Thursday, February 23, 2006

Yukon Quest Day 2 to Day 6: Eagle Summit to Dawson

Eagle Summit

Just the name gives one goosebumps. The history, the stories, the ordeals. Cowboy Smith, Dave Sawatsky, Bill Pinkham, Jon Little - we've all had our encounters with her highness. For me it was during the 2003 race that stands out the most. At the time I was nursing a frozen foot. About halfway up as the sun was setting of course, my headlamp's light quit on me. After spending 20 minutes trying to fix it in bitter winds I realized my efforts were fruitless. I assure you Eagle in the dark isn't for everyone but thankfully the Great Almighty was guiding us as we eventually made it safely to Mile 101 many hours later. So you think Hugh neff was quaking in his boots this time around? Whatever. Let's get it on. Stopping at the base of the summit Lance and I performed a quick safety meeting making sure that all belongings were in their proper order. It was time to dance yet again. Bob Marley was preaching away on my MP3 player as I glanced ahead watching Hans' team steam ahead of Kelly's about half way up. Colby was digging in with all she had as the rest of the girls and boys gave it their all. Lance gave me a ten minute start - always smart to keep some distance around this type of terrain - no need for dog team tangles. This was the second opportunity I had to help lead a Mackey up a mountain. I had travelled with Lance's brother Rick and Timmy Osmar in the 2002 race. Rick was one of my greatest mushing heroes. Learned a lot from those 2 esteemed mushers: "you're turn to lead Hugh", and so it was.

As we neared the top I noticed a few mushing paparazzi, amongst them my friend Hugh Rose. Though mostly bare of snow, the snowhook held in the bare earth snugly. With the winds blowing heavily, it was essential to stay calm - deep breaths. I released the tuglines from the last 4 dogs - it wasn't going to slow down our momentum any but at least Maestro, Mahoosic, Hans and Piccalo wouldn't have to worry about getting tangled in their tuglines. Though windy, it was quite warm - around 40 above. My 'coat' was a hooded Arctic Circle sweatshirt, switching my baseball cap on backwards I bellowed out to Lance "Enjoy the Moment, There'll never be nothing like it! Tally-Ho!"

So how'd it feel? Free. There was no fear. This was our little video game to play, this was our matrix. The initial plunge lasted a few minutes as the team resembled an accordian. "Good girl Colby - you can do it" I encouraged the leaders on crouching low behind the sled. All went well as the gangline became taut having made it through the deep trough of snow. Glancing ahead I saw a team tangled around some trees. At the same time I looked back to see Lance's team stopped at a 90 degree downhill angle as he was straightening things out. Welcome to Eagle kids. For me mountains are living, breathing entities. One can imagine the energy of this baby. My mushing heroes aren't some Iditarod or Quest champs. They're the men of old: Archdeacon, Hudson Stuck, Wada the Jap and so on. Those fellas were traversing over this area with huge loads of equipment, fewer dogs and only candles within tin cans to see by in the dark winter months. Talk about adventurous.

Kelly was rearranging her team as we barely hawed to the left, avoiding a major tangle. This is the section of mountain where one realizes things have just begun. The punchy stuff had now transformed into a concrete, windswept, drifted trail that was wicked to say the least. Actually you're never really on the trail. Every once in a while you'll see markers as the team swerved all over the place looking for solid footing. Through the good graces of the Almighty we finally came to the mountain's base some twenty minutes after our initial descent. By now Dave Mathews was jamming away in my ear "Crrrash into me...." I was snacking the team as Lance pulled up. "How was that dude?" "Man, Hugh that's the most out of control I've been in my life." Now for Lance Mackey that's something. I showed him a couple pairs of runner plastic that I had snatched up about half way down. "Wonder whose these are?"

Once again on the move we were flying through the valley leading up to Crooked Creek just to the southwest of Central. "Strange Love" by Depeche Mode was fueling the energy now - we'd need it for this next section of trail. It was deplorable as it usually is. Powdery snow, overflow, back and forth with patches of good trail every so often. As soon as the team had decent momentum going, 'poof', the leaders would disappear. Why they've never thought of rerouting this section, perhaps setting one up next to the highway is perplexing. Nova and Blaze were up in lead. The hazards were taking a toll on them being up front. I ended up loading Nova in the sled. She was overheated and exhausted. As we pulled near town I flicked on my headlamp as early evening was now upon us, it was my old buddies Paul and Art, "Hello Darkness my old Friend..." Upon arrival in Central Nova was dropped - her temperature was way above normal at 105 degrees. Considering the conditions I wonder what the average temp. was for all the dog teams.

By now we all realized that Mother Nature's temp was soaring as were the winds back on the summit. We'd find out later that race officials had permitted numerous rookie mushers as well as Quest 300 teams to become entrapped in the storms wrath. In hindsight they should have been held back. In the heat of a race mistakes are often made however by all of us. Thankfully after a harrowing day all were rescued safely. My heart goes out to folks who had so much invested to have gone through this ordeal and then were not allowed to carry on. Is the Quest just about a race? Or is it about the adventure, the love of living this life. Why all these folks, especially Saul Turner whose team was up and moving towards Central,along with Yuka Honda Jennifer Cochrane, Phil Joy and Kiara Adams were withdrawn from the race is perplexing. Is it thier fault that military personnel told them to get into a helicopter? Once again why weren't all the teams trucked to Central and allowed to continue on as long as they agreed to travel as a pack?

