The afternoon light filling in the valley of Mile 101 check point was beautiful. Blue skies met the tops of a white tundra that went to the summits of some of the most rugged mountains on all of the Yukon Quest trail. Nestled behind the couple of cabins that made up the check point stood the famous Eagle Summit. This check point is the last place a musher has to make sure they really have enough insanity left in the tank to continue on. Once leaving this beautiful and peaceful mountain setting, the dog teams begin to climb roughly six miles up an increasingly steep face of wind-blown snow. Once reaching the saddle of this famous peak, the ground drops away and the free fall begins down the back side of a giant glacial cirque where a musher’s ability to control their sled really comes to light!
That is what we have to look forward to, but at the moment, I was more focused on parking my dog team and getting them nestled in for a well-deserved rest. Before the race, I had toyed with the idea of running Rosebud and Eagle summit in one big run to put us in Central check point for my mandatory six hour rest, but after that last stretch after Rosebud, I think the gang needed a break. Again, if I had a veteran dog team, that could have been a possibility, but this was a very fragile young team, and this race was all about making a good impression with the dogs. I felt like I was at a job interview and they were the bosses, judging whether I was a good candidate for driving the sled…. I want them to trust me and to know that every time I hook them up, I will never ask them to do more than they are capable of. Dog mushing is about building a bond with your dogs. There needs to be complete trust between musher and the team, and a musher needs to begin building that trust at an impressionable young age.
So after settling them down for a nice meal and some sleep. I had decided to drop two dogs from the team. This is always hard. One of my super stars, Charlie, came up with a sore shoulder on that lest stretch over the bumps and soft snow. I had to carry him in the sled for fifteen miles knowing that one of my star’s race was over. The veterinarians checked him over and agreed he had a pulled muscle and it was time for his race to end. The second dog was KJ. He had caught a bug during the beginning of the race, and let’s just say what was coming out of his rear end was not the prettiest stuff…. I know he wanted to keep going, but from personal experience, when a stomach bug takes over one’s body, there are more important things in this world! Anyways, this boy’s race was over as well. The two of them were cleared by the veterinarian staff and handed over to my handler crew. So we were down to ten dogs for the remainder of our journey. Which for me, is a perfect amount, and these were some very talented dogs!
After bedding the team down, I went inside one of the cabins where I found a hot wood stove cranking, and room full of people that looked like they had been on the trail too long. I also found a large pot of coffee! I poured a big cup and sat down and let story time commence. Rooms like this with a woodstove and hot drinks are always places to hear some of the best stories one will ever hear. Sure, I may have not slept for over twenty four hours, but this is what the Yukon Quest is all about. Chatting it up with people of the trail, whether they are part of the race or not. The Yukon Quest brings together the finest folks of the north, and all of a sudden you have made best friends whose names you’ll never remember! Establishments like these always remind me of the old days in Jack London stories where a musher who was in route to deliver goods to a distant village comes in from a long run and warms by the stove with some laughs and hot drinks. As a kid, I read many of these stories and always dreamed of being part of this old culture along the Yukon Quest trail which is where many of Jack London’s stories originated. Sometimes I call myself, ‘the world’s youngest, oldest man’ and maybe that is why I enjoy this race so much. It really is a step back in time, into a world where the old laws of the north really do come into play. A place where cell phones lack reception, cameras freeze, and it’s too cold for cars to start. Places like this are where the true reign of the north is shown by the sled dog. Where frost settles on the tips of their fur, unable to penetrate into their warm souls, while howls and yips from a team of dogs departing into the mountains fills the cold air with the life of the land.
After chatting for some time, I learned a few teams had struggled on Rosebud, and a few team’s races had ended here. Eventually every musher must face the decision of whether or not to scratch from a race. It is one of the hardest we ever have to make. All of the training time put into these events and to only get so far, but making that decision to pull out of a race is one of the most respectable decisions one can make. There is always next year and more races to come.
After a few more cups of coffee and some sort of amazing salmon chowder they had on the pot, I left one cabin for another. The next one was the sleeping quarters. I thought why not try and get some sleep before climbing that huge mountain overhead. I laid down on a mattress by the woodstove that was cranking out tons of heat and closed my eyes. I could not fall asleep. I laid there thinking about how much I wanted to get over Eagle Summit in the waning day light and whether or not I should hook up the dogs and go. But then I would be short changing the dogs on needed rest. This thought bounced back and forth in my mind. Eventually, I decided that sleep was not an option right now. I ended up chatting with a good friend about Eagle Summit strategy as we both mentally prepared ourselves for one of the most difficult stretches of the trail. I had been over this summit before with dogs as well as hiked around it in the summer time. It really was amazing country, but certainly not forgiving in any way. After discussing possible assent and decent strategies, I think we both mutually decided it was time to prepare and head out.
