Sunday, February 10, 2013

Camping with the Northern Whites

Camping with Northern Whites

  Back on the runners and being careful for what I wish for....I have been re-reading Gary Paulsen's Winterdance, The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. My memory of specific stories within are foggy. That is why I have started reading it again. I, also, thought I might be able to glean knowledge from it now, that I can read it with a new perspective. And a new perspective I have. No longer am I amazed at the pure chaos he encounters, now I can totally relate. He certainly has not over-stated the stories. They are spot on. Any way, I had said to my husband, Dave that I wanted to be mushing dogs, not reading about, it as I had not been on the runners in a careful what you wish for....

     Tuesday morning was met with temperatures in the 30's. Jim's plan had us running the teams four hours, then camp for four hours and then run again for four hours. We trucked the dogs to the Chugiak Mushers Club to run the wonderfully wide and  groomed trails there. With lots of little delays, we finally pulled our snow hooks to start the run at 12:30, lunchtime for many. It was a wonderful run, all around the edges of the Cook Inlet, along through wooded groves and around frozen lakes at the base of the Chugach Mountains. The sun was shining, a glorious day to be running dogs. It was lots of fun as we coursed our way along our 4 hour run. I loved it.

     Camping with the dogs is quite involved. It is a practice of sorts for race activities, along with giving the dogs a well deserved break. We pulled into our camping spot at 4:30 in the afternoon. I planted one of my snow hooks, firmly into the hard pack snow of the trial, stomping it in firmly with several good hard kicks. Taking the second snow hook to the front of the team, I hooked the carabiniere into the front end of the gang line to secure the lead end in place. This keeps the gang line tight so the dogs stay put. On the way back to the sled, all the dog booties are removed, collected and put into a bag to save for laundering and regrouping for later runs, and tug lines are unhitched from the dogs harnesses. 

    Then it is time to feed the dogs with pre-mixed baited water (frozen ground chicken melted in warm water and put into a garbage bag lined, small cooler, placed inside the sled bag) One ladle full of water and a ladle full of high-octane kibble in a bowl for every dog. You can imagine the noise that comes from the team as they are frantic for water and calories.  Once this is done, the dishes were collected and places off to the side to freeze, so they don't stick together once the are re-nested. With the dogs fed, it was time to spread out the straw for the dogs to nestle into for a good rest. They know exactly what the straw means and eagerly help spread it out, circling to make their nap-nest. For the veteran dogs, it takes very little time to settle. For the young rookie dogs, they think it is time to play with the straw or each other..more training...I yell at them....."knock it off".....

Feeding time

Nap Time

   During the camping rest day turned to night. We donned our headlights to start packing up our sleds. At one point, we heard some noise nearby, in the dark woods. The dogs went nuts, barking wildly with eyes focused and ears pricked all in one direction. Suddenly, in the cone-lit beam of my headlamp, I spotted a moose, its eyes reflected back at me, an alien-like green, which spooked me. It was the  first time I have had an "encounter" of sorts, with a moose. I had a pit of fear in my belly when we pulled our hooks to continue our evening run. I wondered where the giant animal had gone. Fortunately, the moose had moved on as we did not meet it again.

     At 7:45 pm, we started to re-bootie the team for a an on-time 8:30 pm departure for another 4 hour run. The night time running brings a whole new set of sensations and feelings. Jim runs his teams much faster than Ray and this makes it all very different for me. The trees go by much faster, the turns of the trail become sharper and the speed seems, at some points like a swirling surreal dream.  When you don't know the trails, all your attentions are on managing sled riding skills, keeping the sled on the trail and managing the running speed, all awhile keeping your eyes on the dogs. Better than any amusement ride in the world !

     Phew ! Finally12:30 am, we arrived back at the truck to end the run. After the days activities, it feels like no small feat (no pun intended) to remove the, 4 X 12 booties, remove harnesses and load each dog into its box on the truck. Six of the dogs in my team had to be loaded into the top, higher tier of the dog boxes. This required me to lift the dog up, over my head. The dogs had to crawl, claw and  push off my shoulders and head with their feet, to get themselves into the high-up resting spot.  After loading the equipment and sleds we drove the 15 minutes back to Jim's. We let the dogs spend the night on the truck and would unload them in the morning. I stayed at Jim's where I spent an utterly sleepless night, that is if you call 4 hours of "rest" a night. My body ached and every time I closed my eyes, I felt like I was riding on the runners, swishing through the curvy dark, snowy trails. I could not sleep. 

     At 7 a.m. the scent of coffee met my nose so it was up and at em’.  I felt like I had been on an all night drinking binge. I thought about my day and wondered how I would manage the tasks I would face. There was nothing of any danger, it is just I was so darn tired. I could not allow myself to think about being on the comfy sofa, resting, watching the evening news, as I felt like I had to take it all moment by moment to make it through the day.

  I will put an end to this saga now. Suffice it to say, I made it through the day of many physical chores which included cutting up six 50 pound flats of course ground chicken into small snack size pieces using the band saw. Cutting was very slow as the blade was so dull. I sure wish these "big-time" mushers would give us schleppers the proper tools to do the task. It seemed to go on  FOREVER. I ended the task short of completion. To tired, I was making mistakes and was aware that I was in danger of cutting myself. 

I made it home, feeling to exhausted and tired. My neck muscles decided to attack me. Thank goodness the prescription strength dosage of Advil made it all o.k. in the morning.