“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!
“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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
Brinn 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 through 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.
Brinn 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 how 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!
I 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 years. 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!
The 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 in 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.
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. He 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.
So 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.
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:
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.
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.
Ian 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 he 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!
If you read along last time, you’ll remember that Ian now has his furry companion, Balto. We’ve heard repeatedly since Balto’s “gotcha day” that huskies are working dogs and don’t make good pets. Huskies need a job; without one they’ll dig your yard up and chew everything in the house. While I appreciate all the warnings, we’re not rookies with working breeds. Mogwai, our Tennessee Mountain Hybrid, is a treeing cur dog with a big territory and lots of energy. We sacrificed a few beds early in his life as we learned that he must stay employed regularly to prevent him from destroying everything. Once we figured out how to keep his brain and his body busy, cohabitation got much smoother. Ian never wanted a husky as a pet. From the moment he met the breed, he’s been obsessed with their ability to work.
Dr. J, my former supervisor and director (who I miss dearly!) came very close to diagnosing the situation. He texted me his assessment:
Just had a revelation. You and Brinn are grooming Ian for the Iditarod…1. Trip to Alaska. 2. Purchase of husky. 3. Training Balto to pull increasingly heavier weight. Next I expect you begin assembling (one by one) a team of sled dogs and conducting winter training in Gatlinburg or North Carolina. The picture is beginning to come into focus.
I read this message to Ian who laughed and said: “Mama, that’s not your plan. That’s my plan!” From July 2, 2018, Ian has had it in his mind that he will have a full team of sled dogs. When we returned from our Alaska trip, he had poor Mogwai tied to his plastic snow sled, making him drag it around the yard in July. Mogwai was not a fan, but I remind him that domestication doesn’t come free.
Now that Ian finally has his [first] husky, he’s been determined to train Balto to be his
Photo cred: Aunt Joy
first sled dog. Within days he had a leash connecting Balto’s puppy harness to the plastic sled so Balto could get used to something bouncing around behind him. As Balto has grown, Ian has moved him up to pulling a wagon and carrying heavier weights, including carrying 50 pound sacks of grain out to the barn each week when we pick up horse feed. Ian has the desire for Balto to be a working dog, but we’re lacking in the needed training skills, so I began hunting around online for local trainers who may be able to give Ian lessons. Then Tabitha found an event on Facebook she thought Ian would like: IWPA September in Baxter.
Baxter is only 15 minutes from our house, so I looked up the organization: International Weight Pull Association. Once I read the description on the IWPA website, I knew this would be the perfect event for Ian and Balto. I messaged the members of the local group and asked if we could bring Ian to watch. Multiple owners responded and invited us to bring Ian AND Balto and offered to loan Balto a harness and to teach Ian how to compete in the novice division. After double checking the date, I realized that this event was set for the very next day, so we packed the canopy tent in the truck with Balto’s swimming pool and a water bowl so that we would be prepared for Sunday morning.
The day of Ian’s first pull dawned hot and muggy. We filled two coolers with bagged ice left over from our last camping trip, and stopped by Dollar General to buy more ice on our way to the event. When we arrived, Ms. Sheryl greeted us warmly and helped Ian sign up for the novice division. We popped up our tent to create shade, filled Balto’s pool with ice, screwed in the metal spike to clip to his runner, and settled in to learn about this new world.
So here’s the basic concept: Dogs wear a special harness which distributes weight evenly across their bodies. The harness is attached to a flat cart with wheels, and increasingly heavier weights are added to this cart. After handlers clip their dogs to the cart, the owner goes to the end of a fenced chute and calls their dog to come to them. The dogs are timed to see how long it takes them to pull the cart across the line. Handlers are not allowed to use any type of coercion other than voice so it’s entirely up to the dog to pull the weight. The dog who pulls the heaviest load wins. If there’s a tie on weight, then the dog with the best time wins.
Dogs are not eligible to enter the sanctioned weight classes until they are at least one year old. Balto was six months old at his first pull, so he obviously started in Novice, and will stay there all year. Since Novice follows all of the sanctioned classes, we settled in to watch and wait. Balto laid in his ice pool until all his ice melted, but he splashed so pitifully in his pool of cold water that Brinn ended up running down the road to the closest market to pick up another 20 pounds of ice to refill Balto’s arctic tundra. Finally Ms. Sheryl called for a 15 minute break before Novice would start.