I watched their team take off, while my team caught a few more minutes of rest. Once their team was out of site, I went down and prepared my crew for the next major challenge of the trail. It was not too cold, but cold enough. I think the temperature sat around fifteen below at this point and the darkness had settled into the valley leaving nothing but silhouettes of the mountains standing over head. My parents had just arrived right before I took off to wish me luck. My dad of course made sure to take pictures of my team before we departed the check point into some true Alaskan wilderness. The last time I ran this stretch of trail, it was broad day light. Of course now, it was pitch black which concerned me. As I stated before, the other side of Eagle Summit has moments that mimic a free fall. The ground drops away and you hold on with everything you have as the dogs charge down the mountain. Doing this in the dark was weighing on my mind, but that’s how this race goes. February in Alaska is a dark country. One must be prepared for the lack of light at all times.
Our climb gradually wound through a stream valley while gradually climbing. The winds had increased slightly with each foot of elevation we gained along the way. This mountain is known for its winds. In 2006 many teams got caught in a nasty wind storm on the summit where visibility was nearly zero feet ahead. This is where dogs truly are amazing and drive on following the trail in ways we as humans will never understand. Even when there is no visual trail, the dogs still know where to go. Whether its sense of smell, touch, or some other unknown way, terrain like this is where at times, we truly put our trust in dogs.
As our climb proceeded, the temperatures had warmed. This was typical of higher elevation in this country. I was expecting it to be well above zero at the summit. This night was also very clear. In fact, as our climb proceeded and the steepness increased so did the northern lights! The ridgeline of Eagle Summit was illuminated by the dancing green and white rays. It was absolutely amazing! The fantasy nerd in me imagined the summit as some Norse God’s throne and they were lighting the way! It truly was incredible!
We proceeded up the mountain where trees were now nonexistent. The trail was blown over by wind packed punchy snow, but with Rubi and Weasley at lead, we drove on. I pushed and ran when I could and helped the team climb this beast of a mountain. After about twenty minutes of climbing, we came upon two teams that seemed to be having trouble getting their dogs to continue onward. I could not see entirely what was happening, but the two of them continued to walk up to their leaders and then back to the sled. Maybe, they needed to do some rearranging of their dogs and give some pep talks as the terrain steepened. I did not want to crowd them, for climbing terrain like this can challenge the best dog teams and entire focus is needed, so I held back and waited on some flatter ground. They eventually got their teams going and I called up to Rubi and Weasley to continue on. Both dug in with all of their might and charged forward up the mountain. Rubi seemed to have really developed some confidence in mountain climbing since Rosebud. Her drive had improved drastically since completing the Rosebud climb and I could not have been more proud of my little super star!
The last time I ran this race, I was one of the first of the Yukon Quest 300 mushers to go over Eagle Summit and I was in the front half of the 1000 mile mushers as well. I had a pretty good trail where the snow had not yet been rutted up by many teams. This time, running a much more conservative schedule, I found myself heading over the mountain where nearly forty teams had already gone over. One thing I noticed during my Rosebud decent was the size of the troughs that had been gouged into the wind packed snow by the brakes of so many teams. This certainly concerned me. Eagle Summit was much steeper and the braking is that much more intense. By traveling over in the position I was in, I was pretty much guaranteeing myself a bad trail with the possibilities of a four foot trench carved out down the mountain with little snow left to brake on! This was certainly a cause for worry… A lot of the time, distance mushing is not about speed. Many times it is more about control and safety. Sure, the first team to the finish line wins, and speed certainly helps, but time can be made up by planning ahead rather than pushing your dogs to go faster. I decided I was not going to gamble on Eagle Summit. When I got to the top of the mountain, I took the chance to stop my team on the one flat spot I had where I could set my snow hook. I went ahead and undid about half of their tug lines with the intent to decrease their power. I also wrapped my runners with extra tug lines I had brought with me. I usually travel with a set of chains I can use to brake my sled in such trail conditions, but of course I forgot to pack them… I remembered my days of descending Mount Washington in New Hampshire many years ago on glare ice with zero braking ability in one hundred mile per hour winds. This was quite possibly one of the scariest things I have done with a dog sled! I used some tug line around my runners and this helped control the speeds considerably. That was my plan here. Decrease dog power, and increase drag on the ground. Even if this rope only held for a little bit, that is all I needed!
