On By!

Wyoming Part III-A, January 23, 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 22, 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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Wyoming Part I, January 21, 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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“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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Virginia Creeper Trail

Fall colors were just beginning to peak through the leaves that formed a canopy over and around us as we coasted down quickly enough through the chilly air to sting our cheeks while our eyes watered. Some reds and yellows dotted the paved pathway and our bikes crunched over the browns. I can’t quite put my finger on the smell of crunchy leaves. It’s often described as “organic,” but that doesn’t seem quite right. That doesn’t imply enough of the earthy scent mingled with the faint reminiscence of summer. Our sounds alternated between the crunching and zipping of bike tires, running water as we passed creeks, and Mogwai barking when he saw a member of our party up ahead.

Fall break took us for our first trip down the Virginia Creeper trail. As Ian’s bike riding abilities have improved due to his miles looping around various campgrounds, he’s been begging Brinn and I to join him so he can bike for longer distances. Nana has taken him biking several times, and she’s frequently mentioned the Virginia Creeper Trail, so the time came that we needed to explore. Some good friends visited the trail earlier in the year and had some great recommendations for us. Fortified with a campground suggestion, and the advice to only attempt half the trail, we began planning.

After making reservations at the Beartree Campground in Damascus, and reserving a small bike trailer from a local outfitter, there was relatively little planning left. We’d already determined we would be doing self shuttle, so we just needed to pack for our meals and organize our packing based on the weather. Despite warm sunny days in the forecast, the nights were projected to be cool, and we knew it would be even colder up in the mountains at our campground. Packing consisted of lots of layers and our heavy duty sleeping bags.

We made the decision to travel on a Sunday in order to ride the trail on Monday and Tuesday. In hindsight, this ended up being a brilliant plan. My mom left on Saturday in order to meet with my brother in Delaware and bring him back with her to meet us at the campground Sunday evening. It’s been years since I last saw my brother, and Ian barely remembered his uncle Preston. We practically had the entire campground to ourselves as all other campers had moved out Sunday morning and only one other camper arrived before we left on Wednesday.

After hypothesizing about this trip, then finally committing to, and eventually booking our minimal reservations, the time finally came to go. We dropped Chaco off with Tabitha and Jeremy Saturday evening, went to bed early, then left out Sunday morning with the camper, a truck full of bikes, Mogwai, and Balto. We detoured through Wartburg for a quick stop at Grandma’s house to check in on the horses (who were staying there for the fall) and take a short trail ride to give Balto a chance to run in the woods and wear him out to keep him calm for the drive to Virginia. Reggie and Promise enjoyed their trot, and Ian even snuck in a bit of cantering with Promise. After coming back to the barn, we gave everyone an extra bite of grain, said bye to Grandma, and headed off to Oak Ridge to grab lunch and a few last minute groceries. Ian divided the shopping list with me at Kroger so we could divide and conquer quickly. By Sevierville, the dogs needed a potty break and a walk, so we pulled off the interstate at Bass Pro. Brinn and Ian ran into the store for a quick shopping trip, then we made the last leg of our journey.

We arrived at our campground with plenty of daylight left and found the other half of our group settled in with a cheery fire going. Brinn had the camper set up in no time, and we soon had chicken wings grilling over the fire while Ian left with Balto to explore our surroundings. No cell service left us completed disconnected from the rest of the world, and gave us the opportunity to truly enjoy each other’s company. We all huddled near the fire as evening set in, and we soon began pulling on extra layers. Mogwai demanded to always be sitting in someone’s lap under a blanket with a sweater and a jacket. After a pleasant evening of catching up with Uncle Preston and watching Ian learn how to split kindling, we all crawled into our sleeping bags to rest up for our big adventure.

Monday morning broke clear and cold. The sky was probably blue, but we couldn’t see it through all the trees covering our campsite. Balto thought the weather was delightful and couldn’t understand why the rest of us moved a little slowly. Brinn is our main cook while we’re camping, and he soon had bacon and coffee heating on the Coleman. Ian and Preston are both breakfast eaters. They would happily enjoy breakfast foods anytime of the day, so our giant package of bacon was soon demolished. While Brinn cooked, Nana and I packed lunches and Ian walked the dogs. In no time we were ready to head to the trail. The boys dropped Ian, Nana, the bikes, the dogs, and me off at the Whitetop Station put in point while they drove both cars to the bottom. Bobby decided that he didn’t feel up for a bike ride for the day, so he brought Brinn and Preston back up to the top along with the rented bike trailer, then he headed back to the campground to spend the day dozing by a fire.

