Tuesday 28 February 2006

February 28, 2006 Vet Visits

Last week the dogs went in for their bloodwork and EKGs - everyone checked out fine. Today it was into Dr. Baetsle at the Big Lake Clinic for individual health checks. Again, everyone checked out fine. Tomorrow I have to have the 'pool' whittled down to 20 - I guess this is what I get paid the 'big bucks' for! (HA!)

I have actually just filled out the official '2006 Iditarod Dog Microchip Identification Sheet' with 20 names. It was a tough chore, but really I don't think there were any 'wrong' decisions here.
I'll give you the Top Twenty List below and just because I have nothing better to do (HA!) I thought I'd dazzle you all with some statistics.

So (in ALPHABETICAL ORDER) here goes -

The 2 missing from that list are Iditarod veterans, Hilda and Nahanni.

Hilda just came into season (a little unexpectedly actually) and after dealing with hormonal 'in season' girls all winter, I just can't see myself putting up with the disruption of the team for another 1100 miles.
Nahanni just has really bad luck. Last year she was having a fantastic season, but was sidelined due to a mild shoulder injury. This year she is injury free, but being a little behind in miles after having her litter late this summer, she just isn't having her best season.

And now for the fascinating, but basically meaningless statistics -
The youngest dogs in the Top Twenty are Jinx and Q at 2 years of age. The oldest is Draco at 8. The average age of the team is 4 ½. There are 7 girls and 13 boys. 

There are 6 rookies and 14 veterans of Iditarod.

The average weight of the team is 48.5 lbs. The heaviest being Draco at 62 lbs (the heaviest of his career - he's been trying to convince me that 'it was all fur' - obviously he was lying * vbg *) The lightest is little Jinx at 38 lbs. 

The 7 girls average weight is 43 lbs. - the heaviest of them at 45 lbs, is Kara. 

The average weight of the boys is 52 lbs - with the lightest of them being Batdog at 47 lbs - who interestingly enough is definitely not the smallest of the males.

All right, the eyes are getting heavy and we have an early morning tomorrow, so I'm off to bed.


Monday 27 February 2006

February 27, 2006 Rookie Handler (Round II)

With less than a week to go before the start of Iditarod 2006, it's all business as we get ready for the start of the big event. I thought I'd take the opportunity to do a diary entry and fill you in on life with the NorthWapiti kids.

Last week the temperatures were above zero and with little snow, the ground was pretty much a skating rink, particularly the dog yard. While the Olympics were on, Karen and I joked that the dogs had taken up a new Olympic sport - dog dish curling. The ice in the dog yard left it hard to find a safe place to securely land a metal feeding dish. The feeding routine involves Karen dropping dishes of kibble and me coming along behind and filling the dishes with "soup" which is a mixture of meat (beef or chicken), supplements and water. Karen and I feed the Ramstead woofs twice a day - Karen drops the dishes with kibble while I follow behind and pour soup over the kibble. With the ice, the filled dishes often take off sailing down a bump while the dogs watch on in disbelief . Some of the little darlings like to spill their soup-filled bowls onto the ground then lick up the mixture out of the snow. Snickers and Jinx (yes girls, I'm naming names), are the most skilled at this and despite efforts to keep an eye on them, they always manage to find a split second when we aren't looking and the dish is upside down with a sea of soup spilled into the snow. They look very innocent when we inquire as to how the dish landed upside down.

A couple of hours after feeding, Karen and I head out and hook up a team. Once they are on their way, I "shovel the yard" (transition scoop poop), spend some time with the dogs and do various chores.

Everyone in the yard gets a massage and hugs as I make my way around the yard with my trusty scooper shovel in hand. Junior gets my vote as the best hugger, although Karen assures me Draco is the King in that department. Draco and Surge are the "veterans" in the yard and have been reserved about the amount of attention they pay to the "rookie". It is my mission before I leave on March 6 to convince them that I am worthy of their approval. I have a lot of work ahead of me!!!

Junior and Q have been renamed Heath and Jake, the characters in the Broke Back Mountain movie. They are neighbors and spend hours playing together - I'll leave the rest to your imagination.
Q has been renamed Q-tip. While I was visiting with him one day he proceeded to remove my hat and clean my ears. It occurred to me that I wouldn't need to use a Q-tip, and then I thought hey maybe that is what inspired Karen to name him Q.

I could go on and on about each dog, but there aren't enough hours in the day. Each one has their own unique personality and his their little quirks that make them who they are. It is clear that a lot of time and attention has gone into making these dogs happy, well adjusted members of the Ramstead family. They are always happy to see humans and more than willing to take any attention you give them.

I am having a blast and can't believe we have less than a week before the start of Iditarod. This morning we are off to Wasilla for vet checks, so it will be a busy morning. I have been keeping my own little diary so I will be able to remember all of the details when I get back to Saskatchewan. I'll be sure to send more bits as time allows.

Colleen Hovind (aka "the rookie")

February 27, 2006 Getting Busy

It’s 7:30 am. Colleen comes up to the house just before 8 so we can get out and feed, Harry got home from Kansas last night, but is off work today and is sleeping in, as is Mark, as is Samantha… and I’m sitting around drinking a cup of coffee and enjoying my last quiet morning before the start of Iditarod.
See starting tomorrow morning things get very busy around here.

Tomorrow we have to have the team in Big Lake by 9:30 for their vet checks. That means feeding at around 6:30, loading dogs at 8:30 and out the door by 9. Once home I will run one or two teams in the afternoon.

Wednesday morning is worse – we have to have the dogs over at Susan Whiton’s for their pre race ‘adjustments’ by 8am. It seems silly to load and drive dogs a quarter mile, but it is easier for Susan to work in her own clinic, so it must be done.

Again, once home we will try to squeeze a run in on the dogs, but I do have an appointment in Anchorage (for my own ‘adjustment’) at 5:30pm.

Wednesday night Colleen is in charge of dog care, while Mark and I spend the night in the city. The last two years it has stormed the night before the Driver’s Meeting and this ensures I will be on time for the meeting. They fine driver’s that miss the first roll call!

Thursday is, of course, Driver’s Meetings and the Banquet in the evening.

Back home Thursday night and up early Friday morning to get ready for the Open House, which starts at 10am. After everyone leaves at 2pm, we will sneak the dogs out for one final pre race run.

Saturday morning it is up early and into town for the Ceremonial Start – and Sunday up early for the real deal.

So forgive me if I’m sitting with my feet up this morning – it is probably the last opportunity I will have until I get to Nome!


Sunday 26 February 2006

February 26, 2006 Must Play

All work and no play makes EVERYONE – even Iditarod mushers a week before the start of the Race – dull. So on Friday, Mark, Colleen and I hooked up with our old ‘landlady’, Nancy Black (Darren is off on the Serum Run – this time as a snowmachiner) and headed out to Settler’s Bay for dinner. What a meal! Mark opted for prime rib, which he raved about – but personally I don’t often order steaks in areas I’ve never seen a single cow in (I am an Albertan, afterall. It is hard for anywhere to do beef better then it is done at home.) The rest of us went for pan braised Halibut, stuffed with crab and a salad with a blueberry vinaigrette. How Alaskan – how delicious!! My mouth waters now just remembering it! 

After dinner it was downstairs to hear Hobo Jim (www.hobojim.com) play – and play he did. Most of you know him only for his ‘I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail song’, but Mark and I have been fans of his down home, Alaska flavored music for a number of years. Some of you may remember that last year at the pre Race Banquet in Anchorage, Hobo Jim found me and gave me a copy of his latest CD after I mentioned having everything from ‘J.Lo to Hobo Jim’ in my iPod player to a reporter on the trail in ’04. (Link above to cited ADN article, pdf version for future archival use).

Anyway, Hobo put on a very entertaining 4 hour set. In fact, as entertaining as any act I’ve seen anywhere. My goodness that man can play a guitar. I would highly, highly recommend the show to any of you that have the opportunity to see him.

Yesterday morning as Colleen and I were finishing up feeding, a single snowflake drifted out of the sky and landed on my jacket. I got excited and rushed over to Colleen to show her. My run on Friday was so rough and icy; I was planning on cutting team sizes down to 7’s and 8’s from the 10’s I’d been running.

