Local Sled Dogs-Sheer Joy

Sled Dogs-Sheer Joy: Sun, Snow, Sheer Joy, Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Sun, Snow, Sheer Joy
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
As the snow continued to pile up this winter, I started to ask around about sled dogs.

I soon bumped into a friend who had a friend in Preston who trained and occasionally raced his team of 14 Alaskan Huskies.

This musher graciously offered to give me a ride on one of his training runs. I showed up all smiles as he was harnessing his team. The dogs were excited to go and actually howling with happiness. The musher asked if I wanted to get in – or ride up the trail a bit on a snowmobile with his teenage son to a more level spot. In a rare moment of sanity, I opted for the snowmobile.

The machine had just pulled out of the yard when I heard his son say, “Oh, No!”

I looked back in time to see the sled tip over, sending the musher sliding across the driveway and under my car parked at the end of it. I jumped off the snowmobile as the dogs shot past us with the empty sled. The dogs were gaining on a truck up ahead, then shot past it with the snowmobile in hot pursuit.

I was left standing in a snowbank wondering if I’d wandered into a James Bond movie.

My first encounter with sled dogs had gone a lot smoother. I was visiting Denali National Park in Alaska and the rangers were introducing us to one of the dog teams that they still use to patrol the park.

But the most famous sled dogs are the freight teams that carried anti-toxin from Anchorage to Nome during an outbreak of Diphtheria in 1925. The dog teams ran a thousand miles and are credited with saving hundreds of lives.

For the last 50 years, modern mushers have retraced this journey in the ultimate sled dog race, the Ididarod. The best account I’ve read about the world of training sled dogs and running the Ididarod is Gary Paulsen’s book Winterdance. Just before going on a training ride, he discovered, “the gangline was trembling, quivering like a string on a guitar. It fairly hummed and I felt there was great power there. The trees in the yard went by in a mad blur and we left the yard at warp speed.”

Paulsen also lets us in on the deep relationship mushers form with their dogs: “As they understand you will give them meat when they run, and love when they run, and your soul when they run – as they learn to feel that, understand that, know that – they are no longer sled dogs – they become distance dogs, dogs that cannot, will not be stopped.” Paulson ran the Iditarod in 1983. It was a wild ride that took 17 days. But he finished.

Meanwhile, back in Preston, our teenage hero had caught up with the runaway team, made a flying leap from the snowmobile onto the empty sled, and somehow managed to stop the team. Pretty soon the musher and I caught up.

“Do you still want to get in?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

And we were off. The dogs settled into a steady trot. From then on it was all Sun and Snow and the sheer Joy of sliding quietly through the magnificent winter scenery.

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Postings

Paulsen, Gary, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, Harvest Books, HarperCollins February 17, 1995, https://www.amazon.com/Winterdance-Fine-Madness-Running-Iditarod/dp/0156001454/

Idaho Sled Dog Challenge, https://idahosleddogchallenge.com/

Racoons: Masked Bandit Dumpster Divers

Racoon in Apple Tree, Courtesy US FWS, Bill Buchanan, Photographer
Racoon in Apple Tree
Courtesy US FWS, Bill Buchanan, Photographer
Those masked bandits raiding our gardens by night and bird feeders by day, who often wash their food (actually enhancing tactile experience), have human-like highly sensitive hands, love to eat chickens, as do I, and have a very clever brain- an animal full of contradictions much like us human animals.

I have deep affections for racoons that began with an young childhood in Michigan. A farmer friend discovered a litter of racoon kits in their haymow. Their mother was found dead on a nearby gravel road, a common demise for racoons, skunks, possums and host of many other critters.

The kits barely had their eyes open and needed intensive care. I took two from the litter and began gathering information on how to keep them alive. I don’t recall the details other than my mother mothering me and the baby racoons. We filled a doll bottle with whole, unpasteurized milk, which they quickly drank with gusto! As they drank, their tiny hands would massage my own, which brought me pure joy.

As they grew, I became their world as they explored me from top to bottom, their sensuous hands gathering texture, and other nuances of touch. We became inseparable companions. Neighbor kids soon joined the fun and were delighted by their playful, inquisitive antics.

I was forewarned they could become threats as they matured, even vicious at times, and possibly contracting rabies and other communicable diseases for cats, dogs, and humans. Our neighbors had gardens, keeping careful watch over my pets. Fortunately, my racoons were never a problem. Perhaps it resulted from being so habituated, they became one with us, and being well fed and entertained, never strayed into mischief.

Once the racoons gained maturity, and I became involved with school activities that fall, it was decided to return them to the farm where they were gladly accepted by the younger family members. A month or so later, one was found dead on the highway. A few days later, it’s sibling met the same end near it’s sister. Naturally, it shattered my heart.

