Archive for August, 2010

Sled Dog Demo at Spirit of the North Kennels

Sled Dog Demo at Spirit of the North Kennels

By Al Magaw

Don’t forget that next Monday, Labour Day, Spirit of the North Kennels ( 966 Airport Road, Salmo ) is having a bit of an open house for those interested in seeing the racing sleddogs in action and a celebration of the start of the 2010/2011 training/racing/tour season – we’ll start running dogs at 8am when it’s still cool out of consideration for the dogs – should be done with running teams by 10am – waffles after the runs for those interested, lots of chance to pet dogs and get to know these wonderful animals and cuddle a litter of 10 week old puppies – all are welcome – let me know so I can prepare – if you have sled dogs you’d like to run, bring them along


Al Magaw is a musher from Salmo, BC. Al keeps a medium sized kennel of 20 – 45 alaskan huskies as well as several pet dogs of various breeds. Al has been training and racing for the last 33 years. Before becoming involved with sled dogs, Al, along with his family, kept and competed with horses for many years. Al can be reached through his website at Al is a guest blogger for Denver Dog Works and can be reached through our website at


Sled Dog Songs by Al Magaw

Sled Dog Songs

By Al Magaw

I was interested in watching a group of musicians on TV a while ago, that were able to begin their songs without a countdown to cue the start – When asked how they were able to do that, the trio, all brothers, said they couldn’t explain it, they “just knew when to start playing”. Two or three weeks ago I was talking to a lady that had sung in a choir for years. She said the same people were in the choir year after year and how pleasant it was to share something like that with friends that she had known for so long. She also commented on how this group of singers could start their a-cappela songs with every one starting at the same time without any particular person taking the lead. It made me think of the sing-a-longs in my kennel of alaskan huskies. Somehow they know when a song is about to begin and often they will all start at once with no noticeable cue like a fire or ambulance siren. My yearling belgian shepherd must be picking up on the same cue because she will often start barking a unique bark, moments before the sing-a-long starts.

On the surface, at least, the ability to sense the beginning of the song seems to be a common feature of sled dogs and those humans so fortunate to be in the company of others who are in the same “wave length”. It’s a common happening among northern dog breeds and not very common amongst humans. I have to speculate, again, about shared abilities that humans have left in large part unused, and that the northern breeds have kept well used and fresh. How poor are we for the loss of that “community of minds” and how rich are our canine friends for their perseverance of that ability?


Al Magaw is a musher from Salmo, BC. Al keeps a medium sized kennel of 20 – 45 alaskan huskies as well as several pet dogs of various breeds. Al has been training and racing for the last 33 years. Before becoming involved with sled dogs, Al, along with his family, kept and competed with horses for many years. Al can be reached through his website at Al is a guest blogger for Denver Dog Works and can be reached through our website at

Canine Research Continues

Canine Research Continues

By Al Magaw

It’s gratifying to see scientific research on our canine friends continuing – in a recent study, reported Aug 10/2010 in Science Now, further research has brought more understanding to how breeds have developed in virtually an evolutionary moment in time. While the report doesn’t deal specifically with sled dogs, the conclusions apply as well to our racing compatriots as it does to great danes, sheep dogs, chows or spaniels. Large or small, short hair or long, the basics are the same for all dogs. A team led by “Carlos Bustamante a comparative geneticist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Elaine Ostrander, a comparative geneticist with NHGRI, analyzed genetic information from 915 domestic dogs representing 80 different breeds. The researchers compared the dogs’ DNA, looking for sequences that differed by a single base, known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Once they found out where the DNA differed, they compared those differences between dogs with, for example, short versus long legs or perky versus droopy ears.”

The researchers identified “51 regions in the genome that contributed to physical variation among the breeds. These regions can be clumped into larger areas of the genome called quantitative trait loci, which are known to contain genes that produce a specific physical effect, such as shaggy hair” “Depending on which traits are compared, genetic differences in two to six of these regions,can account for about 80% of the variation in physical characteristics among dogs, says Bustamante”  most likely the ” selective pressure caused by human-directed breeding, the researchers conclude.

