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.....


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