Saturday 20 April 2002

April 20, 2002 Beargrease Marathon 2002

As some of you might know - the Beargrease was unfinished business for us. A failed attempt in 1997 has nagged at the corners of my mind for years. Right from the beginning, the 2002 trip was much more positive then the 1997 one. The drive down was uneventful, other then the border guards confiscating my apples (and they were really good ones too! I thought it was only citrus fruit that wasn't allowed across). By Wednesday we had taken over our friend, Jamie Nelson's house and dog yard in Togo, Minnesota. Lucky thing she hadn't made it back from the Yukon Quest yet! Thursday we were able to get all the dogs out for a 20-mile run. There sure wasn't a lot of snow and both Mark and I took at least one dive onto the rough, bare trail. Nothing-other then egos were hurt.
Friday afternoon saw us heading into Duluth for the Musher's Banquet. I've trained and run with a number of mushers that were in the mid-distance and Marathon run, so it was great fun to chat and visit with everyone! When we got back to our hotel room our friend Lori Pedretti, who had graciously taken time off work to come handle for the Race met us. Lori has handled for Jamie on a number of occasions and was a tremendous help to us throughout the entire event.

Saturday brought the vet checks and Musher’s meeting - both fairly uneventful. Saturday evening we made final preparations for the Race, including selecting the 14 dogs that were to start. They were (in no particular order); Grover, Gus, Smiley, Camilla, Orion, Draco, Butch, Mannie, Oreo, Nik, Jake, and Odie. Prior to this, Mark and I had decided that this would be Jake's last race. Jake is a big, hard working boy that has never been dropped from any race we've run, but he is now getting older and seems more bothered by injuries then when he was younger. I was grateful he was healthy and happy enough to do one last race with me. Stepping up to the plate for the first time was Odie. At 2 1/2 years old he is the best of our up and coming youngsters. He beat out his Daddy, Striker for his spot on the team!

Due to lack of snow - the start of the Race was moved up to Highway 2, just outside of Two Harbors. The staging area was almost all gravel, with no snow - luckily the chute and trail seemed in good shape. Poor planning on the part of Race Organizers had a 90-degree corner at the end of the start chute. Wisely, mushers were offered the opportunity to have their handlers help them around the corner before letting go of the charged up teams. I started 8th of 16 mushers - a good spot! The dogs roared off down the trail. Usually, mine will drive REALLY hard for a few miles before settling into their 8 mph traveling speed. Their initial burst when on and on though. I rode the brake hard to keep them from burning themselves out too early. About 15 miles out, I was approaching an opening that looked like one of the numerous road crossings that the Race makes when, suddenly, there was a blast of a train whistle - very close. I slammed on my brake and pounded in my snow hook - sure enough a train burst across the trail. When I saw 3 engines, I knew I was in for a wait. We waited and waited. The dogs began to fuss and bark, they dragged the sled a few feet down the trail despite the snow hook. I prayed the train would end soon. Thankful it did and we continued on our way.

Darkness slipped over us and the dogs were still traveling very well. I caught up with Joel Kersting, who was taking it very easy with his team. Joel and I have trained together a fair amount at Jamie's place and I really enjoy his company. We matched pace with the teams side by side for a bit and visited. Joel joked that he figured I was the one team that wouldn't catch him on this first leg - I apologized with a smile and then pulled away from him. I had figured on the run taking 6 - 7 hours, so imagine my surprise when, 3 1/2 hours into the run, one of the volunteers manning a road crossing told me I was 3 miles out of Finland!!!

I had planned in advance not to stop here for any length of time, in fact I was going to turn around right as I checked in, but cold feet and a bursting bladder convinced me that I could spare a few minutes at the checkpoint. I used a bathroom (no wise female musher ever passes up the opportunity for a indoor potty break!), tossed heat packs in my boots, grabbed a few pieces of beef jerky and headed out.

The dogs left well and strong. I still had Smiley and Gus in lead. I had been warned that there were some fairly 'good' hills between Finland and Sawbill, but the dogs were moving well enough that they really didn't seem like much at all. After another 4 hours on the trail, we pulled into Sawbill ready for a bit of a break. Lori and Mark grabbed the team and steered them into a wonderful, quiet parking spot. We fed the dogs, laid out straw, and they all quickly settled down to rest. Sawbill has no real checkpoint - it is just a road crossing. Trucks were lined up and down the road with dog teams parked in the ditches beside them. No where to really hang out and it was quite cold, so I grabbed and hour or so sleep in the cab of the truck. As dawn approached we headed towards Popular Lake.

The first part of this trail had a lot of up and downs - more so then the last leg, I thought. We got to witness a really nice sunrise that morning. Lots of other teams were out on the trail. For the mid distance racers, this was their last leg of the Race, so some of them were really driving. I played around with leaders a bit and ended up with Surge and Gus up front. At one of the road crossings a couple of woman had gotten their vehicle stuck in the middle of the trail. They were quite frantic about being in our way and tried to wave me past. Dog teams don't squeeze through small spaces well. I asked them to close their car door to make more room and Surge did an admirable job of guiding the team through the gap!

The last 20 miles of trail into Popular Lake was one I had traveled during the Grand Portage Race last year. I remembered it as long and BORING - I remembered right!! When Ward Wallin passed us partway through, it woke all of us up and got the dogs moving a little better again. Despite a few little aches, the whole crew came into Popular Lake looking strong.

