After parking my team and bedding them down for my planned four to five hours of rest, I fed the gang a big meal of beef, kibble, fat, and hot water. They slurped it down and then curled into tight balls and zonked out. One of the most important things for a young dog team like this is to know how to rest on the trail and at check points, with the goal of a quicker recovery for the next run. This crew was really excelling! We worked hard on camping in training this season, and it was for sure showing in this race. I was finding it hard to hold back and run them like a yearling team, and their maturity continued to blow me away! I could see the dogs becoming more confident with each mile we traveled. My goals with this race were to show the dogs that I would never ask them to perform at a level beyond what they are capable of. It was a race devoted to building a bond with my dogs in some of the finest wilderness in dog sled racing. Here in the village of Circle, which lies on the banks of the Mighty Yukon River where the temperatures sat at thirty below zero, the sky danced with an array of northern lights. Surrounded by the beauty of the night in Alaska’ interior, our bond was certainly blossoming!
I was excited to have arrived in Circle for multiple reasons. Sure, it was a relief to know that round one of Birch Creek was over, but more importantly, this checkpoint always has great food! I chowed down on some moose stew and a big pork chop along with everything else they provided for mushers. The hospitality at these stops are incredible. The people who volunteer to make these races happen put so much care into making sure us mushers have the greatest experience possible when we decide to utilize a checkpoint after finishing a long run. We could not thank them enough for what they do!
I sat around chatting with a few folks before deciding to take advantage of the down time where I could lay down in a dark room in the back of the building and try to catch some rest. The next run of the race was setting up to be long and through the darkness of a frozen interior night. I was planning on departing the checkpoint around midnight and hoping to be at the finish line around nine in the morning. Just in time for the morning light to start filling in the valley that makes up the village of Central. It was a run I was not looking forward to. It was sitting around thirty below zero at this point in Circle, which means as soon as I drop in elevation onto the ice of Birch Creek, it would certainly be much colder. But it was not the cold that bothered me, it was just another long march on the meandering river back in a direction I had just come. It would certainly be a run that would test my mental stability. It was night three without any real sleep other than a brief moment of shut eye here and there. On night three of extreme sleep deprivation, the world begins to slow to almost a halt. The simplest tasks require the most focus, meanwhile, conversations with the outside world take the most precision in annunciation and word choice. It is easy to find oneself trailing off into some chatter that only a dog team would understand. But that’s dog racing. That is the challenge we all sign up for. I often say that by day three of a dog race, if you find yourself laughing and smiling, you will be alright in this sport. It means you have the positive energy to persevere through the challenge of distance racing, but it can also mean you are completely nuts! I would not be surprised if I was more of the latter… Anyways, I laid down, and quickly drifted off into a short sleep.
I awoke a little while later. I stood up, and with a lost expression I gazed around the room before walking out. After exiting the sleeping quarters, I saw Steph and my brother sitting at one of the tables in the room. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down for a bit a longer. Eventually, the time had come to head outside and prepare for my final run of the race. It was approaching midnight as I booted up my dogs cleaned up my camp site. I had timed everything just right, and I had pulled my hook and left Circle in route for the finish right at the stroke of midnight giving my dogs a full five hour rest before embarking on the nine hour trek back to Central. We headed out of town, jarring over the tussocks of the spruce forest. It was roughly eight miles or so to the beginning of Birch Creek. The Northern Lights overhead were absolutely incredible! Easily the best show of the race. They danced and swayed all across the sky and with the aid of the thirty below temperatures, the sky was crystal clear for all of the light to dance through. We coasted along, occasionally pounding on the down side of a tussock, but with the lights moving the way they were, all seemed fluid and peaceful that night.
With surprise, we ran upon what seemed like dancing flames of a camp fire ahead. This was concerning, for there was talk of a team that may have stalled outside of the Circle checkpoint as they were traveling from Central. I allowed my team to run just passed their dogs before stopping and setting my hook. I yelled over, and asked if everything was okay as I took note of the scene. The team was certainly in rest position. It seemed they were enjoying the heat thrown from a very nice camp fire that flickered and threw its light against the spruce causing a forest of long dancing shadows across the snow.
