Thursday, 2 February 2006

February 2, 2006 2006 Copper Basin 300

In the days prior to Copper Basin the big questions didn’t revolve around which dogs to take to the race, but rather whether to go at all. I finally boiled it all down to two things that had to be done before I would go to Glennallen – Mark had to be out of the hospital and settled in at Jamie’s and I had to find a handler.

Wednesday brought resolution to both those issues when Mark got out of the hospital and my website manager, Ann Hernandez called up and offered to be my handler. Now, I must say, I was hesitant to say ‘yes’ to kind Ann’s offer, as I figured handling wasn’t nearly as glamorous as she thought it would be, but after she reassured me that she had a free flight available to her from Michigan to Alaska and that she was KEEN – how could I say ‘no’?

Jamie Nelson further sealed the deal by suggesting we run together – which not only made things much easier for Ann – but freed me from having to put thought into a ‘race plan’.

So, on Friday morning I loaded up all the dogs (although the race only allows 12, the other 10 had to come along, as Mark couldn’t care for them and I didn’t want to burden Jamie West with them). I will admit, I was already sleep deprived going into the race (due to Knik, my time at the hospital and sleeping next to a very restless patient on Wednesday and Thursday) and was really questioning the wisdom of my decision to go.

Ann was pretty bubbly for the drive up, being that it was her first trip to Alaska and all – and her enthusiasm was infectious.

When we got to Glenallen the bustle of pre-race took over. Jamie Nelson was there – and it was great to see her after almost a year. We cemented our race plans; I picked out a team, went over procedures with Ann and otherwise got ready to go.

Saturday morning was clear and COLD. It quickly became obvious that the weatherfolks predictions about cold temps for the weekend were going to be true (rare with weatherfolks, in my experience). I hummed and hawed about which combinations of liners and parkas to wear on the Race, finally settling (very wisely, it turned out – I was never really cold) on my Northern Outfitters Prima Loft liner with my big Cabelas Trans Alaska Anorak (I have 2 sizes – one is nice with just polar fleece layers underneath and I train in that till temps in the 0ยบ F range and one bigger one that fits over anything!). 
I had left my Bunny Boots (which is what I wanted to wear on the race) sitting next to the back door at Jamie’s, so my footwear would be my Lobben felt boots with my NEOS over top (also turned out to be a good choice). 

Gear up and ready for the worst, we hooked up the dogs – Snickers and Dasher in lead; Kara and Sprite in swing; Jr, Batdog, Skor, Crunchie, Loki and Odie in team; Hector and Herman in wheel. Now, I don’t think I picked my team as wisely as I did my clothing, but I’ll get into that later!

Karen's Team

NorthWapiti's Snickers

Ch. NorthWapiti's Dasher

Ch. NorthWapiti's Valkyrie Kara

NorthWapiti's Sprite

NorthWapiti's Seeley Lake

NorthWapiti's Long May You Run

NorthWapiti's Crunchie

NorthWapiti's Skor"Skor"

NorthWapiti's Odin

Ch. NorthWapiti's Loki

Chlout's Hector of NorthWapiti

Chlout's Herman of NorthWapiti
We were a little late hooking up, so I was in and out of the starting chute in a flash and the race was underway.

The first leg of this race, to Gulkana runs mostly in the ditch. The dogs were moving good, but not as strong as I’d seen them earlier in the season.

At one spot the trail veers away from the road, twists around, shoots across a little creek, twists a few more times and then hooks up with the ditch again. Shooting across the creek, I made one of those little errors in sled driving and smacked my sled over on its side. There were 2 things that made the situation worse then average – 1) my snowhooks bounced under my driving bow and caught in the ground, effectively securing the sled in it’s tipped position and 2) there was a photographer standing right there.

As I muttered (okay…I wasn’t muttering …I was swearing!) and fumbled I could hear the photographer’s motor drive whirling away.

Suffice to say, it took a lot more swearing, some help from the photographer, a little being dragged down the trail and a few sticks in my face before we were ready to roll again. As I pulled the hook, I assured the photographer that money could be had if those pictures never saw the light of day (and I haven’t actually seen them – so maybe his invoice is in the mail).

It always takes me a bit to gain my ‘sled legs’ after a big crash, before that had a chance to happen, the dogs missed the marked trail on a driveway crossing and crashed over a poorly put in snowmachine trail. The sled clipped a rock and sent me sprawling. Off went my team down the trail without me. The temptation to just beat my head against the rock for a bit was there, but instead I got up and run after the dogs. They only got a few hundred feet ahead of me before my wonderful Rusty Hagen rollover hook up righted itself and stopped the team. It’s been years since I lost a team, but the few times it has happened to me that hook has been a hero!

I climbed back on the sled, took a deep breath – what next? – and off we went. Not 2 minutes down the trail, I glanced over my shoulder to see a team closing in on me – however there was no musher! Seems someone else must have ‘met’ my rock. I stopped my team and snagged the leaders of the loose team as they caught up with me. A dog truck passing by on the highway stopped and the folks asked if they were allowed to help with the dogs. I assured them that a loose team was classified as an emergency and any help to secure them was allowed. By this time Michelle Phillips had caught up with us – on foot. She didn’t look too good at first glance, but when she wiped the frost/snow off her face and some of the blood off her lips, she looked almost human again.

