I think by your second mid-distance race the realization is there that the romance covers up for reality. Not to be negative about it at all, it’s just the truth. When you set out on your first adventure, you have no idea what you’re about to face, or you don’t understand it. But the next time you go, it’s a bit more real.
The start of race to the Sky was an odd mix between a rush, and the undeniable reality of the troubles to come. My friend Charmayne and I were the only two Mushers in the junior’s class this year, and both of us were preparing our teams for the Junior Iditarod. My mentor and friend Laura, would either give me the go ahead for Alaska, or tell me we weren’t ready.
I managed to pack my sled and get everything ready, with significant help from my handlers, and we were headed to the start.
When you rocket out of the chute, you head up and over a small hill. I am very glad that I could not see what was on the other side, for it would have made my nerves significantly worse.
You shoot over the first hill with a fresh team, rocket down the other side in a trench that’s been dug by all the other sled brakes before you, and go skidding across a road with narrow trail heads on either side, while the front of your team takes a corner.
I don’t think I took a breath until we were heading across the meadow.
We took a narrow trail through the trees and eventually came out onto a wider trail.
Within the first few hours, we came to an intersection that, oddly, had two markers. I stopped the team and studied the trail. The fork to the left had an arrow pointing down the trail, and the arrow to the right had the same thing. Both had Sled and dog tracks heading down them. I stopped stumped, but heard a stopped team barking to the right, and headed down that trail. Later I would find out that I was lucky, and chose the correct route.
Shortly after, I went over a small hill, and at the top, saw what I thought was a small dog. Confused, we headed up and over the next hill, at which point, I slammed on my brakes and set my hooks as fast as I could. There was a skunk marching up the trail straight for my team. Of course, my first thought was that I should protect my dogs, and stand at the front of my team. Then I realized how stupid that sounded. So I watched and waited as he strutted his way toward my team, my dogs flipping out about the prey that was so close to them, tugging the sled and my snowhooks forward inch by inch as I desperately stood on my brake. At the last second, he flicked his tail, and turned off the trail, and we passed without issue, my muscles relaxing.
On we traversed across meadows and up mountains. The wind had been picking up at the start, and sections of the trail were windy enough for me to bundle up and hunker over to keep my face from the wind. We ran with a few other teams for awhile, and they picked up the pace and moved on as the light started fading.
The only real landmarks that I knew, were the end of the 20 mile loop, and huckleberry pass. I don’t think I even realized I had hit huckleberry pass, until I was almost to the top. Heading up, I could see light from Mushers behind, and above me.
Around that time I started to notice a difference in the team. Sunny, who was running in wheel, was running slightly off. I spent a little while watching her gait and trying to figure out exactly what I was seeing. It looked like a front leg, and after we started heading down the other side of huckleberry pass, I decided to put her in the sled bag to ride the rest of the way to the checkpoint. She was most definitely not okay with this. Sled dogs love to run, and bagging them during a race, or anytime for that matter, can be challenging. She spent the first twenty minutes teetering inside my sled bag, braced on my handlebar, cooler, cooker, and the outer edge of my sled bag.
By the second half, she got a little more sleepy, and I managed to stuff her down in the bag and zip it up. When I peeked in five minutes later, she was fast asleep, curled up as close to me as she could get on the inside.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we hit a plowed road, and the sled when skittering across the sheet of ice and frozen slush. The brake made a horrible grinding noise, and of course, this was the time Sunny decided to be fully awake again. Although I don’t blame her, the sound of that brake was making my tired brain smash itself against the sides of my skull.
Sunny was immediately up and becoming an escape artist again. Despite my efforts to stop her, she shoved her nose out of the sled bag and began trying to claw her way off the sled.
I had to stop for about three minutes just outside the checkpoint to get her wrangled back in.
We pulled into Whitetail Checkpoint, and I signed in, my Handlers grabbed my leaders and took us straight to the spot they had ready with our stuff.
Dog care mode was on, and I was requesting water, things from the truck, (which my Handlers were allowed to have parked a short walking distance from the Team rest area) and going straight into our routine.
I requested my vet check as soon as possible, and got straight to giving dogs praise, a cookie, and taking their booties off. After that I got their food ready with a mix of Redpaw, Chicken, and water.