I did all of this with haste because one thing you DO NOT want to do is give your dogs too long of a chance to rest with a steep decent coming like this. Huskies have an incredible recovery rate, and it does not take long for them to gain their energy back after such a climb. Energy was something I wanted the least amount of with what came next! I quickly got my tasks done and ran back to the sled and called them up. They had not begun barking and pounding in harness yet, so I believed I had succeeded. Rubi and Weasley charged forward at a very controllable speed. So much where I found myself running and pushing on this flat surface before the drop. I was very satisfied with the amount of drag I had created as the ground began to descend. There was no turning back now! After running for a bit to help the sled over the windswept ground, I hopped back on the runners and let the dogs take it from here. Five dogs pulled with all of their might as we went over the edge. The other five attempted to pull by their necklines but were not able to generator the power and gave in to just running with the team. The trail dipped over the mountain and there it was. THE TRENCH! I tried to stay out of it, and in good snow where I could keep the team slow but it was impossible. The drop had begun and the dogs had pulled into the trench and the sled followed. With little left to brake on, I was happy I chose to undo the tugs and wrap my runners. The decent was manageable, but then it dropped again! This steepness was incredible. I found myself almost looking straight down at my dogs as Rubi and Weasley charged down the face of Eagle Summit. Larry, my wheel dog had begun to question the steepness of the trail and tried to slow down, but the front of the team was strong and he realized forward was his only option. He quickly got his wits back with him as the speed increased. My heart was pounding as I pulled up on the handle bar while trying to drive my brake deeper into the frozen ground under the shallow snow. It grabbed but not enough to satisfy me! The sled banged on the sides of the trench as I tried to maintain control. Eventually after about thirty seconds of pure adrenaline that felt like hours, we reached a slope where complete control was once again gained. At this point, I realized I was in the clear! I cheered the dogs on as we progressed down the mountain. The next stretch was not nearly as steep, but it was a much longer decent. The trench was also significant here as well, but we worked our way through it as we dropped in elevation and out of the winds and back below tree line. At this point, the temperatures had also dropped back down to about twenty below!
After completing an expected wild experience on Eagle Summit, I stopped and grabbed a bag of beef snacks from the sled and gave each dog one for successfully passing through one of the most famous of all dog sled trails. I could not have been more proud of my team! They were wagging their tails and took the snacks and chowed down! This was the sign of a happy dog team, that’s for sure! I reattached the tug lines to the dogs who needed them and went to unravel the line around my runners. Haha, well… Turns out the decent of Eagle Summit had removed it all for me! All the line that was there had been sheared right off! After preparing for the remainder of our journey to Central check point, I hopped on the sled and we continued on!
The climb over the mountain definitely had me sweating a good bit. With fresh perspiration soaked in my long johns, the sudden drop back into cold air definitely sent a chill into my bones. I put on my parka and cinched up all possibilities for a draft and continued to tell myself that I was not cold. When mushing, sometimes this is all one has to defeat the elements. It is a blend between acceptance and denial, and it really is amazing, I began to believe my lies and the cold went away!
I may have pushed through the cold, but now the sleep deprivation was really taking hold. I was in the middle of my second night without sleep, and this is where the mental challenge really begins to unfold. When darkness falls, our bodies naturally want to sleep, and extreme sleep deprivation can make it that much more difficult! Keeping focus at this point was the real challenge, especially since this trail had gone from extremely entertaining, to just plain boring. My brain may not have been firing on all cylinders, but the dogs certainly were! They sped over this trail with revived vigor and I did my best to hold on! I was often times on the break as we worked our way through this uneventful stretch where we eventually ended up on a meandering river that was mostly glare ice and over flow. It took some navigating and trail selection by myself and my leaders as we searched for the driest way across. At times there was no option, and Rubi and Weasley drove the team through recently frozen over flow and into at times up to a foot of water. I was really beginning to feel the sleep deprivation at this point. I drifted in and out of consciousness while trying to retain my focus. I was doing everything I could to make sure we had picked good trail and at times found myself trying to lift my feet out of the water as we progressed through. The dogs really amazed me here. This was not an easy trail. Many dogs struggle with dealing with this much overflow, but this crew of young dogs were just gaining more and more confidence as the race progressed. Since they were puppies, I have spent a lot of time showing them the big world that makes up the wilderness. We have spent a lot of time running and playing in conditions like this during spring break up. I feel this really helped Rubi and the gang drive on! They were completely comfortable running through the open water. They really looked like they were enjoying it! I on the other hand was not enjoying the water freezing to the surface of my boots causing what I call, “big club feet!” Oh well, that’s mushing…..
