{Tsuga Siberians}

March 20, 2006 - “2006 Can-Am 250”

Once again, Howdy All!! In what has become a bit of a tradition, here’s my account of this year’s main event for our kennel. We work all year for this one. Sometimes we have good luck, sometimes bad. In the end, it’s not what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us that makes the difference. This race was all about overcoming adversity, almost right from the start. After a just horrible winter of nearly no snow, weekly rain, marginal trails and well above average temperatures, we felt as ready as we could be for the challenge of the Can-Am Crown 250 mile sleddog race. Now mind you, that doesn’t mean we were as ready as we wanted to be, just as ready as we could be. There wasn’t ever enough snow to safely run even a small dogteam here in Rumney this winter, so we did ALL of our training on the road, which makes us seriously consider the sanity of building a kennel of racing sleddogs in this age of global warming. I can’t say we’ve completely convinced ourselves there is really anything very sane about this lifestyle that has consumed our lives, but consume us it has. Well, here goes, my honest as I can remember account of a very intense week.  

Piles of gear

Packed and ready

Wednesday is packing day. All the sled gear, my clothes and personal gear, dog gear, and the checkpoint bags are closed up and packed away for the trip. Over the last several years, I’ve made checklists for all of this stuff and now I use last year’s lists and notes to revise and improve the process. It gets easier each year to have a good feel for just what the dogs and I will actually need and then pack a little extra, too. I am not allowed to access the dog truck or any other means of re-supply except those checkpoint bags once the race starts. It was a relief to finally seal them up, confident that I’d have just what I needed, where and when I needed it. I spent the rest of the day clipping dogs’ feet while some dogs ran loose around the yard, refreshing bedding in the dog truck, packing, and arranging things for our house sitter who would stay here to look after the puppies, old-timers, and the woodstove. After Tuesday’s final training run, I had decided that Mugs and Gila would be on the team despite the fact they both had waited until the week before the race to start their heat cycles, meaning they’d be just about in standing heat for the race. That is a huge distraction for the males in the team, but they had handled it very well in our last few short training runs. I hoped I could manage it well enough in the checkpoints and the boys would continue to run and eat well. I was still worried about the affect it would have, but didn’t want to give up the speed and front end drive those girls give the team. The team was decided. Stump and Maple. Mugs and Gila. Hawkeye and Romeo. Kobuk and Squiggle. Curly and Ambler. Jim and Gecko. That would be the pairings front to back, at least for the start of the race. Molly and Wink would come along as alternates, just in case, and Zirkle, well Zirkle just gets to come along because she’s Zirkle. After dinner with Sue, and with things about as ready as we could get them, I fell asleep pretty early, knowing it would be my last really good night of sleep for over a week.

Thursday morning around 4 am we were up and out to the dogyard to water dogs and let them have free run time in the kennel to stretch and play. Two hours after they’re done with breakfast, we load each into their box in the truck. The puppies don’t understand why they don’t get to go. It’s six hours of driving time to Katahdin Lodge, where we have made a habit of spending Thursday night on the way to Fort Kent. We stop at Freeport to drop dogs, stretch the legs, and look around. Back on I-95, headed north. Not too much farther up the road, we ran in to a snow squall that had caused dozens of accidents, including a large pile-up with a fatality that had the highway closed in both directions. It was only an inch of snow or less and I guess the Mainers had forgotten how to drive after a winter of no snow. We couldn’t believe all the wreaks. After being forced off the closed interstate, we picked our way through a bunch of side roads that took us on a tour of Colby College and eventually back to the highway. The road dried back out and we got to the lodge by mid-afternoon where we spent the rest of the daylight in the parking lot with the dogs, enjoying the sun as several other teams drove by headed for Fort Kent and the big weekend of mushing in the northeast. A few other guests were at the lodge that night including our friends Bob and Rhonda and some snowmobilers who knew a musher in Connecticut we know, Bill Hahn. It’s a small world sometimes. Without TV at home, we kind of get drawn in the few times we have time to sit and watch, and it was a nice diversion for our brains that night. I made a quick exit for bed, and restless sleep, after Survivor was over. Sue went to drop the dogs and snack them before tucking them back away in their boxes for the night.