The driver informed me the dogs had decided they wanted to stop, and they were having trouble getting the team to continue on. This occasionally happens in a dog sledding. Some misinformed people believe these dogs would run themselves into the ground and it is the human who controls this, but the truth is, the dogs are always in full control. If a team decides they want to stop, we mushers really have no way to get them going again until they are rested and they decide as a team, they want to go. There can be many factors as to why a sled dog team would force a stop, but usually the dogs are just plain tired and bored of running, and just like us at times, need a break. This musher impressed me with the fire they had built and the amount of care the dogs were being given while they waited for the team to get the rest they need to finish the run into Circle. What concerned me was the driver informed me they had a sick dog. I secured my sled to a tree and walked over. They had the dog bundled up in their own heavy down parka by the fire. Remember, it was approaching forty below zero at this point, and this musher sacrificed their own parka for their dog! One glimpse, and I could tell the dog needed to see a vet. We talked it over, and decided to try and convince their team to follow behind my team while their sick dog road in the basket. This involved turning my team around and running back to where we had just come from. It really was the last thing I wanted my dogs to have to do, for they had run a perfect race so far, and asking them to run back to a checkpoint was a hard decision, but the truth was there was no other option. Being a musher is not a right, it is an honor. By committing to this life, one takes on the responsibility of putting dogs first no matter what, and on the race trail, it does not matter whether it is your dog or not. This sick dog had to get to Circle where the closest vet staff was located.
After turning my dogs around, we ran passed their team with the hopes their dogs would go into chase mode and follow my team. Unfortunately, they did not… After a few tries, we decided it would be best to tie their team off to my team and tow them in. This worked surprisingly well! I watched carefully as my team trotted along and made sure they were traveling at the same pace as the tired dog team behind us. The trick here was to give these dogs just enough mental lift for them to find the determination to finish the run into Circle. This had to be done without pushing them past their current limits. Myself, and the other driver occasionally confirmed everything was going alright as we made the trek back into Circle. It was a relief when we saw the lights of the village approaching. As we pulled into the checkpoint there were a few confused race officials who wondered why I had returned. I explained to them, that we needed a vet ASAP for the team we had towed in. There was nothing left I could do at this point, so I checked with the other musher to make sure everything was good and wished them luck. Even though this was most likely the end of their race, they should be proud, their dog team made it over Rosebud and Eagle Summit! It is unfortunate, but occasionally dogs have problems in racing. Usually they are very minor, but sometimes more serious issues can arise. Thanks to well-trained mushers who know how to take care of their dogs, and amazing veterinary staff, these dogs are given the best of care. It impressed me how well this musher had dealt with the problem by making the fire and wrapping the dog in their parka in the extreme cold. The Yukon Quest truly is a race built around the idea of being self-sufficient in the wilderness. This musher used standard bush remedies to keep this dog comfortable until help arrived. And due to their abilities to think on their feet and make a fire in the wilderness and with the luck of the arrival of my team, their dog has made a quick and full recovery thanks to the great care of the veterinary staff of the Yukon Quest! No matter what, the safety of our canine athletes is our number one concern in these races. Competition is quickly forgotten about if a dog or musher ever needs assistance. Even though we are all competitors, comradery is what truly defines life on the trail and what makes these races so special.
I had been worried about that dog and knowing it was in the best of care towards a full recovery set my mind at ease, but now I was faced with the challenge of turning my young team around two hundred and twenty-five miles into a race after returning to a check point and asking them to head back out onto the trail! My team was doing great, but being so far into the race, of course they were tired just like I was. It is hard for anyone, whether they are human or dog to leave the comforts of a checkpoint twice in a short period of time! I was not sure what the dogs would do, especially my young super star leader Rubi. For as forward oriented she is, this was a lot to ask of her to charge out of the same checkpoint twice. As I said goodbye to the officials I informed them it may take a while to get the team going, but with ease, I asked Rubi and Weasley to go and they did! They charged down the road with confidence and the team followed! I was cheering them on, but then Rubi slowed… I cheered and cheered her on with praise to keep going, but I then realized she was not really stalling leaving the check point in a tired sense, she simply had to take a poop! After she finished her business it was right back to typical Rubi and down the road we went until we hit the trail and onward to Birch Creek we travelled! The unfortunate part of all of this was we had officially departed Circle around midnight, but after dealing with everything that had happened, it was now two in the morning and we were beginning our nine hour run for the second time this night! Oh well, that’s mushing…
We eventually made it to the river where the cold had fully settled in between the banks of Birch Creek. The coldest reported temperature during a Yukon Quest was reported here at sixty-five below zero! I was estimating that this night, the cold was between forty and fifty below. At those temperatures, things begin to happen that just do not make sense. I think time even slows down! All modern human inventions begin to fail in a true cold. Plastic and rubber cracks, metal can burn bare skin, and every orifice in one’s gear can aid the cold to find its way in. At forty below and colder, zippers can be a musher’s worst nightmare! Each tooth of the zipper leaves just enough space for the Arctic’s brutal temperatures to creep in. Every stitch in a parka even pulled at its tightest can cause failure to adequately keep a body warm. Thermos’s freeze with haste no matter how insulated and the friction from the wrong runner plastic can halt a dog team. It is at temperatures like this where I am truly amazed at how simple life can be! The only materials that truly perform with little defect from the cold are the same materials and technologies people have been using for thousands of years! When I first began mushing, we used metal spring loaded snaps to attach a dog's harness to the tug line. Sure, it works pretty slick as long as it is a warm dry trail, but after experiencing enough frozen and broken snaps that could not hold up to a true cold, I learned about using a toggle instead. It is simply a loop that goes around a hard toggle which connects the dog, yet there are no mechanized parts that can break or freeze together! The old days, this material would have been antler or bone, but I chose to use an old piece of cold rated plastic from a broken runner I had laying around. You can spend up to seventy dollars for a team's worth of spring loaded metal snap that can often fail in bad weather, or one can simply use what would have been a piece of garbage laying around at a dog kennel! It is at the coldest temperatures when a musher realizes pretty quickly, that complicated designs and modern technologies have their limits and simple is always better!
