1800 miles for a Timmies

12 March 2015     5.00 PM      13 F    Sunny with blue skies

Despite my best intentions, I have once again fallen behind in my blogging. Things have been a little hectic, with the Yukon Quest and Iditarod preparations in full swing right up until the proverbial last moment.

We’ve still been trying to get our dogs out and running, but the weather has not been at all co-operative. Most of the tail end of February and early March saw us suffer with rain, ice and temperatures rarely dropping below freezing even in the dead of night. This played havoc with the trails and the dogs – it’s not much fun trying to run in 35F in your fur coat when you’re happier at -20F.  Despite this, we had been making a fair attempt at keeping them ticking over. By chance, a friend in Whitehorse suggested I come over for a visit and bring the dogs.  There was a 100 mile race in the little town of Haines Junction, not far over the Canadian border and it is on the way to Jacob’s place.  So, I decided to enter The Silver Sled 100 and duly completed my entry form, and started to pack the truck with everything needed to survive a week on the road in winter.  At some point during that process, I realised that I am definitely an “err on the side of caution” type when it comes to packing stuff. For 6 days away, just me and 10 dogs, I had so much gear that I could barely get it it all in or on the truck. Thankfully, I didn’t need all of it – actually I didn’t need most of it, and I didn’t even bring some of it back – but more of that later……..

Early on the Friday morning, I roused the dogs -who were not unduly impressed at being asked to get up at that ungodly hour – loaded them and we set off on our big adventure.  All my previous drives into Canada have been in the Spring/Summer time and the outbound leg has always been done without dogs. Fortunately, the mild winter meant that the road was clear and driving was easy. The dogs very quickly got into a good drop routine and around 10 PM, we pulled into our overnight accommodation, just outside Haines Junction.

First drop of the trip in Chistochina
First drop of the trip in Chistochina
Jaw dropping, breath taking scenery.Complete lack of traffic.
Jaw dropping, breath taking scenery.Complete lack of traffic.
Moody sky, happy dogs.  Somewhere on the Alcan.
Moody sky, happy dogs. Somewhere on the Alcan.

With the morning’s dawn, dogs were fed and Jacob and I set off to find breakfast and then track down the location of the drivers’ meeting. Vet check completed, and only a little alarmed by the trail talk, we headed off to the start area and to get ready for the race. I will confess to being a bit panicky at this point. There’s something about a race start that brings added pressure and complications – even when I’m telling myself that this is just a training run. The fear of forgetting something vital or mandatory meant that the area around my truck looked like a bomb site – things were going in and out of the sled several times. Eventually, I calmed down and packed just what I needed, plus a couple of extra everythings and left most of my “rookie bulge” at the truck. Things were going swimmingly until one of the volunteers pointed out that there was no bib 14  and that bib 13 was just leaving – rather than having 6 minutes to go, I had less than 2. Let’s just say as we got to the start line, the starter was already waving me through as being late. Hardly an auspicious start and it got worse only 500 yards later when Rosie decided she didn’t want anything to do with the volunteers manning the road crossing and tried to take us anywhere except where we were meant to go. Mini excursion over, we were back on the trail, already hotly pursued by the next team out.

The next few miles were a bit of a blur, several more road crossings, several more avoiding the marshals by Rosie and being passed by a lot of teams as we struggled with the gradients, the heat and the disruptions. Eventually, I figured we had been passed by everyone who had left behind us and I could stop looking over my shoulder. As we climbed out of the trees and back into the sunshine, I had to remove my jacket it was so warm. A brief sojourn alongside the Trans Alaska Highway and then we turned back into the treed trail.

Trans Alaska Highway on the left.  Grass and dirt all around.
Trans Alaska Highway on the left. Grass and dirt all around.

From then on, it was all uphill,  apart from the few downhills, but they only led to more uphills, so they don’t really count.  I have always loved the scenery on the drive from Haines Junction to Kluane Lake and one of the main reasons for doing this race was the chance to get to see that scenery much closer and without the distraction of driving.  It sure is pretty but it seems a whole lot more mountainous on the back of a sled than it appeared whilst behind the wheel of my truck.
As hard as we were finding it, things got a little more complicated when Turov started limping. The heat made him want to dip for snow more and more and with the soft edges of the trail, it seemed likely he simply tweaked a wrist trying to get out to the sides. As much as I would liked to have him in the team for the long climbs ahead, it was simply not an option to risk further injury to him. So I had to clear some space in the sled and load the biggest dog I have and carry him the 15 miles or so to the finish line. Fortunately, he was as good as gold, he sat leaning against the sled stanchion and never stirred or wriggled. The others simply got on with their work and we just marched on.