Popular Lake has most of the requirements for a TERRIFIC checkpoint - flushing toilets and GREAT food!! The Chapman family (daughter Ann ran the mid distance race) really put the icing on the cake by offering me a bed and shower at the cabin they had rented. I wasn't very sleepy - but I was stinky, so I took them up on the shower! That was really appreciated!

Early in the evening we woke up the team and headed out. About 1/2 hour out Robin Fisher went by. She called out 'Hi Karen - it's Robin' as she went by. That is really nice, as often it is hard to determine which musher you are meeting out on the trail at night when we are all wrapped in layers and layers of warm clothing. It's kind of funny, because mushers meeting me out on the trail at night will shine their lamps on my dogs and then call out 'Hi Karen' without even looking at me. One of the pluses of having the only purebred team out there!

The road back didn't seem as boring as on the way in - thank goodness. I got a little confused about where we turned off the trail towards Devil's Track Lake. Officials had said something about turning at the 'campground' yet I passed through a campground with no sign of a turnoff. I was fretting about that when my headlamp bulb went out. While I was fumbling around trying to swap lights in the dark, another team caught up with me. Rick Larson was kind enough to shine his lamp on me while I completed the switch. He hadn't seen a turn off either, so we both assumed we were where we needed to be. Sure enough a mile or so later we came to a road crossing. I stopped and asked about the turn off, the volunteers said this was the right campground and the turn was just ahead, then 4 miles across the lake and into the checkpoint. When we hit the lake, the dogs really started to fly. Grover, who was in lead with Oreo, loves lakes and rivers. We could see Rick ahead of us, having a little more trouble keeping his dogs on the right track! We actually passed him about 100 feet from the checkpoint! As I was checking in Mark asked where Robin was. Well, if she wasn't here she was lost, as she should have been well ahead of me. I informed the officials that they had a missing musher. (She turned up in the checkpoint about 1-1/2 hours later - having missed the turn onto the lake)

The vets checked over the dogs and all was going well. After a light meal, they all settled down for a 4-hour nap. I wandered down to the checkpoint and looked through some Iditarod standings that had been left there (next year!). Finally I crawled into the truck for a nap. I'm finally figuring out how to sleep in checkpoints and was doing such a fine job that Mark had to rouse me out of my sleeping bag.
Due, in no small part, to Grover's love of lakes, the dogs left Devil's Track very well. I started having some grand delusions about driving all 14 dogs all the way to the finish line. It wasn't long after that at all that Nik started to limp. I stopped and rubbed him down, but to no avail - eventually he ended up riding in the sled bag. Miles later Gus started to favor a leg. It wasn't as bad a Nik's and he didn't need to ride, but that 'all dogs to the finish line' goal was pretty much shot.

The hills seemed even more frequent on the way back into Sawbill then they had on the way out. I thought they would never end. Just about the point when I realized we were almost to the checkpoint - Grover started to limp. That really threw me - Grover NEVER gets hurt. I checked his feet for snowballs or some other minor problem, but this looked like a shoulder injury. DAMN.

When we pulled into Sawbill, Robin was feeding her team on the side of the trail and 3 other teams were still there, but we would be the last to leave. Lori massaged and wrapped the injuries, but it looked like a few dogs were going to have to stay behind. Sure enough, when I left, it was without Grover, Gus, and Nik. It took me a bit to snap myself out of the funk from dropping two of my favorite leaders, but a quick inventory of leaders left in the team assured me I would have no trouble getting to the finish.

The run to Finland was lovely. The sun was shining and the trail was beautiful. I don't think I even looked at my watch - I was just enjoying where I was and what I was doing!

Camilla had been limping coming into Sawbill and I made the decision to leave her behind for the last leg. Joel Kersting was due to leave 2 hours before I could (there is a mandatory 4 hour break in Finland), but he felt his dogs needed a little more rest and asked if I wanted to run with him to the finish line. That sounded fine, so just before 7 pm we both pulled the hook and left.

I had talked to the HAM radio guys before leaving and was using the manned road crossing as a guide to where in the run we were. Joel and I stopped a few times to chat and we both felt the dogs were moving very well, but yet, for some reason we were an hour longer then I expected getting to the first road crossing. After that, the dogs pace didn't seem to change much - but we were back on the schedule I had expected. I'm still lost on what happened to that hour!

Joel was just a bit ahead of me, I could see his headlamp give him away every now and again, coming into the finish line. Just before the 90-degree turn into the chute, I caught up with him waiting. I pulled up next to him and said 'HI'. "Is this the finish?", he asked. "It is", I replied. He smiled and I said "After you, Sir" and we slipped around the corner and across the line.

The dogs looked great. They barked and jumped in their lines as we were checked in and my mandatory gear was inspected. I nearly lost a few fingers when I handed out salmon snacks to them. Lori and Mark helped muscle them back to the truck, where they all polished off all food that was offered to them. That is a sign of a happy and healthy team!

All and all it was a great time. Although we were last - there was only an 11-hour gap between the first and last team. That is a very small difference over 300 miles and we were VERY pleased with the finish. This winter the team is really starting to come together as they never have before. When we began to train with Jamie, I acknowledged that we were going to take 2 steps backward, so we could eventually take 3 steps forward - this season was step forward #1 and we are very proud of that. 

Karen L. and Mark Ramstead
North Wapiti Kennels
"Pretty Sled Dogs"
Best in Show & Iditarod Finishing Siberians