Peanut Butter and Jelly, plus Falcon

Here we are, three and a half months into blending Siberians and Alaskans together. We have learned lots about each of the four dogs after watching them adapt to each other. The process has definitely had its share of incident,  and we’ve spent half of the summer calling, texting, and video chatting with Shantel, Bonnie, and Cruzlin for constant advice and recommendations. Here are some things we’ve learned about Ian’s teammates.

Balto remains Ian’s Pup Pup and keeps his status as large and in charge. His juxtaposition to Jenna and the new boys reaffirms Ami’s assessment that Balto is actually a unicorn wearing a husky suit. He’s relatively quiet (for a Sibe!) and not terribly destructive. He still has every toy he’s ever owned as he takes extra care to keep them all in pristine condition.

Jenna revels in her role as baby sister. We worried most about her causing problems with the dynamic of the pack because she loves to stir the pot. We’ve watched her set Balto and Jr up to intentionally try to get them in trouble during visits with Bonnie and Jim. It turns out that Pilgrim and Falcon are completely infatuated with having a baby sister and they adore her. As they’ve adjusted to life with a trouble maker, they’re less fascinated with her antics, but they still indulge her.

Pilgrim arrived to TN with his southern accent well rehearsed and ready to acclimate. But the first time we asked him to sit he looked at us like we were speaking Greek. When he’s outside, his feet never stop moving, but when he comes inside, he is fully committed to his new career of couch potato. Observing his personality makes everyone laugh. At first we thought he was trying hard to learn how to become a pet, but instead he’s decided to become a human! He loves to receive kisses, but he doesn’t lick in return. He’s trying to figure out how to kiss with his lips. We scolded him a few times for trying to nip, but later realized he’s never using his teeth –he’s just struggling to coordinate his lips for the right movement. When Pilgrim becomes upset, which happens often, he runs and jumps directly into your lap, and expects you to hold him like a child. And he cries like a child as well. Pilgrim vs the wasp ended with my book knocked into the floor, Pilgrim in my lap smashed against my chest, and his lip swelling as he cried. Some benadryl had him right as rain, but he had to be cuddled until the meds kicked in. He gave us a big scare last month with his kidneys, but he’s on the mend now.

Falcon has taken a little more time to accept us as his family. While very polite and obedient, he struggled to relax around us and he began to drop weight. Shantel and Bonnie continued to assure us that it’s normal for well-cared for dogs to respond like a rescue dog after such a significant move, and that he simply needs time. Cruzlin encouraged us to provide him with a consistent routine that he could adapt to, and have the vet check him out for a little extra help getting through his first few thunderstorms and the 4th of July. After a few weeks, Falcon still avoided Brinn and me, but we started noticing that he wagged his tail every time Ian entered the room, and he even began laying on a dog bed right beside Ian’s place on the couch. Then the hoarding began. After we gave Falcon his first plush toy, he started emptying the toy basket every morning and carrying all the plushies to his bed! We later started using this addiction to our advantage.

Now that the quartet has settled in together, our only source of contention seems to be between Balto and Falcon. They both want to be Ian’s special boy. Balto doesn’t openly provoke or attack Falcon, but he sure does bait him. I didn’t know that a dog could be so passive aggressive. More phone calls for advice. Cruzlin is going to be sick of us before we ever make it to mushing lessons!

Pilgrim has settled right in with Balto and Jenna and the three have become fast friends. Early on I called then the three amigos, but Ian quickly realized that their initials are PB&J, so he calls them his peanut butter and jelly pack. Falcon is a bit more of a loner, so he tends to be on the periphery of the PB&J wrestling matches.

We’re making lots of mistakes as we go with this blended team, but we sure are learning a lot. Ian’s had to step up his ability to communicate clearly with his voice and body language, and I’ve learned that all four dogs need their own special one-on-one time with each of their humans everyday. Grandpapa just shakes his head at Pilgrim reclining on the couch and Falcon hugging his armload of toys and remarks that we’ve ruined perfectly good sled dogs. But that’s okay. I have a feeling the boys are going to laugh at our idea of running and training this fall.

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Building the Team

Meet Falcon and Pilgrim, the newest members to Ian’s kennel! Ian finally graduated from his pancake puppies, and has added his first real sled dogs to his fledgling team. It has been quite the ride to get to this point, and would have never happened without social media networking, and a lot of people who really support junior mushers.

Last fall Ian finally had the opportunity to hook Balto up on the gang line to run with real sled dogs, then Bonnie and Jim graciously offered Ian the use of their mushing rig for a long-term loan. But with a two hour drive between us and Scout as an aging Quest retiree, we soon realized that we need some younger stock to teach Ian as well and Balto and Jenna to mush. Bonnie set out on her goal to find Ian the right lead dog, and began searching for a younger retired dog who could still run through the woods of Tennessee. During this process, we vetted several options that we had to pass on. Some racing line Sibes from New York sounded hopeful, but these were serious working dogs who needed to go to a real race home with a knowledgeable musher. Bonnie explained that she was looking specifically for a solid gee haw leader who would also be a good pet as Ian’s not yet equipped to run a dog yard comprised of strictly working dogs. So more dogs came and went through Bonnie’s careful scrutiny.

In the middle of the search for Ian’s next dog, we took our trip to Wyoming. Not only did we plan the trip to enjoy a vacation out west, but we also intended to use this as a good opportunity to determine if Ian would enjoy mushing as much as he thinks he will. As we learned during his time with Annie the mushing guide, his tour simply strengthened his addiction, so Bonnie continued her search. Then finally in March, she sent us news of Falcon, and we began moving forward again in helping Ian towards his goal of mushing this fall.

Falcon comes from the Kenai peninsula, and one of his former handlers is good friends with the director of the August Foundation, a non-profit designed to help place retiring racing dogs into new homes for their second act in life. Falcon is not a rescue dog, but his past handler, Shantel, wanted to make sure that he would go to a good home after no longer racing in Alaska, so she worked with Julie, the director of the August Fund, to let the Foundation help make connections for a new home and coordinate transportation. Then Shantel suggested Pilgrim, a second dog retiring from the same kennel, might be another good addition to Ian’s green team, so suddenly we started making plans to bring home two boys from Alaska!