Co-author Heidi Parker, a geneticist at NHGRI, says that because humans initially bred dogs for specific traits—say, smaller body size or calm temperament—selection created a population “bottleneck” that narrowed the genetic variation in offspring, leaving them with just a few specific clusters of variable genetic regions. Variable genes within these clusters, such as those that govern snout length or leg length, were then selected” “by humans to create the dog breeds we recognize today” “The study validates the idea that a relatively small amount of genetic variance can lead to a large degree of physical diversity, says Jeffrey Phillips, a veterinary geneticist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The findings corroborate what many in the field suspected but do so with “a very, very impressive sample size,” he says. “It’s a wealth of information” he concluded. My interest in this aspect of dog breeding continues to grow and I look forward to learning more about it. It certainly helps explain why in less than a century, the alaskan husky, through environmental pressure and selective breeding, has gone from being a cross bred mutt to a super performing specific breed recognisable by it’s DNA.


Al Magaw is a musher from Salmo, BC. Al keeps a medium sized kennel of 20 – 45 alaskan huskies as well as several pet dogs of various breeds. Al has been training and racing for the last 33 years. Before becoming involved with sled dogs, Al, along with his family, kept and competed with horses for many years. Al can be reached through his website at Al is a guest blogger for Denver Dog Works and can be reached through our website at

Feeding Dogs the Best Possible Diet

Feeding Dogs the Best Possible Diet

By Al Magaw

Feeding dogs the best diet possible is always a subject that creates controversy. Some people swear by a holistic approach to feeding, more or less paralleling a good human diet, others are as adamant about a raw meat diet. A recent book by Lew Olson, Phd Natural Health, is an interesting read. In an excerpt from his book, he writes –

We always want our dogs to look great and to perform at their very best. We want our working dogs to have steady endurance and drive. We want our tracking and search and rescue dogs to hold the scent and stay on the trail. We want our agility dogs to have the energy and balance to make the jumps, go through the weaves smoothly and effortlessly, and to handle each obstacle with precision. We need our obedience dogs to stay focused and our Schutzhund dogs to have stamina, courage, and stay on task. We want our conformation dogs to have ground covering side movement and to be happy and confident in the ring. And we all want our dogs to have lean, muscular and fit bodies.

A good diet provides the energy, strength, lean muscle mass and mental focus that is needed to achieve these performance goals. Let’s take a look at the different diet components and how they help with each of these performance goals.”

He goes on to say –

It takes a lot of energy to digest food, so it is very important to feed foods that are easy to digest, provide the most nutrients, and use the least amounts of energy. For dogs, that food would be fats and protein. The foods to stay away from are carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are found in plant based foods, which include vegetables, grains and fruit. The two main components in plant based foods are sugar and fiber. Dogs have short and simple digestive tracts which are not designed to ferment high fiber foods and cannot break down the cell walls which are composed of cellulose. The dog’s digestive system struggles to digest these foods which takes greater energy, creates more gas and produces large stools of undigested food matter.”

“Fat and proteins are much easier for the dog to digest and produce smaller stools. Harder to digest foods mean a full colon, which Dr. Kronfeld, DVM equated to an extra 20 pound handicap on a race horse:” “Fat is the most important energy source for dogs. Fats are dense in calories which are needed when dogs are working hard and are burning large amounts of calories. Fat also helps to protect their cells from damage. The fat a dogs needs is animal fat. These fats are found in meat, eggs and dairy. High fat diets have been the secret for successful sled dog racing teams for years:

Another important fat is Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids not only help provide energy, they also help the immune system, fight inflammation, help keep the skin and coat healthy and are heart, liver and renal protective. This essential fatty acid is hard to find in foods and breaks down easily when exposed to heat, light or air. I would recommend using fish oil capsules and give one 1000 mg capsule per 10-20 lbs of body weight daily.