After navigating this for some time, my exhaustion was really starting to show. My inability to keep my focus as I drifted in and out of micro-sleeps was really hindering my ability to drive the sled. At one moment, we had drove through some open water where I had just enough cognitive ability to realize I needed to raise my feet. I almost felt like I was floating at this point as the sleep deprivation was causing havoc with my sense of awareness. I was watching my feet while trying to keep them out of the water when I looked up. There was a giant spruce branch sticking out onto the trail! Wack! It hit me square in the face and luckily for me, I was able to push right through it….. With my face! After hanging onto the sled and navigating my face through a tree branch, I felt my lip instantly begin to swell from a direct hit. I also seem to have lost my bearings a tad bit and tipped right over on a perfectly flat trail. I held onto the sled, and the dogs drug me down the river ice. This of course did not feel great. I grabbed for my snow hook and set it in the ice and called them to a stop. Luckily for me, they listened. I may or may not have laid there for a minute before pulling myself up in a sleep deprived state and sat there on my flipped over sled and began to laugh. I looked at the team, postured and ready to go as they looked back at me with an unimpressed gaze. “GET WITH IT TINGLE!” I said to myself. I rubbed my eyes, slapped myself in the face a few times, and tipped the sled back up and carried on laughing about what just happened. I guess the good thing about being smacked in the face and drug on your side down the ice is it wakes you up a bit!
From this point on, the trail was very easy, but seemed to never end. This was supposed to only be a twenty-eight mile run and I figured the one light of Central would be showing in the night sky at any moment. I was wrong. It took forever to complete this stretch! I think the real knee slapper of this stretch of the race was when my head light decided it was finally out of battery power and it shut off! Most headlights that I own gradually decrease in illumination before they finally die, but not this one! Nothing is more exciting than being in the Alaskan wilderness at night and having your sight, which was fully adjusted to watching the beam of light out ahead suddenly go away… Now, I did plan ahead. I had a second head lamp ready to go, but to get it out of my pocket and set it up on my head was the trick. After fumbling in the dark for five minutes, we had light!
Eventually, we came to a road. A REAL ROAD! This meant we were very close to Central check point and I could not have been happier. Let’s just say, I was ready for a break. Eventually I rounded a turn and there was a welcome sign for mushers arriving in Central. Again, the sense of community in the race is incredible. There I met my brother and Steph as we found a nice quiet place to park the dogs and bed them down for their well-deserved mandatory six hour rest.
After finishing my chores, Steph informed me that the Central check point which was also a restaurant/bar was offering up free hamburgers and fries to all mushers! I certainly took full advantage of this and enjoyed sometime hanging out inside and chatting it up with a few people while getting all kinds of hamburger juice and ketchup in my beard. Not that I ever really care, but definitely at this point, my appearance and personal hygiene were the last of my worries. This was WAY better than any trail food I had at this point so far!
The burger went down with ease and I decided it was now time for a nap. I found the sleeping quarters and went inside to a room full of passed out mushers and gear spread all over. I found a nice spot in the corner where I laid down, put my hood up, and tried to not think about the trail that came next. It had been weighing on my mind since I signed up for this race, but it was nothing I should be thinking about right now. It was time for a nap! I certainly do not remember drifting off to sleep but I certainly did and it was everything I had hoped it to be!