Mogwai slowed down on us this year. Our best copilot and adventure dog was having more trouble keeping up with us, and he began to take several days, and sometimes even weeks to recuperate after a big trip. We didn’t realize it until later, but Mogwai was actually suffering end stage renal disease. There’s no way he would want to miss out on a trip like the Virginia Creeper, but we knew that there’s no way he could run 17 miles, so we reserved a bike trailer for him. These trailers were actually designed for small children, but Mogwai’s small, and he’s a fur child, so we gave it a try, and it ended up working beautifully! We let Mogwai run beside us for just a few hundred yards at the beginning of the trail, then we settled him into his seat with his jacket on. Whenever he saw one of our group ahead of him, usually Ian or Preston, he would bark his head off until we caught up and moved ahead. Preston actually began using Mogwai as a sonar device to determine how far ahead he was of the group!

Once Brinn and Preston returned to Whitetop, we strapped on our helmets and backpacks and were ready to hit the trail! After an initial flat stretch that crossed back over the road that brought us to Whitetop, we entered Jefferson National Forest and quickly found the steepest section of trail. This portion of the trail required very little peddling and allowed most of us to coast leisurely, but Preston and Ian enjoyed racing on ahead of us as fast as they could go. Balto wore his sled harness and ran ahead of Brinn. Cold mountain air combined with running was a perfect combination for an energetic husky. In no time at all we found ourselves riding over tree tops as we crossed a trestle bridge suspended over a long valley. The trail actually crosses 47 trestles in all. After a few short miles, we reentered farm land, and rode into the Green Cove Station. After a quick bathroom break, water, and a snack, we were all eager to jump back on our bikes to keep exploring. Our next stop brought us to an intersection with Chestnut Mountain Road, where Balto and Mogwai eagerly jumped in the creek for a drink. Balto used the water for a cool down while Mogwai hunted crawdads.

We rode past pumpkin fields, Christmas tree farms, stunning overlooks, small creeks, big creeks, and lots and lots of forest. Other bikers occasionally went past us, but not many. We passed maybe two small groups who were taking the trail uphill. We found a beautiful spot near the Creek Junction Trailhead to stop for lunch. We parked our bikes at the convenient bike racks, then followed a small path down to the water, and found rocks to sit on while we ate. Pringles and ham sandwiches have never tasted quite so good before! The dogs tore into the snacks we’d packed for them and didn’t leave one crumb behind. Preston and Ian led us most of the way down the mountain while my mom and I cruised leisurely. Brinn went at Balto’s pace, which started to slow down as the day wore on.

Around mile 10 Brinn announced that Balto needed a break. Brinn parked his bike off to the side and hiked Balto down to the creek to let pup pup jump in and splash around. We finally, for the first time, had completely worn out Ian’s husky! At this point, we were all feeling the strain in our legs. The trail began to flatten out, and I could certainly tell I had Mogwai’s weight behind me. Ian even started to slow down a bit. The last 3 miles were the hardest of the entire day. We were all thrilled to pull into Damascus to find our truck. Despite an amazing day and a fantastic time on the trail, we were all ready to return to camp.

Bobby had kept the fire going for us, and had it ready for our arrival. Mogwai returned to his position by the fire, and Balto made himself a pile of leaves under a mountain laurel bush. Balto stayed in his leaf nest until it was time to go to bed in the camper! We were all excited to enjoy an ooey gooey cheesy carb filled dinner after a day of exertion, so I was glad to have found this recipe for Dutch oven ravioli on NRS’s Ducktape Diaries. We all dug in enthusiastically and had the rest of the evening to laze about at the campground. Brinn and Preston began discussing possibilities for the next day and decided that they wanted to ride the trail again. Obviously when Ian picked up on the conversation he was in full agreement that we should all take another trip down the trail. My aching seat bones disagreed, so I volunteered to drive shuttle and let Mogwai ride shotgun. Brinn and Preston stayed up late to mind the fire and enjoy the forest at night. Ian climbed in his sleeping bag with his kindle, but he only lasted a matter of minutes before he passed out and I had to turn his movie off. Both dogs happily followed me and jumped in bed with me.

