2018 Yukon quest 300 part one
Well, spring has sprung here in Two Rivers and lots of time has gone by since we finished the Yukon Quest 300. After some recovery time we quickly got back into the daily grind of the swing of life. ‘Dog Season’ as we call it is certainly a grind. From September first until April first is the ‘official season’ where the daily routine of training and preparing for races reaches a whole extra level! Every day and every hour, there is something that could be done to help prepare. There is always a list of projects such as cutting meat, cleaning dog houses, digging out dog houses, clipping toe nails, wellness checks (a fancy way to say pet your dogs!) all kinds of record keeping, tuning up sleds, packing booties, keeping the dog truck in working order, keeping the cabin warm, FIREWOOD, keeping the drive way plowed (Thanks Matt and Brian!) the list goes on and on, and I have not even mention the countless hours of training that goes into a team through the dark and cold of Alaska’s most frigid months! Dog mushing is not easy, running a kennel is a fulltime job, and it takes a fulltime job to pay for it! Winter is a very busy season for all of us, and as we approach our first races it gets busier and busier!
As for my job, I am lucky enough to be able to bring my dogs to work with me! I spend my winter months guiding sled dog trips at Paws for Adventure in Fairbanks. For many, one of the hardest parts of dog mushing is it DOES take a fulltime job to pay for this, and many mushers have day jobs which leaves nights and weekends for training and kennel work. That leaves very little time in the day for anything else! I am fortunate in many ways to be able to work with my dogs at my job! And to be honest, I attribute my job to much of our success this year! Some people will say if you want to race, you can’t tour… Well, in many ways, I just don’t agree with that! The core of my team logged many hours of running this season pulling a tour sled, and I have to say they kicked butt! I have to admit, in some ways, touring does not help a race team. If your goals are to have the fastest team on the planet, haha, touring probably won’t help. But if you want to have a team that is mentally tough as nails, knows how to conserve energy, rests when available, and be as strong as an ox, and most importantly, build a strong bond with you, then touring is great! Also, the socialization aspect with crowds of people and other dog teams is incredible! My team this season certainly did get lots of the standard proper long training runs as well, but much of our training was a plethora of three-mile tour loops with people riding in the sled. I have been touring now with sled dogs for almost thirteen years, and honestly, these short tours can be very mind numbing. But I will say this, you really get to see what a dog team is made of. After watching my team grow over the years, I still agree, they can be mind numbing, but running a bunch of short tours really is a great way to develop a young dog team. And there are added perks such as spending lots of time with some great people from all over the world, and let’s face it, it’s a job where we can work outside with our dogs! Because of this tour training, my team is wired kind of like an old working dog team. When we stop, they generally are patient, quiet, and wait for me to say go. It is like heading back in time and seeing an old trap line team where if the dogs made a peep they could possibly scare game away. A lunging team could also pop the snow hook, and in turn freeing the team while the musher checks their traps or cuts a tree out of the trail! I love my team. This kind of training and working isn’t for everyone, but I certainly think it is really paying off for what I am trying to accomplish, a Yukon Quest team!
With all of our training and touring this season, it all came down to the Yukon Quest 300, our ultimate goal for this year. This race is known to be one of the most challenging of all sled dog races. I have recently begun describing it as a thousand-mile race in three hundred miles! It has everything you may encounter on the thousand-mile Yukon Quest or Iditarod. Giant mountains, COLD rivers, over flow, technical trail, long runs between checkpoints, camping, and of course wildlife. It is a great race! It is in fact my favorite race! It is the only mid distance dog race where a musher is not forced to take all of their mandatory rest at check points. We can formulate our own strategies and up until that last run leaving Circle, it is hard to tell who really is winning sometimes! Too me, that is the fun part of racing. The journey and the managing of one’s dog team, and that is what this race is all about. I have run the Yukon Quest 300 now three times. My first time I ran an amazing team of seasoned veterans that I had spent that winter training. We took second place, but I was a handler helping another kennel, which means the team was not mine. I am extremely proud of that team and that kennel, they gave me my Alaskan start up here! But there is something to be said about succeeding with a team one raises from puppy. And that is what I have now. Every one of my dogs in this year’s team I raised from day one of their lives. No matter where I finish in a race I can be proud that I raised all of these dogs and trained them. For me, that is what this sport is all about. Watching your team grow and mature and the bond we all create over the trail. Two years ago, this team was very young, and it was their first Yukon Quest 300. We ran it at a very luxurious pace with the goals of simply finishing. It was a race all about gaining great positive experience for a bunch of young dogs. This year’s race, we were two years older and two years more mature. This year, it was time to step up and see what these dogs can do! Now, I still had four young dogs in this team, Ruckus, Kineo, Kibby, and Gidget. I had to be mindful of their needs. Never were we in an attempt to win, for I wanted these four to also have a great experience on this trail. I had to be conscience of their needs, but the bulk of this team was seasoned veterans. My strategy for this year was to run slow and easy in the first half with the goal of getting the young dogs in the grove. For the second half, if I felt they were looking up to it, I may race a little more or if needed, I could drop them from the team. But the truth is, I certainly had faith in these four dogs making it the whole way. We had finished the Two Rivers 200 race two weeks before, and these dogs looked incredible!
So enough of my ramblings! I came into this race feeling extremely confident in my dog team! Every mile of every training run this season, these dogs were on fire! It was time to pull the plug and see what they had on our biggest stage of the season. Here is the story of our 2018 Yukon Quest 300. Here we go!
Race day had finally come! They predicted pretty much perfect weather for the race. High temperatures around zero, and lows at most about twenty below for the duration of the race. Which for the Yukon Quest, you could not ask for better temperatures! The thousand-mile Quest is known to be the hardest race in the world. One of the biggest hurdles is the extreme cold of the trail. It runs straight into the heart of the interior of Alaska and the Yukon which can hold some of the coldest temperatures on the planet. There have been entire Yukon Quests where the temperature has not been warmer than forty below zero, so for our three hundred miles if it can remain zero to twenty below for the next three days, I felt we were pretty lucky! Not just for us humans, but for the dogs! Those temperatures are actually the most perfect temperatures for our Alaskan Huskies. They perform at their peak in those temperatures. Their concept of cold is drastically different from ours and they do not really consider it ‘chilly’ until it drops below thirty below. Like I said, chilly. That is like a crisp fall day where they may want to put on a sweater…. Zero to twenty below for these dogs is like going for a jog for us at fifty degrees. I personally could run all day at 50 degrees! It is perfect! This was a huge plus having such nice weather predicted. It was also predicted to be clear skies. Which is an added bonus, because we were about to set foot in some of the most amazing country the north has to offer, and I wanted to see it!
The race start is always a good time. The dog mushing community is a small world, but we all can live pretty far away from each other. A race start can be one of the few times we see each other in a year. It is a good time to catch up and say hello, but for me, I usually do too much talking and forget I have a race to prepare for! It is also a fun time to see everyone’s dogs! This year was especially fun because there were two teams involved in the Quest that I was very familiar with. I used to work at Husky Homestead, home of Jeff King and his amazing dogs, and his daughter was running in the 300. He also had another team running in the thousand. Many of the dogs I knew personally and had the pleasure to have worked with a few years ago. It was a blast being on the race trail with them and seeing these familiar faces perform at the highest level! Jeff’s famous lead dog Zig was leading for his daughter in the 300 and I jokingly told Jeff that wasn’t fair, and I was pulling out of the race! Now, if you ever get the chance to meet Zig or see her, she is incredible. All business but also a big ham. When she is in harness she demands being a lead dog and holds the team out with all of her rippling muscles. This dog is tough! His daughter started the race one before me, and I got to witness Zig and all of her might holding the team out while waiting to be let loose on the trail, what a great dog!
My dogs were looking great also. They looked as perky as ever and ready to go! My team consisted of nine girls, which I thought was funny. Some mushers prefer to run all males, but for me, I don’t really care. I just like dogs that go forward! Haha, and my girls, THEY GO FORWARD! They are rugged little ladies too. All about fifty pounds of pure muscle. They don’t look big, but they are built like tanks. Short and stalky. They get a lot of it from their super star mother Teva and father Wizard. Both of which were extremely proven race dogs in their time, but both have a stalky build.
Although, I had nine girls in my team, two of my males could have been the biggest dogs in the race. Both of which weigh in at over seventy pounds. Those are big sled dogs! Willie and Larry, who are brothers are like having a pair of Belgian horses in the team. They both can lead, but if I put them right in front of the sled, all the girls have to do is point the team in the right direction and Willie and Larry will do the rest! Both these two boys often turn heads, especially Willie. I try to not let him in on it, because I don’t want his ego to get any bigger, but he is a handsome fella!
