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Thank God I’m A Country Boy

It usually starts with one dog, blearily crawling out from their barrel, to initiate the cascade of shrill howls that kickstarts my awareness every morning. Who needs an alarm when you have 150 Alaskan Huskies, hungry and ready for the day, right outside of your window? Granted, this certainly isn’t the only howl I’ll hear through the night, but it always seems to be the one around 6AM that rouses me from my bed and into the darkness a northern dawn.

Downstairs I can usually hear our resident expert Lynne rustling around the kitchen downstairs and preparing to go feed our next-door neighbor’s dogs before I can get out of bed. My roommate Scott continues to sleep soundly, woken up a bit later, presumably by another howl. Throwing on a sweater and my headlamp, I head downstairs to get the day rolling.

The property here is powered by a combination of solar power and a propane generator, so unless the day before was sunny, which it most commonly is not this time of year, the charge in the battery has died during the night. I switch the generator on, and start a kettle of water to boil for coffee.

Boiling some water on the wood stove.

Now, I’m sure any of you coffee drinker’s out there who brew your own coffee in the morning can understand the sacred ritual of working steadily towards your first cup. It’s often the first effort you can muster for the day, and it is eventually paid off with the energy needed to power through the rest of your efforts for the day. Really important stuff. Our coffee ‘maker’ here provides the perfect balance of work versus reward that allows me to appropriately appreciate the miracle of caffeine. It is basically a funnel that sits over the large thermos that the coffee drips into. A special cone shaped filter sits inside, full of grounds, awaiting the boiling water to slowly sift through.

By the time coffee is ready and I’m seated at the breakfast bar with an omelette and book, Lynne has returned from her side job next-door, and the guide couple, Luke and Matti, have joined me in the main house. Luke and Matti live a dozen yards away in the small cabin sitting smack in the middle of the kennel. Lynne and our ‘Puppy Intern’ Janice, who has also typically made it to the main house by now, live in another cabin set a bit further off on the other side of the kennel. Scott and I are lucky enough to live right upstairs in the main house.

Main House

Around 7:30, light has begun to creep in through the windows, Scott has made it downstairs, and we all begin the process of going outside to feed our dogs and scoop poop.

There’s not too many times during the day that the excitement in the kennel is more explosive than feeding time! Most of the dogs are barking, some do little dances of excitement, jumping up and down or tapping their feet as they lick their lips in anticipation. Each dog has a very specific amount of food that they get to eat each meal because their metabolisms vary greatly dog to dog. A few of them require 3 cups of food in the morning, and the same at night to maintain a healthy weight, while some of them will get fat eating a half a cup at each meal. Before going outside, we fill up our water buckets with hot water, and give each dog a scoop of it with their food. Just like us, dogs love a nice hot stew when the weather is cold! After they’ve eaten all of their kibble, I walk down the line and give each one a bite of raw meat for that extra boost of fat and protein to keep them warm and energized.

Lou gets very excited for breakfast!

Our morning meeting with my boss Tasha begins at 8:30 once we’re done feeding and scooping. This is basically our time to go over any specific tasks that need to get done for the day, talk about weather and conditions, and bring up any questions or concerns that have come up since the day before. Another obligatory cup of coffee is downed at this point before heading back out to begin our dog runs, which start right after the meeting.

Before the snows flew, and when the snow conditions are too questionable to run sleds, we attach fourteen dogs at a time to a quad/four-wheeler/ATV for our runs. More recently, we’ve been able to run four dog teams using the sleds, but the conditions needed to do that aren’t quite reliable at this point in the season. Running the dogs every day is important and these training runs serve multiple purposes.

Four dog team hooked up to the sled.

First and most importantly, is to get the dogs in shape for touring season. They will be running many miles in a week once tours begin. They must be healthy and ready to run those distances, so we’ve slowly been upping the mileage since I’ve been here. We’re currently hovering on or above 10 miles with the quad. We keep it in 3rd gear to provide some resistance against the incredible power of 14 strong pulling dogs working in unison, and it is estimated that 10 miles on the quad is about equivalent to the fast 20 miles on a low resistance sled. There is also less chance of injury with a large number of dogs pulling the quad due to the slower speeds.

Secondly, it allows myself and the other guides to experience the dogs abilities with different positions on the gang line. The gang line is a long cable that runs straight out of the front of whatever they are pulling, to which the dogs are attached in pairs. The back two are the ‘wheel dogs’. This position is typically most suited to the biggest and strongest pullers. The two at the very front of the gang line are called ‘leaders’. This position is most suited to the smartest and most loyal of the pack. They must know and trust the musher’s commands; “gee” meaning “go right,” “haw” meaning “go left,” “whoa” meaning “stop,” and “let’s go” meaning…well, you get the idea. These dogs also set the pace, so if you would like to travel fast, then put the sprinters up front, if you would like to go a bit slower, traveling farther distances, then put the slower, more methodic leaders up front. Typically the dogs behind will follow suit. The team in between pretty much just provides power and support for the other positions.