So many years and a lifetime later, we are living on a small, wooded stream in N. Utah. Wild racoons are a constant, once birthing a litter in our chimney, occasionally finding their way to my bird feeder, on our deck, and exploring our garage. The grandkids are always enthralled, when these nocturnal beings tap on our deck windows both amazed as they lock eyes.

Raccoons, although not native to Utah, are abundant throughout much of the state. Resource agency professionals estimate that raccoons cause 60–70% of all urban wildlife problems. Racoons display problem-solving skills on par with monkeys. Further, they far outclass domestic pets such as cats and dogs, suggesting an astonishing level of intelligence. And that is often their undoing, as it is our own!

Jack Greene for BAS and I’m wild about our masked bandit dumpster divers!


Images: Racoon in Apple Tree, Courtesy US FWS, Bill Buchanan, Photographer, https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/11639/rec/2
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Hinkamp, Dennis, Racoons are Costly Pests, Extension, Utah State University, Dec. 9, 2003, https://extension.usu.edu/archive/raccoons-are-costly-pests

Reese, Julene, Racoons Raiding Your Garden and Garbage, Extension, Utah State University, May 31, 2013 https://extension.usu.edu/archive/raccoons-raiding-your-garden-and-garbage

Pony Express & Wild Horses

Pony Express & Wild Horses: Pony Express Messenger Badge on Mail Satchel Camp Floyd State Park Museum Image Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers
Pony Express Messenger Badge on Mail Satchel
Camp Floyd State Park Museum
Image Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers

Images of the Old Stagecoach Inn As Sketched by Cecil Doty and Published in the Utah Historical Quarterly July 1958 and other images therein credited. Camp Floyd State Park Museum Image Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers Images of the Old Stagecoach Inn
As Sketched by Cecil Doty and Published in the Utah Historical Quarterly July 1958 and other images therein credited.
Camp Floyd State Park Museum
Image Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers

Pony Express Ad Camp Floyd State Park Museum Image Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers Pony Express Ad
Camp Floyd State Park Museum
Image Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers

Last month, Tom Williams’ interview with author Will Grant really caught my attention. Will was describing his adventures retracing the original Pony Express route thru Utah with his two horses, Chicken Fry and Badger. When he was crossing Utah’s West Desert, he ran into a wild stallion. The Onaqui herd of wild horses now roams freely there, but this stallion was a loner.

Will saw the horse first, about a mile away, rolling in the mud at a watering hole. Will knew the stallion would resent an intrusion into his space. Will picked up some stones.

The stallion came at them at a dead run. At the last moment, the stallion veered off and circled them at a gallop. At 40 feet Will threw his first stone. He missed. The second stone hit the stallion, who reared up and hammered the air with his front hooves. Luckily, after a few more stones the stallion had had enough and went off to graze.

Hoping to see the wild horses -from the safety of my car – I picked up the Pony Express trail as it skirted the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake. I stopped in Fairfield at a historic inn that had been the first overnight stop for the stagecoach leaving Salt Lake with the mail for the new state of California. The stagecoach journey took 25 days. The Pony Express said it could do it in 10. So, at this inn, the Pony Express rider just jumped on a waiting horse and kept going.

I wasn’t in a hurry, so I poked my head into a small brick building adjacent to the inn. Inside was a lone state park employee who was delighted to see me and insisted I watch a 10 minute video. I was amazed to find out that at this very spot over 3,000 US soldiers spent three years at what they called Camp Floyd. Then, when the Civil War broke out, the soldiers pulled up stakes and disappeared with hardly leaving a trace.

Back in my car, I followed the original pony express route for miles down an empty slim road. Up head I knew it would become so dry and desolate that water would have to be hauled to the relay stations by wagons. I was just starting to offer up a small prayer that I wouldn’t have any car trouble, when I caught sight of the highway intersecting the trail up ahead. I don’t remember ever being so happy to see traffic.

The very first Pony Express rider galloped into Utah in April 1860. Every rider rode between 75-100 miles, switching horses every 10 miles. It was expensive but it was fast. At the same time, another company, the Intercontinental Telegraph, was cutting down trees across the Utah Territory and extending their line of telegraph poles. In Oct 1861, five months after the Civil War started, the telegraph company had its 27,500 poles and 2,000 miles of iron wire in place. A message was tapped out in California, went zinging through the wires in Salt Lake, and was delivered to Abraham Lincoln’s desk. The people of California, the message read, would remain loyal to the union.

The message traveled from coast to coast in seconds. The Pony Express closed down its operations two days later. It had lasted 18 months.