After countless text messages and phone calls between Julie, Shantel, Mr. Osmar, Bonnie, and very kind transport-volunteers, the boys were finally vetted and on the road for Anchorage! The migration from the great north to the southeast had begun. Sweet Thera was kind enough to text us pictures of the boys during her portion of the relay, so Ian was able to track their progress. Later Laura and her husband picked the fellers up from Julie and took them to Alaska Air Cargo, where Pilgrim tried to climb on the counter to speak for himself to the airline workers! Then Laura turned the boys over to Alaska Air and we were able to officially track their progress in the AA app! Brinn and I stayed up late to hear confirmation that the boys were transferred safely to the cargo staff, then we passed out for a few hours of sleep. Their flight departed Anchorage at 2:00 Alaska time…which was already 5:00 am in central time. We watched the status of the flight update as they left on time and headed to Seattle. A few hours later we dropped Ian off at school with promises that we would be back soon to pick him up early for the drive to Nashville. I came in to work for a few hours while keeping the flight tracker pulled up in the back ground. And I’m glad I did because the transfer in Seattle went extremely quickly and the flight to Nashville left ahead of schedule! So after just a few hours of work, I updated my annual leave hours and left to grab Brinn and Ian.

Bonnie and Jim met us at airport cargo, because they are wonderful friends and mentors who want to be present for every moment in Ian’s journey to become a musher. We all checked the app for updates diligently and cheered when the status changed to unloading! Ian had already gone inside several times to check on the status of the dogs, but finally the transport truck arrived with two dog crates! Vibrating with excitement, Ian sat in the office with Bonnie and me while Brinn and Jim moved into the cargo area to uncrate the boys. And then they were bringing Falcon and Pilgrim through to meet Ian!

After 9 months of considering, investigating, researching, hunting, and scheduling, Ian’s sled dogs were finally here. Pilgrim strolled out of his crate as if he owned the building, and announced that he has changed his name to Pilgrim Kiser and he’s ready to go home with Ian. Falcon definitely had more reservations about us, but he was still extremely mannerly for a working dog who just spent 12+ hours in a crate. We brought the boys to the car where we had water bowls ready and both got a good long drink, then each of them gave big stretches before moving over to the grassy area to take long pee breaks. While they went for round two of water, we disassembled the crates for the drive home, then got the boys situated in the car. Since Falcon seemed to be the less bold dog, we put him in the back seat with Ian, and let Pilgrim have the rear cargo area so he could stretch out. We exchanged final hugs with the Fosters, and started the last leg of the journey for Falcon and Pilgrim to reach their new home.

And we made it almost a quarter of a mile before Pilgrim rearranged the seating assignment. We pulled over for a quick game of musical chairs and Pilgrim instructed Falcon to move it to the back. Falcon instantly agreed, and Pilgrim crawled in Ian’s lap for an hour of snuggles. With the new configuration, we managed the rest of the drive without incident and Pilgrim told Ian all about his plans for becoming a southern husky.

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Town Hill

Wyoming Part IV, January 27, 2022          

Snow King Mountain

Early in our trip planning, Ian had to decide if he wanted to go skiing or mushing as both are expensive and would take a full day. But when we found out that our only day we could mush would be on a Wednesday, we had an extra day in our itinerary. Grandpapa decided Ian shouldn’t have to decide between the two winter activities so we made Thursday reservations for skiing.

Jackson Hole Resort was a special trip for Brinn to have his chance to ski the harder runs without being weighed down by beginners. His day of skiing with Ian would be 100% in instructor mode. When looking over our options, we decided Snow King would probably be the safest bet for Ian because it was just a few blocks from Antler Inn, so if Ian got tired, hungry, or cold we could easily take him back to his room to lie down for a while. Joke was on us because Ian didn’t want to stop at all!

After another breakfast cooked in our suite, we loaded up Brinn and Ian along with all their layers and we drove the short distance to Snow King. As the mountain is quite literally in town, it’s affectionately known as “Town Hill.” After a quick trip to the rental shop, the boys were outfitted and ready to go. Grandpapa and I stood at the top of the magic carpet to watch Ian cruise down the practice hill until he felt like he remembered what he was doing, then he was off to the lifts to head up the mountain. Grandpapa and I found squashy chairs by the big windows in the restaurant and were able to sip on cocoa as we waited to see the boys complete their first run.

After a few runs, the clock hands were creeping towards midday, and the boys came inside to join us with big appetites. After some burgers and dogs, Ian was ready to jump on the Gondola and try his hand on the longer runs. Grandpapa and I saw him off, then trudged through the snow back to the car. We decided to hit the grocery store before returning to Antler Inn so we could restock on groceries. Knowing that the boys would be exhausted, Grandpapa suggested we pick up frozen pizzas and mac and cheese to make for an easy dinner. We filled our cart, navigated self checkout, and headed back to Antler.

While Grandpapa and I were taking care of rations, Brinn was trying to get Ian down a very steep mountain. He decided the best course of action would be to follow the cat tracks with big sweeping turns. One trip took an hour, and at that point Brinn was worn out. His legs were still burning from JHR, and Ian was ready to play, so they returned to the practice hill.

After perfecting his moves on the practice hill, Ian decided he was ready to show off and he called me to ask that I come and watch him. I pulled my boots back and drove the short distance to find Ian working on his jumping skills. Snow King had set out some cones, boxed ramps, and a small quarter pipe. Someone had also taken the time to make pack snow to form little jumps. This worked really well for the boys as it gave Brinn the chance to coast backwards while taking pictures and videos of Ian having a big time.

Ian probably would’ve stayed in the kid area until until the mountain closed, but his adults were tired. I had laundry to attend to, and the Fosters’ flight was almost to Jackson Hole. We had dinner to eat, and a big big Friday to prepare for!

