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....


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