{Tsuga Siberians}

February 25, 2006 - “It's Snowing!”

Lotus, Moon & Trip

Got ice?


Reba knows what to do!

Wilson gets his chance too!


Good Hood! Hood & Eliza get their first run in harness.

It’s finally snowing here after the worst winter I can ever remember. We have had nothing but ice and rain for the vast majority of this “winter.” The dogs are noticeably happier with some fluff on the ground instead of glare ice and frozen mud. So are the mushers….

Since the Eagle Lake race that Sue ran over a month ago, every dogsled race in the northeast U.S. has been cancelled due to lack of snow. Training trails haven’t been much better, especially anywhere near home. In a normal year, we would get half of our training runs right from the gate of our dogyard here at home. This year, I ran a small team from home ONCE to go check out the trail on January 10th. It was not good, and I should not have had a team out there on it. Since then, we haven’t even tried to run from home as conditions never allowed it. That means that we have had to be on the road to points north for all of our training, something that is very time consuming, resource depleting, and just plain difficult to maintain for the whole winter. It’s worn us out and used up all our time, BUT we are as ready as can be for next weekend’s Can-Am 250, the main event of our season!!

This past week I took the 14 dogs still in the running to make the Can-Am team up to Pittsburg, NH at the northern tip of the state for our last serious tune-up training runs. Pittsburg is the only spot in NH with long loops of runable, snow-covered trail in the entire state right now and it’s school vacation week in Massachusetts and Connecticut. That means Pittsburg was a circus with snowmachiners from out of state. Plenty of neon snowsuits, SUV’s pulling oversized trailers, and fast snowmachines were to be found around every corner. Wednesday morning when I got up there, still in the dark of morning, I drove through the quiet, but obviously crowded town, and up to the Magalloway Road trailhead. The trails from here are on logging roads and go for long miles in many directions without crossing any roads. Perfect for training big teams, except that the snowmobiles go insanely fast on these trails groomed 16-24 feet wide. To avoid as many machines as possible, I always run at first light in the morning.

As light was creeping up from the eastern sky, I unloaded the dogs, snacked them and set to readying my sled. There was 4 inches of very light snow on everything and the morning was just beautiful. The 14 dogs and I were the only ones around, except for a raven who came to investigate us. The sun was getting almost to the horizon as I hooked up the last dogs to the gangline. I was running all 14 and the goal was to make decisions on which two dogs won’t make the 12-dog race next weekend. Squiggle and Stump took us out on the trail, through the fluff and despite me standing on the dragmat between the runners, we were flying, and even on the uphills I kept some serious pressure on that brake. After about 10 miles, we started seeing the snowmachines. Normally these early morning riders are slower and safer than the folks who race around the trails later in the day. We’ve trained the dogs to run glued to the right-hand side of the trail (gee-over!!), and the passes are usually pretty safe. Many snowmobilers slow or stop to take pictures, some give a thumbs up, a wave and a smile, some act is if we are not even there and fly by at WAY over the state trail speed limit of 45 mph. It’s the later that we prefer not to meet very often, but they’re always out there. Wednesday was no exception, and we had a couple of machines go by at probably 70+ mph. The dogs don’t like that one bit. After a few really fast machines, the dogs slowed down drastically. We hadn’t seen many machines this year, and none at those kinds of speeds and the dogs were spooked and afraid of the next corner. What started as a very nice run in solitude and pastel morning light was now a slog-fest with a constant parade of machines passing in each direction. By noon when we got back to the truck the parking lot was crowed with cars, trucks and trailers, but pretty quiet as people were out on the trails. We had been out for about 5 hours which was just about what I had set out to do. The dogs got a wet meal of kibble and chicken and spread out in the sun to sleep along side the truck. I had met Bill Mattot out on the trail and decided to wait for him to get back from his run. Bill is running the Can-Am 250 again this year with his team of purebred Alaskan Malamutes. We are in a minority running siberians in these distance races, but Bill is the ONLY person doing it with Mals. He has bred his dogs to be much smaller than the show-type Mals, but they are still heavier boned and built for strength, not speed. He spends a lot of time on the trail, but takes great pride in his team and doing things his way, a spirit I greatly respect. Anyway, Bill was staying at his camp just up the road and invited me to stay with him, which was a much better option than sleeping in the truck, as all the motels and cabins in Pittsburg had “No Vacancy” signs posted. After he got back and tended to his dogs, we got some dinner and eventually, some sleep.