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Vertical Terrain

Wyoming Part III-B, January 26, 2022 Jackson Hole Resort

“The best place in the world to ski is where you’re skiing that day.” -Warren Miller

Most of our friends know Brinn for the amazing raft guide that he is. While an excellent kayaker, he can maneuver a raft across class IV water like his parent in a waltz. These same friends are always shocked to learn that Brinn would sell every boat we own right now if we moved to the mountains where he could pursue his first love: fresh powder skiing.

Before we met, Brinn spent two years living in Colorado where he ate, slept, and breathed skiing. Before work, after work, and even during work sometimes he spent his days carving his edges along a mountain face. He was based at Steamboat Springs, but also visited other Colorado mountains. He lived the perfect life of a 20 year-old ski bum, except for one dissapointment –he never made it to ski Jackson Hole Resort.

As the digital revolution has brought YouTube and live streaming into our house, Brinn has been able to watch his favorite events in real time instead of waiting for Warren Miller to release another film. Rather than spending his Saturdays glued to football coverage, Brinn waits for Winter X games and his most favorite annual event, the Kings and Queens of Corbet’s at Jackson Hole Resort. He has dreamed of seeing the famed Corbet’s Couloir in person, and finally, Ian’s dog race was taking Brinn close enough to JHR that he would see this famed chute up close.

When we started planning our trip, it became very clear that we wouldn’t be able to fit in every excursion we wanted to experience unless we divided to conquer. There was no way to find time for Brinn to spend a day skiing double black diamonds if he also went on our mushing tour, so Ian and I elected to go mushing while Brinn skiied by himself. Obviously I know very little about skiing, and even less about skiing out west, but I’m a big believer in safety in numbers and felt that Brinn needed a partner. He assured me that he would be able to find someone to tag along with, so we booked his rentals and lift pass and eagerly awaited the day.

Brinn has a gift of making friends easily, so I believed him when he said he’d find a ski partner. For some reason I expected he would accomplish this task on the tram the day of, but Brinn ended up finding his new buddy while we were in California! We were not the only Wyoming bound vacationers to be routed to San Francisco from Seattle. While sitting in the SF airport, we chatted with others whose vacation plans had been affected by Alaska Airlines, and Brinn made a plan to pick up his snowboarding partner early on Wednesday morning to head to the mountain.

Brinn’s overwhelming impression of Jackson Hole Resort was VERY HIGH UP. A single run from the top of the mountain to the bottom took 2 hours. All the electricity on the mountain’s lifts are powered by wind. At one point on a groomed run, Brinn’s weak leg gave out and he fell on his rear and he slid about 150 yards. Unfortunately his friend failed to capture this on video for us. But they did manage to peek over the edge of the entrance to Corbet’s. The run was closed on that particular day, but they still enjoyed the view.

Brinn usually closes down the mountain when he’s skiing, but he couldn’t make it in the Tetons. After several hours and many runs down the mountain, he finally gave into exhaustion and he headed back to Jackson. My dad had scoped out dinner options while he’d spent the day walking around town and shopping, and had decided he wanted to try burgers at Jackson Drug. He and Brinn offered to wait for Ian and me to get back from mushing to accompany them to dinner, but we were battling our own exhaustion and asked them to bring us a box home. Brinn and Grandpapa each had the elk burger. They brought home a bison burger with sweet potato fries for me, and a grilled cheese with regular fries for Ian.

Easily the most exhausting day in Wyoming, this day gave both of the boys the opportunity to check major achievements off their bucket lists. Grandpapa had his calmest day of the trip, and we all greatly enjoyed Jackson Drug despite the super high prices. None of us complained about an early bed time as Thursday was going to be almost as busy as Wednesday had been!

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On By!

Wyoming Part III-A, January 26, 2022

Jackson Hole Iditarod to Granite Hot Springs in Bridger-Teton National Forest and back

On some rivers, rafting customers have the luxury of warming up and learning how to coordinate their paddling through some easy, inconsequential rapids. On the middle Ocoee, however, guests are faced with a challenging class 3+ rapid that requires them to paddle in synch with the guide’s instructions as soon as they leave the launch ramp. It turns out that leaving the kennel yard to go mushing is a lot like putting in at Grumpy’s on the Ocoee.

Our shuttle driver arrived earlier than scheduled Wednesday morning, so Ian and I had to hustle out of our rooms to make it outside by the Antler Inn office in time to load up for our trip to Jackson Hole Iditarod. After picking up the remaining guests from town, we began our 47 mile drive south to Granite Creek Road. Ian surprised me by sitting quietly for the duration of the drive. I expected him to buzz with excitement as we were finally in route to the experience he’d been building up in his mind for months. And then I realized that he had been building this up so much, that maybe the reality wouldn’t be able to match his expectations. What if he found the entire experience anti-climatic?

We could see the dogs as soon as we turned off the highway and swung into the kennel yard. Ian clearly itched to get out and cuddle with them, but we were immediately ushered into the main office by Frank Teasley himself. He had a very serious conversation with all the guests and shared his expectations for our behavior and participation on our trip today. Even the children were expected to pay attention and understand the seriousness of the rules, not only for our safety, but for the dogs, our guides, and other trail users. Mr. Teasley had us remove our footwear and handed out gigantic, heavy, and delightfully warm black boots to each of us. We laced up, and then were shown outside for our guides to come and meet us.

Most of the guides were assigned four-five people for their team, depending on weight of the customers and the size of the family. Annie was the lucky musher who was assigned to guide Ian and me, as well as Selene, a lone customer whose friends didn’t make the trip. We followed Mr. Teasley’s rules and tried to stay out of Annie’s way as she showed us our positions on the sleds, even though we all really wanted to take dozens of photos of the kennel and our furry engines. But rather than breaking rank to go pet dogs, we remembered our instructions to wait on taking selfies with the team until after they had run for a couple of miles as they were fired up at that point and only wanted to run.

