Going Rogue…one dog at a time!

by

Jan 4, 2011

No, this post is not about Sarah Palin.  This post is about genuine Alaskan rogues who make up the family of misfit dogs called Rogues Gallery Kennel located in Kasilof, Alaska.

You may have noticed them on our blogroll.  You will definitely notice them after reading Joseph’s post reprinted here with permission.  While the owners Colleen and Joseph Robertia did not establish their kennel in the wilds of the Alaska tundra or on the Arctic ice floes, I am convinced that they could have had they felt so inclined.  They moved to the Kenai Peninsula years ago after making a leap of faith in coming to Alaska to follow their hearts.  They settled in the middle of a mushing Mecca, which provided some unique opportunities to reconnect with their love of animals and experience working with unusual ones.

Joseph writes the blog posts, while Colleen (Cole) races to win.  I have never found a blog more honest, more intense, more humorous, more educational, more full of heart than theirs. Many of their resident dogs were previously abandoned or physically challenged for various reasons. I decided it’s time that more people get to know Rogues Gallery Kennel now that racing season is upon us.  Everyone hears about the Iditarod, and maybe even the Yukon Quest races.  There are many sprint, mid & long distance races that make up the rest of the season, so sit back and enjoy a tale from the Gin Gin 200 held in late December.  Do YOU know where your mittens are?

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Colleen Robertia Wins the 2010 Gin Gin 200!!!

By Joseph Robertia

Wahoo! We did it. For those who haven’t heard yet, Cole was the women’s division and overall race winner in the 2010 Gin Gin 200. She was also honored to receive the Humanitarian Award at the finishing banquet. Decided by the race veterinarians this prestigious award goes to the musher who took the best care of their team during the race. I (Joseph) also placed 6th, getting nine of the 10 dogs (mostly two year olds) I started with to the finish line.

The race was an adventure from beginning to end. As we packed for the race the night before we left, I noticed my racing sled not only had a broken runner, but the foot pad was also about to fall off. We stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to make last minute repairs: one worked, one didn’t.

Up in Paxson, where the race started, the temperature was minus 35, but the dogs didn’t seem to mind. They were lunging and howling like we had never seen before. We had made some major changes to our training regime this year, that we hopd would pay off, and it was already looking like it could.

Apparently we had a different time on our watch than the official time keeper’s watch, so Cole almost missed going out on schedule. We got her out of the chute with about 2 seconds to spare. I turned my attention to keeping my team for tearing loose after they saw her go out. I wasn’t slated to leave for another 30 minutes. They had other plans.

While a camera man squatted in front of my team to film how nuts they were going, the guys pulled my tie-off knot and off they went with no one on board. Led by Metoo and Brick, they barreled over the camera man and trampled him good. I made a dive for the sled and was luckily able to get them stopped. There is a video clip of the fiasco floating around the internet, for those interested in getting a good laugh.

After that minor mess-up I left without incident. The first 50 mile leg went great for Cole, She had the fastest time of the whole race field and couldn’t believe it. She came to find me and said “I’m leading and don’t know how. I’m the most conservative musher I know and I’m rating them down on the down hills.”

Meanwhile about 20 miles into my run, the foot pad we had “fixed” flew off the sled, so for the reaming 30 miles of the rough mountain run, plus the other 150 miles of the race, I was slipping and sliding to try to keep my footing on the icy runner. I had several crashes just from slipped off the runner so I felt a little worse for wear at the first checkpoint.

For the second leg of the race, the course follows an always cold 110-mile run down two rivers. It is a long, long night run and the mercury plummeted to minus 40 for most of the trip. These are tough temps to endure even briefly, but spending 14 hours in them is brutal when standing still on a sled. Thankfully there was a spectacular northern lights show going on overhead, so it kept us from focusing on our cold fingers, toes and in my case nose. It got a little frost-burned from the cold during the night.

The cold helped on one occasion though. I had drank at least a gallon of water before the run since I knew whatever I carried would freeze along the way, so about halfway through the run my teeth starting floating to put it mildly. In minus 40 I had to be quick, so I took off my mittens and let them hang by lanyards (long ropes that keep them from falling off), then I unzipped my gear and tried to pee as quickly as possible.

