Well, spring has sprung here in Two Rivers and lots of time has gone by since we finished the Yukon Quest 300. After some recovery time we quickly got back into the daily grind of the swing of life. ‘Dog Season’ as we call it is certainly a grind. From September first until April first is the ‘official season’ where the daily routine of training and preparing for races reaches a whole extra level! Every day and every hour, there is something that could be done to help prepare. There is always a list of projects such as cutting meat, cleaning dog houses, digging out dog houses, clipping toe nails, wellness checks (a fancy way to say pet your dogs!) all kinds of record keeping, tuning up sleds, packing booties, keeping the dog truck in working order, keeping the cabin warm, FIREWOOD, keeping the drive way plowed (Thanks Matt and Brian!) the list goes on and on, and I have not even mention the countless hours of training that goes into a team through the dark and cold of Alaska’s most frigid months! Dog mushing is not easy, running a kennel is a fulltime job, and it takes a fulltime job to pay for it! Winter is a very busy season for all of us, and as we approach our first races it gets busier and busier!
As for my job, I am lucky enough to be able to bring my dogs to work with me! I spend my winter months guiding sled dog trips at Paws for Adventure in Fairbanks. For many, one of the hardest parts of dog mushing is it DOES take a fulltime job to pay for this, and many mushers have day jobs which leaves nights and weekends for training and kennel work. That leaves very little time in the day for anything else! I am fortunate in many ways to be able to work with my dogs at my job! And to be honest, I attribute my job to much of our success this year! Some people will say if you want to race, you can’t tour… Well, in many ways, I just don’t agree with that! The core of my team logged many hours of running this season pulling a tour sled, and I have to say they kicked butt! I have to admit, in some ways, touring does not help a race team. If your goals are to have the fastest team on the planet, haha, touring probably won’t help. But if you want to have a team that is mentally tough as nails, knows how to conserve energy, rests when available, and be as strong as an ox, and most importantly, build a strong bond with you, then touring is great! Also, the socialization aspect with crowds of people and other dog teams is incredible! My team this season certainly did get lots of the standard proper long training runs as well, but much of our training was a plethora of three-mile tour loops with people riding in the sled. I have been touring now with sled dogs for almost thirteen years, and honestly, these short tours can be very mind numbing. But I will say this, you really get to see what a dog team is made of. After watching my team grow over the years, I still agree, they can be mind numbing, but running a bunch of short tours really is a great way to develop a young dog team. And there are added perks such as spending lots of time with some great people from all over the world, and let’s face it, it’s a job where we can work outside with our dogs! Because of this tour training, my team is wired kind of like an old working dog team. When we stop, they generally are patient, quiet, and wait for me to say go. It is like heading back in time and seeing an old trap line team where if the dogs made a peep they could possibly scare game away. A lunging team could also pop the snow hook, and in turn freeing the team while the musher checks their traps or cuts a tree out of the trail! I love my team. This kind of training and working isn’t for everyone, but I certainly think it is really paying off for what I am trying to accomplish, a Yukon Quest team!
With all of our training and touring this season, it all came down to the Yukon Quest 300, our ultimate goal for this year. This race is known to be one of the most challenging of all sled dog races. I have recently begun describing it as a thousand-mile race in three hundred miles! It has everything you may encounter on the thousand-mile Yukon Quest or Iditarod. Giant mountains, COLD rivers, over flow, technical trail, long runs between checkpoints, camping, and of course wildlife. It is a great race! It is in fact my favorite race! It is the only mid distance dog race where a musher is not forced to take all of their mandatory rest at check points. We can formulate our own strategies and up until that last run leaving Circle, it is hard to tell who really is winning sometimes! Too me, that is the fun part of racing. The journey and the managing of one’s dog team, and that is what this race is all about. I have run the Yukon Quest 300 now three times. My first time I ran an amazing team of seasoned veterans that I had spent that winter training. We took second place, but I was a handler helping another kennel, which means the team was not mine. I am extremely proud of that team and that kennel, they gave me my Alaskan start up here! But there is something to be said about succeeding with a team one raises from puppy. And that is what I have now. Every one of my dogs in this year’s team I raised from day one of their lives. No matter where I finish in a race I can be proud that I raised all of these dogs and trained them. For me, that is what this sport is all about. Watching your team grow and mature and the bond we all create over the trail. Two years ago, this team was very young, and it was their first Yukon Quest 300. We ran it at a very luxurious pace with the goals of simply finishing. It was a race all about gaining great positive experience for a bunch of young dogs. This year’s race, we were two years older and two years more mature. This year, it was time to step up and see what these dogs can do! Now, I still had four young dogs in this team, Ruckus, Kineo, Kibby, and Gidget. I had to be mindful of their needs. Never were we in an attempt to win, for I wanted these four to also have a great experience on this trail. I had to be conscience of their needs, but the bulk of this team was seasoned veterans. My strategy for this year was to run slow and easy in the first half with the goal of getting the young dogs in the grove. For the second half, if I felt they were looking up to it, I may race a little more or if needed, I could drop them from the team. But the truth is, I certainly had faith in these four dogs making it the whole way. We had finished the Two Rivers 200 race two weeks before, and these dogs looked incredible!
