leader, Tozi (who I know was profoundly affected by Yuki’s passing) by repeatedly trying to insert his entire head into his mouth!  I quickly realized that he had the makings of a great sled dog, but was so much younger than the rest of the pack that he was constantly frustrated with lack of a playmate (although they graciously put up with his puppy antics).  Enter Cicely!  Cicely is the dog that I had absolutely no reason for adopting to be a sled dog.  She is 2 and her story was quite a bit sadder than Tkope’s (although we really don’t know what his story was).  I was at Nightsong Siberian Rescue to meet a young girl who apparently had the energy to keep Tkope entertained.  We were watching the pups play in the yard when I noticed this little thing running back and forth in her kennel 10’ away from the dogs.  She looked so HAPPY to just dream of playing through the fence!  She wasn’t demanding to be let out, but was just happy to be so close to the fun.  Cicely is TINY now, but she was about half as wide as she is now from her people not loving her enough to feed her before or after they let her have a littler of pups.  She looked just horrible, and had already gained quite a bit of weight by the time I saw her since being quite literally saved by the rescue.  Something just drew me to her, and so I asked if we could let her out to play.  From the first second I could tell that she had no idea she was so much smaller than the others!  She wasn’t afraid of the over-exuberant “play” of Tkope and actually seemed to enjoy him.  I could see she had some great dog social skills, which was what Tkope needed to learn.  Her gait was a little “off”, so I chatted with one of the WONDERFUL volunteers who was a therapist with sled dogs of her own, and she felt like it was just because she was so weak.  I fell in love with this little precious pup and knew I couldn’t drive away without her.  If she couldn’t make it on the team, that was fine with me; we needed each other.  Within a week, Tkope’s play skills improved as she taught him some politeness.  Her coat was softening up and growing, as was her waist, and we were on our way.  I couldn’t wait to see if she was at all interested in running with the team.  I figured that she wouldn’t take up much room in the sled bag if she couldn’t keep up!  What I’ve seen has astounded me!  She really believes she’s twice as big as she is, and works as hard (or harder) than any of my others!

I have been so blessed to be surrounded by some amazing mushers and have been so encouraged to hear their compliments this year for my little 6 dog team as we’ve participated in some Dryland races and fun runs.  It’s hard to qualify my team sometimes because I’m too close to them to be objective, but I really trust these friends’ opinions and experience and continue to smile when I see Team Wulik running down the trails.  (“Wulik” is a river in Alaska that I chose as the basis for my kennel name… Any guesses why?  If you have Siberians, you should be able to answer that but if you need a little help, look at the end of this for the answer!)

So last week a friend mentioned a new Purebred Race in Montana in January.  There were some mid-distance races and two recreation classes.  Sounded like fun, and I planned to look into it when I got back from my trip to Canada to visit my dear friends (along with their “Rocks and Trees…and water” !).  While I was up there, I was just so impressed with my team!  Our speed is up considerably from what it’s ever been before, and everyone is working and enjoying getting down the trail.  We did a 15 mile run (with an hour rest at the local café/store) and I couldn’t believe I didn’t have to carry Cicely (or anyone) back home, and all my kids enjoyed themselves!  They were more than ready for a 6 mile run the next morning too, which showed me the previous day, though hard, was not too hard for them.  I’m being so careful to make sure it stays FUN for my two newbies especially, and am only interested in running my dogs in a way that they will enjoy and won’t ask too much from them.  That said, it was clear to me that I have never asked too much from them, and really have no idea what great things they’re capable of!  Talking with these amazing friends in Canada who had such awesome experiences (including running their Purebred Siberians and Samoyeds across Alaska in the 800 mile Serum Run) fanned my flickering flame of hope that my little team of mostly rescues could absolutely “Dream Big and Dare to Fail”, as Col. Norman Vaughan was famous for saying!  Why couldn’t they?  They have the heart, and I can train them up and see how much we can do, realizing that I am the weak link, not any of them!  Spending time with these dear friends up in Canada was really the factor that led me to seriously try this.  It’s hard to explain what happened up there, but being surrounded by such precious people who are so generous with their encouragement has truly been life changing for me and my team, and I am so appreciative to them all!

So we came home and the very next day signed up for our first 100 Mile Race! 

The thing that was so appealing to me about running this particular race was the fact that I wouldn’t be the one that the Alaskan Husky teams and volunteers had to wait on.  We would be running with similar dogs!  We’re going to have the chance to see some amazing country and snow and experience things that never could be on a shorter run.  I’m most excited about the opportunity to take excellent care of my team on the trail, and to bond with them on an even deeper level.  We will, quite frankly, be dependent on each other in a way that we haven’t been thus far.  The fact that Don and Margaret will be running  too was the icing on the cake… what a great chance to learn from two people I respect so very much re: their love for and care of their dogs.  Why wouldn’t we try it?  How could we let this opportunity slip by?

