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!