Lance and I were actually camped out that night about 10 miles from Central. "Doesn't matter if it's only a mile, the dogs are gonna rest better out here." We were with Lance's incredible leader Larry hanging out underneath a spruce tree as a light rain began. We were once again 'talking dogs'. These dogs radars are amazing - their telepathy as well - seems like they were zoned in on what we were up to. My team started growling as I ran over to see what was up. Arriving I noticed blood everywhere a lil'fat blob on the ground. "Piccalo- unbelievable." He had somehow caught a baby marmot crushing in his canines instantly- these aren't your average housepets after all folks. Suddenly a major wind whipped through the forest. All the trees were nearly horizontal - the powers of Nature were continuing to escalate. Tamra had made some special blankies for the pooches that were being swept up into the air. About 5 hours into our break two sleds steathily slid by - it was William and Gerry. Now all the German's were just up in front of us a few miles, Sebastian having passed by earlier. Of German decent myself, I always have fun shmoozing with these fellas. Our 'mind games' are usually with ourselves not each other. The press tries to make is seem like we're continually lying to each other, saying one thing and doing another. Where in all actuality doesn't everyone constantly change their original game plan in some regard? Our conversations are based hopefully on shared dog knowledge that we may all improve our performances. Men like Hans and William through example have upped the rest of our games. That's why it was so disappointing to read what these guys were up to at this juncture of the race. A few miles down Birch Creek I noticed that the trail veered off, ending up at a dogteam. Sebastian bellowed out, "I'm done breaking trail, someone else's turn." The strong winds had nearly evaporated the trail thus I was forced to scan the river with my headlamp, find the faint trace of a snowmachine track - markers being few and far between. Sebastian mentioned that he'd seen a bunch of glowing eyes in the trees - Hans, William and Gerry we figured. I'd later read how they were hiding from us in order that we'd have to do all the trailbreaking work. Is that what the world's come to? Destroying others to make yourself stronger? Instead of everyone helping out, putting in their fair share in order to to make the community better as a whole? Their selfishness only got worse. After breaking trail with Lance, his outstanding superstar leader doing much of the trail sleuthing, we noticed a headlamp was following us but staying about a tenth of a mile back. Nearing Karl Cochrane's cabin, 28 miles from Circle we came upon a vehicle. Suddenly flashing lightbulbs startled my main leaders off the trail as we sought our next resting spot. Glancing back to see what Lance was up to I was startled, "Hans?" We both looked as the 3-time champ pretended like he was invisible, as he rummaged through his sled bag. Lance and I exchanged perplexed looks. I wasn't angry just disappointed. A mile from the cabin Hans whizzed by us, securing a spot next to Karl's place. He then directed us where to park upon our arrival - letting us know who owned this 'playground'.

Karl Cochrane is my hero. The year I froze my foot he graciously let me borrow a pair of Neos. Last year I carried them in my sled from the start - surprising him with their return. A wiry 70-year old, Karl had a bit of cabin fever as he rambled on about the state of the weather, Alaska, etc... After a brief rest we were back on the river heading to Circle. The warmer temps had created a deep slushy trail as we followed Lance's squad amongst others.

Circle City
Our arrival at Circle that afternoon left us some 6 hours behind our original schedule - at this rate we'd reach Whitehorse by March, or was it by 'marching'. I was perplexed to see Judge Tetz pulling our leaders to their designated resting spot. "Where was Tamra?" He informed me of our penalty - whatever dude - what is this kindergarten class? It was fairly quiet in Circle, most of the vets and officials were dealing with the Eagle Summit fiasco at the time.

The folks at Circle fattened mushers up on numerous goodies. The dogs fed up and resting comfortably, I tried to grab a bit of shuteye. William was in the bunk next to me massaging his stump - "Oh, this feels good!" This man is just, well, amazing.

Our next workout would be on the Yukon River, a 150 miles stretch to Eagle. The 1st stretch to Slaven's cabin was memorable for the beauty - full moon, stars abundant - it doesn't get any better. An hour out Lance came flying up from behind as I was snacking the pooches with some horsemeat.

