I completed my last night shift and was off work at 6:30 AM Monday morning (Dec 29) and back on the 12 hour day shift at 6 AM Wed and Thurs morning. This didn’t help my circadian rhythm at all. I didn’t sleep very well Thursday and Friday night, mostly pre-race jitters and worrying if I have all of my equipment and am I ready for this event. Since the entry fee was paid and non-refundable, we might as well go.
We went to the driver’s meeting on Friday night and I drew bib #9. This meant I had 31 mushers behind me, either professional or really experienced mushers.
Saturday morning rolls around and it was a very cold -12 when Mary was up at 5 AM to feed and water dogs. She let me sleep until 6 AM. I packed the last of the frozen snacks in the sled and we loaded it into the dog truck. We got the dogs loaded and off to the Knik Bar to get set-up. As I load Timber into his top box, I felt an excruciating pain and no strength in my left shoulder to push Timber into his box. Timber had to push off my shoulder to get into his box. It felt like someone jabbed a knife in the shoulder socket. I thought this wasn’t good, but then quickly forgot about this issue as I didn’t have to lift anything else over my head.
All went well finding our parking spot and getting set up. Mary helped get the dogs dropped and started preparing their water. Jill showed up and was a tremendous help throughout. Karl made it and was good at watching our dogs in close proximity to the dogs parked next to us. During the Fairbanks dog show we met Ken, who owns and runs a small team of Siberians. Ken recently moved from Fairbanks to Knik and showed up for the start. He also volunteered to help us out.
This was a great crew and took care of everything. This allowed me to focus on my sled and making sure I had everything. I didn’t worry about a thing.
The time came to harness and booty and get the dogs to the line. Jill held the leaders and Mary double checked harnesses and booties. The race marshal waved us to the line and all went well. I noticed there were people on both side of the chute and further down taking pictures and video. Since the team has never experienced this, it should prove interesting. I get the team to the line and hook down. I chat with the race marshal and then the timer calls 1 minute. I ask Ken to stand on the brake and don’t trust anything. I go up to the front and talk to my lead dogs, Bear and Luna, and make my way back petting each of the dogs. I get back to the sled and the timer calls 15 seconds. At 5 seconds the race marshal moves his foot from the hook and I pull it at 2 seconds and we are off. The first few steps were a bit odd as Bear and Luna noticed all of the spectators. They pulled the team together and we looked really good going out, especially in time for the photographs. I had both feet on the drag in hopes to keep them slow, but that didn’t work so well. Surprisingly I wasn’t nervous.
Knowing the team was under conditioned and we lost some training days between Christmas and the start, the plan was to run a very conservative and slow race to Luce’s where we would feed and camp for about 4 hours. Luce’s was about the halfway point between the start and Skwentna. Skwentna was the halfway point with a mandatory 6 hour rest. I would use the same strategy on the way home.
Going up 3 mile hill, I noticed a sled dog with booties and a harness following us. It looked like he may have chewed through his tug line and got loose from one of the earlier teams. I attempted to call Mary and had her relay to the race marshal the loose dog, but only heard voice mail and I left a message. I noticed another musher coming up from behind me and the loose dog was playing with his leaders. I planted my hook and let him pass and the loose dog went with him. He was not amused by this loose dog. I was glad it went with him as I won’t have to deal with this.
Going up 9 mile hill the loose dog is there to greet us. He is friendly with the dogs, but is moving between the leaders and the team dogs and this is throwing off their pace, not to mention really annoying me. Then he gets ahead of us and runs faster causing the team to go into chase mode expending valuable energy when I want them to go slow.
Just before the turn for the Burma Rd crossing the loose dog goes straight and Bear and Luna taking the Haw command and the loose dog saga is now behind us and somebody else’s problem.
At the 10 mile point, the trail guard has traffic stopped and waves us across. As we cross the road we are surprised to see Mary, Jill and Karl. The dogs did great not stopping to see their Mommy and kept going.
