Sunday, 16 January 2005

January 16, 2005 Copper Basin

Before I regale you all with my tale of the 2005 Copper Basin Sled Dog Race, I’d like to direct you all to 3 different perspectives on it. First, please visit the Copper Basin’s own site for this perspective ; next read the rather sensationalized, rambling and self contradicting Anchorage Daily News story from last Tuesday and then Craig Medred’s excellent report from Wednesday

Now for my story….

The night of the musher’s meeting didn’t set a good tone for the upcoming race. Leaving the icy parking lot our dog truck slid into the dog truck of fellow Canadian Ed Hopkins. ‘Luckily’ almost all the damage was to our vehicle and Ed was more then cool about the whole situation, shrugging off any suggestions of us paying to repair the back of his dog box. The old Ford is definitely going to need some repairs though – Mark had to take a tire iron to the front fender to move it off the tire enough so we could drive it. It is also missing the front drivers side headlight, signal light, etc. We are torn between being annoyed in having to spend a couple thousand dollars repairing a truck that won’t be going much of anywhere after this spring and relief that it wasn’t the new truck that we were driving.

The next morning I was still wishy-washy on which 12 dogs were making the 300-mile journey with me. The rookies all weren’t quite ready to race, so they were out; it is always good for me to race without Grover, just to prove to me I can do it, so he was out…after much debate and changing of my mind we unloaded Surge, Chester, Denali, Odie, Loki, Hector, Herman, Moses, Squeaky, Crunchie, Olena and Hilda from the truck for the vet check. Both Hilda and Olena were in heat and at the last second I tossed Hilda back into the truck and informed our little cab-riding princess, Kara that it was time for her to go to work. 

We puttered and fussed around the dogs and truck killing time until our 10:18 start. Just before my team was about to be moved up to the starting line, Race Manager John came over and mentioned that there was a 90 degree turn with a big spot of glare ice at the end of the start chute, “…but” he said “there will be lots of help there if you need it.” Translation – when you crash big in front of all the spectators and media, there will be people around to help stop your team and prop you back up on the sled. Great! My veteran crew headed by Surge and Odie showed them though, they fired on all cylinders at the word “Go” but obediently slowed down when I gave the ‘Easy’ command. We inched halfway around the corner until I deemed we were out of danger, then when I lifted my foot off the brake with the command “Okay – NOW” – they shot off down the trail with me just a-grinning. I understand all were not so lucky, as Tyrell Seavey apparently crashed hard and messed up his shoulder on that corner. Exciting for spectators, but not a musher, nor dog friendly start to the Race.

For the first 25 miles or so, into the town of Gakona, the trail mostly parallels the highway, so there were a fair number of spectators. Mark and our dog truck even drove passed on the way to Chistochina. We waved at each other and Odie perked his ears forward and sprinted to try to catch up with his dog box for a bit. The dogs actually moved well the whole way and although we were passed by a number of teams, I tried to gear the speed down a bit to get the dogs settled into a good, maintainable traveling pace. The team saw some trail conditions they hadn’t seen before, like jumble frozen ice on a few of the rivers, thick willows to punch through and bottomless, wallowing trail – turns out it was just the beginning of that obstacle. There was also a bit of overflow and icy trail, but this team is very familiar with that sort of thing.

Over a half hour ahead of schedule we pulled into the first checkpoint. Mark caught the leaders and after doing the checking in thing, helped me over into a quiet parking spot off the beaten path (translation – we wallowed through more snow to get to it). This was all the help he was permitted to provide to the team. This was the first time Mark and I have done a race of this format, where you have handlers in the checkpoint, but they are unable to help at all. Personally, I don’t like it. If Mark has to stand around twittling his thumbs, I’d rather he wasn’t there at all. Plus the parking was such and the race officials scarce enough that I think many were pushing the limits of this rule anyway. If you are going to make a rule like this, corral the mushers better and have enough officials around that everyone is forced to play by it. At least that’s my thought on the matter.

Anyway, everyone bedded down like the pros they are, but watched me intently while I prepared their meals. On cue (kibbles rattling into a metal food dish) they all hit their feet and started to bark. Everyone hit their dish with enthusiasm and polished it clean. Not much makes a musher happier then that!

I called the vet over to look at Chester, who had been uncharacteristically not pulling well coming in. They found a little muscle soreness, probably from wallowing around in some of the soft spots on the trail, but nothing serious. I gave him a massage and covered him with a blanket so he could get the best rest possible before heading inside to grab a bite to eat and then a quick nap.

When I was getting some water after my rest, I began to hear rumblings about the trail conditions. Word was traveling the ‘grapevine’ that the trail breakers had left for Paxson at 11 am and now, after over 8 hours they still were not there. Rumors of deep snow and open water abound, but no one knew for sure. Mushers, including myself, left Chistochina not knowing if we even had a ‘do-able’ trail all the way into the next checkpoint.

The dogs had no idea about the issues around the trail and so they left Chistochina without hesitation. In fact, I was thrilled with how strong and eager they were to get out of there. I had taken Chester for a walk while we were getting ready to go and he had looked really good, wagging his tail, grinning and moving without hesitation, but within 5 miles he started to back off again, making it clear I had made a mistake in taking him on this leg. He and I had a little chat and we decided that he would continue along in the team, free of the expectation of pulling until he indicated he would like to ride in the sled. Chester HATES riding, so I knew he wouldn’t make us haul his 62 lbs down the trail unless necessary. The next 30 miles or so were darn near perfect. The dogs moved exceedingly well… the trail was gorgeous… the night spectacular. I even caught sight of a couple shooting stars streaking across the night sky. It was all just about as close to heaven as I know how to get. Then we hit the creek.