So enough of my ramblings! I came into this race feeling extremely confident in my dog team! Every mile of every training run this season, these dogs were on fire! It was time to pull the plug and see what they had on our biggest stage of the season. Here is the story of our 2018 Yukon Quest 300. Here we go!
Race day had finally come! They predicted pretty much perfect weather for the race. High temperatures around zero, and lows at most about twenty below for the duration of the race. Which for the Yukon Quest, you could not ask for better temperatures! The thousand-mile Quest is known to be the hardest race in the world. One of the biggest hurdles is the extreme cold of the trail. It runs straight into the heart of the interior of Alaska and the Yukon which can hold some of the coldest temperatures on the planet. There have been entire Yukon Quests where the temperature has not been warmer than forty below zero, so for our three hundred miles if it can remain zero to twenty below for the next three days, I felt we were pretty lucky! Not just for us humans, but for the dogs! Those temperatures are actually the most perfect temperatures for our Alaskan Huskies. They perform at their peak in those temperatures. Their concept of cold is drastically different from ours and they do not really consider it ‘chilly’ until it drops below thirty below. Like I said, chilly. That is like a crisp fall day where they may want to put on a sweater…. Zero to twenty below for these dogs is like going for a jog for us at fifty degrees. I personally could run all day at 50 degrees! It is perfect! This was a huge plus having such nice weather predicted. It was also predicted to be clear skies. Which is an added bonus, because we were about to set foot in some of the most amazing country the north has to offer, and I wanted to see it!
The race start is always a good time. The dog mushing community is a small world, but we all can live pretty far away from each other. A race start can be one of the few times we see each other in a year. It is a good time to catch up and say hello, but for me, I usually do too much talking and forget I have a race to prepare for! It is also a fun time to see everyone’s dogs! This year was especially fun because there were two teams involved in the Quest that I was very familiar with. I used to work at Husky Homestead, home of Jeff King and his amazing dogs, and his daughter was running in the 300. He also had another team running in the thousand. Many of the dogs I knew personally and had the pleasure to have worked with a few years ago. It was a blast being on the race trail with them and seeing these familiar faces perform at the highest level! Jeff’s famous lead dog Zig was leading for his daughter in the 300 and I jokingly told Jeff that wasn’t fair, and I was pulling out of the race! Now, if you ever get the chance to meet Zig or see her, she is incredible. All business but also a big ham. When she is in harness she demands being a lead dog and holds the team out with all of her rippling muscles. This dog is tough! His daughter started the race one before me, and I got to witness Zig and all of her might holding the team out while waiting to be let loose on the trail, what a great dog!
My dogs were looking great also. They looked as perky as ever and ready to go! My team consisted of nine girls, which I thought was funny. Some mushers prefer to run all males, but for me, I don’t really care. I just like dogs that go forward! Haha, and my girls, THEY GO FORWARD! They are rugged little ladies too. All about fifty pounds of pure muscle. They don’t look big, but they are built like tanks. Short and stalky. They get a lot of it from their super star mother Teva and father Wizard. Both of which were extremely proven race dogs in their time, but both have a stalky build.
Although, I had nine girls in my team, two of my males could have been the biggest dogs in the race. Both of which weigh in at over seventy pounds. Those are big sled dogs! Willie and Larry, who are brothers are like having a pair of Belgian horses in the team. They both can lead, but if I put them right in front of the sled, all the girls have to do is point the team in the right direction and Willie and Larry will do the rest! Both these two boys often turn heads, especially Willie. I try to not let him in on it, because I don’t want his ego to get any bigger, but he is a handsome fella!
