Sunday, 29 January 2012

2012 Don Bowers Memorial Sled Dog Race

The Don Bowers race is a very fun, low key event perfect for training rookie mushers and rookie dogs! My purpose in running it this year was to get some race experience on my 3 rookie dogs - Rocky, Boo and Smartie. I also wanted to work with a few dogs that Richard raced last year, but that hadn't been on a race with me before - Casey, Beauty, Trampie, Kelly and Astro. Rounding off the team was a few of my 'leaders, but not top leaders' - Billie, Tess and Wifi - and finally some predictable power for the hills that I know this race has - Charge, Q and Turtle.
It was tough to load the team without running back and grabbing one of my old, standby leaders, like Jinx or See or Bang or Bingo or Runner, but it was right not too. Time for me to make a leap of faith.

Two years ago Tess had a bit of a meltdown at the Ceremonial Start and Restart of Iditarod. The crowds were just too much for her, I guess and she spent the first 10 miles of Iditarod wishing she was anywhere but there.
The smaller crowds of the Don Bowers were perfect for helping her regain her confidence, so she and Billie got the 'nod' to be the leaders out of the starting chute!

With able help from Brittany (yes, THAT Brittany who is up in Alaska visiting), Ruth Ann Stitt, Jamie West, Keith Blaha and Peter Duncan (thanks to you all!!!) the team got up to the start line and off down the trail.
Tess was totally solid in lead. I noticed Peter whispering sweet nothings in her ear as we were hooking the team up. It might have been his wonderful Scottish accent that calmed her!!! (I might have to put you to work at the start of Iditarod Peter!!)

The Bowers starts on the same trail as Iditarod, part of which we have been training alot on the last few weeks, so it was a nice comfortable start.

About 10 miles in Justin Savidis's nice looking team caught up with us. We had a beautiful 'Iditarod style' pass - no stopping, no brakes used, no words to the dogs....I love passes like that. Justin turned and lifted a hand as he kept moving down the trail.

The trail was beautiful and the team moving really nicely. It was certainly cold, but I barely noticed. We rolled through the 'Nowhere' Checkpoint and I was thinking about how quick this leg was going to be when the trail went soft. For the next 20 miles we slogged through sugary, loose trail up and down some monstrous hills that are infamous to Don Bower mushers. So much for that quick leg.

At Shulin Lake we started to pass mushers camped out on the side of the trail. My decision to not take one top notch leader with me came back to bite me in the butt a bit as Billie and Tess proceeded to try to scrounge food from each parked team. HUGE thanks to all my competitors for being understanding and helpful in getting my rambunctious rookies by.
I went around a corner, found a quiet spot and pulled my team over. They ate like starving wolves when I offered them the premade meal I had in my cooker. I laid out some straw for them, which they all happily dove into, cleaned up my sled, knocked off all the coffee in my thermos, fashioned my wonderful straw bag into a makeshift tarp, put some Adele on my iPod, pulled my arms into my SkookumBrand anorak, propped my legs up on my sled (sorry Gabi - no walls!!) and closed my eyes. Very nice.
Occasionally teams would start to bark as mushers finished up their breaks and hit the trail again but the dogs were resting well and none of us did anymore then crack our eyes open to watch dog teams roll by.
It was such a comfortable spot that I ended up not getting moving again till close to 3 hours after our arrival. Oh well, the extra hour rest wouldn't hurt any of us.

The next 25 miles was back to lovely, packed trail again and the dogs moved accordingly till Hal Morgan's barking dog lot told us we were approaching Morgan's cabin checkpoint. We checked in and checked out.
The next leg of the race was new and it was reported to be anywhere from 17 - 22 miles. I think it was actually closer to 25. It seemed to go on forever through cold swamps but eventually we pulled into Kirshner's warm and inviting homestead which would be our 'home' for the next 6 hours.
Local boyscouts directed with military like direction from Beth Wheeler buzzed around with buckets of water, our drop bags, our straw...whatever we needed. Very appreciated!!
I bedded down the dogs and got the cooker going to give them a nice warm meal which they all devoured. Once they were settled and my area organized it was up to the house for a delicious bowl of stew for me, coffee and glass after glass of water.
There was a tent for mushers to sleep in, but it wasn't heated and since I know I can do a 200 mile race without sleeping, so I decided not to bother with dragging out my sleeping bag.

I was due to leave at 10:30am, so alittle after 8 I gave the dogs a 'soup' of chicken, Energy pack and water. That's also a good time to watch them all get up and move around and make sure their are no injuries cropping up after some rest. With the exception of Charge, who had a bit of an upset stomach going into the race, everyone ate and looked good. Charge ate enough that I wasn't worried, but did give him some extra pampering - who doesn't love to be spoiled by their 'Mom' when they aren't feeling 100%???

When we went to leave at 10:30 the dogs were less then keen. I was missing my 'checkpoint' leaders (dogs that will always get up and lead a team out of a checkpoint). The vet offered to go walk in front of my leaders. I thanked her but said they needed to learn do do it on their own. I walked up front and chatted with Tess and Billie and this time they went. Not with any great amount of enthusiasm, but I knew that would come back once they got rolling and worked the 'kinks' out.

