Here’s a photo of Goliath lounging in our Lazy Boy the day after the race. All the racers spent the next day and night indoors, mostly sacked out on dog beds and our human bed, but Golaith has always been partial to the recliner. All the dogs got a prime rib dinner too, to say thanks for all their hard work.
Archive for January, 2008
Colleen and the dogs made it through another T-200 despite incredible winds and deeply drifted trail that forced many other mushers to scratch. She placed 11th overall. She finished with 10 dogs which included Zoom and Oaky who led to the finish, as well as Goliath, Penny, Nuk, Butterscotch, Crumb, Cyder, Karma and Zoya. Our pound puppy Ibn made it approximately 130 miles and was still pulling well, but moving slightly slower than the rest of the team, so she dropped him to maintain a consistent team speed. Yearlings Waylon, Yodel and Hank made it 175 miles, and Hank even stepped up and led a brief, but tough section in a storm above treeline. All three pups could have gone further, but as always Colleen was conservative in her judgement with these young dogs, not wanting to push them too hard in their first year of racing. Look for a more detailed race reports from Colleen as soon as she gets a hot shower and catches up on some much needed sleep.
This weekend is the Tustumena 200. Cole is hoping to improve on her 10th place finish from last year’s race, but the competition is even better this year. She drew lucky number 13, but has several speedy mushers going our right behind her. Visit the T-200 website at www.tustumena200.com to track her progress during the race. It begins tomorrow at 11 a.m., which means – barring any unforeseen fiascos or windstorms- she should be into the halfway sometime between 9 p.m. and 11p.m.
At Paxson, it had become clear to us that our goal was to complete the race, not make a last ditch effort to finish in the Top 7 which is how far the purse paid out. I wanted to gain the valuable experience of running 300 miles and have a happy healthy team when I crossed the finish line. Our strategy became to focus on dog care. We elected to rest the team longer that it took to run to the checkpoint. Joseph studied other teams and veteran mushers to glean information on relieving sore muscles, determining injury versus fatigue, and how to survive the cold. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was working to stretch out and warm up the dogs before assembling them to leave the checkpoint. I walked them around the checkpoint using a tug line like a leash. This technique allowed the dogs to warm up, have a little stimulation sniffing around the checkpoint, catch the attention of other dogs in the team –further perking them up, and it gave me a chance to really look at each dog and access where they were at both physically and mentally. Winds were kicking up and I was having trouble keeping myself warm enough to tend to the dogs as best as I knew how. Two more lessons on this pilgrimage: don’t use metal bowls in -30 (the dog’s nose’s and tongue’s would stick to them); and do your best to camp out of the wind, even if it means fancy maneuvering to get to that spot initially. I managed to get about 1 hour of sleep… one more thing I learned is sleep when you can, fatigue begins to hurt like any other pain in your body.
My team rested well and left the checkpoint ready and confident. Paxson Lake was very trying right off the bat. Windswept ice left minimal trail to follow. It was quickly evident that teams had wandered all over the lake looking for trails. Some sections were frictionless slicks while others were chest-deep drifts. Each was equally challenging for dogs to navigate, but once again I was proud of my team to the point of tears. Then suddenly came a headlamp, and eventually a team met mine head-on. Another musher was calling it quits after losing the trail and circling the lake. He headed back to the checkpoint concerned, disappointed, frustrated. We made it off the lake and proceeded to engage what felt like the longest ascent I’ve ever done, punctuated with false summits seemingly laughing at me. We hit a pocket of warmer temperature, or so it seemed as my face dripped with sweat. The dogs appeared uncomfortably warm so I stopped and removed all of the coats I had carefully put on each one before leaving Paxson as protection from the wind and cold. Up. Up. Up. That’s what I remember. Around half way to Sourdough I came upon a team stopped in the trail, the same one that had quit on the climb off of Summit Lake. The musher said, “When you get to Sourdough let them know that I scratch. My team quit and I can’t get them moving again, I think I’ll need help getting out of here.” I offered assistance but she seemed resolved to scratch. I agreed to carry her message and relay it to the checkers but explained that I did not want to stop for too long myself out of concern for my own team staying motivated, and she understood, so off I went. From there the trail became more technical than I had experienced yet. Swerving around trees, hoping on and off rivers, snaking through the wilderness. I often couldn’t see the front end of my rig as they were already on the next curve as I was coming out of the previous one. It was much harder that the previous leg, but over 10 miles shorter made it quite enjoyable. Through my exhaustion I managed to have the most enjoyable and exciting 60 miles of mushing I can remember.