Vet Check

We have to be in Fort Kent by 10am for the mandatory vet checks on Friday. The paperwork of getting checked-in and the vets going through all the dogs health records actually takes longer than the hands-on check the vets do with the dogs. I stood in line with a couple of Midwestern mushers here again for the 250, Nathan Schroeder and Kevin Malikowski. These are a couple of guys whose names I’ve heard a million times, but have never really met. They both struck me right away as very experienced and humble dog men, and I was very glad to meet them. Once we finally got the paperwork all checked out, the vets were ready to go through the team. They flex and stretch each limb, check hydration and weight, look for cracks, splits or cuts in each foot and note general attitude of the dog. Notes are all logged in the vet book that has a page for each dog and is carried throughout the race. It’s also the time card that gets signed as you check into and out of each checkpoint so there’s no loosing it. We were parked right next to Mitch, Kricket, and Matt and I mentioned to Sue how far they have come in the last few years with not only their team, but with the level of professionalism they bring to each event they enter. They were running like a well-oiled machine next to us, dropping and checking the three teams traveling in their trailer. Our dogs all looked good and Dr. Jackie Piepkorn signed off on our 12 for the race. Once that was over, it kind of becomes social hour in the ski area parking lot with numerous teams milling about and checking out this guy’s dogs or that guy’s sled. After a year of cancelled races, we were glad to have some time to catch up with friends and make some new ones. We were pleased to introduce ourselves to Blake and Jen Freking of Minnesota who run a (mostly) siberian kennel. Since there are so few of us making any attempt to be competitive with siberians, we were very interested to meet them and hopefully form a lasting friendship. We have the utmost respect and admiration for their dedication to, and success with, the siberian husky. They showed us around their truck and told us about their dogs with obvious and deserving pride. (Just as a note, Jen ran an all purebred team in the 60 mile event and Blake ran a team that had 8 siberians and 4 alaskans on it in the 250.) We milled around a while longer until it was time to head over to the Mitchell house to settle in, feed dogs and ourselves before the drivers’ meeting at 6pm in the Town Hall. Just as we pulled in, David and Alex were leaving for Alex’s last ski race of his high school career. We wished him luck, as he did us, and we had just enough time for some dinner with Tammy and Isaac. Adrienne was away performing in a play. The Drivers Meeting went ok, but Can-Am is a bi-lingual race and the translations between French and English take some time. I always wonder how quickly we could get out of those meetings if only people would take the time to read the rules before showing up to race. It seems so simple, but the same questions get asked every year and 90% of them could be answered just by reading the rules. Anyway, we went back to our home away from home at the Mitchells’, and dropped the dogs again, not wanting them to be stiff or sore on race day. What was that? As I lowered Curly to the ground, I felt a dog brush me and disappear in the darkness behind the dog truck. The Mitchell’s live in downtown Fort Kent, right at the main stoplight as you enter town. We have done some loose dropping and free running with the dogs up at camp, but wouldn’t dream of letting any of our dogs loose in an urban environment. So this loose dog running behind me was not good news. I hooked Curly quickly to his drop chain and ran around the corner after the dog. In the darkness, I couldn’t see who it was and therefore couldn’t call its name. I just ran after…. speechless. Luckily, Sue had already dropped the girls in heat on the other side, and the dog, my beloved Jim, ran straight to Mugs to try to repeat last summer’s breeding. Sorry Jim, not this time. We’ve got plenty of puppies! Phew. For the first and last time all weekend, I was glad the girls were in heat. I would have hated to see Jim sprinting down Main Street, as that was the only option if he had decided to run the other way. Apparently, his snap had just popped and released him. With the dogs all watered and put back to bed, we went inside to sit with Tammy and catch up on their family news since we last saw them at our house in October. The TV weatherman didn’t have much good news with talk of “spring-like temperatures and bright sun” for the weekend. That was not at all what I wanted to hear. Minus twenty and blowing snow would be just fine with me. The forecast cemented my strategy for the race at least. My team has really had trouble the last couple of years on the daytime runs in the 250. This year I hoped to avoid that by taking only a short rest the first night to try to get to Maibec before it warmed up too much. This meant doing 150 miles in only 24 hours or less. I knew my team was up for it if I could only get through the first run without taking too much out of them. I had every intention of having an easy first 70 miles to Portage and then asking them to hit the trail again after only 2 hours of rest. It’s 50 more easy miles to Rocky Brook and then 33 more soft, hillier miles to Maibec. If things were going well, I hoped to skip Rocky Brook altogether and push to Maibec in one run. Yup, that was a pretty aggressive decision, but I really thought my guys could handle it if they had the dark of night to do it in. Then we’d have all day to rest at Maibec on Sunday before taking on the hilly 55 miles to Allagash in the evening. All this ran in my head as I went to sleep. Can the dogs handle it? I’ve never replicated this in training. Is it really going to be 35 degrees and sunny? For our dogs with long coats, that’s like a marathoner in 110 degree heat. Brutal. Not a good night of sleep…. I hate hot. Is it morning yet?