This season just “feels” different.  I’ve noticed and mentioned several times that I feel stronger and healthier than I have in a very long time, and there is absolutely no reason for it!  There’s nothing I’ve done to make this change!  I haven’t been eating or exercising any better than in previous years, but my muscles are stronger, my lungs are stronger and I have more energy (even with it getting darker each day).  I know that the Lord has blessed me physically, mentally and emotionally (even with some huge losses this year) by His Grace and I pray that He will guide each step I take, provide for each trail He wants us to take, and enable me to bring Him Glory in the way we do it.

This is a very exciting time for me as I know He has already “groomed the trails” for us, not to be all smooth or downhill, but to be exactly what we need for my good and for His glory.  I’m sitting here typing this with some pretty sore muscles after a crazy training run two nights ago, not to mention several interesting bruises, and I know there will be MORE of this to come, but it’s all okay.   These are just physical difficulties and for me, this is largely a spiritual journey, which is FAR MORE VALUABLE.

Mushing has definitely changed me over the few years I’ve been in the sport.  There are some obvious things like the fact that I am calmer, more in control of my emotions and attitudes, more willing to do something scary, but the biggest change has been for me to re-learn that the Lord is Sovereign!  He loves me and He is Almighty to control every snowflake to work out His perfect plan.  Even though I don’t know what the trail and weather conditions are going to be, I don’t know what the dogs are going to do, I don’t know what dangers we’ll meet, HE DOES, and in that, I can and must rest!  I can actually let go of my natural tendency to worry and truly just enjoy the ride because I know He has called me to this.  I also know He continues to use mushing and my dogs in big ways to teach me about Himself, and I look forward to all the big and little lessons as we train and run this season.  I’m happy to have you come along “on the runners” with me, and to share some of the most special gifts I have been blessed with!

Before I write more, let me fill you in on the rest of my amazing little team of Siberians!

In lead will be Galena and Tana, Swing will be Cicely with Lance (Mackey), and wheel are Tkope and Tozi.

Tana is my only non-rescued kiddo.  Karen Ramstead entrusted her to me and she has been a JOY, always a JOY, to be around!  She is in many ways invisible because she rarely does anything that needs to be attended to.  She just goes and goes and goes…until which time she flings herself on the snow to perform her special Snow Angel Routine!  She’s learning to only practice this when we’re already stopped, but sometimes she tries to stop the team with this little show!  She has become my Velcro dog at home, especially since we lost our first Siberian, Kodiak, this summer, and that was her role.  Tana now follows me everywhere, which is just fine with me!  She is, well, pretty perfect!

Galena is my first little dynamo (with Cicely quickly joining that club).  She is one of my two puppymill rescues (Lance is the other one) and I swore I would not adopt her!  I went to go meet Lance ONLY, I repeat ONLY!  We have one non-team dog, Kanootka, whose “fault” it is that I’m in this sport.  We adopted her from Willow Run Rescue, and her foster mom (Gail, who is a musher herself) told me about Cascade Quest Sled Dog Race.  I had just read Winterdance (I know, I know… I’ve already told Mr. Paulsen that he’s in big trouble for starting this ride!) and was excited to see some real sled dogs at work.  I parked about ¼ mile away from the start and could hear the dogs before ever seeing them…and instantly, and I do mean INSTANTLY I WAS HOOKED!  It was as if a switch had been flipped in my brain and I HAD to run dogs!  So, Kanootka is loved and appreciated so much for leading the way for me to find mushing, but she has some “issues” with other dogs (especially females) in her kingdom.  (So she has also been my very best teacher over the years, much of the time teaching me what not to do to try and affect dog behavior, but also teaching me a TON about how dogs communicate with each other, one of my favorite topics).  So, I was ONLY looking for a male to bring in.  I had asked for pictures of Lance and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see him very well in them.  I showed up at the rescue (the day after my first time on a sled, thanks to Carole and Jeff Parsons!) and the first face I saw was Galena’s at the fence.  She looked, well, beautiful and happy and friendly…but I wasn’t going to let that weaken me!  I pet her and walked right by her to Lance, who was frozen in fear under the picnic table.  As I entered, he ran from me and searched in terror for something to hide behind.  I noticed Galena seemed to be his buddy, and he kept going to her for support.  As I watched more it became very clear to me that Lance NEEDED Galena.  It has taken me some time to realize just how much I need her too!  She has turned into a very confident dog (sometimes too much so, especially when matched with her independence streak while in harness!) who has given Lance the security that I really don’t think he could have done without for his first year of life.  She is the best therapist I’ve ever seen!

Lance Mackey was named by my husband because he thought he needed some of the optimism and strength that we respect so much from the first Lance Mackey, who overcame throat cancer through his love for and from his dogs.  Our little Lance has continued to be a very fearful dog, but LOVES TO RUN!  This sport has built up his confidence and given him some great fun on the trails, and so important to our team, he NEVER QUITS!  He was afraid to walk across the living room floor this morning (the heater had evidently been placed too close to the pathway to go outside) but won’t let anything out in the solitude of the trails slow him down.