After enough chatting it up with friends and fans of the sport, it was time to get serious. My sled was packed and my gear was ready, and even fresh batteries in my headlamp which in good musher fashion was already on my head in broad daylight! It is pretty standard for a dog musher to forget they have a headlamp on all day. Our winter schedules are so messed up in relation to the rest of society that we just seem to leave those things on our heads out of pure exhausted convenience…. Everything human checked out, and now it was time for the dogs. Harnesses, booties, and any other piece of gear for them would go on now. We had about half an hour until take off! This is a process… It is like trying to dress up a classroom full of third graders into their snow suits. Sometimes, it just takes patience and a little extra time!
At this point I am usually dripping with sweat from running around and gearing up the dogs and that is my tell tail sign it is time to start hooking the dogs to the sled. Of course, Sahara goes on first. This girl is MY Zig! When Sahara goes up to lead, she ‘lines out’ so hard I am pretty sure she is close to snapping the cable filled gangline. She’ll line out all day if she’s wearing a harness. In fact, I have disconnected her from the gangline before and left her at lead free to run where she wants. Until I give her permission and a nudge, she will not leave her position. This dog is incredible! A good line out dog can be hard to come by, but her determination to charge down the trail is even harder to find. I have a lot of good dogs, but Sahara is often the key to every run’s success. She’s my special little girl!
All twelve dogs were in harness and now attached to the gangline. The Quest volunteers offered a snowmachine escort for each dog team to the start line. As usual, I decided to take advantage of that. They hooked their tow line to my gang line and anchored the team to the weight and brakes of their machine. With the help of a crew of volunteers, my dogs were escorted to the start line. The energy in the air was insane! But as I stated earlier, my dogs stood like true professionals, obviously excited to run, but containing their energy. They sure made me proud! It was now our turn to take off. They inched us up to the start line where hundreds of fans lined the start chute awaiting our departure. The announcer was introducing my team over the loud speaker. As usual, the volunteers offered to take hold of the sled and brakes to allow me to go up and say good luck to my dogs one last time before we headed out. I walked up and pet all of my dogs on the head as well as the nice volunteers who assisted us safely to the start line! I gave them ‘good boys and good girls!’ Haha, I think sometimes I have too much fun at race starts… I said hello to some fans on the side lines and high fived a young fella in his father’s arms. Who knows, maybe he’ll be competition down the road, better get on his good side!
Then it was time. I got back to my sled and thanked the volunteers holding the team from prematurely taking off. I hopped on, and the count down had begun. Pretty soon it was our time to launch and we did! Heading down the start chute with two feet on the brake keeping the dogs slow. I always start every run slow, and let their muscles warm up first, also it would not be good to have any accidents at a race start! I have seen people go out too cocky and end up flipping over and dragging in front of the crowd! Me, I like to do things slow, but safe. As we motored down the chute I gave out high fives to fans, but we quickly got onto the Chena River which one would think would be the first bit of trail of solitude. A cold Alaskan river…. But no! This river for the first twenty miles is a party! As I motored down the river more fans were lined up and I saw one holding a sign that had my name on it, ‘GO CHASE!’ it read. Thanks Heather! This is such a fun race, for as big as the Yukon Quest is, it really holds true to a community race. Fairbanks, Whitehorse, and all of the communities in between really come together to make this a great event. I even saw my dentist on the river! This first stretch of trail, it is common to see fans cheering as teams go by or people watching from their windows of their houses as we go through residential parts of the river. As we pass, some even flick their lights to show their support!
In true Alaskan fashion, the river was cold. It had dropped from roughly zero at the start to about twenty below out on the river. Which is pretty standard. The cold air sinks into the lowest spots and drastic temperature changes can result in the interior just by going down a few feet in elevation. But even though it was cold, every few bends in the river some diehard Quest fans were out partying with bonfires and barb B Ques! At one point, I came upon a huge group all cheering as I went by. This must be a routine for this group every Quest start, because every year I have run this race I come upon this group and I am offered some kind of Amazing food! Last time, it was a Philly Cheese Steak which was incredible… This year, it was a BBQ pork sandwich! By this point in the race, hunger always begins to set in, so I always thank this group of somewhere around fifty people for hitting the spot with their amazing cooking!
After this, the trail continues to meander down the river and eventually into my home trails of Two Rivers. Although, this stretch seems pretty easy, it can be hard for Two Rivers teams like mine. Sometimes, the dogs decide to go where they want because they know the trails as well as I! So, I needed to pay attention and make sure the dogs stayed on the RIGHT trail! After heading through home trails for a while, I came up to my old stomping grounds on Pleasant Valley Road. This is where I got my Alaskan start in dog mushing at Lara-Ke Kennel. I had stopped by here the morning before the race and in conversation I mentioned I had nine girls in my team all from their line of Alaskan Husky. As I past through this stretch of trail, I saw a sign that read, “GO GIRLS!” I knew this must have been them putting out a sign for us. It definitely warmed the heart a bit and had me smiling until the Pleasant Valley Store which has been one of the biggest dog mushing supporters in the sport. Going past here is always a fun spectator spot no matter how cold!
It was dark now, and my race plan had us traveling just a little further. I had planned to run around five hours before finding a place to camp and rest the team. The first leg of this race is seventy-five miles to the Two Rivers check point. For my strategy, that was just a little further than I wanted to let them run. I have always been told from more experienced mushers than I, “you can’t win a race on the first run, but you can lose one!” I personally really agree with that. When you get into longer races, the first run is just about getting a team in the grove and use to the trail. I like to travel slower than I know the team could go and do a shorter run if possible. The great thing about the Yukon Quest 300 is it is set up so a musher can really create their own rest strategy for their team. So, camping out of checkpoints is a viable option. This means a team does not necessarily have to run from check point to check point or even stay at check points other than the required ones chosen by race rules. For my team, I was planning on crossing over Chena Hot Springs Road, and then heading back into the woods a bit and finding a cozy spot where we could hunker down.
We made the road crossing, and quickly came up on a big open area that is often used as the first good camping spot in the Quest. But it was full of teams as I expected. I continued on further. This clearing is a place I often use in training to stop and camp so my dogs knew the area well. As we continued on through, they some how got the great idea this was our spot to pull over, especially when they saw some of their co-workers from Wildthingz Kennel parked on the side of the trail! I often tour with this team and they were parked where we usually camp also. It was kind of funny how my dogs wanted to head over there, but we had not reached our five-hour mark, so onward we went after my dogs realized this was not our resting spot!
After traveling a little further, we found a nice pull off. I secured the sled to a well-placed spruce tree and then packed down a parking area for the dogs. The snow was deep! This certainly took some effort of trudging back and forth creating an area for the dogs to lay down comfortably. But this is what dog racing is all about. I think it is a common misconception these races are won by speed. In many ways I disagree, I think they are won by rest! The way a musher choses to run and rest their team and the effort put into the team during that rest helps maintain their speed. The better rest they get, the better they move on the next run. By making the effort to create a nice bed for them, well, it is kind of like going to sleep in a nice cozy bed that had been made over a bed that was just a pile of blankets scattered about. I don’t know about you, but I fall asleep much better in a well-made bed!
Pretty quickly I had the team secured, tug-lines off, and straw spread out for the dogs for some nice bedding. All of this signaled to the dogs that we were staying here for a while. They immediately went into camping mode which is learned behavior. I have spent a lot of time camping with this team, even back when they were puppies. This has conditioned them to really understand the concept of rest. Also, all the time touring with them they have learned when we stop, take a break! This reminds me of some words of wisdom an old New Hampshire forester once told me when I was working in the woods with him, “when working in the woods, if you get a chance to sit down, TAKE IT!” at thirty-four years old I am either getting old or well-conditioned to working and living in the woods, but this is some words of wisdom I live by, and I am glad to see it showing in my dogs!
My next project was getting my cooker going. This is a handy contraption we use to melt snow into boiling water. This water we use to thaw out meat and fat as well as soak kibble. Ultimately this water is for hydrating the dogs. Once I get that fired up with a full pot of snow sitting on the flame, then I return to the dogs. Here is where I go through each dog and take off their booties, while doing this I put an ointment on their feet as well as check the dogs for any soreness in all of their joints and back. My strategy is always go slow and steady, it may not put us up front early on, but it does allow the dogs a chance to warm up to the trail which I feel helps in longer races and is a common strategy for many. Running like this I feel drastically lowers any chance of early muscle soreness or fatigue and it proved to be true on this first run. These dogs looked great! After giving each of my twelve dogs individual attention, they laid back down in their straw and continued resting.