The next morning was not quite as cold as the previous morning had been, but we were all moving more stiffly. I expected Balto to eagerly bound out of the camper to enjoy the cool air, but he stubbornly refused to get out of bed. He may have been a smidge sore. Mogwai also elected to stay in bed, but he was wrapped up snuggly in many blankets on top of his sweater and coat. Brinn put the coffee on in a repeat of the previous day, and we discussed our plans. It turns out, Brinn, Ian, and Preston were the only ones interested in riding the trail again, so after breakfast we loaded up and returned to Whitetop Station. We unloaded bikes, located helmets and backpacks, and the boys set off. I jumped in the truck to head off to Green Cove, but as I approached the intersection where the road crossed the trail, the boys were flagging me down. Balto was DONE and refused to move another step. He ran as far as he did because he saw his truck drive away, but once he caught up with me, he wasn’t going to move anymore. So Brinn tossed him in the backseat of the truck and he happily hung his head out the window to watch the boys pedal away.

The boys were not completely crazy, and decided against riding all 17 miles of the trail, so they only rode the first few miles, then jumped back in the truck. We decided to do a little exploring for the rest of the morning and went back to the Creek Junction Trailhead to walk the path we had seen from the Creeper trail. Brinn and Ian eagerly made plans for bringing fishing poles the next trip. Mogwai was happy for the diversion, so after walking around for a while, we returned to our campground to prep our final group meal. Nana and Bobby were going to leave out after a late lunch to take Preston home, while Brinn, Ian, and I planned on staying at Bear Tree for one more night.

We had premade and froze a giant batch of chili before this trip, so lunch prep was very simple and required heating the already cooked soup, opening bags of chips, and setting out shredded cheese, tomatoes, and onions. We enjoyed a warm, belly filling meal, then helped the departing trio to pack up their portion of the campsite. Once everything was loaded, we all drove down to the Bear Tree Lake hiking trail and enjoyed one last walk together. The dogs were thrilled with all the smells and access to water. No wind allowed for a still lake surface which reflected the trees and skies. Minimal investment for a big payoff left us all happy that we’d come down to explore this trail.

After half of our group left, Brinn and Ian and I continue to explore around the hiking trails in the Bear Tree recreation area, then finally returned to our campsite. The dogs happily returned to snoozing, while we humans broke out the dominoes for the evening. Despite a few heated arguments, we managed to complete an entire game with no hurt feelings. As usual, I don’t stay up too late once darkness falls, so I crawled down in my sleeping bag with Mogwai against my feet and Balto jumped in bed with Ian. Brinn stayed with our fire until it burned down and he could smother the coals.

Ian woke up asking to ride the trail again for a third day. As this was our last day, we would be making a five hour drive home, and didn’t want to completely exhaust ourselves before this drive, so Brinn and I decided on a compromise. I’d ride the first three miles of the trail with Ian from Whitetop to Greencove, then Brinn could switch with me and ride the next four miles to Chestnut Mountain Road. This let Ian ride for seven miles on some of the prettiest sections of the trail. Brinn took a reluctant Balto to run for the second section of trail, but once Balto warmed up his muscles he was happy to zoom around corners again. Ian probably could have ridden all 17 miles, but he was easily persuaded to switch back to hiking after his 7 miles.

After Mogwai and I picked the boys up, we decided to drive down to explore a small section of the Appalachian Trail. Brinn is very interested in thru hiking the AT at some point, but I think I’m completely happy to dabble on short day hikes. Hiking has become one of Balto’s favorite activities. He’s happiest in the woods, but then, so is Ian! We only stayed on the trail for a few hours, but we saw some beautiful scenery and enjoyed giving our legs a different type of burn. Ian took his Sawyer water purifier and had fun filtering water from the creek. Mogwai and I enjoyed going at a leisurely pace while Balto and Ian ran up ahead of us for most of the journey.