Probably the most amazing technology of all in the North, is the sled dog! As I stood on my runners in at least forty below temperatures where I had to open my eyes routinely because the frost that had collected on my eye lashes would freeze my eyelids together, I watched the dogs. They effortlessly trotted along and looked almost invigorated by the deep cold! Smoke, who was struggling in the above zero temperatures at the race start was in full glory! It seems the colder it gets, the better she performs, and the Yukon Quest truly is a race built for dogs like her! The only real concern we have for the dogs when the temperatures drop to a cold like this is the fact we are running such long distances. It is not the running that is the problem, it is the amount of energy the dogs use to run as well as stay warm and hydrated. To succeed in extreme cold, overfeeding is never really an issue. I make sure to stop at least every two hours and offer each dog a big meaty snack full of fat and water. These dogs, especially Smoke, wolf down every morsel of food I offered! This was the sign of a strong and healthy team! As tired as I was at this point in the race it did not show in my dogs. As usual, I was in awe of their ability to continue to drive on!
We meandered down the river under the northern lights. My sleep deprivation was causing me to drift in and out of micro-sleeps where I was physically there but mentally I drifted in and out of consciousness with just enough cognitive ability to hold on and make sure the dogs were all up to par. To keep from falling asleep completely, I forced thoughts into my mind that would hopefully stimulate my brain to stay awake. I must have calculated at least a thousand times what my estimated arrival time would be to the finish. I was guessing if everything continued as smoothly as it was going, with the delay of having to return to Circle, we would be finishing the race around eleven AM. I had planned on trying to catch one or two teams which I knew were camping on the river with the hopes of not being in last place at the finish, but after returning to Circle, I had accepted that whatever racing I wanted to do was over. This was simply a joy ride to the finish. And to be honest, that was completely fine with me! I have run this race competitively before, and in my opinion have done very well. It was fun to just cruise along and enjoy the beauty of Alaska’s interior with a fine team of dogs in front of me. Sure, at the moment I was set up to finish last out of the finishing teams, but the bond and the confidence I have instilled in this team of young yet extremely talented dogs was incredible! They truly made me proud with each passing mile.
After cruising along for quite some time, I eventually came around another river bend and saw a headlight in front of me! Did I actually catch one of the teams that was planning on camping, I asked myself? I could not believe it! As my team charged along we eventually caught up to the team that was stopped along the side of the trail. After moving in front of the dogs I stopped and gave the driver a hello. They were not in fact a team that had been camping but instead were another team having trouble on the trail. I thought here we go again… They informed me their leaders had begun goofing around and not wanting to travel any further. At this point in a race, occasionally dogs can lose focus of the goals and it can sometimes be a struggle to motivate them to continue on. In the truest of fashion for the Yukon Quest, I put the race a side and offered my assistance. Birch Creek is a lonely place at three o clock in the morning especially in forty below temperatures. I could imagine myself in their position and I would hope a passerby would try and help out. We decided we were going to try and have their team chase my team which meant I had to stay within sight of their leaders. Dogs have a natural sense of drive to chase anything running away. This most likely goes back to when they were true predators of the north. In a sense, I had become their team's prey! I called up my dogs and we began to run down the trail and it was working, their team had begun to follow!
We travelled along for a bit, but eventually their team began to slow again and unfortunately stopped. We talked it over and decided to pull over and camp for a bit and give everyone a rest. Down the trail a ways we came up on some straw on the side of the trail from a previous camp and bedded our teams down on that. We offered each dog some food and let everyone get a good rest in. At that point, if the dogs were resting, we might as well take a nap too! I laid down on my sled and in more than forty below temperatures, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
It was not long before I awoke. Sleeping on a sled is not always the most comfortable position and it felt as if my foot, especially my big toe had begun to fall asleep. As I began to gain more awareness after my nap, I realized my boot had stiffened from the frost while I was zonked out and my toe had not fallen asleep, it was in fact frozen! I jumped to my feet and began trying to get some blood circulation going. I had frozen both my feet once before on a dog mushing trip in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It had dropped to thirty below that night and the cold had really attacked my feet pretty good. I remember the pain as feeling came back and I was not looking forward to it this time with my toe. But again, this was mushing, and I had to deal with the problem at hand before it got worse.