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Turov gets a ride to the finish line on Day 1. The ice of Kluane Lake shimmers ahead of us.

After all the climbing, it was wonderful to begin the long descent down to the lake and to the overnight stop. The race organisers had volunteers drive our trucks up for those of us without handlers,  it was great to be able to direct the dogs towards a familiar sight and to know that everything I needed to take care of them was at hand. A quick check of the dogs, who all seemed fine and they happily started gnawing on a meaty snack.  Turov was still in the sled bag and seemed to be enjoying the attention he was garnering.  The vet came over to check on him and made sure I knew where to find her, if required.  Turov was a little stiff and sore, but ate and drank, and was tucked up into his box after an Algyval massage and the application of a wristwrap.  The others all ate well and happily climbed into their boxes for a well deserved sleep.

The race organisers had done a wonderful job with the checkpoint, we had cabins to sleep in and they fed us an excellent dinner and a great breakfast in the morning.  My catering for the dogs may not have been quite up to the high standards of Martine and her crew, but they did eat without complaint.  In the morning, Turov was moving well, with no sign of his limp, but I decided it would be better for him to have the day off. As the slowest team from Day 1, we would be first out on Day 2. With one less dog in the team, I didn’t hold out much hope for any dramatic comeback, but I was a little wiser in packing my sled and dumped a lot of the gear that I would have no need for. The first couple of hours were a little cooler, until the sun burst through the clouds and the temperature soared. There almost seemed to be a visible slump from the dogs when they first felt those rays of sunshine hit them.  And somehow,  the trail that seemed all uphill on the way out, was also all uphill on the way back.  At least we managed to keep contact with more of the teams for longer on the second day, but we still had a long solitary run for home.

The final stretch, heading back into Haines Junction. What a view.
The final stretch, heading back into Haines Junction. What a view.

It’s a mentally tough thing to be running last, but the dogs don’t care where we finish, they just want to run and go some place, any place. New places are great, after several winters of training on the same trails, we have finally broken away from my comfort zone and done new things. The dogs have had to travel, to sleep away from home, to be surrounded by other dog teams and to climb more hills than we have ever encountered.

As we crossed the finish line, I looked forward over the team and somehow felt we had forged a stronger bond.  They had done everything I had asked of them, without complaint, without quitting and had to endure my loving hugs as well. It is always the leaders who are singled out for praise and special attention – and to some extent that is understandable. If they don’t go, none of us go.  However, everyone needs to pull and be part of the team and it seems unfair to single out any one dog . However, I’m going to do that anyway.  Kazek ran lead both days and for a large part of Day 2 he was the dog driving us forward. I rotated Rosie, Ruby and Quiz as running companions for him, but as they tired, they seemed happy to let him do all the work.  Eventually, I promoted 3 year old Brooks to run beside him – her first time in lead and she rose to the challenge and ran shoulder to shoulder with him for the last 15 miles. Kazek was my MVP,  but it was so heartening to see Brooks, whom we bred, taking such a big step up.

Back at the truck, after finishing our first 100 mile race. Brooks and Kaz in lead.
Back at the truck, after finishing our first 100 mile race. Brooks and Kaz in lead.

After the dogs were checked, fed, watered and cared for, I was happy to find that we had managed to take 30 minutes off the previous day’s run time and that I had finished in time to make the Banquet as well. Once again, the race organisers had laid on a wonderful dinner and had a slideshow of photographs taken during the race being projected onto a large screen as we ate and chatted.

The awards ceremony took place shortly afterwards and I was duly awarded a very nice Red Lantern for finishing last.  Much to my surprise, I also picked up another prize, The Veterinarian’s Choice Award – I was genuinely shocked and incredibly moved to win this. We all love our dogs and try our very best to take care of them, and I know it is the influence of my friends Mike and Sue Ellis, and Joar, who constantly and consistently set a fine example of dog care for me, that have helped me learn so much about caring for my team.

I’d like to thank The Silver Sled Race in Haines Junction for a wonderful weekend, a fine competition and some great competitors, my buddy Jacob for persuading me to drive 1800 miles for a weekend away, my wife for keeping the rest of our crew cared for at home, but mostly I’d like to thank Kazek, Brooks, Quiz, Rosie, Echo, Ruby, Lily, Lightfoot, Turov and Xaros for being out there with me.

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