Our equipment for the day consisted of two wooden sleds, one directly behind the team, that Annie would be driving, and a second sled quite a few feet back from the first. Annie explained that she would need someone to stand on the runners of the second sled throughout the day to slow it while coming down hills so that it wouldn’t run up on top of the first sled. Unfortunately she wanted Ian to sit in the basket of the sled for the first part of the trip as the dogs would be taking off strongly and she didn’t want to risk Ian falling off the runners. “No worries,” I found myself answering Annie’s request for one of us to jump on the runners. “I’ll be happy to take a turn back there.” She assigned Selene to sit in the basket of her sled for the first portion of the trip, with promises that we could change out after the first few miles. Ian and Selene climbed into their baskets, and I moved to the back of the second sled, assuming I would simply be a passenger clinging to the handle slightly above my waist. But then Annie came back and starting briefing me on my duties.

“As we leave the yard, we have to climb a small hill, then we’ll go down a hill and around a turn. You’ll need to step on the drag mat as we leave out to slow the dogs, then really put weight on it as we start down the hill.” Wait… I have to do actual work? And then she started showing me how to distribute my weight on the runners so that I could balance the sled going around turns. Next was how to work the brake, and then last was the set of snow hooks that had to be pulled up and hooked onto the sides of the sled right before we took off. And then we were off and running into the Gros Ventre Mountains!

When I tried to describe the trip to Sheryl the next day, I told her it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. This was true, but then again, it was also like so many other things but all at once. The initial takeoff almost felt like being pulled by a ski rope out on the lake. You hold tightly to the bar in front of you while trying to stay upright. It was also a lot like leaving the ramp at the Ocoee and having to immediately coordinate movements to navigate through a series of obstacles. And then at the same time, standing on the runners was like sliding down the mountain on a set of snow skis, but there were no bindings to keep me attached to my equipment.

The drag mat and I became intimately acquainted quickly, and I soon learned to watch Annie’s feet on her runners to try to match my own as we went into turns and over slopes. The biggest difference (to my uneducated self) is that Annie glided her feet from the drag mat to both runners, or sometimes both feet to just one runner. When we started up a steeper hill, she stood with her left foot on the right runner, and used her right foot to help the dogs by pushing her sled up the hill. As I was nearing expert musher level at this point, I decided to try as well. I mean, how hard could it be? I successfully drove the rear sled out of the yard without crashing into Annie, and I didn’t get slung off into the snow, so obviously I was a mushing prodigy. You know what was the best part of being the last person of the entire group? No one saw me when I stumbled onto the drag mat as I tried to move both feet to the right runner. Nor did anyone see me fall forward and hug the handle bar with everything in me when my first attempt at pushing with my right foot nearly sent my left foot into the snow. It turns out that I’m not actually a gifted musher, and in reality, I’m pretty lucky I didn’t spend the entire trip sitting in the snow by myself at mile one, waiting for the group to return home! So nobody should worry, I remain the same, uncoordinated person you’ve always known.

After we glided along the snow for two miles or so, Annie called out for the dogs to whoa so she could rearrange some of them in their position on the gang line. I graduated from the drag mat to the main brake, then Annie showed me how to set the snow hooks. Now we were invited to come meet the dogs and take as many pictures as we wanted. Ian was excited to help Annie with unhooking and re-hooking the dogs, but he wasn’t big enough to help with moving them as they were still awfully excited and ready to run some more. While he waited on Annie to walk them up the line, he got some great fluffy hugs and started learning their names. Then Selene had his full attention as she pulled out a drone so she could take aerial pictures! After Selene landed and packed her equipment away, Annie invited us to change positions. Selene elected to continue riding in the front basket, but Ian was ready to get out and experience the runners. Annie suggested he stand with me rather than by himself, so we positioned Ian in front of me, and then we were off!

Having Ian in front made me nervous. I was afraid to try to move around much as I didn’t want to slip or stumble and risk knocking him over. We rode maybe a half mile or so before Annie pulled us up again to make another minor adjustment. At this point, Ian asked if he could climb back into the basket. At first I worried that he wasn’t enjoying mushing as much as he’d hoped, but then I realized that standing completely still with his mom was a total buzzkill. Annie invited Ian onto her runners for the rest of the trip to our halfway point, and Ian’s outlook instantly improved. Rather than forcing him to stand with one foot on each runner and holding on tightly, Annie stood on the left runner and let Ian have the right. She showed him how to use the drag mat and the brake, letting him engage both when needed, except a couple of times when the dogs needed a bit more weight on the mat. Ian learned to stand with his left foot on his runner and used his right foot to push up hills (with greater success than me), and to also lean around his turns. He quickly learned to mimic Annie and move like a ballet dancer on the rails, and then we whizzed past a tree with branches sticking out into the right side of the trail. Fortunately Annie had her arms around Ian and kept him from getting knocked off the runners.

We mushed through some amazing country. Mountains surrounded us on all sides, as we worked our way up and around them. Sometimes we went through wide open areas, where we could see snow machine and ski tracks coming down the hills. Other times we went through forested sections of trail. My favorite section was the spruce forest that the guides affectionately called Narnia. Annie admitted that she has never read C.S. Lewis and experienced Narnia for herself! Oh well, I guess no one can be perfect. This serene section of trail reminds me so much of a section of the trail behind my grandmother’s house where we take the horses. At Grandma’s, you enter a pine section of forest where the trail narrows, leaving the hardwoods behind as you find older growth.

Entirely too soon we came upon a sign letting us know that we were close to our destination of Granite Hot Springs. The miles had literally flown by, and we were already reaching our midday rest stop. It was getting close to noon at this point, and our bellies were starting to grumble just a little bit. Not much further and we pulled into a wide clearing with picnic tables and propone grills waiting on us. While we were mushing our way to the springs, Mr. Teasley had driven on ahead of us on his snow machine to carry out all of our lunch supplies. While our guides settled the dogs in for their break, we grabbed our bags and headed up the hill to luxuriate in the hot water.

