The race was the Goose Bay 120, which I had previously run in ’00 and ’01. It’s a nice little trip from the Tug Bar (“Where the Pavement Ends and the Fun Begins” on Knik Goose Bay Road) to Luce’s Roadhouse (5 miles before Yentna Station on the Yentna River), a mandatory 8-hour layover and then back.
As the dogs really think we are doing big, close to 100-mile runs every time we hit the Yentna River, I thought this race would be great to help their attitudes in harness. See, with all the racing we have done up to this point, the dogs are now in terrific physical condition – now the trick is to boost up their egos so their minds are as tough as their bodies.
I also wanted an opportunity to race Barq, Q and Jinx. Mark had really been pleased with them on Knik, but I wanted to see for myself what they were like in a race situation.
Jamie West entered her team in this race to help get them ready for her upcoming Serum Run. So, Saturday morning we loaded the 2 teams and all the assorted gear into our truck and headed to the Race. Doug Grilliot was gracious enough to stop by and handle for Jamie and I for the start – and as a special treat; Hoppy strapped a NEOS over his cast and came along for the ride too!
My team for this was Snickers and Kara; Olena and Hilda; Nahanni and Jinx; Surge and Loki; Moses and Q; Barq and Skor.
Fifteen teams showed up to race – and finally we were going to be racing against some other Siberian teams – not only does Jamie West’s team consist of mostly Siberians, Wayne Curtis had a team entered too!
The run out was to Luce’s was a solid one – nothing flashy, but a good solid performance by the team. We were passed by a number of teams and passed 2 (including Wayne) on the trip out, coming into the checkpoint in 11th position.
I know Kara was very pleasantly surprised when I called a ‘Gee’ into the roadhouse. She’s passed by that place a zillion times in training and racing and never stopped there, so it was a real treat for her and the rest of the team.
We settled into our checkpoint routine with all the dogs inhaling every bit of food offered to them (you all know how happy that makes me).
I always talk about ‘my checkpoint routine’ but don’t know that I’ve ever described it, so here goes.
After signing into a checkpoint, usually a volunteer will help steer the team into an appropriate parking spot. With my team at least, this is done with a fair amount of struggling and a little bit of swearing – as my dogs always seem to want to pick their own parking spots, or check out what snacks the other dogs might have not eaten. I always make a point to apologize for the team and thank the checkers for their help because of it.
Immediately, I’ll dig my small ‘leader hook’ out of my sled bag and secure the gangline just in front of the swing dogs to ensure the dogs don’t bother each other or the dogs parked near them (parking spots can be very close in checkpoints).
On the way back to my sled, I will stop and remove any booties that might be on the dogs. It is very important this be done as soon as possible after you stop, so you don’t cut off circulation to the feet while the dogs are resting. Lucky for me, my dogs rarely wear booties, so this only ever takes a minute. On this race, none of the dogs wore booties.
I then dig a bag of snacks (usually fish or lamb sausage) out of my sled bag and snack the dogs. Not only is this a nice little ‘good dog’ pat on the back to them for the run in, it gives a good indication if everyone is feeling happy and healthy – any dog that doesn’t take it’s snack is probably going to require extra attention because they aren’t feeling 100%. My dogs all devoured their snacks at Luce’s and tried to convince me to find more for them!
Usually on big races, like Iditarod, this is when the vets will come over and check over the team. I will take a few minutes to discuss any concerns or problems with them.
I’ll then usually take a second to get me supplies together and do a quick organization of my area. For races like Iditarod that means gathering my drop bags, but for this race everything was carried in the sled, so it was all right there. On the very top of my drop bag (or in my sled bag if there are no drops) is a bag with my return mailbag and a garbage bag – one is tied to either side of my sled. On this race, there is no garbage drop or return bags – we must carry everything out with us, but the theory of being organized is the same.
The dogs are still hooked up in harness, usually standing staring at me, ‘cause they know what is next. I pull out a bag of kibble, measure out each dog’s individual serving and feed it directly in front of each dog in the snow.
While they are finishing up the crumbs, I will go find our bale of straw and drag it over to the team. I’ll put down a nice bed of straw right in front of their noses, then undo their tugline so they can move forward onto it. When the straw is all divided up and everyone is more or less settled, I will head back to the sled and work on heating water up. On the Goose Bay, they were kind enough to haul water down from Luce’s roadhouse, so it only required a couple bottles of HEET and a bit of time to warm up the water. If we have to melt snow, it can take quite a while to get enough warm water ready to feed the whole team.
While that is heating, I will dig around to find my personal supplies and throw a bottle of Gatorade and some juice packs into the cooker pot to thaw. I’ll pull out the dog food cooler and empty a bag of cut up chicken and some Energy Pack Fat supplement into there. If we are going to be at the checkpoint for a good long rest, like on this race, I will toss at bit of extra Eagle Ultra kibble into the cooler.
This is also a good time to put jackets on any dogs that might need them, apply foot ointment and such – not something any of mine required this time though.
Once the water is hot, I’ll pour it into the cooler and let everything sit for a few minutes. Then I add enough water or snow to cool it down to dog eating temperature, drag out the bowls and go through and offer everyone water.