Almost time go to

Startline with Kim

I had to force myself to lay in bed until the clock finally read 5:30. As I drew water for the dogs, I picked up a note Tammy had left by the coffee maker, a place she knew I’d find it, that just read “Good Luck Mike.” I tucked the note in my jacket pocket and smiled as I went outside to drop and water the dogs. The warmth in the air was noticeable even at that hour. Sue came out with some coffee and breakfast as I stood outside with the team, around the truck. We’d come so prepared, there wasn’t really anything to do other than focus on the dogs. Just the way I like it. I hate being rushed and so we went down to the staging area plenty early to park the truck and prep the sled. As we pulled in, we noticed the lack of the regular numbered parking spots in bib order on the side street staging areas. It seemed as if somebody had forgotten to put them out and this made parking a bit of a free-for-all. We were glad to have been early and pulled in the most forward spot left at that time, just in front of Blake and Jen and just a couple of trucks back from the start in a straight shot. I got the sled down and packed pretty quickly as I had all the gear ready to go. I unpack two bins with everything that is going in the sled and nothing more. I don’t think or fuss about anything on race morning. All those decisions are already made so I don’t stress over second guessing. The race officials come around and do a checklist survey of the sled to make sure all mandatory gear is stowed. I think I over-heard a comment as the bag checkers walked away that I had the most organized sled she’d ever seen. Why would I want it messy? With that done, I had a couple of hours to kill while the 60 and 30 mile teams leave down Main Street ahead of us. With a lot of friends in these races, we get to help out some folks and pass the time before our start pretty quickly. I enjoyed riding to the start line with Kim Darst. She’s been e-mailing a few questions over the course of this year and we’re glad to give her some things to think about as she makes the transition to running longer races. I got to chat for a few minutes with JR Anderson of Minnesota, who built my sled. Mike Johnson, from Michigan, was there and we couldn’t help but bring up the year we both scratched at Maibec and had a serious adventure getting our teams out of there together. I hope I never have to do THAT again. Steve Collins and Kricket Ingerson were continually ribbing each other about their pending race within a race. They were each in their first 60 mile races and had a friendly rivalry going. Jaye Foucher’s team looked great going out and we always keep tabs on her team as she’s got a lot of dogs related to ours. As I walked around some more, Lynne Cyr approached me with her trademark smile and asked if I had a minute to talk. She’s a first grade teacher at the nearby Madawaska Elementary School and a member of the Can-Am board, but most importantly, a friend. As I leaned down to hear her over the screaming dogs around us, she asked if I’d be willing to carry an envelope of letters from her class to be delivered at the Portage checkpoint to go to the Ashland first grade. She said I’d then pick up the Ashland letters and bring them around to the finish for delivery back to the Madawaska kids. The first grade teacher from Ashland would meet me in Portage to make the switch. “Of course I’ll do it.” I’m honored you asked. Geez, I guess she thinks I’m going to finish. Thanks for the faith, Lynne. I hurried back to the sled to stow the zip locked bag of precious cargo. Not long after that, I had several interviews with both TV and newspaper reporters who were interested in hearing from the “musher mailman.” After finishing my moment of fame, which made both the local six o’clock news and an article in the Bangor Daily News (See link on Can-Am website under “Articles”), Sue and I made it back to Bob and Rhonda’s truck to wish him luck. We’ve trained together a lot over the years and have pushed each other to improve, but also helped each other to improve and I was really pulling for Bob to just go have fun out there. As I checked my watch, I figured it was just about time to go drop the dogs, harness them up, bootie the feet that needed it, and get out of Dodge. Finally. After all year of waiting and preparing to race again, it’s finally time. We had plenty of good help standing by as we brought the dogs up to the gangline. The excitement is incredible as the dogs howl to get to the trail. I walked with the leaders while Sue took the sled, attached to an ATV for control as we were waved up to the chute just behind Andre Longchamps. I worked down the team from leaders on back, scratching ears and giving kisses to my best friends, including one for Sue. “See you in Portage.”