At the top of the hill we found the famed pool of the Granite Hot Springs. All the mushers tromped up the stairs to undress and leave our clothes and boots behind in the heated changing rooms. Selene and I eased our way into the warm water, but Ian jumped straight in. I started to sink in, but remembered that if I let my hair get wet, it could be a mighty cold trip back to the kennel! I feel like I should have the most to share about our swim, but I’m finding myself at a loss for the right verbs and modifiers to fully describe swimming in 100 degree fresh water flowing out of the mountain side. Snow covered the rocks and peaks surrounding us, with a brilliant blue sky overhead. I drifted around, floating in the warm water, while Ian cannonballed into the water, swam around our legs, and perfected his handstands. After a group of snowmobilers left out, we learned that the warmest spot was right against the rocks where the water flowed out of the mountain. Ian continued to swim and play, occasionally checking in, while I watched him from the hot spot. We met some great people from all over the country and enjoyed comparing our vacation experiences.

After an hour of soaking, one of our mushing guides came up to let us know that they had finished preparing our lunch, and we could come down to eat. After pulling on dry clothes, re-braiding my hair, and helping Ian retie his giant boots, we eagerly returned to the clearing with our bellies growling at the aroma. Each family was ushered to a waiting table, which held baked brie with sliced apples and crackers. While we tore into the brie, our mushers took our drink orders for hot tea, cocoa, coffee, or cider. Next they brought around hot corn muffins, and then steaming bowls of meaty chili with all the fixings. Ian enthusiastically tore into his muffin, and managed to also eat half of mine. Then, when chocolates came out, he ate both his and mine. Obviously hunger improves the taste of any food, and we were all pretty hungry after a long morning in the snow, but this meal would’ve tasted just as amazing even if we hadn’t been mushing and swimming. I count this as my second favorite meal of the trip.

After we finished scraping our bowls and the last apple slice was eaten, our guides began breaking down our al fresco diner. Table cloths were folded and packed into gear bags along with cooking equipment and left over food. Tables were folded and stacked under trees. Gear was loaded onto our rear sled since we were the smallest group and our dogs had the lightest load for the trip home. Annie hooked the dogs back to our sled, and we enjoyed one last look around the area before stepping into our places. Selene was ready to try her hand managing the rear sled, so I got to take a turn in the basket of the front sled while Ian once again rode on the runners with Annie. We enjoyed all the same views in reverse, and found that we were gaining on the other teams since we had a lighter sled, and it wasn’t long before we needed to pass one of the other families who were part of our tour. Annie explained that as guided tour dogs, her team doesn’t have as much experience passing as racing dogs, so she felt more comfortable standing in between the two teams and having them pass with her there to physically direct traffic. She stepped off the runners and moved up the gang line, leaving Ian behind to drive the team by himself. She let him call “on by!” and he stood steady on his runners until he stepped onto the brake as Annie called for the dogs to “whoa!” once they made it past the other group. At that point, I knew for certain that the trip had delivered everything Ian could’ve ever hoped for and he was hopelessly addicted to this sport.

I feel very grateful that Ian was paired up with Annie, as she was a very experienced guide who patiently shared her knowledge with Ian. Last year, she worked in Alaska with Brent Sass and helped developed some of his yearlings who this year were on his winning team for the Copper Basin 300 race! We asked 3 million questions, and Annie answered each of them graciously. When we returned back to the kennel, Annie let Ian help her with removing harnesses and returning dogs to their houses. I think there’s a chance that Ian possibly enjoyed the handling as much as the driving! You can catch some of our views from the trip on Ian’s YouTube video.

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Idaho, GTNP, and a Coaster

Wyoming (and Wyoming adjacent) Part II, January 25, 2022

Snow plows roared down Pearl Avenue early Tuesday morning and startled most of us awake earlier than we’d preferred. I decided to luxuriate in my warm sheets for a while before rising, but Brinn couldn’t bear to stay in bed one second longer than he had to. Cold air affects him like catnip, and he definitely had a strong dose in Jackson. He pulled on clothes in record time and was out the door like a shot to go explore the streets as the sun just started to peek into town. After a quick reconnaissance, Brinn returned to try to talk one of us into joining him. Ian still hadn’t woke up yet, and I wanted to take some time to organize the massive amounts of gear we brought with us. Grandpapa, however, was excited to pull on his thermals and venture out for a walk before street traffic increased. While Brinn and Grandpapa walked down Cache to Broadway, I was able to watch them from the live cam! During their explorations, they checked out the antlered arches around town square, and also identified our next restaurant we would eat at.

By the time the fellas returned, I had Ian moving (albeit in slow motion) and breakfast coming off the stove. We chowed down and discussed our options for the day. This was the only day for our trip that I didn’t have any reservations or plans in place. At this point Grandpapa made his only request for the entire week. He wanted to visit Idaho since we were so close to the state line, so after Ian and I got dressed and packed our snow gear, we piled back into the VW and began our drive to Victor. The drive alone was well worth the 45 minute trip as the view was stunning. The mountains rose up around us, covered with white spruces and aspens, frosted with a thick layer of powdery snow. Brinn pointed out ski tracks coming down the sides of every slope we passed, explaining that “real” skiers hike in to the peaks and ski down without ever having to pay for a lift pass. The sight of those tracks gave him goose pumps, but the thought of hiking in ski boots made me shudder.

I was under the mistaken impression that we were just driving into Idaho to take in the scenery, stop in Victory to check another state off our list, then head back over to Jackson. Silly me for forgetting who I was with. As soon as Brinn saw public parking with a snow machine sitting in the lot for Southern Valley Trails in the Targhee National Forest, he immediately pulled in and shut the car off. Again, I thought we’d get out and take a picture or two, then be on our way. But all three of the guys started pulling on snow pants and heavy boots, so I joined the club and suited up. Off we went on my first real snow hike.

I wasn’t sure why the forestry department would leave a snowmobile behind, but once we started down the trail, Brinn was able to show us its role. Forestry would periodically drive the trail to pack the surface for hikers and bikers, and also make tracks for cross-country skiers. Unfortunately Ian and I didn’t realize the tracks were for skiers until we’d already stepped onto it and messed up a section. I’m sure there is some skier in Idaho who is still cursing us.

We saw several neat features on the trail as we hiked along. It looked like several antler rubs and scrapes along trees, and a variety of small tracks going off through the forest. My dad stepped off the trail at one point and fell into deep powder up past his knees! We only went a couple of miles as we hadn’t packed for real hiking, and didn’t have any water or snacks with us, but Brinn and Ian made the most of every step and dove off the trail many times to roll in the snow. When we made it back to the trail head, Ian spent a little time tunneling through the deep snow.