My mom, Trevor, and I, went over the dogs, messaging them and putting on their coats, giving them straw, and making sure they had everything they needed.
When the team was taken care of, I distinctly remember Laura dragging me away from my team, telling me that the team was fine and to go get something to eat ‘right now’, (for those of you who don’t know, I’m horrible at eating in checkpoints, much to Laura’s dismay).
I managed to choke down a few bites of food, and then headed to the truck to sleep.
With the heat on, I managed to sleep fairly well, and woke up feeling at least moderately awake and ready to take care of the team.
When we left the checkpoint, at the last minute, as we’re about to leave, Laura leaned over and said, ‘Just so you know, the next 7 miles are plowed so just keep the team as slow as you can, and watch for the different turns on and off the roads, most of them will have people and lights at them.” Then she patted my back and said, ‘you’ll be fine’ And then off we went into the night.
Skittering down plowed roads with a fresh team hanging on for dear life was not how I had imagined my morning going. I clung desperately to the handle bar and tried to stay upright the best that I could on the sharp corners.
At long last, we finally pulled off of the roads and up into the hills, (while doing so I was almost flung off my sled, but that’s beside the point.) hoping that dawn would come soon.
It was cold. Very cold, and both the fact that I hadn’t changed my under layers before leaving the hot truck, and that I had sweat even more during our dash through plowed roads, meant that I was starting to feel a bit chilled.
When it’s cold and you’re tired, you really don’t feel like moving. I think at some point I stopped to snack dogs, and took off my parka to put more layers on.
It was a waiting game until morning.
Moving on in the dark, the seconds started to blur and feel like hours as I fought sleep. I could see where other teams had stopped to snack every few hours, and I used it to time my stops as well.
If I remember correctly, this was also the race where I looked all through my sled bag to find my headphones, and couldn’t, (later I would find them in my parka pocket where, ironically, I had put them so they were easy to find).
Music is a life saver in those never ending seconds, and it helps fight sleep and boredom as well.
I remember coming down the open face of a mountain, and looking back to watch the Sky start to lighten just barely. I could see decently enough over the next few miles, but my brain obviously wasn’t keeping up with my eyes when I had to make a sharp right down off of the trail onto a plowed road.
My snowhook hit my knee, (facing backwards thankfully) leaving a good sized bruise, and I smacked into the ice, avoiding hitting my head on the hard surface. I vaguely remember sliding on my knees for a moment behind the tipped over Sled as the dogs continued on, and then I just kind of flopped over, hopping it would be enough for the dogs to stop and go, ‘What the heck is she doing?’.
Sure enough, there came the odd looks, and I’m very thankful for one of my leaders, Nellie, who’s my glue dog, and turned around to stare at me, wagging her tail, unsure.
In those few seconds, I managed to flip the sled up, say ‘ready? Let’s go!’ And take off, me a little more awake than five minutes ago.
We skittered along the road for a little while, me very aware of the pre race warning of the logging trucks that traveled in and out during the day. Luckily, no one was there yet, and we slide down the road with no problems. When we made it back onto the trail, travel was relatively quiet for some time.
I was having trouble finding a motivated enough dog to lead, and I was concerned about having an issue with it at Junior Iditarod. I tried to shove those thoughts from my head, I needed to focus on the here and now, but it’s hard when you’ve worked on something all season, and then a significant concern pops up.
I switched my leaders in and out for awhile, attempting to find that match. I finally settled on Nellie, and Rubicon, one of my young leaders in training.
The pair tend to be competitive with each other, and I hoped maybe that would kick in.
Though their competitive spirits decided not to show themselves on the way to the finish, they did truck the team along and keep everyone moving.
It was then that I started to focus on being happy.
Now I know that sounds odd, but when you’re exhausted, and you’ve been mentally and physically working, it can be challenging to keep your spirits up.
The whole goal of the season was not to be competitive, it was to learn to run mid-distance, and to attempt to have some fun while doing it. The sunrise had been absolutely gorgeous, and with the light came happier feelings, however, my lack of sleep did not go away. When I fell asleep on my sled, I ate a candy bar and felt more awake for the next twenty or thirty minutes, at which point, I started to fall asleep again, and ate another one.
