{Tsuga Siberians}
January 14th, 2010 - "Copper Basin 300"
 

 
Start Chute
Cruisin

Howdy all. Sorry to have not been able to update the website more recently. We have been without internet for a while and just got back from Copper Basin and are without it again. So, please bear with us. We just had a fantastic Copper Basin (CB) race and although we actually finished in 16th this year and 15th last year, this year’s run was leaps and bounds ahead. We took something like 9 and a half hours off our time. (I don’t have the results in front of me, so I’m going from memory.) This year’s field was just extremely deep with very good teams. I had a plain plan for the race and followed it exactly finishing almost precisely on my schedule. There are a lot of options in how to run the CB with 7 checkpoints, but only 18 hours of mandatory rest. We used 3 checkpoints for the whole race and stuck to just the mandatory. My schedule was significantly different than almost every other musher, but so are my dogs. Short story is, we’ve trained to suit our dogs’ strengths, we raced to match our training, and the dogs finished in super shape, ready for more trail. I love it when a plan comes together. If you want the long story, read on-

I’ll just mention the thought process that went in to picking the team, for you Tsuga Tsupafans. My goal was to get all of the dogs I expect to be on my Quest team (14 dog) in either the Gingin (10 dog) or CB (12 dog) and as many as possible, in both. That meant not bringing too many question marks in either, but bringing the right question marks. Trip and Logan are definites for the Quest team, but had just minor little nicks that forced me to leave them off the CB team. (They’re 100% now and are running great, as of Sue’s run on 1/14/2010.) Of the 12 CB dogs (Stump, Merlin, Eliza, Moon, Reba, Gila, Mugs, Lotus, Wilson, Hawkeye, Ambler, and Hood) one name should stand out: MOON. Little puny Moony, went on the Copper Basin??? Our smallest dog, (except the cat – Zirkle), Moon weighs in at maybe 32 pounds and hasn’t raced since she was dropped in Sue’s 2007 Can-Am 250 race back in Maine! Last year she probably should have made the Quest team, but I had no faith she would hold up to the tough miles. This year we decided to train her up with the race team and she if he could handle it. She’s been leading some, but mostly running in swing, pushing the pace with her drive to go and we had to see if she could do it on difficult race trail with short rest. This race was her audition for Quest. The rest of this team may seem like Quest-definites and most are, but Gila, Reba, and Eliza had all skipped Gingin because they were in heat. Now they had to run. Mugs started the season retired. She worked her way right out of that. She’s been leading again and is her old self, only better now that she seems to have settled in to her new body without all those girl parts she gave up over last summer. She finished Gingin strong, but still felt like a question mark to me after her trouble in last year’s Quest. Everybody else is the core of the team.

The drive south was great. We had our neighbor watching the dogs left at home (Thanks Melinda!!). Sue was along with me this time, so this was her warm-up for Quest as she has about the same responsibilities here as in the regular Quest checkpoints. The information she can relay to me when I get in and the help parking or passing through she can provide is important for my efficiency. The sled went 300 miles but the truck did over 900 miles, so Sue had her share of driving, too. Everything was going really well until the bib draw during the drivers’ meeting at the overcrowded Brown Bear Rhodehouse, Friday night. My pick from the hat was dead last, #43. I never really was much of a Richard Petty fan either. Going out last means getting a chewed-up trail to travel on slowing our pace, but also putting the dogs at greater risk of injury. It also means that I get no differential in rest time due to 2-minute start intervals. My buddy, Hugh Neff, in bib #1 would get an hour and 24 minutes more mandatory rest than us, a big advantage. I couldn’t seem to shake my disappointment right up until I was on the trail and could just deal with what was in front of us.

Just got parked.
Blue.

For most the first 25 miles to Tolsona, what was in front of us was the ditch: trail right along the highway. Up and over driveways and down the trench on the other side, through parking lots, around snow banks, then back in to plowed and punchy snow mixed with gravel and dirt of a “trail.” It looked like some teams had had trouble getting out on to the highway at times and with absolutely NO trail markers for the first 10 miles, I can see why. You might think it would be easy at the back for the dogs to just follow the scent of the teams in front, but many teams in front had gone the wrong way in a good many spots, so there was dog scent everywhere!! Thanks to Stump and Merlin listening to me and me getting lucky with some of my trail guesses, we made it just fine, passing our first team just a bit before signing in and out, at Tolsona Lake.