Last time I ran this race, I was working for a great kennel, and I was given the privilege of running this race competitively with a very talented team. I certainly had a blast, and did well enough to take second place! That certainly was a great team of dogs, and some of them have found themselves on some of the finest race teams in the sport. I continue to watch them progress in the racing world. Some will even be featured in Mushing Magazine’s Super Dogs, as rising stars in the sport! It was a pleasure to be able to go on the ride with them, but this season, I went into this race with a completely different mindset and a completely different team of dogs. This year, these were my dogs and the first team I can call my very own. This was a young team I have raised from puppy hood, and have been around from their first steps out of the whelping box with their mother Teva, to their first hook up as a team. I remember them screaming and hollering with an innate excitement to run and pull, even though at the time, they had never experienced the joys of running in harness. Now grown up, this young team would face the Yukon Quest 300 which would be their first three hundred mile race. This race is known to be one of the hardest three hundred mile stretches of trail you can travel in Alaska. Our goals we’re not to win, nor to come in second. Our goals we’re to finish, and finish happy! This was an experience builder for my young team. By completing the Yukon Quest 300, this team would build confidence and experience and be set up for a great future in long distance dog mushing. Those we’re our goals coming into the race, and I’ll tell you this right from the beginning, these dogs succeeded! They kicked butt to the fullest extent! Here is our story from the 2016 Yukon Quest 300. Hope you enjoy!
It was a bright sunny day at the start in Fairbanks. It was even warm! The temperature felt as if it had risen to around fifteen degrees above zero which believe it or not, for some of my dogs, this was a problem…. One of my veterans, Smoke, is a sixty five pound monster female we have nicknamed ‘The Dire Wolf’ who is from ‘north of the wall.’ As we say in the sport, she is a true ‘Quest dog.’ What that really means is, she is tough. She is built for extreme cold and excels in it. Smoke is a VERY low maintenance dog who does nothing but eat and run. Which in my mind are the criteria for a perfect sled dog. But when the temperatures rise above zero, she definitely feels the heat, but being a true ‘Quest Dog,’ she has the mental toughness to drive on. I informed Smoke before the race that the temperatures WOULD cool down. For this was the Yukon Quest, which is known to be the coldest sled dog race on the planet. As we will find out later, the cold did arrive and my promise remained intact.
We we’re scheduled to be the third team to leave the starting chute. I was of course running late. In true Chase fashion, I felt inclined to chat with everyone who stopped by the truck to wish us good luck. Sometimes I need to learn to shut my mouth and focus on one task at a time, but I just love talking about dogs, especially mine! The race officials informed me I had ten minutes until it was my turn to leave, with haste I quickly booted all of my dogs and finished packing my sled. By then, I was dripping with sweat from rushing in what we here in the interior of Alaska would consider a heat wave! There is nothing like throwing your parka and race bib on at the start of the race with fully saturated long johns…. I guess Smoke and I have a lot in common. We both don’t do well when it is above zero degrees!
I was escorted to the start chute by a great group of volunteers with my team anchored to the front of a snow machine. This is a common practice at a race start. Sled dogs are so amped to go it usually takes the help of at least five people and the big brakes and weight of a snow machine to hold a dog team from prematurely taking off. Having strong trust in the volunteers, I left my sled and walked up the line, petting each and every dog before we embarked on our journey over the first three hundred miles of the storied Yukon Quest Trail. They screamed with excitement and my little leader Rubicon Rubi pounded in her harness with her uncle Weasley, who I borrowed from the kennel who gave me my Alaskan start in racing years ago. Weasley has run the entire Yukon Quest trail and has been a rock solid leader for many years in many of Alaska’s premier races. It was an honor to have him in the team, thanks Judy! With his experience in the front along with Rubi’s youthful enthusiasm. we had a strong front end ready to charge down trail.
After patting each dog on the head and wishing them good luck as well as thanking my awesome handler’s, Matt, Riley, Sabe, and Luther who helped get this twelve dog team of organized chaos to the start, I stood on the runners and the countdown began. Once we reached zero, I thanked the staff holding my sled back and let off the brake. They let go of my sled and unhooked us from the snow machine and off we went! The side of the trail was lined by hundreds of people who came out to support us which was awesome! The Yukon Quest 300 is the little guy to the big 1000 mile race but arguably the most challenging three hundred mile race around. It does not always get the most press, so I thank all of the fans who stuck around to wish all the teams a safe journey. You all rock! I made sure to give high fives to anyone I could reach before getting on the Chena River where we would begin the march to the first check point 75 miles down trail in my home town of Two Rivers.
The river stretch was beautiful. Bright blue skies and plenty of people enjoying the festivities of the race. I must have seen at least ten giant bonfires where people were partying on the river banks cheering teams as they went by. I made sure to socialize it up with these folks because by nightfall, I would be entering the dark cold wilderness of the Quest trail. This would be the last bit of society I would really see for a few days other than exhausted mushers and volunteers at future check points. I even joked with some of the folks that I was going to pull my team over and hang out for a bit. My high light to this part of the journey was the crowd of what looked like close to fifty people on the river cheering on the passing teams. There was even a nice fellow who was handing out the most amazing Philly cheese steaks I have ever had! To be honest, I think I had a day’s worth of food in the few hours as I meandered down the Chena River.
