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Meet Alden West
Musher, Guide & Yukon Quest Racer

Page 2

[click on any photo on this page to see a larger version]

~more photos~

Puppies

What criteria do you use for selecting breeding stock?Wagon full of puppies
I'd like to breed to the Energizer bunny one day. The pups might look sorta funny, but they'd have endurance.

My views are certainly not unique. It's been said many times before but I'll say it again: breed only the best to the best. I hear people say it over and over again, but then along comes an accidental litter from a trailside breeding … or a planned breeding between a pair that are perhaps a bit less than the very best. It's wishful thinking to believe that B-team dogs will produce A-team pups. It simply won't happen. Not unless you have some magic potion to pour into the gene pool.

I choose the dogs to breed strictly on the basis of conformation, speed, size & shape. I don't believe that breeding leaders yields leaders. I don't believe that breeding dogs with great heart will necessarily produce offspring with great heart. I think that pups acquire their personality from the mom, but they get their size from the dad. I pay a bit more attention to personality in the bitch than I do in the dog, and I'm a bit less concerned about size in the mom than I am in the dad. It is expensive and very time-consuming to raise litters. Even under the best of circumstances, many of the pups will not meet your standards. So be very, very selective in deciding which dogs to breed and breed only those which have perfect conformation.

Do you use any pre-training evaluation of puppies?
I spend a lot of time looking at pups from the moment they first begin to motor around on their own. When they're old enough to go for walks on the trail you begin to see which ones are more bold … which ones tend to be out front or the first to explore something new. I know some people begin to cull based on the speed of pups as they free-run at just 2 or 3 months of age. I don't. Too often the slow pup is slow because it's going through a growth spurt and the mental coordination hasn't caught up yet. Puppies are awkward when they run; some more so than others. It's a fact of life. My experience has been that the larger pups are the most awkward and often the slowest. But once they mature and their coordination develops, everything comes together. The very best yearling I have at the moment is a prime example of this. He was always the slowest pup as we walked puppies out on the trail. As an adolescent he was awkward and clumsy. But he was always the biggest. He's now going on 2 and he's a fine dog and the only one of that litter that I chose to keep - all his littermates have either been sold or given away as recreational dogs. It takes patience to see how a dog develops. I'm glad I waited on him.

I am more concerned about giving the pups plenty of opportunities to experience new challenges. In my puppy pen I have a play area with some 'puppy lawn furniture.' I've built wooden boxes with holes and tunnels … an elevated platform with ramps leading up to it. I find it interesting to observe the pups as they solve these 'puzzles' and I think it helps in their physical and mental development.

What method do you use for starting pups?
I like to break pups at about 6 months of age and I prefer to do it on sleds as opposed to using a 4-wheeler. I don't want the pups to get the idea that they can rely on an engine to do the work. I hitch up small teams - usually 8 to 10 dogs with 1 or 2 rows of veterans up front and a well-mannered adult next to a pup in each row back through the team. We start out very slowly. I mean verrrry slowly. A slow walking pace. Once everyone is comfortable like that it's easy to bring the speed up gradually. After one or two short runs beside an experienced adult they are usually ready to run beside another pup. Once in a while a dog is spooked and lays down. If that happens I unhitch it from the gangline and let it run free alongside the team or behind the sled. Typically after about a hundred yards or so the dog has caught up & is running in place with the team right in the very spot where he'd originally been hitched up. After a bit I stop, put him back in the gangline and try again. Very rarely does it take more than a couple or three repetitions of that before the dog is comfortable in the gangline next to the other dogs.

What is the most important thing you look for in a young dog?
There is not one quality that is more important than any other. They have to have it all. But if pressed, I'd say I'm more willing to work with a dog that has irrepressible desire even if that means overlooking a fault in some other area.