Out of Tolsona, the trail was ok for a while, before becoming completely punched-up, granular “sugar” snow with no bottom except the un-even, tussock-covered, frozen muskeg below. It’s hard to watch the team struggle through this stuff but I kept the drag mat down, using all the patience I could find. At least this year I expected this and didn’t let it bum me out like I had last year. We caught and passed 3 more teams on the way to Wolverine Lodge after the trail improved some and I allowed the team to pick up the pace a bit. It was about a 5.5 hour run in, and my plan was to take an even four hours of rest. The dogs all ate well and so did I. My next run was going to be a long one so we needed to fuel up and digest well. The first “half” from here to our next rest at Meiers Lake is a pretty straightforward run across a few low, wooded hills then on lakes and lowland for 53 miles to Sourdough. This section was easy for the dogs, except that it was about 24 below zero and the yellow plastic I had on the runners needed to be changed for the smoother-when-colder black plastic. At my first snack stop about 20+ miles in to the run; I changed the plastic with the extra set in my sled. Once rolling again, I had to put the drag mat back down and keep some pressure on it to control our speed, which made my feet cold and I’d wished I just left the grippy yellow on there! We travel quite a few miles on Crosswind and then Ewan Lakes and I could see a couple headlamps way out ahead of me. I stopped every time I saw them to let the dogs relax a minute or two. We had a very long ways still to go and I wanted to move at our pace, not get sucked-in to chasing teams that were only going to Sourdough for another rest. I had some time to switch off my headlamp and enjoy the northern lights show going on! Passing through the Sourdough checkpoint was a little hectic, as we had to go down the middle of something like 30 resting teams. Thankfully Sue was able to guide the leaders and get us to the out trail after picking up some more meat snacks for the next 43 tough miles to Meier’s Lake and the second “half” of our longest, and toughest, run of the race.

Back in Wolverine sitting and eating, I heard someone say, “Oh, nobody will blow thru Sourdough!” I had chuckled, as this was exactly my plan. I knew the trail is tough, hilly, curvy, seldom used, and soft for the stretch between Sourdough and Meiers. I thought a team that was a little tired wouldn’t be such a bad thing and getting through it before too many teams chewed it up wouldn’t hurt either. Plus the timing would work out that I could get to Meiers just as daylight came and spend my full 8-hour break waiting out the sun. We ran in to trouble right off the bat getting out of Sourdough. After a short distance on a plowed road getting to the pipeline, we missed a turn, came to an intersection, turned around on the plowed road, and then couldn’t get back off the road in the right spot because the dogs couldn’t see the trail coming from the wrong way and I couldn’t set a snowhook. Eventually, I got the tangle figured out and we got off the road. It was a little early, but I decided to stop and snack there to compose the team and myself after the hectic tangle. In the next 10 miles, several fast teams came by quickly, just off their rests in Sourdough. My stay in the top ten hadn’t lasted very long. The trail did in fact get a bit gnarly with side hills, soft snow, stumps, sharp corners, intersections with no markers, steep hills, glaciers, and similar Copper Basin hazards. We watched dawn break from a high ridge above Meiers, where we could see the entire Copper River Basin out to our south, the Wrangell Mountains beyond, and to the north, the lights of Paxson tucked up against the Alaska Range that crossed the entire northern horizon in a pastel glow. It was a spiritual moment for me and I had to stop to walk up and down the team to share some love with the dogs. Despite being at the end of a nearly 12 hour, almost 100-mile run, this team was happy, energetic, and steady. I promised them straw and a hot meal in just a few miles and we fell off the mountain, down to the lake, and in to the promise.

Meiers Lake wasn’t a checkpoint last year, but it fit the schedule this year and it proved a pretty good resting spot. My leap-frogging schedule allowed me to see nearly all the teams at Meiers. A few had already pushed on to Paxson, but since I sat here for my full 8 hour rest, when I finally pulled out a bit after 5pm, I was the next to last team on the trail.