After traveling a little further I came to Nordale Bridge which crosses over the Chena River. Now, I forgot to mention my parents and brother flew up from New Hampshire to watch the race. My brother Matt actually joined my hard working sleep deprived handler crew of Riley, Steph, Tuk-Dog, and my Ford F-250. They were responsible for meeting me at each check point along the race. In case any of my dogs decided they did not want to continue on. Also, they clean up the mess I make at each check point. Which for me, is probably a larger task than most…. Thanks! Anyways, while my brother Matt was on his way out to Two Rivers with the rest of the crew, my parents decided to wait for me as I passed under the bridge. My dad and mom cheered as we approached, and I laughed out loud to myself when I saw my mom cheering and doing some kind of funny dance as I passed! As I have said before, dog mushing is more than someone with a team of dogs, it is a community of support. My parents have been nothing but that since I began mushing ten years ago. Watching my mom do some ridiculous dance on the ice of the Chena River was the evidence! After passing them I took time to stop and chat for a moment. My mom yelled at me, “Get moving, you have a team coming!” As a good son, I listened to my mother and off we went! Even though I certainly was not racing my young team, especially this early in the race, I continued on with the attempt to stay ahead. My strategy early on was not to go fast, but to run conservative. I fully expected teams to catch me in this first seventy five miles and when I looked back to see who it was, well, it was none other than my neighbor and one of the up and comers of this sport, Ryne Olson! Her team looked amazing as they loped up behind me. In no way would I consider her competition, so I pulled over and let her freight train pass. This was a second place Copper Basin 300 team looking to win. It would be an honor to lose to Ryne! I let her go by and wished her luck. The next time I saw Ryne was on the last day of the race on a head on pass and her team still was looking good! Definitely follow Ryno Kennel this year as she makes her second run in the Iditarod this March.
From this point the trail continued meandering down river and soon entered into the familiar trails of Two Rivers. This stretch can always be confusing for any teams that call this home. Our dogs know these trails all too well, and during a race, they occasionally argue with us as to what trail they want to take! My team did not protest any of my decisions on this stretch other than the usual turn that takes them home to our cabin two miles down trail. They wanted to go left, but I told them that this night, it was going to be a right. They agreed and off we went. A few miles later, we passed the Pleasant Valley Store. This is the last stop for gas and everything else on Chena Hot Springs Road. It is also a great spectator view point. I came upon a huge crowd of home town Two Rivers folk cheering on their local teams. Me being one of them! Again, the sense of community up here is amazing! The team was a little confused passing all the people, but eventually we navigated through the crowd as we progressed down trail and across Chena Hot Springs Road and into the wilderness. It was here that we decided to stop and set up camp for a while. We found a nice private pull off on the side of the trail away from any passing teams. It is very important to find peace away from any distractions when it is time to rest the team. I often say sled dogs are like three year olds with the worst ADHD you have ever seen! This place was perfect. I anchored the team, laid down straw and began the camping procedure.
When I say camping, this does not mean us mushers roll out our sleeping bags and sleep under the stars and the Aurora Borealis. It means we go to work. Between melting snow into boiling water and cooking dog food, as well as assuming the role of athletic trainer and going through each of our canine athletes and rubbing them down and checking them out, we potentially have hours of work to do. I planned on resting the dogs for five hours here on the insulation of a spread out bale of straw. By resting for five hours means I might get one hour of rest. And by rest, I mean laying on the sled for a little bit and closing my eyes. There is no comfort in dog racing. These are events where dogs are pampered like royalty and mushers willingly slave to their every needs. We do whatever we can to make sure our dogs are as comfortable as possible while we sacrifice sleep and our bodies for their wellbeing. It is the truest of honors to cater to these dogs. What they are capable of and do on the trail astounds me every time we head out on a run.