Ian’s always enthusiastic about any adventure we plan, and he hopes to return to ride the Virginia Creeper again soon. We learned just how economical an option this trip is for a family vacation. There is quite a bit of free camping along Jeb Stuart Highway (although we paid to use Bear Tree in order to leave our camper set up and unattended all day). Because we had two vehicles, we were able to self shuttle, saving us the shuttle fee. We all own our own bikes, so we had no rental fees (except for Mogwai on day 1). There are no restaurants available near Whitetop, so we saved money by packing and preparing all of our meals. Really, our only costs were Mogwai’s bike trailer, our campsite, and our fuel to get there and back. We cooked the same types of foods that we make at home, so groceries were nothing out of the ordinary for us. If we hadn’t owned bicycles, we likely could have borrowed them to avoid rental fees. I expect we will likely return to Damascus soon for another trip coasting down the mountain.

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The Adventures of Hot Rod Todd

Some of my earliest memories include my mother reading to me from a book of stories that included fairy tales and Greek myths. I can still remember frequently requesting that she reread the same story of Persephone being trapped in the underworld after eating pomegranate seeds. I’d never eaten a pomegranate seed, so this story seemed so exotic and full of intrigue. By the time I was in second grade, my mom had me reading the Little House series and experiencing life as a pioneer girl through the eyes of Laura Ingalls. Then the horse books crept into my life: Thoroughbred, Saddle Club, Golden Filly, High Hurdles, and even the Lucy Hill Mysteries were all series that graced my book shelves. I read everything I could get my hands on! Is it any wonder that I went on to pursue two degrees in literature?

Ian did not immediately jump straight into a love of reading. He considered sitting still to be read to in the evenings as punishment. He didn’t want to sit still long enough to make it through a book, and he would try to choose the smallest books with the most pictures and fewest words. Ms. Virginia, a former supervisor who has a background in developmental learning, has a knack for assessing learning styles and meeting educational needs. She has kept Ian well stocked in books, and eventually being read to became less of a trial for Ian, and more of a pleasant ritual before bed. Virginia has insisted from the very beginning that parents should provide books that relate to their child’s interests. She has sent me home with dozens of books on tractors, bulldozers, farming, motors, and even dinosaurs. But then we took that trip to Alaska and Ian discovered huskies. Virginia has always been a research ninja, and she began to fill Ian’s bookshelves with books on huskies, particularly biographies of the original Balto and Togo.

Much as Ian enjoys these books, he still struggles to read them on his own as his attention wanes quickly. He still prefers illustrated books, preferable with full color images, but there are not many options available in Ian’s small interest area of Siberian Huskies and sled dogs. So you can imagine my excitement late last fall when I came across a post in a Facebook group describing a new children’s book series focused on a pack of Siberian Husky pups. I immediately placed an order through Amazon, and added it to the stack of Ian’s Christmas presents.

To say that Ian loves Hot Rod Todd to the Rescue would be an understatement. He has found a pack of Siberian pups (his greatest obsession), and each has its own unique persona.

Hot Rod Todd is the leader of the pack, and races classic hot rods.

Eye Patch Echo, one of Todd’s brother’s, provides comedic relief and help around the garage.

BBQ Haku, the only female pup from this litter, wears an attractive, but not overly feminine orange bow. She’s provides a strong model for other girls as she’s employed in technical communications for the racing team.

Rock Star Merc tours the world as an international rock music sensation.

Morse Koda, another brother, lives in Montana. He’s a bit of technological genius.

HRH Simba, the final brother, lives with Morse Koda. Like Morse Koda, he has also pursued a career in technology. Together they use technology to stay in touch with the other pups who live in Idaho.

The first book of the series finds the pups in the wilderness of Montana searching for their lost brother, Rock Star Merc. The pups receive help from wildlife, and are able to reunite with the stray Merc so that they can return home. Positive themes highlight the story, and the artwork is absolutely stunning. You can read the book yourself to learn more.