Leaders Maple & Stump

Ready to head down Main Street

It’s REALLY time to go do what we do. It’s here and NOW. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, “Ok Stuuuumpperrrrr.” Main Street is a blur. Nearly five thousand people were reported to have lined the street as we get started. “Thank you. Thank you. Goood dogsssss Thank you.” It’s such a contrast to the rest of the race, most of which is run in the Wilderness of the North Maine Woods. (The capitals are out of respect.) Down under the bridge along the abutments perched over the St. John River. Back up and along the edge of South Main Street, then across the road with police and fans blocking traffic. Up on to the railroad grade heading out of town. A quick survey up and down the dogs shows everybody’s looking good. Smooth. Wow, this is what we’ve worked for, they look great. Huge smile on my face. We get out of town with two leaders who had never done it. Sweet. “Goooood dogsssss.” Maple is an incredible “gee-over” leader and keeps us glued to the right-hand side of the trail. Even with nearly 60 teams in front of us, we were able to cruise a nice comfortable pace on hard snow at the trail’s edge, while the center of the trail where most teams had run was chewed up and soft. I have a foot planted firmly on the dragmat, but we catch and pass both Andre Longchamps and Robert Fredette before we leave the gradual railroad grade at 7 miles from the start. We cruise through a twisty, wooded section after crossing Wheelock Lake. There are a few punchy spots that dogs stumble through, so I stand on the drag a little harder for the next few miles. The trail surface improves again once we get out of the small forest trail and on to a bigger road. Better trail, but less shade. We pass the sign that reads “Portage 50 Miles.” Twenty miles in an even two hours, just about what I had in mind, as the first 7 is so easy. The race has just begun. We’re doing good. Did Kobuk just step in a hole? No, he stumbled. Oh, God, he’s down. Reach for the snowhook. “Whoaaa, take a break.” 11 dogs dive for the soft snow at the edge of the trail, on command. Kobuk lays flat, all four legs straight out. I’ve already got tears in my eyes before I can get to him. He blinks at me, as if that’s all he can do. He gasps for breath while I pack snow into his armpits and groin. He’s obviously over-heated, but showed no signs in his gait until he went down. These dogs are TOO tough for their own good. All I can do is sit with him and keep packing snow around him to cool him, making sure his airway is open. A few other teams come by as I’m kneeling with him. Some offer help. Some offer condolences.. They thought he was gone. Bruce Linton passes, stops his team, “Mike, is he ok?, Can I do anything?” “No Bruce, thanks. Go, really.” My other dogs start screaming as he pulls away. What do I do? Turn them around and return to the start? Go ahead and carry him all the way to Portage, another 50 miles? That’s the only way I can stay in the race. Anything else would mean scratching from the race. As Kobuk’s breathing returns to normal, I leave him laying in harness and snack the other dogs to try to calm them down. It doesn’t work and when I come back up the gangline after snacking, Kobuk is on his feet. Ok pal, in the sled you go before these guys pop the snowhook and go down the trail without both of us. I’m not sure I ever decide to keep going forward, I just never decide to turn around. When I get to where the 60 mile trail continues to Fort Kent and our 250 trail heads south to Portage, I ask the trail crew, “Where’s my nearest vet?” He says the 60 checkpoint would have one, but I have doubts since all the 60-mile teams have long since passed this point, because they start 2 hours earlier. I don’t want to turn around on a chance that I’d backtrack only to find no vets there. And what would they tell me? A few miles more mulling options in my head while the dogs chug along and Kobuk sleeps below my handlebar in the open sledbag. I’m feeling horrible looking down at him, wondering if he’s ok. Should I be doing something else? Should I turn around and go scratch? Doubt kills confidence. I keep snow around him in the sledbag. I keep snow on top of the sledbag for him to lick. Ward Wallin catches us and sees Kobuk in the bag. I just say, “Hot!” Ward immediately offers some ice cubes made of a product designed to aid in recovery with electrolytes and glycogen. “Thanks Ward.” Kobuk spits it out. I pour some of the melted (It’s warm out here…) cubes from the zip lock into his mouth. He swallows, but scowls at me. Bruce Langmaid is next to come by. I stop the team just as he gets to my heels. He’s been gaining on us for a while, sees my rider, and says, “You’ve got to work hard, huh?” Yup. I HAVE to work hard to make up for Kobuk being in the sled. It’s only fair to the rest of the team. Bruce has some other encouraging words as he pulls away that remind me of the big picture. “Good luck, Bruce!” Kobuk settles in to the sledbag and with a break from the sun during an intense, but brief snow squall, he gets the gleam back in his eye that had been missing and had me so concerned for his welfare. For the first time in a while, I smile and look around at where I am. After a couple more hours and having several more teams come by us, Kobuk gets restless and obviously uncomfortable. Another stop as I put him up in the team attached by only his neckline. Ah, that’s your trouble, as he leaves a steaming pile before I can get back to the sled. I thought so. Curly has the rest of the team in an uproar to go with his barking. “Ok.” I let him trot along for a couple minutes. Robert Fredette comes back by, “Your dog, he is better?” “No, I’m afraid not,” as I stop to reload him in the sled. His gait is not right. He gets a ride the rest of the way to Portage. He seems better, but not good. Once the sun sets, we get to the north end of Portage Lake and cross on the glare, windblown ice with patches of snow. The dogs are careful and steady and I don’t say a word except maybe a mumbled “Goooood dogssssss. Niccccce boyssssss.” Another scratch for Kobuk between the ears as I watch several headlamps strung out across the lake behind us. Boy, I sure would like to stay ahead of them getting in to the checkpoint. It’ll be quicker to sign in and park. Portage 10 Miles. I start running uphills instead of just pedaling. The dogs respond and pick up the pace. We cross Rt. 11 with the police lights blazing. Do they really need all those spot lights? I can’t see a thing. I catch up to a team. I think it’s Mario from Quebec. I’m not sure how his English is, so I just say, “Go ahead. I will stay behind you, but let’s GO.” I think he understands that I don’t want to waste time passing him, but that I think we can stay in front of the teams lined out a quarter mile or so behind us. He calls up his team and hustles up the hills. We crest the last rise and can see the lights of the checkpoint. All right boys. “Nice job.” I mentally run through my checklist and prepare for the checkpoint. I’ve got a lot to do in the next couple of hours. Most importantly, “I need a vet.” Not how I like to enter a checkpoint. I’m flustered. I’m exhausted. Lots of questions about Kobuk. Finally, the paperwork is done on him so I can focus on caring for the rest of the team. I feed the team first. No need to hurry with the straw, they need to cool down, not stay warm. I do a bad job with my checkpoint routine. I’m too flustered. I “loose” my cable cutters. Calm down. Finish with the dogs, then look for them. Working on the dogs feet and rubbing and wrapping wrists on my knees in the straw, I call Sue closer to me and for the first time can talk to just her. I tell her how hard that run has been, worrying about Kobuk and seriously thinking of ending my race. Tears start to flow and I can’t hold back the stored emotion of the run and break down in to a sobbing mess as I huddle in the straw with Squiggle, next to Kobuk’s vacant spot in the gangline. Just then, I hear “Is this our Mailman?” Yup, that’s me. I’ve got to shift gears fast as there are several cameras pointing at me and Mrs. McNally of the Ashland first grade with an envelope of precious cargo for me. I use a quick trip back to the sled to get the letters I’ve carried from Fort Kent to wipe my face and compose myself. The smiles of the folks involved in the project and covering it for the local press raise my spirits. I realize I’ve got a bigger mission in this race, and a lot of folks rooting for me that I don’t even know. How can that not raise my spirits. I promise to do my best to get these letters to Fort Kent, although I can’t help but say that I’ll pass them to another musher should I be unable to finish the task. Am I even leaving Portage? Where are those cutters? Eventually, I find them stuffed in a pocket in my sledbag, after another 10 minutes of frantic, wasteful searching. Get a hold of yourself, Ellis.

