The Front of the Pack

Have you ever wondered how our lead dogs are trained?

All our sled dogs start off excited about running. But not all of them have the skill or the training to lead the team right off the bat. Being a “lead dog” means being at the front of the pack when pulling a sled or ATV, and mushers rely on their lead dogs to keep the entire dog team in line. Often comprised of a “lead pair” (two dogs at the front who work in tandem), these dogs are not only hard pullers but are also smart enough to follow verbal commands. Their job is to keep the gangline tight at all times. The gangline is a length of cable that connects dogs via their harnesses and collars to the sled or ATV they are pulling. Having a tight gangline is important because it keeps the team pulling in the correct direction, it prevents pile ups and fights, and it prevents dogs from getting caught in the moving hardware components.

Sammie looks on as Sipi holds a tight line.

Dogs that are being trained in to a lead position are taught through positive reinforcement. We praise with our voice, petting, and food to let them know they are doing a good job when they “tighten out” or extend their tug line (the polycord connecting their harness to the gangline) to its full length. This in turn tightens the whole gangline behind them, signaling to the rest of the team that they should pull.

Sammie tests Sipi’s training by seeing how he does with distractions: in this case by walking away and praising another dog.

During training, it’s important to introduce distractions to see how a new lead will react to unusual circumstances. On trail, a musher will rarely be standing at the front of the team making sure the leads stay tight and everyone is behaving. New leads need to learn early that staying focused is part of the job–regardless if the sled behind them is stopped, if they see wildlife off to the side of the trail, or if a dog behind them is getting extra attention. For now though, we are able to reinforce good behavior and build confidence as new leads learn in the yard. Although unsure at first, their confidence is built through repetitive practice. Eventually new leads will be able to follow the verbal command of “tighten out” without a human standing next to them or directly rewarding them.

Sipi is alert and eager to please, thanks to Sammie’s good training.

It’s important to end each training session with an equal amount of time giving attention and love, so each dog learns that training (which requires a lot of focus and can be stressful at first) is fun and rewarding.

Sammie praises Sipi for keeping the line tight. He will be a great lead in no time!

COVID-19: An Exercise in Uncertainty

Sometimes you wake up in the morning knowing that your day is going to be much the same as the day before. But on March 21st, when I said goodbye to the six students I had been camping in the woods with for thirty days, I also said goodbye to predictability. I emerged from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to a world dealing with a global pandemic; the COVID-19 virus. At the beginning of my thirty days away from Sammie, Nora, Meagan, and the Ice Ties dogs, there were confirmed cases of the corona virus in China and a whisper of isolated cases in the United States. When I ended, international travel had been restricted, bars and restaurants were closed, “social distancing” was a household term, and people were warned not to gather in groups larger than ten. Although we live in a relatively cut off part of the world (friends and family often complain of how far it is from an airport and how unreliable my phone connection is), our slice of Minnesota Northwoods is not immune to the impact of the virus.

The Ice Ties spring training trip, originally scheduled to leave on March 24th and run for two weeks, went through rapid evolutions as our team adjusted to the new reality left in the wake our country’s diagnosis. The discomfort that comes with uncertainty is not unfamiliar–to our team or to anyone for that matter. How many times have we said to each other something like, “I don’t even care if I got the job or not anymore… I just want to know one way or the other!” But as our country’s experts continue to use words like “unprecedented” the security that comes from certainty, familiarity, and predictability feels very far away. Eventually we realized that our planned training trip was not feasible in this climate and given these current conditions.

When on expedition, life is simultaneously predictable and uncertain. It’s predictable because you know when the sun will rise. You know what you have packed out to eat for the day. You know you have to travel to your next campsite. You know you will have to boil water and set up shelter every night. In some ways life is very simple. But there is also ALWAYS uncertainty. What will the ice look like at the mouth of this river? Can we go around it? Will it snow all day today? Will our trails be covered in a foot of fresh powder tomorrow? Will the dogs get in a fight? Will I break a vital piece of equipment? So much of life on trail is unknown, and so many uncertainties can ripple out into an overwhelmingly infinite number of possible universes. Uncertainty is part of the deal, and even though it can be uncomfortable (and even scary), we as an expedition team are well trained in how to adjust to new information, talk through our frustrations, and make decisions that move us forward in the here and now.