Into Sourdough I was beyond tired, and moving sluggish. Joseph tried giving me intricate instructions on where we were parking in the corded checkpoint, which I blew anyway in my sleep-deprived state. We managed to get the team over in some deep snow off the trail, and I stomped out a camp spot and gave them plenty of straw to bed down in. My body was barely responding to the directions my brain was giving it. Everything was taking me 3x as long as usual, which I recognized, but still couldn’t help. Cold. The temperature plummeted at this point hovering around 40 below. Even Joseph, who vigilantly guarded the team at each checkpoint while the dogs and I rested, had to get in the truck periodically to warm up. I fed and fed and fed, since the dogs ate voraciously despite how tired they were. I then dragged myself uphill to small cabin (designated for race happenings) with a wonderful and blazingly active wood stove. I arranged gear around the fire, my suit –frozen with sweat on the inside and frost on the outside, rock-hard drinks and food I was unable to consume until they defrosted a bit, and my contact solution which again was frozen solid. I took my sleeping bag upstairs and slept for 2 hours which felt like heaven. Joseph woke me at the designated time and later admitted it was the worst he’s ever seen me look. I was so dehydrated I could barely speak, but my things had warmed by the fire and I immediately drank everything I could. I was still moving slower than I wanted to but felt a thousand times better. Time to focus on the dogs.
I left Sourdough soon after daylight. Our game plan was for me to make the 112 mile push to the finish. We had made 100-mile pushes before in other races, but never after covering so many miles of arduous terrain. What a test… for me and even more so for the team. Our expectation was for mostly flat or downhill trail along rivers and across lakes. I remember crossing several huge lakes, trying to keep my skin covered from the whipping chill, and at one point I stopped and put penis protectors over the males to keep them from freezing up which is dangerous, and all too possible in temperatures so extreme. I actually had only one “peter heater” which I put on Cyder, and then used my knife and two emergency zip ties I was carrying to make one for Goliath out of a belly blanket. I didn’t want to use whole coats for most of the team because they were working hard and the sun was out, I just wanted to cover the ones that needed it. I was also snacking more frequently than ever and their appetites seemed to increase. Despite trail reports of the terrain being mostly flat to the finish, I remember screaming in my head over and over, “This is supposed to be downhill! When is the easy part.” Eventually I found out that that part would never come. About 5 minutes before arriving at Wolverine I stopped the team and snacked one more time, hoping to eliminate any reason for them to want to stay at the checkpoint and not push through. Dogs are like people who run marathons or hike long distance: it is easy to stay warmed up and moving, but once you stop and cool down it can be a little stiff feeling to get going again. On our approach to the checkpoint, tears rolled down my cheeks as I asked the dogs to trust me and follow my lead. I also apologized to Penny because I wasn’t going to take her any further due to a sore wrist. Even though her heart was still in it and I knew she would do it for the team and for me, she was uncomfortable and I didn’t want to risk her well-being. I would rather she be able to recover for our next adventure. Cyder was in single lead at this point and definitely tentative about approaching strangers (the checkers). Joseph called to him but was (as always) also trying to capture the race on camera which Cyder didn’t like the sight of. We got in with a couple zig-zags and I quickly grabbed the gear out of my drop bags that I wanted to take along, mostly a few more dog snacks for the trail. I asked if there was anything to drink and sprinted the 50 yards to the lodge where a case of room temperature waters were. I grabbed one, thought about it and grabbed a second, thanking the checkers as I ran back to my sled. Joseph warned me that teams ahead were having a lot of trouble getting out of the Tolsana checkpoint. He also cautioned me that a turn was coming up that some teams had missed and gone down the wrong trail. Stay focused.