Arrival in Portage

I never really do decide to keep going, but after changing my clothes and getting some food inside the Portage Municipal building that serves as the checkpoint, I’m back outside checking the team’s readiness to go. The boys were apparently well enough rested to start being more interested in the girls than sleeping and I have to separate Romeo and Hawkeye. It’s time to go. Boots on. Tugs re-attached. Kick the straw out of the way. “Can I get an ATV?” Snubline attached to ATV. Stump and Maple back in lead. Kiss for Sue. “See you in Allagash.” That seems so very far away. Sign out. “Let’s go Stump!” On our way to Rocky Brook. I try to talk myself in to feeling confident, but I know hauling Kobuk all those miles on the first leg has taken its toll on the team. They were set back, and that 2 hour rest after a 9 hour run can only recharge them so much. The trail here is good and it’s as cool as it’s going to get. I figure I’ll go to Rocky Brook and see how we’re doing there. One leg at a time. I’ve got to focus on what’s happening, not what happened. Why did Kobuk go down? It doesn’t make sense and I can’t stop thinking about him. Yeah, he’s my biggest dog and heaviest coat, but he’s way better trained than to be exhausted after an easy 20 miles. He’s run over 1800 miles in training this year. What happened? I try to forget about it. One leg at a time. The crescent moon is shining and I shut my headlamp off to run in the dark. I love night runs. Once my eyes adjust, I think I see better without the headlamp. I turn on my iPod for distraction and for the first time since the early miles, I’m almost having fun. There’s a team behind us, but it doesn’t seem like they’re gaining. I can see the headlamp on the straight-aways. Still back there. “Good doggggsssss.” Easy trail, nice rhythm. Eventually, Matt Weik catches us and I stop to let him by. It’s in everyone’s best interest to get passes over quickly and with as little stress as possible. With my girls in heat, I’m especially weary of passes during this race. Matt’s team doesn’t want to go by. I take his leaders neckline at his request. “Good dogs. Go ahead.” We stay with Matt for a while until he eventually gets one dog straightened out and pulls away. As we run the remaining miles to Rocky Brook, I stare up at the dome of stars overhead looking for answers to all my questions. What do I do at Rocky Brook? The team is tired. They just don’t seem to have the pep I would have hoped for. Should I be conservative and stop to rest? I had wanted to go right by to run in the dark, instead of parking and having it be light by the time I leave for Maibec. As I approached the campfire at the entrance to the checkpoint, I finally decide I’d better be careful and take a 2 hour rest here. That still gets me out at first light and might keep a little more energy in the dogs. I sign in at a quarter to four in the morning. Dog chores go much more smoothly here without the distraction of Kobuk or spectators. I go over to talk with Amy Dugan who’s parked right in front of us. She’s bummed. I hate not being able to find the right words. She needed some encouragement and I’m not sure I help much as I’m feeling pretty disappointed with how things have gone for us so far, too. I wish her a change of luck and go to find some breakfast in the kitchen. Wow. A look at the time board shows every team has left Portage on the trail behind us. A couple of teams have already passed out of here, after brief stops. If I had gone directly out of here, it would have put me in 3rd place. Hmmmm, something to think about for next year. After a nice big breakfast and some talk with a few mushers also resting and eating, I’m on my feet. “Oh, my best customer is leaving?, ” the cook asks me. Yup, I gotta get going, but “Thanks,” and see ya next year. As I sign out with 11 dogs and Maple and Mugs in lead, several other teams are heading out, too. Another team is passing straight through. The first mile or so out of the checkpoint is stressful as the teams sort out the correct running order. Mugs isn’t really interested in leading with all this confusion. Why did I stop at Rocky Brook? They looked better before I stopped. I put Stump back in lead. “Good Boy.” We make decent time over to Round Pond, about 13 miles from Rocky Brook. Now the sun is up and it’s getting hot fast. We’re a couple of hours too late. It is too hot. I hate hot. The team slows to a crawl and I turn the iPod back on to keep my spirits up as we march along in the direct sun and climbing temperatures. A slow tromp finally gets us to Maibec at 10:14am. We had made the goal of doing the first 150 miles in 24 hours. Our start time was 10:16 yesterday. Wow. With all the trouble we’d had, I guess maybe we’re doing ok after all. For the first time since Kobuk went down yesterday, I dare to think about finishing the race as we pull up the driveway to “Hotel” Maibec…

The temperature had to be above freezing by the time we got signed in and parked in the wide open parking lot of the Maibec logging camp. The dogs are pretty hot and I again wait quite a while before putting straw out. They seem too hot to want to eat much, but most drink well and I rub a bunch of wrists and feet, but don’t wrap their wrists here. As I work down the gangline giving rubs to the sunbathing huskies, two photographers are busy shooting me and the team. Jeff I know from past races. Jodi introduces herself. They chat and shoot. Jodi says she thinks I must be having the most fun out here, based on watching teams go through. I must have had a good song in my ears when I went by her at Round Pond. This race has seemed a lot more like work than fun, but I’m glad I’m coming across well. If I can fool her, maybe I’ve got the dogs fooled. Once I finish up with the dogs, I spy Matt over by his sled and I have to go ask him how things are with him and his team. He feels good to be in the lead, but is very reserved, cautious and focused. I leave him with a simple, “Keep it up!” I stop at Bruce Langmaid’s team as well. He’s working at his sled. “Thanks for your words yesterday, Bruce. It meant a lot.” I think he was at least a little impressed with how I’d gotten this far in the race after having seen me not looking so good just a day before. He’s a class act and as gracious as ever, just says, “It’s good when we can encourage each other.” I was starving and needed some sleep as I hadn’t even hardly sat down since the start. The food was great. I looked at the time board, but couldn’t make much sense of all those numbers. “Where was that bed again? ….Oh yeah….. Could you show me? Thanks. Oh, you’ll get me up in an hour and a half, won’t you?….. Thank you. Oh yeah,…… I should take my boots off, you’re right…. Goodnight.” It’s a few minutes past noon.