Lastly, it gives myself and the other guides practice mushing, and opportunities for active problem solving.

Training runs take up most of the day, as there is only one quad to do runs with, and there are 3-4 teams that we try to run every day. There are always two guides on any training run, and this is to provide support for one another, as well as an opportunity to share input and lessons learned previously. We also do quite bit of exploring on the vast network of snowmobile trails and logging roads scattered through the woods that stretch farther than I can do justice explaining in this post. The closest paved road is county highway 28, about 10 miles South. North of us there are 25 miles of forest and logging country before you reach the shores of Lake Superior, and it wouldn’t be until the opposite shore in Canada that you could reach the closest paved surface in that direction. So, it helps to have a partner who can help with navigating these remote and disorienting tails.

Around 12, we break an hour for lunch to eat PB&J’s or maybe some leftovers, read a little bit, and get ready for the rest of our afternoon runs.

Once the runs are through, there is a wide variety of chores to do around the Kennel to keep things up and running smoothly. Maintaining equipment, repairing dog yards and homes, keeping things in the main house clean, and many other odd jobs that I could list forever, keep us busy for the rest of the afternoon.

Arguably one of the most important jobs that fills that non-running time, are checking the dogs health and writing everything down in our guide logbooks. For this, we go to each dog, one by one, and record how much food they eat per meal, check if they are either too fat or skinny and need more or less food, clean their teeth, clip their nails, check their ears, look for injuries or abrasions from their collars or harnesses, and refill their homes with straw. This must be completed for each dog once a week, and again, must be recorded in the dog check log. I would argue that these dogs health is held as one of, if not the highest priority here at Nature’s Kennel. To be honest, I don’t know if I would still be here if the dogs were not incredibly well taken care of, and my expectations coming into this have been greatly exceeded! These dogs are some of the finest creatures I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and to see how happy and well taken care of they are, truly makes me so proud to be a part of it all.

Dinnertime often sneaks up on us as we work with the light in the sky starting to fade, and we typically never get to everything we were hoping to get done. This is never of much consequence because there is always tomorrow, but at that point, it’s 5PM and time for one of us to go inside to start cooking dinner, which we take turns doing through the week. The rest of us get ready to take a couple of our dogs for a free run.

Free runs are my personal favorite part of the day. There are always a couple dogs that didn’t get to run on the gang line each day, and those dogs get the treat of going for a nice long jog with me! I’ll walk into the yard dressed and ready for the run, and they will all pretty much lose their minds with excitement. They know it’s that time, and every dog is looking on with hopeful eyes. Unfortunately I can’t let all of them off their chains, but I unleash two or three, and we’re off running. Out of the kennel, with the chaos slowly fading away behind me, and a couple of dogs running free a few yards away, sniffing and peeing on everything. This is my time to really bond with and connect with the dogs one on one, as well as reflect and think about all that’s going on in my life. It’s the perfect environment to experience how content and loyal these dogs are, most of which are capable of being off leash for the entire time we’re out, coming back at the simple call of their name. As we go, the forest slowly changes from deciduous new growth, to pine plantation, to open jack pine plains, and back again. The dogs run circles around me as I trod slowly onward for a serene and beautiful hour, the sun setting, while dusk conquers the sky, until finally the dogs are back on chains, and I’m walking back to the main house for dinner.

Dollar out on a walk.

Dinner is always excellent, and there isn’t anybody here that we beg not to cook. At least once a week, Tasha, her husband Ed, and their two children, Nate and Fern, will join us for dinner, sometimes neighbors and even family friends will come over every now and then. A select few times, my guitar and Luke’s banjo have made their way out, so Nate and Fern can cut the rug to some acoustic bluegrass and folk music.

Once dinner is through, feeding ritual is repeated. The dogs seem a bit more tired than they did in the craziness of the morning. So do I. Once back inside, we all find our little spot in the main house to curl up, mine is on the couch by the corner, to either read or try and connect to the web using a cell service multiplier mounted to the ceiling (I usually get between 1 and 3 bars of 3G in case you were wondering). Usually you have to be sitting right below the transmitter for that.

As Scott stokes the fire in the wood stove to keep us warm for the evening, sleep begins to creep in, and around 9 I surrender my book to the shelf before heading upstairs for bed. The headphones go in, and if I’m lucky, I am awake long enough to hear John Denver sing “thank god I’m a country boy.”