Not wanting to stop, I was peeing off the sled, and watching the dogs still through the narrow beam of my headlamp. I looked down once just to be sure I was getting any of my gear and that’s when I noticed I was peeing directly into my dangling mitten! Luckily in that cold I just let it freeze up, which happened within a few minutes, and then I knocked out the icy urine-cicles to have a mitten as good as new.

The dogs did great on the long run, even the young guys. Two year old Buliwyf, along with our bionic dog Wolf (who had a rebuilt and fused ankle after being hit by a car) led more than 100 miles of this leg and never flinched while facing overflow and other obstacles. My plan was to camp for two hours, but they looked too strong to quit, so I only I stopped once for about 45 minutes and rubbed them all down and changed out all their booties and fox tails (the furry belts the males wear in front of their genitals when it below minus 20 to protect them from getting frost bite.) They were very tired by the end, but they learned that after hard work comes hard rest, which is an important concept to teach a racing sled dog.

On the third leg of the race, the last hilly 42 miles to the finish, Cole continued to stretch her lead and again had the fastest run time of any of the racers. Over the course of the race pint-sized Penny led most of the way, along with Zoom, Keno and even Quigley, the only 2 year old strong enough to make her race team. She came into the finish line with the dogs still raring to go. I came in a few hours later in sixth place. I had everyone I started with except for Metoo.

She had gotten a sore wrist after the second leg. I had massaged it and put some healing ointments on it while she rested, and it got a little better, but didn’t have the heart to ask her to run without feeling 100 percent.

The vets took her into the lodge after I told them she was our house dog and wouldn’t understand being tied out like the others waiting transport by snowmachine back to the finish. Apparently Metoo worked her charm while there because after the race everyone who met her came over to tell me what a sweet dog she was, what a crack up shewas, and many other pleasantries.

At the finishing banquet Cole was also given the Humantiarian award. This is always real honor whenever it is received, but it is extremely rare to get it as a race winner. Sometimes to win a race, dogs are run hard, so they don’t look and feel as good as teams just a few spots behind the winners. We know since we are often in those spots behind the winners because we are so conservative with how we run our guys. But to win and get the award, it really speaks to how well cared for the dogs were before and during the race. Since we’re always trying to foster the message of taking the bets care of your dogs that you can, it was a great feeling to be recognized for this devotion.

On the way home the adventure continued. Just after midnight,on a icy, dark and isolated stretch of road we were cruising along at about 70 mph when suddenly the headlights lit something directly in front of us. I slammed on the breaks and swerved, but with all the weight of the truck dog box, gear and twenty 50-pound dogs, there’s no stopping swiftly. We skidded sideways and ran over the object which made a horrible noise as it went under the truck.

We barely managed not to lose control of the truck or flip off the road. When we finally came to a halt, we got out to see what it was and the object we hit was a $4,000 sled from our nextdoor neighbor. It had flown off their truck after a bungee broke in the minus 40 temperatures. Following several late night calls, we tracked them down and they came back to get the sled. Then after a mild blizzard in the mountain passes we made it home. Another Alaskan adventure in the bag.

This wasn’t out only luck though, we heard from the race marshal that the day after the race, the river we had all parked on during the rest-stops had overflowed hours after all the teams had left. Had it happened during the race who knows what would have happened the danger of having icy water flood and flow over the resting teams.

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Read plenty more about Rogues Gallery Kennel and follow the blog:

http://rogueskennel.com/

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23 Responses to “Going Rogue…one dog at a time!”

  1. ugavic Says:

    I did not get to watch the video when first posted, so just did.
    Funnier than :-)))
    Thanks, Martha and Joseph!!
    Great post and look forward to more of them!!!

  2. Martha Says:

    Vic, I love that video. If you compare the excitement of Joseph’s dogs to the team next to them, his team has them beat hands down in the “glee” department. So glad the camera dude is OK and that he obviously retained his sense of humor!

