Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I Should Have Listened To Crunchie...

Less then a week after the finish of the Canadian Challenge Richard and I loaded 16 dogs (a 10 dog team for me and a 6 dog team for Richard) into the truck and headed back to Saskatchewan for the Torch River Run.
Even though my team had been sick at the finish of the Challenge, everyone seemed to be recovered and happy again, so I didn't think twice about the back to back race weekends.

When we got to North Battleford to drop and feed dogs Crunchie was reluctant to come out of his box. Very unusual behavior for him. I gave him a good scratch, he wagged his tail and ate his dinner in normal Crunchie fashion, but still seemed rather out of sorts.

When we arrived in Prince Albert and dropped again, Richard walked over and asked if I thought Crunchie was feeling okay. I commented that I thought he was, but that I agreed he seemed kind of 'bummed'. "Maybe he isn't happy that we are going to be racing again", I said.
I should have listened. 

We drove up to Christopher Lake, attended the driver's meeting, fed dogs, ate dinner and generally got ready for the 6pm start time (an awesome time to start a race, if you ask me!).

At the truck getting ready Crunchie still seemed 'off'. Richard was concerned enough that he offered to drive out to the 10 mile road crossing to watch the teams go by. "Then if he doesn't look good, I can make sure someone is in Piprell Lake so you can drop him". Perfect! Thank you Richard!

But Crunchie ran fine. Again I had the thought in my head that he just wasn't happy to be racing again so soon.

Right off the bat the team seemed flat and lacking enthusiasm, but they still kept moving forward in a disciplined fashion.

I amused myself watching huge wolf tracks that were along side the trail as the night got darker and colder.

About 30 miles or so into the run I passed a trail marker that pointed straight ahead, but the 5 set of runner tracks in front of me all turned right. There was no broken trail straight ahead. I stopped and pondered the signs, eventually deciding to follow the other mushers, as a few of them were local and I figured they knew the trails.

I traveled about a 1/2 hour or so down that trail, all the time more and more convinced I was somewhere I shouldn't be before a headlamp came around the corner headed towards me. "We are all off the trail" Jim said. I turned around and joined the procession of Jim, Bob, Joel and Stefaan back to the correct trail. No one had seen sign of Jillian - turns out she lost about 2 hours, while the rest of us lost between 45 minutes and a hour and a half.

We all stopped at the next shelter cabin to consult our maps together. Stefaan and Joel opted to stay behind and camp. Jim asked me if I was camping. I was noncommittal, but the lack of straw on my sled told the true tale to anyone paying attention. "One of us can give you some straw if you want to hunker down with us", Jim said.
I smiled and said that my team would be fine camping without straw if need be. We never intended to camp!

About 10 miles later I passed Jim and Bob setting up camp at a shelter cabin. I shot them a wave as I went by.

The night got colder and colder. The team lacked the spunk they normally have running on a cold, cold night, but they were still okay.
I enjoyed looking at all the different animal tracks along the trip. Looking them up once I got home I figure some of them were lynx or maybe even cougar!!!

We rolled into Piprell Lake just passed 6am in first place. Sweet!!! I figured as long as I was over 2 hours ahead of my competition I could give them a good run for the finish line!

The dogs ate well and we all enjoyed the quiet of the checkpoint as I fed and attended to everyone - wrist wrapping a few and jacketing a number of them for their naps.

Two hours and twenty minutes after I arrived I heard the commotion of other teams arriving. =)

As I set about my 'leaving routine' I was bothered to see that the dogs appeared a little stiff and unenthusiastic when they began to stir from their naps.

Sure enough, the dogs didn't look much like a team as they left the checkpoint.  Rocket actually didn't even get on her feet until the rest of the dogs yanked on her tugline. That is very unusual for my guys.

Despite beautiful trails and scenery that I just didn't know existed in Saskatchewan, the next 44 miles were some of the slowest and most unenthusiastic I've done with a dog team in many, many years.

I switched leaders around looking for a spark, but nothing. Jinx, Rocket, Tess and See all began to limp during the run. I checked booties, I stretched out shoulders, massaged wrists and tried everything else I know how to do to straighten out dogs and get 'my' dog team back.

It became very, very obvious that I had made a serious mistake managing my team in bringing them to this race. I should have listened to Crunchie.
I mulled over my next step. Do I plod on relying on the dogs displine and training to move them slowly down the trail?? What about the 4 sore girls - all KEY leaders? Could I go on without them? Could 6 sour, leaderless dogs go another 80 miles? Was 'just finishing' this race important enough to push these honest dogs when the mistake of being there was mine?

I guess I knew the correct decision long before arriving in Lower Fishing Lake. This is a good, honest dog team and their performance was telling me very clearly that they were not up to the race. The mistake was mine. I needed to make it right with them by getting them off the trail.

The logistics of a scratch proved to be a bit challenging. Many thanks to Bart and Stefaan De Marie (who I have really enjoyed getting to know better this season), Jim Tompkins and of course, Richard for being so kind and cooperative in making stuff happen. I so appreciate it.

My apologies to my dogs - and Richard - have been said in private.We are chalking this up as a learning experience and looking ahead to the Percy in Dawson City at the end of the month now!



Barbara said...

Will look forward to following the Percy, Karen and Richard. Get some nice rest in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience on one of my races this year and put in my first scratch. I too felt it was my fault as I watched a nice little team unexpectedly fall apart and felt it was a hard learning experience. Good luck on the Percy, they'll have plenty of recovery time before then.


Nannette Morgan said...

Good luck Karen and Richard in your next race. Knowing when to do what's best for the dogs is what I so admire about you both!

Kathryn said...

It's amazing how dogs know what they know. We know we should listen to them more often, but don't. Good lesson learned, and good luck at The Percy.

Anonymous said...

That was a very touching story. I know your next race will certainly go better.
Sitka's mom

Jane Eagle said...

Most of us who are fascinated by sled dog racing are even more interested in the dogs than the race. How they work as a team, how they become such amazing atheletes, how they bond with their driver, how they are cared for, and their incredible hearts. This blog entry covers everything we love most, and is exactly why you are loved and admired by so many. This is the work of a champion, whether races are won or not. Thanks, Karen.
Blessings, Jane

Teanna Byerts said...

Great insight, especially for those of us who only run small teams for fun, or for non-mushers who don't understand the sport. It's all about listening to the dogs, not the ego of "gotta finish/gotta win!" Thanks for sharing your learning experience! Even those of who only run a couple miles on a rig or skateboard can apply this wisdom.