We stopped and talked to Erin McLaren, Jamie’s neighbour and Colleen’s landlady and by the time we were headed back to the house, at least a ¼ of snow was already on the ground. Throughout the morning and well into the afternoon flakes continued to fall.

We walked Odie over to Dream a Dream Dog Farm (www.vernhalter.com) for Susan Whiton to take a look at a weird lump the techs had discovered on his leg when we were in for bloodwork. I also had thought I was seeing an occasional limp on Ode’s front and wanted to get that checked out.

All the news looks pretty positive. Susan could find no injury in the front end, just a minor groin pull on his back left and the lump, although still admittedly weird, don’t look dangerous. We will get Dr. Baetsle to give it another look Tuesday when the team goes in for their vet checks, but Susan doesn’t think it is anything that will stop him from heading to Nome.

Once back home I picked out a 10-dog team and asked Colleen if she would like to go for a ride. With over 3 inches of fresh snow on the ground now, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t kill her on the out trail, like I tried with Ann earlier this season.

By the time the team loped onto Steven’s Lake, the snow was letting up and the sun had worked it’s way through the clouds. Not one other team had been out on the trails, so we were traveling along through unbroken snow as we were treated to a lovely sunset.

The dogs were having a fabulous time too – and on the way home, when we hit a downhill grade they cracked 20 mph on the GPS. That’s moving, by any dog team’s standards.

Everyone had a grin on his or her face when we pulled back into the yard just as dusk was settling in.

Good times!

Saturday 25 February 2006

February 25, 2006 Rookie Lessons

“Handler for this weekend - Due to Mark's broken ankle, I am looking for someone that could handle for me for the Copper Basin Race this weekend.
We would need to leave early this Friday morning and be home sometime on Wednesday.  Responsibilities would including driving the truck from checkpoint to checkpoint, raking and cleaning up my camping spots in checkpoints and caring for dropped dogs.” - email from Karen to NorthWapiti News Group, January 11, 2006.

I never thought checking for last minute website updates from Karen before the weekend’s race would have such a dramatic effect on my plans for the weekend!!!

After a few calls and some emails, I seized the moment, threw some clothes into a suitcase and headed for Anchorage. When I arrived at the Lake Louise hotel in Wasilla, I was still running on adrenaline, but knew that I needed to get as much sleep as I could. I had been warned that I would not get much sleep during the race. I was surprised that the room was way too warm at first (having prepared myself that all things Alaskan would be COLD). I tucked myself in and fell asleep with a huge smile on my face. I was a bit worried that the lack of sleep from my all night packing would catch up with me and I would oversleep. Alas, my son called me at 7AM to say “Hi” and to tell me to have fun. But it was 7:00am in Michigan, 3am in Alaska.

I fidgeted in bed for a few more hours, anticipating my adventure…

Karen arrived as planned, sometime around 9am. “The” dogs were now oh, so close, but with hours of driving ahead of us, I knew it was not time to meet any of them yet. I stashed my bags (one large suitcase and a backpack) in the truck and off we went. I really had no clue where we were going…somewhere East…it was not my responsibility to know “where”, so it was not my concern. I was “THERE”, if only for a weekend, a PART of Team NorthWapiti (in person J

We drove for hours and I reveled in the opportunity to ask questions and listen to stories. Then it was time to drop the dogs. As Karen pulled onto one of the many turn offs on the long, two lane highway, I told myself it was time to start learning and earning (learning what was needed and earning my keep).
Karen opened up one of the many doors on the back area of the dog truck and got out a bunch of short chains. I was told that end with the “clip” went on each dog’s collar, the other end goes to the tie out spots. The chains would stay on the dogs from then until we were back in the dogyard (except for removing them from the dogs in the race just before they are hitched up to the sled at race time).
NOW. Now is the moment I had been waiting for…can you remember the feeling of Christmas morning as a child, the moment before you get the go ahead to start opening the wrapped presents?

The anticipation…

I stood next to the red maple leaf doors and wondered who was behind Door #1. Karen opened the door, and there was …. I’m amazed that in hindsight, I don’t remember who I saw first. But I recognized him. Then the next one, open, clip, drop, clip…it’s “ “. Again, I don’t recall who came out next, but one after another, the doors opened and I “KNEW” the dog that looked out. I tried not to be too annoying in my fascination with each new glimpse, after all, I was there to help Karen not make tasks take longer than necessary.

I watched how she handled the dogs, trying to memorize her economy of motion. Getting them down didn’t seem too bad…then quick as wink, it was time to start putting them back up (the bottom row). Next, it was time to start working with the top row of dogs. Hmmm, for a 5”2’ shorty, that latch is a full reach up. I discovered that I could easily undo the door, and get a good grip on the dog’s collar, provided said dog wanted to stick their head out. In the case of Snickers and Jinx, it usually takes a bit of coaxing to get them out. With the rest of the dogs it is old school, door open, grab collar, help down, firm grip on the short chain, walk them to a spot, fast/secure clip onto the truck and then step back quickly or you might get wet!

For a pet owner of only two Siberians, 22 racing athletes sure can change the appearance of white snow FAST! Fortunately, it is cold so it’s all just about frozen on impact. Scoop the poop and it’s time to put them back up. Once again, I watch Karen as she explains how you grab the collar in one hand, put your other arm under them towards the back of their rib cage, lift with your lead hand while unbending your knees to stand up, and rotate your trailing elbow up so that the dogs can use your bicep or shoulder as a platform to stand on or as a ledge to hoist off from. The dogs are good at this…usually a very physically coordinated person, this new movement is like nothing I’ve ever done before, I am not good at this, yet. By the end of the day, I have a kink in my left shoulder muscle…what’s up with that? (Ahhhh, it dawns on me, I don’t usually lift my left hand over my head pulling on the front half of a 45-55 pound moving entity).

When we arrive in Glenallen, we stop in the parking lot of the Caribou Hotel. Karen's, err, Mark's truck immediately creates a buzz with others there for the race. I quietly follow Karen, absorbing details.

Karen checks in, inquiring at the front desk if there are any rooms with two beds available…the original reservation is for Karen & Mark to share a full size bed. The place is booked solid. We get our keys and go to the room, a bit of unpacking and Karen mentions she wants to find Jamie & Ken Nelson. I make my way back to the lobby to observe and absorb the goings-on. I listen to others checking in and quickly procure a roll-away bed for our room (after all, my roll as handler is to optimize conditions for Karen, right? With limited opportunities for sleep on the agenda for the weekend, I figure a good night’s rest would be appreciated :)

The rest of the pre-race day of Friday is spent putting bedding straw in large blue bags, hauling them and the food drops to the appropriate drop off area, dropping dogs, learning where to find their food, how to prepare it, what is the drop/eating schedule. Some of my tasks as handler take on the flavor of personal assistant (remind me to…., we need to remember…., don’t forget….). I am happy to be of assistance, but fear I will forget details if I don’t start jotting down notes to myself lest I forget or confuse the details in various tasks. I fear the stigma of geek coming, but I worry over messing up more :)

In an order I don’t recall, we unpack, we eat, Karen signs in as race headquarters, we drop dogs, we go the pre-race Mushers & Handlers Meeting. The race marshal discusses rules, discusses musher time penalties if handlers fail to clean up dog areas within 30 minutes after the team leaves a checkpoints, further penalties if the handler touches the dogs or brings anything from the dog truck to the team…Karen glances my way (somewhat jokingly?) when the marshal tells the mushers he hopes they’ve chosen their handlers wisely…as a clueless rookie handler from Michigan, I smile and gulp…
The Handlers part of the meeting is over, we are asked to wait outside in the hallway at the school where the pre-race meetings and later the after race banquet is held. While I wait in the hallway with the other handlers, a local radio person approaches me to ask questions when word trickles out that 36 hours ago I was in Michigan with no plans to be there…

By the end of the first day on the job, I’ve learned that the last top box is empty on both sides for this race (so we don’t have any more “Who’s missing” moments like when I put the lone male on my side of the truck an extra empty box away from the females in heat). Before the truck moves after a dog drop, we do a safe dog check walk around to make sure that ALL dogs have been put away and none are lingering under the truck. The truck has auxiliary & independent lights for the left, right, back and front (so if you didn’t notice the gorgeous red truck in the daylight, you can’t miss it after dark :)
For our Race Day schedule we will wake up at 5am, feed the dogs, move the dog truck between 6:00-6:30 down to our designated spot as the dogs have to be in their area by 7:30am for the vets to check them over. The race begins at 10:00, after the vets are done, we will eat breakfast and then wait until it is time to harness up the dogs.