Slaven's Cabin
Coming into Slaven's at 8:30 am all the front runners were still there: Hans, William, Lance and Sebastian. Peter Christian a park ranger from the Coldfoot area came up to say 'hi'. Always nice to see folks from up north, man I miss that place - beautiful country. So is the area surrounding Slavens. It's why we're all so lucky to be a part of this lifestyle - the sights we see are truly unique. As usual the volunteers were quite gracious with good food and good conversation. It was nice to see Vern Starks a wizened, trail savvy vet who was with the frontrunners most of last year's race. He's a favorite amongst mushers not only for his dog wisdom, but mellow demeanor as well. Unfortunately we decided that Blaze would need to be left behind. Having finished both the Quest and Iditarod last year it was a tough blow but the best for my little buddy's health and future. Our 4.5 hour rest over we bid adeau and were once again heading east - our destination Trout Creek cabin. This section of trail was as Hans described: the shits. Jumble ice was tough on wrists and feet, sugary snow strained shoulder muscles as well. It was obvious by now that Hans, Lance, and William were the cream of the crop as far as dogteams go. I was just hoping to stay amongst the 2nd pack with Sebastian, Gerry, and Dave. At the mouth of the Kandik I spotted a moose - it was a first for me during the Quest. Fortunately it was on the other side of the river relieving any anxiety of close encounters. A half mile ahead of us was Sebastian. We'd periodically catch up to him, it often depended on whether he was hauling a dog in his sled or not. Always enjoyable sharing trail time with him. He has a frank german wit combined with a unique genius and Sasquatch looks - there's only one Sebastian. That evening, though the trail was rough, the pinkish hues of the sky as the sun was setting were breathtaking. Unfortunately this is where my past caught up with me. Frozen feet never totally leave you. Kicking and poling behind the heavily loaded sled had me sweating. The socks were wet, having already changed twice I was in trouble. By the time I reached Trout Creek I was in major pain. The dogs snacked and bedded downwith jackets on I entered the cabin, my boots encrusted in ice. I was grunting and groaning in agony as William and Hans were laughing at me - "Hugh you bonehead" Their kindness was heartfelt. Mike Segar from Eagle was volunteering once again to man this outpost. Fellas like him, Karl Cochrane and Mike Pearson define bush living - gracious, considerate folks. While thawing out my feet as well as drying out my clothing I grabbed a bit of shuteye after checking over the dogs and feeding them. They were becoming finicky, turning away liquids, wanting to chew on fish, meat, etc. instead.

A black female, Omen, who I recieved from Lance a couple of years ago was becoming quite spunky as well as Titan, a 3 year old male. Leaving just after Sebastian, Omen and Titan were now in lead and performing admirably. By this point in the race I'd only listened to music at night when one was more likely to doze off behind the sled. As the early morning hours flew by, we passed Sebastian, catching William about 10 miles short of town. He was stopped, massaging one of his dog's shoulders. I snuck up behind him watching the master at work. Teams pass through a few portages right before Eagle. Sebastian came flying up during one as I let him pass, we'd follow him the rest of the way in (see below). Photographers, snowmachines and planes were whizzing around that morning as the winds picked up as well.

Coming into Eagle it was time for a major break. The last 100 miles of patchy ice and rough trail had been tough on the pooches. I'll admit the team needed some extra rest by this point - didn't all of them? Darkie, a new addition as well as Oscar a yearling were dropped, one for a swelling shoulder muscle, Oscar for a swollen wrist that we'd been working on before the race but was worsening. I was quite proud of these two. It being their first 1,000 miler. Unfortunately June-Mari's left hind toe had an abrasion, thus her career would come to an end in Eagle. This being her 8th 1,000 miler. I sat and cried with her. She'll always be a part of my soul after all we've seen together these past 9 years. I agreed with the vets that the team could use an extended rest. This early in the race it really wasn't that significant of an issue. The problem I had was with communications - the head vet continually answered my questions with a quick reply and usually walked away. While 3 vets were going over my team 2 of them were constantly giving conflicting statements with the older veteran's comments. While checking out Blondie, "Look at you with the full stomach, you're so heavy" in one ear, "oh she looks so skinny." I'm hearing both of these statements at the same time - who do I believe? Later the veteran mentioned that they're "fairly, new to this." If so then where's Vern Starks? Shouldn't the best, most experienced personnel be with the frontrunners? The officials asked to watch me feed the dogs. Judge Tetz admitted that they were eating well. I jokingly asked the Race Marshall if it was okay to save some of the food for the remaining miles to Dawson. He just smiled.

Just before 10 that evening, having been in Eagle for nearly half a day we set forth to conquer American Summit, our next obstacle. The team was flying as we headed up the Taylor highway with Flame once again wired to the max. With only 8 dogs I was amazed at our power. This night would be memorable indeed. An hour out the auroras appeared from directly above us as the colors snaked their way in gyrating purplish, green, and red hues. It was breathtaking - I couldn't help but giggle - what a life - beautiful. Reaching American's crest the winds arose seeking to push us downhill. The team performed admirably, the extra rest obviously showing it's benefits. Reaching the mountain's other side I found a nice spot out of the wind in order to give the team it's second snack break. Our next destination was Wayne Hall's tent just the other side of the 40 mile bridge. Passing by the ghost town at O'Briens I reminisced about the last time we rested there - it was quite the sight - Frank Turner sleeping on a pool table. The trail through this section was hilly, yet with a slick fast trail. I knew we were making great time as we pulled into our next resting spot early that morning. Dave and Michelle were sleeping while Gerry and Sebastian were just getting ready to leave. Bedding down the team, I noticed that the temps were a bit more normal here - around 15 below. As I relaxed in the tent, Dave and Michelle prepared to depart, we all wondered why the Quest didn't have a setup like this every year. In the past local residents had been upset with all the straw and dog poop left in their 'front yard' by Quest teams. Wayne Hall, an experienced trapper and Quest participant who trained in the area was kind enough to let everyone borrow his tent. While sleeping I heard a musher yell out, "not that way Ricky." Michelle's team was at the door and trying to get in. She and her husband Ed are friends from Tagish, not as well know as other Yukoners but great dog people none the less. A few hours after Michelle's departure, I began preparing to leave, putting booties on all the dogs. I'd decided to carry Piccalo the remaining 100 miles into Dawson, the trail was a constant downhill from here. He had a healing cut on his right front toe and a sore shoulder that I didn't want to aggrevate, I was gambling it would heal up after a few days of rest.