Back out to the lake with no protests I cheered the dogs, praised them, and then thanked them for their dedication. I chugged one bottle of water before it froze and then cut the bottom off and poured some of the second bottle into it, set a hook, and offered each dog some fresh water. Some had a few sips, others weren’t interested. I changed some dog positions around and we quickly got moving again. Within a few miles we passed a team again parked in the middle of the trail. I had a little trouble getting by, I think because the dogs were surprised… most of this race we spent in solitude (behind the fastest teams, but ahead of the slower half of the pack) so it was startling to come up on 12 dogs at this point. We made it by and I undid some tangles and got going again. Then it happened… the switch you hear about and wonder if you’ll ever witness. Something in the physiology of the dogs causes them to tap into stored fat instead of the available energy in the system and it all becomes fluid motion. Part of something greater. We zipped over hills to Tolsona, again stopping prior to the checkpoint to snack. About 8 miles from the checkpoint Oaky and then Nuk both seemed to become sore, and while both were still pulling, they were not moving in their usual rhythmic way. I put them in the sled bag, and rearranged the team again to keep up moral. They were starting to need a little more encouragement, but responded well when they receive it. We had one more talk about trust, and I pleaded with them to understand that I was taking them home, and told them that I love them and appreciate that they make me a better person on so many levels. I was at peace and in awe of my companions.
We cruised through the checkpoint, sadly leaving Nuk and Oaky with Joseph who later reported that they were jumping all over him and showing no sign of injury once I was out of sight, much to the amusement and slight bewilderment of the checkers. The last 20 miles were the longest of the race. I later tried to describe it as more like riding a bull than gliding over the earth. The snow was hard, crusty and very uneven. It was difficult to balance, let alone kick along with the team. It was no more fluid for me that learning how to drive a standard transmission. Lots of bucking back and forth, and side to side. Right before town we entered a forest with trees looming overhead and darkness encasing us. It was daunting and magical and then onto the final section of trail along the highway we emerged and made our way to the town library where Joseph waited at the finish line. The six dogs that remained with me actually made good time, especially compared to other teams and considering I stopped and snacked them.
I gave hugs all around. Everyone gave it their all. Even the ones that didn’t cross the finish line made me proud of their contribution. I had six dogs on the line (Zoom, Goliath, Butterscotch, Crumb, Cyder and Karma) and every one of them was strong and determined. We finished 16th and I couldn’t be more proud of our kennel. The experience was amazing and the journey was filling. I can hardly wait to go back next year.
What a race. The Copper Basin 300 was everything it’s said to be, and everything I needed, to believe in myself and my teammates. When we arrived in Glennallen, fear washed over me, and to be completely honest all I wanted to do was turn around and make the 8 hour drive back home. It was a horrible feeling, but one I couldn’t shake. One of the things about racing is that it brings to surface all of your self doubts, all of your triumphs, and all of your failings. You become wholly human, mind racing through everything you’ve wanted and everything you’ve had. Everything becomes emotion… primitive. The team howls and slams against the gangline, never doubting purpose, and I leave the chute humbled, crying, and laughing all at the same time.