The second most important energy source for dogs is animal protein. Animal proteins contain amino acids, which when fed in high quality and quantity, produce glucose in dogs. This keeps their energy level on a stable plane. There no energy crash and it will keep the dog focused without mood swings. Feeding a good variety of animal proteins such as beef, lamb, pork, chicken, eggs, dairy and fish provides a wide swath of amino acids and offers better balance to the diet. Each protein varies somewhat in amino acids so providing a good variety of proteins insures the dog will get all the amino acids needed. Amino acids help repair tissue, keep the organs healthy and help build muscle mass. When your dog is on a diet rich in protein sources, and fresh sources offer better quality, there is no need to ever add synthetic amino acids to its diet.


Al Magaw is a musher from Salmo, BC. Al keeps a medium sized kennel of 20 – 45 alaskan huskies as well as several pet dogs of various breeds. Al has been training and racing for the last 33 years. Before becoming involved with sled dogs, Al, along with his family, kept and competed with horses for many years. Al can be reached through his website at Al is a guest blogger for Denver Dog Works and can be reached through our website at

The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 3

The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 3

At three o’clock Charlie Olson left Golovin for the 25-mile run to Bluff.  He fought his way through a blizzard with a gale wind of fifty miles an hour throwing him and his team of seven dogs from the trail time and time again.  The thermometer read thirty below zero, Olson’s hands froze, his dogs froze and stumbled, but they fought on through the night.  His vision obscured by the raging blizzard, Olson had to trust his lead dog to stay on the trail.  At 7:30 P.M., only four hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Golovin, he reached Bluff and passed the serum over to Gunnar Kasson.

Kasson ran the last 55-miles to Nome, to honor and fame, with 13 dogs in harness.  Somewhere along the trail he bypassed the next relay driver, Ed Rohn, who was waiting at Safety to take the serum on the final lap into Nome.  “Intentionally bypassed,” chuckled the old-timers many years later.

But, for Kasson, leaving Bluff at 10 o’clock in total darkness and an eighty-mile-an-hour wind-driven snowstorm, no landmark was familiar and he could have easily missed the roadhouse.  Dressed in seal mukluks that reached to his hips, sealskin pants, a reindeer parka and hood with a windbreaker over that, Kasson could still feel the sting of the wind.  Two of his dogs, longhaired veteran trail huskies, began to succumb to the weather and Kasson had to stop and buckle on their rabbit skins.  The sled kept tipping over in the soft snow; he couldn’t see; he didn’t really know where he was.

The only way for Kasson to survive, the only way he could even attempt to get the serum through the storm, was to give direction of the team to the leader, Balto.  Balto, one of Seppala’s Siberians, was a powerful, experienced leader, but Seppala had not taken him for this run because the six-year-old dog’s speed wasn’t as fast as it had been.  Kasson needed the leadership, however, and borrowed Balto from Seppala’s kennel.  Given his head in the worst weather, Balto put his nose down and sniffed and felt his way along the buried, invisible trail.  All Kasson could do was trust the dog’s instincts and experience.  The efforts of over one hundred and fifty other sled dogs and nineteen other drivers depended solely now on Balto.  The lives of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Alaskans depended on the doughty little sled dog and his team.

In the tradition of the great lead dogs, Balto, ears flattened against his head to keep out of the storm, nose working to pick out the trail, guided the team and the serum directly to Nome.

When they got there, at 5:30 in the morning on February 2, the half frozen Kasson collapsed beside battered, depleted dog team and began pulling ice from Balto’s feet.

“Balto,” he was heard to mumble… “Damn fine dog!”

In New York City’s Central Park a statue of Balto stands vigilant watch, keeping the accomplishments of sled dogs alive.  The inscription reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.  Endurance.  Fidelity.  Intelligence.” R. Coppinger

Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies Radio Show

The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 2

A call for help was flashed across the wires and dog teams were posted at way stations along the route.  In an attempt to bring recognition to all the souls that braved the trail, the following account, in its entirety, was taken from Coppinger’s World of Sled Dogs: From Siberia to Sport Racing (Howell Book House 1977):

“The Alaskan Railroad sent a special train out of Anchorage, north to the end of the line in Nenana, with a small package of serum aboard.  Waiting at Nenana was William “Wild Bill” Shannon, the U.S. mail driver for the Northern Commercial Company.  He set out late on the 27th of January for Tolovana, 52-miles to the northwest, with a team of nine Malamutes, a big working team for those days.  The thermometer at the station read -50º.  The serum was wrapped in blankets to keep it from the damaging cold.

