Saturday, 25 February 2006

February 25, 2006 Rookie Lessons

“Handler for this weekend - Due to Mark's broken ankle, I am looking for someone that could handle for me for the Copper Basin Race this weekend.
We would need to leave early this Friday morning and be home sometime on Wednesday.  Responsibilities would including driving the truck from checkpoint to checkpoint, raking and cleaning up my camping spots in checkpoints and caring for dropped dogs.” - email from Karen to NorthWapiti News Group, January 11, 2006.

I never thought checking for last minute website updates from Karen before the weekend’s race would have such a dramatic effect on my plans for the weekend!!!

After a few calls and some emails, I seized the moment, threw some clothes into a suitcase and headed for Anchorage. When I arrived at the Lake Louise hotel in Wasilla, I was still running on adrenaline, but knew that I needed to get as much sleep as I could. I had been warned that I would not get much sleep during the race. I was surprised that the room was way too warm at first (having prepared myself that all things Alaskan would be COLD). I tucked myself in and fell asleep with a huge smile on my face. I was a bit worried that the lack of sleep from my all night packing would catch up with me and I would oversleep. Alas, my son called me at 7AM to say “Hi” and to tell me to have fun. But it was 7:00am in Michigan, 3am in Alaska.

I fidgeted in bed for a few more hours, anticipating my adventure…

Karen arrived as planned, sometime around 9am. “The” dogs were now oh, so close, but with hours of driving ahead of us, I knew it was not time to meet any of them yet. I stashed my bags (one large suitcase and a backpack) in the truck and off we went. I really had no clue where we were going…somewhere East…it was not my responsibility to know “where”, so it was not my concern. I was “THERE”, if only for a weekend, a PART of Team NorthWapiti (in person J

We drove for hours and I reveled in the opportunity to ask questions and listen to stories. Then it was time to drop the dogs. As Karen pulled onto one of the many turn offs on the long, two lane highway, I told myself it was time to start learning and earning (learning what was needed and earning my keep).
Karen opened up one of the many doors on the back area of the dog truck and got out a bunch of short chains. I was told that end with the “clip” went on each dog’s collar, the other end goes to the tie out spots. The chains would stay on the dogs from then until we were back in the dogyard (except for removing them from the dogs in the race just before they are hitched up to the sled at race time).
NOW. Now is the moment I had been waiting for…can you remember the feeling of Christmas morning as a child, the moment before you get the go ahead to start opening the wrapped presents?

The anticipation…

I stood next to the red maple leaf doors and wondered who was behind Door #1. Karen opened the door, and there was …. I’m amazed that in hindsight, I don’t remember who I saw first. But I recognized him. Then the next one, open, clip, drop, clip…it’s “ “. Again, I don’t recall who came out next, but one after another, the doors opened and I “KNEW” the dog that looked out. I tried not to be too annoying in my fascination with each new glimpse, after all, I was there to help Karen not make tasks take longer than necessary.

I watched how she handled the dogs, trying to memorize her economy of motion. Getting them down didn’t seem too bad…then quick as wink, it was time to start putting them back up (the bottom row). Next, it was time to start working with the top row of dogs. Hmmm, for a 5”2’ shorty, that latch is a full reach up. I discovered that I could easily undo the door, and get a good grip on the dog’s collar, provided said dog wanted to stick their head out. In the case of Snickers and Jinx, it usually takes a bit of coaxing to get them out. With the rest of the dogs it is old school, door open, grab collar, help down, firm grip on the short chain, walk them to a spot, fast/secure clip onto the truck and then step back quickly or you might get wet!

For a pet owner of only two Siberians, 22 racing athletes sure can change the appearance of white snow FAST! Fortunately, it is cold so it’s all just about frozen on impact. Scoop the poop and it’s time to put them back up. Once again, I watch Karen as she explains how you grab the collar in one hand, put your other arm under them towards the back of their rib cage, lift with your lead hand while unbending your knees to stand up, and rotate your trailing elbow up so that the dogs can use your bicep or shoulder as a platform to stand on or as a ledge to hoist off from. The dogs are good at this…usually a very physically coordinated person, this new movement is like nothing I’ve ever done before, I am not good at this, yet. By the end of the day, I have a kink in my left shoulder muscle…what’s up with that? (Ahhhh, it dawns on me, I don’t usually lift my left hand over my head pulling on the front half of a 45-55 pound moving entity).

When we arrive in Glenallen, we stop in the parking lot of the Caribou Hotel. Karen's, err, Mark's truck immediately creates a buzz with others there for the race. I quietly follow Karen, absorbing details.

