Alaska's Toughest 300 Mile Dog Sled Race
Gwenn during the first leg of The Copper Basin
with her team of 12 Alaskan Huskies. A deep, punchy trail made
the first 50 miles hard going.
The Copper Basin was my first 300 mile dog sled race and it was a huge learning experience for sure ! The previous winter, my goal to complete my two 300 mile races evaporated because for various reasons I ended up between kennels and missed some racing opportunities. I needed 750 qualifying miles. I got 200 miles with Jim Lanier's Northern Whites and gained valuable insights.
The Copper, as it is fondly referred to, has a reputation of being a very tough race. Many Iditarod mushers said, when they asked me what races I had entered, if you can complete The Copper, then you can do the Iditarod. Over and over, I heard these words. I wondered what was in store for me !
My team of 12 dogs was ready. Training had gone well for the month prior and I knew we were as ready as we could be. Unfortunately, my main leader, Doc, had to stay home because of a mild shoulder injury. We would miss him, but I felt the team was still strong with some additional good leaders to call on when needed. Zema and Learjet would be my main leaders. Picsus and Banjo ran in swing and could be put into lead if needed. Rex and Osprey would be in wheel. Team dogs were Saint and Charlie, Colt and Cancun, Mac and Blackfoot.
The race start is held in Glennallen, Alaska. Glennallen is known for some of the states most extreme cold weather, which is one of the elements that gives The Copper it's reputation. The weather forecast for the race was showing moderate temperatures that would hold during the whole race, for which I was grateful.
My husband, David Bogart, offered to be my dog handler and I will tell you he was the BEST handler a musher could have. He was there at every checkpoint to catch my leaders with his happy face and the most encouraging comments. After being alone all through the long hours as day blended into night and night blended into day, it makes such a difference to have someone there who can give you some heartfelt words of encouragement. Patrick Mackey was always there to giving morsels of golden advice for the trial ahead and saying the team looked awesome. Amen, brothah !
Gwenn and Dave at The Copper getting ready
for the start.
The start of any sled dog race is crazy. The energy in the air from lots of ragged nerves, canine and human, makes it difficult to stay calm. The dogs really need calm from their musher to help them hold it together. Knowing this, I found my demeanor change. The effort made on my part to remain calm not only worked well for the dogs but was great for me. Suddenly, there I was at the starting line and I felt calm and ready for the job at hand. Intellectually, I knew things would happen to us on the trail and I could handle it. I always had up to this point during training. This would be no different. Jason Mackey, who owns my team and was also running his Iditarod team, had given me lots of encouragement and his training preparation for me, I knew, was the best it could be. We were ready.
The trail of the first leg was punchy. The dogs struggled as the going was deep and it took a lot out of them. I could see it was going to take longer to reach the first checkpoint at Chistochina than originally planned. Our starting position was near the end of the pack but there were still fast teams behind me. I was looking over my shoulder a lot to see faster teams coming up and needing to pass. At one point as I tried to pull over to let yet another team by, my sled got off the packed trail and ended up in the deep snow. The dogs floundered around, straining to get some sort of solid foot hold as I did too. I remember Jim Lanier coming along and upon recognizing me, butt up and head down, in the deep snow, he asked do you need help? All I could do is laugh at myself and the situation and he gave a chuckle too. We got out, but lots of time had been wasted.
Zema (left) and Learjet lead the team during
The Copper Basin 300
The team was ready for a break when we pulled into the Chistochina checkpoint as I did too. I set about my checkpoint routine while the vets checked my dogs. Saint had pulled a pectoral muscle and needed to be dropped. The cabin at the checkpoint was a busy place with many people passing through and many loud conversations going on. Not a good place to get some shut eye. I had not hit the level of fatigue that would allow me to just pass out.
The second leg of the race was 70 miles long. I heard the trail was hard and fast which was good news after having traveled 50 miles of soft stuff. Stories of the hump, a benign term for a mountain we had to climb, had been circulating as well as stories of the water crossing. The water crossing did not worry me much as we had been through lots of water training and the dogs handled it in training just great. But this water crossing was epic. At the mushers meeting the night before the start, we had been told there was open water but not to worry as it was just inches deep. By the time I got there, the water had risen. The ice shelf was more than a foot thick. Upon our approach my team acted as if they were going to plunge right in but when the leaders saw the water moving they did a very fast exit stage left move. As quickly as possible, I set the ice hook and ran up to pull the leaders into the water but in order to do that I had to release the hook. Back to the hook I went, released it and ran back to the leaders, who in a moment had knitted a complicated snarl into and through the lines of rest of the team. I knew there was no pretty way to get across so I just grabbed onto a line and pulled with all my might.
The water was much deeper than the inches we had been told. It was up to my thighs and the dogs tried to swim. Because they were all in such a tangle, they could not swim. They thrashed and their panic was palpable. I have to admit, I had some panic very close under my skin about to come out. I pulled like I had never pulled before. I knew I had to get this crossing done fast, our lives depended upon it. The sled floated like a cork and swung downstream as the current caught it. UGH !
The exiting ice shelf was slippery as slippery can get. I made it up and over by literally clinging with my fingernails onto the surface sheen, belly crawl. Once I got my feet planted I could pull and haul the dogs and sled up over the ice shelf. The dogs were as relieved as I was at getting up on the other side. I could see it in their faces. The dogs were soaked. I was not as I had been wearing a wader of sorts that kept me dry. I was prepared, a god send indeed. The dogs needed my full attention immediately as the temperature was hovering near -10 below zero. As they stood shivering and shaking, I pulled off their booties and got them moving again as quickly as possible so they could warm up. Hypothermia was in the forefront of my mind.
We still had another 35-40 miles to travel to the next checkpoint, Meiers Lake, while the hump, somewhere out there, still loomed. From the stories, I knew it was something of a concern. The beauty of the trail that spread between the water crossing to the hump was spectacular. I was overjoyed to be traveling through this area in the daylight hours and am so happy that I was able to witness the grandeur of the landscape with my own eyes. So far off any road, this beauty would only be witnessed from dog team or snow machine, seen only by few.
The trail went through hemlock groves, over frozen swamps and lakes. I kept looking around at the peaks wondering if that was the hump only to experience the trail go by and was left to wonder in trepidation about the upcoming obstacle. My first view of the hump was spectacular. We came to a hilltop over looking a huge- broad expanse of land, a wide valley that looked like it went on forever. That was the moment when I got my first glimpse of The Hump. There, way up high, on the treeless summit, if I squinted my eyes just right, I could make out the tiny image of a team, making their way to the summit.
It was quite a climb from the floor of the valley to the summit but I have to say it was a surprise how well it went. The dogs did a great job and before we knew it we were on the other side, which was not a huge horrible descent, but an fairly easy ride. I could imagine this could be a horrible place, if traveling through a storm or dreadfully cold temperatures. I considered myself lucky, again.
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There are other side bar stories I could tell now, but I think I will end this for now and write more later as this post is just getting way to loooonnnnggggg…… stay tuned for the rest of the story !
Thank you for reading and visiting my blog !!!