Once the dogs were all checked out, the snow in the cooker should have been pretty close to boiling, so I reassumed the position of the chef and started preparing their dinner. On the menu was a whole lot of beef, fat, and kibble! The fat had a hint of salmon oil blended for an added bonus! I poured the hot water into the mix and let it sit for a while to thaw and mush into a beef stew. While this was happening, I took any remaining hot water and began preparing some human food. I added a cup of water to two dehydrated camping meals I had packed for me. I rested those packs on my sled, so they would be insulated from the snow. I also added hot water to my thermos with a few tea bags thrown in. While that is prepping I got back to the dogs. After spreading out bowls for each dog, I ladeled some delicious sled dog food into each bowl. They began chowing down immediately. My front four, Sahara, Rubi, Cherokee, and Comanche, as usual did not even bother to stand up to eat. They laid right there in the straw and began eating. These girls have to be the laziest hardest working dogs ever! They always look like they want to be lounging in sweatpants on a Sunday morning, but when I say ‘YOU READY!?’ they always stand right up ready to go. My kind of dogs!
Once dinner had been finished, I picked up the bowls and packed them away for the next camp. Now it was bed time! I broke out the dog’s coats and put one on each of the dogs before they zonked out. This helps keep their muscles and overall bodies warm. At this point, it was sitting about twenty below zero and sure, these are huskies and built for the extreme cold, but a little extra comfort never hurt anyone!
Once the coat was on the last dog, it was doggy bed time! I tried to not bother them from this point on and just let them rest, which they were doing like true professionals. I sat by my sled where I had my dinner and tea waiting for me. Some of the best meals I have ever had were sitting just like this. On my cooler, next to my cooker flame for a little extra heat and a pouch of rehydrated camping food! I think they intend one of these food pouches to be good enough for one person. But for me, I do not think I classify as a regular person. I usually eat two. This night I think I had chicken dumplings with vegetables and some kind of lasagna gruel! Then I chugged what little water was left in my cooker before it froze. Now it was time to relax with a few cups of tea! I sat there in the middle of woods sipping back on hot tea under a bright star night. I kept waiting for the northern lights to get going, but they never did. Occasionally I shined my headlamp out on the team to make sure everyone was looking good, as expected they always were. And every now and then a passing team would go by. I would always count the dogs. If they had fourteen then they were running the one-thousand-mile race. Twelve dogs, well, then I took note. That was competition! But to be honest, as I stated earlier, the way this race is set up is much like the strategy of the thousand-mile races. Early on it really does not matter where you stop. One’s strategy shows if it worked by the end. A musher could decide to rest a lot early and make a big push at the end, or go hard and fast out of the gate, and hope they saved enough gas to finish. There are many different ways to run dogs. My team and I, well, I live by a few sayings I have heard from older and much more experienced mushers. ‘You can not win a race on the first run, but you can lose one!’ The second I just heard right before the race from Jeff King was, ‘Run your dogs the speed they should go, and don’t waste time!’ Both sayings basically lean on being conservative with your dogs. I feel like a dog team that is well rested early will perform ahead of the class later on. Well, we’ll see how that goes in this race!
After my tea, I laid down on my sled and closed my eyes for about thirty minutes. I drifted in and out of some kind of a nap, but I logged it as rest. This is the most important time for a musher. At the moment I was not horribly tired, but a few runs from now, this little bit of rest will add up. I must say, I am a gifted napper. It runs in the Tingle side of the family. There have been many times where my Grandpa, father, and I have fallen asleep on the couch at the same time. At times it has certainly been an inconvenience. I can rarely finish a movie or watch an entire football game, but my Grandpa just had his 100th birthday last August and is still a machine! Maybe there is something to this napping…. Thanks Grandpa!
After my nap, I double checked to make sure my campsite was cleaned up and my sled was packed. Then I began putting a fresh pair of booties on all the dogs. This takes about thirty minutes. By then, I had reached my three and half hour rest I had planned, I hooked up the dogs and off we went, continuing into the darkness of the Quest trail!
This next stretch of trail, things begin to feel a bit more wild. We traveled over a frozen river, and through an old burn from a past forest fire, and over some technical glaciated overflow pouring down from the mountains. Eventually, we reached the first check point. This is called the Two Rivers Check point which sits about seventy miles from the start in Fairbanks. Now, a check point can be a great spot to take a rest. They often have a warm place to take a nap, a hot meal for mushers, at the least usually cold water for the dogs (hot if you’re lucky!) and an overall familiarity with other mushers and volunteers of the race. This all seems pretty nice, but for my team, well… This first checkpoint is often a noisy one. There are lots of teams parked side by side and a lot of commotion. My team and I, we like being out in the woods where it is quiet. Plus, that first camp set us up for it being too short of a run in our strategy to stop at the checkpoint. I quickly went through my drop bags, grabbed a meal for my dogs and a few snacks, a fresh set of booties for the team, and a half bail of straw and off we went, back into the mountains!
Now, one thing that separates the Yukon Quest from most other races is the Quest has hills, but it also has MOUNTAINS! I am not kidding. Many races go through mountain country but through passes. Lots of races also have hills which can be very challenging especially a continuous stretch. But the Yukon Quest trail has us climbing up into three thousand plus foot summits. Tree line in this part of Alaska is around two thousand feet which puts us up into some very barren windswept country on these summits. The first major climb of the race was in this next leg about fifteen miles out of the checkpoint, and is known to be one of the largest on the entire trail. Rosebud Summit is 3,640ft in elevation coming up from a valley floor which sits at 1500ft. That is a pretty significant climb in a short distance. Basically, what that means is, it is steep! To put it in perspective in a skiing sense, it is like climbing from the lodge to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine or Killington in Vermont! Except it is wind drifted trail and virtually straight up the fall line of the mountain. To add to the fun, half of the climb and the entire ridgeline of the mountain is open tundra. Winds can sweep across this mountain at any moment causing white out conditions and deep drifts. On a calm day, the summit of Rosebud and the rest of the mountains are some of the most beautiful places around, but conditions can quickly change and they really are not places a musher wants to hang out too long!
As we progressed along the trail with a gradual upward trend, we meandered through another burn full of scorched black spruce with silhouettes of giant mountains in all directions funneling us through the valley floor. About two hours had past since I left the checkpoint which set us up for another camp. I had planned to rest the team just at the base of Rosebud. From experience, I knew this was one heck of climb, and the fresher the dogs were for it, the better! I also have seen many races won and lost by how a team plans their approach of these mountains. Rosebud and the next peak Eagle Summit really affect how a dog team will perform for the second half of the race. Again, I am a very conservative musher and from many years of experience in the woods and mountains, I respect the land and the elements fully! This is no joke country. It is almost worth putting the race aside and approaching this part of the trail as a mandatory hurdle one needs to get over in one piece no matter what position they are in. For me, I felt like choosing to camp again would certainly put us in the back of the race, which honestly was fine! I knew my team was looking incredible and giving them one more good rest would really spring us over Rosebud. Better yet, it would be for a sunrise climb! Haha, I was saying before the race started, it is almost worth forgetting the race entirely to be up on the summit in the morning light. Past years, I have run it in the dark and it was a mistake. It is absolutely beautiful up there!
I had done pretty much an identical procedure as before for this camp. Only thing different was my food choice. Thanks to Jewell for preparing some amazing home cooked meals, I avoided the dehydrated camping food and had French toast and sausage with slabs of butter as well as a cheesy omelet. All of which I warmed in my cooker. I like to eat well on races! Prior to stopping for this I had come across my buddy Richie of Wildthingz Kennel again. His beautiful team was resting as well just before the summit. We had been talking strategy prior to the race formulating plan A, B, C depending on the trail conditions and other variables which is so important. A musher needs to be able to listen to the dogs as well as assess trail conditions and be able to adjust race strategy prior to the start. I have run a few races with Richie and it is a pleasure to share the trail with him. He is a veteran of the Quest 1000 and he certainly knows how to run a dog team! He is always willing to adapt to his dog’s needs. It is also fun to see another tour team on the trail. Both he and I give tours at Paws for Adventure all winter and it shows in his team by how disciplined they are!