After enough chatting it up with friends and fans of the sport, it was time to get serious. My sled was packed and my gear was ready, and even fresh batteries in my headlamp which in good musher fashion was already on my head in broad daylight! It is pretty standard for a dog musher to forget they have a headlamp on all day. Our winter schedules are so messed up in relation to the rest of society that we just seem to leave those things on our heads out of pure exhausted convenience…. Everything human checked out, and now it was time for the dogs. Harnesses, booties, and any other piece of gear for them would go on now. We had about half an hour until take off! This is a process… It is like trying to dress up a classroom full of third graders into their snow suits. Sometimes, it just takes patience and a little extra time!
At this point I am usually dripping with sweat from running around and gearing up the dogs and that is my tell tail sign it is time to start hooking the dogs to the sled. Of course, Sahara goes on first. This girl is MY Zig! When Sahara goes up to lead, she ‘lines out’ so hard I am pretty sure she is close to snapping the cable filled gangline. She’ll line out all day if she’s wearing a harness. In fact, I have disconnected her from the gangline before and left her at lead free to run where she wants. Until I give her permission and a nudge, she will not leave her position. This dog is incredible! A good line out dog can be hard to come by, but her determination to charge down the trail is even harder to find. I have a lot of good dogs, but Sahara is often the key to every run’s success. She’s my special little girl!
All twelve dogs were in harness and now attached to the gangline. The Quest volunteers offered a snowmachine escort for each dog team to the start line. As usual, I decided to take advantage of that. They hooked their tow line to my gang line and anchored the team to the weight and brakes of their machine. With the help of a crew of volunteers, my dogs were escorted to the start line. The energy in the air was insane! But as I stated earlier, my dogs stood like true professionals, obviously excited to run, but containing their energy. They sure made me proud! It was now our turn to take off. They inched us up to the start line where hundreds of fans lined the start chute awaiting our departure. The announcer was introducing my team over the loud speaker. As usual, the volunteers offered to take hold of the sled and brakes to allow me to go up and say good luck to my dogs one last time before we headed out. I walked up and pet all of my dogs on the head as well as the nice volunteers who assisted us safely to the start line! I gave them ‘good boys and good girls!’ Haha, I think sometimes I have too much fun at race starts… I said hello to some fans on the side lines and high fived a young fella in his father’s arms. Who knows, maybe he’ll be competition down the road, better get on his good side!
Then it was time. I got back to my sled and thanked the volunteers holding the team from prematurely taking off. I hopped on, and the count down had begun. Pretty soon it was our time to launch and we did! Heading down the start chute with two feet on the brake keeping the dogs slow. I always start every run slow, and let their muscles warm up first, also it would not be good to have any accidents at a race start! I have seen people go out too cocky and end up flipping over and dragging in front of the crowd! Me, I like to do things slow, but safe. As we motored down the chute I gave out high fives to fans, but we quickly got onto the Chena River which one would think would be the first bit of trail of solitude. A cold Alaskan river…. But no! This river for the first twenty miles is a party! As I motored down the river more fans were lined up and I saw one holding a sign that had my name on it, ‘GO CHASE!’ it read. Thanks Heather! This is such a fun race, for as big as the Yukon Quest is, it really holds true to a community race. Fairbanks, Whitehorse, and all of the communities in between really come together to make this a great event. I even saw my dentist on the river! This first stretch of trail, it is common to see fans cheering as teams go by or people watching from their windows of their houses as we go through residential parts of the river. As we pass, some even flick their lights to show their support!
In true Alaskan fashion, the river was cold. It had dropped from roughly zero at the start to about twenty below out on the river. Which is pretty standard. The cold air sinks into the lowest spots and drastic temperature changes can result in the interior just by going down a few feet in elevation. But even though it was cold, every few bends in the river some diehard Quest fans were out partying with bonfires and barb B Ques! At one point, I came upon a huge group all cheering as I went by. This must be a routine for this group every Quest start, because every year I have run this race I come upon this group and I am offered some kind of Amazing food! Last time, it was a Philly Cheese Steak which was incredible… This year, it was a BBQ pork sandwich! By this point in the race, hunger always begins to set in, so I always thank this group of somewhere around fifty people for hitting the spot with their amazing cooking!