The next 6 or so miles were uneventful with teams passing us. This was predicted and the passes went great. Then one of my snow shoes fell off the sled. Now I take the time to tie the team off to a tree as I am not willing to trust both snow hooks, not to mention there is another team getting closer. The last thing I want is for a team to go by and then the dogs pop the hook and I am walking. We have lived this scenario before and it’s not good for anyone. While I am reclaiming my snowshoe, Bear and Luna turn the team to follow me. At least I don’t have to worry about them leaving me. I get them turned back around and get the couple of tangles undone and noticed the snap on Tolby’s tug line has broken. In my six years of mushing, I have never seen or heard of a brass snap breaking at the bend. No worries, I retrieve my sled repair kit and fix the brass snap. Then I noticed the s-hook that holds the brass snap from the cable neckline to the dogs collar is bent and now the brass snap is hanging from Tolby’s collar and the neckline is dangling near the ground. I pull out the spare brass snap and go to work on Tolby’s tugline. As Tolby is hanging out with me, almost getting in the way of my repair, I realize something is not right and he shouldn’t be this close to me. Then it hits me, there is nothing holding Tolby to the gangline. He just wandered over to me and hung out. I get him hooked up to the tug line and put a quick-link between the cable neckline and the brass snap, hook Tolby’s neckline to his collar, untangle the team, remove and stow the rope and we are off again.
I noticed the team starting to lose a little bit of steam and I predicted this. Instead of making it to Luce’s in 6 hours it looked like it might be 7 hours. No worries as I planned 7 hour runs between stops. As we drop onto Flathorn Lake, there is a nice view of Mt. Susitna. It takes a little longer than I expected to get off of Flathorn Lake and through Dismal Swamp. The swamp is about 3 miles long. Other than the close up view of Mt. Susitna and Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background the swamp is not very exciting. The sun is pretty much down and there is still enough light to see without a headlamp. As I look at the clear sky I know it’s going to get colder really soon.
We drop onto the Susitna River and make the run toward the Yentna River and we are slowing down. I noticed I had cell coverage and call Mary to let her know we are moving really slow and I may not push the team to Skewntna, but not to worry. We make the turn onto the Yentna and start running to Luce’s. Luce’s is about 9 miles from us. I look at my watch and we have been running for about 7 hours. This isn’t good as we left the chute at 11:18 AM. At 7 PM, we still aren’t at Luce’s and I don’t have any idea how far up the river it is. I make the decision that we will stop and camp at 8 PM no matter what. If we haven’t reached Luce’s then the writing may very well be on the wall.
At 8 PM, we sill aren’t at Luce’s and the dogs have been running for about 8 hours and 40 minutes. I think I see a Neon light around the next bend, but told myself I was sticking firm to my decision and won’t play the “it’s just around the bend”game with my dogs. I want to get them fed and let them rest.
Before I can get their coats on them, all but Lasar has laid down and have settled in. I get the cooker going and start prepping food. Nine of the 12 dogs eat and are still hungry, so I give them so more food. I try to coax the other 3 into eating, but they just want to sleep.
I attempted to feed myself and get organized. I then decide to look at my thermometer and it registered in at -34 degrees Fahrenheit (yes that’s a minus). Still packed in my sled were my Northern Outfitter’s wind garments, which will make me 10 degrees warmer, my second set of heavy poly’s and a pair of windshear fleece pants. I put on my Cabela’s insulator jacket to do my chores and then when I stopped to eat, I put my parka back on and was pleasantly warm. Hand warmers were of course present and kept my hands warm while doing chores. I was still warm and not miserable just worried about the team.
About 11:30 PM, I see a headlamp bouncing down the Yentna River coming at us. It’s a dog team and as they get closer, I can see a race bib. The musher has a concerned look on her face and keeps driving the team. I tried to say something, but she is focused on keeping her team moving. I know they didn’t make Skwentna as they would have had to do the mandatory rest, so she most likely is scratching for one reason or another.
As I watch the team, they are resting and look really tired. I realize the right answer is to take the team home and get them back to the house. I am a little frustrated and depressed at my decision to scratch, but realize it’s the best thing for the health of the team. They are a young team and I want to end on a happy note. They experienced a great deal that we can’t duplicate on the trails at home and we can build on this for the future. As they rest I reviewed the valuable lessons I learned and re-learned.
After 4 hours, I remove coats and have the sled packed up. I then booty and turn the team around and off we go.