    We may have to do a bit of time travel and reprint Colleen’s post about running the Iditarod last year and finding the sign “Assholes Ahead” along the trail.

  3. Elsie Says:

    Martha, thanks for bringing this post to AB. It is a delight to read their adventures here, and I look forward to more.

  4. Martha Says:

    Thank you Elsie! I’ve had a musher as a neighbor, and things have never been quite the same since then. I find myself missing the gleeful barks and soulful howling coming from right down the road.

    My little husky, retired quite early from racing because she was too small, taught my other dog to howl at the moon. I will always remember the beauty of the moon that winter night, and the eerie but lovely sound of a big – and previously quiet – dog finding his voice.

  5. Man_from_Unk Says:

    Taking care of a dog team is a lot of work. Prior to snowmachines, just about every family had a team in the villages. After school chores centered around caring for the team – cleaning out their houses after a snow storm; replacing their grass bedding; minding the fire in the dog pot which was usually made from a gas barrel cut in half – half for the fire pot and half for the cooking pot; shoveling up the frozen nuggets and stock piling them away from the yard; giving the dogs just enough water to drink in the frozen temperatures; and, the most fun of all was to excerise them one or two at a time on homemade sleds. I applaud all the mushers for being involved in this tradition. Taking care of a dog team is a lot of work.

  6. Concerned Too Says:

    MFU-

    I remember those times growing up, although the snow machines, dirt bikes and 3 wheelers were part of my growing up, at least the teenage years.

    Village life has stayed the same in some ways but I do miss the quietness of it from the earlier years. The cookers and other things we made to make life possible still is fun to think about. Lots of things made from the wood boxes fuel came in…just lots of memories.

    We were outside each chance we got, no TV and few phones. Lots of winter activities that kept us out and I am sure parents worrying some.

    The dog teams are great to see and the love and work the owners put into them is amazing.

  7. Martha Says:

    Man_from_Unk and Concerned Too,

    Thank you for sharing those memories of traditional use of sled dogs and how they were woven into every day village life. I was hoping we would hear from some with those memories which are priceless and irreplaceable.

    Although much has changed in the why of Alaskans running dogs, part of my respect and awe in the presence of great mushers and their teams comes from knowing they carry on these traditions and knowledge. As Man_from_Unk said, “taking care of a dog team is a lot of work.” After helping handle in races and working in a dog lot, I often think mushers might be some of the toughest (and many also the kindest) people on the planet.

    I invite more memories and stories from rural villages!

  8. Man_from_Unk Says:

    My Dad knew sled dogs inside and out. His female leader, who was very smart and good natured, was also his breeder. He would breed his female leader to good natured, hard working, strong male dogs in his team. He didn’t tolerate aggressive dogs because we, his children, helped him take care of the team all year round. Whenever his leader had a litter of pups, he had us kids take special care of a puppy. We got to name the puppy and give it lots of attention so it can adapt itself to human contact. What fun it was to take out your very own sled dog pet for daily excercise after school. We’d have sled dog races every day after school. Sometimes there would be 6-7 of us kids excercising sled dogs, having short sprint races at the edge of town where the trail came in and out. We would constently have to repair our home-made sleds because racing is fast and rough. That kept us busy and out of trouble. As a result, many of us learned the value of hard work. That was all before food stamps and welfare checks. People’s survival depended on a good healthy dog team back in those days.

  9. Martha Says:

    “Sometimes there would be 6-7 of us kids excercising sled dogs, having short sprint races at the edge of town where the trail came in and out. We would constently have to repair our home-made sleds because racing is fast and rough. That kept us busy and out of trouble.”

    It is difficult to find the silver lining in the changes of life in rural Alaska. I can relate to your correlation between physical and rewarding work growing up and how it gave you perspective and purpose. We lived all over the Pacific Northwest in rural areas and had tons of chores compared to almost any of the other kids we met in various small towns where we lived. As an adult, I value that work ethic and the ways in which we learned to take care of ourselves (especially without supervision) and I think it has made me a better person in so many ways.