I wake up an hour later and think I hear some dogs squabbling outside, but then it stops. I start getting my gear on and boots tied when my wake up call comes through the door. “Oh, your already up.” “Up, but not awake,” I answer. Man, I feel horrible. One hour of sleep and I’m getting ready to head out for another 55 mile run. I feel sick to my stomach. Maybe all that food wasn’t such a great idea. I’ve got to shake it off. I finish getting dressed and outside to the blinding sunshine. A vet (Shelia Morrisey) and race volunteer (Amanda Damboise) are standing at my sled. What’s Stump doing back here tied to the sled? Turns out Romeo had started an argument with Stump over the girls tied out up front in the team. No blood, but the dogs were now all on their feet. That’s great, but I’ve got nearly another hour before I’ve used up my mandatory rest except for the 5 hours I must take at Allagash. “Relax guys. Lay back down. Eassssy.” I slowly set to prepping the sled and putting boots on the dogs that need it. In these warm temperatures, I don’t put on more boots than I have to, but several dogs needed them over splits in their webbing between toes. Finally ready. Curly is screaming to go, again. He’s getting everybody excited. Ok. I’ve got my team back. Nathan pulls out 5 minutes ahead of me, which further helps the teams’ enthusiasm to leave in the hot afternoon sun. I’m pretty happy to be setting off, knowing that it would get dark soon and we’d settle in to a nice evening run. I catch Nathan pretty quickly. I pass. My dogs slow. He passes. We go a mile. I catch and repass. I have to fix somebody who stepped over his line. He repasses. I say, “We can’t keep doing this…” I don’t want to keep stressing the dogs and in the end, slowing both of our teams down. He nods in agreement and we give him a little room as he gets them rolling. The dogs were not fast, but they were steady and consistent. Miles pass and we follow along behind Nathan. Was that barking I just heard? I lift the earflaps on my hat to hear better. Nathan must have stopped around this next corner. The dogs know something is up and surge forward. Ohhh geez, there’s a team heading straight at us. “OnBy, onby!” It’s Andre. He stops. He speaks no English and I speak no French, but we have become friends over the last couple of years. His team is barking to go, but he just points to his feet with a very sad look in his eyes. All I can say is “I’m sorry.” I know he had serious trouble with “trench foot” and the pain has gotten to be too much for him. He’s heading back to Maibec to scratch and I feel horrible for him. The sun sets soon and out comes the headlamp, but also the moon and I prefer the latter for my light whenever possible. Steady forward movement. We’re doing good. The trail here was so good it lulled me in to a lack of caution. Around one of the 90 degree turns off one road onto another, I let the sled get too close to the inside of the corner and Ambler running just in front of the wheel dogs, falls through a hole in the crust and disappears. The corner was on a downhill and the team didn’t stop immediately. Ambler gets dragged underneath the surface and shot back out from under the snow a good 5 feet down the trail, like a surfacing submarine. He lets out a yelp. Damn, is he hurt? I get the team stopped. Set the hooks. Run up to him. He’s already shaken it off and acts like nothing happened. “Are you ok Ambler?” I almost expect an answer in his eyes, but don’t really see anything but the reflection of my headlamp. I give him a full once over and can find no pain in any limbs or in his back. I release his tugline and decide to let him run, watching him closely. I was just starting to feel good about how the team was doing. Several miles pass. Now he starts to limp. At first it was hardly noticeable, now it’s obvious and I can’t let him run anymore. About 20 miles from Allagash, I load him in the sledbag. Not this again. There goes that pace we were maintaining. I watch Nathan’s headlamp get further and further ahead until I only see it on the really long straight-aways. This is one of the hilliest sections of the whole trail and now I have another big dog riding instead of pulling. Why didn’t I get the sled out around that corner? “I’m sorry Ambler.” These last miles of steep ups and downs getting to Allagash are nasty, yet somehow I have the feeling we are going to be alright They’d made it over the hump, and the team senses my growing confidence, despite adversity. Really, they can sense these things. Ambler falls asleep in the sled, even as I run up those last steep hills and hold on for dear life around the steep, sharp trail down in to Allagash, my favorite checkpoint on the trail. For the second time in the race, “I need a vet.” Tenley Meara signs me in. She’s out here volunteering the night before her wedding!! I’m not the only person who loves this event.

Allagash check in

Bride Tenley

I have trouble parking as they try to stuff my team in a spot too small for the 11 dogs I still have. Once we get that sorted out and Ambler officially dropped and transferred to the vets for the care he needs, I get dogs fed, wrists wrapped and straw spread out. They quickly fall asleep despite numerous spectators milling about. I finish at my sled and Sue and I walk over to see how the vets are doing with Ambler. They show me some bruising and swelling on the front leg and that he was sore in the opposite leg in the rear as well. More had happened in that hole than I knew. I feel miserable, but can do little for him at this point. I give him a kiss and leave to go feed myself and try to get another bit of sleep. I see Mitch and Matt on the way to the café, and give Matt a “Finish it up!!” He has increased his lead on that leg and all he has to do was hold it together for a win!! He is pulling out shortly, his mandatory rest nearly used up. Nice one, Matt. That’s awesome!!

Stump & Curly resting in Allagash

Congratulations Matt!

