Saturday, 23 December 2006

December 23, 2006 Karen's 2006 Sheep Mountain 150

I must admit that in the days prior to leaving for Alaska for the Sheep Mountain race, I had some trepidation. Maybe driving 3 days for a race was insane - even by my rather warped standards.

However, once the truck was packed and we were underway, the routine clicked into place and I knew we were making a solid move for the team.

Our drive from Fort Nelson to Whitehorse threw a bit of everything at us. From heavy snow to dense fog to bright blue sky - we saw it all. Wildlife was plentiful with moose, elk, and caribou all making us slow down or stop at one time or another.

The Yukon welcomed us back with an amazing display of northern lights as it got dark. Much of the time we were feeding dogs just outside of Teslin, our eyes were cranked upwards! Greens, pinks and even a bit of red moving in rapid waves - gorgeous!!

The dogs, for the most part, traveled very well. You have to know that when we drove up to Lac La Biche to run, Watt and Charge were making such a fuss in their boxes as we drove down the road that cows stopped grazing to stare as we went by - not a word of a lie! So, we were prepared for the worst on this drive! However, the boys were remarkably well behaved. Odie is the one that has been shhhh'd' the most on this drive. Someone needs to give that dog a wake up call and remind him how old he is - but it's not going to be me!

We arrived at Sheep Mountain Lodge late on Friday evening. The warm welcome from a number of mushers instantly made me feel I was back where I belong - surrounded by like-minded folks where everything revolves around DOGS!

Zack Steer's cheerful staff got us all checked into one of their lovely new cabins. I think that cabin rates as one of the nicest rooms I've ever stayed in - and I've stayed in some pretty swanky places in my day!

We were the first mushers up and tending to dogs in the morning. We enjoyed the dark, quiet morning knowing that everything would be noisy and jumping in the parking lot soon.

I lingered over breakfast, mainly do to my interesting dining companions - Mark Nordman and Hans Gatt.

The morning flew by with meetings, race preparations and the arrival of Jamie
and Donna. How good it was to see them again. Soon enough I was standing at the
starting line behind -

One of the great things about the Sheep Mt race is that it is put on by mushers, for mushers. Pretty much all the race officials are mushers themselves, so they know what's what. I was chatting with head timer/Iditarod finisher, Bryan Bearass about the showers in Ruby while waiting for my countdown, when I glanced down at my sled and realized that I had hooked my snow hooks up to my sled wrong. Damn! Bryan asked if I wanted to attempt to fix it in the moments I had left, but it wasn't something that was going to put the team at any risk, so it was just going to have to wait. What a bonehead, rookie mistake!!!

We were off. Sure enough, right out of the start chute I was fighting my snow hook lines that kept slipping under my runner. I was happy to finally get onto the straight trail on the old highway and let the dogs stretch out and blow off a bit of steam. Just before the trail headed into the backcountry, I stopped to see if I could fix my hook lines, but it wasn't a job I could do safely on the trail. The problem was that I had neglected to feed the lines through the hole in the front of my sled, instead hooking them straight to the carabineer. That meant that they were free to slip under the runners of the sled, creating drag and affecting the steering.

We banged and crashed through the tussocks and rough trail. Although I stayed on my runners, neither the dogs nor I were having an enjoyable time. The dogs missed a well-marked corner and wouldn't come back onto the main trail. When I went up front to pull them back, I used a spare neckline to 'McGyvor' my snow hook lines. That seemed to work and the dogs and I took a couple deep breaths and settled into the business of running, rather then struggling with the sled.

We were moving along nicely, and I was really enjoying the handling of my new Gatt Sled (which steers like NOTHING I've ever driven before - even my other Gatt sleds), even so a number of other teams caught and passed us. No sweat, we were here to do our own thing and that's what we were going to do.

The trail detoured off of last years route and up and over Turtle Mt - I believe it was called. It was a tough climb and the reward at the top was a lovely view, once we were out of the ice fog that had enveloped us much of the morning.

We slide down the mountain and twisted and turned through the valley on the other side. There was a bit of overflow ice, but nothing to write home about.
At one point the trail swung left and then dropped down onto an icy patch with a patch of open water in the middle. Another team was on the far side getting reorganized, my team headed straight for them and I was heading straight for the hole. My attempts to convince my sled to swing left just put me on my side and I hit the water runners and feet first. Luckily, the dogs kept pulling strongly and I was quickly out, though my boot and legs were definitely wet.

I stopped right behind the other team. Moments later Jessica Hendricks drug across the water on her stomach and came to a stop beside me. Poor thing, she got much wetter then I did. Another musher was dragged into the pile up before the front team got straightened away and we all got moving.

A couple miles later, Lance Mackey's well-oiled 'machine' of a dog team powered by us. I would have been surprised if he hadn't won this race.

We continued to wind and snake through mountain valleys as daylight slipped away. I stopped and put The Amazing Kara in lead with Hilda. The team strongly drove up over the last big climb of this leg, past the '4 Corners' road signs (out in the middle of nowhere) and down towards Eureka.

We spit out onto a lake and I was surprised to see a dog team 'right in front' of us. Then I remembered that Zack had warned that they had skirted the trail around one of the big lakes to up the mileage of this leg, so in reality, I was about 1/2 mile behind that team, even though they were only a couple hundred feet from me. Oh well!

A race judge was out there on a snow machine to make sure no one was cheating and cutting across the lake! He greeted me warmly by name as my team passed by. Everyone can always tell who I am, even in the dark because of my dogs!

Alittle later then I had hoped, but with the dogs still looking strong and spunky, we pulled into Eureka for our first mandatory layover.

