Posts Tagged ‘Iditarod’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 18, 2009

Temperatures have dropped again with bitter wind–unusual combination for the Interior, but as I write this, I realize that it’s happened several times this winter. Today is St. Patrick’s Day, but not much happening here at Mattie’s Pillow. All humans here have been laid low with a flu–mild in my case–and green beer is the last thing on our menu.

The snow is still thick on the ground here and settling and hardening in the wind. Out on the Iditarod Trail, the mushers are being buffeted with winds off the Bering Strait as they cross frozen Norton Sound. Some have scratched; some have needed helicopter rescue, dogs and all. The Iditarod, since it takes place later in the year than the Yukon Quest, and as spring gradually comes earlier in the North, usually has the opposite problem. For sled dogs, bred to race full out at the coldest temperatures and with the coats to help them do this, weather below zero is best. Too much warmer than that, and they overheat and need to stop to eat snow occasionally to stay cool. But this year, with the wind and deep cold the mushers are struggling to take care of their dogs and stay healthy.

Still, the race will soon be over, if it’s not already, and the stragglers can take their time getting in, cheered along the way by the people who live in villages along the trail: Shaktoolik, Ophir, Nikolai, Nome.

Now, St. Patrick’s Day is over almost everywhere. Charlie Rose is talking about the economic situation. Tomorrow, plant tomatoes for the greenhouse, watch horses shed, believe that summer will come.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 20, 2009

It’s time to write about dogs.

On Wednesday, Jeter, the brown standard poodle, went in for “the big snip” and a crown reduction. We waited till now–he’s eleven months old–to do the neutering in hopes that his bones would develop better and his underdeveloped lower jaw would grow in. It didn’t, and he has an overbite and what used to be called in humans a “weak” chin. Dr. Jean, the canine dentist, pointed this out to us the first time we brought him in as a nine-week-old pup, and we’ve been monitoring it since. The lower canines were growing inside the upper ones, pressing against the roots. To make matters worse, the lower incisors were making holes in his upper palate. He’s a happy dog and loves treats, but has always seemed a bit picky about crunchy food like puppy kibble.

At one point we considered doggie braces–yes, they exist–but the teeth had too far to move to be in alignment, and the problem was really the lack of jaw growth. So Dr. Jean decided to cut down the points of the canines and file back the lower incisors, hoping to relieve the irritation of the upper jaw. He’s a bit mopey now, but healing, and pretty much the happy dog he’s always been.

I could write about the problems of inbreeding, but won’t. Jeter’s parents weren’t closely related, but in breed dogs, like in horses, there are certain lines that show up in most pedigrees, and a dog like Jeter, with all his wonderful qualities, can end up with a recessive gene.

But the big dog news here is the Yukon Quest, which started a week ago in White Horse, Yukon Territory, and is on its way to Fairbanks from the mid way point in Dawson City as of today. Like the more famous Iditarod race, this race covers 1000 miles of historic gold rush trail. Unlike the Iditarod, which is mostly flat, the Quest covers rough hilly terrain, with several challenging hill climbs such as Eagle Summit. Unlike the Iditarod, mushers on the Quest must carry all their supplies and be prepared to camp along the trail.

For the mushers, it’s a purer race, taking them back to the days when the dog sled was a main form of transportation. There are long stretches of trail where the mushers and their teams are alone with the sound of snow under the runners. When they come in on the frozen Chena River, they’ll be frosty and a bit wild-eyed, their faces lean with hunger and lack of sleep. The dogs, once they realize it’s the end of the race, will flop down in the snow and rest watchfully till the finishing hoopla dies down, then dutifully hike over to the waiting dog truck for a meal and a boost into a waiting straw-lined dog box, their moveable den.

The dogs in long-distance races are bigger and a bit shaggier than the slim little dogs of the shorter 15-30-mile sprint races. They are bred to pull and are eager to get in harness and move out with their “pack”. Breeding sled dogs is a whole craft industry in Alaska, each breeder mixing his or her own combination of traits throughout years of breeding to develop the ultimate dog. These are not Malamutes, though there are some dogs that have that big shouldered white-masked look. Many sled dogs trace their lines back to early “Eskimo dogs” with lots of other types mixed in. In past years, mushers have tried breeding in greyhounds, shepherds, various hunting hounds, even poodles. One year a musher went the whole 1000 miles of Iditarod trail with a team of poodles, but, since a poodle coat is basically soft undercoat, the dogs would freeze to the snow where they lay down at the rest stops.

Jeter will never have to worry about being recruited into a race team.

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