Unfortunately, I also see my friend Bob O’Hearn at Allagash. He had scratched at Rocky Brook and has just finished the process of getting his team out and back to their truck. His disappointment is visible and I don’t have much for him other than a hug and “I’m sorry.” They had worked so hard all year and yet things just didn’t fall in to place. Since early fall I’ve been trying to help them prepare for this race. I feel a lot of personal defeat in his scratch. Man, that stinks. I also find out that Bill Mattot had scratched, too. That leaves just Matt, myself, and Bruce Linton a few hours behind me on the trail, as the remaining New England mushers in the race. After a couple bowls of chicken stew, a grilled cheese sandwich, a cheeseburger and fries, a few gatorades, and some cookies, I’m ready for a nap. I set my wake up call and am shown a bed in the bunkhouse. Just an hour later, they come to wake Nathan, sleeping in the other bunk in this room. We chat for several minutes but about what, I have no idea. About halfway through getting dressed, I start to melt down. I run to the porch and stand there half-dressed and half-awake. Somebody’s trying to kill me, it had to be 100 degrees in there. When my head finally clears, I realize a few folks are standing there in the darkness asking me if I am Ok. All I can say is “Hot.” I hate hot. Out to the team. I decide to walk Gila around and see how she’s feeling. In fact when I had pulled in, I told the vets doing the mandatory check there, “If you can give me a reason to drop her, I will.” Well, they hadn’t found anything, but as I walk her, she seems stiff and sore. I ask for a vet with a dropped dog form. She’s gone far enough. Her heat cycle had seemed to take something out of her. Or was it something else? I have to shorten the gangline as I’ll be leaving with only nine dogs. I also request an official bag check as I want to make sure I haven’t left out any mandatory gear as I lightened the load for the last 44 miles to the finish. Nathan is scheduled to leave just 4 minutes ahead of me. We had been so even on the last leg until I loaded Ambler that I think I had a chance of maybe making the pass before the finish. I’m not going to push, but if we catch him, great. As Bob and Rhonda and a couple volunteers help get the team across the road and over to the exit chute, Gecko is limping on his right front leg! I have Bob stand on the sled brake while I go to check Gecko. I flex the leg and can find no response or obvious stiffness. A quick warm-up rub. I hope he just has a cramp. Oh please, let it just be a cramp. Although it’s painful to watch him limp those first couple of miles out of Allagash, he loosens up and settles in to his normal trot a few miles from the checkpoint. Phew. “Maple? Are you ok?” Damn, she’s limping. Her tug is still tight but I’ve got to take her out of lead. Mugs goes up in her place. The limp goes away when she’s out of lead. Was she just saying she didn’t want to lead anymore? On some of the long straight stretches, I can see Nathan’s team out ahead of me. At first I think we’re gaining on him. Then I don’t see him any more. As the dogs wind in to the wooded section of trail that is shared with the 60 mile race, the sun gets up and any clouds vanish. It gets hot again. For a while, the shade of the trees keep the dogs pretty cool, but the temperature keeps coming up and the dogs keep slowing down. Fort Kent 20 Miles. The nearest musher behind me is over an hour back and I figure Nathan is long gone, so “Take a break.” That round of snacks went fast. They’re getting comfortable in that snowbank. I better get moving. “Ready. Let’s Go. Ready?” We get to the next junction. Out on to a snowmobile trail. Three men are parked on their snowmachines and tell me I’m only 6 minutes behind Nathan. Hmmm, I was just stopped for over 10 minutes a couple of miles ago. Maybe I could have caught him. Oh well. The dogs needed that rest. They’re smiling again. This trail is wide. Snowmachines must fly through here. At home, we harp on the dogs to stay to the right side of the trail. In the race I usually don’t worry about it much. I have Stump and Mugs in lead and they’re not making any effort to gee-over. It’s Monday morning. How much traffic could there be out here today? I almost let them go, but decide to stop and switch Maple back up front for Mugs. Maple gee’s-over with the best of them. “Let’s go.” Team is pegged to the right-hand side. “Good dogssss.” Not 30 seconds later, two snowmachines fly over a rise at us going so fast their skis are literally off the ground. It’s hard to steer that way. If I hadn’t made that switch, we would have been directly in their path. Scary. They give a wave of nonchalance as they pass. Thank God for intuition. Once off the snowmachine trail, I switch Mugs back up front with her brother Stump as Maple has started the limp back up in lead. She again runs a normal gait back in swing position. “Good girl.” Once we get to the Wallagrass potato fields and out of the shade, the dogs go from walk to crawl. The heat and fatigue is almost too much. I stop at each hedgerow where there’s any shade, but there’s little else I can do. Eventually we get across the desert of those fields and back into the woods. Fort Kent 5 miles. The dogs know where we are now. Those last miles go by fast and then, the last hill known as “the wall.” I jump off and run up this short but steep slap in the face. Out around the corner and on to the ski slope. Ahhh.

Almost done

Finish line!

Impossible to not smile. Impossible not to think of Kobuk and Ambler. Impossible not to feel some disappointment. Impossible to hold back tears of pride in accomplishment. “Good dogs, let’s go to the truck! Let’s go home. Good dogs!!!” Nathan and his team were still in the chute having arrived less than 3 minutes ago. Turns out he had some slow miles out there, too. “Congratulations.” No worries or regrets, just glad to be done! Sue and I lather the dogs with praise and hugs. Lynne Cyr signs me in as the 9th place finisher, again. I give her a hug and the “mail” I’ve been carrying. Tammy’s here with a big hug, and her good luck note is still in my pocket. Lynne and I both give TV interviews about the mail project. Bob and Rhonda are here with congratulations and help getting the team to the truck. Mitch is clearly as exhausted as I am, after handling his winning team, but he’s also here to welcome me in. Everyone says how good the team looks. I try to agree, but I know we could have been so much better. My team has been stronger both of the last two years at the finish. Was it because of more rest? Colder temperatures the last two years? Or some combination of these and/or other factors? We get the dogs down to the truck and laying in the shade on the ice. Kobuk seems pretty normal, Ambler’s another story. The vets had him splinted on his right front leg. Wrapped his left rear leg and had him on anti-inflammatory drugs. I’m saddened by his state. He licks my face and I feel better. A few folks stand around as we wrap all the finishing dogs’ wrists and pass out some more snacks and love to all the beautiful dogs who work so hard for us. Bob got me a bowl of chili. Sue got me a beer. Mitch told me Matt had won and had really pulled away on the last leg. Life is Good. I’m so glad to have finished. I got in at 11:21 Monday morning. My schedule I had drawn up prior to the race had me in at noon. We’ve taken another almost 6 hours off our time from last year and nearly 20 hours total off my first finish two years ago. Why don’t I feel better? Two words, Kobuk and Ambler. This finish is bittersweet. Wow this beer tastes good.