I’m still fairly wide eyed and quiet, taking it all in :)

As race time nears, Karen directs me to drop the dogs that are not racing first. After they are done, we get down the twelve that are going with her. Karen preps her sled and chats with other mushers and people who pass by. I take a few pictures, even though it is still well before the Alaskan sun will make it’s first appearance. Before I know it, it is time to harness the dogs. After a leisurely morning, the pace picks up quickly. In a flash, Karen says it is time to line out the dogs and begins calling out names. We pass each other between gangline and dog truck, I’m thankful that I know the dog names, how could one ever do this if you didn’t quickly know which dog was which?

I want to take pictures of the Pretty Sled Dog team in harness!!! But I learn a quick handler lesson – handlers handle for their team at the start line and take pictures of other teams after their team has safely left the shoot!

It is our turn to head for the starting chute, the dogs are excited but not psychotic. Into the chute and then stop, there is an announcer telling the crowd about each team and asking questions of the mushers as the arrive in the chute with their team. I look around, it is white, it is cold, the dogs are beautiful, Karen is on the runners, the start banner is overhead. I have another, “Wow, I’m here.” moment :) Then in a flash, the team and Karen are off…

Karen's team takes of led by Snickers & Dasher as Ann (in blue & gray) watches
I take pictures of Jamie Nelson’s team as they approach the start line and run down the first stretch of the race. I show my pictures to Janet (Jamie’s handler) who is pleased. We are quickly forming a bond as she is a rookie handler from the Midwest too, we react to many of the new experiences from the same viewpoint. We quickly checkout of our rooms and pile into the NorthWapiti dog truck. Janet and I are both pleased that we have Jamie’s husband Ken to drive the dog truck (rumor has it that Mark has threatened return trips in body bags for anyone damaging the truck). Ken is old school and has been to Alaska many times and turns out to be a fantastic tour guide. He is pleased that I have come to Alaska so that all he has to do is drive :)

The race has begun, we have hours in the truck before the first checkpoint. In the haste of my whirlwind adventure of last minute handler for the weekend…I ask to look at my first map of the race so I can learn, where (other than somewhere in Alaska) am I???

Ann Hernandez
Website Editor
Rookie Handler - 2006 Copper Basin 300

Thursday 23 February 2006

February 23, 2006 Peaks and Valleys

I’ve talked over the years in my diary entries about how training is filled with peaks and valleys in terms of the dog’s attitudes. It seems a fairly routine part of a distance dog’s training to have ‘slumps’ in the training. My experience is that if you ride out a ‘slump’ with patience and perseverance, you will be richly paid off with a stronger team in the end. You work, work, work…then things level out or even slump for a while, and then make a jump up to a next level.

In a perfect world, your big race will be shortly after one of those big jumps. Most mushers have formulas and/or theories on how to bring a team to it’s peak immediately before or in the early stages of a long distance race, but personally I feel luck has it’s fingers in the pot too.

Anyway, where am I going with all this? Well, my team seems to have been going through a bit of an extended slump this season. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m very, very pleased with the team this year. They have been knocking off runs consistently through this season that would have had me delirious with joy 2 or 3 years ago, but on both Sheep Mt and Knik there was an edge there that was just plain fun to be behind – and one that I seem to have been missing since then.

Then in the last few weeks I’ve been seeing little glimmers of that ‘edge’ reappearing. The second leg of the Goose Bay race …the other day when I took Moses out in single lead…just glimpses here and there of what I was seeing earlier in the season. Not even that these runs were significantly faster then other runs, but there was a spark and energy to the run that was special.

Then came yesterday.

The trails here are certainly on the icy side – and the worse part is pretty much the trail out of my dog lot, so I’ve been taking out smaller teams (10 dogs) and putting fairly level headed leaders up front to keep things more sane. So yesterday Colleen helped me hook up Dasher and Kara; Junior and Batdog; Moses and Herman; Olena and Skor; Nahanni and Sprite – and off we went.

Dasher - Kara
Junior - Batdog
Moses - Herman
Olena - Skor 
Nahanni - Sprite

As soon as I was able to pry my foot off the drag and lift my head from my prayers, I shot a glance up front to see if that was really Kara and Dasher that took off out of the yard like their tails were on fire. Indeed it was. I hadn’t seen those two shoot out of the yard like that in a while. As the sled skittered over ice, a bit of bare tundra and the odd bit of snow, I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or terrified. I settled on a bit of both.
Photo by
Theresa Daily

Copper Basin 2006 - Dasher is the left lead here and & Kara (black) is behind her.
Two miles out we were about to crest a small hill when Kara’s ears shot forward into ‘huntress’ mode. Sure enough, over the backside of the hill stood a moose. He took one look at 10 crazed huskies and one mostly terrified musher bearing down on him and headed for the woods. We thundered by and down the trail. 

For the next 10 miles or so I gave no corrections, no encouragement, and only the odd quiet command. The crazed tone had subsided – but all head and tails where down, and tuglines tight. When asked to ‘whoa’, they did so immediately and completely. Heck I didn’t even have to put my foot on the brake, but they were on their feet and off like a shot when called up again. They waited calmly while I gave some directions to a Jr. Iditarod musher and his Mom that were training out of Norris’s yard and again when I waited to make sure the two got off Stephen’s Lake at the right spot.

By the time I hit Windy Lake I was rewording classic rock tunes – “My dog team’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble….Hey-la-day-la…my dogteam’s back” (of course to the tune of “My boyfriend’s back”). (Cue the Music! and read on by minimizing the pop up window)

Then it hit me – this was too good a run. At 19 miles I decided to make the turn for home, rather then tempt the fates by adding another 10 miles.

We pulled into the yard strongly. I was grinning ear to ear and the leaders were doing ‘4 in the air’ leaps for their snacks.

Still humming, Colleen and I put the team away.

Now, I don’t really know what all this means. Does it mean maybe we are about to make that big bounce to the ‘next level’?? Maybe – maybe not. Honestly, I don’t care. If there is one thing this winter has taught me it is that what will be, will be. All the fretting, worrying and fussing in the world won’t change anything – so often the best plan is to work hard, stay positive – and SING. So, join me if you will….


(Original lyrics)

Monday 20 February 2006

February 20, 2006 Cudos Rigs

I've often been asked about the 'Cudos' patches that appear on my racing sled bag and parka, so I prodded Cudos owner, Andrew Grisbrooke to tells us alittle about this UK company that has been gracious enough to sponsor us for the last two years.

Make sure to follow the link and get an eye full of the rigs these guys make. Who knows, with the recent weather conditions, I may be loading up a Cudos rig for the trip to Nome one year soon!!

Cudos Rigs Limited manufactures equipment for Dry Land Sled Dog racing and training. The Company, based in the United Kingdom, is run by Andrew Grisbrooke (Azgard) and Daniel Storey ( Qonos ) who both enjoy competitive racing with Siberian Huskies.

Cudos Rigs are keen sponsors of Sled Dog activities. “Our policy is that it doesn’t matter if its dryland or snow, sprint or distance, purebred or not – the sport is with Sled Dogs and anything that enhances the enjoyment of the sport and the welfare of the dogs is a good thing”.