At what point do you decide a youngster is likely to make it in your team?
Usually by the time a pup is 10 months old I have a pretty good idea of what I've got but until the dog is old enough to be able to do some back to back 40 mile and 50 mile runs I don't really know how he'll do. Many times a dog looks pretty good at 30 or 40 miles but goes soft after 50 or 60. A dog that doesn't make my race team may very well be an excellent tour dog for me. My yearlings will do back to back 50's by the end of their freshman year and by that time they're perhaps 18 to 20 months old. That's when I really know.

How do you identify the dogs you think might make good leaders?
I think leaders do it for one of three reasons - curiosity, competitive rivalry or loyalty. Some dogs are just so curious about what might be up ahead around the next bend in the trail that they want to be up front. Some dogs do it to show the others that they're tougher, stronger and faster. Then you have those who do it simply because you ask them to. Those are the best leaders. Out on the trail there comes a time when those first two reasons are no longer valid. A curious dog gets hungry and doesn't care any more about what's around the bend. All he wants to do is eat. A competitive dog becomes exhausted and no longer has the desire to try to prove his point to his rivals. All he wants to do is sleep. But if a dog is a leader simply out of loyalty, if he runs up front simply to please you, then that reason is always valid no matter how tired or hungry he might be. If you happen across a dog that has two of those qualities going for him, that's better yet. And if you're fortunate enough to have a dog that has all three? That dog is a real gem.

That's why I tend to like crazy dogs. The crazy ones often tend to be more curious, more competitive. This is also why I spend so much time with my pups. At a very early age you can begin to see which pups are more curious, more bold, more competitive. Spending time with them as pups - bonding with them - pays enormous dividends down the trail. Playing with puppies is also a lot of fun. I enjoy it.

Training

Nike & Pegger

What is the training/racing philosophy of your kennel?
This is a sport. These are dogs. Whether racing, training or on a tour with clients the overriding philosophy is to make it fun for the dogs. They're the ones who do the hard part and every time I hitch a team I want them to have fun. I have a burning desire to win but the dogs don't care about winning. Dogs don't do trophies. For the dogs, it's all very basic: it's all about exploring new trails and having fun. There is a fundamental conflict between my personal goals and what's best for the dogs. It's not always easy to keep things in proper perspective.

Once many years ago when I was driving race cars the engine lost oil pressure about a lap and a half from the finish. I decided to just roll the dice, cross my fingers and hope for the best. A couple hundred yards from the line, with the checkered flag in sight, it let go in a very impressive way. I coasted across the finish line, but there was nothing left of the motor but shrapnel.

This year in the Yukon Quest 250 I held the lead approaching Circle on the river. I knew that the last 5 miles into town would be a sustained uphill grind. I wanted to win. I wanted to win so bad I could taste it. But the dogs had been running a long time and they were tired. For a couple of hours I had been debating whether to run on through to the finish or stop and rest them. If the finish had been on the river, I'd have kept going but that final grind uphill concerned me. If I ran them flat and they broke down going up that hill I would have broken their trust. I thought back to that time years ago in a race car when I rolled the dice and blew the motor. I wasn't willing to take that risk with the dogs.

So I stopped on the river about 15 miles from the finish and gave them a quickie - a short 3 hour breather. I fed them a meal and then served up every last bite of trail snacks I had in the sled to lighten the load. Eric Butcher caught up to us and passed by just as I began to stand them up and attach tug lines. Eric went on to win the race and I finished second by 2 minutes.

Frustrating? Sure, in a way. But going up that hill into Circle the dogs had some bounce in their booties. As we crested the top and the trail leveled out they broke into a lope. When we turned onto the road at the edge of town they bumped it up to a dead run. We finished second but every one of those dogs was happy with their tail wagging at the end. Every one of them wanted to keep on going. After 250 miles the dogs were still having fun and that matters a lot more to me than finishing in first place.

Do you have specific training goals for your teams?
Oh sure, but then we have a winter like last year with no snow and all my plans go up in smoke. It's important to remain flexible. It also helps to have a sense of humor about it all.