The 40 mile river canyon walls offered some shelter from the sun as we set off for Sebastian Jones' cabin at the river's mouth. Derek Crowe the Canadian photographer who had taken the pic of us that is featured on this year's 2006 Quest poster was on the river as well. He'd snap a few shots, disappear and then a few miles later we'd come upon him clicking away once again. I think he was just looking for different backgrounds. Snacking the pooches every 1.5 hours we came upon 3 sections of straw where the frontrunners had camped near the border. Man I thought to myself, loooong runs. The Rangers had made an entranceway adorned with the Maple Leaf to announce our entrance into the Yukon. It was nice. Year in, year out, these guys put in great trail.

Arriving at 40-mile cabin
Forty Mile Cabin
Approaching Sebastian's cabin that afternoon, my suspicions had been correct. Though carrying a dog we were making up the time from Eagle. Cutting off a half hour of run time on this last section we were now back in the pack. Sebastian and Shelley are always gracious hosts, not only fine food but good info. as well on local Dawson happenings. Everyone was there except for Hans, Lance and William. I was amazed that Lance was first into Dawson, Hans had seemed a sure bet. As the heat of the day subsided teams once again set off for their mandatory 36 hour layover. 1st Sebastian and Gerry, followed by Dave and Michelle. We departed a half hour later staying consistent with those around us. An hour out we caught up to Michelle who was having leader problems. "You mind passing Hugh, I'm having problems getting these guys clicking." Obviously nearly 600 miles of rough conditions had most of the teams' energy's on their last reserves except for Sir Lancelot of course.

Our team's once again on the go we leapfrogged Michelle, with her pulling into Dawson a half hour ahead of us. It was early in the morning as we came in to town. Judge Tetz was kind enough to turn the team around as we crossed the river for our mandatory layover. If I had known then what we were in for I would have loaded them straight into the truck saving us all from the fiasco that we were about to be put through.

to be continued....

Yukon Quest Day 7 and 8: Dawson - Tears of a Clown

Dawson cont'd
"Dawson to me is the dogmushing Mecca of the North." I spoke these words after receiving the rookie of the year award for the Percy DeWolfe race a few years back, a beautiful handcrafted parky by a lady named Mary from Moosehide. Dawson is why we've participated in the Quest so often, it really holds a special place in my heart. It's history has left an immense aura over the area that is felt on a daily basis. One of my great literary hero's cabin resides on a hill above town- Mr. Robert Service. He certainly was right-- strange things do happen, not only underneath the midnight sun but a winter's full moon.

Numerous friends from the Annie Lake area were there to help take care of the pooches during our layover. Dr. Paul Geoffrion, Charles Nadeau, his daughter Kim and son Alex as well as Pascal, a cousin. My feet were in major pain upon our early morning arrival thus all of these folks help was a godsend. Not only feeding the dogs but massaging as well as putting ointments on their feet to help aid in healing. As usual Tamra was in charge showing off all the techniques she learned attending doggie massage guru Wes Rau's class earlier this year. The dogs were still being finicky eating so we went into town buying up all the delicious chicken we could find, along with the beaver and various other treats we had even their appetites eventually came around.
During the vet check some splits and sore shoulders were determined to be the main focus: provodone for the feet and massages were decided to be best form of treatment to aid in recovery.

Omen (above), Mahoosic, Flame, and Maestro were all doing well and feeling Perky. Piccalo who I had previously carried in the sled was now well rested with a webcrack on his front right toe that we were attending to as best we could. Titan, my main man was tired upon arrival, having lead by himself over the last stretch but chowing down a bunch of chicken helped to re-energize his spirits.
Blondie (left) was eating well. Her feet were being administered to as well though she was as spunky as ever.

Colby (above) was eating well too and in good spirits except when she was being yanked on from behind unexpectedly. And that's where we come to the crux of my animosity. Tamra and I stared in disbelief when one of the vets, coming off of a 12 hour break accidently pulled her shoulder from behind while his body was on her back legs. It's not very hard to piss off this little ball of dynamite as she automatically began growling at him. "Oh, I'm sorry, that must have hurt." was his sheepish reply. By this time the head vet would barely give me the time of day and decided it was best not to personally look at our dogs to "prevent the question of personal vendetta" - her words. So she had her 'good friend' look at our team. This vet wasn't even on the Quest's official roster - he was actually one of Saul Turner's handlers before he was forced to scratch at Mile 101. During the vet check he was looking at Maestro and saying "Have you been massaging this shoulder?" When Tamra would reply "Yes, just an hour ago", he'd say "but the fur's not wet". Tamra kept saying, "we use 10 squared racing Zalox - it's a cream so it doesn't stay on the fur". He must have said at least three times "but its not wet", not listening to what Tamra was saying. I had been warned just before the race by an official from last year's contest that this woman in charge was out to get me. In fact she had told this official last year during the race, while I was in 1st place nearing the finish I might add, that she'll get that ------- hippie musher. Numerous officials on last year's race refused to return because of numerous actions she had carried out. In fact some in this year's race didn't care for her negative attitude as well. There's a big difference between the two major races-- in the Iditarod officials and vets are more low-key , they've been around the block numerous times. The Quest is a soap opera where these folks need to be an integral part of the action, often determining the final finishing positions of various mushers through their actions. By the way where was Vern Starks?