The Cudos Rig is widely recognized as the best Dry Land Racing Rig in the world, Steven Lindsay the World Dry Land Champion used a Cudos Rig to reclaim his 2005 title. Steven said, “ the Cudos Rig is by far the best rig I have ever used, the stability and handling at these top race speeds is amazing, nothing comes close in comparison” http://www.dogsportscotland.com/ 

The Cudos Rig is manufactured from highly polished rust resistant 316 Stainless Steel and uses the torsion bar principle to provide a strong yet flexible frame. The weight distribution is near perfect enabling the musher to corner at high speed and even slide the rig round tight turns with no fear of tipping it over. Cudosrigs web site http://www.cudosrigs.co.uk/ has testimonials from the top dryland mushers in the world.

Cudos also manufacture a purpose made Scooter for Sled Dogs.

Competitive Dry Land racers need top equipment to be in the points, recently a UK musher borrowed a Cudos Rig on the second day of a race and improved his time by over 20% compared to the first day on his old rig. Needless to say he ordered one from the finish line!

The Rigs, designed by Dan, were perfected over a 6 year period. Quite often Dan faces the skeptic who says
“I don’t trust that single axle design” – his stock answer is “ Well you trust the wheels not to fall off your car don’t you! “

Friday 17 February 2006

February 17, 2006 Serum Run

Sorry I've been so quiet lately - we have been very busy finishing up drop bags - which were turned over to ITC (Iditarod Trail Committee) yesterday *phew* Colleen, a friend from Craven, Saskatchewan, showed up yesterday to help out until the start of the Race, so I should be able to find the time to get out a few more diaries entries.

In the meantime though, I wanted to point you all towards the Serum Run website. It is a close to 800 mile trip from Nennana to Nome, following the route of the original Serum Run.  This year, as many of you know, Jamie West (friend and landlady extraordinaire) will be participating with her dog team (which includes former NorthWapiti dog Atigun) She leaves for Nenanna on Saturday and the event starts on Sunday. You can follow it online - as we all will be doing from the house here.

KarenIditaRider2005.jpg (68790 bytes)
Jamie on the runners with Karen at the 2005 Iditarod Ceremonial Start

I'm sure you all want to join me in wishing Jamie a safe and enjoyable trip. She has worked very hard getting ready for this and we are sure it will be a fantastic adventure!

Stay warm Jamie - and don't forget to take a moment everyday to reflect in awe of the amazing men that traveled that very trail in 1923 to save lives in Nome. Giving them the respect and admiration they so richly deserve should keep the spirits that live out there happy to see you passing!

And BTW - party at the West/Banks house Sunday night! EVERYONE welcome!!! (Just kidding Jamie - we will take great care of the place - honest!)


Tuesday 14 February 2006

February 14, 2006 Many Thanks

Many thanks to all of you that have taken the time to write and express your relief that I wasn't out on the Quest trail attempting to cross Eagle Summit on Sunday night.

(But, I will say, watching my husband struggle around on crutches and battle to manage his pain - and knowing the long road to complete recovery he has ahead of him - I would have much rather spent a night on a mountain in a blizzard.)

I think this is a good reminder for all about what the sport of long distance racing is all about. Too many equate the sport with only the start and restart images of smiling mushers moving swiftly down the street, waving for the fans and cameras. Many get lured into the sport by those images and then find the reality of distance racing to be something totally different.  The reality is long, cold nights with very few, if any other folks around, as you and your team battle against Mother Nature.  It is tough and it is dangerous. You have not only yourself to think of - but 10 - 16 other lives. You rely on each other to get through it all, but in the end, it is you that must put the dog's care and well being above even your own.
That is why so many of us get concerned when we see 'folks' coming up through the ranks of qualifying races that seem to not grasp this reality. They are stuck on the starts and finishes, when it is the 'guts' of it all that should be what they are focusing on.

Prior to my first Iditarod, I spent time learning CPR (canine and human) and wilderness first aid, I spent hundreds of hours in the bush and thousands of hours behind a dog team. What I was working on was the knowledge and skills that would get my dog team and I, not down the streets of Anchorage, but over the top of a summit in a blizzard. If things go wrong in Anchorage, there are hundreds of people there to help you out - if things go wrong in that blizzard - probably it is just you.  All these smaller races over the years throw little challenges at me that allow me to further hone those skills. I'm not saying I'm a Master of the Wilderness - but I'm strong, capable, and level headed out on the trail.  Certainly, there are those storms out there that are above each of our skill level - I'm not foolish enough to think that I can outwit Mother Nature at every turn - but, the mushers I most respect are the ones that knew their and their dogs abilities and choose to go out and test them - Libby Riddles, Rick Swenson, and Martin Buser to name a few.

I admire each of the mushers that headed out towards Eagle Summit in that storm on Sunday night. They knew it wasn't going to be fun and no TV cameras would be standing on the backside of the summit ready to record their moments of victory, but yet, they went forward. They were willing to test themselves.  The storm they met turned out to be beyond any of their abilities, but it is a testament to their skills and good judgment that all mushers and dogs emerged from it yesterday in good condition.
As for me - well, I am a dyed in the wool dog musher - I can't help but wonder if that storm was beyond my skill level or not. I guess we will never know now.


Monday 6 February 2006

February 6, 2006 2006 Goose Bay 120

This weekend we kind of ‘snuck in’ a race. I didn’t say anything ahead of time because with my cold (which yes, I still have) I wasn’t entirely sure I was racing until the last minute – and they don’t really have a website or anything, so you couldn’t have followed it anyway.

The race was the Goose Bay 120, which I had previously run in ’00 and ’01. It’s a nice little trip from the Tug Bar (“Where the Pavement Ends and the Fun Begins” on Knik Goose Bay Road) to Luce’s Roadhouse (5 miles before Yentna Station on the Yentna River), a mandatory 8-hour layover and then back.

As the dogs really think we are doing big, close to 100-mile runs every time we hit the Yentna River, I thought this race would be great to help their attitudes in harness. See, with all the racing we have done up to this point, the dogs are now in terrific physical condition – now the trick is to boost up their egos so their minds are as tough as their bodies.

I also wanted an opportunity to race Barq, Q and Jinx. Mark had really been pleased with them on Knik, but I wanted to see for myself what they were like in a race situation.

Jamie West entered her team in this race to help get them ready for her upcoming Serum Run. So, Saturday morning we loaded the 2 teams and all the assorted gear into our truck and headed to the Race. Doug Grilliot was gracious enough to stop by and handle for Jamie and I for the start – and as a special treat; Hoppy strapped a NEOS over his cast and came along for the ride too!
My team for this was Snickers and Kara; Olena and Hilda; Nahanni and Jinx; Surge and Loki; Moses and Q; Barq and Skor.

Fifteen teams showed up to race – and finally we were going to be racing against some other Siberian teams – not only does Jamie West’s team consist of mostly Siberians, Wayne Curtis had a team entered too!

The run out was to Luce’s was a solid one – nothing flashy, but a good solid performance by the team. We were passed by a number of teams and passed 2 (including Wayne) on the trip out, coming into the checkpoint in 11th position.

I know Kara was very pleasantly surprised when I called a ‘Gee’ into the roadhouse. She’s passed by that place a zillion times in training and racing and never stopped there, so it was a real treat for her and the rest of the team.

We settled into our checkpoint routine with all the dogs inhaling every bit of food offered to them (you all know how happy that makes me).

I always talk about ‘my checkpoint routine’ but don’t know that I’ve ever described it, so here goes.
After signing into a checkpoint, usually a volunteer will help steer the team into an appropriate parking spot. With my team at least, this is done with a fair amount of struggling and a little bit of swearing – as my dogs always seem to want to pick their own parking spots, or check out what snacks the other dogs might have not eaten. I always make a point to apologize for the team and thank the checkers for their help because of it.

Immediately, I’ll dig my small ‘leader hook’ out of my sled bag and secure the gangline just in front of the swing dogs to ensure the dogs don’t bother each other or the dogs parked near them (parking spots can be very close in checkpoints).

On the way back to my sled, I will stop and remove any booties that might be on the dogs. It is very important this be done as soon as possible after you stop, so you don’t cut off circulation to the feet while the dogs are resting. Lucky for me, my dogs rarely wear booties, so this only ever takes a minute. On this race, none of the dogs wore booties.

