Saturday, February 28, 2009

Alaska Day 8, Friday, March 2, 2007

There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met.
(I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day, from the Muppet Movie)

Friday is a ‘down’ day for the Mushers, the musher’s meeting and the banquet is over, the Ceremonial Start is tomorrow. The fans and sponsors are in town. And no big official events are planned. So, instead of last minute preparations, many of the Mushers are so gracious as to open their homes and kennels for open houses. Ya know, if I was about to take off behind a bunch of dogs on a sled to go 1100 miles through the Alaska wilderness, the last thing I, think I would want to do was play nicey-nicey with a bunch of strangers, who are wandering through my home and wanting to pet my dogs.

I had invitations to several open houses and choosing which ones to go to was difficult. I was hoping to make 3 of them. Two in the Mat-Su valley and one in Anchorage, but because of transportation issues was only able to make 2 official and one un-official ones all out in the valley.

First I went to Karen Ramstead’s ( ) . Karen comes up from Perryvale, Alberta, Canada to stay with a friend, Jamie West in Willow, about 2 hours from Anchorage and near where the Restart will be.

Karen has a Yahoo group which I have been a member of for about 5 years and have gotten to know, in an internet way, many of the members of the group. Plus, Karen runs a team of CKC registered Siberian Huskies and is the one Musher I follow closely each year. Karen is never going to win the race, Sibes are just not fast enough, but embodies the essence of the race to me. One person and 16 dogs vs. the worst and best the Alaska bush can throw at them, just to dream a dream and do the near impossible – get to Nome.

The group at Karen’s was like meeting old friends. Many of the people there I had known for years, at least by their Internet personas. I am happy to report every one of them is as nice as they are on the net. The first indication of this was in response to my transportation problem. Roland wanted to go to the ITC Handler’s class in Anchorage about 2.5 hours after we arrived at North Wapiti Kennels, North. I asked the group who were there early, if anyone was going to be going back to Anchorage and if so, could I have a ride back. Karen and company looked around and told me that no one there now was going back, but of course someone would get me back, and to let Roland go. With the faith of a child, I sent my ride back to Anchorage trusting that there really would be someone going south, with room for one extra person.

I then proceeded to thoroughly enjoy myself, getting to know the people there. First I got to meet Donna Quante, three time Emmy winner (Camera Operation), writer and producer of the Video, “Pretty Sled Dogs” ( ), Donna had obviously not ‘gone Hollywood’ since we met her while she was out feeding dogs and scooping poop. The love of dogs is such an equalizer; it really does not matter if you are an Emmy winner, a PhD, or just average Joe or Jane. If you love the dogs, nothing is too demeaning even cleaning up a pile of dog poo.

When I went inside, I then met Karen in person…………I was (and am) in awe…nearly speechless. I could not have been more impressed and star struck if I had been meeting the Queen of England.

June Price, list owner of the Idita-Support Yahoo group and intrepid photographer ( and writer is as beautiful a person as her photos are. Jamie, who laughed when I said “y’all” made me feel totally at home. Jamie is originally from Tennessee and said hearing ‘y’all’ again made her feel like she was at home again. It was at the initial introductions, I get tagged as “BilindaFromTexas”.

I met many, many other wonderful people and ended up exchanging email addresses with several people who do rescue, including Malamute and Sled dog rescue in the San Francisco and Pennsylvania, and a gal who dose Fila rescue up here. The dog world is really small; most of the people I met knew someone who I knew, either from the rescue or the show world. It almost felt like the game which is played figuring out how many degrees of separation we were from one another. It seems that Charlene LaBelle showed up in most of the connections with the west coast.

Charlene, you have to get out more – there was at least one person at Karen’s who did not know you.

The highlight of the open house at Karen’s was the tour of the dog lot. The 23 dogs are staked out beside their houses and the chains are long enough that each dog can interact with at least 3 other dogs. Walking through the lot means you are walking in the circle of a dog almost every step. This is really cool as each dog looked at me with the ‘Here comes an ear rub’ look. They all got one!

These are amazing dogs. Tough sled dogs who are also soft little love puppies. The weather was perfect, about 3 below when I got there and it warmed up little during the day. The nice part was, while Anchorage was experiencing gale force winds, there were none in Willow and the sun was shining. I am either getting acclimated to the weather or I am just plain nuts, but I was out most of the day with no hat and thin gloves. But then dog fur is a great heat source.

We were able to spend as much time as we wanted with the dogs and do what ever we wanted. This was NOT a guided tour. Need I tell you what I was doing most of the afternoon? I fell in love with one of her males, Junior, and one of her bitches, Tess. Then there is Kara. Kara is Karen’s main leader who also is her house dog for all but the racing season. Kara is not going to be in the Start nor go to Nome due to some minor injuries. To make up for it, Kara is in a kennel, not on a chain and has the option when Karen is there of having free run of the dog lot. Every time I would sit down on a doghouse to get some Fur Therapy from the resident dog, Kara would jump on the house with me and usually put her head on my shoulder. Pictures of the Open house are here including one of me and Jr:

One thing I noticed about the dogs is when I first rubbed them is how thin they felt, and then I ran my hands down the legs and sides – SOLID muscle. I realized how accustomed to handling our couch potato dogs, who, yes I must admit, are FAT! It is like comparing a Marathon Racer to a Sunday jogger!

Karen was so gracious and was answering questions and letting us all get a feel for the prep necessary for this race. This was like getting to go over to one of the Spur’s homes the day before the NBA Championship and hang out.

I was star struck and very humbled.

After the open house was over, I hitched a ride with Donna Quante to her home on the way to a second open house. Donna is caring for several of Perry Solmonson’s dogs who did not make his race team. I got to feed them. Kibble and hot water. They scarfed up the food like they were Mals. A couple of the puppies (yearlings) were a little shy but again they all wanted ear rubs and pats - AFTER they ate, that is. Donna was thrilled that another gal and I volunteered – gee, if she had thought about it, I most likely would have paid her to feed and scoop poop.

She has 2 Sibes and one Alaskan with a visiting Lab/Sharpi X as house dogs. They were thrilled to have visitors and I was thrilled to snuggle. Donna came into the dining room, where we all were and commented she DID have chairs. Almost all were sitting on the floor, where we could have free access to the dogs. I had not even thought about sitting in a chair – I needed a dog fix by that time.

We then went over to River’s house. You see, River’s is a blind, retired Iditarod team dog. He had run at least two races while blind from glaucoma. Eventually, the glaucoma had advanced to where he was in pain and needed the surgery to remove his eyes. Mike and Mary Dillingham adopted Rivers getting him the required surgery. Rivers has since become a well known author and has his own blog.

Rivers is a real sweet dog who lives up to his literary persona….but how could he not. His parents are such nice folks.

We headed back to Anchorage, with me riding with new old friends. Rescue people who work with Karen in PA.

The wind had lessened, and tonight is a two dog night, but I have the memories of snuggling with dozens of sled dogs to keep me warm tonight.

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