After our jaunt down the trail, we did finally drive to Victor and see the super tiny town from the car. By then it was getting close to lunch time, so we returned to Antler Inn to assemble ham sandwiches. At this point Grandpapa decided he wanted to rest for a little while, so the three Kisers set out on foot to explore together. I steered us towards Snow King so that we could scope it out in advance of the boys’ reservations for Thursday. We walked up Pearl to Cache, turned right and followed Cache down a few blocks until we got to Snow King Avenue, where we made a left that brought us right to the mountain. While there, Brinn suggested we stop in at their ticket office to see if we could go ahead and grab their lift passes to save time later in the week. After grabbing passes, we walked on up the stairs to look around, and we found the Cowboy Coaster. Passes were only $20 for an hour, and another guest offered her pass to Ian , so we jumped in line to buy a pass for Brinn. I had to text Grandpapa to let him know we’d be here for an hour while the boys were busy getting situated into their cars, then they were off.

It took some convincing, but Ian finally agreed to leave behind the coaster so that we could move on to our third activity for the day. We hiked back to Antler Inn where we picked up the car and Grandpapa, and headed on over to spend the afternoon in the national park. First we had to stop for an obligatory sign pic, then moved on down the road to the visitor center. Unfortunately I didn’t check the national park app in advance or I would’ve known that the visitor center is closed until April. But it was still worth stopping to play in the deep snow and get an epic pic with the snow covered moose.

We took the park road on up to the Signal Mountain Loop, where it was closed for the season. Like in the Targhee National Forest, they used snow machines to groom the road from this point on for hikers and cross-country skiers. We didn’t hike this time, but Ian did spend a lot of time playing in the snow. His favorite was climbing on top of picnic tables and jumping off into the waist deep snow. After his mittens started to freeze up, Ian traded for my gloves and kept playing until we had to beg him to jump back in the car so we could work our way back into town to go eat. As we were driving past the airport on our return to Jackson, we got to see a couple of moose chewing on tree branches along the road.

Returning to Jackson once again, we were starving. The fellas scoped out restaurants earlier that morning, so we set off on foot for Hand Fire Pizza. The huge menu had lots of great options, but Ian was the only voice to speak up with his request. Brinn and Grandpapa left the order up to me, so I decided on the Sweet Italian Sausage and a Classic Cheese Pizza. Oh my goodness! I definitely think I made the right call, as we didn’t have one single piece left to box up and take with us. Hand Fire Pizza probably has my vote for best food during our trip. 10 out of 10 I will go back whenever we visit Jackson again.

What started as an open day of opportunities turned into an incredibly busy day full of adventure. We were able to cover a lot of ground and have some great experiences, but the biggest adventures were yet to come.

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Basecamp

Wyoming Part I, January 24, 2022

Jackson Hole Airport to Jackson

After two days, four states, and three flights, we finally made it to Wyoming. As we came into the national park, our pilot made a huge turn which brought us right up alongside the peaks for a dramatic first view of the Tetons. We landed on the single runway and made our way inside to the baggage terminal where I split off from the boys to go pick up the keys to our car for the week. In true Brinn fashion, he’d already made a friend with plans to meet up for skiing later in the week. The new friend piled into the car with us and we made the drive into Jackson.

First we dropped off new friend at his lodgings, then it was on to check in at base camp of Antler Inn where we had reserved the Cedar Family Suite. Grandpapa took the downstairs, while Brinn, Ian, and I spread out across the second level. The first floor of our suite included a full bathroom and kitchen along with a queen bed. The next level had a huge loft area with two queen beds, another table with chairs, and a second full bathroom. This space proved critical in helping us get along with each other for the week as we had room to space out without being stacked on top of one another.

We drug in our bags, unpacked a few items, and began looking for our options to eat. A quick flip through the book of local options on the bedside table showed a great looking bbq place just a few blocks away. As we hadn’t familiarized ourselves with the streets yet, we jumped back in the car and drove a few minutes just to find that our destination was no longer there! Some local folks shared the bad news that the restaurant had closed, but they suggested we check out Big Hole BBQ. Upon arrival, we asked our server for recommendations and took his suggestion to try the burnt ends. My apologies for failing to grab a photo to share, but we scarfed the entire basket of ends down in a matter of minutes. Absolute meat perfection. It’s going to be hard going back to plain old pulled pork after experiencing the juicy, dripping nuggets of fork-tender beef. Grandpapa seemed pretty happy with his rib plate, while Brinn and I both had brisket sandwiches. While we did enjoy our brisket, I regretted that I hadn’t skipped ordering an entre and just gone with a second basket of burnt ends.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we questioned our server about our options for local grocery shopping. He gave us our options, and we loaded back up into our rental car to take Grandpapa and Ian back to Antler Inn. They were both tired after a day of traveling and wanted to settle into our room, so we left them to relax while Brinn and I headed over to check out Albertsons. The absolute best part of our shopping trip was seeing the display set up between the deli and produce sections! We took our time browsing while filling our cart with the essentials to have breakfast and lunch ingredients on hand in our room.

When we traveled to Alaska, we received valuable information from our fishing tour company. The owner suggested that while vacationing, it’s worth it to spend a little more for a rental with a kitchen in order to save money and time from eating out every meal. We carried this advice over to our trip planning for Wyoming. As our suite was only two blocks away from downtown, and just a fifteen minute walk from Snow King Resort, having a kitchen proved to be incredibly convenient. Each morning we woke early (but not ridiculously early) to fry a skillet of bacon or sausage, bake a pan of biscuits (we cheated and used canned), scramble a plate of eggs, and slice up some fruit. We kept cold drinks in the door of the refrigerator, and a plate of fresh veggies on the kitchen table. For lunches, we had all the items necessary to assemble ham sandwiches with a big bag of Lays chips, while Ian preferred to microwave a cup of a mac and cheese when he was hungry.