Photo cred: Aunt Joy
Ms. Missy, a trainer and harness maker, gave Ian and Balto all kinds of advice and support. She loaned Ian a green pulling harness to fit Balto and showed us how to put it on. Ms. Missy and Ms. Sheryl instructed Ian in the process, and off they went! Balto did great in his first and second pulls, but halfway through his third pull, he stopped and started his husky talking. It’s hard to describe as it’s not a howl, or a wine, or even a yap. It’s just this weird complaining talking that huskies do. Up until that point, everyone had praised Balto for his great attitude and chill, non-husky behavior. After Balto’s temper tantrum, everyone laughed and Ms. Missy said “there’s the Siberian coming out!”
We finished the day with 4 goodish pulls from Balto, and one entertaining pull. During awards, Ms. Sheryl award Ian with first place in Novice Junior Handler, and Ian doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he was the only junior handler of the day. So far he’s content with “winning” and doesn’t feel like he actually has to beat someone. Some might complain about the participation trophy generation, but this award has lit a fire under Ian to practice and come back with more weight and faster times for the next event.
We left the event with lots of advice and plans for the next event. Ian spent the next month working on sharpening Balto’s reaction to verbal commands of “come” and “hike!” Balto, being true to his husky heritage, tends to only hear Ian when there’s a treat or toy involved. Balto was neutered shortly after his first pull event, and was on limited activities for a couple of weeks afterwards, so Ian has not been working on any weight with him. Ian’s tried to focus on Ms. Missy’s advice for getting his dog excited about coming to him. Ian’s trying…but Balto’s enthusiasm varies.
Yesterday brought us back to Baxter for Ian and Balto’s second weight pull. The group allowed Ian to try to help with the cart during several pulls, and all the trainers continued to offer Ian advice and training tips for Balto. Mr. Joe has invited Ian to come practice with the Knoxville group, and we are going to have Ms. Missy size Balto and sew his own weight harness if the behemeath will ever quit growing. Ian finished the day with some improvements from last time, including more weight and a slightly more agreeable husky. Once again, Ian finished with a first place award for Novice Junior Handler, with no other junior handlers in attendance, haha.
Now that Balto has fully recovered from surgery and the temps are dropping, Ian is ready to start ramping up Balto’s training. With advice from the local trainers and invitation to come train with some of them, Balto is entering his life as a working dog. Now we sit back and see if Dr. J’s prophetic plan for Ian and Balto comes to life.
Thank you East and Middle Tennessee Weight Pullers for introducing us to Ian’s favorite sport!
It all started December 25, 2017 when Grandpoppa said “Let’s go to Alaska.” If we hadn’t gone to Alaska, Ian would have never know what he was missing. But we did go to Alaska, and while there, he discovered that his life just isn’t worth living without a husky to share it. And thus began Ian’s obsession.
Ian’s pack of plush dogs grew alongside his fascination. Every day he found more opportunities to remind his parents how much he wanted a husky of his very own. Brinn and I presented a united front early on, but our resolve eventually began to weaken. Well, mine did. And Brinn just kind of went with me.
Eventually we found ourselves conducting a lot of research, then looking at local options. We ended up calling a breeder for more information, and she invited us to come and view her litter to see if we wanted to put down a deposit on a pup. We planned to let Ian pick one out Easter evening, but the breeder called us that morning to share that the pups were ready to wean, and if we wanted, we could pick one out and take it home that day. Nana helped with the cost as this pup would be Ian’s birthday present, so we cut short our family camping trip, packed Ian and his bike up, and took off to pick up his early birthday surprise.
Ian knew Balto was his as soon as he laid eyes on him. When we pulled up at the breeder’s home, Brinn convinced Ian to close his eyes before he got out of the truck, and he carried him around to the back yard where the puppies were kept. Ian kept his eyes jammed shut until he heard the mama dog bark. His eyes flew open as puppies bomb rushed him, and he immediately scooped up the cream colored male. Ian discovered love at first lick, and knew that this was his dog. We tried to convince Ian to play with the other pups, and for 30 minutes Brinn tried to persuade Ian to consider taking home the adorable grey female, but Ian wasn’t having it. He knew exactly which puppy was for him, and thus the cream pup was christened Balto.