After this, the trail continues to meander down the river and eventually into my home trails of Two Rivers. Although, this stretch seems pretty easy, it can be hard for Two Rivers teams like mine. Sometimes, the dogs decide to go where they want because they know the trails as well as I! So, I needed to pay attention and make sure the dogs stayed on the RIGHT trail! After heading through home trails for a while, I came up to my old stomping grounds on Pleasant Valley Road. This is where I got my Alaskan start in dog mushing at Lara-Ke Kennel. I had stopped by here the morning before the race and in conversation I mentioned I had nine girls in my team all from their line of Alaskan Husky. As I past through this stretch of trail, I saw a sign that read, “GO GIRLS!” I knew this must have been them putting out a sign for us. It definitely warmed the heart a bit and had me smiling until the Pleasant Valley Store which has been one of the biggest dog mushing supporters in the sport. Going past here is always a fun spectator spot no matter how cold!
It was dark now, and my race plan had us traveling just a little further. I had planned to run around five hours before finding a place to camp and rest the team. The first leg of this race is seventy-five miles to the Two Rivers check point. For my strategy, that was just a little further than I wanted to let them run. I have always been told from more experienced mushers than I, “you can’t win a race on the first run, but you can lose one!” I personally really agree with that. When you get into longer races, the first run is just about getting a team in the grove and use to the trail. I like to travel slower than I know the team could go and do a shorter run if possible. The great thing about the Yukon Quest 300 is it is set up so a musher can really create their own rest strategy for their team. So, camping out of checkpoints is a viable option. This means a team does not necessarily have to run from check point to check point or even stay at check points other than the required ones chosen by race rules. For my team, I was planning on crossing over Chena Hot Springs Road, and then heading back into the woods a bit and finding a cozy spot where we could hunker down.
We made the road crossing, and quickly came up on a big open area that is often used as the first good camping spot in the Quest. But it was full of teams as I expected. I continued on further. This clearing is a place I often use in training to stop and camp so my dogs knew the area well. As we continued on through, they some how got the great idea this was our spot to pull over, especially when they saw some of their co-workers from Wildthingz Kennel parked on the side of the trail! I often tour with this team and they were parked where we usually camp also. It was kind of funny how my dogs wanted to head over there, but we had not reached our five-hour mark, so onward we went after my dogs realized this was not our resting spot!
After traveling a little further, we found a nice pull off. I secured the sled to a well-placed spruce tree and then packed down a parking area for the dogs. The snow was deep! This certainly took some effort of trudging back and forth creating an area for the dogs to lay down comfortably. But this is what dog racing is all about. I think it is a common misconception these races are won by speed. In many ways I disagree, I think they are won by rest! The way a musher choses to run and rest their team and the effort put into the team during that rest helps maintain their speed. The better rest they get, the better they move on the next run. By making the effort to create a nice bed for them, well, it is kind of like going to sleep in a nice cozy bed that had been made over a bed that was just a pile of blankets scattered about. I don’t know about you, but I fall asleep much better in a well-made bed!
Pretty quickly I had the team secured, tug-lines off, and straw spread out for the dogs for some nice bedding. All of this signaled to the dogs that we were staying here for a while. They immediately went into camping mode which is learned behavior. I have spent a lot of time camping with this team, even back when they were puppies. This has conditioned them to really understand the concept of rest. Also, all the time touring with them they have learned when we stop, take a break! This reminds me of some words of wisdom an old New Hampshire forester once told me when I was working in the woods with him, “when working in the woods, if you get a chance to sit down, TAKE IT!” at thirty-four years old I am either getting old or well-conditioned to working and living in the woods, but this is some words of wisdom I live by, and I am glad to see it showing in my dogs!
My next project was getting my cooker going. This is a handy contraption we use to melt snow into boiling water. This water we use to thaw out meat and fat as well as soak kibble. Ultimately this water is for hydrating the dogs. Once I get that fired up with a full pot of snow sitting on the flame, then I return to the dogs. Here is where I go through each dog and take off their booties, while doing this I put an ointment on their feet as well as check the dogs for any soreness in all of their joints and back. My strategy is always go slow and steady, it may not put us up front early on, but it does allow the dogs a chance to warm up to the trail which I feel helps in longer races and is a common strategy for many. Running like this I feel drastically lowers any chance of early muscle soreness or fatigue and it proved to be true on this first run. These dogs looked great! After giving each of my twelve dogs individual attention, they laid back down in their straw and continued resting.
