{Tsuga Siberians}

January 2nd, 2010 - “I Smiled”

Alaska Range

The drive down.

Happy New Year, all! We wish you a great new year with the reminder, it will be what you make of it. So, go MAKE it a great year for yourself and those around you. We’ll be trying to do the same…

After the Gingin race changed it’s course from the road/wind debacle of last year, to the same leg that I remember so fondly from my first race in Alaska, 2 and a half years ago, I decided it was time to go racing. This race runs in really remote, beautiful country and the whole route is on frozen (or mostly anyway) lakes and rivers, starting at Wolverine Lodge on Lake Louise and running 109 miles to Maclaren Lodge in the Alaska Range for a 8-hour layover and then returning by the same route. Honestly, as a kid, I was deathly afraid of lake ice. It still scares me to a point. So, I knew I needed to run this race…

I had a super drive down through the Alaska Range and followed or passed a few dog trucks along the way, heading for the race, too. With just myself and the ten dogs that would race, the truck was fairly light and the driving pretty easy. We stopped and took a break halfway and the dogs were as relaxed as I was. This team has done so much traveling that they are very comfortable on the road. I got to Wolverine just as it was getting dark and was the only musher there, except for race organizers John and Zoya. Trying to save a bit of cash where I could, I set-up our Arctic Oven tent and camped next to the truck and the dogs. I think they appreciated it.

Pee Break

Mass start lineup

This race started as a women’s-only race 5 or 6 years ago. Then they started allowing men in their own division 3 years ago, and that has remained. Personally, I dislike the division and enjoy the fact that usually mushers are just mushers and it doesn’t matter what gender, race, affiliation, or style you bring, it’s just you and your dogs. But, this is a well-organized race over cool country with a good format for how we’ve been training. I do hope they will eventually drop the separation. Anyway, with the start being on the lake, it allowed them to do a mass start and the women left at 11am followed by all the men at noon. When the truck parked out on the ice facing back at us blinked its headlights, it was time to go. Having parked on the far edge of the bay to be out of the way with my tent, I had to call Stump and Trip to go haw through some soft snow and over to the trail after letting about half the field get started first, knowing our team would not be among the fastest at the beginning. They understood we needed to get over behind those teams and did a great job putting us on track. With an ice fog hanging on the lake, it was pretty cool traveling with 20+ teams in a long line, where you couldn’t see the start or the end. For much of the 23 miles of lake, teams ran next to each other, passed and re-passed, chatted, and enjoyed a slow warm-up period over soft trail on top of glare ice that didn’t really have the snow adhered to it. With heavy sleds loaded for 218 miles of travel without resupply, the dogs didn’t fight against the drag mat too much and settled in to a nice steady trot.

Once in to the Tyone River a few miles, we got to the first overflow sections. There was glare ice from bank to bank with water several inches to nearly a foot deep on it. The leaders did a nice job keeping us out of the deeper holes for the most part and I didn’t get too wet. I think it was around zero degrees, so things froze up pretty quickly and I would have liked to change dog boots, but around every bend in the river, was more overflow. Most of it was only 2-6 inches deep and so wasn’t a major concern for my safety/comfort, but the dogs’ boots got very icy. Finally at 40 miles from the start, a tributary creek comes in and the ice conditions changed enough that the overflow mostly ended. I stopped, snacked the dogs for the second time, and put dry boots on the whole team, about a 20 minute operation. The plan was to do the whole 109-mile leg in a “straight-thru” run. This means that I make lots of stops. To go that far without a longer rest takes a lot more dog care on the trail than just doing a 50-60 mile run. Keeping enough food and water in the team is critical. So is keeping them happy and focused on the task at hand. To do this, I never run more than an hour without stopping and walking up and down the team, giving each dog some attention and care, replacing thrown booties, and loving them up. Snacks on this race came every 2 to 2.5 hours and I usually stop for 10-15 minutes at each of them. So you can see that “straight thru” is kind of relative.