The officials and mushers had a closed door meeting to determine the remaining part of the race. Due to lack of snow it was decided that the course would be run to Pelly and then back to Dawson. It was a close vote but Dawson, which I had written down had won. I was excited and pumped to get back out on the trail. My #1 hero is no mere dogman- he was a mountain man whose literary novels are what fueled my desire to migrate to the north. He was a man who loved to run and play in the mtns. for the sheer joy of it, it was his way of showing respect to the creator for all of the beauty that we are so lucky to be a part of-- his name was John Muir. From Dawson to Pelly and back 3/4's of the terrain is hilly- King Solomon's Dome here we come!! We couldn't wait to get up in those mtns.- we'll be seeing you down the trail soon boys and girls.

Tamra and I spent the last few hours running around town picking up more supplies including socks and runner plastic. She even surprised me with a brand new anorak for good luck. We quickly stopped by the hotel so that I could change into my racing outfit- if only we knew what lay ahead. Returning to the campground we were impressed with the job Paul, Charles and Pascal had done fixing up the sled- it looked almost brand new. Alex was cutting firewood while Kim was in the tent organizing things. I cannot express fully enough my heartfelt thanks to these kind people, the 36 hr. layover is quite a busy day and a half for any handler. Looking downriver I noticed that the head official's vehicle was parked next to our area, I thought nothing of it since they had been hanging out there earlier in the day making jokes about being pulled over by the local RCMP the night before. Judge Tetz asked Tamra and I to come with them. "Here's the deal Hugh I've got a withdrawal slip with your name on it sitting on the dashboard", the Race Marshall blurted out in an authortative voice. We were stunned, there were issues but this statement coming out of nowhere just hours before we're set to leave? Why wait until the last minute to throw this at us. Here we are running around in circles all day making sure the team was properly outfitted for the next section of trail while our future is being secretly devised without any of our knowledge or input. "Or you have the option of waiting 18 hours and we'll go from there..." Considering that the team had just made up a few hours on our closest competitors by their solid run I was perplexed by their actions. Had they been watching how well the dogs had been eating in the last 12 hours? How they were towing Alex around like a ragdoll. There were no limpers, all were confidently running down the road during their walks. Sure, we had a couple foot issues to deal with but what teams didn't have problems after the trail we'd just covered. (Except The Incredible Lance Mackey's of course) Where were all of the vets when one of the top teams came in with dogs limping and diahrea everywhere- not one was to be seen at the Dawson halfway chute. Heck, I'd seen a bunch of teams come in with a pooch in the sled, trail weary animals are why we have the 36 hour layover in the 1st place. We would have agreed to a four hour wait but 18 seemed excessive. It's understandable that with only eight dogs they were worried though I saw numerous teams leave with only 9. Might I remind the reader that my rookie year I travelled with only seven dogs for over seven hundred miles having only started with ten. Joe May once told me that he could take a solid small team of dogs around the world. At the time I laughed, through experience I believe him now.

I'd been warned that certain people were 'wishy-washy' and easily coerced into doing things yet little did I realize how prophetic this statement would be. The saddest part for us was there was no discussion about this with the vets during their inspection and no negotiating the situation, much like the teams back at Mile 101, we were basically forced into a corner. What happened to the notion of vets and mushers working together to get healthy dogs to the finish line? One of the officials whispered, "you can still make 3,ooo dollars ya know." "This is B.S." was Tamra's reply. Though we might be 35 thousand in the hole 'selling out' is not part of the way we approach this life. Believe it or not buddy not all of us mushers worship the almighty dollar. There's been so much squawking by the higher echeleon mushers about raising the race purse these last few years that its literally destroying the whole purpose, the SPIRIT of why this race began in the 1st place. We were being ramroded and there was nothing we could do but sign the dotted line and get away from this circus-- this was a sick joke that unfortunately is now our reality. I'll never forget the look on Maestro a blonde five year old wheel dog with 4 one thousand milers under his belt, face as he was loaded into the dogbox, "What's going on boss- this isn't the usual routine." While packing the dogs into the sled Dave Dalton passed by with his team, a perplexed look on his face, "Hey wait, what 's going on?" Then Cor Guimond and later Wayne Hall stopped by to chat. It meant alot to me that these men, sourdoughs to the core, actually cared how we were. As for the race vets and officials they just looked away or at the ground as if we didn't exist anymore. Don't worry about us though folks we're still alive and kicking-- if you wanna worry about something worry about the Quest. Especially those of you who spend your free time or extra cash helping to support this event. Hopefully someone out there will thoroughly investigate all that has occurred to leave such a bad taste in so many mushers mouths this past contest. Are the people presently in charge concerned any more with what this race is really about or where their next paycheck is coming from? Any of you who attended the opening banquet in Fairbanks realize that from the very start the managing of this year's Quest has been a major JOKE. Though well intentioned the opening banquet was a humiliating experience. Mushers were paraded and auctioned up on stage as if we were slaves, as we were barely given any time to talk about the most important thing: Our DAWGS. It's no wonder half the crowd was gone within an hour- embarrassing to say the least.

