The Fan Hitch Volume 8, Number 3, June 2006

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue...

Editorial: Diversity with a Common Interest
FIDO: John Senter
Developing a Culture of Mushers
The Inuit Sled Dog Registry
Arctic Inuit Sled Dogs: Life in Retirement
Inuit Dog Thesis Update
In the News
Fan Mail
Kennel Tip: Taking the Heat Off
Book Review: The Lost Men
 IMHO: Filling the Woodshed

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Featured  Inuit Dog Owner....

John and Ashe                Photo: Senter

John Senter
Salem, Oregon, USA

TFH: How long have you been mushing? How did you get started and with what breed?
J.S.: I have been mushing since 1981 or so. At first, my mushing was not a very serious endeavor and consisted of very short runs on gravel roads within a few miles of my home. This was mainly because my first pickup truck wasn't reliable enough for trips farther afield. Later, I got a better pickup and was able to get to some more challenging areas to mush, snow covered trails, to try my hand at sledding. I started out with Alaskan Malamutes. I had been told by other mushers that Siberian Huskies were easier to train and handle but I was more interested in malamutes and already had two. As I had no trained lead dog, I acquired a retired Siberian Husky lead dog from a friend.  This was a great help in getting started. As time passed, I was able to train malamute leaders and that stage of the transition was complete. I ran only malamutes until 1996 when we acquired Ashe, our first Inuit Sled Dog. 

TFH: Tell us about the "journey" that brought you to ISDs, the process where a kennel of "other" sled dogs becomes a kennel of ISDs.
J.S.:  My first actual exposure to Inuit Sled Dogs was at the 1994 Oregon Dune Mushers' Mail Run. where I was privileged to participate with Sylvia Feder. She had three ISDs that were quite impressive. I was running malamutes at that time and had always enjoyed and appreciated the malamutes' capabilities. My first impression of Sylvia's dogs was that they had a lot in common with the malamutes I had. That is, they were freighting dogs, not fast, but certainly steady and very serious working dogs. They were more compact than my dogs. Sylvia's three-dog team could go anywhere and do anything that I could with five dogs.  By then, my malamutes were growing old, and I was seriously considering getting out of mushing altogether. However, through Sylvia's friendship, I was able to replace the malamutes as they retired with ISDs. My first ISD was Ashe, from Mark and Sue Hamilton's 'A' litter, about twelve-weeks-old when she got here. My first impression was that she might well have been another malamute, and I treated her as such. Then, when he was about a year old, I acquired Bering, from Hamilton's 'B' litter.  Like Ashe, I didn't treat him any differently than a malamute. From 1996 through 2000, I ran a mixed team of ISDs and malamutes. I retired the last malamute after the 2000 Mail Run. At this writing, I have four pure ISDs and an ISD/Alaskan cross who is my leader. If there are any differences between Alaskan Malamutes and Inuit Sled Dogs that I observed, it is that ISDs are generally more eager to work and their desire to be dominant is more pronounced.  Other than that, they could well be the same breed.  I believe there are more similarities between the two breeds than differences. 

TFH: What were your expectations getting into ISDs, and what is your assessment of how those expectations were or were not met?
J.S.: My expectations were somewhat unrealistic at first. I had assumed that, because the ISD is directly from the Arctic, the inferior animals would not live to breed and the ones that did would be essentially bulletproof. The reality is that they can have medical problems and various other issues just like any other dog, especially as they age. This is not disappointing, it's just reality. At the end of the day, they're dogs and they'll have problems just like other breeds. That said, the ISDs' work ethic is amazing, and their desire to be in harness doing their jobs brings a lot of satisfaction. Just to be up in the hills on a logging road somewhere by ourselves is a delight. I also appreciate their general size and build. They're big enough to qualify as 'big' dogs, but not so large as to be too difficult to pick up and move around, load into the boxes, etc.  Yet, they put as much power on the ground as malamutes. I've given a couple of demo rides this season to friends and my five dog team can move three adults around pretty well, as long as I do my part, that is, get off and push once in a while! 

TFH: Did you feel you had to do anything differently once you owned ISDs than you had done before having them?
J.S.: I really haven't done anything radically different with the ISDs that I didn't do with the malamutes. I did feed the malamutes Eagle Power Formula during the working season and Eagle Kennel Formula during the off-season. But I feed the ISDs the Power Formula year round. I find the ISDs prefer the higher protein and fat food and being a "high intensity" dog, do better on it. Due to the primitive nature of the ISD, and their higher energy requirements, I don't recommend cheaper foods, especially ones that contain wheat. 