As I was beginning to bed down the team, Richie was taking off from his camp. It did not take long for his team to trot on by as I wished him luck on his climb. I knew his team was going to charge right over Rosebud no problem. They certainly looked great as they past! As I watched his team head towards the silhouette of the wall mountains in the morning’s pre-sun rise darkness I refocused my attention on my team. Soon, I was done with chores and I again laid down on my sled for another quick nap.
This time, I really did zonk out! Probably a solid thirty minutes of sleep before the twenty below temperatures began finding chinks in my clothing causing a chill to wake me up. Which was fine! Thirty minutes is all I wanted anyways. It was time to get the team up and moving again as I began to pump myself up for the climb. With the last booties put on Sahara and Rubi, my lead dogs, the day light had fully engulfed the land. This stretch of trail is absolutely beautiful! Mountains all around and the solitude of the woods truly stand out. By this time, my body had fully warmed back up with the labor of putting booties on all forty-eight feet. Knowing I was going to have a big climb ahead, I took off my parka and mittens and packed them into the sled. I knew I was going to work up a sweat climbing Rosebud and felt like it was a good idea to begin this run cold.
We departed our camp and we began meandered through the valley floor as we approached the base of Rosebud. Eventually, I could see the valley was coming to an end as the wall of mountains quickly approached. This was it, the first major hurdle of the race! With Rubi and Sahara at the helm, I knew we would have a great climb. Rubi along with her uncle Weasley had lead the team over Rosebud in 2016 and I knew she would remember that there was in fact a top to this mountain. This is one reason it is so important to give young dogs positive successful experiences on the race trail. They remember everything!
The trail quickly steepened, and the trees thinned as the dogs powered up the first pitch of the trail. It was here I had my first glimpse of what looked like a team struggling ahead of me on their climb. As I approached, I noticed it was in fact two teams! As my dogs steadily climbed I did my best to assess the situation while I formulated a plan. Stopping on a mountain climb is never a good idea. The dogs need to maintain momentum when going up a steep face and only rest at the top. If given a moment to rest on a steep pitch, sometimes it can be hard to get them going again. So, seeing a few teams stalled out on the first real climb of the mountain, I knew I better have a plan!
I quickly had caught up with the teams and realized the first was having issues and the other was attempting to help them. That is what I love about the Yukon Quest! This is a race where competitors really work with other competitors to get to the end. It is certainly a race, but it still follows the law of the woods where no one is left behind! Unfortunately, in this situation there was really nothing we could do to help this team. I gave a quick assessment and it looked like their dogs simply did not have the desire to pull their sled anymore up the steep face. These situations do happen, and happen to the best of us, but sometimes the dogs simply just say, “no!” It is a great example of how it is impossible to force a dog to do anything it does not want to do, but unfortunately it looked like this musher was in a pickle. From past experience, I knew we were not anywhere near the top of this mountain and not even at the steepest climb, and even if we got this struggling team up the first pitch of Rosebud, there was still lots more and steeper terrain to cover. We did our best to help the struggling team with in reason, but there was no more we could do. Continuing onward with the plan of letting the officials know at the next checkpoint what was going on was our best option, but we both truly hoped this team would find the drive to keep climbing.
We eventually made it up the first rise and were now above the trees. I glanced back and could see the giant mountains behind us. The morning alpenglow was lighting up the peaks with an orangish hue while the valley below remained in the shadows. It was endless mountains to the north that were beckoning me to forget the dogs and go get my skis! There was a time where skiing these giant faces would have been the reason I was up in this country, but after envisioning different descents on my skis and taking in the beauty of what was behind me, I glanced forward to the job at hand, the dogs. They continued to trot along on the vast flat tundra of the mountain, but we were not at the top yet. We had one more peak to climb, and sure enough, it was the steepest!
The team continued as we made a sweeping left turn, this was the beginning of the approach up the last ascent of the mountain. This is the one stretch of Rosebud that really takes everything. The dogs and musher need to come together as a team and work as a unit to get over this rise. Up we went into the steep tundra, through the churned-up snow from previous teams. This caused hard footing for the dogs and myself as they pulled, and I pushed. You could see the dogs using everything to find footing and drive to pull the sled. I would reassure the dogs with confidence calls up to them as they charged up the mountain. My quads and calves burned as I pushed the sled while my feet continued to slide out with each step. The dogs climbed steady. I could see Sahara looking for better footing to the side where teams had not traveled yet. Looking only in the forward direction, her and Rubi drove hard pulling the team up, while Willie and Larry used every bit of their muscles to haul the sled. It was a VERY impressive site! As we approached the summit and we rounded the pinnacle of the climb I knew we were going to make it! Eventually the trail leveled out and we stood at the top of the Yukon Quest trail looking all around with 360 degree views. It was amazing! The land stretched in all directions in a sea of white. It is hard to describe the size of the interior, but it is absolutely huge! Standing on top of this mountain, where I took a moment and stopped the team and allowed them to catch their breath, I was reminded how small we are on this planet. We were a little dot on this mountain in a range of peaks that extended for what seamed forever. After soaking the view in for a few minutes and allowing the dogs to cool down with a good roll around in the snow, we traveled on, down the ridgeline of Rosebud.
This trail was a blast! There were a few small hill climbs, but most of the trail was downhill. Fun quick drops where holding the team back was a must. The dogs could quickly get their speed up, but in this kind of terrain a dog could easily strain a shoulder or a wrist, so the driver must do everything they can to keep the dogs slow. The snow was also chewed up from teams going over before us which added to the challenge. There were also plenty of spots on the higher parts of the ridge where there wasn’t any snow. Here, I would have to step off the runners and take my weight off the sled. This helps preserve the plastic on the bottom, but at times the terrain did not allow me to step off, and I could feel plastic stripping away while going over the rocks.
After climbing up a hill on the ridge, I noticed further down, there was a tent set up. It looked like some people might have camped overnight on Rosebud. My first thought was, some seriously dedicated fans! But as I traveled closer, I noticed they had photography equipment. As I went past the tent, I saw one of the photographers and gave them a big hello. First person I had seen in a while! I stopped to chat for a bit. Turned out they were professional photographers with incredibly thick Canadian accents (I knew we were close, but not that close!) and getting photos of teams coming over Rosebud. Pretty cool! I thanked them for making the journey up here, which was not easy. Not even with snowmachines! After they looked over my team they focused in on Willie and Larry at wheel, they then remarked, “nice to finally see some real dogs!” As I said at the beginning, these two boys turn heads, they are big handsome dogs! I wanted to cover up their ears before their egos became inflated, but I think it was too late. They heard… After chatting for a bit more, I gave my goodbyes and I thought we would just continue down trail, but it turned out the photographers were cooking bacon in their tent and Rubi and Sahara wanted to know more about it! They tried to circle around and go in through the door. It was pretty funny. After a few gee commands (go right) they realized that was not an option and off we went!
Eventually after riding this ridge for about half an hour we began to make our final descent back down into the trees. As we declined in elevation, the cold had returned. The temperatures dropped to at least twenty below and this was the middle of the day! This part of the trail is always cold and SLOW. The snow often is very sugary and has a lot of friction which grabs the runners. The run from Two Rivers to Mile 101 checkpoint is only forty-two miles, but because of this back half to Mile 101 it seems to take forever! We meandered through the shorty stubby spruce forests of the north and occasionally dropped onto icy creek beds and through glaciated overflow side hills. For as much as I wanted to zone out through this stretch, I had to watch the trail and be ready for any ice. Due to the slant of the ice, the sled would often slide into willow branches or spruce trees and I needed to be prepared for this collision. All part of the fun!
The day was beautiful, and as we got closer to the check point it began to warm up! More big mountains began to appear which was the beginning of the range that made up the famous Eagle Summit. This was the next inevitable giant hurdle on the trail that comes immediately after the check point. The team continued to drive on and after what felt like eternity, we arrived at Mile 101. It was early afternoon and after one hundred and twenty miles of traveling and camping, it was time for a good rest! I was greeted by the race checkers who made sure everything was in check with dogs and my sled, and we parked the team. Lying over before us, I could see the valley that lead back into the wall that made up Eagle Summit. As much as I wanted to kick back and relax for a while, I knew we had a very daunting task ahead of us quickly out of the checkpoint. For the next few hours, I would try and ignore what came next, but Eagle Summit was certainly on my mind!
One Tough Dog: The Story of What Happened to Our Super Star Leader, Comanche...