    Kids can’t even play on playgrounds anymore without rules, worry, and over-supervision. I worked as an aide for an elementary school and got in trouble constantly over letting the kids be kids and hang upside down on the monkey bars, or find their sweet spot in challenging themselves on any of the equipment. What else are monkey bars for? You got me.

    I would have loved to been a part of the after school dog racing and care – kids and dogs just go together. They teach us as much (sometimes more) than we teach them. Thank you for that wonderful memory.

  10. Martha Says:

    I took a few days off with company in town, and the Rogues Gallery Kennel team is back on the race trail! Whew, almost missed it. Cole is running the Copper Basin 300 and left with a smile on her face in spite of bad luck with a dog injured (heal quickly Wolf!) before the race started. Wolf is in good hands with Dad and some other misfits for company while they follow the race on the road system. Cole is number 41, and has already refreshed her team with a mandatory 8 hour layover in Glennallen. Go Cole!

    http://www.cb300.com/RaceStats.html

    Check the Rogues Gallery Kennel blog for some more outstanding pictures and updates.

  11. Man_from_Unk Says:

    Good luck in the Copper Basin 300. Are you getting ready to run the Iditarod?

  12. Man_from_Unk Says:

    My Dad’s dog team was primarily for transportation. He ran a trapline out in the country. Winter schedule was one week out and one week in depending on the weather. He was pretty active and he had a heck of a team. He won the local dog races all the time because his team was in excellent shape. It was fun helping him unload his sled after his week out checking his trapline; beaver, fox, marten, otter, mink, lynx and sometimes a wolf. Then the work to skin and dry the furs before he went out again. This was his routine for at least 4 months. In between the trapline line we’d check the fish net and the fish trap which were set under the ice. Lots of work but it all provided food for the dogs and the people. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to write about these fun memories on this blog.

  13. Martha Says:

    Man_from_Unk

    What did your papa have for gear to keep him warm and to feed himself and the dogs on the trail? What did he use for fuel for cooking / thawing? How did the team find the trapline every trip? How did he navigate? I’m fascinated, thank you!

  14. Man_from_Unk Says:

    My Dad’s winter gear was all handmade by my Mom. Fur trapper’s hat made with beaver because of the short hair; fur mittens made from seal skin attached to braided yarn strings so he can flip them behind his back when he didn’t need them; fur parka that came to his mid thigh with a heavy canvas cover to protect the fur from getting wet; and, coolest of all, mukluks that came to his mid thigh. The bottom half of his mukluks (feet to his knees) were water proof and the part that covered his thigh were wolf skin. Ski pants were not common back then so these mukluks were it! His parka and mukluks had him covered in fur from head to toe.

    Water proof mukluks were made mainly from hand tanned seal skin. They were sewn with the fur side in from the sole to the knee. The hand tanned seal skin was treated with a liquid made from willow tree bark and it gave the flesh side of the hide a reddish color. There is some sort of natural chemical in that willow bark. It made the seal skin flexible otherwise it’d get stiff from getting wet and dried, wet and dried. We’d also oil his mukluks especially after they got wet.

    There was a trapper’s cabin made of logs out there along his trapline. It had a homemade stove made from part of a barrel plus he carried along a coleman stove for cooking. He got water from the creeks that he trapped along for himself and his dogs. There was at least two other trappers who used the cabin too and often times they’d all be out there at the same time. It was a good buddy system because they’d carry messages back and forth to and from their families in town.

    He’d take bundles of dried salmon along to feed his dogs as his emergency stash in case he didn’t catch fish or game out there. He’d jig for northern pike and leave fish out there in a stash for dog food which he’d feed frozen. He also fed his dogs beaver meat if he needed to. Not fresh of course because of the parasites. Food for himself consisted of dried stuff like rice, oatmeal, dry fish, bread, plenty of coffee and tea. He’d also eat fresh game that he caught. My Mom made packages of cooked beans, stew, roasts, etc., pretty much like what the modern day mushers take on their long distance races.