After our rest, I went through each dog and put fresh booties on each of their feet and prepared them for another five hours of running. With the pace we were traveling this would have us pass through the Two Rivers Check point and put us in the wild country before Rosebud Summit. This next stretch of trail was pretty easy. It was a relatively flat trail with one technical stretch of playing ping pong with spruce trees. I saw a few other teams along this stretch. Some were camped teams on the side of the trail, some were teams I passed, and others were teams that had passed us. Along this trail in the darkness of a moonless night sky, the dancing northern lights illuminated above us. It really was quite the show as we progressed towards the Two Rivers checkpoint. Although our main focus was on the team, when the lights dance like they were, it can be hard to look at anything else! They waved across the sky in big green ribbons. Some people claim they can hear the lights when they dance with this magnitude, but I have never heard them. Maybe someday! Either way, the show was amazing. The northern lights are one of the many privileges of mushing in the north. Dog mushing can be done anywhere there is snow, but not everywhere can a musher get a light show like this during the crispness of a subzero night.
Eventually we came upon the checkpoint. Here I saw familiar faces and was briefed on what was happening early in the race. Information such as who had gone through, and who decided to stay. I was interested, but none of this concerned me too much. For I was only racing the trail with the goal of getting to the end. But still, it is fun to see others strategy and hypothesis what their next move in the race might be. Unlike other sled dog races, the Yukon Quest 300 requires minimal rest at check points. Only six hours are required. Certainly teams will chose to take more, but this rest could be made up on the trail or in the four check points along the way. This really allows mushers to come up with strategy and practice their wilderness camping skills. Most modern sled dog races require huge amounts of rest at check points where mushers can be spoiled by modern amenities like a burger and fries and a warm place to nap. Don’t take me wrong, I certainly enjoy a burger and fries. I did in this race, but it is nice to not feel forced to run check point to check point and have the option to stop and simply enjoy the wilds with your dog team away from the noise and the confusion of modern conveniences. Or maybe I just read too much Jack London as a kid…
My strategy had us grabbing a few things at the check point such as hot water and dog food. I poured the water and added the kibble, beef, and fat in my cooler with the idea of allowing it to soak during my short run to where I had hoped to camp. In the past, with an experienced team, I would have made it from Fairbanks to Mile 101 check point in two runs covering a distance of roughly one hundred and twenty miles. The second run would travel over the treacherously steep climb over Rosebud Mountain. But due to the inexperience in my team, I wanted to make it a three run journey. This would allow them to have more rest and more food in their bellies for the climb over Rosebud. I am not kidding about Rosebud. Many races advertise claiming they have hills to climb, but the Yukon Quest has MOUNTAINS to climb. These are no joke summits where you gain two thousand feet of elevation in a short distance. The summits are barren wind swept tundra where a storm can blow up at any moment causing white out conditions. To travel over these can take strategic planning, and with a young dog team like mine, planning your run over a mountain like Rosebud can make or break your race. Many dog teams falter on these climbs and spend all of their gas on the ascent. Some don’t even make it over the tops and have to turn back. I would not allow that to happen to my team. We would head out of the Two Rivers check point and camp about one hour outside and relax a bit before the climb.
The trail meandered through the remnants of an old forest fire with mountains looming over head. It was almost as if we were being funneled into battle as the valley narrowed. The battle was soon to be Rosebud Mountain. After short run, we found a nice pull off on the side of the trail. I had passed a few teams with the same strategy as mine. They too had young teams and were playing it safe. As I prepared camp, a few dog teams passed. They seemed to be running with vigor towards a night time onslaught of the face of Rosebud. I wished each team good luck as they sped by. I on the other hand spread out straw for the team, removed their booties, and fed each dog a nice soupy meal of hot water, beef, poultry fat, and some of the finest kibble in the business! They slurped it down fast. Even though my dogs have nice burly fur for cold weather, I still babied the gang by putting nice warm coats on each dog while they rested. After I had done my chores and settled the dogs down for a nice nap, I too laid down on the straw, and closed my eyes for a little while. As we know by now, sleep is a rare thing in dog sledding, so when you get a chance to catch up on rest, a musher needs to take full advantage!
A few dog teams went by while we rested. In my dreams I also wished them good fortune for this challenging leg of their journey. I also heard at times some screaming and barking not too far down trail. This concerned me a bit. I vaguely remembered some challenging sections of trail before the mountain climb and the noises had me wondering what was coming up around the corner? Oh well, nothing I can do about it now…
After maybe a half hour of shut eye, I awoke to a slow sun rise. Blue light was illuminating the valley and the mountains were beginning to show their true height. We certainly were on the valley floor! I watched the day light fill the land for a bit and I may have even taken a few pictures… It was beautiful! But…. Eventually I had to get going. The dogs were starting to wake up anyways. I don’t even think Wizard slept! This dog is incredible, by the way. He is the father of my Jeep litter and really all he does is run forward, eat, and wag his tail, NO MATTER WHAT! He is always happy and ready to go. It does not matter how far he has run, Wizard is always ready. I guess that is why I bred him, and I have to say, these characteristics are showing up in all of my youngins’, heh heh heh…. (Proud father moment.)
