{Tsuga Siberians}
January 2nd, 2009 - "GinGin 100"

Getting Ready
Cool, Calm, Collected - Ready To Go

Happy New Year! Hope you all had great holidays.

We spent Christmas packing up for the GinGin 200, which starts down in Paxson, Alaska, about 200 miles south of us here in Two Rivers. I had run the race last year, and was really looking forward to having another good showing in a race that sets up pretty well for our team. The weather was forecast to be in the -20 range and the dogs were as ready as we knew how to get them. Things were looking good.

Paxson lies just on the south side of the Alaska Range and we have to drive through the mountains on the Richardson Highway to get there. This road is notorious for wind and blowing snow, and Friday’s drive lived up to the reputation. It was a preview of things to come. Paxson, which is more of a place than town, was down out of the wind and we got the dogs dropped from the truck and fed as darkness fell around 4pm. We went over to Paxson Lodge, where they answer the phone, “Paxson,” and had some dinner and a beer or two at the bar as other mushers, handlers, and race volunteers filed through checking in, eating, and chatting. Eventually it was time to go drop dogs from the boxes again and we pulled ourselves away from hanging out with a pretty interesting and diverse group of folks. I fell off to sleep as Sue stayed up for another late night dog drop.

Race morning came early and we had dogs fed and stretched before the drivers’ meeting at 8am. Trail boss and race organizer John Schandelmeier told us about some winds on the first leg where we are on the closed-in-winter Denali Highway. He said there would be some exposed stretches of pavement and gravel and that we should prepare for at least minus forty wind-chills. That was a bit worrisome, but nothing we haven’t dealt with before. After watching all of the women start and most of the men, it was finally time to get the dogs harnessed and bootied for our early afternoon start at the back of the field, almost two hours behind the first team out (based on order of entry with women going first.) Eliza was to have been on the team, but she showed us she had picked up the stomach bug that has been slowly working through the kennel for over a month now. It has only affected a dog or two at a time and hasn’t really been a major problem, but it pretty well knocks each dog off for several days. Trip got substituted immediately and joined Stump, Mugs, Reba, Wilson, Gila, Logan, Merlin, Ambler, and Hood on the 10 dog team. As I brought the almost-too-calm team to the start line, I had already made a mistake: I didn’t put the dog coats on the team. With the temperature around 0 degrees, I didn’t heed the wind warning enough. Our dogs have some of the very best natural coats out there and are usually much more prone to overheating than frostbite, but the conditions we were soon to encounter were not usual.
Bill McKee & Mike Pre-race
Mike chatting with Lance Mackey.

We took off out of the start with a nice even pace. The very heavy sled, packed for 200 miles of travel with no re-supply, and the uphill grade controlled our pace, along with my foot on the drag pad. After about 10 miles of good travel, the first breezes began to blow and the snow-packed road began to give way to the ice-glazed pavement. Within a couple more miles, things got serious. Wind-blown snow obscured all but our immediate surroundings. The “trail” alternated between pavement and deep, soft drifts. We passed several groups of teams that had been blown off the road and in the ditch and were dealing with tangles and dogs that didn’t want to go into a very strong wind. It was impossible to stop and help anyone. My awesome leader Stump was hugging the right hand edge of the road, which kept us moving along as best as possible. I ducked in to the wind, but still was continually loosing the fight to keep the sled in line behind the team. The sled and I were being blown across to the other side of the road, dragging the back half of the team diagonally across. The dogs fought and clawed to keep us moving while I did all I could to stay with them and the sled. Even the very best were struggling, and at one point I passed Lance Mackey as he tried to get his team back on to the road from the ditch. After about 10 miles of the worst mushing you’d ever want to do, the wind began to die and snow again became the primary surface of the trail. Many mushers, including me, stopped to change shredded booties, snack the dogs, regroup, and thank their teams for getting through. The dogs seemed glad to be out of the wind, but it was also clear the wind had taken a toll. I can read my teams’ attitude and I didn’t like what I was seeing.