Sure Mother Nature was a bit wild this year but well thought out, objective decisions were a rarity. As in the past my family's name might be smeared on the internet and in papers but I'm willing to sacrifice my self-esteem so that others may be enlightened of this crazy situation. Hey that's why most of us love the Quest- it's " Outdoor Theater at its Finest" unfortunately this year we weren't given a chance to write a happy ending. Oh, well hopefully that's what the Iditarod or Kobuk 440 is for. I was actually quite giddy and full of energy upon our return to Annie Lake the following day. If you've ever been to our place you'd know why- we live in 'Heaven on Earth'. That evening as we watched a movie on the boob tube I sat back and smiled. As usual we had about ten dogs laying on various pieces of furniture snoozing away. Elfin, our adopted black cat was purring away on my lap as Tamra dozed on my shoulder. For some strange reason I felt content. Sure there was a hollow numbness not being out on the trail. But there's worse predicaments in this world to be in. I'm surrounded by love and that's what matters the most. Others may judge me by an article they read in the paper or some Adam Killick novel. Admittedly I've done some foolish things in the past (my apologies to Doug Harris) yet isn't this world about change, about overcoming obstacles to better oneself as well as the community around them? Where is that "Code of The North" nowadays? Who knows what the future holds in store for Laughing Eyes Kennel but I'll tell ya one thing: We're keeping 'Hope Alive'. For the Vision that brought this silly cityslicker to the North so many moons ago still remains - A Vision not of Dogracing but of becoming a more complete Dogman, better neighbor-- a true "son of the North". My congrats to Lance and everyone else that completed the race- it's one for the memory books that's for sure.

Enjoy the View, Hugh
p.s.: The above account is to the best of my recollection. No harm was intended upon any particpants, officials or vets involved with this year's race. We're simply trying to portray our version of events so that others might understand the situation set forth upon us and our reasons for not continuing on in a race where we believe we were being unfairly treated.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Yukon Quest Day 2: Mile 101

Mile 101 continued

As the morning drew on numerous teams arrived: Sebastian, Wayne Hall, Michelle, Gerry, Kelly and Hans. We were all parked down on the glare ice while Hans got lost on the highway which ended up being a blessing since his team was now in the ideal parking spot next to the mushers sleeping cabin and off the cold ice. Lance and I took the opportunity while resting to not only enjoy some tasty vittles (bacon, eggs, chilli, etc.) served up by Peter Kamper and his always great outfit of friends at 101 but to spend some quality time with the pooches as well. One by one we'd take each dog off the main line and go for a short walk to loosen them up. We were parked to the side of the main contingent of teams thus not upsetting them from resting. All Lance's pooches are basically one family except for Scotch, a golden lab/husky mix whose bright color stands out among the more typical darker husky fur of the other pooches.

After over 7 hours of rest we prepared to head up over the notorious Eagle Summit. Hans, Kelly, and Sebastian had already departed by now, around these parts no one should ever be in a hurry. Unfortunately trying to even leave 101 was dangerous as the glare ice left little traction. The leaders became confused as we did a 180 and were now heading straight at Lance's team - we were out of control. Numerous officials and veternarians were up on the hill watching though none offered any assistance. Fortunately Lance swung our front end around, though the dogs confusion escalated, "How do we get out of here boss?" Thankfully Tamra came flying out of nowhere to help straighten things out before anyone became seriously hurt. Mile 101 being a dog drop only - handlers are not allowed to help teams get in or out to their parking spot. She would later tell me that the officials had penalized us for her actions and were now not allowing her to help bring dogs in or out of the next few checkpoints. C'mon now fellas - where were you at the time? - helping or just trying to cause trouble? It's bad enough when one of the officials is someone you once competed against every year. Someone I once highly respected but to have this man constantly whispering remarks in your ear as well as messing with your lady - what ever happened to the 'code of the north' on the Quest trail that Frank Turner so often talked about in the past? Though this was a petty infraction in hindsight is shows a general lact of respect by Quest personnel. Don't they realize we have our lives invested in these dogs? Everyday, sun up to sun down? Tamra should have received a reward for her effort. Penalize someone for saving our dogs and others from getting hurt? What the.....?