I then dig a bag of snacks (usually fish or lamb sausage) out of my sled bag and snack the dogs. Not only is this a nice little ‘good dog’ pat on the back to them for the run in, it gives a good indication if everyone is feeling happy and healthy – any dog that doesn’t take it’s snack is probably going to require extra attention because they aren’t feeling 100%. My dogs all devoured their snacks at Luce’s and tried to convince me to find more for them!

Usually on big races, like Iditarod, this is when the vets will come over and check over the team. I will take a few minutes to discuss any concerns or problems with them.

I’ll then usually take a second to get me supplies together and do a quick organization of my area. For races like Iditarod that means gathering my drop bags, but for this race everything was carried in the sled, so it was all right there. On the very top of my drop bag (or in my sled bag if there are no drops) is a bag with my return mailbag and a garbage bag – one is tied to either side of my sled. On this race, there is no garbage drop or return bags – we must carry everything out with us, but the theory of being organized is the same.

The dogs are still hooked up in harness, usually standing staring at me, ‘cause they know what is next. I pull out a bag of kibble, measure out each dog’s individual serving and feed it directly in front of each dog in the snow.

While they are finishing up the crumbs, I will go find our bale of straw and drag it over to the team. I’ll put down a nice bed of straw right in front of their noses, then undo their tugline so they can move forward onto it. When the straw is all divided up and everyone is more or less settled, I will head back to the sled and work on heating water up. On the Goose Bay, they were kind enough to haul water down from Luce’s roadhouse, so it only required a couple bottles of HEET and a bit of time to warm up the water. If we have to melt snow, it can take quite a while to get enough warm water ready to feed the whole team.

While that is heating, I will dig around to find my personal supplies and throw a bottle of Gatorade and some juice packs into the cooker pot to thaw. I’ll pull out the dog food cooler and empty a bag of cut up chicken and some Energy Pack Fat supplement into there. If we are going to be at the checkpoint for a good long rest, like on this race, I will toss at bit of extra Eagle Ultra kibble into the cooler.
This is also a good time to put jackets on any dogs that might need them, apply foot ointment and such – not something any of mine required this time though.

Once the water is hot, I’ll pour it into the cooler and let everything sit for a few minutes. Then I add enough water or snow to cool it down to dog eating temperature, drag out the bowls and go through and offer everyone water.

When everyone is finished eating, I will go through and gather bowls (cause mine will eat the bowls if I leave them with them), taking time to snuggle and give everyone some one on one attention.
If I have to feed myself in the checkpoint – not necessary this time – I will start my meal thawing in my cooker pot, then I go through the dogs dealing with any issues that may require attention. This is the time to check feet, apply wrist wraps, shoulder jackets, etc, etc. This is also when I would consult with a vet if I have any questions.

There were no vets in the checkpoint on this race and we had no issues anyway.

At this point the dogs usually know it is time to rest and will settle down into the straw, although most keep a half eye on me as long as I’m down around the sled.

So I will quietly and quickly sort out my gear and organize my area before getting away from the team. I think this is key – my dogs will be aware of my presence around the sled and watching for cues as to when we are leaving, when the next meal or snack is coming, etc, if I’m down around the sled. If I leave the area, they know we are here for a good, long rest. Of course, it takes training to ensure that they settle down and behave when you leave, but I spend a lot of time working on that in the fall and my dogs are very good about it.

I can usually get all this done in well under and hour – and sure enough, I found myself up at Luce’s lodge munching on a hamburger within an hour of arriving in the checkpoint. The next couple of hours were spent chatting, eating, drinking and thawing. At 11pm they closed the lodge for the night and we all trudged back down to the river.

I went down to check on my dogs. I took a few minutes to walk through and give scratches and get kisses from the team before heading over to the ‘sort of’ heated tent that was available to the mushers. Let me tell you, 20 or so people crowded into small tent (many of them snorers) on a cold night on the Yentna river does not a pleasant place to sleep make, but I at least got an hour and a half of down time.
At 12:45 I went out and started melting snow for another light meal for the dogs. At just about 1:30am I fed them all a broth of chicken and Energy Pack. Everyone devoured the offering. I collected bowls, gave out more scratches and back rubs. Then it was time to repack my sled. By 2am, except for a very few odds and ends, the sled was ready to roll.

I went back to the now quiet (as the front runners were already leaving) tent and got a little bit more downtime, but still no sleep – it was too cold.

At around 2:30 I walked back out to the team. Some of the dogs were sitting up watching the other teams leave, most were still lying down, but with their heads raised looking around and watching for me. A good sign they were recharged and ready to roll.

I went through and played with everyone, looking for any signs of soreness or stiffness – I found none. I put new batteries in my iPod, found a spare battery pack for my headlamp, put on an extra layer of clothing and took the leader hook off Kara and Snickers and stowed it in the sled.

I was free from my mandatory layover at 3:21am, so around 10 after, I began getting the dogs on their feet and doing up tuglines. Most scooted off their straw and peed, they shook, wiggled and stretched. The checker counted us down like in a starting chute and the dogs blasted out of the checkpoint and back into the night.

As I had hoped, the dog’s spirits were really lifted by the shorter then they expect run and nice long rest at Luce’s. They were moving great.

I had left for the finish line in 11th position with one team 15 minutes ahead of me and another 25 minutes ahead of me. I honestly didn’t expect to see either of them, but about a half hour in, I spotted a headlamp ahead of me on the river. Hmmm, 10th place sounded much better then 11th – the chase was on.

Mushers are a crafty bunch and most don’t like giving away their position with their headlamp by glancing over their shoulder too often, but every now and again throughout the night I’d catch a glimpse of that headlight in front of me and knew I was closing the gap.

A little over 10 miles from the finish, I caught and passed Scott Purkey. Almost immediately after the pass, my dogs caught wind of something in the woods and picked up their speed. I was sort of expecting it, but it was still startling when the bushes exploded right in front of my leaders and a huge moose burst across the trail. Luckily, he crossed and kept going into the woods on the other side, but we did the next bit of trail at breakneck speed. When we spit out onto a lake, I was surprised to catch a glimpse of yet another headlight on the other side. Ninth sounded even better then 10th and I whistled up the team.

At the road crossing about 2 mile from the finish I moved into 9th spot. That team liked to chase and hung close on my heels for a long way. I had to really encourage and drive my team to stay ahead. The dogs responded well and by the time I caught sight of the finish line I was sure my lead would hold and I was right.

We signed in and the dogs headed for their truck. Mark and Harry were there to greet us. Watching Snickers reaction when she realized the guy at the front of the truck was her Dad was the highlight of the race for me. As soon as it clicked with her, both ends of her body started wiggling simultaneously. She sure loves Mark. Lucky she isn’t too big a dog and she didn’t knock him off his crutches when she crawled half way up his body for snuggles – which he was more then happy to give her.

So we finished in 9th place at 9:13 am – making our time 1 minute short of 20 hours! Wayne Curtis finished at 10:37 in 13th place and Jamie in 14th place at 11:40.

Once again, I finished with all 12 dogs I started with. I don’t know if you all have noticed, but I have run 4 races so far this winter and have not had to drop ONE dog in any of them – nor have I had to load a dog in the bag during any of these races! I am very, very proud of this.

Well, that will be it for racing until Iditarod for this year! Bring it on!!

Thursday 2 February 2006

February 2, 2006 2006 Copper Basin 300

In the days prior to Copper Basin the big questions didn’t revolve around which dogs to take to the race, but rather whether to go at all. I finally boiled it all down to two things that had to be done before I would go to Glennallen – Mark had to be out of the hospital and settled in at Jamie’s and I had to find a handler.

Wednesday brought resolution to both those issues when Mark got out of the hospital and my website manager, Ann Hernandez called up and offered to be my handler. Now, I must say, I was hesitant to say ‘yes’ to kind Ann’s offer, as I figured handling wasn’t nearly as glamorous as she thought it would be, but after she reassured me that she had a free flight available to her from Michigan to Alaska and that she was KEEN – how could I say ‘no’?

Jamie Nelson further sealed the deal by suggesting we run together – which not only made things much easier for Ann – but freed me from having to put thought into a ‘race plan’.