The first leg to Chistochina I took as slow as I could. The team moved wellwith Penny and Oaky in lead. The typical small tangles I get as each dog relieves themselves, but other than that I was quite happy with how the run went… just over 5 hours to do 60 miles. At one point the trail goes under the highway on the Gakona River. The bridge looms high overhead, at least 50 feet above. There was a small crowd gathered and my dogs were moving so easily across the ice. I was feeling like a real pro right up until a dozen pairs of ears perked up and 12 snouts looked straight up at the same time, and Crumb completely freaked. I set my ice hook into the river and lined the team back out. Crumb was still scared but managed to muster enough courage to run under the bridge, and we were back on our way. The checkpoint went smooth. Joseph was there to park my team and had secured a great spot. This process of needing a handler to scope out good spots to park the team was new to us. In my previous races spots were more or less predetermined. I was able to quickly get nourishment into my dogs, which is my priority when arriving at check points. I feed a special snack which is ideally consumed within the first 4 minutes of rest. I spread straw, fed, fed, and fed, and most of the dogs also got coats to help conserve heat since we weren’t used to these temperatures. Most of the dogs rested well except for 15 month old Waylon, who was being a typical puppy. He was curious about all the hubbub of the checkpoint and we were within sniffing and even peeing distance of other teams which seemed quite exciting for him. The inexperience of my team was quite obvious as almost every other dog at the checkpoint was sleeping. My first real mistake of the race happened at this point… I stayed too long. In his restlessness Waylon chewed through my gangline which started me in panic mode. I had already stayed longer that the dogs needed, but I ended up staying another hour to replace my gangline. Luckily the judges determined that I did not have Waylon chew the line in order to advance my position so they allowed me to go to my truck and retrieve our training gangline off Joseph’s sled. I was still disappointed because I had really labored over making a nice racing gangline for this race, and it only to lasted 60 miles… oh well it happens and I’m glad I noticed it when I did.
I was still nervous about the next leg to Paxson, which is 70 miles long and known for its difficulty. The highest peak in any dogsled race was in this section as well as 3 water crossings. The dogs were ready to go as I moved to the checkers, however the chewed gangline had one last laugh. I didn’t throw the discarded line far enough away, and as I took off it grabbed hold of my brake and trailed behind me in a huge tangle like a sign someone stuck to the back of my shirt without me knowing. Ugh! After Joseph quickly got the tangle off, I got out of the checkpoint and on the trail. It was dark, I was bundled and my headlamp was powered up. Off we went. Quickly we had a sharp turn under a very low bridge over glare ice. I had put Zoom and Cyder in lead with the idea that I would want to move a little slower and have the best Gee-Haw listeners for the technical trail ahead. These two powerhouses are my largest dogs and both are completely loyal to the team, yet most likely willing to go march their friends through anything. We worked our way along the trail with a very steady 9.5 mph pace. Everyone had a beautiful trot. The trail was mostly gradual uphills which is great for keeping warm. So far it was well marked, but I kept my headlamp on for security. A caribou surprised itself diving out of the brush only to find itself in my dog team and boy did it give the team a surge of energy. Too bad the creature didn’t want to just trot on ahead of the team… we could have made record time! This wasn’t my only brush with nature. Not long later, an owl swooped along the team and I found myself ducking to avoid a brush with a wing. Then came our first water crossing and what a mess it was. I cheered them on, but when it came down to it I think they knew that stepping in water with the air around -35 was probably not a good idea. Other mushers later testified to similar struggles which they didn’t expect and we suspected it was a result of the cold air, since our dogs are sued to charging through open water on the trails back home. Anyway, a massive tangle ensued and no one wanted to listen to my reasoning so out I marched into the creek (which encased my bunny boots in ice), untangling dogs and switching their positions around to try to find a combination that would get the team moving again. I think that’s when Goliath realized what needed to be done and stepped up to lead. The comedy repeated itself on the remaining two crossings, but not quite as bad. We all learned a lot. We made it over the dome without any problems, and on our decent my first set of batteries took that moment to die… of course! I managed to switch headlamps without stopping the team, though at times I was unbalanced and the team would cock their heads back to see what the heck was happening. Over all, the trail was great, just a little long. The last 20 miles I found stressful, not because of the trail, but out of concern for my team as this was their hardest run perhaps ever and I found myself scrutinizing their gates. When we hit the pipeline Zoya started not bearing weight on one of her back feet, and Yodel’s urine had started to look dark. In hindsight I believe Zoya had just got a cramp and would have been fine after some rest, but you know what they say about hindsight. Yodel’s symptoms were that of dehydration. I stopped and arranged my gear and after a few minutes I loaded both dogs. We got going again under a banner of the brightest northern lights display I have ever seen. This was good because it took my mind off of the vertical climb combing off of Summit Lake. I had heard horror sotries about this climb, but it really wasn’t anything that the team and I hadn’t already seen training in the Caribou Hills. However, the climb was complicated by the fact I had two dogs in the basket and another musher’s team had quit on her at the bottom of the climb. In her efforts to get them going, the snow at the base of the climb had been churned up and was was soft and deep, which stole all momentum my team had at a point when I could have really used it. Instead we had to make the climb from a deadstop, which was arduous, but we made it through without much incident, and into the Paxson checkpoint just a few miles away.
