Sadly, it appears our racing season may be over for another year. We had planned, and prepared (cut our meat, packed sleds, got time of work, etc.) for Joseph to take a team in the Taiga 300, but we decided yesterday we would sit this race out again this year.
We toyed with the idea of going up last season, but the snow in Kasilof disappeared about 3 weeks before the race, and we didn’t want to ask the dogs to run 300 miles after being shut down for three weeks, and in temperatures that we above freezing, which always makes them miserable.
This year, the weather has been as favorable as it could possibly be. This is the coolest spring we have had since we moved to Alaska in 2002. We even got another inch of snow last night, just days before the calendar flips to April. So training really hasn’t been a problem.
Rather this season we are more concerned with the dog’s mental states. This has been a challenging season for our dogs. Cumulatively they’ve already raced for 1,770 miles (not counting all the training miles they’ve done too), and unlike large kennels where the teams for each race are slightly different, our kennel is so small it has largely been the exact same team competing in each event. Also, two of these races the dogs faced raw temperatures of minus 50 degrees, and wind in excess of 30 m.p.h. And, the dogs ran their first Yukon Quest this season (photo above), which was their first time doing 1,000 consecutive miles.
All of this has made the dogs more physically strong than we have ever seen them, but it has been hard for them mentally. Too many tough tasks back to back and a musher risks teaching the dogs that mushing is all work. This is not our goal. We want mushing to continue to be fun for our dogs, this season and in future seasons.
Some others kennels don’t mind constantly pushing the dogs in an attempt for THE MUSHER to be competitive all year long, but some of these mushers as they burn out their dogs, will move them out to other teams, put them down, or drop them off at the pound. Our dogs are ours for life and because of that we have to make sure that they continue to enjoy mushing and racing for the long haul.
We know many of the teams going up to the Taiga, and at least a few of them are mushers (or handlers) that will literally run their dogs into the ground to place in the money. We may have a better team than some of them, but since we won’t destroy our dogs for our own success, we can’t beat these people who will risk their dog’s heath and happiness for their own ego. And, going up to compete in the Taiga this season, after already competing so many times, we risk having it turn into a forced march (since some of the legs are more than 100 miles long requiring both heavy loads to be carried, and a few runs to be in the heat of the day), which wouldn’t be fun for them or us, and could potentially ruin their desire for future years.
Instead, we will be conservative this season and sit this one out in favor or doing shorter fun runs around the local area, and hopefully we’ll come back next year with an even stronger dog team – both physically and mentally.
Archive for March, 2009
Barb Redington sent me a few more beautiful photos. These are from the finish this time.
Joseph and the team coming in. Look at all the snow on Zoom’s face. How could she even see?
Here are Penny and Zoya – Joseph’s leaders for the entire race. Goliath and Oaky can be seen in swing.
Here is a beautiful shot of Waylon (black with blue eyes), with Squirrel next to him, and Cyder (reddish) to the front.
Here are the promised pictures. We took our own, but these sent to us courtesy of Barb Redington, are way better. Here is the step by step of Joseph after crossing the road and dropping into the ditch of glare ice.
Here’s our boy back upright and on his way again.
Cole, with much more experience on the runners, was one of the few mushers in race that didn’t go down on the corner.
Here is just a final shot of her team flying down the trail. Hard to imagine from this image that three-quarters of this team came from the pound.
For the second year in a row the Goose Bay 120 has screwed us, but at least it was only one of us this time. For those that don’t remember, last year Joseph ran the race with the A-team and was doing well for most of the race, running right around 5th place, until some snow fell. The trail wasn’t marked and there were no sled tracks to follow so Joseph lost tons of time and positions taking lots of wrong turns up and down trails until he found the right path.
This year, the race started about the same. For the first time ever, Joseph and Cole each took a team in the same race. Joseph had the A-team, while Cole took the B-team and puppies. We launched teams from a plowed icy parking lot where getting a brake to bite was not possible. Then we threaded through an outdoor patio, around a pile of pallets, to cross a paved road and take a hard, dropping turn down into a ditch. Poor Joseph had two people fall ONTO his team before he even had made it 100 yards, and he also flipped his sled when entering the ditch. Cole made it with few problems though.
The first half of the race went well for both, despite the that trail did a series of weird loops where the trail would cross itself, so musher had to pay close attention at the 4-way intersection to know when and where to take the right turns, since all were marked the same.
At the halfway checkpoint, a camp set up on Flathorn Lake, things began to take a turn for the worse. A storm blew in and brought mild wind, but steady snow. It fell the whole time teams were on their mandatory 8-hour breaks. Cole and Joseph made the best of it, they burst a bale of straw next to a sled, out of the wind, then spread their sleeping bags over each other and huddled together to stay warm and get some rest. Meanwhile, the checkers and trail markers/breakers for the second half of the race had brought out a jug of whiskey and got piss drunk while we rested our teams. A couple guys passed out and the others left on snowmachines seconds before the first teams to go put in trail for them. The drove through three feet of soft powder with no base, just throwing out markers along the way, but then between the alcohol they drank and the storm, they got lost out on the trail. They would go up a trail, realize it was wrong, then turn around and go to another, but they would leave the trail markers they left.
As a result, teams were wallowing through thigh deep snow, with the trail blowing in behind them, only to find that markers would end and there was no where to go but back.