We brought Balto home and began the process of helping him adapt to his new life. The first evening was rough as he missed his brothers and sisters. He tried to curl up beside Mogwai and Chaco, but they weren’t thrilled to have a little brother. After taking Balto out for a last potty break, we shut him in his crate which we’d placed in Ian’s room. As soon as we left the room he started crying, and he proceeded to cry for the next two hours. We thought he had finally cried himself to sleep, but when we peeped in to check, we found that he had a new source of comfort. With our exhaustion combined with the cuteness, we just let it ride. This became the routine for several nights until Balto became more comfortable with his crate and sleeping on his own.
Balto had moved in with us right in the middle of stage 3 of barn building. He quickly had to evolve from husky pup to barn dog. Originally Grandpoppa had been strong with us on our resolve to hold out on waiting to buy Ian a puppy. He also supported the opinion that we did not need a husky in hot, humid middle Tennessee. Grandpoppa is usually the first one to cave to Ian’s wants, but on this one he was staying strong…until he actually met Balto. Not only did Balto take to his life as a barn dog, but he also attached strongly to Grandpoppa, who has grown pretty fond of the pup.
Ian spent his summer falling more in love with Balto. I don’t think there has ever been a more wanted husky on the planet. They’ve had quite a few adventures already as Ian has stayed busy teaching Balto to hike, kayak, play in the creek, drive the gocart, and work the farm. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, as Balto’s favorite chew toy seems to be human flesh, but Ian listened closely to the vet’s training advice and stuck with the program. Balto’s biting has decreased, but we still can’t break him of his pickpocket habit where he steals your shoe right off your foot without you noticing. I’m not sure if he loves my house slippers or hates them, but he puts quite a bit of effort into tracking and attacking them. Oddly enough, Balto doesn’t really destroy shoes or toys. He enjoys chewing, but doesn’t completely destroy objects the way Mogwai does. I’ve never seen a dog take better care of his toys!
Balto. Fluffy. Shark Teeth. Sharp Tooth. Fluff Fluff. Fluffernutter. Fluffy Teeth. Fluffy Shark. Nutterbutter. Pup Pup. No Bite! When Ian brought this many-named dog home, he only weighed 6 pounds. Now the 6 month old fluff ball weighs a whooping 60 pounds!
Every dog should be so lucky to have his very own boy. I’m sure Balto heartily agrees.
So I did a couple of things Sunday that I haven’t done since my pre-Ian years. The first one was absolutely amazing. For the first time in seven years, I kayaked the Ocoee with my husband. Then we locked our boats in the bed of the truck and jumped in the raft, which we intentionally flipped, something else I haven’t done since becoming a mother.
My driving force in getting through my lessons with Ace Kayaking this summer was to be able to get back onto the Ocoee consistently with Brinn. Before having Ian, we used to go out regularly. Granted, Brinn basically had to hold my hand on those trips, and I always walked around Tablesaw. Nonetheless, I was able to put in at the rails or Staging Eddy (whichever had a parking spot open) and mostly make it down the river with Brinn. I had mishaps for sure, including swims at Surprise (my most hated rapid on the entire Ocoee) and even at Powerhouse (because I’m special like that), but I was out there. After becoming pregnant, I quit paddling altogether for two years, and it was nothing like riding a bike. Not much came back to me naturally.
So here I am, seven years later, taking lessons and plaguing Brandon with the worst student of his teaching career. A few weeks ago I went back for my last lesson, and worked with Jake, another great instructor at ACE. I don’t think I gave Jake quite as much of a headache as I did Brandon, but I still found ways to amaze him with my ineptitude… like when he wanted me to leave the eddy above Moon Chute and surf across a wave to ferry over above the rapid. I left the eddy…and started to ferry onto my surf, but my bow was too high, and the current rejected me. I should’ve have gone back to my eddy and came in again, with a lower angle, but nope, I tried to plow on through, so I blew right past my surf, and then past Jake, and ran the whole thing backwards and caught an eddy below Moon Chute where I waited in chagrin for Jake to come find me.
Regardless of my mishaps with Jake, he somehow managed to cram some new information into my brain and help me build on the skills Brandon had initially installed, and now kayaking isn’t quite as scary as it has been for the last five years. But for weeks now, we’ve wanted to go rafting. I think I forgot to mention this, but we bought a new raft this year! After saving for the last few years, and sacrificing most of our tax return, we finally bought the Super Puma we’ve had our eye on for years. More about that another day. We have this awesome new raft, and we’ve only had it out two times all spring and summer long. Rafts aren’t meant to stay dry. It needed to be on the Ocoee surfing. So Brinn and I finally had a Sunday that wasn’t accounted for. I didn’t have kayaking lesson, neither of us had a rescue course, and we hadn’t scheduled to go with a group to a different river. It looked like we finally had a day we could hit the Ocoee with our tree frog green raft. Except I realized that I kind of wanted to kayak. On the Ocoee! I thought I was starting to burn out a little bit after 5 lessons and multiple trips outside of lessons. But when we started planing our day without Ian, I realized that I really wanted to get back out there again. So we decided to do both!