At noon on the 28th Shannon turned the serum over to Dan Green at Tolovana.  Green raced his eight dogs the 31-miles to Manley Hot Springs in weather featuring temperatures of –30º, and a wind of some twenty miles an hour: a chill factor of –70º for Green and his dogs.

At Manley Hot Springs, the Athabascan Indian Jonny Folger took over and ran 28-miles to Fish Lake with a team of eight dogs and the temperature still standing at thirty degrees below zero.

From Fish Lake to Tanana, Sam Joseph carried the serum 26-miles at an amazing average of nine miles an hour.  The temperature was dropping.

From Tanana to Kallads, 34-miles away, Titus Nicholi mushed his seven dogs through weather at forty below.  There Dave Corning took over in –42º temperatures; he averaged eight miles an hour for the 24 miles from Kallads to the Nine Mile cabin.

He was met by Edgar Kalland who raced his seven dogs to Kokrines, thirty miles away, with the temperature now at –44º.

From Kokrines to Ruby, another thirty miles, Harry Pitka fought his way through a white-out at 47 degrees below zero.  He somehow managed an incredible nine miles an hour.  At Ruby, Bill McCartney took the package and raced with his seven dogs the 28-miles to Whiskey Creek in slightly warming weather:  -43º now.

At Whiskey Creek, seven o’clock at night, Edgar Nollner continued on at –40º for the 24-miles to Galena, with seven dogs.

Edgar’s brother, George Nollner, carried the serum 18-miles from Galena to Bishop Mountain with the same seven dogs, and the temperatures began to plunge.  The dogs trotted the whole 42-miles for the Nollner brothers; it was too dark to lope.

At Bishop Mountain, the 22-year-old Athabascan Charlie Evans began with a team of nine dogs the run to Nulato, thirty miles away.  The temperature dived to 64 degrees below zero and the trip was a nightmare for Evans.  He had no rabbit skins to protect the vulnerable groin area of his dogs, and two of them began to freeze, even as they ran.  Loading the crippled huskies onto his sled, Evans continued on.  He ran in front of the sled, pulling on the traces, trying to help his seven remaining dogs.  Five hours after leaving Bishop Mountain he reached Nulato.  It was four o’clock in the morning and all he could manage was to carry his sick dogs into the cabin and collapse by the stove.  Recalling the event some fifty years later, Charlie Evans said, “It was real cold.”

Tommy Patsy loaded the serum from Evans’ sled onto his own and sped off into the darkness toward Kaltag, 36-miles distant.  Urging his team on at 58 degrees below zero, it took him three and a half hours to cover the distance.  He got there Friday noon, January 30th.  In less than three days, 13 dog teams had covered 377-miles.  They were a little over halfway to Nome.

At Kaltag, the trail left the Yukon River and headed over the mountains to the coast.  In the mountains, the weather grew worse.  The Athabascan River pilot Jackscrew took the serum at Kaltag and cursed his way through a blinding snowstorm at fifty below zero to Old Woman shelter cabin, forty miles away.  There he was met by Eskimo Victor Anagick who took off in blowing, drifting snow toward Unalakleet, 34-miles away on Norton Sound.

At Unalakleet, another Eskimo, Myles Gonangnan, was waiting, and set off in his turn with the serum for Shaktoolik.  He had to break trail for his eight-dog team through waist-high drifts for the entire forty miles.  They were traveling in one of the worst snowstorms in memory.  He made it in just under 12 hours and fell exhausted and frostbitten, but with the serum safe for the next sled.

Harry Ivanoff then started for Golovin.  Half a mile along to the trail the team picked up the scent of reindeer, and bedlam broke loose.  Fighting to straighten out his dogs, Ivanoff looked up to see Leonhard Seppala and his team of racing Siberians, the only such dogs in the relay, hustling down the trail.