Once the dogs were all checked out, the snow in the cooker should have been pretty close to boiling, so I reassumed the position of the chef and started preparing their dinner. On the menu was a whole lot of beef, fat, and kibble! The fat had a hint of salmon oil blended for an added bonus! I poured the hot water into the mix and let it sit for a while to thaw and mush into a beef stew. While this was happening, I took any remaining hot water and began preparing some human food. I added a cup of water to two dehydrated camping meals I had packed for me. I rested those packs on my sled, so they would be insulated from the snow. I also added hot water to my thermos with a few tea bags thrown in. While that is prepping I got back to the dogs. After spreading out bowls for each dog, I ladeled some delicious sled dog food into each bowl. They began chowing down immediately. My front four, Sahara, Rubi, Cherokee, and Comanche, as usual did not even bother to stand up to eat. They laid right there in the straw and began eating. These girls have to be the laziest hardest working dogs ever! They always look like they want to be lounging in sweatpants on a Sunday morning, but when I say ‘YOU READY!?’ they always stand right up ready to go. My kind of dogs!
Once dinner had been finished, I picked up the bowls and packed them away for the next camp. Now it was bed time! I broke out the dog’s coats and put one on each of the dogs before they zonked out. This helps keep their muscles and overall bodies warm. At this point, it was sitting about twenty below zero and sure, these are huskies and built for the extreme cold, but a little extra comfort never hurt anyone!
Once the coat was on the last dog, it was doggy bed time! I tried to not bother them from this point on and just let them rest, which they were doing like true professionals. I sat by my sled where I had my dinner and tea waiting for me. Some of the best meals I have ever had were sitting just like this. On my cooler, next to my cooker flame for a little extra heat and a pouch of rehydrated camping food! I think they intend one of these food pouches to be good enough for one person. But for me, I do not think I classify as a regular person. I usually eat two. This night I think I had chicken dumplings with vegetables and some kind of lasagna gruel! Then I chugged what little water was left in my cooker before it froze. Now it was time to relax with a few cups of tea! I sat there in the middle of woods sipping back on hot tea under a bright star night. I kept waiting for the northern lights to get going, but they never did. Occasionally I shined my headlamp out on the team to make sure everyone was looking good, as expected they always were. And every now and then a passing team would go by. I would always count the dogs. If they had fourteen then they were running the one-thousand-mile race. Twelve dogs, well, then I took note. That was competition! But to be honest, as I stated earlier, the way this race is set up is much like the strategy of the thousand-mile races. Early on it really does not matter where you stop. One’s strategy shows if it worked by the end. A musher could decide to rest a lot early and make a big push at the end, or go hard and fast out of the gate, and hope they saved enough gas to finish. There are many different ways to run dogs. My team and I, well, I live by a few sayings I have heard from older and much more experienced mushers. ‘You can not win a race on the first run, but you can lose one!’ The second I just heard right before the race from Jeff King was, ‘Run your dogs the speed they should go, and don’t waste time!’ Both sayings basically lean on being conservative with your dogs. I feel like a dog team that is well rested early will perform ahead of the class later on. Well, we’ll see how that goes in this race!
After my tea, I laid down on my sled and closed my eyes for about thirty minutes. I drifted in and out of some kind of a nap, but I logged it as rest. This is the most important time for a musher. At the moment I was not horribly tired, but a few runs from now, this little bit of rest will add up. I must say, I am a gifted napper. It runs in the Tingle side of the family. There have been many times where my Grandpa, father, and I have fallen asleep on the couch at the same time. At times it has certainly been an inconvenience. I can rarely finish a movie or watch an entire football game, but my Grandpa just had his 100th birthday last August and is still a machine! Maybe there is something to this napping…. Thanks Grandpa!
After my nap, I double checked to make sure my campsite was cleaned up and my sled was packed. Then I began putting a fresh pair of booties on all the dogs. This takes about thirty minutes. By then, I had reached my three and half hour rest I had planned, I hooked up the dogs and off we went, continuing into the darkness of the Quest trail!