The challenge came not from driving the team, it was when I could look out across the valley and saw a lake. Which I assumed was Seeley lake, where the finish was. When we passed it, I was confused. When you ‘know’ where the finish is, you tend to get excited, and the mental dip that came afterwards was challenging.
The dogs can pick up on your emotions, and it’s a Mushers job to stay in good spirits so that it doesn’t effect their team. The next ten miles that I didn’t think were there, became a mind game. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled out my map to try and figure out where we were.
Needless to say I was elated when we unexpectedly went past a sign that read ‘No Mans Land’ one mile from the finish.
A short ways up the trail, there was a cluster of people standing and watching teams come in. Laura and my mother were among the group, and we pulled up, stopping when we were asked to. Now, please understand that I am very tired at this point, and have little to no awareness about what’s going on. Laura walked over, hopping on the runners with me. I naturally assumed that she wanted a ride into the finish, which of course, I was totally fine with. So I asked the dogs to head out again and they immediatly began straining in their harnesses, trying to inch the sled forward, which I noticed they couldn’t, because Laura had her foot on the brake, which made absolutely no sense. If she wanted a ride into the finish, she should probably take her foot off the brake. At which point she starts laughing, and tells me that this is, in fact, the finish, and that I can go pet my dogs and she’ll hold the sled.
Oh. That makes more sense.
After praising my team, we pulled away from the finish. I was beyond proud of my dogs, and that they had continued on despite having an inexperienced Musher. I was also very ready for a nap.
To put the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race into words, seems impossible, but now almost a month after my first 100 mile race, I am, inevitably, on the way to my second 100 mile race, stuck in a parking lot with my truck leaking fluid, and have a chance to write about the incredible mental journey, that is the Eagle Cap Extreme.
• • •
The vet checks were on a Wednesday, January 17th.
The main street of Joseph OR was packed with trucks, people, and, most importantly, dogs.
Each team going into a mid-distance race is required to be checked over by the vet team before they are approved for a race.
Our vet check was smooth, and presented no issues with the team. We were clear to race!
The race start was on Thursday the 18th, and it was probably the muddiest start I have ever seen.
The parking lot was packed with kids from local schools, and Mushers getting there teams ready. I honestly can’t remember how many handmade posters I signed. It’s awesome how the race includes the local community so much.
They ran the team’s up a small rise and into the starting chute, where we waited for our countdown to reach zero. The chute was slush, ice, and water, and ended in a corner that turned you onto the course.
All remember thinking was ‘don’t tip over, don’t tip over, just make the corner.’.
On the first part of the course, the snow was fairly soft. On the way up to Salt Creek Summit, there were some sections of bare ground, and rocks.
The only good thing about that, was that the area a Musher slid off the trail last year due to ice, was bare this year, so not having traction wasn’t an issue!
Once through Salt Creek Summit, which is 10 miles out, we drop down off the other side.
At the bottom of the hill, teams cross a bridge, that leads directly into a steep embankment, and a sharp left turn at the top.
I headed across the bridge, and noticed two Mushers stopped directly after the turn. I put on my brake so not to crowd, as I was sure they were fixing a mishap in a team. Unfortunately, my leaders had already taken the embankment, and had reached the top, while the back of the team, (aka, Yours truly) was still at the bottom.
After the other team’s moved on, my dogs were still fresh and ready to roll, so cutting that corner was not a hard decision for them.
Though it effectively dragged the rest of the team, (and myself) off the trail.
The thing about deep, soft, snow, is that it’s hard to walk in, and maneuver in, and lift heavy things in. And nearly impossible to set a snowhook in properly.
Thus I found myself in the predicament of not being able to leave the back of the sled to lift it back onto the trail. So at this point, I did the only logical thing I could think of.
I tied my snubline, (and effectively, my team) to the most minuscule, smallest, itty bitty baby sapling that was within reach. Not only that, but I tied my snubline to this sapling in the most complicated slip knot I have ever learned. Logically.
It was about this time that another musher drove by with his 200 mile team, and offered a hand.
I waved him by, certain I could figure it out by myself, and not wanting to make a dent in anyone else’s race.