We were back to the trailhead not long after first light on Thursday for another run. I tried Maple and Mugs in lead for this run. They have both done a bunch of leading, but usually as a “second” to the main leader next to them. This time I was asking them to step up and handle the pressure of a big team behind them, fast trail, and the heavy responsibility of keeping us safely tucked to the right hand side of the trail. There were already people in the parking lot and all of the usual questions had to be answered. I put on the “hurry-up offense” and got the team hooked up quickly and out of there. There had been another inch or two of snow overnight and everything had a fresh cover of snow through which we got first tracks for a while. The machines seemed a bit farther between on this run and the dogs didn’t seem as bothered by them. The team never let up and I had one of the fastest runs I’ve ever had with our team. The two girls had done just fine in lead. I came back to the truck smiling ear to ear and as happy with my team as I could be. That’s a good feeling with the big race just around the corner.

We’ve still got plenty to do before the race next weekend with packing checkpoint bags, taking the dogs out for a couple short runs, and getting ready to head to Fort Kent, but the work of building the team is over and now it’s a matter of performing on a couple of days to define a season. It’s a lot of pressure with all that we put into being ready for this one weekend and I’m feeling it now. I hope the team (including me) can perform to our ability. We’ll see. You can “watch” the race on the Can-Am website. They do a very good job reporting the times in and out of checkpoints. They also have “Track” feature that allows you to see roughly where everyone on the trail is at any one time.  Hope you enjoy it!

The field for the 250 is very tough this year, again! I think that at least half the entrants think they can win the race and all but a few I think expect to be in the “money” (top 12 finishing spots). I’m surely one of those. I can’t control what any other team does out there, so we’ll just do our best and see where that leaves us in comparison. There are SOOOO many variables that we must deal with that predicting a dogsled race is a total crap-shoot, but names to watch for the win are the Canadians who seem to have a hold on this race, including past champs Langmaid and Massicotte. Longchamps, Casavant, Duplessis, and Marchildon all have teams that could win, too. With good runs, our friends Amy Dugan and Matt Carstens could both compete for the win as well. I don’t know much about the handful of Midwest teams coming to race this year, but we are most looking forward to meeting Jen and Blake Freking. They run one of the very best Siberian distance kennels anywhere right now. Blake has run both the Iditarod and Quest. He’s won the Beargrease 400 and they have a kennel of nearly 100 siberians. She’s a vet and has a very impressive race history as well. I don’t aspire to own that many dogs, but I do envy their experience and race-record. I think Can-Am is tough on rookies, but Blake has the experience and team to win it on his first try. Ward Wallin, also from Minnesota, is back again this year, and I bet he’s looking to improve on his 6th place from last year. Nine of last year’s top ten are in the race. It’s going to be extremely competitive.

Other than those names to watch, keep your eye on the weather, the checkpoint strategy, and what teams can maintain their speed the best. Can-Am is notorious for “bad” weather. They say it can “flurry a foot” of snow out in those hills and it often does. We’d like the weather to be cold and snowy to best suit our team. With anything above 20 degrees, expect to see our team slow considerably. If the daytime temps are high, you’ll probably see our team take a longer rest to sit out the heat of the day and try to make up some time under the cooler temperatures of night. Saturday we have no choice but to run in the heat of the day, and it’s a long, hilly 70 miles to Portage. Dealing with this leg and not getting the dogs too tired and hot right off the bat is key. I make numerous stops and keep the dogs as happy and fresh as can be. Once at Portage, I think a lot of teams will take a fairly short rest. Last year’s winner proved it can work and more are sure to try it this year. If their teams aren’t ready for it, you’ll see their average mph drop significantly on legs 2 and 3. Some folks will skip the 2nd checkpoint and push on through 30 more miles to Maibec, the third checkpoint. This is gutsy, and makes an 80 mile leg right after the first 70 miles. I think the prudent mushers will probably pull up and at least water their team at Rocky Brook, checkpoint two. Last year, only two teams took the minimum rest of 14 hours plus start differential because of the difficult conditions. Unless significant snow falls in the next week, the trail this year should be much faster and I think probably at least the top ten teams will all take minimum rest. How they break it up between checkpoints will likely determine the winner. We’ve had good luck finishing strong the last couple of years and hope to continue that. This is my fourth year running the 250 and I will be bib #4. Any sort of karma there? Each musher must run his team the way they’ve trained them and deal with the trail and conditions as they find them. I haven’t raced since Can-Am last year and I can’t wait to Hit the Trail….

It’s snowing, and nothing makes our dogteam happier!

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