Once again down the trail, Lance followed behind us as we embarked for the summit - it was time to party - Northern style.

to be continued...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Yukon Quest Day 1 cont'd: In The Name of LOVE

North Pole
Colby and Flame were at the helm as we slushed our way down the trail towards our 1st destination North Pole. My feet were constantly on the sled's brake as I sought to keep the team at a nice mellow pace considering the rather warm above freezing temps. I wished fellow mushers well as we slowly passed by one after another: Yuka Honda from Japan, Saul Turner, Dave Dalton, Kiara Adams as well as Kyla Boivin. Pulling into the designated dog drop spot I handed over my race bib as we continued on. Moments later I stopped the team for a quick pit stop, snacking them with some delicious Yukon river Salmon. My dear friend Paul Geoffrion whizzed by as we exchanged greetings. Considering he was running four of our pooches in his team I was quite happy to see his squad looking healthy and happy.

Passing thru the Chena Lakes area we came upon a group of people handing out refreshments to the mushers. Lo and behold it was Sonny Linder the man who won the very 1st Quest race over twenty years ago. His gratuitous libation was very kind indeed. Numerous folks were handing out all sorts of goodies: cookies, sloppy joes and hotdogs were on the menu though I passed on the Budweiser- lil' too early to celebrate just yet. Crosing over Chena Hot Springs road I knew that there were now only two familiar faces in front of us- Hans and Lance. Within a mile or so we came upon Mr. Gatt wishing him well, "Think Mackey's crazy enough to run all the way to Angel Creek Hans?" "I don't worry about him Hugh ", he replied with his thick Austrian accent.

The sun was beginning to set as we finally came upon Lance a half hour later parked alongside the trail's edge. "Yoohoo!!", I called out as he quickly swirled around to face us, a big grin on his face. Having one of the greatest dogteams in the world sure does make one happy I suppose. This early in the race, especially with a mandatory rest stop only twenty miles away we decided to rest the teams for only a few hours. After snacking the crew once again we sat together reminiscing about last year's Quest which we travelled nearly the whole race together. Unfortunately I wouldn't be lucky enough this time around. It's always a joy to be in his company, not only a fine dogman but there's nothing like that Mackey Testosterone to keep the juices flowing. Some time later Kelley Griffin passed by us, "What are you two doing here?", she inquired. We just smiled, now our teams had a scent to chase after. A half hour later we saddled up leaving fifteen minutes after Mr. Mackey. We were rolling now that the heat of the day had dissipated in the early evening darkness. My foot was still on the sled drag, Flame was amazing setting a wicked pace yet controlling our momentum would be key to keeping together a larger squad for later in the race. Coming into Angel Creek we were greeted by the head checker Val Mackler whose husband Ray was kind enough to give our kennel a sled many moons ago. It was an honor to have a man of his regard be so gracious with one of his unique sleds. I wished Val well knowing that she had been sick of late but she seemed in great spirits- though in her later years Val is still mushing dogs- quite a unique woman!

Angel Creek
At Angel Creek the temps. were still quite warm as I bedded down the dogs and prepared their meal consisting of soaked kibble and meat. With the warmer temps. feeding the pooches can be quite a challenge as they might be a bit more finicky compared with typically colder arctic weather. There was a mandatory vet check at Angel Creek as well. Mushers carry a yellow vet book that they fill out as we progress from checkpoint to checkpoint. In their initial review various issues that we needed to keep an eye on were jotted down. A couple of the pooches already had some knicks aka web cracks that were healing up from before the race started. The new Seavey style harnesses were causing some problems with harness rub as well. The team had a healthy appetite and was lunging at their harnesses as we departed at 1 am - our next destination: mile 101.

Race officials had warned us previously how treacherous the upcoming section would be with numerous overflow areas combined with glaciated dangerous sidehill ice. We never would have guessed how bad it could be. The team was coasting along smoothly until we hit the 1st of these spots- and so the nightmare began. Skidding across the sidehill iceflow the team suddenly plummetted to the left, we were out of control as the sled rammed into a smattering of trees. Unfortunately the handlebar smacked against them with my fingers caught in between. Fortunately the team was jumbled up in some thick podery snow as I flipped the sled over in order to free up my hand. My fingers in pain but still functional I reorganized the team and we were once again on our way. Twice again within the next half hour I'd be eating snow, one instance slamming hard on my elbow, the dogs were actually in a safer position as I was being whipped around to and fro. I thought to myself how the heck is William Kleedehn gonna make it thru this minefield? Iron Will only has one leg, having lost his other one in a motorcycle accident many years ago. In fact William had broken his leg the last time the Quest had run this way. And those poor rookie mushers you wonder what they must have thought- the Quest is known to be tough terrain but you had NO control going thru this quagmire- in retrospect the trail should have been rerouted or else all the teams should have trucked the dogs from Angel Creek to 101-- canine and human welfare should always be tops on the list of priorities. A few hours out we began our ascent of Rosebud's summit, the steepest and highest point on the Alaskan side of the race. As usual we'd charge up in surges hoping to conserve energy for the mountain's downhill side. The team performed well, Colby barking out commands as is her norm. At 35 pds. she's a tiny lil' gal yet with a heart larger than most, Colbster has that attitude that one covets in a lead dog. Twenty minutes later breathing heavily and sweating profusely we arrived on top as I was suprised to see there was actually a decent amount of snow on the trail contrary to earlier reports. One must realize that descending a mountain is actually much more difficult and obviously dangerous than going up one.