After cleaning up our camp, I put boots back on all of the dogs, pulled the hook, and off we went! As we began running down the trail I was wondering what all of that barking and screaming was all about. I soon found out! Just around the bend was a sudden drop and hard right turn! It looked like a few teams had crashed on this turn over night. We on the other hand, had just made it around unscathed, although I am sure it did not look pretty! Turned out, this next stretch of trail was full of surprises, as well as over flow ice and water! At one point my little super leader Rubi stepped into a batch of over flow which did not look too deep. It turned out, we were wrong! It nearly swallow her up before she found her footing on solid ground like she never missed a step! This girl is impressive for sure! I think all of my puppy training of playing in water paid off for this trail. It was not easy to navigate but with Weasley and Rubi at lead, we charged through it just fine. We continued onward, towards a wall of moutains and the STEEP face of Rosebud awaited!
The trail had us meandering through this valley where the mountains began funneling us towards our ascent of the famous climb. Once I noticed the trail slanting up, I stopped and took off my parka and any extra layers. From experience, I knew this was going to be a brutal work out and here in the interior, higher elevations mean warmer temperatures. I was predicting a twenty degree warm up on the summit. After stripping down, the trail steepened. Up we went, through the waning forest and soon we entered the tundra. A wide open vastness of snow blinded us in the morning light as the trail suddenly steepened. I spent a good bit of this season training for this very moment. Teaching the dogs to climb and search for footing. Up they charged while I pushed the sled in the soft snow. I think the most ‘fun’ part of this climb is the fact the trail climbs in steps. One thinks they are at the summit only to eventually see another climb coming. I thought we had reached the top and began celebrating with the dogs, but I soon realized the trail took a big sweeping turn to the left and rose up another incredible steep climb. This proved to be the most challenging.
By now, I was dripping with sweat and my legs were burning from helping the dogs get the sled up the mountain. Each step forwards, I ended up sliding a half step backwards while bracing the sled. This was the only time in the whole race I saw Rubi question any part of the trail. She would look back at me with interrogating eyes. I cheered her on with confidence and promised her there was a top to this mountain. With my cheers she would dig in and drive onward up the mountain. I love watching this little girl do her job. She really amazes me! This climb is where Weasley really earned his kibble. His experience really paid off as he helped assure Rubi there was a top. Youth is a nice thing, but having some old veterans in a team like Weasley really helped out! I can only imagine in the years to come where Rubi assumes this roll and helps the next generation of Tukaway up a mountain. The climb continued, the dogs dug in with everything they had as did I. This was one of those moments they truly amazed me. The focus and dedication of getting to the top of this mountain was incredible. For such a young team too.
We eventually crested the summit and rounded over onto a huge plateau of pure arctic conditions. It was a vastness of white. Not a tree or a bush in site in all directions. It was absolutely amazing country but certainly looked at times very unforgiving. Having grown up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where you learn to make friends with the wind, I could imagine the winds picking up at any moment and showing the true color of this barren land. We stopped for a moment, as I congratulated each dog with a piece of salmon for their hard work. They chowed it down and after taking in the beauty of the land, I caught my breath and we continued onward across this ridgeline with amazing three hundred and sixty degree views of mountains in all directions.
The trail ran across this ridge for a few miles. There were a few exciting moments of quick descents but overall, it was a well-deserved peaceful ride. Eventually the trail dropped back down into the trees. This part interested me. It was as if we had entered an entirely different weather system. On the side we came from, the snow had melted off all of the spruce bows from a mid-season thaw, but on the side we now entered, the trees were blanketed with a season’s worth of snow. The temperature had also dropped to twenty below! It seemed the cold held strong on the valley north of Rosebud. Which fired up the dogs to charge hard through this rough trail. It was a slow march over a lot of dips and bumps as well sliding and crashing over more over flow ice, but we eventually cruised in for a well-deserved rest at one of my favorite check points, Mile 101.