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!