When everyone is finished eating, I will go through and gather bowls (cause mine will eat the bowls if I leave them with them), taking time to snuggle and give everyone some one on one attention.
If I have to feed myself in the checkpoint – not necessary this time – I will start my meal thawing in my cooker pot, then I go through the dogs dealing with any issues that may require attention. This is the time to check feet, apply wrist wraps, shoulder jackets, etc, etc. This is also when I would consult with a vet if I have any questions.
There were no vets in the checkpoint on this race and we had no issues anyway.
At this point the dogs usually know it is time to rest and will settle down into the straw, although most keep a half eye on me as long as I’m down around the sled.
So I will quietly and quickly sort out my gear and organize my area before getting away from the team. I think this is key – my dogs will be aware of my presence around the sled and watching for cues as to when we are leaving, when the next meal or snack is coming, etc, if I’m down around the sled. If I leave the area, they know we are here for a good, long rest. Of course, it takes training to ensure that they settle down and behave when you leave, but I spend a lot of time working on that in the fall and my dogs are very good about it.
I can usually get all this done in well under and hour – and sure enough, I found myself up at Luce’s lodge munching on a hamburger within an hour of arriving in the checkpoint. The next couple of hours were spent chatting, eating, drinking and thawing. At 11pm they closed the lodge for the night and we all trudged back down to the river.
I went down to check on my dogs. I took a few minutes to walk through and give scratches and get kisses from the team before heading over to the ‘sort of’ heated tent that was available to the mushers. Let me tell you, 20 or so people crowded into small tent (many of them snorers) on a cold night on the Yentna river does not a pleasant place to sleep make, but I at least got an hour and a half of down time.
At 12:45 I went out and started melting snow for another light meal for the dogs. At just about 1:30am I fed them all a broth of chicken and Energy Pack. Everyone devoured the offering. I collected bowls, gave out more scratches and back rubs. Then it was time to repack my sled. By 2am, except for a very few odds and ends, the sled was ready to roll.
I went back to the now quiet (as the front runners were already leaving) tent and got a little bit more downtime, but still no sleep – it was too cold.
At around 2:30 I walked back out to the team. Some of the dogs were sitting up watching the other teams leave, most were still lying down, but with their heads raised looking around and watching for me. A good sign they were recharged and ready to roll.
I went through and played with everyone, looking for any signs of soreness or stiffness – I found none. I put new batteries in my iPod, found a spare battery pack for my headlamp, put on an extra layer of clothing and took the leader hook off Kara and Snickers and stowed it in the sled.
I was free from my mandatory layover at 3:21am, so around 10 after, I began getting the dogs on their feet and doing up tuglines. Most scooted off their straw and peed, they shook, wiggled and stretched. The checker counted us down like in a starting chute and the dogs blasted out of the checkpoint and back into the night.
As I had hoped, the dog’s spirits were really lifted by the shorter then they expect run and nice long rest at Luce’s. They were moving great.
I had left for the finish line in 11th position with one team 15 minutes ahead of me and another 25 minutes ahead of me. I honestly didn’t expect to see either of them, but about a half hour in, I spotted a headlamp ahead of me on the river. Hmmm, 10th place sounded much better then 11th – the chase was on.
Mushers are a crafty bunch and most don’t like giving away their position with their headlamp by glancing over their shoulder too often, but every now and again throughout the night I’d catch a glimpse of that headlight in front of me and knew I was closing the gap.
A little over 10 miles from the finish, I caught and passed Scott Purkey. Almost immediately after the pass, my dogs caught wind of something in the woods and picked up their speed. I was sort of expecting it, but it was still startling when the bushes exploded right in front of my leaders and a huge moose burst across the trail. Luckily, he crossed and kept going into the woods on the other side, but we did the next bit of trail at breakneck speed. When we spit out onto a lake, I was surprised to catch a glimpse of yet another headlight on the other side. Ninth sounded even better then 10th and I whistled up the team.
At the road crossing about 2 mile from the finish I moved into 9th spot. That team liked to chase and hung close on my heels for a long way. I had to really encourage and drive my team to stay ahead. The dogs responded well and by the time I caught sight of the finish line I was sure my lead would hold and I was right.
We signed in and the dogs headed for their truck. Mark and Harry were there to greet us. Watching Snickers reaction when she realized the guy at the front of the truck was her Dad was the highlight of the race for me. As soon as it clicked with her, both ends of her body started wiggling simultaneously. She sure loves Mark. Lucky she isn’t too big a dog and she didn’t knock him off his crutches when she crawled half way up his body for snuggles – which he was more then happy to give her.
So we finished in 9th place at 9:13 am – making our time 1 minute short of 20 hours! Wayne Curtis finished at 10:37 in 13th place and Jamie in 14th place at 11:40.
Once again, I finished with all 12 dogs I started with. I don’t know if you all have noticed, but I have run 4 races so far this winter and have not had to drop ONE dog in any of them – nor have I had to load a dog in the bag during any of these races! I am very, very proud of this.
Well, that will be it for racing until Iditarod for this year! Bring it on!!