And then the dogs and I began to slowly work the sled back up onto the trail.
And away from my twig.
Those of you who are veteran Mushers, can probably already see where this is going.
Fortunately, I did too.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it, so I just kept going. And getting farther from this tiny tree that my very long snubline was tied to. In a very complicated knot, (I’m going to give up calling it a slip knot at this point).
I blame this on my Rookie Musher logic.
After then getting within a few feet of the trail, I climbed up onto the trail, and proceeded to attempt to haul my sled up onto the trail.
Let’s just take a moment to look at this scene.
I weigh about 110lbs. I’m a pretty small human.
Now my sled, which weighs 35lbs without the bag, is packed full of all my emergency trail gear. My cooker and Heet, dogfood, etc.
so this thing is not a walk in the park to carry.
As I’m Scrambling to, (A) Pull the sled onto the trail, and (B) keep my footing at the same time, another team pulled up behind where my team was off the trail.
I asked if he wanted to head by, and, thankfully, he said no.
It took the two of us tugging and hauling to get my sled back onto the trail. The Musher then ran back to my… okay, I’m going to be nice to myself here, and just say, ‘my interestingly tied knot’.
He then began the process of undoing the rope, and released us from the sapling. The dogs, who had been out of there minds with confusion about why I was not letting them go, shot off, tugging their harnesses with the urgency of ‘catch those teams!’.
I big thank you to the other Musher.
The trail was uneventful for the majority of the race, though the views offered wonderful entertainment for the mind!
The intent going into the Eagle Cap, was to enjoy our time, stay positive, happy, have fun, and to come into the finish line with a healthy team. So we took our time, with myself spending most of my time on the brake and the dragmat to keep the team at a slow, sustainable pace throughout the race. We went smoothly along for a ways, at which point I stopped to snack and give pats of praise and encouragement.
Another team cruised past, and we exchange nods and words of hello and encouragement amidst the blowing wind and snow on top of the mountain.
With the dogs snacked and briefly rested, we cruised on into the fading light.
Now the impression is, that when you are nearing the checkpoint, Ollokot, you are approaching downhill. The impression is not, that this downhill, is indeed 20 miles long.
So you being this decent and feel this lightening of your heart as your mind, which is numb from sleepiness, and hardship, exclaims, yippee!!! We’re almost there!!!!’.
Which is indeed, not the case.
The hill JUST KEPT GOING. On and on it went, the snow falling just enough to make seeing more challenging. We passed a few teams and went on into the night.
When we hit bare pavement at the bottom of the hill, I was very confused, wondering if maybe I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but I decided we should keep running. I knew I had been paying close attention to trail markers, and that if, by chance I had taken a wrong turn we couldn’t be that far from the Checkpoint and eventually they would send someone out to get us if I went to far.
Before long I could see headlights moving across the river where Mushers had their team’s camped. We pulled into Ollokot and signed in, picking up our drop bags, and were lead to our spot.
Thus commenced our first checkpoint.
To Be Continued…
Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
I’m fairly sure that if you looked up ‘Training a Dog team for races’, this is what would come up.
Camping trips, or ‘Checkpoint Training’, will prepare us for checkpoints at the Race to the Sky, and the Junior Iditarod, as well as future races. The dogs on my team that have not done mid-distance races before will get a chance to get use to the routine, before it is expected of them in a race. I am also a rookie at camping, so the same goes for preparing myself as well!
During a race, there will be lots of activity going on. Other teams moving in and out of the checkpoint, Mushers feeding their dogs, volunteers and an army of vets moving about, and a dog needs to be able to sleep while all of this is going on, so that they can be as happy and healthy as possible going into the next stage of a race.
We decided to do a mock camping trip last week, to give me a chance to test out equipment and skills with the safety net of still being able to go get something If I needed to, as well as learning what should be on my packing list, that isn’t!
We started the day by completing a 19 mile run with lots of climbing and going a bit faster than we have been. We pulled back in front of the house and I took booties off and checked everyone’s feet to make sure they all looked good, applying healing cream to make sure everyone was happy. ‘If you don’t have feet, you don’t have a dog’ was one of the first things I learned!