I awoke the other musher and said we have to get going so I can get blood flowing in my feet. They got up quickly and off we went, continuing down trail. Their team looked better than before and they chased my dogs well. But eventually, they started acting up again. I would stop and wait for them to catch up before continuing on. This was not a problem at all. I would have done this all night and day with the idea of getting their team to the finish line, but I had begun to notice my team was beginning to sour from the starting and stopping. Even though my dogs were moving well, they too were tired. At the point we were at, head games like starting and stopping can really confuse a tired dog team. I eventually had to make one of those decision that is incredibly tough to make. I was going to have to leave this team behind if their team continued to have problems. I hated doing that, but I let them know that was the case and it would not be good if we had two stalled dog teams out here. I could at least get to the finish and send help. We were not far from a potential take out point that was near the road. We decided if their team continued to have problems it would be best for them to get as close to that place as possible. I would continue on and send help back.
This in fact did happen. I went around a bend in the river out of sight of their dog team and I stopped, waiting for their team to appear. It never happened. I really struggle with leaving others behind, it is one of the hardest things in the world. I could only imagine what was going on in their heads and I really wanted to get them to the end of the race and to safety, but for the safety of all, I had to continue on. I could see in my little super star leader that the stopping and starting was really causing havoc for Rubi. She was obviously tired and her innate drive to go on was losing some of its fire.
We continued on, I occasionally looked back, hoping to see their dog team but they never came, while Rubi was really beginning to look sour and confused by the whole ordeal. Instead of forcing her to continue on at lead, I subbed her out for the first time in this race. I put her in team and swapped her sister Sahara into the lead position. Now, Rubi might have the drive, but Sahara is all business. This girl charges almost as hard as Rubi, but there is no nonsense in her abilities. Her mental toughness is what I needed right now. She has always been one of the hardest headed of my yearlings and it showed at this moment. Sahara and Weasley turned it up a notch and they cranked down the trail! Rubi, who I think was slightly embarrassed by her leadership display, immediately began screaming and pounding in her harness. There was my girl! The fire cracker was back! It is quite common to switch leaders around when needed. At the least, to simply give them a break. Mentally, leading is the hardest position, so for a young dog like Rubi to have run nearly two hundred and eighty miles at lead in one of the hardest three hundred mile races on the planet, well let’s just say, I was very impressed!
The rest of the race was pretty smooth. The sun had risen and cast a beautiful golden glow into the cold air of Birch Creek. A beautiful blue sky had shown through and day had fully sprung. We marched along, awaiting the end of the river. Many times I thought it was over, but another bend seemed to always come. But eventually, it did end! We rose off the river, and travelled back into the tight spruce forest. Pounding over the tussocks at an incredibly slow pace. We ran through some parts of forest which resembled a vastness of a wasteland from an apocalyptic film. I half expected the arctic version of Mad Max to arise! But eventually we broke through the forest and came out onto the big lake we had crossed the morning before. It was this stretch of trail which blew me away! I had no idea the views in this stretch. The mountains stood high above the lake in all directions. All I had ever seen of this portion of trail from the three times I had run it before was ice fog and the darkness of night. This time, it was clear blue skies and the beauty of the land and its tall snow-capped peaks shown in its full glory. What a way to finish the race and to conclude another chapter of Birch Creek. We road across the lake, soaking in the light of day when I saw ahead of me what looked like life! There were many bodies standing on the lake moving about. As I came closer, I realized it was a herd of caribou! They stood as a herd, watching as we approached. It seemed as if they were sizing us up, and trying to gain understanding as to what we were. Eventually, they pieced it together that we were a dog team and ran off to the left of the trail. They traveled as a herd, maybe a hundred yards off trail in perfect unison. It was a beautiful sight. Watching caribou move across an arctic land is always a sight to see. The dogs watched too. Sahara lead down the trail with her head cocked to the left as she too seemed in awe of the heard. Not Rubi though. Although she remained in the team position, she continued in the only direction she has ever known, forward.
Eventually, we had crossed the lake, and entered back into the spruce. It was not long until we came upon the plowed roads of Central and we knew the finish was near. This is the hardest part. By seeing the road, it is easy to think we were close, and we were. But there is still about half an hour of trail left from this point. I ran and kicked up each hill, helping my dog team out as we gained ground on the finish line. I was thinking about what was going through everyone else’s minds. They must have been wondering why we had not showed up yet. It should have been a nine hour run. This was approaching fifteen hours since I left Circle! Either way, we continued on. Ice had fully engulfed my beard, and the gas in my personal tank was coming to an end, but the dogs drove on.