The Yukon Quest 300 had just ended. I was grinning like a sleep deprived idiot as Steph drove the truck as we left the finish line in Central, AK. Our goals for the 2016 race season had been met as I crossed the finish line of arguably the hardest three hundred miles you can race in Alaska. And HARD it was! Giant mountains we climbed and descended, deep over flow we forded, long fifty below zero temperatures we marched under the dancing auroras. Tukaway’s young team prevailed once we crossed the finish line. The team was now full of confidence knowing they can pretty much complete any race trail which was our goal for the young dogs, and that was why I was grinning like a sleep deprived idiot! I was so proud of the dogs as I continued to push through the three days of sleep deprivation I was on. The bed at home was in the near future!
I was certainly joyous, but I was also slightly bummed that one of my key dogs, Comanche, had come up with a shoulder injury a few weeks before the race. She had stepped in a deep moose hole in training and strained a muscle which left her out of the Two Rivers 200 and the Quest 300. This dog is a true spark plug to the team and a great yearling leader. It was hard to not bring her in the race, but it would not have been fair to ask her to run with the team in such a demanding race after having about a month off. So she was left at home at our good friend’s kennel where she was being taking care of (and hopefully briefed on our race!) After getting a good night’s sleep, we would go pick her up the next day along with a few of our retired goofballs!
The next day had come, I think I slept for ten hours straight (which I never do) and woke up still in a race hangover. Racing takes a huge toll on the human body. Sure, we might not be running one hundred miles a day like the dogs, but we are pushing ourselves mentally and physically as well. Typical issues we mushers face after a race is dealing with a body that is completely dehydrated as well as exhausted. A three hundred mile race means maybe a musher gets two hours of miserable naps broken up over four rests throughout a twenty-four hour period. We are lucky if we can nap for half an hour at a time. This amount of sleep is just enough to allow our bodies to continue to function, but it certainly is not enough to recover. So once a race comes to an end, we are true space cadets! The dogs on the other hand, although are working extremely hard, get nearly equal rest to the time they run. So they get plenty of rest and sleep. In the end, they too need recovery days, but I am embarrassed when I see them the day after a race ready to run again while we mushers sometimes need a week to get our bearings somewhat in line!
Anyways, after a luxurious ten hours of sleep, I awoke. We went out and checked on the team and gave everybody a big well deserved breakfast. Then we went over to pick up Comanche and the other dogs. Now, I must warn you. The remainder of this story is not necessarily a fun one but we feel we as a kennel need to tell.. First thing I noticed when we got her back was some redness and goop in the eyes. From years of experience with working with dogs, my first thought was an allergy from different straw from our friend’s kennel. Another option was maybe she contracted pink eye from a different group of dogs she had been living with for the past few days. Both I have seen before, and although not common, this does happen. I began treating her for these two possible scenarios thinking it would clear up in a few days. Well, I was wrong... After a few days, Steph and I began to notice that our super leader with the recovering shoulder, had begun to shed her guard coat, which was really strange for it being early February in the interior of Alaska! She also had begun losing weight and protesting eating… Now for a sled dog to protest food, especially Comanche, we knew something was up more than pink eye! We took her temperature and she had a developing fever. It peaked over 105 degrees which for a dog is VERY high. A healthy temperature is around 101.5. We instantly put her on antibiotics due to her most likely having strong infection somewhere in the body and then we called our veterinarian. The next day the temperature had gone down but the fever was still there so we brought her in to have her checked out.
Our veterinarian was baffled. The symptoms did not make sense and her eye was getting worse. More discharge and more redness and now swelling! We tried some stronger antibiotics and special eye drops but nothing seemed to work. She continued to have a fever, lose hair, lose weight, and the eye continued to worsen. Our vet ended up calling around to other vets for ideas, even as far as Australia! The case of Comanche was on the minds of many veterinarians in the greater Fairbanks area as well as the world! WHAT WAS GOING ON WITH OUR DOG!!!!????
The remainder of this story was an extremely heart wrenching experience. I usually like to keep everything positive because 99% of the time it is, but this was not happy times. Things were becoming very serious. The prognosis was not good. No medicine was working and our dog was failing…
The swelling in her eye had become so severe and a glaze had begun to form over it, as well as the continuation of the goopy discharge. This was not good. After all of the medicine and vet visits we had given her, our sick dog was holding strong but we were pretty sure the eye was gone. Now Alaskan Huskies are a very old breed of dog. They have never been bred for their appearance, strictly for their abilities to run, and to be tough! This toughness is one of the hardest parts about this breed. They are incredible at burying pain and driving on. They are like a personal hero of mine, Mr. Brett Favre in the twilight of his career. They just keep wanting to play! Well, this is how Comanche was. Her tail was wagging, she was snuggled in our bed, and she would smile at us anytime we went in to say hi and cuddle with her. But this dog was in serious pain. We spend a lot of time with our dogs. We make sure to get on a personal level with every one of them. And this was not the normal Comanche. The next morning we brought her back into the veterinarian and they agreed, if this dog was going to survive, the eye had to go.
It was incredible, after the removal, it was night and day! The pressure building in her head has ceased and our happy Comanche was back again! Now this is where dogs amaze me and prove they are far superior to us humans… This dog, who still had a fever and was internally sick, and also had her eye removed, was as happy as could be! Any human I know, including myself would be miserable knowing if they survived this thing they would have to go on living the rest of their lives with only one eye, yet this little girl was smiling! Dogs are incredible, and if anyone needs a role model, go pet a dog!
Now our dogs to us are obviously dogs, but they really are our family. We love our crew. Each and every one of them are very special to us. As I write this, we have more than any sane person would have in a small cabin and one dog (Laredo Larry the Brute) is currently curled up between my legs on the couch. So even though the eye issue was resolved with the removal, Comanche was still sick and nobody had any idea how to fix her… Things were becoming very scary and the inevitable was actually beginning to be a reality. The thought of losing our little girl Comanche was a hard one to swallow. Especially after how hard she fought. Both Steph and I had lots of late nights discussing what to do from our veterinarian advice. They were all simply baffled! We even had a few costly emergency visit in the middle of the night and they were running out of ideas. At some point every dog owner has to think about what is right for the dog, and we certainly did not want to watch Comanche waste away in a slow agonizing death. This was a great dog and deserved dignity to the end.
Then something happened… Steph said to our veterinarian something along the lines of, “how it was only a few months ago we were traveling across the continent with our dogs..” Our vet stopped her right there. She asked where we had traveled. We explained we travelled from New Hampshire to Alaska across the northern tier states. One of which was Minnesota which is where Steph is originally from. There, we stopped at her camp up north and we ran the team on a crisp fall Minnesota morning.
This sparked an idea in our veterinarian’s mind. “FUNGUS!” Now in Alaska, we do not have fungal infections so it was not even considered, but as we learned, fungal infections although are not common in the Midwest, they do happen and can be contracted around wetland areas. So in a matter of seconds the idea was to treat our dying dog for a fungal infection that had begun to attack her entire body. There all of a sudden was a glimmer of hope and a very small chance of success! All the literature we read on blastomycosis (which is the fungal infection we thought she may have contracted in the Midwest) says that once symptoms begin to show, it is usually too late, and if the symptoms had attacked the eye then it was a near death sentence. Our awesome veterinarian staff from multiple offices in the Fairbanks and beyond all informed us that we can start her on anti-fungal medication right away while we await her test results to see if it was in fact an infection. They informed us that if she does have a fungal infection the chances are not in her favor to survive even with the medicine. This was not a few pills folks… This was six months’ worth of EXPENSIVE medicine. Well, we had already gone bankrupt trying to save our little buddy so why not a little more! It was our last bit of hope that our one eyed pirate of a dog named Comanche might survive. It was our Hail Mary pass!