Here’s what I love about Hot Rod Todd:

  1. Ian is truly engaged in reading this book. He knows the names and appearance of each character. He enjoys looking at the pictures when he’s not reading, but as his reading skills improve, he spends more time reading to interpret the action he sees in the images.
  2. Ian is learning to think critically. We have conversations about the pups even when we’re not reading. On the drive home from school one day, we discussed which rides at Dollywood would each character enjoy most. Ian was able to use evidence from the text to justify his claims. That’s literary criticism! He’s learning how to defend character analysis. I know college students who struggle with these skills. FYI, Ian’s convinced that Rock Star Merc would love the Lightening Rod.
  3. The author is reachable. Mr. Adrian Czarnecki loves feedback from his readers and carefully considers all ideas as he’s working on a sequel. He consults with several parents, and always answers his email, even if it’s simply to answer a question about which pup would most prefer the Lightning Rod (he too thinks that it is Rock Star Merc).
  4. Merchandise is available to increase the fandom. Ian currently has two tee shirts and a neck gaiter featuring Hot Rod Todd. Balto has two bandanas featuring the characters.
  5. IAN IS READING! Now that Ian can read Hot Rod Todd to the Rescue by himself, he’s asking me to read the longer chapter books with him. Even on nights when I am tired and would be fine going straight to bed, Ian is coming to me and requesting that we read together. After we finish a chapter, he asks me to keep going. Sometimes he interrupts me and poses questions about what we’re reading. Other times he’ll take over and he’ll read a few pages to me.

The Adventures of Hot Rod Todd book 2 is now published and ready for purchase! Hot Rod Todd Visits Loch Ness is now available through Amazon or you can reach out directly to the author to purchase an autographed copy. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a sneak peak at this book, and I think Ian will love it even more than the first.

Last year we made a deal with Ian that when he earns a 100% on a spelling test, he gets to pick out any shirt he wants from the Hot Rod Todd store. Unfortunately Ian did not hit that goal during 2nd grade since COVID hit and remote learning didn’t include spelling tests. This year, Ian’s spelling proficiency is improving as he’s spending more time reading! Recently Ian earned his first ever 100% on a spelling test, so he’s heading online to pick out a brand new shirt with his favorite literary characters. I think he’s decided on Captain Chinook!

Ian is a completely different kid than I was. He’s not going to spend his spare time reading about Persephone or pomegranate seeds, but he is reading. I hope that someday he will look back to his childhood and remember reading with me fondly, but in the meantime, we will take his classroom achievements as they come. Thanks for the inspiration, Hot Rod Todd!

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We Pop Up Just Anywhere

104401957_2547609672167700_6053112500942927876_nBrinn has always wanted pop-up camper. I have never wanted a pop-up camper. Tent camper. Tent trailer. Pup. Fold-out camper. Call it what you will, it sounded like work to me. Why would I want extra work  when we’re doing just fine with a tent? We have a large cabin tent for longer trips, and the smaller Columbia tent for quicker trips when we take fewer items. The canopy tent covers our chairs well enough that we can stay dry through a rain storm. For years, I put Brinn off that I just can’t see the reason to invest in a pop up. But then Ian got bigger and really got into camping, so we started going more. Like almost every other weekend from March 105412412_2819466681620616_1573175769971564088_nthrough October. And Ian started packing more of his own stuff, and as he got bigger his stuff got bigger. And then I began dreaming of trips where we could roll into the campground with already made beds. What would life be without fighting with your husband in the rain while setting up a cabin tent, then sitting in a stuffy tent inflating air mattresses? How convenient would it be to not worry about checking the air pump’s batteries between trips? What if our camping gear didn’t take up half of the guest room anymore? And so I began the Craigslist dance of checking out camper sizes and prices, and I learned very quickly that the pop up pricing suited our budget much more than a hard sided camper would, and so Brinn finally got to go shopping and pick out his very own pop-up camper.

104439971_1187588678246265_3359508822936458904_nBrinn took his time and scoured all the usual sites (Craigslist, LSN, Facebook…) until he found a little Starcraft Venture in Kentucky. We made the drove on a chilly March day to view the 20 year old travel trailer, and found a delightful little camper. The young owner obviously hadn’t had the camper for much time at all, and had no idea how to assemble it, so he couldn’t answer any questions about it. Brinn pulled out both bunk ends, snapped in the supports, and went over the wood and canvas with a fine tooth comb. Obviously we found a few minor issues, as to be expected in such an old trailer, but we couldn’t find any major structural issues! As there was no where to plug in the electric, we took a gamble and trusted that it was all in working order. I even pointed out to Brinn that I had no need for electric. I couldn’t imagine using an air conditioner or refrigerator for the type of camping we do, and we  have head lamps and lanterns for lights, so who cares if the electric works?