Eventually, we rounded a turn and I could see the finish line. There was a crowd of people standing there, waiting and cheering. We chugged along and eventually crossed, and the race was over! With Sahara and Weasley at lead, we had finished the Yukon Quest 300! With a sense of relief I set the snow hook and halted the team. The crowd cheered, for we were the last team to come across the finish line in sixteenth place! Which in all honesty, I was proud of. Twenty three teams started this year’s Yukon Quest 300 and team Tukaway not only finished this extremely challenging race, but we also in a way, beat a few teams doing it!
I gazed around at everyone with eyes that had seen nothing but the trail for the past fifteen hours and an exhausted mind that had been in problem solving mode for half of that. I saw my parents and good friends, as well as some new friends I had made on the trail. Steph and my brother Matt, who persevered through the lack of sleep and other difficulties of handling for a race like seasoned veterans, stood cheering as well. I looked at both of them, and with sleep deprived sarcasm and fifteen hours of ice built up on my beard, I jokingly said to them, “Did I win?” We laughed, but with all of the joking, I found the race marshal in the crowd and shook his hand while making sure he knew that a musher and team were still out there having problems. He informed that he knew, and it was being taken care of. With that known, the team that had stalled on Birch Creek was rescued and everyone was fine. These dog races are of course, first and for most dog races, but they are a test of one’s will out in the back country. At times, they can quickly become more than a race to those that fully experience the trail. They can become memories that last forever. In some way, all mushers at some point experience what these two teams went through that night on Birch Creek. It is the reality of the trail. This sport is a constant reminder that we as humans who take part in these events may seem like we are in control, but the reality is we are not. These two teams dealt with the hand they were played like true champions and because of that, everyone made it home safe!
With the race over, my goals for the season of 2015/16 were complete. My young team had successfully completed a fifty mile race, a two hundred mile race, and arguably one of the most challenging dog sled races on that planet, the Yukon Quest 300. I was completely exhausted and looked forward to a good night’s rest. I am not entirely sure what our plans are for next race season but our future goals are to run the Yukon Quest 1000 in the very near future. This was the second time I have completed the Yukon Quest 300, and both times I found it hard to turn around in Circle and return to Central while watching friends in the 1000 continue on into Canada’s wild Yukon Territory and finish in the town of Whitehorse. It will be an amazing trip when we do decide to run and I can tell you now, I have the dogs to get us there! As for my frozen toe in this year’s race, by the time I had crossed the finish line, it had entirely thawed out!
After about an hour and a half of ‘good’ sleep, I awoke in the corner of the Central checkpoint’s sleeping cabin. I laid there for a moment, considering whether or not I wanted to get up. I guess the truth was, I really did not want to, but the reality was, this was a dog race! You do not sign up for a sled dog race if you want to be relaxed, warm, and comfortable. I often describe dog sled racing to people who have no grasp of its realities, as an event where dogs are treated like royalty. They are pampered in every way. At times, while they lounge on their bed of straw, we mushers will even go to lengths where we hand feed our athletes while they lay curled up in a warm ball of fur with their prima loft coats on. They get plenty of rest, and are fed the best of foods. Us mushers, we are the ones who really look like dirt bags by the time these races are over. Distance dog racing for the humans is a test of physical and mental limits. To succeed in these events, one must be willing to push through every form of discomfort the world can provide and drive on.
On that note, I stood up. The world felt as if I was in a dream. There was no soul in sight and when I opened the door to go outside, no one was out there either. The only sign of life was the remaining lonely lights of night in a one bar town. An eye opening twenty below air hit me in the face when I realized the light from the restaurant/bar still was on. I walked inside and gazed around. The room was full of life! Although I felt refreshed from my nap, in no way was I ready to deal with this many people! I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked back out to check on my dog team. They were of course just how I left them. All curled up in tight balls with their warm coats on, and still covered in insulating straw I draped over each dog for extra warmth before my nap. They certainly looked happy! I considered laying right down with them for a bit longer, but it was time to get back to work. I had to find a vet and get my mandatory vet checks done.
Steph eventually found a team of two veterinarians who came over to check on my team. They thoroughly examined each dog for heart rate, weight, breathing, muscle fatigue, and over all well-being. They also were there to answer any question we as mushers may have. To be honest, we could not thank the veterinarians of all sled dog races enough for what they do. In most cases, these amazing people volunteer their own time to come make sure our dogs safely get from one end of the race to the other. They truly are very much appreciated!