Karen checks in, inquiring at the front desk if there are any rooms with two beds available…the original reservation is for Karen & Mark to share a full size bed. The place is booked solid. We get our keys and go to the room, a bit of unpacking and Karen mentions she wants to find Jamie & Ken Nelson. I make my way back to the lobby to observe and absorb the goings-on. I listen to others checking in and quickly procure a roll-away bed for our room (after all, my roll as handler is to optimize conditions for Karen, right? With limited opportunities for sleep on the agenda for the weekend, I figure a good night’s rest would be appreciated :)

The rest of the pre-race day of Friday is spent putting bedding straw in large blue bags, hauling them and the food drops to the appropriate drop off area, dropping dogs, learning where to find their food, how to prepare it, what is the drop/eating schedule. Some of my tasks as handler take on the flavor of personal assistant (remind me to…., we need to remember…., don’t forget….). I am happy to be of assistance, but fear I will forget details if I don’t start jotting down notes to myself lest I forget or confuse the details in various tasks. I fear the stigma of geek coming, but I worry over messing up more :)

In an order I don’t recall, we unpack, we eat, Karen signs in as race headquarters, we drop dogs, we go the pre-race Mushers & Handlers Meeting. The race marshal discusses rules, discusses musher time penalties if handlers fail to clean up dog areas within 30 minutes after the team leaves a checkpoints, further penalties if the handler touches the dogs or brings anything from the dog truck to the team…Karen glances my way (somewhat jokingly?) when the marshal tells the mushers he hopes they’ve chosen their handlers wisely…as a clueless rookie handler from Michigan, I smile and gulp…
The Handlers part of the meeting is over, we are asked to wait outside in the hallway at the school where the pre-race meetings and later the after race banquet is held. While I wait in the hallway with the other handlers, a local radio person approaches me to ask questions when word trickles out that 36 hours ago I was in Michigan with no plans to be there…

By the end of the first day on the job, I’ve learned that the last top box is empty on both sides for this race (so we don’t have any more “Who’s missing” moments like when I put the lone male on my side of the truck an extra empty box away from the females in heat). Before the truck moves after a dog drop, we do a safe dog check walk around to make sure that ALL dogs have been put away and none are lingering under the truck. The truck has auxiliary & independent lights for the left, right, back and front (so if you didn’t notice the gorgeous red truck in the daylight, you can’t miss it after dark :)
For our Race Day schedule we will wake up at 5am, feed the dogs, move the dog truck between 6:00-6:30 down to our designated spot as the dogs have to be in their area by 7:30am for the vets to check them over. The race begins at 10:00, after the vets are done, we will eat breakfast and then wait until it is time to harness up the dogs.

I’m still fairly wide eyed and quiet, taking it all in :)

As race time nears, Karen directs me to drop the dogs that are not racing first. After they are done, we get down the twelve that are going with her. Karen preps her sled and chats with other mushers and people who pass by. I take a few pictures, even though it is still well before the Alaskan sun will make it’s first appearance. Before I know it, it is time to harness the dogs. After a leisurely morning, the pace picks up quickly. In a flash, Karen says it is time to line out the dogs and begins calling out names. We pass each other between gangline and dog truck, I’m thankful that I know the dog names, how could one ever do this if you didn’t quickly know which dog was which?

I want to take pictures of the Pretty Sled Dog team in harness!!! But I learn a quick handler lesson – handlers handle for their team at the start line and take pictures of other teams after their team has safely left the shoot!

It is our turn to head for the starting chute, the dogs are excited but not psychotic. Into the chute and then stop, there is an announcer telling the crowd about each team and asking questions of the mushers as the arrive in the chute with their team. I look around, it is white, it is cold, the dogs are beautiful, Karen is on the runners, the start banner is overhead. I have another, “Wow, I’m here.” moment :) Then in a flash, the team and Karen are off…

Karen's team takes of led by Snickers & Dasher as Ann (in blue & gray) watches
I take pictures of Jamie Nelson’s team as they approach the start line and run down the first stretch of the race. I show my pictures to Janet (Jamie’s handler) who is pleased. We are quickly forming a bond as she is a rookie handler from the Midwest too, we react to many of the new experiences from the same viewpoint. We quickly checkout of our rooms and pile into the NorthWapiti dog truck. Janet and I are both pleased that we have Jamie’s husband Ken to drive the dog truck (rumor has it that Mark has threatened return trips in body bags for anyone damaging the truck). Ken is old school and has been to Alaska many times and turns out to be a fantastic tour guide. He is pleased that I have come to Alaska so that all he has to do is drive :)

The race has begun, we have hours in the truck before the first checkpoint. In the haste of my whirlwind adventure of last minute handler for the weekend…I ask to look at my first map of the race so I can learn, where (other than somewhere in Alaska) am I???

Ann Hernandez
Website Editor
Rookie Handler - 2006 Copper Basin 300

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