The first 15 miles or so was alot of stop and go as everyone took turns relieving themselves and I put a few booties on here and there. Everytime I'd walk back to the sled Casey was screaming to go, so I moved her into Billie's position in lead.
Holy Cow - she was driving and scrambling down the trail. I thought the enthusiasm might die down after a bit, but not so. If this was her 'interview' for an Iditarod lead dog position, it secured her the job.
In and out of Morgan's cabin and onto Oil Well Road (Thanks so much for the bottle of Tang - it totally hit the spot!!). It was a pretty nice afternoon - cold, but clear with a bit of a breeze. Denali looms over the trail up in this neck of the woods and I got to see some lovely vantages of it.

Just before Shulin Lake I passed Gerry Sousa and Tamara Rose camped with their teams. I like Tamara a lot and stopped to chat with her. Her run wasn't going great and she feared she would have to carry two dogs in her sled bag for the last 55 miles of the race. I sure felt for her.

The big debate on this race is always whether or not to try a 'straight through' 100 mile run to the finish or break it into 2 - 50 mile runs with a break in the middle. If you break it up, your team speed will be faster, but you have 'lost' your rest time to your competitors, if you go straight through your overall traveling time is likely to be slower.
I have always done this race as a 50-50-100 but I always waffle on it up to the last moment. This time was no different. I knew for my overall training it was good to get that long push on the team in a race but when I saw Tamara camped there, I was sorely tempted to camp with her, but I kicked myself in the butt and stayed on my race plan.

I've crossed Shulin Lake many times over the years, but never in the daylight as it was this trip. I knew the Shulin Lake Lodge was there, as it is always lit up when we go by, but I didn't realize all the nice little cabins that dot the shores of the lake. I glanced over my shoulder at one point and caught my breath at the sight of Denali and Mt Foraker with the lake in the foreground. What a tremendous view - very memorable.

I was prepared for another 25 miles of 'slogging' on the way home, but the trail had 'set up' nicely and it was a pretty good run through the hills and canyons. After passing Gerry and Tamara I had been in 2nd place, but I was fairly certain Gerry's team would catch me in the 55 miles to the finish.  Sure enough, about 10 miles from the Nowhere checkpoint Gerry's seemingly impossibly bright headlamp lit up the night (for those of you that will be asking, I think it was one of the Lupine lights that Ken Anderson or Underdog feeds is carrying. Too pricey for this dog musher, but very impressive).

As impressive as Gerry's headlamp was the night sky. The sliver of moon was framed by the planets of Jupiter and Venus - and billions of stars twinkled away. Off to the south the city lights of Anchorage glowed red. I'm usually not a big fan of the glow of city lights, but, I think because everything around it is so black, the city glow of Anchorage is actually very pretty. Despite the fact that the temperature kept dropping and things were being to be very cold, it was a great night to be out and about.

Eventually Casey's inexperience on a run of this length was beginning to show. I wanted this to be a positive experience for her, so I swapped her and Wiffie out. I thought it was appropriate that he lead me across the finish line, as the last time we did this race he was in my sled bag at that point.

The dogs picked up when we hit the Corral Hill Trail. They knew we were headed 'home'. This year the race was supposed to end at Eagle Quest Lodge, so I was watching for the turnoff, but didn't see it. I had even stopped a few times and checked out a few turnoffs, but with all the markers around for a variety of events and races in the area, nothing seemed right. When I got to Vera Lake, I was certain I had missed the turn. Cell phones are allowed on this race, so I pulled out mine, powered it up and called Donna, who was at Eagle Quest waiting for me. "Where are you?", I asked "At Eagle Quest", she said. "Hmmm", I said, "That's where I'm trying to go".
Long story short, but race officials said they would come out and check markers and I turned my team around. The team was NOT IMPRESSED with this turn of events. Aft er a VERY long run we were at the intersection of two trails they KNEW headed to either their truck or their dog houses and I wanted them to turn around. They are good dogs though and they did what was asked of them, not with tremendous enthusiasm, but they did it, and moved steady back down the trail. I was very proud of them for that.
On they way back I had a head on pass with Tamara, who had missed the turnoff too. She turned her team around and followed me into the finish.

I had told Donna that if I was too late, she could just leave the dog truck at the finish for me - but to my JOY both she and Keith were waiting at the finish for me. I was tired and cold and very, very grateful for the help!! Thank you so much, you two!!!

The dogs were fed, unharness and put away. All the gear was gathered and thrown in the truck. We had a bowl of yummy soup at the Lodge and headed home.
On the way home we had two separate incidents with moose jumping out in front of us - but yet, on the 200 miles of trail I saw not one moose. Thank goodness, as that was the thing I had been most worried about prior to the race. I'm glad I didn't let my fear get the best of me and do something foolish like not run!

My thanks to all the wonderful volunteers that make this race possible; to Donna, Keith, Brittany, Ruth Ann, Peter, and Jamie; to 'Bet' for keeping the blog and FB page updated; but mostly to my amazing dogs - my respect and love for them never decreases. They are the most amazing creatures I know!

Photo by Donna Quante/Husky Productions



Mike Criss said...

Thanks for sharing Karen, always interesting to hear stories from the trail.

Kathryn said...

Glad to hear that it was a good experience for all the young dogs and hope that Charge feels better soon.

Anonymous said...

Dear Billie, I am so proud of you and the rest of the North Wapiti team! I hope to see you up in Alaska!

Karen said...

Karen, because you live in such a different world than I live in, I absolutely love reading anything you write about the dog mushing life and your races. I've also read and reread your past accounts of your Iditarod races. Thank you so much for taking the time to give such a detailed account of your race.
BTW, I wholeheartedly agree that your sled dogs ARE pretty.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to the Musher, her wonderful dogs and her handlers!