I vividly remember lying in the upstairs loft bedroom in the lovely log home of my friends Jackie and Chris Marshall reading about it in their back issues of Team and Trail magazine. I was in awe of it and the mushers that ran it.
In 1996 I tackled it for the first time. It wasn't pretty, but I finished in 4th place, I think (placings really don't matter to me, so the details have faded with time). I ran it a few more times, with varying amounts of success, the last time being in '02. I did go back in '07 (?), I believe and run a very successful Seeley Lake 200 over much of the same trails.
I've always vowed I wanted to go back. The folks around the race are fantastic and the trails, although challenging and really 'skyward bound', are incredible.
I was pretty happy at the thought of getting back this year, but when training conditions and weather proved less then perfect for my dogs, I knew the trails well enough to know that pushing the dogs was not going to be something I was interested in and I dropped down to the 100 mile race.
So, eight dogs, Bet, myself and friends Julia and Keri pointed the dog truck southward for some adventure.
I wasn't too stressed by the lack of snow on the journey down. I've done this trip a lot of times and there is rarely snow south of Calgary and in northern Montana ...
.....but when we climbed up and over the Continental Divide and into Lincoln and there was STILL NO SNOW, I will admit to some fretting.
That evening in Seeley Lake, by the time we got everyone settled in, we were all too lazy to go out for dinner, so what a fantastic surprise when a 'gift pizza' arrived at the door!! I was in such shock, I forgot to tip the delivery guy. Still feeling bad about that (it's the Canadian in me!).
The race organizers were having to pull rabbits out of their hats to get this event off the ground due to the weather. The final revision had a 6pm start time from a trail head in Seeley Lake. It was a truly less then ideal venue.
I will admit to some SERIOUS reservations as my Neos squished through the slop at the hookup area. However, one of the things I've learned over the years is not to judge the horribleness of a trail until you have seen it for yourself.
I've never done a night time start and got to admit, it was really cool. The dog's Head-Lites collars looked fantastic and I got a lot of positive feedback from officials and other mushers!
|Very cool photo of the team taking off by fellow musher Trevor Warren. .|
A few teams passed, I passed one team and repassed another over the course of the evening. It had been about 8 years since I last ran this trail and I shocked at how well I remembered it.
The first 30 miles were simply delightful - even the few miles of road with glare ice on it was 'do-able' and nothing to panic about (although it was very nice that there was a volunteer there to help us off the road and back onto the trail).
The last 8 miles into the checkpoint were alittle more challenging. It started with a few miles of gravel road that had some traffic on it. The trail crew had dragged some snow down onto the left hand side of the trail, but it is drilled into my dogs heads to run on the right side of gravel roads. I didn't feel it was right or fair to mess with their heads here, plus I was worried that if a vehicle was about to pass, they may dart to the right, thinking that that was where they were suppose to be, so I got off the runners as much as I could to minimize the damage the gravel was likely doing to the sled plastic and toughed it out.
I know it was discouraging to the dogs, so I tried to stay very upbeat with them.
When we popped off the road and into the fields the trail was pretty undefined and difficult for the dogs to sort out.
Neo was working out of his 'pay grade' and I could see him starting to doubt himself as a leader so switched Boo into lead with Missy.
I certainly regretted leaving See at home for the next 5 miles or so (See had recovered from her sore toe, but I decided to play it super safe and leave her at home) . Missy and Boo are decent leaders, but they are not in the same league as See is. I had mistakenly assumed that this trail would be pretty 'basic' for leaders, but the weather changed that.
Luckily the dogs are used to muddling their way through stuff with me in training, so when I could only marginally sink a snow hook, I could still run up front and get them moving the way I needed them too.
(BTW - have a mentioned how sweet it is to run and manage 8 dogs?)
As we were coming into the Whitetail Ranch checkpoint, I watched the headlamp of a 300 mile musher working the nasty climb and switchbacks up Huckleberry Pass. I've love to give that trail a go again one of those days - but not that day, in conditions like we were experiencing.
The dogs rolled in strong and I was having a great time.
Julia and Keri acted like veteran handlers, rather than the rookies they were. Everything I needed and asked for was there waiting. We had the dogs fed, bedded down and tended to in record time - it helped that there were no problems with them, just some preventative care and spoiling!
Julia 'dog sat' while Keri walked up to the ranch with me. Over the years the Ranch has been owned by a number of folks, all with differing levels of musher hospitality during the race. This year was top notch - flushing toilets; great food; and warm, dark place to sleep. I even scored a couch and was able to drift off for an hour and a half or so. Heaven.
We went back out 3 1/2 hours into the layover to prepare and offer another meal. This one was lighter on food, heavier on liquids. Happily, everyone ate everything.
We pulled out on schedule after our mandatory rest. Missy and Boo were back up front and both seemed more biddable after dinner and a break! Understandable - I'm much the same.
We got to experience a lovely sunrise as we worked our way back across the fields and roads.
Funny how nothing seems as bad after some good rest!
The temps warmed up fast. When the sun was out, it was pretty tough going and I used a few streams and puddles to give the dogs a nice drink.
I turned on some podcasts and just enjoyed the day and the trail with my team.
Didn't enjoy this so much, but it was actually better than the night before.
I hadn't been thinking too much about the 'race' aspect of Race to the Sky. Our season hadn't turned into much of a race season, due to training/weather, and we were just making the most of it - but about 8 or 9 miles from the finish I caught glimpse of another musher a ways ahead of me. I studied them for a bit trying to sort out who the red anorak and dark dogs belonged to and realized it was Steve Madison.
Steve and I have a bit of history - and although it was hot enough that I didn't want to push the dogs hard, I decided it would be cool to beat him.
I didn't want to pass too early, as I didn't want to give his dogs the opportunity to coast behind mine to the finish line, so I laid back and let the dogs gradually gain. I didn't think he had seen me, and as it turns out, I was right.
About three miles out, I passed, sure enough, Steve's dogs tucked pretty nice behind mine. Time for me to get to work, I poled and pedaled most of the last three miles to make sure I had enough of a lead to not be repassed at the line.
Beating him that day didn't tell much. I know he has had a rough winter. We agreed to leave our real rematch for another day! ;)
The dogs were perky and happy around the truck, which was nice to see in the heat. The girls had a meal waiting for them, as well as a latte and food for me. Sweet.
Not the 'race' I hoped for, but still a great time. And now my appetite is whetted for the real deal!!!