We ended up traveling 4,095 miles to make it to a location only 1,702 miles from home, but we were certainly happy to reach that destination. With full bellies, a stocked kitchen, and warm beds, we all slept well our first night in Jackson as we thought we were preparing for a slow-paced easy day of exploring on Tuesday. We were awfully lucky the beds were warm and we slept like logs since morning comes early where snow plows are loud.

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Go West, Young Man!

“Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.” -Anamika Mishra

Last summer, as Bonnie started teaching us about the sport of mushing, she casually mentioned that she would like to go see a good friend of hers race in January. At the time, her friend was watching borders to see if he could enter the US, so he had not yet decided which race he would be running. After he committed to entering the Pedigree Stage Stop Race in Wyoming, Bonnie made her travel plans and sent me her airline reservations. “You should go!” She encouraged. “It would be such a great opportunity for Ian to learn!”

Brinn and I discussed the possibility, and chalked it up to being too expensive, too far, too hard to plan, too long to take off of work, and on and on. But then I started looking up prices. Flights were only $500, and we had a companion fare we could use for Ian. And rooms in Jackson Hole were not nearly as expensive in the winter as the summer. So we talked again, and decided that maybe just maybe we could pull this off. My long-suffering, super star mother immediately agreed to take care of our menagerie of animals, and my work family enthusiastically supported the time off. It all hinged on Ian’s school, at this point, and his principal gave her approval and support for such an educational opportunity. It looked like we were actually going to be able to travel out west to watch our first sled race!

We booked our flights and started making reservations. Then Bonnie emailed me that the race committee also had a junior musher program! We looked it up right away, but found that the description limited this program to local children:

Select students, aged 9 to 13, from the Pedigree® Stage Stop race communities of Jackson, Lander, Alpine, Pinedale, Big Piney, Marbleton, Kemmerer,  Driggs Idaho, And surrounding States are invited to participate in a sled dog race of their own at January 28th 2022 4:00 pm in the Jackson Town Square.

Bonnie decided to investigate exactly what constituted a “surrounding state” and went straight to the race committee. She called me right after to tell us to get Ian’s application in ASAP as they would be thrilled to have a child from TN to participate in the race.

Brinn and I elected to not share with Ian Bonnie’s feat of having him accepted into the junior musher program, so we agreed to keep that a secret until closer to our trip. We didn’t want to risk a huge disappointment if something fell through, but Ian had to write a personal essay and complete 10 hours of community service to qualify for the program. The essay was a little tricky to get him to write while keeping the secret, but fortunately the service hours were easy to get in as Ian already takes part in quite a few activities around home. Habitat for Humanity happily signed off on the volunteer paperwork from Ian’s participation at Cooking on the Square, and Sheryl and Missy signed for his days working the cart at IWPA weight pulls. After we received all the signatures, we turned Ian’s forms in and waited. Then in December we received the email. Ian was accepted into the program and assigned to a musher!

Christmas came and went, and then all of a sudden it was time to leave for our trip. Our bags were packed, reservations all booked, and deposits paid. Brinn loaded bags in the truck the night before we left, and came back later to find that he had a stowaway hiding behind our bags. The next morning we broke it to Jenna that she couldn’t come on this trip, but promised her that she would have big fun with Nana. Then we were off!

Our first leg of the journey took us from Nashville to Seattle. After landing in Seattle that evening, we turned our phones on to receive notifications that our next flight had been cancelled. Instead of leaving Seattle at 11:40 the next morning, we now had to board at 7:00 am and fly to San Francisco! After a 2 hour layover in California, we then finally managed to fly on to Jackson Hole.

We packed a lot of fun and adventure into just one week.

Day 1: Arrival, check in, eat, grocery shop, crash

Day 2: Explore Grand Teton National Park and Hike in Idaho

Day 3: Mushing/Skiing

Day 4: Skiing

Day 5: Ceremonial Start of the Pedigree Stage Stop

Day 6: Stage 1, Teton County

Day 7: Packing up, checking out, last day in the GTNP

I’ll be back later with a full description of each day!

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Mush!

“Don’t worry, you’ll outgrow it,” so many well-intentioned people would assure me as they referred to my horse obsession. That was over 30 years ago, and I still haven’t managed to “outgrow it.” So when Ian met sled dogs and decided this was his path in life, I never dismissed his obsession as a passing phase. Sure, he’s gone through some phases. He used to love Paw Patrol, but now he claims that Paw Patrol is for babies. Sled dogs, however, remain a solid fixation.

Puppy Balto

We started with Balto. We intended for Fluffy Shark to be Ian’s pancake dog. Inevitably the first pancake on the griddle gets scrambled when you attempt to flip it. We figured that a puppy belonging to a six-year-old would encounter some training issues along the way as Ian learned to interact with and communicate with his dog. We have definitely experienced those issues –some because Ian has struggled with consistency, and some because Siberians are incredibly hard-headed. But all in all, the two are best friends, and with the help of Ami, their obedience instructor, Balto has learned some improved manners and Ian is learning to communicate effectively.

Baby Jenna

One dog is simply not enough dogs for Ian, and Balto doesn’t have the disposition to be an only child, so in light of Chaco’s waning health, we began lining up husky #2 to ensure that Balto would have a companion. Our hopes for a Christmas puppy were disappointed when the breeder’s female failed to conceive. But at her next cycle, she took, and puppies were born two days before Ian’s birthday! We were able to visit the puppies after they were a week old. In true Ian fashion, he knew exactly which pup was Jenna.

So now Ian finally has two Arctic dogs, but where do you find a racing kennel in mild weathered middle TN? As best as I could find through my online research, you don’t. So I took to Facebook. We’re tentatively looking at going back to Alaska in the next year or two, so I thought this might be the chance to line some lessons up for Ian. I found a FB group specifically for tourists to ask questions for Alaskan natives and business owners to answer. Here was my chance to ask if there would be a kennel willing to let Ian take lessons rather than go for the typical mushing tour. I received some inviting feedback from a few Alaskan mushers, including Nicolas Petit and a few other big names in the mushing world (not that I knew enough to appreciate how big a shadow they cast), but then I received the best feedback from a relocated musher who was quite knowledgeable and still well connected in the sport. She offered some great recommendations, then she made the connection that we only live two hours apart, and she offered that she would be more than happy to help introduce Ian to the sport!