We did it!!! For anyone who didn’t follow the race on line, Colleen made it through her first Copper Basin 300, dubbed one of the toughest races in the state, and it was an extremely challenging race. Not only was the course demanding with obstacles such as river crossings with overflow, large lakes with drifts of snow several feet deep, and extreme hill climbs including the highest of any sled dog race in Alaska, but Cole also faced temperature of minus 30 for nearly the entire race. Despite it all, she and the team persevered to the finish line. Most of the team made it nearly the entire way, but since Cole is always overly cautious in regard to dog care, she dropped a few sore dogs in the last 50 miles, however Cyder, Karma, Zoom, Goliath, Crumb and Butterscotch made it the whole way. We’ve only slept about four hours in the last three days, so we have to catch up on some rest, but we’ll write more about the race soon. Check the “Racing” gallery for photos of the race.
After what a dreadful year 2007 ended up being, we had high hopes 2008 would be better, but so far it’s off to a pretty lousy start. Our first race, the Sheep Mountain 150 was cancelled due to lack of snow. Our second race of the year we opted out of because Sarah died just days before and we thought it was more important to support our grieving friend Dean than to participate. This weekend was the Calm Gulch Classic, a two day sled dog race that covers around 30 miles a day. It’s not the biggest or most prestigious race, but one we usually look forward to because it is such a fun run. We both signed up for the racing class and while Joseph took the puppy team, Cole took the racers and thought if she didn’t win, she wouldn’t be too far off the winning time because our guys have had a lot of training this year and were all looking healthy.
Unfortunately, the organizers of the race made a bit of a snafu. They marked one trail on a map that they went over in the pre-race meeting, but the actual course was marked differently with wooden lathes and ended up being about 6 miles longer. We both took the course we had seen on the map, as did six other people (8 in all) of the 12 signed up. When everyone got back to the finish line and all racers and organizers figured out what happened, we all knew there was going to have to be a tough call to make. Not wanting to be out of the race, we suggested to the organizer that the people that took the shorter course on Saturday take the longer on Sunday, and vice-a verse for the people who took the longer on Saturday. The organizer left it up to the people who were technically “in the lead” since they had done an extra six miles that day, and rather than stepping up so we could all race again the second day and see who really had the fastest teams, the people “in the lead” said the didn’t want to “loose training miles” by doing a shorter course on Sunday, so the organizers had to declare them the first, second and third place winners by technicality. We talked about it at length that night and rather than going back and being “technically” beaten by teams we knew were not as trained-up and moving much slower, we opted to withdraw from competing on Sunday. It was a bummer, but unfortunately that is dog racing. If there is a less organized sport out there, I’ve never seen it, and so sometimes these things happen. It just so happened that this time we were on the loosing end of the deal.
All we can do now is look toward our next race and hope it doesn’t suck too. The Copper Basin 300 is next Saturday and it will be Cole and the dogs biggest test yet. We know we don’t have 12 dogs that can go the whole distance. We have a few of our core dogs sitting out due to injuries and of the alternates going in their places, some are too young and some are just not prepared for a race this demanding. Our goal is for Cole to just finish this race, so hopefully if she moves slowly and carefully she will make it to the end. Time will tell, and if it goes well it will be one in row this racing season, and if it goes bad, we’ll than that’s really nothing new either, just par for course this year.