We got back underway, but the teams’ pace was slow and enthusiasm was lacking. I made a couple more short stops to scratch ears and try to perk them up. At 31 miles from the start, we turn off the road and on to a 19-mile loop up in to the Alaska Range. It is very beautiful, but darkness had fallen by now and I’m not sure I could have enjoyed it even if it was light. The team had taken some knocks. Both wheel dogs, Ambler and Hood, weren’t pulling very much. I stopped to look them over after Mitch Seavey had passed me. Both of them were sore in their rear ends from having gotten pulled sideways so much when they took the brunt of the blowing sled’s weight. Merlin and Trip both seemed to have followed Eliza and started with the stomach bug. The team was at about 60%, at best. I completely gave up any thoughts of racing at this point and we slowly made our way through the very punchy and soft trail to Maclaren Lodge. It had taken us 7 hours to do 50 miles. Last year, I thought it was a slow run when it took us 6 hours.

We got checked in and the team parked on the frozen Maclaren River. I got snacks to the dogs, dog coats on, booties off, straw distributed, meal soaking in hot water, and began to work through each dog individually. Hood and Ambler both got extended massage to sooth their sore hips and rear legs. Merlin, Trip, and Wilson all got an anti-diarrheal to sooth their upset stomachs. Then I found frostbite on both Stump and Logan at a rather sensitive spot. The “area” had already thawed, but they had swelling and obvious discomfort. I put some ointment on them, tucked straw up around my sleeping beauties, and slogged off to the lodge to dry myself out and get something to eat.

Logan & Stump in the Dog Barn
Runner wear from pavement.

Everyone had a tale to tell in the lodge. Some mushers had already headed off to sleep in one of the cabins, but there were plenty of folks around drying gear, eating, drinking, and talking about the weather. “What’s your time out?” and “Did you stay on the road?” seemed to be the most asked questions. It was the first question that I couldn’t stop thinking about. My team was roughed up. I watched the thermometer begin to fall from minus 20 when I arrived to minus 39 when I finally got up to visit with the team as my departure time neared. Despite barking teams parked all around us, preparing to leave, my guys stayed curled up tightly, not showing any signs of wanting to go anywhere. With more than half of the team showing some malady, I decided that for the first time since the 2003 season, I should scratch from a race. I found the race marshal and gave her my news. Unlike some races where you scratch and 5 minutes later your handler is loading dogs into the truck, I still had 42 long, cold miles to contend with to get to the truck. I decided to spend the night, giving the dogs a long 12-hour break from when we had arrived and leave in the pre-dawn hours so as to get to the windy section in the light. After checking on the dogs and giving them another snack, I tucked myself in to a bunk bed in the mushers cabin.

After several fitful hours of sleep, my alarm went off and I headed for the lodge to prepare for the minus 40 run out to Paxson. No one had come in overnight, so I had no report about the wind or trail conditions. Another musher who had scratched was also preparing to head back and we made a pact to stick together on the run back. I had met Iris last year and knew our teams would be somewhere close in speed although I told her I had no idea how mine were going to react. She pulled out a couple minutes ahead of us, but we caught up fairly quickly and went by. After a few miles, I stopped to replace a couple booties (they are much harder to put on correctly at 40 below) and Iris came back by. We caught up again, but not wanting to place any extra stress on either team, I just kept taking short little stops and avoided passing. At about 20 miles, it started again. We could see the blowing snow ahead and then could hear the wind. Iris had to stop to wait for us several times as I was having serious issues staying on the road as the wind increased to 40 or more miles per hour. Our team is trained to run on the right hand side of the trail/road. They were doing just as they were trained, but with the wind from the north and us traveling east, this gave me a very thin margin to stay on the road. Going out, our gee-over had worked to our advantage, now it was a major liability. At one point in a slight depression out of the worst winds, Iris stopped and I hollered up to her that I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep moving and that she should go ahead. I didn’t want her to stall out on our account. Moving again, we found that even more pavement had been exposed and the wind only got worse. I found myself holding the snow hook, which is attached to the gangline at the front of the sled, and running alongside the sled pulling it back on to the road. There was no other way. If I had stood on the runners we would have rolled over the bank and into the willows and rocks of the ditch. It was a pretty desperate situation. My friend Renee, who was working as a Vet for the race came along on a snowmachine, hauling some dropped dogs in covered crates. I was at my breaking point, physically and mentally exhausted. That may sound overdramatic, but I think she could see it my eyes. She offered to have me tie on to the machine, but it was obvious she was already at her max to keep it and her trailing sled of dogs on the road. I told her to go ahead, but to send help back if that was possible. As she disappeared in the wind-blown snow, I fought ahead with dogs that were amazing me in their perseverance. Another mile of miserable travel and we came to Iris and her team off the edge of the road in the ditch. She was settling in and waiting for some help. Her dogs simply would not stay on the windy road anymore. I hollered down to her that help would be on the way, but that I was going to keep going. As long as my dogs would hold on the road, I vowed to try to get myself out of this. Leaving her gave me a bad feeling, but she was prepared as could be and there was no doubt that help was on the way.