I still use the same one-dog-per-kennel arrangement that I always have. This is contrary to typical practice with ISDs, but it's what I have and I use it.  I have a half-acre (0.2 hectare) fenced exercise yard for the dogs and they spend time there daily as a group, but they are kenneled at night. I prefer the security of individual kennels as it keeps the dogs separate when I'm not out with them, prevents injury due to fighting and I know that each dog is safe and secure at night. I did have to get used to the ISDs' tendencies to try to dominate each other, that is, start a brawl now and then. I think this is another similarity with the malamutes, but perhaps more pronounced in the ISD. These run to a type:  dog 'A' will try to dominate dog 'B' and the fight will be over once the point has been made.  Injuries are uncommon with my dogs, and those that do occur have so far been minor. 

John and his team, out on the dunes for The Oregon Dune Musher's Mail Run      Photo: Feder

TFH: In your climate, what adaptations have you had to make for mild weather mushing?
J.S.: In Salem, OR, we don't usually experience great extremes of weather. Temperatures during mushing season will run from +20F (-7C) to +40F (+4.5C).  We get a lot of rain and not a lot of snow. I consider any day below 40F (+4.5C) with a slight drizzle a first-rate day to train my team. I'll run ten to fourteen miles in this type of weather, although the colder it is, the more the dogs enjoy it. My dogs haven't developed the super-thick coat that is seen in the Arctic, so I have no qualms about working them on short runs on days up to +50F (+10C). Fifty degrees (+10C) is the upper limit, however. Most of my mushing is still done with a training cart.  I got mine from Jim Tofflemire in North Bend, OR and have used this cart since 1989. I ran the '89 Oregon Dune Mushers' Mail Run using this new cart, so new that the paint was still tacky. The cart is especially well adapted to the coastal dunes, but works quite well on any other trail or gravel road. It is simple, safe and rugged. The cart has four wheels, is mixed construction of a wood platform and driving bow, with welded steel axles and wheel steering. The brake drags on the rear tires. The tires are balloon type for good floatation on the sand dunes.  This cart is also fairly light, so I'll typically drag a tire casing behind it for some extra load, especially on shorter runs. Jim markets a similar cart called the Sand Lynx

This winter, we received several snowfalls on my favorite training roads, but it was never deep enough to use a sled. In these conditions, I still used the cart and counted on getting off and running if and when it got too deep. We don't do quite the distance as when the roads are bare, but the dogs still enjoy it and it's a good workout for them.  I need the exercise, too!

TFH: Tell us about training for and participating in the annual Oregon Dune Mushers' Mail Run.
J.S.: First, I would recommend anyone who has a recreational team of Inuit Sled Dogs to search out some event that will provide both satisfaction and a proper challenge to both the dogs and the musher. This might be a freighting race, a long-distance, low speed event, or something of the musher's own devising, such as freighting camping in snow country. Both the dogs and the musher need this challenge. When I first began mushing recreationally, I mushed on my own on weekends, a few miles each day. This was not much of a challenge. At various times I would be encouraged by other mushers to participate in some event that would give me a goal to strive for with my malamutes. In my case, that was the Oregon Dune Musher's Mail Run. I have participated in eight of these with malamutes and two with ISDs. The Mail Run is a two-day event for large teams and three days for small teams of three or four dogs. It covers seventy-two miles (116 kilometers) in the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area on our coast. Both ISDs and malamutes do well in this event because the terrain is often steep and the sand punchy, perfect for a freighting team to show their stuff.  Because it isn't a race, blinding speed is not as important as the ability of a team to keep going regardless, pull up steep grades, ford creeks and ponds, and so on. Only training carts are used for this event, run largely over sand dunes.  It is not a race, but a fun event that has as its purpose funding local racing teams who participate in the Iditarod.  The Mail Run gave me the focus I needed to train my team more effectively. 

To run this event, one needs to get plenty of miles on the dogs and to develop good leader control. I would try to get in at least one or two short runs of five miles (9 kilometers) or less during the week and longer runs ten to twelve miles (16-19 kilometers) each on Saturday and Sunday. I found that the kind of leader control that sufficed for running a logging road and making an occasional turn at an intersection was not enough for the dunes, where much of the area is essentially wide open and trackless. Good control is needed to avoid falling off a steep dune or to skirt a pool of quicksand - no kidding!

TFH: Any closing thoughts?
J.S.: I have truly enjoyed being involved both with the ISD and the malamute. I've never done anything especially earth-shaking with either breed, but I've had some great fun, met some great people and had some great dogs. I would recommend the ISD to any recreational musher who is committed to learning the idiosyncrasies of these dogs and who, above all, is committed to working them. They are not for the timid, but they are very rewarding. 

On the logging roads       Photo: Feder

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