So, on Friday morning I loaded up all the dogs (although the race only allows 12, the other 10 had to come along, as Mark couldn’t care for them and I didn’t want to burden Jamie West with them). I will admit, I was already sleep deprived going into the race (due to Knik, my time at the hospital and sleeping next to a very restless patient on Wednesday and Thursday) and was really questioning the wisdom of my decision to go.

Ann was pretty bubbly for the drive up, being that it was her first trip to Alaska and all – and her enthusiasm was infectious.

When we got to Glenallen the bustle of pre-race took over. Jamie Nelson was there – and it was great to see her after almost a year. We cemented our race plans; I picked out a team, went over procedures with Ann and otherwise got ready to go.

Saturday morning was clear and COLD. It quickly became obvious that the weatherfolks predictions about cold temps for the weekend were going to be true (rare with weatherfolks, in my experience). I hummed and hawed about which combinations of liners and parkas to wear on the Race, finally settling (very wisely, it turned out – I was never really cold) on my Northern Outfitters Prima Loft liner with my big Cabelas Trans Alaska Anorak (I have 2 sizes – one is nice with just polar fleece layers underneath and I train in that till temps in the 0º F range and one bigger one that fits over anything!). 
I had left my Bunny Boots (which is what I wanted to wear on the race) sitting next to the back door at Jamie’s, so my footwear would be my Lobben felt boots with my NEOS over top (also turned out to be a good choice). 

Gear up and ready for the worst, we hooked up the dogs – Snickers and Dasher in lead; Kara and Sprite in swing; Jr, Batdog, Skor, Crunchie, Loki and Odie in team; Hector and Herman in wheel. Now, I don’t think I picked my team as wisely as I did my clothing, but I’ll get into that later!

Karen's Team

NorthWapiti's Snickers

Ch. NorthWapiti's Dasher

Ch. NorthWapiti's Valkyrie Kara

NorthWapiti's Sprite

NorthWapiti's Seeley Lake

NorthWapiti's Long May You Run

NorthWapiti's Crunchie

NorthWapiti's Skor"Skor"

NorthWapiti's Odin

Ch. NorthWapiti's Loki

Chlout's Hector of NorthWapiti

Chlout's Herman of NorthWapiti
We were a little late hooking up, so I was in and out of the starting chute in a flash and the race was underway.

The first leg of this race, to Gulkana runs mostly in the ditch. The dogs were moving good, but not as strong as I’d seen them earlier in the season.

At one spot the trail veers away from the road, twists around, shoots across a little creek, twists a few more times and then hooks up with the ditch again. Shooting across the creek, I made one of those little errors in sled driving and smacked my sled over on its side. There were 2 things that made the situation worse then average – 1) my snowhooks bounced under my driving bow and caught in the ground, effectively securing the sled in it’s tipped position and 2) there was a photographer standing right there.

As I muttered (okay…I wasn’t muttering …I was swearing!) and fumbled I could hear the photographer’s motor drive whirling away.

Suffice to say, it took a lot more swearing, some help from the photographer, a little being dragged down the trail and a few sticks in my face before we were ready to roll again. As I pulled the hook, I assured the photographer that money could be had if those pictures never saw the light of day (and I haven’t actually seen them – so maybe his invoice is in the mail).

It always takes me a bit to gain my ‘sled legs’ after a big crash, before that had a chance to happen, the dogs missed the marked trail on a driveway crossing and crashed over a poorly put in snowmachine trail. The sled clipped a rock and sent me sprawling. Off went my team down the trail without me. The temptation to just beat my head against the rock for a bit was there, but instead I got up and run after the dogs. They only got a few hundred feet ahead of me before my wonderful Rusty Hagen rollover hook up righted itself and stopped the team. It’s been years since I lost a team, but the few times it has happened to me that hook has been a hero!

I climbed back on the sled, took a deep breath – what next? – and off we went. Not 2 minutes down the trail, I glanced over my shoulder to see a team closing in on me – however there was no musher! Seems someone else must have ‘met’ my rock. I stopped my team and snagged the leaders of the loose team as they caught up with me. A dog truck passing by on the highway stopped and the folks asked if they were allowed to help with the dogs. I assured them that a loose team was classified as an emergency and any help to secure them was allowed. By this time Michelle Phillips had caught up with us – on foot. She didn’t look too good at first glance, but when she wiped the frost/snow off her face and some of the blood off her lips, she looked almost human again.

When she passed me a few miles later, she was smiling and happy again.

The trail snaked through some nasty little ‘S’ turns and switchbacks, which I had no trouble negotiating, traveled a bit on the river, through Gulkana and off into the woods. We had about 15 miles of peace and quiet in the woods before the trail met up with the highway again. After that it was in and out of the highway ditch for the rest of the trip into Chistochina. The trail was rather bottomless and at times I was sure my team was traveling backwards. I was relieved later to hear that everyone thought the same on that stretch.

Rookie handler Ann acted like a veteran in steering my team into a nice parking spot next to Jamie Nelson’s team. I snacked and fed the team, who acted like starving wolves. It always makes me happy when they eat well.

Jamie and I headed into the checkpoint and polished off a couple bowls of soup (soup seemed to play a big roll in this race!). After that we tried to get a couple hours sleep, but the building set aside for mushers just wasn’t warm or comfortable enough for that to really happen. 

Just after 11pm, my team roared out of the checkpoint in good shape for the long, tough leg to Paxson.
The full moon and clear night made for some lovely sightseeing. Accompanied by tunes from the iPod and behind a nice moving dog team, I was definitely in a ‘happy place’. Don’t think anyone in the world could have convinced me to trade places with him or her that night!

As we got closer to the Excelsior Creek crossing, I thought about the mess I had had there last year – and the lovely puppies, including the creek’s namesake (paws down my favorite of that litter – heck one of my favorite puppies period!), that possibly resulted from it, so rather then dreading the creek crossing, I was smiling when I got to it. Not that my good mood inspired any confidence in my leaders. Both Kara and Snickers ducked out and tried to avoid the running water. We again ended up in a big tangle, but it only took a few minutes this year to get everyone onto the other side. Misery loves company – and I was reassured that the two teams in front of me (Yuka Hoda and Jamie Nelson) were still sorting out tangles when I was crossing the creek and DeeDee Jonrowe hit the creek while I was undoing my tangles and had about the same trouble I did getting across it.

Again, I was struck by the fact that teams seem to all be more competitive this season then in the past. Instead of finding a half dozen or so teams camping and straw beds after crossing Excelsior Creek, as there had been last year, there was only one.

The dogs did an admirable job climbing Summit Mt. and continued to move strong throughout the night. We hit 3 more open, running water crossings. None created any huge problems, but I did have to lead my leaders through each one, which turned my NEOS into GIANT blocks of ice – but my feet did stay warm despite it.

As we hit Summit Lake, I started to have troubles with my headlamp battery packs. I had had, what I though was more then enough for this leg, but every one of them died during the night, so I ended up just using my LED checkpoint light and moonlight to navigate. I was in close proximity to 2 other teams, so that gave me confidence too.

The dogs did a terrific job climbing the nasty, almost vertical hill (or the Climbing Wall, as Jamie referred to it) off Summit Lake and loped easily the final 3 miles into Paxson.

The checkers mentioned I had a spot of frostbite on my face as I was checking in. Always a courteous thing for them to do, as often we don’t realize it. They also let me know that it was –40 out. I wondered how Ann was fairing, but there she was smiling and ready to park the team. This was turning into as much an adventure for her as it was for me!

I declared my mandatory layover in Paxson and spent the next 8 hours caring for dogs, stuffing my face (more GREAT soup), resting, and drying clothes. Myself and most of the other mushers had to chip away at the ice on our boots before we were able to get them off.

When it was time to leave Paxson I decided to switch around leaders. The girls had had enough leading and I had had enough of their hormonal ‘in heat’ behavior. I moved them back to just in front of the sled, put Hector and Odie in lead and called them up. The result was an unqualified disaster. Every second step the boys wanted to turn around check to make sure the girls were still with the team. Finally, after straightening them out a billion or so times, they actually got rolling. We hadn’t gone a ½ mile when I noticed someone walking towards me on the trail, dragging something. At first I thought it might be a musher that had lost their team going back to the checkpoint for help, but that didn’t look right either.

