Monday, November 3, 2008

Fall Fun: Tow Hill Training Weekend, State College, Pennsylvania

Sobo has great things to say about the Tow Hill Training weekend!

This past Friday, Eric and I along with the Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC team of sled dogs set off for the annual Tow Hill Fall Training Session held just outside of State College, Pennsylvania at the home of Scott and Ginnie Pirmann. This is an event that we have enjoyed immensely in past years, and we have been looking forward to this year's event for months. On the drive we enjoyed the spectacular late fall foliage colors of central Pennsylvania.

The fall colors were stunning

Brilliant fall colors

In attendance at the training session were thirty plus mushers and nearly one hundred sled dogs ranging from lean and fast eurohounds to Alaskan huskies to purebred Siberian Huskies. Mushers arrived in dog trucks some pulling trailers with ATVs (for large team training), rigs (for smaller team training), motorless ATVs, and bikes. Team size ranged from two dogs to 12-14 dogs.

The Tow Hill trails

The trails

A two dog bikejor team set up for siberians, Hawk and Margaret

Six siberian huskies on picket lines on outriggers attached to a trailer

Big dog truck, trailer and ATV

Bigger dog truck with hounds

Biggest dog truck (Rob Downey's dog truck) with hounds


Arriving Friday we set up, dropped (walked) and fed the sled dogs. Since it was warm, we decided to take the dogs for a walk in lieu of running the dogs as planned. After walking the dogs and setting up, we staked out our bunks in the comfy and warm bunk house and socialized with the other mushers. At about 7 pm, we all headed out to Hoss' Steak House in State College for a big steak dinner.

Setting up camp

Saturday morning dawned bright, early and slightly cooler than Friday afternoon and saw teams ranging in size from 12 to 2 head out for some running on the fabulous trails on the Tow Hill property.

Liz and puppy

Siberian Husky, Chinook (of the Powers Pack), meets a new friend

Practicing gee, haw, on by, and head on and over taking passing were the major goals of the weekend for us. Since our plan was to run our friend, Carolyn's two siberians, Hawk and Margaret, we decided to leave T-Bone at the truck and run only five dogs.

In lead we started off with our best lead dog, Zoe and next to her silly Sobo, our four year old Siberian Husky. Behind Zoe and Sobo in team we had big, Okemo, and in wheel, we had two siberians from our friend, Carolyn McKendrick, Hawk and Margaret. With Carolyn riding as passenger and the dogs pulling over 500 lbs, we headed off for a three mile run on the looping trails surrounding the Pirmann residence. Along the way we had several opportunities to practice over taking and head on passing. We also frequently stopped to work on "gee over" (move to the right) as gee over greatly facilitates clean passing. Midway through our run, we decided to give Zoe a break and move her back to team position. We moved Carolyn's 8 year old leader, Margaret up into lead with Sobo while Hawk continued to run solo in wheel. Along the way, we did lots of gee/haw training.

Plenty of opportunities for gee/haw training

Preparing for a up hill over taking pass (photo courtesy of Kevin Powers)

Returning to camp, we fed and watered the dogs, ate lunch, socialized, and rested the dogs. After a break, along with our friend Linda Powers, we decided to head out for a brief canicross hike with sled puppy, Acadia, and sled dog, T-Bone, who had not run in the morning.

Relaxing at camp

Canicross is cross country running or hiking while a dog pulls you. It can be done with 1 to 3 medium sized or larger dogs and are great sports to consider if you only have 1-2 dogs and enjoy hiking, running or skiing with your dog. The dog wears an xback harness and is connected to the person with a 6-8 foot line, usually with an integrated shock absorber. The line is attached to a canicross or skijor belt. To learn more about canicross and skijoring, visit the canicross and skijor sections of the Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC website.

Pulling hard, Acadia dove down the trail eager to lead off and be in front of the other dogs. As we canicrossed for approximately 1.5 miles, we worked on gees, haws, line outs, and on bys. At one point, we successfully on by'd a huge herd of deer.

Musher socialization hour (photo courtesy of Kevin Powers)

Musher socialization and lunch
Relaxing at camp

Siberian sled puppy, Acadia, awaiting harnessing for canicross

As evening neared and the sun began to set, several mushers including Eric and I decided to take our dogs out for some intensive pass training. The point was not to go fast or far but to work on one of the fundamentals of dog sledding, passing another team.

Because of the intensive nature of this type of training, we decided to take out only four dogs. Harnessing the dogs, we put the ever dependable, Zoe in lead. Next to Zoe also in lead we placed, Sobo. Rounding out the four dog team, we put Okemo and T-Bone in wheel.

As we harnessed and set up, we lined the dogs up next to another team of dogs. "Silly" Sobo impressively lined out all business. While we've had problems in past years with Sobo acting downright silly, he is really coming along and is turning into a nice and even (gasp) dependable lead dog. Running him next to experienced lead dogs, Zoe, Margaret and others has helped tremendously.

As we started out of the dog yard, the dogs wove in and out of the other mushers' camps and on by'd the other dog teams perfectly. Heading down to the lower 1/2 mile loop, we began a counter clockwise rotation through the loop while fellow mushers, Linda and Christina each began a clockwise rotation through the same loop, thus setting up a series of head on passes.

Around and around we went until each team had numerous opportunities to practice head on passing and until each team successfully and cleanly passed the other teams. After several successful head on passes, Linda and I headed back to the main trails for some over taking passing. Leap frogging past each other (one team advances, passing a team stopped on the right side of the trail, then stops while the team that is behind comes past), we practiced numerous head on passes until the dogs would pass without even looking at the other team's dogs. We even got several silent, no look passes out of Mr. Barky himself, T-Bone.

Being passed by a six dog siberian team and ATV (photo courtesy of Kevin Powers)

Head on passing (photo courtesy of Kevin Powers)

Preparing for an up hill over taking pass

After all that passing, mushers and dogs were hungry and ready for the infamous Saturday evening mushers' potluck feast back at the lodge. After a huge wonderful dinner of, among other things, sausage, quiche, veggies, meatballs, chicken in cream sauce, clam chowder, capped off with pies, cake, ice cream and cheese cake, we all fell into bed stuff and exhausted. Thankfully, with the time change we even got to enjoy an extra hour of sleep.

Waking early on Sunday morning, we began to harness up the dogs for one last morning run just as dawn was breaking. This morning, we elected to run a six dog team with Margaret and Hawk in lead, Zoe and T-Bone in team, and Sobo and Okemo in wheel. Carolyn rode along to help out with her two dogs, Hawk and Margaret, and add extra weight at the beginning of the run. Much to our surprise, veteran wheel dog, Hawk was excellent in lead, at times even showing veteran lead dog, Margaret, where to make turns. While we had the trails mostly to ourselves, we did have several teams over take and pass us which was excellent practice for the dogs.

(left to right) Acadia, Zoe and T-Bone relax after training

After a yummy breakfast of egg casserole, pastries and muffins, it was time to say goodbye and head home.
All of this training is tiring....

T-Bone takes a nap

Okemo is dreaming of squirrel soup

Acadia is already dreaming about next year...