This next stretch of trail, things begin to feel a bit more wild. We traveled over a frozen river, and through an old burn from a past forest fire, and over some technical glaciated overflow pouring down from the mountains. Eventually, we reached the first check point. This is called the Two Rivers Check point which sits about seventy miles from the start in Fairbanks. Now, a check point can be a great spot to take a rest. They often have a warm place to take a nap, a hot meal for mushers, at the least usually cold water for the dogs (hot if you’re lucky!) and an overall familiarity with other mushers and volunteers of the race. This all seems pretty nice, but for my team, well… This first checkpoint is often a noisy one. There are lots of teams parked side by side and a lot of commotion. My team and I, we like being out in the woods where it is quiet. Plus, that first camp set us up for it being too short of a run in our strategy to stop at the checkpoint. I quickly went through my drop bags, grabbed a meal for my dogs and a few snacks, a fresh set of booties for the team, and a half bail of straw and off we went, back into the mountains!
Now, one thing that separates the Yukon Quest from most other races is the Quest has hills, but it also has MOUNTAINS! I am not kidding. Many races go through mountain country but through passes. Lots of races also have hills which can be very challenging especially a continuous stretch. But the Yukon Quest trail has us climbing up into three thousand plus foot summits. Tree line in this part of Alaska is around two thousand feet which puts us up into some very barren windswept country on these summits. The first major climb of the race was in this next leg about fifteen miles out of the checkpoint, and is known to be one of the largest on the entire trail. Rosebud Summit is 3,640ft in elevation coming up from a valley floor which sits at 1500ft. That is a pretty significant climb in a short distance. Basically, what that means is, it is steep! To put it in perspective in a skiing sense, it is like climbing from the lodge to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine or Killington in Vermont! Except it is wind drifted trail and virtually straight up the fall line of the mountain. To add to the fun, half of the climb and the entire ridgeline of the mountain is open tundra. Winds can sweep across this mountain at any moment causing white out conditions and deep drifts. On a calm day, the summit of Rosebud and the rest of the mountains are some of the most beautiful places around, but conditions can quickly change and they really are not places a musher wants to hang out too long!
As we progressed along the trail with a gradual upward trend, we meandered through another burn full of scorched black spruce with silhouettes of giant mountains in all directions funneling us through the valley floor. About two hours had past since I left the checkpoint which set us up for another camp. I had planned to rest the team just at the base of Rosebud. From experience, I knew this was one heck of climb, and the fresher the dogs were for it, the better! I also have seen many races won and lost by how a team plans their approach of these mountains. Rosebud and the next peak Eagle Summit really affect how a dog team will perform for the second half of the race. Again, I am a very conservative musher and from many years of experience in the woods and mountains, I respect the land and the elements fully! This is no joke country. It is almost worth putting the race aside and approaching this part of the trail as a mandatory hurdle one needs to get over in one piece no matter what position they are in. For me, I felt like choosing to camp again would certainly put us in the back of the race, which honestly was fine! I knew my team was looking incredible and giving them one more good rest would really spring us over Rosebud. Better yet, it would be for a sunrise climb! Haha, I was saying before the race started, it is almost worth forgetting the race entirely to be up on the summit in the morning light. Past years, I have run it in the dark and it was a mistake. It is absolutely beautiful up there!
I had done pretty much an identical procedure as before for this camp. Only thing different was my food choice. Thanks to Jewell for preparing some amazing home cooked meals, I avoided the dehydrated camping food and had French toast and sausage with slabs of butter as well as a cheesy omelet. All of which I warmed in my cooker. I like to eat well on races! Prior to stopping for this I had come across my buddy Richie of Wildthingz Kennel again. His beautiful team was resting as well just before the summit. We had been talking strategy prior to the race formulating plan A, B, C depending on the trail conditions and other variables which is so important. A musher needs to be able to listen to the dogs as well as assess trail conditions and be able to adjust race strategy prior to the start. I have run a few races with Richie and it is a pleasure to share the trail with him. He is a veteran of the Quest 1000 and he certainly knows how to run a dog team! He is always willing to adapt to his dog’s needs. It is also fun to see another tour team on the trail. Both he and I give tours at Paws for Adventure all winter and it shows in his team by how disciplined they are!