The dogs perked up and ran right up to the man, where they all bunched up. I still couldn’t clearly see what was going on. To my questioning of what he was dragging he replied “A caribou”. YIKES!! Now I could see that Hector was already gnawing away at the spoils of this man’s hunt. “You better drag the leaders by”, I suggested. He did. Now Hector and Odie wanted to check over their shoulder not only to check on the girls, but see what happened to their trail snack.
©Penny Blankenship for NorthWapiti.com
©Penny Blankenship  

I finally stopped and started switching dogs around, looking for a combination that was conducive to forward movement. We move a bit, stop, move a bit, stop – then we came to the spot where the hunter had gutted his caribou, a few live animals in the area bound off into the woods and the dogs shot into overdrive. The were more excited then I’d ever seen them act about wildlife, maybe the smell of blood and the live caribou combined to send them over the edge. A couple of the dogs were actually screaming at the top of their lungs as they were running. They ran hard for about a mile and that seemed to sort out most of the kinks in the team, one more shuffling of the dogs and we settled into traveling. Still, 15 miles later when I was getting into Meir’s Lake, I was rather discouraged with the team. I expect more from them and they know better. I was never seriously thinking of scratching, but I got a little ‘kick in the pants’ anyway, when the Shania Twain song, “I Ain’t No Quitter” started on my iPod as the checkpoint came into sight.

I was smiling as I signed in/signed out and headed back into the night.

The trail into Sourdough was a kick. Up and down, twisting and winding…. my kind of trail. Another beautiful moonlit night added to the night.

The dogs, lead by Skor and believe it or not, Jr, had found their groove again and the run really couldn’t have been more enjoyable.

Sourdough was really the only unpleasant experience on the race. It was cold, there was nowhere for mushers to warm up, sleep or dry out clothes – I think mushers are entitled to that in every checkpoint. We huddled around an unsatisfying campfire, longingly glancing at all our dog trucks, idling in the parking lot with warm, cozy cabs that our handlers were using. * sigh *

Turns out I actually melted one of my NEOS trying to thaw it out with the fire – though I didn’t figure that out until I took them off in Wolverine.

The dogs weren’t resting much better. The teams were piled on top of each other and there was no easy path out, so leaving teams were stomping around and weaving through resting teams to get out of the checkpoint.

After only 3 hours and 41 minutes of unsatisfying rest for all, I pulled the hook and headed to back into the night (what was it with all the night travel on this race?!).

The run to Wolverine wasn’t the greatest of the race, but the dogs still moved steady. It was darn cold and when I came onto Crosswind Lake and was greeted by a man handing out steaming cups of soup to passing mushers, I could have kissed him. What a treat!

As we started to get close to the checkpoint, I began to start taking mental notes about dogs that were going to need some extra attention in the checkpoint and anyone I might want the vets to look at. Well, Kara looked good, so did Snicks, and Dasher, and Sprite, and Odie, and Crunch, and Skor, and Loki, and Hec and Herm, and Jr and Batdog. That left…..no one that needed any extra attention. Cool! I spent the last few miles marveling at how strong and fit everyone still looked after close to 250 tough miles.

The dogs were definitely tired, but they all ate and settled into their straw beds under the afternoon sun to nap.

I headed into the checkpoint for – what else – a bowl of soup (actually I had 2 huge bowls, but who was counting?).

The run to Tolsona was one that Mark and I had done a few years ago when we were training at Wolverine Lodge, so it was nice to be on ‘familiar’ ground. We were treated to another beautiful clear night. In fact, when the moon came out, it was so bright; it took me a while to figure out what that light shining through the trees was.

Just before Tolsona I did the ‘mental’ inventory on the dogs again. Odie and Snickers each had a small glitch in their stride when we first left Wolverine, but they had warm up nicely and were now moving fine. Looked like we were all going to the finish line together! How cool!

As I was signing in/out of Tolsona the vets and checkers asked if I knew I was the only one still driving 12 dogs in the race. I didn’t. Wow!

I called up the team and they moved REALLY strongly out – honestly, I think they thought I was moving them to a parking spot in the checkpoint. After a couple miles, they started glancing over their shoulders at me with looks of disgust. It was very clear they figured they were entitled to a break in Tolsona and their idiot musher had gone right through. We discussed the fact that it was only 20 miles to the finish line and reluctantly they agreed to trust me and keep going.

I’ve got to admit that the 15 miles through the ditch and into the finish line were horrible. Not because of my dogs, but because we had high beam headlights from truckers burning out our retinas, badly marked parking lot crossings, and dangerous driveway crossing.

Once, within sight of the finish line, I ended up with my team actually on the highway AND a car bearing down on us. It was the most scared I have ever been in my mushing career – I was almost in tears – and completely unable to do anything because there was no way to get a snowhook in. Luckily, the car saw us and managed to get around the team by going onto the shoulder of the road.
It took awhile, but I wiggled the sled backwards until I could get a tenuous hold with my snowhook. I inched my way up the gangline and as soon as I got to Kara and pointed out the trail to her, she immediately darted onto it. The problem was that, from a dog’s perspective, the trail was not obvious. Not acceptable for a top-notch race giving organization – and I was quick to inform them of that at the finish line. Apparently, other mushers had mentioned the spot, but they hadn’t figured out exactly where the problem had been. The race judge headed back and fixed it while I was still putting dogs away.

It certainly took some of the shine off my finish.

Ann and Jamie Nelson’s husband, Ken were waiting for me and helped get everyone fed, unharnessed and put away. They were a tired (but still very happy) bunch of puppies and very glad to see their cozy, straw filled boxes.

I was very proud of them. The Copper Basin is in my mind exactly what it is billed as – The Toughest 300 Miles in Alaska. In fact, it is the toughest 300-mile race I have ever run!

©Penny Blankenship for NorthWapiti.com
©Penny Blankenship

February 2, 2006 Carpe Diem

For the past six years or so I have had the pleasure of working on the NorthWapiti website from the comfort of my Michigan home. It was as a member of the Sibernet-l email list that I first made contact with Karen & the dogs of NorthWapiti. In 1996, after a Sibernet discussion of 'piebalds', I had the idea to create a website "Colors of the Siberian Husky" with images of Siberian Huskies in all their possible coat colors. When I did web searches back then for good pictures of dogs in the various colors it invariably led me to Karen's website. She was gracious enough to grant me permission to use her images and I found myself having to limit myself on how many NW dogs were included, lest 'my' site be almost entirely 'her' dogs ;)

The next few years we had an occasional exchange, usually a question for her (a professional breeder) on what color she would consider a particular dog. Prior to her first Iditarod in 2000, she requested help with her site and I was more than happy to be 'on board'.

Before one of her pre-Iditarod departures to Alaska, there was one phone call I made to get a question answered before she went incommunicado (offline). Other than that, we only exchanged email, for years....until she was scheduled to be a judge at the Cleveland, Ohio Specialty in 2003. I thought to surprise her by attending the show....I anticipated the moment when I would introduce myself...."Hello Karen. I'm Ann." :)

(Alas, someone didn't know my intended surprise and mentioned it to her.)

It was still a delight to meet her in person and watch the whole event. Her post dog show slide presentation on her Iditarod adventures was every bit as good as forecast. Even though I knew almost every story and recognized so many images, to listen to her stories in person and observe her answer all types of questions was enthralling. Fanciers of the Siberian Husky, we are fortunate to have her as an Ambassador of our Working Group dog. 

Another couple of Iditarod training & adventure rounds, more working dogs earning their Championships, new breedings, stories of up & coming pups, passings & placements....I sit quietly by and silently read, copy, paste, edit, insert images, update links, learn, enjoy, recall images from years past that might help detail the current entry.