We crested the 13-Mile hill and looked down at a completely bare road ahead, except for the layer of snow blowing across it. Somehow I ran and slid on my side down the steep, curved hill to a pull out that was slightly out of the wind. I could barely stand up. I stopped the team in the drifted snow off the edge of the road and set to changing my wet hat and facemasks. I was again soaked from exertion and once I stopped I knew that was going to be a major problem, but I just couldn’t go on. After ten minutes or so of sitting in the lee of the sled, I heard a noise that sounded like an airplane coming to land. It was trail boss John coming down the hill on his snowmachine. The noise was from the metal skis grating on the pavement and somehow being amplified on the wind. He stopped along side me to say that I was less than a mile from getting out of the wind. I told him I was spent. He asked if the team would get up. I said they would, hopefully. He said he’d drive in front of the leaders and try to get them to the left hand side of the road. I called to Stump, “Ready?” They all stood up and shook off the snow that had already nearly buried them in only about 15 minutes of being stopped. I again had to resort to running along the sled holding the snow hook, but John was right and we were out of the wind soon. What a relief. Now I just had 10 miles to go of decent travel but couldn’t stop thinking of Iris in that ditch 5 miles back. When Bill McKee and Renee’s husband Rob got to me on their snowmachine coming in from Paxson and expecting to have to rescue me, I told them to continue on to Iris.

Richardson Highway north of Paxson

We pulled on in to Paxson around 1:30 in the afternoon after spending 6 hours on the 42 miles from Maclaren. I have never been so proud of my team or so emotional to have a run over with, not even at the Quest finish last year. It was amazing to have a team that was feeling so poorly out at Maclaren be able to get themselves back through such horrible conditions. My dogs have humbled me before, but this one took the cake. I told Sue as we worked through the dogs to make them feel like they had just won the race!

Thankfully, after getting changed and waiting for what seemed like forever, Iris and her team were led in by snowmachine and we rushed out of the lodge to greet her. She and her dogs were fine and glad to have that over with. While I certainly wish we didn’t have to scratch, I am confident that I made the correct decisions for my team and have no regrets about deciding to end the race when I did.

We stuck around Paxson for the night, being too tired to make the drive back to Two Rivers. Luckily, the wind died down to some moderate gusts and the folks who had endured temps that fell to as cold as minus 50 on the middle loop of the race, didn’t have to deal with as bad winds coming in the last leg. We were able to see some friends bring their teams in Monday morning and once back home we were grateful to finally see the website reports of all mushers having gotten in from a brutal 2008 GinGin.

Now, here in Two Rivers, we are in a cold snap with temps holding between minus 30 and minus 40. We don’t dare run very long in these conditions, but are trying to maintain the team at a decent level heading in to the Copper Basin 300, starting January tenth. Stump and Logan are living in the McKee’s’ garage/dog barn for now, trying to heal up. Hopefully they’ll be able to go on Copper Basin, but at this point that doesn’t look good. Everyone else in the dog yard seems to have recovered completely from the weekend and yesterday’s 30-mile run went well. We’re hoping for the best and trying to hold our team together for the Quest in only 6 weeks…

All our best. Thanks for checking in.


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