When she passed me a few miles later, she was smiling and happy again.

The trail snaked through some nasty little ‘S’ turns and switchbacks, which I had no trouble negotiating, traveled a bit on the river, through Gulkana and off into the woods. We had about 15 miles of peace and quiet in the woods before the trail met up with the highway again. After that it was in and out of the highway ditch for the rest of the trip into Chistochina. The trail was rather bottomless and at times I was sure my team was traveling backwards. I was relieved later to hear that everyone thought the same on that stretch.

Rookie handler Ann acted like a veteran in steering my team into a nice parking spot next to Jamie Nelson’s team. I snacked and fed the team, who acted like starving wolves. It always makes me happy when they eat well.

Jamie and I headed into the checkpoint and polished off a couple bowls of soup (soup seemed to play a big roll in this race!). After that we tried to get a couple hours sleep, but the building set aside for mushers just wasn’t warm or comfortable enough for that to really happen. 

Just after 11pm, my team roared out of the checkpoint in good shape for the long, tough leg to Paxson.
The full moon and clear night made for some lovely sightseeing. Accompanied by tunes from the iPod and behind a nice moving dog team, I was definitely in a ‘happy place’. Don’t think anyone in the world could have convinced me to trade places with him or her that night!

As we got closer to the Excelsior Creek crossing, I thought about the mess I had had there last year – and the lovely puppies, including the creek’s namesake (paws down my favorite of that litter – heck one of my favorite puppies period!), that possibly resulted from it, so rather then dreading the creek crossing, I was smiling when I got to it. Not that my good mood inspired any confidence in my leaders. Both Kara and Snickers ducked out and tried to avoid the running water. We again ended up in a big tangle, but it only took a few minutes this year to get everyone onto the other side. Misery loves company – and I was reassured that the two teams in front of me (Yuka Hoda and Jamie Nelson) were still sorting out tangles when I was crossing the creek and DeeDee Jonrowe hit the creek while I was undoing my tangles and had about the same trouble I did getting across it.

Again, I was struck by the fact that teams seem to all be more competitive this season then in the past. Instead of finding a half dozen or so teams camping and straw beds after crossing Excelsior Creek, as there had been last year, there was only one.

The dogs did an admirable job climbing Summit Mt. and continued to move strong throughout the night. We hit 3 more open, running water crossings. None created any huge problems, but I did have to lead my leaders through each one, which turned my NEOS into GIANT blocks of ice – but my feet did stay warm despite it.

As we hit Summit Lake, I started to have troubles with my headlamp battery packs. I had had, what I though was more then enough for this leg, but every one of them died during the night, so I ended up just using my LED checkpoint light and moonlight to navigate. I was in close proximity to 2 other teams, so that gave me confidence too.

The dogs did a terrific job climbing the nasty, almost vertical hill (or the Climbing Wall, as Jamie referred to it) off Summit Lake and loped easily the final 3 miles into Paxson.

The checkers mentioned I had a spot of frostbite on my face as I was checking in. Always a courteous thing for them to do, as often we don’t realize it. They also let me know that it was –40 out. I wondered how Ann was fairing, but there she was smiling and ready to park the team. This was turning into as much an adventure for her as it was for me!

I declared my mandatory layover in Paxson and spent the next 8 hours caring for dogs, stuffing my face (more GREAT soup), resting, and drying clothes. Myself and most of the other mushers had to chip away at the ice on our boots before we were able to get them off.

When it was time to leave Paxson I decided to switch around leaders. The girls had had enough leading and I had had enough of their hormonal ‘in heat’ behavior. I moved them back to just in front of the sled, put Hector and Odie in lead and called them up. The result was an unqualified disaster. Every second step the boys wanted to turn around check to make sure the girls were still with the team. Finally, after straightening them out a billion or so times, they actually got rolling. We hadn’t gone a ½ mile when I noticed someone walking towards me on the trail, dragging something. At first I thought it might be a musher that had lost their team going back to the checkpoint for help, but that didn’t look right either.

The dogs perked up and ran right up to the man, where they all bunched up. I still couldn’t clearly see what was going on. To my questioning of what he was dragging he replied “A caribou”. YIKES!! Now I could see that Hector was already gnawing away at the spoils of this man’s hunt. “You better drag the leaders by”, I suggested. He did. Now Hector and Odie wanted to check over their shoulder not only to check on the girls, but see what happened to their trail snack.
©Penny Blankenship for
©Penny Blankenship  

I finally stopped and started switching dogs around, looking for a combination that was conducive to forward movement. We move a bit, stop, move a bit, stop – then we came to the spot where the hunter had gutted his caribou, a few live animals in the area bound off into the woods and the dogs shot into overdrive. The were more excited then I’d ever seen them act about wildlife, maybe the smell of blood and the live caribou combined to send them over the edge. A couple of the dogs were actually screaming at the top of their lungs as they were running. They ran hard for about a mile and that seemed to sort out most of the kinks in the team, one more shuffling of the dogs and we settled into traveling. Still, 15 miles later when I was getting into Meir’s Lake, I was rather discouraged with the team. I expect more from them and they know better. I was never seriously thinking of scratching, but I got a little ‘kick in the pants’ anyway, when the Shania Twain song, “I Ain’t No Quitter” started on my iPod as the checkpoint came into sight.