I wait on baited breathe during the races for updates, searched for relevant articles and links to post, corresponded with others and ask permission to post their recollections or photos online as part of 'her' story. Occasionally, I'm tickled to receive positive feedback directly or from comments made to Karen that she shares with me. It is a pleasure to do it. During the winter, I often sit on my cushy leather chair or couch, my feet up, computer on my lap, the fireplace glowing as I read/update.

However, a part of me always wonders what would it be like to SEE those dogs...Karen has invited me several times to her kennel over the years, but I am a mom...initially, my children are small, one is handicapped (Autistic), perhaps someday...

Then one day, my husband heads off to work the night shift (6pm-6am). I sit down to see if there are any NorthWapiti updates prior to the weekend's race. There is a simple request for a handler if anyone can make it. 

Wow, I silently dream, wouldn't that be neat to just put all the daily details on hold for a week. I am my own boss and have been swamped for weeks, but now I only have one onsite consult on schedule for the week. My children are now teenagers, my family support network is very close and would so understand what the trip would mean to me. I joke and send out a couple of emails...I get replies..."Why would you not go?!?"

I call my brother-in-law who is always traveling during the week, so I often play step parent as needed to help my sister. I ask him if he has any airline miles leftover...

He asks where do I want to go... I tell him Anchorage.

"ANCHORAGE?!?" he replies...

When do I want to go... Tomorrow? I quietly ask...


Initial Email (5:00pm)
Ticket booked (11:44pm)
Laundry & packing (Midnight until dawn)
Leave for the airport (8:00am)

Wow...me...this time it's...

For anyone wondering about my husband's reaction to all of this...
(6:00pm) Husband comes back thru door (he, a Deputy Sheriff, is not in uniform)
(6:05pm) Announces he booked a sick day, he feels ill (his 3rd or 4th sick day in 18 years)
(6:07pm) I ask him if he would mind if I went to Alaska... 
When? – “Tomorrow”, I reply.
“You'd go to Alaska when I'm sick?” (He had gone to the gym earlier in the morning to workout, but was definitely green at the gills now)
My reply (not well received at that point)
Oh, in a HEARTBEAT!!! 
The husband is NOT amused...but he'll live...

(NOTE: We have three of our parents, three adult sisters and three brother-in-laws who all live within 5 miles of us and he has the next three days off from work on a long weekend...as I said, he'll live...
(8:00am) Disbelieving, but loving husband drives half-asleep wife to airport and tells me not to worry, enjoy myself, they'll be okay.

(9:30am) Unloading at the airport...When are you coming back?
“Next Friday (8 days)”, I reply.
The husband is NOT amused...but he'll survive...
(His sickness was apparently something he ate as he was fine the next day and travelled out of town that Saturday for a sporting event.)

Stay tuned, there is still much to tell :)

Ann Hernandez
NorthWapiti.com Editor
2006 Copper Basin - Rookie Handler

Wednesday 1 February 2006

February 1, 2006 Quiet Willow

What’s with the quiet from Willow – you ask?? Wish I could say that we have been so busy running dogs that I haven’t had time to write, but that just ain’t the case, I’m afraid. The truth of the matter is that Mark and I are the Broken and the Sick.

Of course you all know the story of Mark. He’s still broken, but doing as well as could be expected. He went to the doctor last week and they took out the staples (all 70 of them – and that barely dented the percentage of metal now in his body) and put on a fancy new hard cast. Being the team player he is, when they asked him what color he wanted his cast to be, he choose our team color of red. Very flashy. It isn’t a walking cast and he still isn’t allowed to put weight on it, but now at least we don’t have to peel him off the ceiling if Harriet the cat (his new best bud) jumps on his leg.

He stills spends most of his day with the leg elevated, as it hurts to be upright too long, but we have managed a couple quick trips to Wasilla and this afternoon he hopped downstairs and spend a hour or so bagging up Energy Pack for my drop bags.

And as for me, well I’m sick. There has been a nasty bug floating around and it seems like I ran head first into it on the Copper Basin. I figure this because when I talked to Jamie Nelson, who is now up in Kotezbute, AK she has exactly the same thing. It was a fun conversation with the delay on the radiophone she called on, my coughing and her sniffing.

Anyway, it all started last Tuesday (as in a week yesterday) with a fever, cough, feeling rundown, etc, etc…and it just refuses to leave.

Monday, I decided cold or no cold, the dogs needed to run, so with some help hooking up from my friend (and Howling Dog Farms handler) Janet, I hooked up and ran 2 teams. Yesterday I hooked up and ran a 12-dog team on my own. I didn’t fall down dead at the end of either day, so I figure this will work – and eventually the cold will go away.

Now, to add insult to injury – Mark caught this darn thing.

Lucky Jamie and Harry – we are surely a delightful couple to be around right now.

The good news from up here is that trail conditions are pretty much perfect. We got a few inches of snow while I was on Copper Basin, a few more inches after I got home and a couple more today. Temperatures have been cold, for sure (down in the –20 F range all last week), but nothing unbearable.
The dogs are all doing great. Everyone came off Copper Basin strong. I still have a bunch of girls in season, but that should be done in a week or so – thankfully! The 6 days rest last week rounded everyone’s weight up a bit and put them all in downright spunky moods.

They had a very exciting night on Sunday when a cow and calf moose decided to visit. I went outside at around 9 pm to check out the reason for the commotion in the kennel and found tracks in close proximity to the dog yard. All the dogs – especially the youngsters, like Jinx, were pointing and screaming, but I didn’t actually see the beast. At 2 am, I headed out into the yard again to see what was going on. I caught the shadows of a cow and calf moose crossing my out trail at the edge of the dog yard, but they seemed to be on the move and I figured that was the last I’d hear from them that night.

Not to be - at 3:30 I found myself trudging half asleep out to the dog yard again. I really wasn’t paying much attention, just heading out to the dogs when I realized they were all barking in my direction – I lifted my head and fully opened my eyes to see Momma Moose no more then 15 feet dead ahead of me. I apologized and backed up to allow her an escape route, which she took. Her calf trotted to her from it’s feeding spot in front of the house. It took some clanging of dog dishes to convince them to move on.

Visits to the yard and more clanging of dog dishes happened again at 6:30 and again at 7:30.
All further evidence to back my belief that the best moose is dead and in a stew.

Jamie West has been busily working on her drop bags for the Serum Run (www.serumrun.org), which she is participating in starting on February 18th. I’ve been waiting for her to get done with hers (which were dropped off in Anchorage today) before really beginning to clutter up the house with the mess from my drop bags.

I guess I should take a moment to give you all ‘A Guide to the Jamies’ – as there seems to be some generally confusion about Jamie West and Jamie Nelson.

Jamie Nelson is from Minnesota. She is a 4-time winner of the John Beargrease Marathon, a Quest finisher, multiple Iditarod finisher, and winner and finisher of far too many other races to mention. She is my mentor and also one of my closest friends. It is her place in Minnesota that I usually head out to train at for several weeks each fall. Jamie Nelson has a place up here in Alaska (actually just down the road from where we are staying), but usually lives and trains in Kotezbue when she is in the state.
She is signed up for Iditarod this year too.

Jamie West is the gracious lady that has opened up her house to us in Alaska for the last couple years. I ‘met’ Jamie online when she was doing fundraising for Shawn Sidelinger’s ’98 Iditarod. I met her and her husband, Harry in person for the first time at the airport in Anchorage when I came up to buy my first dog from Earl and Natalie Norris. Jamie gave me a place to stay, a vehicle to get around her, and took me on a tour of some of the biggest Siberian kennels in the area. Since then she has continued to be exceptionally generous and kind to both Mark and I.

Jamie West has 20 + dogs – most Siberians, but also some Alaskans. She doesn’t race, but this year is traveling to Nome on the Serum Run (I think she is going to have a BLAST!).

She is one terrific lady and I am very pleased to have her as a friend.

And that is my Reader’s Digest Guide to the Jamies. Probably best if you print it out and keep in on hand when reading my diaries entries – even Mark is always asking ‘Which Jamie?’.

Not much else to report - unless you want to know which family is winning on Family Feud or how Judge Judy ruled in her cases today.

Watch for my Copper Basin diary entry in the next few days!