As I was beginning to bed down the team, Richie was taking off from his camp. It did not take long for his team to trot on by as I wished him luck on his climb. I knew his team was going to charge right over Rosebud no problem. They certainly looked great as they past! As I watched his team head towards the silhouette of the wall mountains in the morning’s pre-sun rise darkness I refocused my attention on my team. Soon, I was done with chores and I again laid down on my sled for another quick nap.
This time, I really did zonk out! Probably a solid thirty minutes of sleep before the twenty below temperatures began finding chinks in my clothing causing a chill to wake me up. Which was fine! Thirty minutes is all I wanted anyways. It was time to get the team up and moving again as I began to pump myself up for the climb. With the last booties put on Sahara and Rubi, my lead dogs, the day light had fully engulfed the land. This stretch of trail is absolutely beautiful! Mountains all around and the solitude of the woods truly stand out. By this time, my body had fully warmed back up with the labor of putting booties on all forty-eight feet. Knowing I was going to have a big climb ahead, I took off my parka and mittens and packed them into the sled. I knew I was going to work up a sweat climbing Rosebud and felt like it was a good idea to begin this run cold.
We departed our camp and we began meandered through the valley floor as we approached the base of Rosebud. Eventually, I could see the valley was coming to an end as the wall of mountains quickly approached. This was it, the first major hurdle of the race! With Rubi and Sahara at the helm, I knew we would have a great climb. Rubi along with her uncle Weasley had lead the team over Rosebud in 2016 and I knew she would remember that there was in fact a top to this mountain. This is one reason it is so important to give young dogs positive successful experiences on the race trail. They remember everything!
The trail quickly steepened, and the trees thinned as the dogs powered up the first pitch of the trail. It was here I had my first glimpse of what looked like a team struggling ahead of me on their climb. As I approached, I noticed it was in fact two teams! As my dogs steadily climbed I did my best to assess the situation while I formulated a plan. Stopping on a mountain climb is never a good idea. The dogs need to maintain momentum when going up a steep face and only rest at the top. If given a moment to rest on a steep pitch, sometimes it can be hard to get them going again. So, seeing a few teams stalled out on the first real climb of the mountain, I knew I better have a plan!
I quickly had caught up with the teams and realized the first was having issues and the other was attempting to help them. That is what I love about the Yukon Quest! This is a race where competitors really work with other competitors to get to the end. It is certainly a race, but it still follows the law of the woods where no one is left behind! Unfortunately, in this situation there was really nothing we could do to help this team. I gave a quick assessment and it looked like their dogs simply did not have the desire to pull their sled anymore up the steep face. These situations do happen, and happen to the best of us, but sometimes the dogs simply just say, “no!” It is a great example of how it is impossible to force a dog to do anything it does not want to do, but unfortunately it looked like this musher was in a pickle. From past experience, I knew we were not anywhere near the top of this mountain and not even at the steepest climb, and even if we got this struggling team up the first pitch of Rosebud, there was still lots more and steeper terrain to cover. We did our best to help the struggling team with in reason, but there was no more we could do. Continuing onward with the plan of letting the officials know at the next checkpoint what was going on was our best option, but we both truly hoped this team would find the drive to keep climbing.
We eventually made it up the first rise and were now above the trees. I glanced back and could see the giant mountains behind us. The morning alpenglow was lighting up the peaks with an orangish hue while the valley below remained in the shadows. It was endless mountains to the north that were beckoning me to forget the dogs and go get my skis! There was a time where skiing these giant faces would have been the reason I was up in this country, but after envisioning different descents on my skis and taking in the beauty of what was behind me, I glanced forward to the job at hand, the dogs. They continued to trot along on the vast flat tundra of the mountain, but we were not at the top yet. We had one more peak to climb, and sure enough, it was the steepest!