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah

Photos: Courtesy Mary Heers, as taken at the Camp Floyd State Park Museum, Fairfield, UT
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio upr.org
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Wild About Utah Postings

2021 Onaqui Mountain Wild Horses Gather, Bureau of Land Management, US Department of the Interior, July 18, 2021, https://www.blm.gov/programs/whb/utah/2021-onaqui-wild-horse

Onaqui Mountain HMA, Bureau of Land Management, US Department of the Interior, https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/herd-management/herd-management-areas/utah/onaqui-mountain

Grant, Will, The Last Ride of the Pony Express: My 2,000-mile Horseback Journey into the Old West, Little, Brown and Company, June 6, 2023, https://www.amazon.com/Last-Ride-Pony-Express-Horseback/dp/0316422312

“The horse went extinct in the Americas (along with other large mammals like the mammoth and giant sloth) about 10,000 years ago. It was the Spanish Conquistadors that reintroduced the horse to North America. When Hernan Cortez and his 200 soldiers landed in Mexico in 1519, they brought 16 horses with them. Over time, some of these horses got away to form wild bands, and others fell into the hands of the Native Americans.”
Heers, Mary, Gallop Thru Time, Wild About Utah, August 22, 2022, https://wildaboututah.org/gallop-thru-time/

Squirrel Tales

Evergreen Cone Scales, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes
Evergreen Cone Scales
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes

Nature Rings, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes Nature Rings
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes

The recent snows have made the sledding hill at Edith Bowen Laboratory School on the campus of Utah State University a popular place, but without snow, children flock at recess to the wild area under the oak trees to harvest acorns. I’ve invited one of these students, a seven-year-old first grader named Lila, to explain this phenomenon:

“You get an acorn and you rub the pointy bottom part and keep doing it for a bit and then you can put it on whatever finger it fits on and it turns into a nature ring.”

They trade them and then squirrel the rings away in their lockers. Sometimes they stop to notice the squirrels scolding above them in the trees, and one day I sat with them to appreciate a noisy one. Nibbling away, its eight black claws rotated the little nugget it was holding. Standing erect so I could see the whitish belly fur and bushy tail, it kept me in its sights as I sketched its silhouette and details in my nature journal.

The Natural History Museum of Utah sponsored another Squirrel Fest during the first week of December, and I should have been better prepared to identify it so I could participate in that project during the same month as the Christmas Bird Count. The NHMU website reports that more than 900 Utah citizen scientists watched for and collected data on fox squirrels and other squirrels in 2023. I know now that my squirrel wasn’t a fox squirrel native to the eastern U.S. Those critters are moving in. Actually, they have been spreading throughout northern Utah since 2011. I know mine was probably not that target species because the fox squirrel is larger and has a bright yellow or orange belly and a long, very bushy tail.

Here’s another story. One June afternoon last summer in the Cache National Forest, I stumbled upon a massive pile of evidence that squirrels had been busy, having stashed their food finds and then unpacking them. The pile of evergreen cone scale leftovers was over three feet tall. I had seen middens at the base of trees before, but never had I seen a pile this incredible. Even though it was a snow pile that the cone scales covered, the insulation slowing the melt, it was still monstrous.

As most of the students on the first day launching my first ever university writing class described themselves as writers with words like decent, ok, alright, unpolished, and mediocre, I thought about that pile of potential. They have stories, piles of stories to tell and teach, squirreled away maybe, but ready to thaw.

Just like Kate DiCamillo’s superpowered squirrel Ulysses in her children’s novel Flora and Ulysses, we all have stories to write. DiCamillo wrote, “He would write and write. He would make wonderful things happen. Some of it would be true. All of it would be true. Well….Most of it would be true.”

This year on January 21 we celebrate Squirrel Appreciation Day. But whether you watch and write about squirrels or anything else, we think it is time for you to get writing stories just as magical as nature rings made of acorns at recess.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am Lila Hoggan.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes and Lila Hoggan, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Shannon Rhodes, https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

DiCamillo, Kate. Flora and Ulysses. 2013. Candlewick Press. https://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?mode=book&isbn=0763687642

Greene, Jack. Intelligent Tree Squirrels. Wild About Utah, Oct. 17, 2022. https://wildaboututah.org/intelligent-tree-squirrels/

Larese-Casanova, Mark. Nutcrackers and Squirrels: Farmers of the Forest. Wild About Utah, Aug. 26, 2013. https://wildaboututah.org/nutcrackers-squirrels-farmers-forests/

Natural History Museum of Utah. Utah Fox Squirrels. https://nhmu.utah.edu/citizen-science/utah-fox-squirrels

Strand, Holly. Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Wild About Utah, Nov. 26, 2009. https://wildaboututah.org/rocky-the-flying-squirrel/