After a few weeks of medicine, our little girl drastically improved! Her hair stopped falling out, her good eye cleared up, and she began putting weight back on! We were ecstatic that it seemed like it was working. Buuuut….. The thing with fungal infections is they can be remedied with medication but once they had attacked her body at the level this one had, they can be nearly impossible to cure… In other words, we would not know for six months if all of this was for nothing. At the least it gave our girl six healthy months where she could run and play in the Alaskan summer sun with her other jeep siblings and us before the inevitable would finally manifest. Like I said, our dogs are VERY important to us. Every day we saw Comanche smiling, this past summer, well, we smiled! But deep down inside we knew that there was still a possibility that dumb fungus might be in there waiting to attack her at any moment…
Now, I will be honest, we hid this story from our followers. We did not want to bring awareness to her situation for it being so grave. We certainly did inform those who were closest to her, but we wanted to present all the facts when we finally did have them to all of you. And having a sick dog holding on by some magical pills she had to take every day was not the story we wanted to present to our followers. Now to get to the point. Back in the late summer we had Comanche tested to see if the medicine had worked. If it did not, well this would not be a happy story. But like I said, I ONLY like to write about happy times! We recently got the results back, and guess what people…. SHE IS CLEAR OF THAT DAMN BLASTOMYCOSIS!!!!!! Our little girl will survive! Although, she is missing one eye, she will surive! And get this people, she is stronger than ever! Our one eyed wonder is still leading the team around Two Rivers in training and is kicking butt doing it! This is one tough dog and we could not be happier that we will have MANY MANY more years of happy Comanche and her aggressive couch and bed snuggling!
Now, I have to get on my soap box for a minute. This was an amazing feet for our little girl. I have to admit there were times we did not think she was going to make it. It was a very dismal experience for all. But I must give credit to our amazing Alaskan Huskies and to all of the generations of them before Comanche. As I stated earlier, this is a breed that has never been bred for its appearance. Strictly for its abilities as a sled dog. Now, I am fine with pure breeds and our modern dogs, and yes a unique appearance of a breed can be nice, but there is something to be said about this old line of dog. For thousands of years, our Alaskan Huskies have been bred to be tough. That means minimal chance of injuries, illness, and incredibly fast abilities to recover. This has created a breed of dog that rarely ever gets sick or has any health problem whatsoever. They are a long lived breed that at times can be big dogs, they still tend to live into their late teens on average and be VERY healthy into their later years. What I am getting at is, our little girl obviously got sick. Nearly deathly sick. But I do believe her ability to kick this fungus with the help of modern medicine was strongly due to the fact that for all the generations of people breeding the toughest with the toughest dogs going back thousands of years is a true reason our little Comanche is still around. Many modern breeds are prone to certain illness’s but our Alaskan sled dogs although at times have their behavioral quirks, (don’t get me started on Tuk Dog) their health is incredible! I am proud to work with such an amazing breed of dog, and am even more proud to have to honor to continue working with our amazing little ONE EYED Comanche to the end of her days, which we hope will be FAR down the road!
Last but not least, I have to thank Steph for all of her loving and caring for our little girl. She was instrumental in finding a cure for Comanche and would not take death for an answer. Also, a huge thanks to our veterinarian staff of TRose Vet Clinic, North Pole Vet Clinic, the Emergency Clinic in Fairbanks, and whoever the veterinarians were in Australia who helped us out! This race season when Comanche is leading the team with her one eye and charging down the trail, I will be thinking of all of you as our little girl continues to drive on!
Well, That Was a Blur of a Summer!
Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I wrote a blog post for Tukaway… It has been something I have been itching to do, but to sit down and motivate myself to write can certainly be a challenge these days! There was a day when I was in fact an English major at the University of Maine with a focus on creative writing. Whether it was by the written word or by mouth, telling stories has always been something I have really enjoyed. So, for me to admit I have not had the motivation to write, well… I feel like I have been letting myself down! BUT, then I think about what has been going on this past summer! I guess the best way to put it, if a candle has two ends then all four would have been burning! Let’s just say, I’ve been busy…
First off, we have continued working with Paws for Adventure on the outskirts of Fairbanks. Steph and I began a new fun summer sled dog tour for all those who are interested in seeing a team of dogs hooked up and taken for a training run. We even offer folks to come along for the ride! Our guests also have the chance to learn all there is to know about the amazing Alaskan Husky and Alaska’s state sport, sled dog racing. If you’re lucky, I may drift off into one of my tangents and go into an in depth story about dogs or something along those lines!
If starting a new business wasn’t enough work, I also took on another job helping a buddy bring life into our old ski area here in Fairbanks. I have been demolishing the old and helping to create something new and improved at Skiland. For anyone coming to the region, you have to check this place out this winter! It is a small mountain with a BIG attitude! I’m not kidding…. Before I got hooked on dogs I was a 60+ day a year skier. I grew up in a racing family and I can honestly say both of my brothers have beaten the great Bode Miller! They may have been in middle school and Bode crashed off the course, but they beat him! I have skied most everything from little bumps on cross country skis to dropping into steep descents on the rugged coastal mountains of Kodiak, Alaska. My point is, I have seen a lot of skiing and Skiland has some GREAT terrain. Check it out! While working there, I have learned a lot about lift mechanics and the industry, it certainly has been fun!
Most sane people would consider starting a business and working for another busy enough, but folks, I am from New Hampshire. Folks from this region use every bit of day light and then some before they consider sitting down. This is the truth! I have worked with many old timers from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine who consider a half day eight hours! So what happens when you put this mentality in the land of the midnight sun where day light honestly last 24 hours… Well, ask Steph, it’s not good! Besides those two jobs, I have also been maintaining our kennel which is a constant job. I have always been taught in the sport by those before me, DOGS COME FIRST! This means if it’s driving rain and miserable out, THE DOGS COME FIRST! If you have not slept in three days and you’re tired and hungry, THE DOGS COME FIRST! If there are chores to be done THEY GET DONE! So with that said the DOGS COME FIRST! Between Steph and I, we make sure our dogs get the best of care. Tons of play time, and happy, fun, and clean kennel to go along!
But with kennel chores came some new responsibility! PUPPIES!!! We have six new member to Tukaway we have been raising. Four are from our amazing lead dog Sahara bred with in my opinion one of the best studs in the sport out of our neighbor’s kennel, Iron Pearl. His name is Killer! These two have made little monsters that we named the Maine Mountain litter. No matter where I chose to live the wild land of northwest Maine where the state’s highest peaks are settled will always be considered a home. These pups represent those peaks with the names Kineo, Katahdin, Kibby, and Ol’ Speck! Then we have the two pups from Rubi’s litter. She was also bred with an Iron Pearl super star who is Killer’s brother. His name is Slayer. These two boys are called the rowdy boys and are named Riot and Ruckus. I am pretty sure they are going to be monsters as well!
So where are we at? Two jobs, a kennel of dogs, and now puppies! If that’s not busy enough, here is the big one. Get ready……. WE BOUGHT LAND! You’re darn toot’n you read that right(I’ve been dating a girl from Minnesota too long)! I went in on a land deal and between three different parties, we are making a giant area dedicated to raising some amazing sled dogs! Our plot is forty acres of raw undeveloped land. This is a dream come true! As I have stated in past blogs, I have spent a lot of time working in the woods doing all kinds of different jobs tailored to land development. These jobs have taught me a lot about woods work and have left me with a desire to own a large track of land that I too can develop how I please! You all know me too well, I’m sure you are guessing I am planning on leasing it all to Walmart so they can build a super store here in Two Rivers! Joking… My goals are to develop some trails, cut fire wood, and yes, build a kennel and a cabin. Now that it is September, so far I have cut a few trails, cleared a few acres for our future kennel, and begun building a cozy 12 ft by 16 ft off grid cabin! Now, I have never built a living structure, so it has been one heck of a learning process! I am proud to say this week I hope to get the roof on! All in all, the land is developing nicely and I hope to have a dog camp out there this fall where I can train our race team. The best part is, it is only four miles by trail from our current living location, so I’ll have two cozy cabins to call home this winter!
So yes, I have been extremely busy. I have not been able to keep up with my blog posts, but I feel it has been justified! In a few ways, things are slowing down, but in others are speeding up! Dog season has begun which means the countless hours of trail time with the dogs of Tukaway has begun. So far we are well under way conditioning our team for the upcoming race season where we hope to become more competitive than last season. But to get to the point, I could not have done all that I have done this summer without one amazing lady… Steph Otto! She has kept me on task and organized and has pitched in every way she could to make our dreams come true up here! The times when I decided to work late under the endless Alaskan summer light, and she took care of the dogs and kept the home front running smoothly, and organized our tour business and took reservations. Well, here’s a BIG THANK YOU! And for everyone else, well I hope to get better with my blog posting this season, and stay tuned, we have A LOT of dog adventures awaiting us!
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!
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!
Yukon Quest 300 Part One
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.