My dogs have never been fond of water, but they will go through overflow without much issue – running water is an entirely different story. Their eyes bulge out and their brains turn to soup at the sound of a trickling stream – so it was no real surprise when they all bunched up at the edge of a open and gurgling stream about 35 miles into the run. What was surprising was the level to which they fought me to cross this rather small stream. At one point, about 10 minutes into our battle of wills, Herman was perched on the edge of the snow pack, screaming protests at the top of his lungs. I know the darn critter is not made of sugar and will not melt if he touches water, but anyone within earshot would have swore otherwise. Sweat was pouring down my back as I untangled and tried to drag dogs into the ankle deep water. Now, also remember I had mentioned Olena was also in heat??? Well the boys hadn’t forgotten and all took turns trying to move into position to breed her. How she got out of that situation with her virtue intact is a miracle. It took about a half an hour before the way out of the situation was offered to me. Somehow in all the mess Squeaky found himself at the edge of the water, rather then screaming and carrying on like the others, he was calmly watching the water go by. I asked him if he was ready to be a leader and save me from this situation and took his lack of protest as an affirmative. A little bit of reorganizing found he and Denali at the front of the team. Squeaky allowed me to lead him into the water and across the stream and Denali finally decided that if that red hair ball could go in, he could too. Once the front end was across, the rest bailed in with only minor protests and we were on our way again. Squeaky firmly planted his feet and refused to lead after we were through though. Apparently he had just felt sorry for me at the stream, but I was not going to trick him into becoming a full time leader. I thanked him for his well-timed 5 minutes of leadership and put him back into the team.

Shortly after there the trail began a notorious climb, virtually up a mountain. I had heard many horror stories about this climb, but the dogs did well enough that the reports seemed over blown. No doubt though - it was a massive climb and I was relived to finally hit the top. Relief was short lived, as it turned out the worst part of the trail was the descent – it wasn’t hard, fast and hairy – rather bottomless, soft and difficult for the dogs to negotiate. Every few hundred yards the bottom would fall out of the trail and send the dogs wallowing and flailing in deep snow. Give me a challenging trail to drive any day of the week, but I’m not for trails that just beat up dogs for no reason, as this one was. It was very obvious this was a freshly broken trail, not one that had been worked and maintained throughout the winter, as most race trails are. To make matters worse, Mark reported to me afterwards that the trail breakers came in on ‘Powder King’ machines. These may be good for busting through deep powder, but they chew up the trail underneath them to do it, making things even worse for dog teams behind them. I had expected more from an organization such as the CB300. We slogged and struggled down the mountain. In the distance I spotted a couple headlamps apparently stopped ahead – from what I had already learned about this trail, I figured this wasn’t a good sign. I was right. Two teams were tangled up on the edge of a open river crossing – and I mean OPEN. It was wide enough that the dogs couldn’t even see the other side from the near bank, so no way were they going to bail in on their own. The rushing mid calf to knee deep water even had me thinking twice. Surge surprised the heck out of me by following me in and across quite willingly. I guess he hadn’t liked his brother having to come to my rescue on last crossing. I stopped to change booties on Chester and snack the dogs as a reward once we were all across. When I was all packed up and ready to leave I noticed one of the other mushers still struggling with his team in the water. I felt sorry for him and waded back into the river to help. When Surge and I waded through we were careful to pick a path that wasn’t too deep so although my boots were frozen, my feet only got mildly damp – I wasn’t so lucky this time and stepped in a deep spot that sent icy water into both my boots. When I got back to my team I tried to undo the buckles on my NEOS so I could empty most of the water out, but they were frozen solid. I did some ‘risk analysis’ and decided that leaving the water in my ice encased boots and allowing my body heat to warm it up was the best plan. Turns out I was right – although my feet were very uncomfortable for the next 3 or 4 hours, no permanent damage was done.

The dogs traveled very well for the next several hours and we even caught up with a few other mushers. That perked all of us up. I also enjoyed my first glimpse of the Alaska Pipeline as we traveled next to it for several miles. Pretty cool.

I was starting to anticipate the upcoming checkpoint and warm feet when we crossed the highway and ventured onto Summit Lake, but a speedy journey in was not to be. A virtual absence of trail markers left myself and 3 or 4 other teams running circles on the lake looking for markers. I understand when earlier teams, wind or the likes knock down markers, but these markers were just never there. I understand that the first team onto the lake was lost for close to an hour. All the backtracking and hunting frustrated both Surge and I and the team slowed down considerably. I was re-passed by the teams I had passed early but the dogs were still moving along okay. Finally we climbed the impossible looking cliff off the lake and did an easy few miles down a plowed road and into the Paxson Checkpoint.

While I was getting the dogs fed and settled in, Mark was filling me in on everything that was going on, including the 3 trail breakers that had gone through the ice and had to be rescued by a BlackHawk helicopter and the fact that the race was officially ‘frozen’ until the Race could get some new trail breakers to put a new trail in. The beginnings of doubt about whether or not I wanted to expose my dogs to more of this race began to nag at me. Throughout the afternoon mushers that I greatly respect also wrestled with this decision, many opting to scratch. Mark and I talked about what we expected the trail ahead to be like. We discussed at length where the dogs were in their training and whether or not we felt such a demanding push at this stage of the program was in their best interest. I went to lay down for an hour to mull things over and when I got up I was sure that withdrawing was the best decision for my team and my bigger goal of getting them to Iditarod in the best condition I could. 

As most of you know, I’ve shed tears in the past over decisions to scratch and after the fact I’ve question whether I made the right decision – neither of those things happened this time. I was and still am certain that we made the right call on this.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it….


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