That’s it. Another 250 under my belt. Dave and Tammy cooked up another nice steak finish dinner. They had to wake me up to get me to the dinner table, but it sure was worth it. Tuesday we enjoyed breakfast with Mitch and Kricket, Matt, Steve, Bob and Rhonda, Nathan and Kevin and their handlers, Bruce Langmaid, Bruce Linton and Melissa, Matt, Sara and Josey Weik, and Normand, Rene, and their handlers. It’s eye-opening to get to sit and rehash the race with so many of the other competitors. We spent the afternoon in Mitchell’s driveway with the dogs dropped around the truck in bright sunshine and nearly 40 degrees. The last two mushers got in before sun-up Tuesday. Only 15 of 26 finished on what was considered the best trail in years. This race is tough. We were the only purebred team to finish. The whole race, I never even put my parka on and barely wore my mitts. Fleece gloves were enough most of the time and bare hands and baseball cap were the norm in the daytime. The awards banquet was fun, especially sitting with the winner of the race!! Isaac Mitchell sat with us, too. It’s great milling about with everybody and hearing more stories of the race from other perspectives. “I’ll see ya next year,” was a common tread in conversations. Sara Brooks, whom we’d met in connection with the mail delivery project at the Portage checkpoint came up to us to re-introduce herself. She had a large envelope with my name on it. It was a bunch of thank you letters from the Ashland first grade. I didn’t dare open it, knowing emotions would be hard to control on my part. She asked if we could stop by the school on our way home tomorrow. We agreed and made plans to stop there in the morning to visit with the kids and Mrs. McNally. I’m really glad I was able to be a part of this. Thanks for the faith, Lynne. The photographers did a slide show in which there were quite a few pictures of our beautiful dogs. I don’t often get to see the dogs faces during the race, and I was glad to see them truly smiling in many of the pictures taken from the front. After dinner, when it was my turn to accept the 9th place check, I had to break the silent trend as the first couple of mushers took their prize checks and sat back down. I had a few thank you's to make and was glad for the time to do it. I fumbled my words last year and tried to do better this time. Sue and the dogs were first. I had to thank the Mitchell family. I thanked Rita and the whole Can-Am organization and gave her a kiss. Matt’s time finally came, and although he’d been dreading it, he did a great job accepting the dog-sled trophy for first place after the standing ovation the room gave him. Congratulations Matt. And to the Nevahome Kennel of Jefferson, NH, we’re VERY proud of you all. After the regular awards, it was announced that Stephane and Nancy Duplessis’ clothing company “Duvet” had donated a pair of hand-made musher mitts to be given to one of the finishers, drawn randomly. My name was called. Finally, some good luck. Thanks Nancy for your fine sewing and generosity. I hope it gets cold enough to use them next winter.

Ashland First Grade

Thank You Note

After morning goodbyes to all the Mitchell family, we loaded the dogs and paid a visit to the Ashland Elementary School. It was a blast, actually and they really appreciated it. Maple was the star of the show as we brought her in with us to visit. The rest of the ride home was pretty easy driving. Sue and I talked a lot about future plans and we’d like to share some of them with you now. We have decided that we will make every attempt to enter a team of our dogs in the 2008 1000-mile Yukon Quest. We have been dreaming of doing a 1000 mile race but hadn’t made any serious choices. Well, now we have. We will use next year to qualify as we need a 300+ mile race in addition to our Can-Am finish. The nearest race that fills the bill is the 400 mile John Beargrease Sleddog Marathon in Minnesota. We will race there next January. We’ll do the Eagle Lake 100 and Wilderness 100 in Maine as well. And I just have to go back to Can-Am 250, to do a little better… Big plans. We’ll need lots of help to get there. We’ve got some fund-raising ideas in mind but are going to need lots more. We’ll post more information about the Quest and how we hope to get there in the near future.

After getting home, Ambler got his leg x-rayed and it showed NO broken bones. His leg is still sore and swollen, but he’s mending and we’re hopeful for a complete recovery. Blood work on the dogs has revealed an underlying problem in our race dogs of anemia. It causes lack of strength and endurance. We think that it is being caused by a lack of iron in our dogs diet and/or because we supplement zinc, but not iron. Both minerals are absorbed through the same process, so perhaps that has caused problems. Why this year but not the last several when little has changed? We don’t know yet. But at least we now have a good lead on why the dogs did not perform at the level we trained for and perhaps why Kobuk had the trouble he did. We’ll follow up with continued monitoring of blood work and then supplementation as needed. Luckily this is a problem that can be fairly easily dealt with, but we sure wish we’d know before the race. We’ll get it figured out with help from our vets and make sure it doesn’t happen again. We learn more every year.

This year’s Most Valuable Dog is Stump who led the majority of the way.
Curly was a complete superstar, cheerleader, and gets the Tightest Tug Award.
Maple gets Most Improved Dog, as I put more faith in her than ever and she delivered.
I’ve got to mention our amazing Jim, who has STILL finished every mile of racing I have since we started our kennel.
I love these dogs.

To our new sponsors who helped us squeak by this winter-
To our friends who give support and strength-
To our families who show understanding and love-
To Can-Am staff and volunteers for giving us a great place to do what we do-
To the Mitchell family for becoming our family-
To Lynne Cyr and her Madawaska first grade for your faith-
To Mrs. McNally and the Ashland first grade for your enthusiasm to learn about our sport-
To the vet staff who were there when we needed them-
To Scott for watching the homestead-
To Kim and Kelly Berg for your endless help-
To our dogs for their honesty, faith, and effort-
To my precious wife whom I adore and love-


Confidence. Trust. Faith. Respect.

Thanks- Mike, and all of TeamTsuga.

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