The team continued as we made a sweeping left turn, this was the beginning of the approach up the last ascent of the mountain. This is the one stretch of Rosebud that really takes everything. The dogs and musher need to come together as a team and work as a unit to get over this rise. Up we went into the steep tundra, through the churned-up snow from previous teams. This caused hard footing for the dogs and myself as they pulled, and I pushed. You could see the dogs using everything to find footing and drive to pull the sled. I would reassure the dogs with confidence calls up to them as they charged up the mountain. My quads and calves burned as I pushed the sled while my feet continued to slide out with each step. The dogs climbed steady. I could see Sahara looking for better footing to the side where teams had not traveled yet. Looking only in the forward direction, her and Rubi drove hard pulling the team up, while Willie and Larry used every bit of their muscles to haul the sled. It was a VERY impressive site! As we approached the summit and we rounded the pinnacle of the climb I knew we were going to make it! Eventually the trail leveled out and we stood at the top of the Yukon Quest trail looking all around with 360 degree views. It was amazing! The land stretched in all directions in a sea of white. It is hard to describe the size of the interior, but it is absolutely huge! Standing on top of this mountain, where I took a moment and stopped the team and allowed them to catch their breath, I was reminded how small we are on this planet. We were a little dot on this mountain in a range of peaks that extended for what seamed forever. After soaking the view in for a few minutes and allowing the dogs to cool down with a good roll around in the snow, we traveled on, down the ridgeline of Rosebud.
This trail was a blast! There were a few small hill climbs, but most of the trail was downhill. Fun quick drops where holding the team back was a must. The dogs could quickly get their speed up, but in this kind of terrain a dog could easily strain a shoulder or a wrist, so the driver must do everything they can to keep the dogs slow. The snow was also chewed up from teams going over before us which added to the challenge. There were also plenty of spots on the higher parts of the ridge where there wasn’t any snow. Here, I would have to step off the runners and take my weight off the sled. This helps preserve the plastic on the bottom, but at times the terrain did not allow me to step off, and I could feel plastic stripping away while going over the rocks.
After climbing up a hill on the ridge, I noticed further down, there was a tent set up. It looked like some people might have camped overnight on Rosebud. My first thought was, some seriously dedicated fans! But as I traveled closer, I noticed they had photography equipment. As I went past the tent, I saw one of the photographers and gave them a big hello. First person I had seen in a while! I stopped to chat for a bit. Turned out they were professional photographers with incredibly thick Canadian accents (I knew we were close, but not that close!) and getting photos of teams coming over Rosebud. Pretty cool! I thanked them for making the journey up here, which was not easy. Not even with snowmachines! After they looked over my team they focused in on Willie and Larry at wheel, they then remarked, “nice to finally see some real dogs!” As I said at the beginning, these two boys turn heads, they are big handsome dogs! I wanted to cover up their ears before their egos became inflated, but I think it was too late. They heard… After chatting for a bit more, I gave my goodbyes and I thought we would just continue down trail, but it turned out the photographers were cooking bacon in their tent and Rubi and Sahara wanted to know more about it! They tried to circle around and go in through the door. It was pretty funny. After a few gee commands (go right) they realized that was not an option and off we went!
Eventually after riding this ridge for about half an hour we began to make our final descent back down into the trees. As we declined in elevation, the cold had returned. The temperatures dropped to at least twenty below and this was the middle of the day! This part of the trail is always cold and SLOW. The snow often is very sugary and has a lot of friction which grabs the runners. The run from Two Rivers to Mile 101 checkpoint is only forty-two miles, but because of this back half to Mile 101 it seems to take forever! We meandered through the shorty stubby spruce forests of the north and occasionally dropped onto icy creek beds and through glaciated overflow side hills. For as much as I wanted to zone out through this stretch, I had to watch the trail and be ready for any ice. Due to the slant of the ice, the sled would often slide into willow branches or spruce trees and I needed to be prepared for this collision. All part of the fun!
The day was beautiful, and as we got closer to the check point it began to warm up! More big mountains began to appear which was the beginning of the range that made up the famous Eagle Summit. This was the next inevitable giant hurdle on the trail that comes immediately after the check point. The team continued to drive on and after what felt like eternity, we arrived at Mile 101. It was early afternoon and after one hundred and twenty miles of traveling and camping, it was time for a good rest! I was greeted by the race checkers who made sure everything was in check with dogs and my sled, and we parked the team. Lying over before us, I could see the valley that lead back into the wall that made up Eagle Summit. As much as I wanted to kick back and relax for a while, I knew we had a very daunting task ahead of us quickly out of the checkpoint. For the next few hours, I would try and ignore what came next, but Eagle Summit was certainly on my mind!