Apparently the blizzard had interfered with communications and Nome thought there was no relay team available at Shaktoolik.  So Seppala had driven the team a good 150-miles, from Nome, to meet the precious package.  Ivanoff gave him the serum, and Seppala, turning back, chose the straight route across Norton Sound, a route traditionally avoided by dog drivers.  The high winds were pushing sea water up over the ice, which promised to break up at any moment and drift out into the Bering Sea, Seppala, serum and all.  But Seppala’s confidence in his proven fast dogs and his successful crossing of the creaking ice once that day stimulated his belief that he had a reasonable chance, with luck, to make it back across to Golovin and save hours, perhaps days.

In warming temperatures that made the ice more dangerous, Seppala sped off for Golovin, 91-miles west by the route across the Sound.  The little Norwegian and his lead dog Togo, made 84-miles that day.  Twenty of those miles were across the heaving, sloshing, breaking sea ice.  But Togo, the hero of many a sport sled dog race and veteran of many a trail, knew the dangers.  He also had the uncanny ability to begin carrying out Seppala’s wishes even before Seppala gave a command.  Togo led the fragile train of dogs, sled and driver as quickly as he could across the massive array of jagged, groaning ice floes.  They reached Isaacs Point, on the other side, late Saturday night.  There Seppala stopped to feed his team and tend to their raw, cut feet.  Continuing on [the] next morning in the blizzard, he met Charlie Olson at Golovin in mid-afternoon.  There was eighty miles left to go.

Tomorrow on the Dog Sledding Examiner: The Serum Run Part 3

Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies Radio Show

The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 1

The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 1

In 1925, the population of Nome, Alaska was just two thousand.  Most of the miners, prospectors and adventurers of the gold rush had moved on.  The city was the site of a potential catastrophe, an epidemic of diphtheria.  Diphtheria is a “specific, localized, and superficial bacterial infection.”  It produces a powerful and deadly toxin that in the first quarter of the twentieth century claimed over half the lives of anyone unlucky enough to contract it.  The residents of Nome were in dire danger, without an adequate supply of antitoxin the city’s prognosis was at best poor.

The challenges of delivering the twenty-five pound package of life-saving antitoxin were many.  It would have to be picked up from the railhead in Nenana and transported to Nome over six hundred seventy four miles of the “roughest and most desolate” terrain found anywhere on the planet.  The trip, which normally took twenty-five days, would have to be undertaken in just fifteen; in the middle of an arctic winter where the bone-chilling temperatures ranged from -19ºF to -64ºF.  To complicate matters it was dark most of the time in late January and early February.

Richard Byrd said, “The Eskimo husky still is, as he always has been, the one absolutely reliable means of polar advance.”  Rest assured it was this reliability that spared the lives of the citizenry of Nome.  Twenty or so brave mushers: natives, mail carriers and white men put their lives, and the lives of their dogs, on the line for the isolated city.  They did not risk it all for money, or for glory, but simply because it was the right thing to do.

Gunnar Kasson and Leonhard Seppala received most of the credit and glory associated with the Nome Serum Run; however, they were just a small part in a much larger, history-making adventure.  It was primarily Native Alaskans and mail drivers who weathered the biting cold and the blinding storms who conquered the brutal trail.  Those drivers were thanked by President Coolidge and even received a medal for their efforts, but they were mostly over-looked by the media.

The tale begins in January of 1925, in Nome, Alaska.  The only physician in Nome, Dr. Curtis Welch, discovered a case of the dreaded “Black Death” disease, diphtheria.  The doctor’s supply of antitoxin was very small, and Nome was the medical center for a district of some eleven thousand extremely vulnerable natives.

There was a supply of antitoxin in Anchorage, Alaska.  As previously alluded to, the difficulty was in transporting the serum to Nome.  There were two biplanes at that time in Alaska, the problem with using them was that not only were they disassembled for the winter, they were also both open-cockpit.  The days were short, and the weather was horribly cold.  The pilots were willing to give it a go, but it was decided that the risk to the only serum in Alaska was too high for such a reckless endeavor.  So just as the natives had done for centuries, the residents of Nome pinned their hope of survival on sled dogs.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day


Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies Radio Show


August 2010
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