Once we started our ungodly early drive to the Ocoee, which was even earlier than planned because someone mistakenly set his alarm for 4:00 AM…, my nerves started to build and make themselves evident. I won’t say I regretted asking Brinn if we could kayak first, but I was starting to worry a bit going out for my first post-Ian non-lesson trip down the Ocoee. Then I received a response text from our beloved Mrs. Anderson who completely changed my perspective on the situation. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m sharing her words: “Don’t worry. You will have a wonderful day. What a blessing to paddle with your husband.” I immediately shared her text with Brinn, who drove in silence for a bit as we both thought about Dr. Anderson for a few miles and how much we miss him. And how much more Anne must miss him every day, especially when we beg her to join us on the rivers that she paddled frequently with him for years. Anne was right. I’m extremely blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to paddle with my husband anytime that I want, and I should absolutely take that opportunity whenever it presents itself. So I went to the river stronger and more thankful.
People often wonder why I am so reluctant to go boating without Brinn. I mean, I managed to paddle for months before I met him, so why couldn’t I do it now? Because I’m a dunderhead without him. I had offered to let Brinn put in at the ramp with Jeremy so they could both run Grumpy’s and meet me at the rails, but Brinn valiantly declined and insisted that he wanted to paddle with me. It’s a good thing, too, since I got to the bottom of the stairs and went to screw my drainplug in, and found it missing! It had been attached the evening before when I loaded this exact boat into the bed of the truck. How did it just up and disappear? Fortunately I had MacGuyver #1 and MacGuyver #2 with me for the day. After Brinn failed to find my drain plug in the truck or the raft, he yanked his out of his boat, and screwed it into my boat while Jeremy hunted for an appropriately sized stick. Brinn pulled out tape and a lighter, and somehow sealed up the drain hole on his boat, and we were river worthy and finally able to put on while Tabitha drove down to Goforth Creek to pick us up.
Because we were going to raft as well, Brinn suggested that we only kayak a half lap so that we wouldn’t get too worn out. This sounded like a great idea to me, except Brinn wanted to do the top half of the run, which has always intimidated me more. Usually when we did a half lap, it was from Goforth down. But here we were, running the scarier half of the river, with conservative lines at Broken Nose and Double Suck, and we ended up having a fantastic day. The drain plug ended up being the only mishap, and we had an amazing trip down the river with Jeremy, who I didn’t even run over. No surfers were harmed by my refusal to look where I was going on this trip.
After our kayak lap, we said a quick hi to Rick Ford, then piled humans and boats back into the truck and drove back to the top to unload the raft. And guess what we found? My drain plug! It was safely wedged into the raft, so at least it don’t blow or bounce out. Now it is safely screwed back into a hard boat. Brinn dumped the raft and gear out by the ranger’s stand and he and Jeremy left to park both vehicles down at bottom and to pick up Mrs. Anderson who was joining us for our raft lap.
This is the day we hit every eddy we came across.
Tabitha and I are still working on getting comfortable in the Super Puma. The higher rocker really helps it punch through holes and over waves, but it also makes it a bit harder for the front paddlers to brace in as we keep sliding back. It didn’t matter, either way, as Brinn wants to test the limits of this boat every time we take it out so we will be fully prepared for winter creeking in it, and to avoid mishaps for trips with Ian. On the last trip, Brinn and I R2ed and he wanted to see how many eddies we could catch in this boat…including the teeny tiny kayak eddies. We only managed to catch one eddy through Tablesaw, to his disappointment, but we did catch the eddy directly behind Diamond Splitter rock that day. On Sunday, rather than catching eddies and making hard ferries, Brinn wanted to test to stability and weight distribution of the raft. Actually, he really just wanted to flip it, but he built compelling evidence for the need to flip it. So after Hell’s Half Mile, he moved me back beside him, and Tabitha and Anne directly in front of us. We went through the first big wave, and caught some air, but the bow settled back down. We went through the second big wave, and thought we were clear, but then the stern of the boat (with all of our added weight) did exactly what kayakers try to never do: lean upstream.