Jamie and Donna were on hand to help me get parked. It was nice to have friends to visit with as I went about my chores. The first thing I did after the dogs were fed and bedded down was to properly reattach my snow hook lines to my sled. It was a relief to have that mistake behind me!

The dogs were all on their straw, but few were actually lying down - they were all sitting up staring at me. I headed up to the lodge, knowing they would finally settle down if I were out of sight.

I had been in about an hour when Zack Steer popped by to mention that Mark wasn't in yet and to ask if I was worried. I wasn't, so he wasn't - however when another 45 minutes or so had gone by, I confessed I was getting concerned.

I have every faith in my husband's abilities on a dog sled, but I've been around long enough to know that often things out of your control can go wrong out on the trail.

It was a huge relief when fellow musher, Michael Salvisberg came over to tell me Mark was in.

I tossed on my parka and still damp boots to head out to check on him and the team. All 13 of them were in good spirits.

Weird things had indeed happened to Mark, but he kept his head and made good solid decisions that were in his and the dogs best interest. I was very proud of him.

So much for sleeping, it was time to soup the dogs again. They all inhaled their soup and looked expectantly at me for more. I told them they were going to have to do some more running before they got to eat again.

Just before I was ready to leave another musher came by looking for a headlamp bulb. Hers had blown and she hadn't packed another one for the race. I always have all kinds of spare bulbs, batteries and headlamps on a race - I learned that one as this young woman was - the hard way! I gave her another and told her that I was leaving just a few minutes behind her, so if she had any further problems to stop and wait for me.

Finally it was time to leave. The dogs had lots of energy, but Kara wasn't too interested in leaving her straw bed. She twice attempted to head back to the straw before resigning herself to heading out into the night. That's my little

Once we got by all the straw piles and onto the trail the team began to click. I have to say that that run gelled into one of the nicest runs - a lovely night, a strong dog team and a fun trail. That's about as close to heaven as I know.

Kara and Hilda were stars. They powered up even the steepest of climbs and zipped along the trails through the woods.

I never even bothered with my iPod, we just 'danced' down the trail to the music of the night.

Sure enough the team in front of me again had headlamp troubles and I came across them in the dark. I gave her a new bulb and a backup. We ran together for a bit before my team pulled away from her young dogs.

About 10 miles from Eureka I blew a headlamp bulb. I quickly switched headlamps and kept going. Six miles from Eureka I blew yet another! Go figure. I had to fumble around in my sled bag for a while to locate my backup backup headlight (I try not to change bulbs on the trail unless I have to). Maybe giving away 3 of those darn bulbs wasn't the smartest move! Oh well, only 6 miles to go and then my next run would be almost all daylight.

Coming back across the lake into Eureka I called up the team and they moved readily into a solid lope. (Donna Q told me that Mark's team, which was in the dog truck at the checkpoint, started to howl moments before I pulled in. I'm assuming they heard me call up my team!).

Jamie had kindly raked up all my straw into a long skinny pile while I was gone, so I just pulled the dogs into their parking spot and they all were able to immediately bed themselves down.

They ate like starving wolves and then sat and stared at me. I expected them to be more tired - they were at this point last year. I wasn't sure this boded well for the last leg. I was worried they weren't getting enough rest.

I left them alone to settle down and headed up to the lodge with all my headlamps in tow. Time to swap bulbs and toss all the blown ones.

I had a huge omelet once the kitchen opened - too huge actually. I was uncomfortably stuffed after eating it.

Again, I just wasn't up to sleeping. Really going 24 hours without sleep isn't a big deal for me.

I was right ready to go when my time was up. In fact, the dogs and I were all up and raring to go long before our 5 hours were up.

I had decided that Hilda had earned a break and put Snickers up front with Kara for the last leg.

Jamie and some volunteers came by to lead my team over to the starter. Despite both my feet on the brake, the team blew off the help and charged up to the checkers on their own.

They were much more jazzed for the leg home then last year and I fretted over whether this meant we were going to have a good run or not. I was worried they would peter out over that last 50 miles if they left really strong. Our usually pattern is to start slow and finish strong.

On the count they charged out of the checkpoint and back towards Sheep Mt. I pleaded with them for a while to ease up a bit, but finally figured - what the heck - and just enjoyed the ride.

Kara set a blistering pace around the lake and loped the team up the start of most of the hills, but eventually began to back off some. I stopped and tossed Dasher up front with Snicks. I looked Kara over for problems, but could find none. She was keeping up with the team, but not contributing. I worked over the puzzle in my mind as we moved along. Finally, I remembered much the same thing had happened to her last year on this race and booties had helped. I stopped and bootied all 4 of her feet. In typical Kara ritual, she took 2 steps, wiggled her whole body and then bounced forward into her harness. Within about 2 miles I had my little leader back out in front of the team and we were loping up hills

The last leg passed by remarkably quickly. It seemed like much less then 5 hours when we pulled onto the stretch of old highway that is the beginning of the homestretch.

The dogs sailed across the finish line and pulled to a stop with smiles and wagging tails. Bryan asked if I wanted help to my truck and I declined. "Go to the truck Kara" I asked after I was checked in and off we went.

Overall, I have nothing but good things to say about the team. Kara, of course, was the star of the group, but I was also very pleased with Hilda's leadership. Barq did his first race ever with me and I have nothing but great things to say about him. We are now reaping the rewards of our patience with him over the years! Waiting for him to 'grow up' is really paying off!

'Youngsters', Q and Jinx did a great job too. Out of the veterans, I was most pleased with Herman, who was in tremendous form for all 150 miles, although I have nothing bad to say about any of the dogs on this race!

Definitely a weekend worth the drive!


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