After a thorough exam, each and every one of my dogs received a good report and the team passed with flying colors! I was especially proud of Cherokee, who both vets called ‘PERFECT!’ For those who do not know Cherokee, she is my little baby. I have been known to spoil her quite a bit. Let’s just say, Cherokee is fully aware of movie time in my cabin and how comfortable couches can be! Since she was a pup, Cherokee has always been the daring wild child who fearlessly has charged forward. She really reminds me of her father Wizard. They both have endless energy and are always smiling! For me, that is a perfect sled dog!
After the vet checks, I began mentally preparing myself for the next leg of the race. I ate some breakfast and drank another few cups of coffee with my team in the twenty below temperatures while the blue light of dawn began creeping over the spruce trees. I grabbed all the dog food I would need for the seventy-five miles to Circle, which is the last check point of the race. I loaded the sled with everything I thought we might need, for this was a long run. I was considering camping at the middle point so I fastened a bale of straw to my sled.
This next stretch of trail known as Birch Creek had been weighing on my mind since I signed up for the race last August. Even though it was only seventy-five miles it feels like it’s more like one thousand miles! If one were to drive from Central to Circle by car, it would only take half an hour and maybe thirty miles, but for one to drive a dog team on Birch Creek from Central to Circle, it’s a nine hour run and seventy-five miles! That is how many turns there are on Birch Creek. It feels endless at times, and better yet, it is always one of the coldest stretches on the Yukon Quest Trail. I have been running dogs long enough, that I feel I have learned the ability to create a false positive attitude as well as developing a mental numbness for stretches of trail like this. It is times like this in dog mushing where mental toughness is put to the test. One must really be good at faking positive energy which keeps up the moral of the team. Or one must simply be insane! For me, I think my insanity has a true positive energy. At least in my mind! For the next seventy-five miles, I must be prepared to be cold, extremely sleep deprived, and bored out of my mind. Bring it on!
The morning light had filled the Central checkpoint once I headed out, down the trail. The dogs were certainly ready to go! We settled into a nice trot almost immediately as we ran along the silent lonely streets of Central before ducking into the woods for our journey. An ice fog had settled on the valley causing limited visibility as well as plenty of moisture for the twenty below temperatures to freeze on my outer surface layers, as well as the tips of the dog’s fur. We moved in a smooth silence through the fog as we popped out onto a lake. This stretch ran right across the middle of flat lake ice and due to the fog, there was absolutely no view other than the jagged tops of spruce trees off in the distance. The dogs effortlessly trotted along in the limited morning light. It was early February in the interior of Alaska, light was still a limited commodity, and at this point in the winter season, at the height of day, the sun was able to just barely reach above the short trees and spread its rays across the land before sinking back down into the more common dark abyss of an Alaskan winter.
When running dogs in an ice fog like this, there really is little mental stimulation. It can be quite a challenge to keep focus when you are two days into extreme sleep deprivation. I think at this point, I might have had just under two hours of sleep since the start of the race. I felt as good as I could, but exhaustion was always knocking on the door. I often explain to people who are unfamiliar with the sport and its demands, that I have very intensive conversations with all of the personalities in my head when I am long distance mushing. The people often laugh, and I assume they think I am joking. The truth is, I am not! I could not tell you what it looks and sounds like when a musher is cruising along in the lonely north on limited sleep in a dense ice fog similar to a sailor’s doldrums. I am sure if the ‘right’ people were to observe my behavior on the trail I could be committed for multiple reasons. If my memory serves me correct, I may or may not have been singing Guns N Roses lyrics to help energize and push through this stretch of near purgatory.
After crossing this lake, we entered a section of black spruce forest. This was part of the trail I had forgot about… We bounced and jarred over a land full of tussocks at a miserably slow rate. The snow is never very deep in here and every bump is magnified. It is another section of trail that feels like it will never end. At least this part takes some sled driving ability which fires up the brain a little! I turned down the Guns N Roses in my head and focused on the trail in front of us. The dogs, especially the ones right in front of the sled were really getting a good work out in this stretch. Larry was chugging along like a champ and barely showed any emotion other than ‘forward’ about the bumpy trail. For some dogs, this stretch could be a challenge, but for Larry and the gang, they seemed unfazed and charged through without a hitch.
Although this section of trail is slow going, it really is a beautiful spot. A northern black spruce forest to some can resemble a wasteland, but for me, I find it pretty amazing. The trees are often bent in odd ways resembling old drawings from a Dr. Seuss story! A season’s worth of snow can pile up on these bent trees showing the flexibility and strength of their old flexible fibers. To me, long stretches of Black Spruce forest really show how barren and cold this region can be. They are lonely stretches of trail, but often times some of the most scenic and fun to travel through.
After enough pounding and jarring, we eventually came sliding down a bank onto what seemed like a river, and so it had begun! This was the beginning of the famous Birch Creek. Up next was about fifty five miles of pure meandering FLAT river miles. The scenery was next to nothing other than river banks that resemble the past fifty miles of river banks you had already past. There were no real land marks along the way. Basically at this point, a musher just stands and holds on and lives with the conversations from the array of personalities in their head!