Let me tell you, I care! Since we’ve had our little pup, I’m embarrassed to admit to how104236251_620831348553827_6880257487659786584_n much I have fallen in love with the air conditioner. I didn’t realize what a game changer it would be to camp in muggy July, August, and September without having to wait until midnight for it to cool down enough to even think about sleeping. The dogs can safely hang out in the cool camper while we go rafting or kayaking during a trip. I can leave a crock pot going inside the camper while we’re on the water so we can come back to a completely cooked meal! We didn’t find a major flaw with the trailer until we tried to turn on its interior lights, but surely that must have been burned out bulbs, right? Nope. We ended up just using lanterns the last two years, until this year when Brinn had to make some repairs for water damage. While he had the panels pulled apart, he found that some of the wiring had been cut clean through! Luckily we have an electrician on hand these days, and Jeremy came to the rescue to make repairs for us. Now we’re fully functional with all forms of electricity!

104875949_1136708710047140_4800103052130982106_nI think Chaco has been the biggest fan of the camper. She’s always enjoyed camping with us, but her little pop up has lifted her status in the canine world. When we take her for walks around the camp grounds, she holds her head a little higher as if to tell the other furry guests that she’s no longer a tent dog, she’s a camper dog now. She gets more enjoyment from the air conditioner than I would think a short haired dog would like. She’s also pretty taken with the fact that the kitchen table and benches converts to her very own bed.

Since Brinn found our little pup, we’ve taken it out roughly 30 times across the last two 104334433_2627856787437863_7634367159744730849_nyears. We’ve stayed in areas with full amenities, but also continue to frequent primitive camping areas. Even without the benefits of full electricity, the camper has made life tremendously easier. Before a trip, Brinn pops our little trailer up so I can make the beds on both ends. I stuff the cargo area under the bench seat with our pillows, and extra blankets for the dog bed. I don’t like to leave bedding out full time as my allergies can’t handle the mildew that occasionally accumulates. Our kitchen box and bathroom box now stay in the camper full time, so they no longer take up any space in the house. We’re also able to keep the assembly box (jacks, levelers, wheel chocks, and other fun stuff) in the camper, along with our general “camping” box, which contains dog runners, my homemade bug spray, head lamps, a hatchet, tarps, and other items that are handy to have in the woods. All of this storage has made a huge difference in the house, which helps me feel so much better. I hate clutter!

104378711_727698584661712_633303278016175612_nThe pup came with a gas stove and a sink, but both took up quite a bit of room in the small interior. The whole camper consists of two full sized beds on either end, a table with two bench seats that can convert to a smallish bed (larger than twin size, but smaller than a standard full), a counter top across from the table, and a small counter beside the rear bed. The stove takes up almost the entire long counter, and the sink takes up the small counter beside my bed. After a couple of trips out, where we used neither of these appliances, they were pulled out and are now stored in our rear building. They can stay in storage until/if we ever sell the pup.

2018 saw many adventures in the pup. 2019 didn’t take us out as often, but Balto moved 105051595_278379906611518_4466464449719223905_nin during 2019, and we also spent quite a bit of time in barn construction. Now we’re several months into the Corona pandemic, and we’re thankful to have the pup so that we can get away from our home while able to practice safe social distancing.

104874335_962289854201561_8533432849086954086_nSo far this year we’ve been to Fall Creek Falls, Nantahala Tiny Homes and RV Park  near the Nantahala River , and Gee Creek Campground  near the Hiwassee River. The Nantahala trip was a short one, only across one night, but we were able to spend more time at the Hiwassee. We arrived early in the day on Friday, and didn’t leave until Sunday afternoon.

We spent all day Saturday on the Hiwassee river with some fantastic friends and had a great trip. Ian took a bit of a spill at the “Little Rock Island” rapid as the wave stopped his boat and he got stuck in a side surf. It held onto me and the dog barge (our tandem tributary) for a few seconds on my way to go collect Ian. Ian cried for a few minutes after he climbed into the ducky with me, but Balto gave him kisses and tried to help him feel better.