It's for the Dogs
We’ll, I woke up at 4am this morning and not quite sure why. This is the first day in a while where there is no scheduled training run. I could be sleeping in! But here I am, up well before Alaska’s late dawn with my morning coffee sitting on the couch in my cabin. The room is illuminated by a strand of cheap LED Christmas lights with three dogs sprawled out on the floor. After letting the house dogs and myself out to use nature’s restroom, I noticed a faint dancing of remnants of the waning night’s auroras in the sky along with the crispness of Alaska’s interior subzero temperatures. This is why I got up.
The winter dog season can be a blur. It seems like only yesterday I was building dog houses in the fall light and hooking dogs to the front of the ATV while beginning our long slow process of training for the upcoming race season. Now it is the beginning of January, below zero, and am beginning to feel the thousand mile stare that all musher’s develop this time of year. Between training dogs, keeping up with kennel chores, life, and the jobs that help fuel this addiction, we all begin to show signs of the rigors of what it takes to operate a sled dog kennel at the highest level.
For many, the idea of dog mushing is simple. It consists of standing on the runners under a star lit sky, while watching the aurora borealis dancing above spruce trees covered with a season’s worth of snow. Sure, this romantic image is part of it. But what mushing really is made of is going to bed late and getting up early. Scooping dog poop, clipping toe nails, repairing dog houses, cleaning dog houses, adding straw to houses, cutting meat, hauling thousands of pounds of dog food around, keeping ravens, grey jays, and foxes away from your dog food, waking up at odd hours to scare a confused moose away, finding ways to most efficiently freeze salmon, deworming dogs, vaccinating dogs, shaving feet, checking feet, massaging shoulders, messaging wrists, and many MANY more odd kennel jobs I can’t think of at the moment. Then there is of course the countless hours of hooking up dog teams which involves harnessing dogs, booting dogs, in some cases putting shirts and coats on dogs, setting up the team, and packing the sled. Of course all of this eventually leads to a chorus of screaming and barking huskies demanding to run while they pound in their harnesses, and eventually after all of this set up time a musher has the moment of bliss of releasing the brake and BAM! The dogs take off. The barking ceases, and pure silence fills the air. Only the panting from the dog’s breath with a slight pounding of 48 feet moving in unison over a vast winter wonderland can be heard, while of course, the aurora borealis dances overhead.
Mushing is a beautiful thing and of course it is fun. Otherwise why would we do it? After ten years of participating in this tradition where sleep deprivation is the norm, I still have not found a reason to ask myself, “Why do I do this?” The answer is simple. Until you have grown a bond with a team of dogs and can legitimately speak to them without ever saying a word, the concept of mushing must not make a lot of sense. When I go into the dog yard to do chores or when I am on the back of the sled for countless hours of every day, I develop a bond with these amazing canine athletes like no other. The dogs allow us mushers to accompany them through country that their ancestors have been traveling for thousands of years. They allow us to join in a very old tradition where the simplicity of nature out performs the everyday confusion of modern technology.
Mushing is also about development. Watching a team of dogs mature into a spectacle on the trail is an amazing thing to watch. Just yesterday, Laredo ‘Larry’ ran lead for the first time. I’ll be honest, this dog at times seems as dumb as a pile of bricks, but yesterday he lead the team with the guidance of our old veteran Skor around the trails of Two Rivers. After checking in with me by looking back a few times searching for guidance, Larry quickly developed the confidence to charge forward. And I do mean charge! This big boy who is a gentle giant marched down the trail pulling the entire team with him. Seeing Larry grow through out a run and join his littermates as up and coming super star leaders in the mushing world (I may be a little bit biased) was an amazing thing to watch! Sure, one could argue it is simply because of his superior sled dog genetics that allow him and his siblings to develop into such great dogs, but one can also argue that all of those countless hours of work put into operating a kennel shows in one’s dog team. And my team, for being mostly rookies continues to make me proud. Tired, but proud! So far this season as we prepare for the up and coming Two Rivers 200 and the Yukon Quest 300 in the weeks to come, I feel I have barely had time to stop and sit back and glance around the beautiful world we live in away from the dog life. I guess this is why I woke up this morning instead of catching up on some rest. Then again, this morning at 4 am when I gazed up at the early morning star lit sky with some faint flickering of the Auroras and breathed in the crispness of the subzero air, I heard a dog circle in their house as they adjusted and nestled back down to sleep in the warmth of their straw beds. I was reminded there is no world away from the ‘dog life.’ My world is where dogs are king, and life revolves around these amazing athletes. At even the most solitude times when there is no dog insight, a musher still is thinking, ‘it’s for the dogs.’
Well, we have successfully completed yet another drive across the continent. For me, this was my forth time north bound from the state of my youth, New Hampshire. It was Steph’s second, and for the dogs of Tukaway, it was their first northbound trip! Going from North to south is always fun. It means I am heading back into familiarity. Heading to a region I will always consider home. New Hampshire is a place where I learned about cold wild weather, and it is also where I learned how to run dogs. It is where my parents live, and a place where I know I can always count on my brother dropping whatever he’s doing when I say, “let’s go fish up at our secret lake in the mountains where the biggest bass live!” New Hampshire is a security I know I will always have. Some of my best friends in the world live from Vermont to Maine, and for me, I am lucky because New Hampshire is sandwiched right in the middle. But as much as I love Northern New England, I have never been one for living comfortably. I will always take to heart what an old soccer coach once told me, “If you want to get better, you have to get out of your comfort zone!” Sure you can apply this to running suicides, Jonesy’s, stadiums, or finding energy left somewhere in some cells hidden way down in a region you never knew you had until you find it. But for me, I apply this to everything. Life for me, is about experience away from all securities. For many, driving across the continent twice in one year may seem like a ridiculous concept. Especially when sleeping in your truck every night in sketchy truck stops and road side pull offs is your main manner of rest. But for me, being on the road has always been a place that just makes sense! Meeting strangers who quickly become friends of the road, and traveling through regions you thought you would never see and maybe never see again is something I thrive for. Haha, there are of course those times when you just don’t want to be anywhere near where you are. Not because you do not like the area but because you don't want to deal with a broken truck! Take breaking down in a mechanics parking lot in Glasgow, Montana. Yeah, it wasn’t fun camping across the street from his shop at the fairgrounds parking lot of this small town. But if it wasn’t for the pulley that spins the belt in the engine completely breaking off, we would have never met the incredibly kind folks at the Chevy Dealer who made special arrangements to fix our broken Ford! Then there was Bag Lady Sue! This nice lady I met just east of Pittsburgh, PA which is where my parents and many of my relatives are from. She lived up to the Keystone state’s slogan. ‘You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania!’ She approached us and asked about our dog truck. Turns out, this lady is a comedian who performs all over the country, but spends a good bit of time up in our home town of Fairbanks, Alaska! (Bag Lady Sue, if you are reading this, don’t forget to look me up! I owe you a dog sled ride!)
My point is, the road is a fun place. The U.S.A is an amazing place! Driving from one end to the other and through the beauty of Canada and greeted by their incredibly nice people is a drive I would stand up and do again with the drop of a hat! As for the dogs…. We’ll, let’s just say they are now seasoned travelers. Being exposed to as many experiences is never a bad thing for a dog. Traveling and meeting strangers is the life of a sled dog. We as mushers want our dogs to be as friendly and outgoing and comfortable in as many situations as possible. The Tukaway Crew proved they are just that with this drive. Many people stopped and took time to pet our amazing dogs at every stop when we let them out of their boxes so they could walk around and relieve themselves. We even had a few chances to hook up and run along the way! My crew can now say they have run and pulled in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska. How about that for diversity!
I love the road. Traveling and having new experiences out of your normal everyday comfort zone is what makes me excited to get up in the morning! But now we are back home at our cozy COMFORTABLE cabin in Two Rivers, Alaska. Well… It sure feels good to be home! We have settled in nicely. Going on dog walks and training runs every day and bringing a few dogs in each night for some house/movie(Game of Thrones) time sure is nice! It beats having a big 18 wheeler diesel come idling to a halt and parking right next to you at 3am when you are trying to sleep. Let’s just say, there is no way in HELL I would park my dog truck with fifteen of my best buddies sleeping sound in the back next to those fumes for the remainder of the night! I drove around until about 4am in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin in search of another spot to car camp until the morning light which came much quicker than I wanted! But what a sunrise it was!