So to the friends and family who have expressed concerns about our expedition, first we’d like to say: thank you. Nothing like an international pandemic to make you appreciate modern technology and the way it connects us! Every phone call, text message, group chat, and instagram comment makes us feel grateful that we have a community that is invested in our mission. As far as our spring plans go: our focus is to stay flexible and reach our goals in other ways. So we can’t go out for a two-week camping trip… we can still test our tent, stoves, and skis right here in our backyard! So our dogs don’t get the in-the-field training we were hoping for… we can still run loaded dog sleds and get miles in while there’s snow on the ground! So the four of us can’t meet in person right now… We can connect online and divide and conquer on bigger projects! There is certainly no shortage of work to be done. As we adjust to the new normal–the big uncertainties of health, the economy, the future–we know we can adapt and overcome. We also know we can rely on our dogs, each other, and our community. Of that we can be certain.

Problems and solving them.

Problems.  We are faced with them all the time these days.  But we walked through this door eyes wide open.  We knew we would meet challenge, face doubt, question ourselves.  Why take this journey if it was going to be easy?  What would be easy is to succumb to the fear, to the doubt that lurks in the back of our minds.  Can we do this? Yes. We. Can.  Each day we choose to embrace the fear and push forward.  To prove the doubts wrong. There are risks at every turn, though we can’t forget they are also accompanied by reward. 

Our first training trip together wasn’t without its memorable battles. 

A pool of slush, the water up above boot line.  Halted dogs eyeing us as if we were insane to have endeavored to take the chosen path.  Nora and I, both with our eyes scanning the landscape around us, calmly try to catch the attention of our skiers in the distance. (Hint: They were Meagan and Anna) Each of us trudges off in opposite directions hoping for the end.  We keep going and going.  Finally, solid ground hits for Nora.  A way around!  Megan’s arrived. Anna’s on her way. Now to get the sled out. The team is easy, any excuse to free themselves from the small pond we have encountered atop the ice is embraced.  The sled, not so much.  Digging, pushing, pulling.  Heaving and hoing.  We break free.  Keep running now, momentum is everything!  We’re out.  Problem solved.

Then the portages, the trails leading from one lake to another, often the most fun on a sled. There’s hills and turns.  Logs and rocks.  The obstacles can be endless. And then, there is the mother of them all… the downhill on a slant with a curve at the end next to a tree.  There’s a chance we will hit is just right.  There’s a chance we will hit is just wrong.  We hit it just wrong.  Do we laugh or cry? We laugh. The sled is wedged and on its side. Dogs on one side of the tree, the sled on the other.  We have to back up.  Sleds don’t come with reverse.  A backcountry 3:1 pulley system it is.  I brace myself on the ground, pulling back on the dogs and Anna, Nora, and Meagan pull together on the sled.  Nothing. We try a new anchor.  Nothing.  Hollywood is loose and visiting the lead dogs.  The scene is comical.  My biceps are burning.  We transfer the gangline (what holds the dogs) to the tree.  The sled is free.  Why not go around the other side of the tree?  The direction the sled is already going? I don’t even know who said it, but brilliant! (And, duh. Work smarter, not harder.) We right the sled, push it to the other side of the tree, hook the dogs back up, and we’re back on our way.

Out there in the woods, on the trail, the problems seem easier.  There’s nowhere to hide. We must face them.  It’s in these moments together that we shine the brightest.  We’re one unit.  All the cogs turning. Every vantage point seen.  All angles examined.  We come together to succeed, aligned in challenge and adventure.

A Hard Days Work

Faces flushed, beet red.  Cheeks and eyes slowly swelling with the warmth.  Eyelids droopy with exhaustion. Shivering here and there, even though warmth surrounds us.  This is the feeling of returning from several nights in the woods.  We’ve been warm out there for the most part, touches of cold feet and hands here and there, but warm.  It never matters though, there is always the thaw of those outer layers when you return, when the warmth surrounds you from the outside instead of coming from within.

The last two miles of the day seemed endless.  The snow heavy, wet, and pulling at the sled like glue.  The dogs and the humans looking at each other, all on the verge of the same thought, it’s hopeless.  But, we rally together, a team.  They pull, we pull, we push.  We keep moving, giving bursts of encouragement to each other.  Expedition mushing is rarely a Disney ride, it’s a team effort.  We work together.  We rely on each other to get from point a to b and to survive.  That is the beauty of being out there. Those moments are the ones that make you grateful that you are not in it alone. 

We’re back now.  We made it, though not easy.  The dogs are unloaded and happy in their houses.  Chicken treats were well earned today.  Good dogs, we have.  Real good dogs.  Now, the humans, we sit here together in the cabin, in front of the fire, tired.  Fighting off sleep, letting our friends and family know we’ve returned.  This is the feeling of success. 

What a team.  What a dream.  These are the moments we are grateful for.