Merlin hiding from the wind.
Sue's living room.

Much of the 17 miles to Paxson are on Paxson Lake. With a 15-20 mph wind blowing at our backs, the going was fairly easy on decent trail, where you could see the trail. Unfortunately, I could only see the trail about half the time in the blowing and drifting snow. It was stressful for both the team and me. I did know that as long as I could get them directed to the north end of the lake, we would find the trail. We bounced along over the wind drifts and I was occasionally able to spot a trail marker in my headlamp beam and direct the dogs to it. Stump will also run to a trail marker if I can hold the reflector in my light beam, which allowed me to stop trying to yell over the wind. A few times we did 90-degree turns to get back to the trail from hundreds of yards away by me guiding him with my headlamp. Stump continues to amaze me with his abilities. We were lucky with the bad overflow and holes in the lake ice at the north end we’d heard about. They were all frozen-over solid when we got there! We checked right through Paxson, re-passing a bunch of teams that were resting, and headed for the high country, where we’d been warned that the wind could be blowing hard. The trail here climbs the biggest hills on the race, in the foothills of the Alaska Range. And after the serpentine crossing of the braided Gakona River, climb we did!! I love mountains. Just being in the mountains is what I miss most about my pre-mushing days of skiing and mountain climbing. Getting up in to the hills with my dog team is like heaven to me. It’s rewards come with effort though, as with most good things. This was the one time I wished I didn’t always over-pack the sledbag, although I usually enjoy the comfort of knowing I have everything I need to deal with just about any situation I may encounter with the team. On these steep hills, the extra weight surely slowed our progress. I could see some headlamps way above us, above treeline, climbing still. Other times, I confused stars for headlamps and thought we had more of a climb than we did! I could see several headlamps back behind us, too. Looking at the sky was much more interesting as the northern lights got rolling again and at one point made a bow above the mountains to the north that looked like an even larger mountain over them. We dropped out of the hills and found Darrin Lee stopped and removing booties before the open water crossing of Excelsior Creek. Darrin lives in Chistochina, where we were headed, and he puts in the trail through this area. He gave me some good landmarks and distances for the rest of the ride as I re-booted where we both stopped after the mellow crossing. Stump and Wilson hadn’t wanted to jump in to the open water, but when I went up to get them across, the water was only ankle deep. Several teams came by while I re-booted and I followed these teams for most of the way to Chisto, occasionally seeing lights ahead or behind, and with some passing. Then the wind started as we crossed some open country and although I knew there were teams just minutes ahead, we could see no tracks, and drifts covered the entire trail in places. Within about 8-10 miles of this starting, we were checking in to a very windy Chisto checkpoint where the race leaders were just leaving. We still had six hours to rest to fulfill our mandatory time.

Chores were tough in the wind, but warm water available inside helped speed getting things done, and I had the team nestled in their coats, buried in whatever straw wouldn’t blow away. The one thing weighing on my mind inside as I ate breakfast was Hawkeye. He had been just a little off for the last 20 miles or so. I could not pinpoint any specific injury or pain, but he has already made the Quest team and he has nearly the most miles of any dog in the kennel. He could go to the truck with Sue and get a ride home from here. Thanks, Hawkeye.