The dogs were still pumped especially Oscar (left) a younger yearling who wouldn't stop screaming as he ripped his tugline taut. Along with Darkie, Flame, Blondie, Colby and Omen, Oscar was a cheechacko to The Quest. All of these pooches are Yukon River dogs that I have purchased within the last year or so from Lester Erhart and Francis Roberts, 2 incredibly talented native Athabascan dogmushers. Most of these dogs are sprinters in their earlier years, what we do is slow them down as speed is not necessary all the time in a race that takes much longer than an hour or so to conclude. Sprinters average twenty miles an hour, long-distance about half that pace. Guess those mountains might be a part of the reason for the slower, safer pace. As we plummeted down the mountains on the other side a sense of euphoria came from deep within- for me this is what it's all about, not only the endless majestic views from high up yonder but the adrenline rush- a rollercoaster ride like no other. Snacking the team at the bottom we covered the remaining fifteen or so miles into 101 on the steese highway.

Mile 101
It was time to rest once again for Eagle's notorious summit awaited our arrival later that afternoon. It was just before 7 am when we skidded across the glare ice, Lance was kind enough to grab my leaders, parking us next to his squad. Mike McGowan sauntered up greeting us. I remarked that this was Deja Vu, after all it was just last year when the three of us were at this exact location towards the end of the '05 contest. I commented on how crazy that last section of trail was. Mike replied with a giggle that I could always scratch all I needed to do was sign a form that he had up in his van. Though I'm sure he was joking at the time in retrospect one has to wonder. In past meetings he often has mentioned he has no qualms with dismissing people from races. I wasn't trying to offend either he or the trailbreakers I was just remarking on the severity of the conditions my concerns more with the inexperienced rookie mushers who had probably never seen conditions like this before. Come to think of it neither had I.

to be continued.....

Monday, February 20, 2006

Yukon Quest Day 1: Strange Days are These

What a freak show! The funny thing is now that we're safe and back home with our beloved pooches there's a great sense of relief that we no longer have to be associated with an organization whose pathetic performance this year has ensured that the Yukon Quest's future looks to be in as much disarray as the trail was over the last week between Fairbanks and Dawson. We started with high hopes, survived numerous obstacles along the way culminating in our coerced withdrawal just a few days ago under suspect circumstances. While memories and thoughts are still fresh in the mind I've decided to set them down on paper, it's the least we can do for all of our kennel's supporters home in Chicago and Toronto, school kids across North America as well as my gunnas in the native Athabascan villages of Alaska's Interior. This year's Quest was one for the memory books as well as the last time Laughing Eyes Kennel will ever be associated with a race that I believe dishonors the integrity of a lifestyle it supposedly was trying to emulate. Though we weren't allowed to finish in a fair, ethical manner the dogs are happy with wagging tails, and that my friends is what Laughing Eyes Kennel's existence is all about - positive energy. Enjoy the show - my apologies that the final chapter was never allowed to be performed.

The Start: Fairbanks
Warm. That would be the catch word for this year's racing season. As the earth's temps have risen of late, prospects for decent mushing trails have all but disappeared. My heart goes out to fellows like Mike "Rattles" Kraner of Alaska and Doug and Mitch from the Canadian Rangers who along with dozens of others performed admirably placing down a base as best they could. Unfortunately we are but ants compared with Mother Nature's energy. This year's race would not be a celebration of our Northern Lifestyle but a war to survive an obstacle course from Hell. From the very start conditions were quite unusual. Normal temps. in Fairbanks should have been optimally around zero - this year it was 30 above. Thus the trail was hot, slow and slushy. Numerous friends had stopped by the truck to wish us well: Lloyd Charlie and Rocky Riley from Minto, Mrs. Brainerd, Ronny Evans and Alan J from Tanana as well as numerous others. We were to be the 11th squad heading out, there were 22 teams total.

Parked next to us was our good friend and neighbour Paul Geoffrion. Paul was competing too - he even had 4 of our dogs on his squad: Trixie, Uncus, Scotty and Brady. Paul happens to a dentist. I will always be in his debt for he is the man who last year discovered a cyst that was eating into my upper jaw - it might have been fatal if it had not been discovered. This kind frenchman has been a true blessing - now we know why my mouth has always been in such pain.

As usual there was a frenzied level of excitement as dozens of barking, screaming, pumped up dogs were bootied up and harnessed. Sebastian Schnuelle stopped by to wish us well as well as many past Quest competitors: Bill Cotter, Dan Kaduce, Bill Pinkham and others. Going into the race I couldn't understand why so few had signed up compared with the better known Iditarod whose field consisted of over 4 times as many teams. What was the difference in these races? A week later and now we understand. Organization, Understanding, Integrity.

Tears were in my eyes as the starter counted down the final seconds: 4, 3, 2, 1, Go....... Giving Tamra one last farewell kiss we flew on down the trail with little Colby and Mr. Flame up in lead. The crowd was packed tight along the trail too close - scaring the pooches as we sought to excape the madness and enjoy the relative calm of the woods.

to be continued....