This became such a debacle that after about 2 hours, the entire race field had caught up to each other and after several horrible head on passes, everyone agreed to get moving the same direction and work together to (at the time) go back to the halfway point and wring the necks of the trail markers. This was the most surreal experience we have ever had in a race. There were points when the entire caravan would dead-end and you could see the headlamps of 13-14 teams all in unison button-hooking their teams around in the soft powder. Dogs were getting tangled in the lines, hooks were pulling, mushers were getting pinned under their sled – it was nothing short of a fiasco. Joseph alone turned his team around no less than a dozen times.
Finally between a little bit of dumb luck and Joseph using a GPS for the first time ever (but forever from here on out), about half the field stumbled back onto the correct trail. The race resumed again.
Joseph did well, constantly switching positions with Rich Savoyski and Deb Moderow. A lot of peddling and ski poling was the only thing that kept him out front at times. He finished third overall, and got a sweet trophy, but divided his winnings with fourth place finisher Rich, because Rich had showed a lot of sportsmanship during the race by waiting for Joseph, Cole and other teams to make sure they were on the right trail and doing O.K., which cost him a lot of time in the end. Sadly, Cole took a wrong turn on the way back and ended up doing an additional 20 miles of trail, which was too bad because she was running in 6th place after the mess. In the end she came in 14th and received her first Red Lantern Award. She’s totally bummed. Joseph knows just how she feels since he had the same thing happen last season. It is tough to know you had a better team then where you finished, but there’s nothing she can do about it now, and after getting lost two years in a row, Joseph and Cole can’t say they will be going back next year. Too bad because the race is really, really fun when you’re not lost, and the people that put in on are good-hearted folks. The race just needs a little bit better marking and organization while running. If it gets it, this race will become an annual event for Joseph and Colleen.
Look for photos tomorrow, since we still haven’t downloaded them yet.
With the bulk of the racing season out of the way, we have been focusing on giving back to the those that helped us. One way to say thanks to people is to give sled dog rides, so we have been busy giving tours to family, friends, sponsors and others. We had family up for end of the Quest and here is a photo of Cole’s brother Will (who has been helping run dogs since Joseph picked up an extra day at work) giving a ride to their mom.
School groups often follow the big sled dog races, since instructors can use them to teach lessons about history (when dog sleds were used for transportation and mail delivery), geography (from following a musher on a map), and math (adding up the times mushers are on the trail or in checkpoints. Colleen was invited to one of the local schools after the Quest, to talk about her experiences, and she of course brought a few canine helpers, which all the kids loved.
In this image Cole took the kids outside to practice how the dogs pull a sled.
Here is the class pulling their teacher, with Cole as the lead dog.
We also will do tours for churches, community events or children’s birthday parties. This past week we had a very successful tour at a church in Kenai, many children and adults got the first dog sled ride of their lives. In this image, Joseph gives a ride to an Eskimo elder, who had lived in Alaska her whole life, but never ridden behind dogs. She said the experience was a blast!
After the race, Cole and the family went to Chena Hot Springs. Cole really enjoyed soaking her sore muscles in this naturally occurring phenomena. It was really neat to be outdoors and swimming comfortable with snow flying and the mercury hanging at well below freezing.
O.K. So I know somebody out there is wondering what the heck these photos have to do with anything. Honestly, not much, other than that the annual World Ice Art Championship was going on right next to our hotel in Fairbanks so we popped in for a look, which made them part of the overall experience of being away from home. These were just a few of the awesome sculptures there.
This one looks right out of Heavy Metal magazine, huh?
This is the only shot I got of Cole at the finish, due to a series of unfortunate incidents to long to go into here. Sadly, since she came in a 5 a.m. and (due to a blistering pace on the last leg. She had the fastest run of all the finishers) more than an hour faster than most race officials expected, no media outlets were on hand to get photos of her either.
After the race, Cole’s duties were still not done. She had to attend several meeting and a poster signing event for fans, of which most of hers seemed to be children.
Despite all the meetings, Cole manage to find time to cut loose and have fun with some other her follow mushers. Here is a clean-shaven Slightholme (quite a contrast from the 101 photo, huh), and Marshal, the Jamaican musher mentioned in an earlier post.
After conquering Eagle Summit, despite stormy condition and the darkness of night, Cole and the team finally made it into the 101 Dog Drop. This may seem like a bit of a crummy photo at first glance, but this image really captured the essence of seeing her and the team pull into the remote location, under minimal light, in the wee hours of the morning.
Cole and Brittish musher Mark Sleightholme swap stories from the harrowing ordeal getting over the summit. Cole, Sleightholme and Jamaican musher Newton Marshal, ended up moving together for miles during the race due to similar schedules and evenly matched teams. As a result they developed quite a friendship.
This is how the 101 dog drop looked from the outside, but inside mushers were treated to a fantastic meal of cooked shrimp, sausage, and corn on the cob.
Here is Cole in Central, putting blankets on the dogs again, as she did at every checkpoint to help them be comfortable and conserve calories.
For those who have never been to one of Cole’s races, she and the dogs really do live out of the sled while on the trail, only poking into checkpoints to resupply from dropbags such as these.
In Central they really know how to care for trail weary mushers. Everyone that makes it this far in the race gets a free steak dinner. Everything on the table in front of Cole was complimentary and she ate all of it. She really need the energy too, because this late in the race fatigue was starting to set in big time, as evident by her tired face in this photo.