Saturday, 14 April 2007

April 14, 2007 Taiga 300 part I

Part I
I’m going to leave most of the pre race tales to Gwen. I know she is just dying to tell the tale of the dog truck in the ditch, so you’ll have to hold on to hear that story!

Suffice to say it was good to be back at Wolverine Lodge. Mark and I trained out of there for many weeks in ’03 and spent a few days there in ’04 and ’05 too. The Lake Louise area remains one of our favourite areas of Alaska and the memories here are all good ones.

I had a little moment dropping dogs for the first time. Snickers had very memorable habits and behaviours while traveling and it really hit me that she wasn’t here with us. Anyway, we got the dogs settled in, picked up Togo (WOW – he is the SPITTING image of his Dad) and Kluane from Mike Ellis and readied ourselves for the race.

It had been a busy day and by the time the last drop of the dogs was done, I was really looking forward to a good night's sleep. Sadly, that was not to be. The noise from the bar carried on until after 4 am – folks tramped up and down the hallway, a dog across the hall barked and doors opened and closed continuously. I woke up feeling more tired than when I went to bed. Not good.

We fed dogs, fed ourselves, dropped dogs, packed the sled, attended meetings and eventually, shortly after 11 am, hit the trail.

The team consisted of Dasher, Holly, Tess, Olena, Spider, Barq, Batdog, Odie, Hector, Herman, Charge and Crunchie. I was completely confident in them, but felt I might be a little on the weak side for ‘racing’ leaders. The fact that Dasher, Holly and Tess were all in standing heat added a whole ‘nother dimension to things too!!

Still on Lake Louise, it became apparent that my front end wasn’t a ‘push button’ front end when I had trouble getting them off a side trail and onto the main trail. I had to sink a hook and go up front to deal with the situation, but Dasher and Holly were happy to be on the main trail when I pointed it out to them.

It felt good to be out racing and I think I even let out a little ‘yee – haw’ at one point. Familiar trails, a solid team and a GORGEOUS day are definitely healing for my soul.

The miles passed easily and steadily. I only had to stop twice – once to help the leaders get off the ‘Copper Basin’ Trail we had been running on and onto the loop on Crosswinds Lake – and once when Dasher and Holly decided to beg for treats that Perry was handing out to his team (what mooches!!) – but I stopped and snacked a few times and let them take a lot of breaks to roll in the snow and cool off throughout the day. I didn’t want the heat to take too much out of them.

They finished the first leg strong and all ate with gusto back at Wolverine. However, resting wasn’t something they then felt compelled to do. That surprised me, as my team is usually one of the best behaved out there when it comes to resting in checkpoints. I guess the hormones were the big issue though, as my leaders batted their eyes and wiggled their butts at the boys. The boys were totally smitten and it took a lot of work to arrange and secure the team in a manner that would prevent any breedings.

I headed to the lodge to get some sleep. Despite finding a comfy, quiet spot upstairs on a bed, I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind was whirling and visiting all kinds of places I didn’t want to be. The lack of sleep and long days really caught up with me and I found myself stressed, strung out, near tears, and entertaining thoughts of scratching. “I’m just not ready for this”, I kept telling myself - “Too soon”. I was a mess.

I thought of calling Mark, but deep down knew that wasn’t a good idea. I knew what my issues were and I knew that being tired was making everything seem like a bigger deal than it really was. I needed to hit the trail to Maclaren Lodge – once there, finishing was really the only option – and I needed to finish this.

Finally, midnight rolled around and it was time to get going. My front end oozing estrogen, my team dogs fuelled mostly by testosterone, we attempted to leave Wolverine. It didn’t work. Finally with some help from Gwen, a fair bit of swearing and 4 leader changes, we hit the trail.

Once moving the team rolled well. I let them just move for about 5 miles and then stopped to praise everyone and make sure they were all happy. Back on the sled, I turned on my iPod and settled in for a long night run.

A bit before dawn I caught a whiff of wood smoke on the cold, night air. The trail twisted around a bend on the Tyrone River and exposed a lovely little cabin site tucked in the bend. A voice from the bank called out “Hello to the musher”. It was race organizer John Schandelmeier. I stopped, identified myself, and chatted for a moment before getting underway again.

Just as dawn was breaking we hooked up with the Big Su river. As we were told, a marked trail lead over to a cabin on the far bank that was open to mushers. I was cold and hoping mushers ahead of me had warmed up the cabin, but I could see no teams parked along the bank. A glance downriver revealed 2 teams parked along the trail a bit ahead. “Cabin or company??” I tossed the choice over in my mind, then called the team up to head towards the other teams parked ahead. The teams were Zoya DeNure, who was bundled up on top of her sled, and Becca Ross, who helped guide my team into a parking spot ahead of her. I fired up my cooker and prepared a warm meal for the dogs. They polished off every morsel. For me, the meal was a couple Toostie Pops and a bottle of water!

The dogs were paying the price for not resting back in Wolverine and slept solidly here. Phew!!
Zoya pulled out at about 9:30 and Becca and I followed shortly after 10 am. Becca and I traveled together until we hit a bit of overflow, where Dasher and Spider hit the brakes. I ended up with a GIANT tangle. The dogs saw this as an opportunity to hit on each other and I was kept very busy sorting out the mess and preventing any breedings. Despite being on a wide open river, Becca was long out of sight by the time I got underway again.

The day was warm and I took lots of breaks again to let the dogs eat snow and catch their breath. They weren’t breaking any land speed records, but they were moving well.

This entire 100-mile leg was on the river, except for 1 mile that was brushed along the bank to avoid some holes in the Maclaren River. On that portage I noticed something dark on the trail ahead. My mind finally registered it as one of the worst things a dog team can run into – a porcupine. I SLAMMED on the brakes. Luckily, the twisting and dippy trail hid the porcupine from the view of my leaders – however he was moving towards us, so that wouldn’t last. I yelled at the giant pincushion - he realized that there was danger ahead and started waddling off the trail. Unfortunately, they don’t waddle fast. I was praying for time when my swing dogs noticed Porky. The team popped the snow hook and charged down the trail. My saving grace was that my leaders really hadn’t seen the critter and weren’t sure what we were after. They shot by the porcupine before my swing dogs could pull them after him. He wasn’t more then 2 feet off the trail when we went by – that was far too close!
The rest of the run was uneventful. The trail eventually worked its way above the tree line and offered some spectacular vistas. I had caught up to and passed Mike Ellis by this time. “It finally feels like I’m sledding in Alaska”, he said in reaction to the scenery! Indeed. It was beautiful. All my issues from Wolverine had slipped away with the miles and I was just happy to be where I was.
We slipped around a bend in the river and into Maclaren Lodge.

Watch for Part 2…..

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