Picture borrowed from Bonnie and Jim’ of their team in Fairbanks at the Yukon Quest
Jenna loves Benny!

We have mushers living in Tennessee! Mushers who are willing to teach Ian how to train Balto and Jenna correctly! Obviously we had to take Ian to meet Jim and Bonnie as well as their pack of retired Alaskan huskies. We learned that these dogs have run in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod! Balto and Jenna were invited to come along as well, and we had a delightful afternoon getting to know the Fosters, and learning exactly how clueless we are going into the world of dog sledding. With a promise that we would start training once the temps were consistently below 50 degrees, we returned home to finish the summer and make big plans for Ian’s future.

While the rest of our friends have been thrilled with the beautiful, mild fall we’ve enjoyed this this year, Ian has repeatedly checked the weather to be disappointed week after week. Finally we’ve had a few cold snaps that coincided with schedules, and Jim and Bonnie loaded up their mushing rig and a pair of dogs to make the drive to Cookeville. Balto was thrilled to see his buddy Junior, and Jenna was delighted to see Scout. Scout is a veteran lead dog of the Yukon Quest, while Junior has the body mass to physically pull Balto along.

During Ian’s first lesson we got to learn about the gang line, half harnesses, positioning dogs, vocal commands, breaking, and steering. Jim rode on the cart with Ian and taught him that real mushers say “let’s go!” instead of “Mush!” when they’re ready for their dogs to set out. And when they called “let’s go!” we were all shocked to see Balto rush forward with his friends and enthusiastically pull the rig! Balto kept on his happy face through the entire session, with his ears pricked, tail arched over his back, and snout in a grin. Junior never had to use his bulk to convince Balto to run!

Obviously Ian and his dogs have a lot of work ahead of them, but I’m beyond thrilled to see that Balto is enthusiastic and willing to run for Ian. He’s not usually so eager to please his kid, and is really more interested in pleasing himself. Our experiences in weight pull have documented Balto’s typical reaction of throwing a fuzzy finger when he’s not down with the program. The only downside to the lesson was the brevity. Ian had been dreaming of cruising northern Putnam County behind his dogs for the whole day, and was disappointed to learn that initial sessions have to be kept short so we don’t overwhelm Balto. Balto has to learn to go at a good steady trot rather than a lope, and Ian has to learn to spot a tired dog so he can stop them before they break their gait. It’s nice to find a similarity with horse training: consistency matters!

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And Then There Were Two

Ian began his campaign to own his own husky on July 2, 2018. On July 3, 2018 he determined his first husky would be a male named Balto. He also decided that day that he would be needing a second husky –a female who he would name Jenna. This is a child who thoroughly believes in seeing his plans through fully.

The last 9 months have brought too much loss to our family. Kidney failure crept in and took Mogwai in December. We lost Chaco this summer after selfishly asking her to hang around a little longer despite her increasing pain and confusion. We prepared Ian for this time to come by telling him he could choose a replacement for Chaco. But then he wore us down sooner than expected, and Balto came into our lives in 2019. Mogwai’s sudden decline in health caught us all off guard, and we once again comforted Ian by telling him he could choose the next dog. As we watched Mog’s days grow fewer, we contacted Balto’s breeder to enter the waitlist for her next litter. Unfortunately mama dog did not take when bred, and a Christmas puppy did not materialize. We buried Mogwai and hoped that Chaco could hang on long enough that Balto wouldn’t have a period as an only child. A few weeks later the breeder called with the good news that she would be having spring pups!

Ian waited on edge for the weeks to pass and Jenna to arrive. Finally, two days before Ian’s birthday we got a text message containing several pictures of teeny tiny huskies! Our breeder, a delightful lady who lives 30 minutes away, sent images almost daily, and a week later invited us to come meet the pups. She generously gave Ian pick of the litter. I (mistakenly) had the idea that we would meet the pups, and maybe in a few weeks go back to actually pick Jenna out once they were a bit bigger and showing their personalities. How wrong I was…

When we made it to Ms. Megan’s home, she pulled the pups out one by one and set them on a blanket near Ian. He sat back on his heels, rather calmly to my surprise, and looked at each one as she set it down. Then she pulled Jenna out and Ian’s hands shot up to take her. This gerbil like pup, with the white dot on her back, was undoubtedly Jenna. Ian half heartedly picked up some of the other pups, but just like when he picked out Balto, he really only had time for the one pup who he knew belonged to him. Ms. Megan pulled out a pink collar to identify Jenna as sold!

Weeks rolled by and Ian asked every day when he would get to pick up Jenna. And every day we had to remind him, “not yet.” As we grew closer to time, Ms. Megan allowed Ian to come by for visitation, and Ian reluctantly gave Jenna back at the end of each visit. But finally the day arrived and Ian brought little Miss J home. She came in like she owned the place and has worked very hard to complete our training in record time. Sibe owners frequently say that huskies don’t have owners, they have staff!

Several of Balto’s fans have asked what he thinks about his baby sister. Obviously Balto is thrilled to have a companion, but he has been the best big brother any little spitfire could hope to have. He’s exceptionally patient, happy to cuddle, but slowly learning to assert himself when he needs to. It’s been interesting to note the similarities and differences between the two as they share a sire, but have different mothers. While Balto loves to please everyone, Jenna loves for everyone to please her. While Balto quietly looks around to make sure no one sees his blunders, Jenna angrily aroo’s at anything that impedes her progress. Balto wants attention, but Jenna demands it –loudly.

Ian insisted that he wanted a feisty female for pup #2. A few days after Jenna came home, we decided Ian had likely selected the chillest pup in the litter, and Jenna would be Balto 2.0. And then she started to come out of her shell and show us her personality… It turns out, Ian sure did get a scrappy little gal. She is everything he hoped she would be, and he’s more smitten with her every day.

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