Before even reaching the Susitna River at the halfway point of the leg, we had passed 5 or 6 teams that had stopped to camp already. Wilson had been moved up to run with Stump in lead as Trip was having some trouble passing parked teams, of which we were now seeing in some large groups and scattered along a couple back sloughs and river bank. The trail on the Su was a little rough for a few stretches where it went over rocky, gravel bars and the snow was not consolidated and set-up. The dogs’ feet went down between loose rocks and the runners grated on the rocks, feeling like I was braking to the dogs. This really slowed our pace and it took us two hours to go the 13 miles up the Su to the mouth of the Maclaren River. With 42 miles left to go to the checkpoint, we were crawling and I almost let it get me down. But the nearly full moon was so bright I didn’t need to use my headlamp, I was in doG’s country, all ten tug lines we tight, and we were moving steadily along. Knowing that trailbreakers had been down this far from Maclaren, I made the gee turn up the Mac, and was very happy to feel a surge in the team as we hit much firmer trail. A smile grew across my face as I checked my clock (9:45pm) and passed a couple more camped teams on our way to Maclaren Lodge, back up to a 8-9 mph pace.

Camped at the far end.

Staring line camp

We made our way through the Maclaren Canyon, over some pretty scary sections where the trail ran within a few feet of open, rushing water that would make a quick end of anyone that fell in. I turned up my iPod so as not to hear the flowing water. The dogs recognized the danger and picked up the pace, forcing me to ride the drag mat again, after having gone so slow 20 miles back. Just past a small cabin that is a 20-mile landmark from Maclaren, we went in to 10-12 inches of overflow for a hundred yards. It was time for a snack and I made another longer stop to change booties again and give another snack. They devoured the snack, enjoyed the fresh boots, and rolled in the snow like we were 10 miles from the truck, not 90. Again, I smiled.

Not long after getting moving again, I saw a headlamp a ways behind us. I could tell it was someone on a sit-down sled and figured it was either Mitch or his son Dallas, Seavey. With a little pedaling from me, we went the last ten miles or so with that team back there but not really gaining on us. Darrin Lee signed me in to the checkpoint with Dallas coming along three minutes behind and parking next to us on the river, below the lodge. I was in some pretty fine mushing company with Mackey teams parked to my right, Lance just in front of us, and two Seavey teams to my left, as Mitch had come in as I finished up my chores with the team. I spent a little extra time giving rubs and putting on wrist wraps before flipping up the sled and knocking about 20 pounds of ice from it’s underside. Then up to the lodge for a cheeseburger and a nap, after spreading out wet mitts and boots around the woodstove, soaking the dogs’ next meal, washing up, and saying Hi to Susie and Alan who own the lodge that has been a checkpoint for me in this, my third Gingin as well as the 2007 Taiga. It’s nice to know your way around a checkpoint, especially one as nice as this!!

Back up and at ‘em, I fed the team another meal at 8am as the moon was setting. After getting some breakfast myself, I was back down with the dogs, giving some rubs to sleeping beauties in their straw. The sun was coming up now and the Alaska Range was glowing pink and white. It was simply amazing. After watching Cain and Newton head out about half an hour before we could leave, I didn’t really think I’d see those two teams from Lance’s kennel again before the finish. And with Dallas leaving just 3 minutes behind me, and Mitch less than an hour back, I had teams of some of the very best sleddogs in the world around me. I resigned myself to not worry at all about position and just get the team back to Wolverine in great shape. Wilson and Merlin pulled us off the straw and headed us down the river.

Within only a couple miles, Dallas caught and passed us, just as I expected. Logan was a little stiff getting going and I kept our pace slower than the dogs wanted to go, although I know I didn’t have to brake as hard as I could tell Dallas was. I was really surprised to see Dallas stopped and pulled off the trail just 20 miles down the river at a cabin. I was even more surprised when he told me I was gaining on Cain and Newton and they were less than 10 minutes ahead of me. I smiled, again.

We got down through the ice bridges and by the flowing water without mishaps although I was sure a couple of those ice bridges were even closer to the water than before, having caved in a bit with all the traffic. At one spot where we were near, but not too near, an open channel, I stopped to snack the team. Confront your fears! The dogs didn’t wait for the “let’s go” when I said “ready?” The team’s speed was a little up-and-down through the daylight hours and as we got to the Susitna. I worried about getting back to the soft trail and having our pace drop further, but was pleased to find the trail had set-up considerably and we maintained a decent pace, even through the rocky sections. Thankfully, the snow was now holding the rocks in place and keeping the sled above most of them, so it was a much smoother ride for dogs and sled. At one place where I could see a long ways down the river, I saw a team. I tried to pick where they were and timed how long it took us to get there, and the best I could do was 15 minutes. So I figured we were back to loosing time on them and I forgot about any idea of catching them. We turned in to the Tyone River at 4:19pm, having gone halfway home in under 6 hours. I smiled a big smile.