As soon as the stern buried in the current the bow climbed again and inertia did its job. Hydrology and physics worked together to take us over spectacularly. We didn’t just dump truck. We flopped the whole thing right over on top of us. Seeing the carnage coming, I settled back and grabbed hold of the chicken strap in anticipation. After we completed our flip, I reached up to feel the raft over the top of me, and used the chicken strap to pull myself out from under the boat and I popped up right behind it, still hanging on. But then Brinn shoved his paddle at me and said “here, hold this.” He grabbed the boat, so I floated away from it and started looking for my eddy. Brinn struggled with the boat, so I swam into the river right eddy directly across the current from Jump Rock. Funny, I just spent half my summer ferrying back and forth between these two eddies. After watching Brinn go deeper in the eddy and still not flipping the boat, I resigned myself to the fact that he probably wasn’t going to be ferrying back across to pick me up. Tabitha was even further down in the current and Jeremy was helping her swim for the bottom of the eddy. Anne waited right behind Jump Rock, where I should have gone. I waited for a few kayakers to go past, then left the eddy high, but lemme tell ya, that current was a lot pushier without the benefit of a double blade and a boat. I swam, and swam, and then swam some more. Finally I got near the eddy and Jeremy darted over to grab the paddles from me so I could finish my swim on my back, because my muscles were done.
Brinn got the raft back right side up and we discussed tactics for flipping it next time. Ultimately we agreed that he should’ve shoved me on top to flip it because his shoulder chose to disagree with climbing on board. I’m thinking hitting the Green Narrows less than a year after major surgery may have been a bit too much for him this year. We all climbed in and laughed about our experience. Even Tabitha showed good humor at her unrequested bath. Jeremy delivered our paddles to us, so we were able to head back down river.
Jeremy was the major MVP of the day. We left the ramp with five paddles, and we arrived at the takeout with all five paddles! Not a single loss on Jeremy’s watch. I bought him a beer that evening.
By the time we made it down to Flipper just a few rapids later, Brinn didn’t even ask if we were up for surfing. I think he knew that we were all exhausted from swimming. I decided then and there that I would be visiting the campus pool a lot this winter to swim with a paddle. I obviously need to get stronger and more efficient with a single and double-bladed paddle because, well, swimmers are going to swim.
Going through the Doldrums, Tabitha motioned toward her husband and mouthed for me to flip him. Jeremy had decided to ride down in my Nomad for his second lap of the day. I knew I couldn’t be stealthy enough to pull it off from inside the raft, so I motioned for Brinn to swim over and grab his boat. Unfortunately Brinn telegraphed his intent all too clearly and Jeremy saw it coming. I launched out of the boat to grab the bow while Brinn shoved the boat over. Despite his unsealed skirt, Jeremy refused to swim. Even when Brinn flipped the boat over, Jeremy came up and held a brace against Brinn flipping him again and through clenched teeth he yelled “WILL.NOT.SWIM!” Somehow Anne came out of the raft after I did, so Tabitha and Jeremy ended up being the only two to not swim here.
After Jeremy drained about 600 gallons of Ocoee water out of the Nomad, he jumped back in and we floated on downstream. Our second mishap of the day came at Tablesaw. Brinn wanted to try for the top eddy on river left, and called for Tabitha and I to paddle hard as we crashed over the top wave. The bow rode up so high that we struggled to get our paddles in the water, and we blew past the eddy. As Brinn regrouped and aimed for the next eddy, Tabitha went bonkers and started yelling about her foot. With her T grip waving around in my face, I quit paddling as well and stared at her. The side of her foot had locked up in a giant cramp, and it refused to relax. I grabbed her foot to mash my hand into the Charlie horse, and she came unglued. She yanked her chaco off and threw it in the floor of the boat while hopping around in her seat. Brinn thought we were both possessed and yelled at us for not paddling. Tab’s moment finally passed and she was able to put her shoe back on. Neither of us remember anything about going through the rapid.
We completed the rest of our trip smoothly with no additional mishaps. I think Brinn would’ve liked to back stack at Hell Hole, but I didn’t have it in me to swim for another eddy. I would’ve just floated to the takeout… So instead he had Tab and I scoot back just one thwart so we could brace in a bit more securely, and we had no issues plowing right through both waves, then floating over Powerhouse. We arrived at the takeout both tired and hungry, but every bit of the exhaustion was worth it. It’s been a hard summer of ferrying and eddy hopping, but I finally feel like I’m back!