That evening, we let Ian stay up later than he should have, and he got entirely too tired. 105296025_965915257196715_5794339629261624906_nHe got his favorite pajamas wet and moved solidly into overly emotional kid meltdown. Brinn and I decided Ian may do better to sleep with me, so we settled him under the comforter and he finally dozed off. Which means that I finally got to doze off…except a husky and cur dog decided they should get to sleep with us. Then that same cur dog woke me up to let him out to pee around 2:30 am. When you drink that much Hiwassee water all day, you just can’t make it through the night. After Mogwai completed his business, I put him in Ian’s bed with Brinn, and put Balto on the converted table bed, and slid back into my own bed despite the windmilling arms and babbling sleep talk. I found that great sweet spot, where you’re perfectly comfortable and drowsy and sleep feels wonderful, around 6 am. By 6:30 my legs were numb and I felt too hot. As I pulled myself to consciousness I found Mogwai lying horizontally across my legs, Ian smushed against my left side, and Balto smushed against my right side. I finally admitted defeat and got up to go read outside in the cool morning air. Balto and Ian immediately wiggled towards one another and soon it was as if I’d never been there at all. I think it’s safe to say that they are both huge fans of sleeping in the camper.

105616398_290839565387893_461233793787485977_nSo now you’re finally caught up on our account of moving into the popup camper life. To Chaco, it’s a doghouse on wheels. To Balto, it’s an ice box to cool down husky hair. To Mogwai, it’s another bed to sneak into beside mom. To Ian, it’s a place to plug in his kindle and watch a movie for 5 seconds before he goes to sleep. To Brinn, it is the culmination of a very delayed gratification. To me, it’s the admission that I was wrong, and Brinn was very right.

Posted in Balto, Friends, Ian, My Critters, Outdoor Adventures, paddling | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

From Badger to Promise

20200125_142758.jpgSometimes it’s funny how things work out.

I had the absolute best part time job during college: playing with babies at Golden Opportunities Farm, a quarter horse breeding stable 30 minutes from my college campus. My duties included getting baby horses comfortable with being handled and some very light training activities. While at this job, I met two very important gals:

  1. Cori: my predecessor in this job. She occasionally came back to the farm to help Mrs. Davis, the owner, to prep the babies and film sales videos. Cori and I hit if off immediately, as we had a few things in common to talk about, and we remain friends all these years later.
  2. Promise: the sweetest red filly I’ve ever met. This poor filly lost her mama shortly after birth, so she was very comfortable around people. Incidentally, Cori later ended up buying Promise.

Cori and Promise have earned quite a few AQHA points together, then Cori switched gears and started her own breeding program. Now her boys –including Promise’s colt, Arrow– are all grown up and ready to start their own show careers.

So all this backstory contributes to happenings around my small farm a few months ago.

20191208_141559.jpgIan has been more interested in riding with me lately, especially since one his best friends has been coming out to ride Reggie. The two would like to ride together some, but Badger seems to have reached his rider weight and height limit this winter. Ian tacked his pony up one afternoon while J was riding Reggie in the round pen. He jumped on his pony… and then proceeded to sit in the middle of the ring for J’s entire ride as Badger refused to move. The next weekend, I ponied Badger off of Reggie so Ian could ride with me around the field. After we started a very slow second lap, Ian asked if I could get him a bigger pony. He loves Badger, and has made me promise that we would never sell him, but he is getting a bit frustrated that he can’t really ride him any longer.

A few days later, I shared this encounter with Cori while we were exchanging texts, and she asked if Ian would be interested in a Promise sized pony. Now, Promise is nowhere near pony-sized, but her temperament does make her suitable for a small, inexperienced rider. I asked Ian if he’d like to move up to a full sized horse, and then we took a Saturday to visit Cori and Promise for a test drive.

All of this has resulted in Cori allowing Ian to lease a very sweet-natured mare so he20200215_133816.jpg has a safe mount while he’s still learning to ride. He’s still not a horse crazy kid by any stretch, and makes it very clear that he’s not a horse-person –he’s a husky person– but he does enjoy riding with me and he loves Promise. He has trouble believing that I knew Promise while she was still a baby, but he is very excited to have his own horse to run out and catch when he sees me bringing Reggie in for a quick ride. Between Balto and Promise, it looks like red is turning out to be Ian’s color!


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