It was time for another break and I stopped to snack some meat and chicken broth cubes to keep the dogs hydrated. I poured some coffee from my thermos down my throat and got going again. A few more miles of winding our way down the Tyone and I we came around the corner to find Newton and Cain stopped in the middle of the trail. I stopped behind and tried to decide if I should pass now and try to get ahead of them, or to hold back and follow until we got closer to the finish. Knowing that the overflow sections were just ahead, I decided to use this stop to remove all the booties and let the dogs run barefoot until we were through the anticipated 15 miles of slush and water. Before I finished with my team, Cain and Newton had left and pulled away. Moving again, we caught them and I decided to just hold back and let them lead us along, reducing stress on my team and allowing me to take a few extra short breaks to keep them ahead of us, but within sight. I was surprised to see them pull off in to the cabin 40 miles from the finish and it appeared they were going to camp their teams for a while. “Later, Mon!” was what I heard as I said “on by, boys!”

I was quite pleased to find that nearly all of the overflow had frozen up and was just jagged, re-frozen ice to negotiate. I was pretty tired by now and my body wasn’t working at 100% or even very close. I slipped and fell on the ice a couple times. One of the wipeouts was a real acrobatic thing as my feet somehow went out to the side of the sled, in front of me while I held the handlebar and did a trapeze sort of move to land flat on my back and pop back up on to the runners in a single movement that made me break out laughing. I had barely got myself back under control when I came up to another team that had stopped to camp. Stump and Merlin took us on by and I asked the musher if they were ok and had everything they needed, as my sled was still heavy with extra gear. Jason Mackey replied he was all set and just asked me to tell his wife Lisa that he was going to camp for three more hours and he was fine. “No problem.” Just after his camp, we passed the last of the overflow and I stopped to re-boot the team for the last 30 miles in.

The team kept up a nice pace through the rest of the Tyone, past a small bull moose in the willows, and on to the still fogged-in lakes. With a bright moon overhead and fog all around, but not above, it was a really cool ride across the lakes. Expecting to see a Seavey or two coming along from behind, I kept up a steady kick to help the dogs and had my head nearly screwed on backwards. The only thing we saw the whole way across was a couple of snowmachines that scared me because they were much closer to me than I would have liked before I knew they were there. They gave us a wide-berth as soon as I could get my headlamp turned on and signaling them. We came around the last point and in to the bay to see the lights of Wolverine Lodge with no headlamps visible behind. I smiled.

As the Mackey clan was expecting Jason to be next in, the large group of them was down on the lake to see me come in. I don’t think I have ever finished a distance race with so many people at the finish. This time, not a single one of them was expecting me. They had to erase where Jason’s name had already been written in on the sign-in sheet to make room for my name. After checking for my mandatory gear, I went up to thank the dogs for a job very well done. Lance, who had won the race, was standing at my sled when I got back to it, and I told him about his teams (Cain and Newton) and his brother and that they were all well, just camping. He congratulated me with a firm handshake and a look in the eye that said, “Yeah, I was expecting my brother, but nice job, Mike.” I couldn’t help but smile. Brent agreed to take my leaders to get me past all the other dog trucks and over to ours where he congratulated me and I him, for his second-place finish. Thanks Brent. One of the Wolverine guys came over and offered to bring some hot water from the lodge and put in an order for my first cheeseburger. Thanks.

The team had done the return leg in just over 13 hours. It had taken us just over 14.5 on the first leg. The whole race of 218 miles took us under 36 hours, including the 8 hour rest in the middle. It was good enough for 5th place in the men’s division and there were just two women who had faster times. With dogs undressed and fed and put to bed in the truck, I started a fire in the tent woodstove and went to the lodge for some burgers and beers. We’d had a great race and I wished Sue was there to celebrate with me, but I had a beer for her.

Back up in a few hours to drop dogs and water them again, I watched a steady stream of teams continue in throughout the day and right up into the finishers meeting that afternoon. Our friends Cody and Paige came in and were happy to have finished their first race ever, together. Nice job guys. At the awards meeting we were very honored to win the Vet’s Choice Award!! AGAIN!!! I really smiled. Thanks Stump, Merlin, Wilson, Mugs, Trip, Lotus, Logan, Hood, Ambler, and Hawkeye. You guys rock!!!

Now on to the Copper Basin 300 next weekend and Quest is just around the corner. Let’s hope we can keep smiling…

Is that the sun?

Nothing to look at.

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