This stretch of trail is where I personally take on the task of fixing all of the world’s problems. By the time I reached Circle checkpoint, I planned on developing a cure for cancer, global warming, and our countries growing infrastructure crisis, but unfortunately I did not bring a pen that works at sub-zero temperatures nor did I bring a note pad. Unfortunately, my remedies for the world’s problems will have wait until the next race when my creative juices get flowing again!
Eventually the day light broke through the fog and crystal blue skies began to show. This was something different! After some time, the whole sky ended up showing through the fog and with the temperatures warming to about zero degrees. It turned out to be a perfect day for traveling down Birch Creek! We sped down the meandering river, which at times seemed to almost bend back on itself in its tightest turns. Along the way, I noticed pull outs with straw laid from teams that had already passed through and decided to camp. To pass the time, I counted each section of straw at camps I had noticed. If I noticed six sections of straw laid out in a line, it most likely would have been a Quest 300 racer who had camped due to this race having a twelve dog limit. If I noticed seven sections of straw, then it was a Quest 1000 musher, for that race has a fourteen dog limit. Then, I could hypothesize who each camp had belonged to. Although I was not running competitively, strategizing was far more entertaining than watching the scenery of Birch Creek never change!
As the trail continued on, boredom really began to set in. There was nothing more I could do to entertain myself. It was full daylight now with blue skies over head. I do not even remember there being a cloud in the sky for me to make shapes out of. I just wandered in and out of consciousness and watched the dogs as they effortlessly charged forward. They truly amaze me. Here I am, barely able to stay awake and these dogs just continued to trot along like it was day one of the race. Ever since I was little, I have always said I wanted to be a dog for one day, just so I can have that kind of boundless energy and move the way they can. Dogs have to be one of the most gifted athletes on this planet. Whether its agility, speed, or ability to run amazing distances, I cannot think of a better-rounded animal capable of doing it all! I guess if I had any thoughts at this moment on the trail, it was simply me being proud of my dog team. This crew was really impressing me as they moved along, and watching my yearling leader up there named Rubi move down the trail with Uncle Weasley, I could do nothing but smile!
Eventually, I came upon another team. There was more than me out on this lonely river! It turned out to be my good friend I had been chatting with before about going over Eagle Summit. I eventually caught up and we chatted for a bit. I am pretty good at keeping to myself and not saying a word to another human for quite some time, but at this point in the race, it was nice to have some outside contact. I ended up passing their team and the two of us carried on down Birch Creek together. I occasionally looked back at their dogs as they trotted along. It was nice to see some other dogs run for a change. Anything to break up the boredom of Birch Creek was worth looking at, and if it was a nice looking dog team coming down the river, it certainly was worth the glance!
We traveled along for some time before a big bend in the river separated us. I know they had been carrying straw with the intention of camping also, and after passing around the bend, they had never reappeared. I figured they had decided this was as good a place as any to take a break and bed the dogs down for a while, so my few moments of contact with the outside world had ended. It was time for us to continue on in our lonely pursuit of the end of this trail.
After maybe an hour since seeing that team, I too decided to pull over and camp. I had decided this would basically be a watering break, and with the perfect afternoon sun just barely shooting its rays over the tops of the trees, it seemed to be a nice sunny and warm spot to rest for a bit. I laid out straw for everybody and began melting snow in my cook pot. It would not take long for the snow to become hot water, which I intended to mix with some beef I had stored away to give the water that nice meaty flavor they love so much! It also would give them some calories for the remaining stretch of Birch Creek.
Once the water was done, I served it out to everybody and then sat down and made myself a hot cup of instant coffee. It is times like this when instant coffee is SO good! I sat there and sipped while watching the dogs drink and then lay down for a rest. I watched jagged shadows from the tops of spruce trees lengthen across the river as the sun was beginning to set. It would not be long until our warm spot in the sun would soon be shaded over, and as expected, the cold would quickly creep back in. Before this happened I laid down on the straw with the dogs and took advantage of this time to close my eyes and take a nap. I have always been a great napper. I think I get it from Dad’s side of the family. There have been many times while visiting my Grandpa in Pittsburgh, PA that myself, my Dad, and my Grandpa had all sat down to watch the Steelers on a Sunday afternoon, and with all of our excitement for the start of the game, it never took long for all of us to fall asleep! Although, it is certainly annoying when I am trying to follow a close game, I do find my genetically predisposed ability to nap extremely useful while running dogs. I have impressed many people when I say I am going to close my eyes for twenty minutes. They often think they will have to wake me up, but I rarely ever sleep through my internal alarm! At times, I have my napping toned in to where I can close my eyes, and in thirty seconds be fully asleep. Within Five minutes, I can wake up and feel fully refreshed! This can certainly be an issue if I missed a Steeler touchdown in those few minutes I was out, but when I am trying to stay on a schedule in a dog race, I find this very useful!