Early in the season I try to just get the dogs moving freely again and re-establish full range of motion. I run them on the 4 wheeler and I use the engine a lot. I like to get them stretching out and to do that they need to be loping. I keep the speed up and the load light. Once they've completed a few runs and their tendons and ligaments and muscles limber up they get less and less help from the engine. I probably run my dogs faster in training than most distance mushers do. Loping is hard on them - especially on wrists and shoulders. But so long as I keep the load light and don't overdo it I think that loping them also makes them tough. Their wrists and shoulders get strong. I have very few wrist and shoulder injuries and I attribute that to the fact that the dogs lope a lot during the early part of the season.

Loping also helps them develop full range of motion in their shoulders and hips, legs and backs. I'm certainly no expert in canine physiology but the biomechanics of a loping dog are very different from that of a dog that is trotting. When a dog trots, his back remains quite stable and his legs are moving through a limited range - perhaps 100 to 110 degrees. When a dog lopes he's arching his back with every stride and the legs are moving through a range of something closer to 150 or 160 degrees. Maybe more. If a dog is conditioned to be able to perform the broad range of motion required for loping then he is well within his capabilities when he settles down to a trot.

Throughout the fall as long as I'm on a 4 wheeler I alternate between grunt work and speed work. Every run I make them haul the 4 wheeler without any help from the engine to build muscle strength and then I light the fire and they jam for awhile to work on range of motion and muscle tone. Then I cut the engine and they haul it again. It's a form of interval training but I do it not so much for the cardiovascular benefits as for the muscular strengthening and conditioning. As training progresses I begin to mix in some hill work. I use the engine and they lope uphill, then I slow things down and they trot back down. Loping downhill is just too hard on their wrists and shoulders. They actually work a lot harder on the 4 wheeler than they do on sleds. By the time we have enough snow to go to sleds they're doing about 15 miles or so on the 4 wheeler and they're glad to see the sleds come out of the shed.

What do you consider most important to accomplish in training?
For me, 'training' is truly training. It's not just physical conditioning. Gangline manners, work ethic, attitude, resting on the trail, etc. are all important. I try to work on some aspect of training other than physical conditioning during every run. One day it might be teaching a dog to do it on the fly, the next day we might work on gangline manners and the day after that we might practice resting and eating in the gangline.

Racing

Checkpoint

How do you choose which races to enter?
I try to choose races that will best help prepare the team and myself for the Yukon Quest. That's why I've run the Quest 250 the past two years. Now the dogs and I have seen over 500 miles of the trail. Beyond that, now I'm familiar with many of the checkpoints and checkpoint procedures, the local idiosyncrasies of trail marking through different portions of the trail, vet practices and procedures and so on. I feel like with that behind me I have a much better idea of what to expect. I also think that it's important to select races that offer similar challenges to one's long range goal. The Yukon Quest is a rugged trail. There is a lot of climbing along with numerous steep portages. The trail is often soft or worse and there is a lot of ice and overflow. Both during training and in early season races I try to expose the dogs to the types of challenges they will see during the race.

What are your strengths as a racer?
I think that my patience is an asset. I'm able to remain calm under stress and focus on finding solutions to problems as they arise. Since I'm an old guy, my maturity helps me keep a balanced perspective between my personal desire to succeed and the needs of the dogs.

What do you consider your weaknesses, if any?
When push comes to shove, as I evaluate the dogs and decide how far, how long or how hard to run them, I'm conservative. I recognize it as an area of vulnerability but I have no desire to change. The answer is faster dogs. In a long race, faster dogs spend less time on the trail and have more time to rest.

Do you having a mushing career goal?
I'd sure like to win the Yukon Quest one day. That would be sweet. In the short term, I am committed to running the Quest in 2003 and I will make every effort to be the highest placing rookie.

What does it take to win?
A total commitment to the goal. Thorough preparation prior to the race and patience during the race. Then cross your fingers and hope for a little luck.


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