So here we are, with our new kennel we built in the heart of some of the finest dog mushing in the world. This will be my third winter in Two Rivers, and just to give you an idea of how great the dog teams are here, well, think about this. There are at least ten one thousand mile championship teams here going back to 1977! If you count that fella up on the hill two towns over there are 18 champion teams! Plus the numerous other extremely accomplished mushers that inhabit the trails surrounding Fairbanks. There is a wealth of dog knowledge going back to the days of trap line teams and freighting back when dog mushing was more about working, and all the way up to some of the finest long distance and sprint racing teams in the world. If you have ever had a question about what dogs are really all about. The dog mushing mecca of Fairbanks and the town of Two Rivers are a great place to start! I have always seen dogs as something even more amazing than just ‘Man’s best friend’ but after spending time around a dog community such as this, dogs are set on an even higher pedestal. They are looked at as kings and queens and talked about like old American folktales. The legend of such famous dogs as Togo, Zorro, Granite, Quito, and Salem will live in the books forever! And this is where I now consider home. Its a place where dedicating everything you have to your dog team is the norm. Where human life comes second to the life of the dog. It is a place of great adventure and a place that thrives on making sure one is never truly in their comfort zone. Alaska, the Yukon, and the rest of the Great North is a region still full of surprises where around every corner an adventure always awaits!
Anyways, so now we are home and dog season is in full swing. The team is cranking along nailing ten mile runs as we prepare for the ACE 65, Two Rivers 200, and our main goal of the season the Yukon Quest 300! It’s a season of yearling training. Slow and steady with the goals of building a monster dog team to unleash on the racing world in the years to come! They are certainly exceling in every task I ask of them, and with the help of some great dogs from Pete Kaiser, I think we have a pretty solid young team for this race season! Don’t expect any titles, but do expect some happy tails coming into the finish lines. If we can pass a few teams as we go, I’m sure we’ll be all right with that too! So here we go, after a long drive we have arrived in the land of short days and Looooonnnnngggg nights as we begin our season of ‘Run long, SLEEP LESS!’ mentality. Sure we’ll enjoy our comforts of cozy cabin living, but being back on the trail in the depths of an Alaskan cold where frost finds comfort clinging to any exposed skin and numbness from the cold spreads throughout one’s body is where we will spend the season. Bring it on!
A Night of Tukdog.....
After a week of tearing down dog camp at Mahoosuc Outdoors in a freakish early fall heat wave I was ready to be done. Last night, I accomplished just that around 7PM! I think I sweated through at least three T-Shirts yesterday, climbed up on top of my truck at least fifty times, hauled gravel to fill in holes my dogs had dug like the champions they are, moved stones, and packed up a summer’s worth of adventure into my truck… By the end of all of this, I was covered in dirt, sweat, and other dog yard grime! Needless to say, you wouldn’t have wanted to give me a hug. But I appreciated those who did as we said goodbyes! Anyways, let’s get to the point, I was exhausted!
After driving a fully loaded Ford F-250 with a trailer through New Hampshire’s lovely roads at night… That was a joke. I still can’t believe my Alaskan insurance company feels they can justify charging me $20 more a month because Alaska has ‘bad roads.’ Sure, Alaska is wild, but it does not have hundreds of years’ worth of frost heaves that break mufflers, bend rims, and cause you to have to drive 20 miles under the posted speed limit. Also, most of the roads here were built to be old carriage roads, so they are twisty winding roads through the mountains for trotting horses at eight miles an hour. They were not built for a dog truck and trailer! Anyways, I trailed off again… By the end of a three hour drive I arrived at my parents’ house in central New Hampshire ready to be done!
I opened the door and let my co-pilots, Tuk and Kinley, out and without hesitation, they bolted! This is typical when I get home; Tuk is usually so excited to visit my parents that she can’t contain herself. They live in a great place, back in the woods with tons of room to roam. A doggy paradise! After letting them out, I proceeded to let the rest of the gang out of the dog box for their evening stretch and bathroom break. Kinley came back like the good girl she is within five minutes of stretching her ridiculously long legs, and they are long, folks. We’ve clocked her at 36 mph before we ran out of room. She’s not afraid to use those legs! But Ms. Tukdog did not come back with her…. Now, Tuk and I have a 10.5 year bond of her little tradition of not coming back when I want her to, and we have come to an understanding, but this night it seemed like she had ulterior motives. An hour passed and she still was not back. Again, still typical, but it felt like it was going to be one of those nights…. After I put all the other dogs to bed, I began the waiting game. I put on a movie, wasted time on Facebook, ate some late dinner, really whatever I could do to pass the time. I am sure some of you are thinking why did I not go out and look for her? Well, I used to play that game. It is in fact what Tuk wants me to do! If I go into the woods looking for her, then she retreats further into the woods. She views me entering the woods as an okay to continue to pursue what only she knows. She is a tricky dog!
So after waiting and calling her for hours, I stepped out onto my parents’ back porch and listened to the night noises. Early fall apples falling off trees, the gentle collision of an autumn leaf colliding with the ground, the hooting of an owl off in the distance, and an occasional howl from one of the sled dogs in the truck. With the stars out, it really was a peaceful setting. EXCEPT FOR THE FACT IT WAS ALMOST TWO IN THE MORNING AND I WAS LOOKING FOR MY DOG! So here I was listening, and then I heard a scream! I know Tuk is tough and she can handle her own in the woods but still, I am sure even Rambo’s parents panicked a little when he had to jump off the cliff and collide with tree branches to avoid being shot by the man on the helicopter! I quickly grabbed my headlamp, a hoodie, and my boots and I entered……. THE WOODS! I broke my rule of not chasing after Tuk, but that scream was definitely hers and I have to admit, I do care about her a little bit…. So here I am running through the woods I grew up in at nearly two in the morning running towards a sound that caused my heart to pound. Besides the fact that I could potentially come up to an injured Tukdog, there is also the wildlife issue. I have seen bears, coyotes, moose, deer, and ferocious porcupines in these woods! Let’s just say, my senses were on high alert, and of course, I left my trusty can of bear spray in the truck… So I am ducking tree branches, running over New Hampshire’s famous granite stone walls that were built nearly a century ago by sheep farmers who inhabited the region. Now, the walls are all overgrown by a recovering forest. That is a side story, but read up on it sometime. New England’s forests are kind of like walking through some Central American jungle with hidden pyramids and remnants of a forgotten past. It’s kind of cool!
Back to Tukdog, so here I am running, ducking, and jumping, and then I see eyes illuminated by my headlamp! Now, I feel like they are Tukdog’s, but still I stop and approach with caution in case it was whatever Tuk was ‘playing’ with. I glanced around, checking for more eyes in case it was a heard of deer, or a pack of coyotes. We have a small problem with coyotes harassing the neighbor’s cattle farm, so they are usually not too far away! It was just one pair, and they seemed to be moving away from me. This caused me to approach with caution, but like I said before, if Tuk sees me in the woods, she thinks, ‘GAME ON!’ After watching these eyes move through the woods, I relaxed a little, because if it is Tuk, she is moving just fine. So I am not too worried about an injury, but I am concerned about a potential porcupine encounter…. She has played with those twice before, and she has lost twice before… So after moving towards the glowing eyes, they disappeared. Now, I am standing in the middle of the New Hampshire woods again, listening to night noises. Then I hear it, ‘JINGLE JINGLE JINGLE!’ It was Tuk’s tags jingling as she approached, and then she appeared! Best of all, she looked fine, with no porcupine quills! So my panic had now subsided and now the job of convincing Tuk it was time to go home was my next task. She would not come to me. The innate wild dog in her was in full gear and she was dipping and moving with ease over the ground like she belonged in the woods for the rest of her days. Well, a dog who does not come when you call it is not a dog you go after, at least when it comes to Tukdog. After years of experience with this lovely lady, I walked around her and tried to push her in the homeward direction. One of those mental advantages I sometimes gain on Tuk. She thought she was leading me, but I was pushing her! At least this is what I wanted to think, but I am pretty sure Tuk realized what I was up to, and she made sure to make this the most awkward half hour of my life. She realized it was time to go home, but of course, it was going to be on her terms. Not with the leash I had in my pocket! She pointed her nose in the homeward direction, but she went in an entertaining zig-zag fashion with me following her!
The best part was she led me out of the woods and onto some distant neighbor’s lawn! Now I have to take a moment and apologize to all my neighbors whose lawns I walked on last night with my headlamp on at two in the morning. I was waiting for one of them to come out with a shotgun or for the cops to pull in and charge me with something! Anyways, to get to the end of the story, Tuk was found. She is safe and eventually came home (on her terms). And I got to bed at about three in the morning only to have to get up in four hours because I need to get ready to head to Alaska!
Top Dog of Tukaway Sled Dog Kennel.