Anyways, I think I was asleep for twenty minutes before I came to. The shadows had indeed moved across the river and had now engulfed us fully with its cold. On that note, I began to pack up camp and boot up the dogs for the remaining run into Circle check point. Putting on booties at this point in a race is one of the most painful tasks. From a spectator’s point of view, it is a job that does not appear to require much physical effort, but over time, one’s back begins to ache from the simple motion of bending over as well as standing for long periods of time on the sled. At this point in a race, all aspects of fatigue really begin to show. Perseverance and acceptance of discomfort is a huge deciding factor in how a musher’s race ends. I find that limiting the amount of times I bent over to put a bootie on a dog’s foot really helps. At this point, I had ten dogs in my team and four feet per dog. So forty feet I had to booty! I try to bend over no more than one time per dog, then I take a break and stretch out the muscles in my back by standing up, straight and tall. When I use to work in the woods in New Hampshire doing tree/trail work, I found this same strategy was useful in maintaining a consistent working pace. If I found myself looking up at a branch while cutting with the pole saw for an extended period of time, I really began to feel it in my neck and surrounding muscles. My strategy for completing a day without crippling myself, was to cut for a while, before taking a break and switching my task to dragging the branches and trees I had recently cut into piles. This of course needed to be done anyways. This allowed me to utilize different parts of my body and resting the sore ones. I have spent many years doing manual labor, most of which took place in the woods, and these same strategies I carry into mushing. These little jobs such as booting dogs really do exhaust the body when done routinely, so to mix up the jobs helps maintain stamina for the duration of the journey.
Eventually, my sled was packed, and my team was all set and ready to go. With the waning day light we departed our camp and continued on down Birch Creek. The sun was setting fast, leaving us in the blue light of the day just before darkness. The temperatures certainly had begun to drop. The dogs cranked along over the perfect trail and with new found vigor I was able to keep my focus and drive on with the dogs.
Running this stretch of Birch Creek was bringing back memories of the first time I ran this race. I was nearly asleep on the runners in 2014 as my team meandered over the trail in one long run from Central and my sanity tank was running on empty for quite some time. I was at a tipping point on patience with Birch Creek. I was beginning to feel as if I was close to getting off this river, and sure enough I saw the exit back onto the main land! I remember praising the dogs with joy when I thought Birch Creek had ended! But then in perfect Birch Creek fashion, that brief moment of traveling off the river was simply a portage to another section of Birch Creek! My point is, in this year’s race, we had just hit that section and I was fully prepared this time! I guess this is good and bad… Sure, it was good that I knew this was not the true end to Birch Creek, but it was horrible that I still had more river trail to run… After our moment on land where I actually had to do some technical sled driving, we dropped back down onto the river and traveled onward. The good thing was, we were close to Circle!
Eventually we did rise off of the river and enter another tight spruce forest. This was the true end to Birch Creek! We glided along smoothly with hope that we would soon be in the checkpoint. After bouncing through the tussock filled trail we eventually came out to the plowed roads that made up the village of Circle. The lights of their landing strip were swaying through the air. In this part of Alaska, many towns and villages have their own landing strips. These communities are so far out and are often blocked from the outside world by winter’s wrath that it is usually easier to fly from community to community. The team and I coasted into Circle with our heads held high. We had just completed Birch Creek and had not entirely lost our minds to the insanity filled river! I met Steph and my brother Matt at the checkpoint where they helped park my team. During my run into Circle, I toyed with the idea of grabbing a bale of straw and heading back out with the idea of camping an hour or two outside of the checkpoint, but with the cold coming in quick, I decided to stay. I also knew from experience Circle checkpoint had amazing food as well as warmth where I could dry my boots! They had not entirely dried from the last run into Central where I had gone through quite a bit of over flow. I figured before heading back out into the cold, I should think about my own safety and at least try and get my feet dry. I planned on taking between four and five hours of rest here in Circle before heading out to finish this race. I wanted the team well rested for the next stretch of trail which was another long stretch of roughly seventy-five miles. What I have not stated yet simply because as I write this I do not even want to think about it until I have to, but the next stretch of trail we would do a U-turn. You guessed it, we had to head back to Central, on the same trail for another long journey which was shaping up to be an overnight run on the frigid Birch Creek! Although, this run was on the same mind numbing trail, this second round of Birch Creek turned out to be considerably more exciting than the last. What was suppose to be a nine hour run to the finish ended up taking us fifteen hours due to unforeseen reasons. Stay tuned for part four, the final instalment of Tukaway’s 2016 Yukon Quest 300!