I got a bit of sleep (minutes) sitting in a chair as the wind howled outside. Before long it was time to water the dogs again and I was back out in the wind, watching teams leave, while we waited. Finally we could start to get ready, and I left the girls’ coats on while I put the boys in their wind coats. They were on their feet and off the straw on command and all 22 eyes watched me as I ran over to the checker’s cabin to sign-out. In the morning light Sue led the team to the exit and we were off on our last run, starting in a drifted-in ditch trail. I missed a turn that would have taken us in to the trees, on to better trail paralleling the road, but we were stuck in this ditch in foot-deep snow. After a mile or more of doing maybe 2 mph, I found a break in the trees and called the leaders gee, over to the better trail. After just a few more miles, the wind slowed and I took off dog coats. The trail is pretty boring here, in and out of the ditch, off to a power line, and on to more ditch trail. Unfortunately, we came upon Normand parked with his team next to road. He had some trouble with his team getting out on to the highway with another team where neither had control. Normand had a couple dogs get injured and he was waiting for his handler to load his team into the truck, ending his race. I felt horrible for him and could see the disappointment in his eyes. That’s not how I would ever wish to pass a team. When I stopped to take off booties about 10 miles before the Glennallen checkpoint, a team came up behind us. I finished up quickly, pulled the hook and the loose tug Lotus had went tight! Her booties had been bothering her, I thought so! Our pace quickened some and we held off the team behind (for now) and even caught and passed another team just before coming in to the checkpoint, to find Mike Santos still there. I hadn’t expected to see any of these teams and wanted to get out of this checkpoint before the dogs had any idea of sticking around. Mike pulled the hook as I waited for a couple drinks, but we were less than a minute behind him. We passed him after a mile or two and he said there was another team ahead. I had planned on just coasting in to the finish, taking it easy. Now I had motivation to work a little harder. I wasn’t going to ask the dogs for more at this point, so I went to work myself, pedaling for all I was worth, instead of my usual easy but constant pedaling. Within just a mile or so, I could see a headlamp ahead, but all of a sudden there was another coming up behind me. Colleen caught me soon and she disappeared from sight in minutes. That’s two years in a row she has passed me on the last leg of this race, cruising like a team just out of the start chute. Nice job, Cole. I did continue to gain on the other team in front and no longer saw anything behind us but darkness. At a confusing turn where they had told us we would go right, but now the trail was marked (sort of) to the left, I opted to follow the markers and ended up in a parking lot right behind another team having trouble getting to the correct spot to hit the trail that led back in to the ditch we used the first day. She got her leaders started. My leaders had tried to go around, but went too far to the right and got tangled around a sign post. Once back on the trail, we caught back up, she let us pass, and I looked back a lot, trying to judge if we were gaining or loosing ground. Although I hadn’t planned on catching these teams, now that I had, I sure wanted to stay in front. Knowing Sue would be there to help with dogs and I’d be able to be inside within minutes of finishing, I disregarded my normal efforts to stay as dry as possible and worked as hard as I ever have behind a dogsled. I ran, pedaled, and pushed and with 10 miles to go, I didn’t see any lights behind me anymore. That made five teams we had passed since Chisto and only got passed by one of the faster teams from behind that I thought might catch us. We rounded the last turn in the trail, hit Tolsona Lake, and coasted the last mile to the Tolsona Lake Lodge and the finish line, where Sue waited to greet her team. The team looked super at the end and I know we could have taken a moderate rest and been back out on the trail in great shape. We had done the 300 miles in almost 10 hours less than last year and were much less than that off the win. All in all, the team couldn’t have done much better for where we’re at right now. I made a few mistakes along the way, but think I learned from them and don’t think they cost us too much. I had a good time and think we are perfectly set-up for the Quest, in just a few weeks!!

Our "kitty", Zirkle

Tuesday, while waiting for the evening finish banquet, I got a chance to have some great conversations with other mushers and handlers. We analyzed, anthropomorphized, criticized, and generally de-briefed the race. It’s always nice to feel some respect from our competitors and friends. We are proud of what we’ve done so far, but not satisfied by any means. We’ve more to do and look forward to continued improvement. The best is yet to come!!

We’ve got the nightmare of Quest drop bags to do in the next week, as they are due on the 23rd. This is crunch time for us, with much chopping, cutting, buying, bagging, sorting, and packing. The dogs still need to be run 4-5 days a week and sleep for us now becomes a novelty. I better get going as I’ve still got a frozen toilet drain to fix and toilet to remount, dogs to feed and run, 1500 pounds of meat to chop and bag, and I’ll try to find time to get somewhere with internet to get this posted today.

If you’ve been thinking about sending in a donation to the team or sponsoring a dog, this is a great time of year to do so and we could really use the help right now as the bills add up and the Quest is just around the corner.

Thanks for checking in and take care.

Yukon Quest, here we come…


 

 

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