    The trapline trail was memorized by him and his dogs. Part of it was well used by other people because it went out in the country where people went for winter subsistence fishing and hunting. The trail was well marked, portages were cut through thick willow patches, much of it was over open tundra and on the frozen creeks. You just memorized the landmarks on the trail and you would know where you are at any given time. You had to be attentive out there in order to survive.

  15. Martha Says:

    Beautifully written little piece! I have so many things to say, but one thing that comes to mind is how your story tells of a living, not a livelihood. There were no choices (livelihood) except how you accomplished the things that needed to be done everyday. You lived by known truths of the natural world, with room for innovation.

    Words do matter. Much of the difference in perspective between rural Alaska and urban Alaska is simplified in those two words – living and livelihood. When we understand the difference, it’s easier to talk to each other.

    I enjoyed reading about your dad a lot.

  16. Biscottiii Says:

    Thanks everyone, this was a TREAT!

  17. Man_from_Unk Says:

    Thanks for your kind thoughts martha. I enjoy writing down the memories. It keeps me focused on the foundation of ethics and values passed down to me by my parents and grandparents. I’ll write about drying salmon for humans and dogs next.

  18. Man_from_Unk Says:

    Drying salmon for food is at least a 3 month project, from about mid-June to mid September. My family would start handling salmon as soon as we started catching them in our nets, right after the river was free of ice. The first couple of salmon caught in the subsistence nets were eaten fresh; fried, baked, or boiled, depending on the cut. The first salmon arriving in the rivers is the King Salmon, the biggest and strongest salmon of the species. Imagine a 25-40 pound fish, big, shiny and rich, full of fish fat for the journey up rivers to the spawning grounds. Energy for survival.

    My Mom would butcher a big King in three sections: head, belly and lower tail for soup; steaks from the tail to the mid section for frying, and the mid to jaw for a roast. She’d keep the first frying cuts for the family, give the head, belly and tail section to elders and the roast section to a family in need. Then the next salmon chunk eaten by the family was usually a roast because she’d give the frying chunk to someone else. King Salmon fish head chowder was something we ate during the King Salmon run because it was easy to cook while the family handled all the salmon for drying and smoking. A King Salmon in my childhood days would feed a lot of people, a lot of people. That was back in the days when people shared fresh fish and meat all the time. I was the kid in the family who delivered pieces of fresh Salmon to the people in the village. The first of the Salmon brought joy, big, bright smiles and good, kind words of thanks and appreciation. I guess you could call that a FUZZY.

  19. Martha Says:

    Man_from_Unk,

    A salmon roast – I’ve never had it that way. I’m about to ask for a recipe! You are right – a 40 lb Chinook is a sight to behold and provides one many meals. My first and only time commercial salmon fishing was on a tiny dory. When we caught a 40 lb salmon, that more than met my friend’s quota for the day and she was thrilled. I almost tipped the boat over trying to hold the fish and maneuver it around. That was after we almost tipped the boat over trying to get the fish on board in the first place.

    You were a lucky kid getting to deliver such a delicious shared catch with your villagers! The sharing story makes my eyes misty. It sounds like you were very good to each other. Thank you for reminding us of the better side of our natures, which we can put forward if we keep trying and never give up trying.

  20. Man_from_Unk Says:

    I should have mentioned that sharing was necessary before freezers came to bush Alaska. Either that or be a hoarder and waste the fresh food. There were some of those too in those days but hoarding became more common with the freezers.

  21. Martha Says:

    That makes a lot of sense (although it sounded good I thought, to attribute this to having a generous, helpful nature). My mother’s family did not have refrigeration or freezers on their homestead in the Mat Valley except what the seasons provided.

  22. Man_from_Unk Says:

    Well, maybe I said it wrong. Sharing was a necessary part of village life to avoid waste. It was taboo to waste because it might interfer with your luck the next time you went hunting. The first fresh fish or game was shared. If an abundance occurred such as the salmon runs, then the people worked to preserve the food for winter. Drying, smoking and salting were the preservation options before electricity came to the villages.

  23. Martha Says:

    You said it just right! I’m guilty of romanticising.

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