I was smiling as I signed in/signed out and headed back into the night.

The trail into Sourdough was a kick. Up and down, twisting and winding…. my kind of trail. Another beautiful moonlit night added to the night.

The dogs, lead by Skor and believe it or not, Jr, had found their groove again and the run really couldn’t have been more enjoyable.

Sourdough was really the only unpleasant experience on the race. It was cold, there was nowhere for mushers to warm up, sleep or dry out clothes – I think mushers are entitled to that in every checkpoint. We huddled around an unsatisfying campfire, longingly glancing at all our dog trucks, idling in the parking lot with warm, cozy cabs that our handlers were using. * sigh *

Turns out I actually melted one of my NEOS trying to thaw it out with the fire – though I didn’t figure that out until I took them off in Wolverine.

The dogs weren’t resting much better. The teams were piled on top of each other and there was no easy path out, so leaving teams were stomping around and weaving through resting teams to get out of the checkpoint.

After only 3 hours and 41 minutes of unsatisfying rest for all, I pulled the hook and headed to back into the night (what was it with all the night travel on this race?!).

The run to Wolverine wasn’t the greatest of the race, but the dogs still moved steady. It was darn cold and when I came onto Crosswind Lake and was greeted by a man handing out steaming cups of soup to passing mushers, I could have kissed him. What a treat!

As we started to get close to the checkpoint, I began to start taking mental notes about dogs that were going to need some extra attention in the checkpoint and anyone I might want the vets to look at. Well, Kara looked good, so did Snicks, and Dasher, and Sprite, and Odie, and Crunch, and Skor, and Loki, and Hec and Herm, and Jr and Batdog. That left… one that needed any extra attention. Cool! I spent the last few miles marveling at how strong and fit everyone still looked after close to 250 tough miles.

The dogs were definitely tired, but they all ate and settled into their straw beds under the afternoon sun to nap.

I headed into the checkpoint for – what else – a bowl of soup (actually I had 2 huge bowls, but who was counting?).

The run to Tolsona was one that Mark and I had done a few years ago when we were training at Wolverine Lodge, so it was nice to be on ‘familiar’ ground. We were treated to another beautiful clear night. In fact, when the moon came out, it was so bright; it took me a while to figure out what that light shining through the trees was.

Just before Tolsona I did the ‘mental’ inventory on the dogs again. Odie and Snickers each had a small glitch in their stride when we first left Wolverine, but they had warm up nicely and were now moving fine. Looked like we were all going to the finish line together! How cool!

As I was signing in/out of Tolsona the vets and checkers asked if I knew I was the only one still driving 12 dogs in the race. I didn’t. Wow!

I called up the team and they moved REALLY strongly out – honestly, I think they thought I was moving them to a parking spot in the checkpoint. After a couple miles, they started glancing over their shoulders at me with looks of disgust. It was very clear they figured they were entitled to a break in Tolsona and their idiot musher had gone right through. We discussed the fact that it was only 20 miles to the finish line and reluctantly they agreed to trust me and keep going.

I’ve got to admit that the 15 miles through the ditch and into the finish line were horrible. Not because of my dogs, but because we had high beam headlights from truckers burning out our retinas, badly marked parking lot crossings, and dangerous driveway crossing.

Once, within sight of the finish line, I ended up with my team actually on the highway AND a car bearing down on us. It was the most scared I have ever been in my mushing career – I was almost in tears – and completely unable to do anything because there was no way to get a snowhook in. Luckily, the car saw us and managed to get around the team by going onto the shoulder of the road.
It took awhile, but I wiggled the sled backwards until I could get a tenuous hold with my snowhook. I inched my way up the gangline and as soon as I got to Kara and pointed out the trail to her, she immediately darted onto it. The problem was that, from a dog’s perspective, the trail was not obvious. Not acceptable for a top-notch race giving organization – and I was quick to inform them of that at the finish line. Apparently, other mushers had mentioned the spot, but they hadn’t figured out exactly where the problem had been. The race judge headed back and fixed it while I was still putting dogs away.

It certainly took some of the shine off my finish.

Ann and Jamie Nelson’s husband, Ken were waiting for me and helped get everyone fed, unharnessed and put away. They were a tired (but still very happy) bunch of puppies and very glad to see their cozy, straw filled boxes.

I was very proud of them. The Copper Basin is in my mind exactly what it is billed as – The Toughest 300 Miles in Alaska. In fact, it is the toughest 300-mile race I have ever run!

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©Penny Blankenship

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