All the dogs got a massage and I bed them down for the next 3 1/2 hours. Each dog gets straw in their spot on the line to use as a bed, and insulation from the snow.
They had time for a short nap and to settle down before I brought food out in the form of hot chicken broth and kibble. Everyone chowed down and eventually the dogs settled in and went back to resting.
At just under four hours I went out and woke them up, massaging each dog, and taking them for a short walk to stretch and get their muscles moving again.
By the time I was done and began hooking their harnesses back into the tug line, they were screaming and yelling like they hadn’t just run four hours earlier. Their recovery time is truly incredible! We then began the second leg of the run. The woods were beautiful in the dark and the snow was amazing. The dogs sped through the run and came in looking happy!
Can we talk about the first few fall hook ups? In fact, let’s just talk about the first fifteen.
Take a moment and picture dogs that are bred to run and have endless amounts of energy and endurance. Then picture them sitting all summer until it gets cool enough to run again. Of course, if you read my last blog post, you know that they don’t actually just sit, and that I’m using it as an expression.
Now imagine these dogs finally being hooked up for the first time that fall when the temperature drops low enough.
They are usually a bit stunned, (at least my dogs), and they don’t quite know what they should be thinking. Hook up goes fairly smooth, and the run generally goes well enough, and you pull back into the yard amazed at how well they did. But deep down you know it won’t stay that way. But you can still hope.
By the second run they are usually quite a bit more crazy. By the third, they’re NUTS.
It’s absolute insanity, which I… fondly, refer to as Hellhound month, (or months, depending on how long it takes them to figure it out.). Last season, I switched my old mainline out for cable covered with rope so that it isn’t chewed through quite as easily. This decision was made after one of my yearlings chewed through my mainline and almost sent the rest of my team down the trail without me.
Even my wisest most experienced dog, Freckles, who is also one of my leaders, starts attempting to go through Necklines at the beginning of the season.
I can only assume that they are so excited to finally run again that anything that holds them back must be destroyed. They become, in the best sense of the word, Hellhounds.
This involves chewing lines, screaming like banshees, and just general chaos.
I remember one morning this fall having the most circus like hook up. It was the morning after I wiped out running two dogs with the scooter, and I had almost all eight dogs hooked to the front of the quad. The dogs were screaming per their usual Fall Hellhound attitude, and hookup seemed to be going normal for how Fall hook ups usually go. Until the brakes on the quad failed. Luckily it took eight insane in the brain Sled Dogs a few seconds to figure out that they were indeed moving forward, and my mother, who was at the back of the crew hooking Sunny into the team, was able to leap and grab the brake.
Sunny, who is sometimes pretty much scared of life, saw the quad rolling and my mom jump, decided that might be the scariest thing that could happen and, with no neckline on, backed out of her harness. She proceeded to run the front of the team to say hello to the other dogs, and then ran out into the gravel road. Sunny is very pack and ‘Christina’ oriented, so I wasn’t worried about her running off. I walked to the front of the team and called her, at which she promptly turned around, ran towards me, and took a flying leap into my arms. Of course, she didn’t think that would impress me enough, so she really truly tried to make it onto my head.
Thankfully I caught her and set her down, walking her by the collar towards the quad, (where her harness is still hooked up to the gangline post escape. Of course, in that moment, Sunny decided that the quad with its glowing orange eyes was most definitely a demon and she better get away as fast as she possibly can, and proceeded to attempt to back out of her collar.
Having previous experience with Sunny and her irrational fears, I immediately stopped fighting her and slacked tension, preventing her from backing out.
Meanwhile the rest of the dogs are still screaming to go, so this is all happening under a roar of noise in which neither me nor my mother can talk to each other, while she is clutching the brake for dear life as seven fully charged sled dogs attempt to pull her down the trail.
I made a snap decision to let Sunny go knowing she wouldn’t leave, and walked back to get her harness, walked back to where she had been, called her, put her harness on, picked her up, carried her back to her spot, and hooked her to the line.
Exactly three cars drove by while this whole fiasco was going on. I can only pray they weren’t paying to close attention, but I think that might be false hope, as they all slowed down quite a bit.
Eventually, after some time, hard work, and about fifty gallons of patience, the team starts to even out and training becomes more rhythmic.