Monday, December 31, 2012

Race Week Countdown

New Year's Eve
Training in Knik
Photo by Julia Redington

     The weather in Alaska has not exactly been the best for dog mushing. It was in the high 30's today and the sun was shining. Everyone but the mushers love this weather ! We are all holding our breath that the Knik 200 Race will not be cancelled. The race organizers are waiting to see what the weather is going to do before they make an official decision. 

Early in the week, our team did a 72 mile run. We started at Deshka Landing on the Big Susitna River and headed north 36 miles to Yentna Station, on the Yentna River. This happens to be the first check point for the Iditarod and also the checkpoint for the Knik 200.  It was great to be able to run part of the race trail to become somewhat familiar with it. I am guessing our average speed was 10 miles per hour as it took us about 7 hours to finish the entire run. When we got to Yentna we had a good long snack/rest break. But, the dogs got antsy and wanted to get moving. We left Yentna at 4 pm which made most of our run back to the Deshka in the dark. It was a great training run for this neophyte !

By the way, the dogs would really love to move faster than the 10 mph. If it were left up to the dogs we would be roaring around corners with the sled careening through the turns teetering on one runner. We keep them paced at this slowspeed in order to build strength and stamina. They pull into the harnesses hard and a musher has to work hard to hold them back by keeping pressure on the brake lever with their feet. The brake lever is a bar with two sharp tine type bars which drag and scratch, cut and dig into the snow and ice. The harder you push down, the deeper these dig in and hopefully the slower or more control you have. The power of a 12 dog team is staggering to experience. My first experience with 12 dogs was daunting as I could not stop them whatsoever....a humbling experience indeed. My thoughts immediately go to wondering what in the world will it be like to stand on the runners of a sled being pulled by 16 Iditarod dogs. 

  People often ask what breed are these dogs as they all look so different; different sizes, different colors, different coats and a variety of body types. The fact of the matter is, an Alaskan sled dog is a mutt, a pure full on mutt. Over the years, mushers have bred huskies with many other dog breeds in an effort to infuse more speed into the breed. Some of the other breeds introduced into the husky bloodlines have been a variety of pointers and hound type dogs.  You can see by this short video taken a week ago that my team looks like a mixed bag of breeds. I suppose you would be right in making a statement like that. But the one thing the dogs all have in common is they LOVE to pull.

This video makes it all look so peaceful, relaxing and easy. But, I am here to tell that when it all looks smooth and easy it is because lots of successful training has taken place. During those training days chaos has ensued with crashing sleds, runaway teams,  and perhaps even some dog fights. It is what one musher friend referred to it as "controlled chaos". Suffice it to say, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Trials and Tribulations; Do Not Let Go !

What ever you do, don't let go !

  The learning curve continues to be steep for me in this new endeavor ! When I wake up in the morning I seem to have a pit in the bottom of my stomach. That feeling of nerves on edge, anticipating some level of impending doom of sorts, burns in the bottom of my belly. Here is a story of why .....

The 10 dogs were having a great run, pulling hard up the hills and surging across the wide open expanses of frozen lakes. I was having a wonderful time as we skimmed along, effortlessly smooth 40 mile trip on this cold, minus 20 degrees, but sunny afternoon.

About 10 miles from home, the trail makes a hard left turn, descends a short, but steep hill and then emerges out on what is known as 7 Mile Lake. It is not that the lake is 7 miles long, it is because the lake is 7 miles from the the beginning of the trail. The team surged with speed and power as they anticipated the turn. I stomped my foot on the brake bar which did not seem to have much of an effect on the speed. Round the turn we went, fast. I held my foot on the brake as the sled cracked up against the tree, rocked back and forth on the runners, then turned over on its side. I hung on to the handle for dear life as my body bounced along down the hill, plowing snow with my face the whole way. For those who do not know, when you fall off the sled or tip over, the team does not stop. They just keep on pulling and pulling. Doing exactly what they have been bred and trained to do. 

At the bottom of the hill, the team stopped, no longer able to pull the sled, they turned their heads to look back as to inquire on what the problem was. I pulled myself up to my knees, ever so grateful to have been able hang on.  One, and I underscore one, of my biggest fears, as there are so many fears, is that I would lose my team out on the trial. I have heard these stories and they make me feel such doom. 

As I pulled the sled upright, I was ready to hop quickly on the runners, when the team jerked in their harnesses, a jerk and surge of monumental force, ripping the handle of the sled from my hands and there I stood as I watched my team run out onto 7 Mile Lake. They were charging with the exuberant freedom with the featherweight load trailing behind. The image of the team rapidly diminishing in size made my heart sink as I walked in their direction. In the cold air, I was sweating, my hair soaked with perspiration, which froze immediately as I pulled my hat off. As I unzipped my arctic one piece suit steam rose and froze on my eyelashes making them stick together as I blinked in an attempt to focus on my now distant focal point. As I trudged along the trail, all I could hope for was that there would be another team coming down the trial and the musher would grab my team seeing the riderless sled, or that one of my snow hooks would jostle off the sled, setting itself as it is designed to do, deep and securely in the snow, stopping the team for me.

After crossing two lakes and a vast open expanse of frozen slough, my walk brought me into a piney woods and there I found my team stopped, frolicking in the deep snow with the lines snarled into total chaos. You can imagine my relief. I nearly cried tears of joy to find them there, stopped, safe and happy.

After unhooking many tug lines and reattaching neck lines, the snarl of lines came to order. The dogs, sensing things were getting organized, started yelping and leaping to get going. Me too, I said to them. Standing firmly on the runners, my left hand gripping the sled handle tight, I reached down with my right hand to grasp the handle of the snow hook. With a strong yanking pull on the handle it came free and off we went. A gratefully giddy musher and her team coursing over Alaskan hill and dale, arriving in the dog yard finally to end another epic day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sheep Mtn 150 Cancelled/ Alaska Excursions 120 instead

Shred and Right Eye in Lead

The Sheep Mountain 150 which was scheduled for December 15, 2012 was cancelled due to lack of snow. It seems there are lots of other types of sled dog races going on, one of which seemed like a good idea to enter. The Alaska Excursion 120 was on Saturday 12/15 and Sunday 12/16. This was a sprint race with two heats of 40 miles each,.

The race took place at Happy Trails Kennel which is the home of Iditarod Champion Martin Buser. He and his wife, Cathy generously let the race take place there as the home of the Alaska Excursion 120 Race trail was not ready.

Thank you to Lori Egge for letting me use her dog box trailer. The team of 10 dogs rode in style and were toasty warm in the straw filled boxes on such cold mornings as the temperatures were well below zero. Also thank you to Nick Petit for helping me get my team safely to the starting line !

My first heat was not very successful as I missed a turn, and went about 15 miles out of my way. During the run, which went in the wrong direction, I nearly lost my team as I lost my balance going down a steep hill. I was on the "Big Lake Trail" at this point, which is wide snow machine trail, that looks like a super highway. I don't even want to think about what would happen if the team got away from me. They probably wouldn't have been seen again for a long time. Not a happy thought.

I got turned around, when I finally realized I was on the wrong trail and went all the way back to the start. The happy folks there said I could turn around, go the right direction and finish the heat, which I did. Needless to say, I was in last place.

Sunday was as cold as Saturday, maybe even more so. I did not get lost and passed by several teams to finish the 42 mile heat under 4 hours. The dogs were great and finished in excellent form. I couldn't have been more proud of them

My wonderful husband, Dave Bogart was my intrepid dog handler who had to sort out drop lines, harnesses, booties, unload the sled and keep order among the troops, not to mention scooping a few poops too !

Photo taken by Barb Redington