Next comes Cicely, who runs next to Lance, and they are both my cheerleaders.  She is the one who leaps in the air and throws every ounce of her body into the harness to get us going, and moves those little legs so fast to keep up with “the big dogs”.  She honestly can almost fly!  She’s so light that she almost elevates off the ground sometimes!  She’s so inspiring to me to watch her ignore and run over all the reasons why she shouldn’t be able to do this!

Tkope is in wheel and is just settling in like a pro!  He still gets pretty anxious at hook up (not the good kind of anxious but the on the verge of freaking out kind of anxious), but is making great strides in self-control.  He has exhibited this control over and over again during passing other teams (and being passed by them), which is awesome because he still has a long way to go to be comfortable with strange dogs in his space.  He is more confident and settled and peaceful in harness than any other time, as are Lance and Tozi too.  Tkope is quite long legged, and it’s been fun to watch him mature these past 6 months.  He hasn’t really gained any size, but has excelled in coordination.  At first I wondered if he’d be able to even run fast as he never seemed to be able to get his legs and body to work together when playing in the yard.  He has certainly proven to me that he can run, and LOVES IT!  He is like Yuki in one regard, and that’s in his distractibility, but he’s only been running for a couple months!  I can’t wait to see him grow and mature and learn and gain more confidence in the future, by God’s grace.

Finally we come to Tozi, who I often say is the dog I would marry if he were human!  (Mike knows this too!)  He is, quite simply, AMAZING.  He’s a stud…big and tall and fluid when he moves.  His gait is effortless and he looks very primitive when he’s moving down the trails, much like a wolf would.  He is a beautiful reddish brown color (I’ve been told the correct description is “lavender”) and has the most piercing eyes of any dog I’ve ever seen.  I feel his presence and look right into his heart when we make eye contact.  It’s something I can’t describe, but it’s very unique to him.  He was also rescued running down a highway (my heart breaks thinking about this, and I am so very thankful to the teenage boy who picked him up and brought him to rescue) and he definitely came with some baggage.  He had a crude collar on when they found him, with duct tape, and we’ve had to work on him accepting a collar on and off with ease.  He hid under our deck every time we walked outside for the first two weeks he was home, and quite literally HATES July 4 (and the weeks leading up to and away from it) as much as hunting season.  He, too, has been so helped by mushing, and I’ve seen him become much more confident and settled through this sport.  He and Yuki were buddies…. I adopted them together, and even though he was new to rescue (Yuki had been waiting for us for several years), like Lance and Galena, Tozi received a lot of calm and confidence from Yuki.  Yuki was the pack leader, would start the songs, would start the games, would allow himself to be the toy over and over again, and when he died Tozi seemed sad for quite a while.  He is doing better and has taken over the pack leader position well, which he carries out elegantly and gently.  He has tolerated Tkope’s face in his mouth (I’m not exaggerating!) over and over again, and although he won’t admit it, actually enjoys his little brother’s presence in the pack.  He is my man and I love him deeply and differently than all the rest, who I each love deeply in very different ways.  Not being blessed with human children, I can only imagine that it’s much the same with them… they are all LOVED, are all DIFFERENT, all have strengths and struggles and all have unique relationships with each other.  There’s nothing better than living with a pack of Siberians!  They teach me so much about communication and body language and behavior, which is good because I’m a slow learner of these things!  I’ve had Siberians now for 13 years and just now am only starting to feel like I understand them.  Thankfully, they’re a loving and forgiving breed who is always happy to help teach me!

My goal for writing this is to chronicle what I know in my heart is going to be a SPECIAL SEASON, both for worldly and eternal reasons.  I’m hoping to write a LOT about our training runs and the little and big things I learn both about the dogs and about the Lord.  It may make for entertaining reading, especially seeing how our first official “we’re running a 100 mile race training” run went!  It’s going to be a WONDERFUL ride, no matter what we run through!  My peace is not in myself or this world and never ever changes, so although I know there will be lots of ups and downs, there WILL be joy and peace in each one of them!  Bring it on!

As one of my favorite jokes goes, there are two people walking down a flight of stairs and they both fall down them and land on their faces.  The first one stands up and shakes their fist at God and says, “why me?”, but the second one stands up, laughs, brushes herself off and says, “Whew!  Glad that’s over!”…. I say, “Whew!  Glad this is beginning!!!!!”  I have nothing to fear or dread or stress over… The Master Groomer has planned out and laid the trails and groomed them perfectly for us, and His Spirit will be with us every single step we take.  What could possibly be better?!

“Hold me up, and I shall be safe!” Psalm 119:117

“My eyes are up unto the Lord, and all my expectation is from Him.  He is all my salvation–and all my desire”.       James Smith’s “Marvelous Mercy”, 1862


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