Tuesday, May 09, 2006

2006 Kobuk 440

Never say Never. If you had told me 2 years ago that we’d be back up in Kotzebue racing I’d have said, “Sure I’ve always wanted to compete in the Arctic Circle Championships.” In fact that was what we were planning on competing in until I heard that Buddy Streeper, the World’s #1 Sprint Musher would be part of the field this season. Compared with the 440 the local sprint race was like a walk in the park- 3, 25-mile heats. However upon arrival in Kotz from Nome I followed my gut instinct figuring that hanging out with the likes of Iditarod champs Jeff King, Martin Buser and Mitch Seavey as well as seasoned vets John Baker, Ed Iten, Ken Anderson, Aaron Burmeister and my good bud Lance Mackey for a few days traversing across some very luxurious landscape was an experience I’d always regret not being a part of. Some folks compete for the $$$, others for the personal prestige, myself? Heck, I’m still hoping to become a Dogman one of these days… Nothing like learning from the BEST.

Having already participated in the 440 twice, I was familiar with the course’s layout as well as the rigorous run-rest schedule. In 2004 we brought our fairly fresh Quest squad finishing in 5th position, the following year our pooped out “Rookie of the Year’ Iditarod team didn’t fair as well- we came in 11th out of 11 teams—RED Lantern Baby!! The worst of it, besides the plus forty temps, the continuous open water and lack of any snow, was that the race paid out only 10 positions. Everyone made money except for us. As one matures in this mad world of mushing they realize that the financial part of racing should not be as important as their main priorities- the dog’s welfare as well as enjoying the moment. We are ALL so lucky to be apart of this very unique lifestyle in the 1st place.

Dempsey Woods and his family were really kind to us during our stay in Nome after the Iditarod was over. I had to laugh at the instant mass exodus once the finishing banquet had commenced. All the mushers were in such a hurry to get to Nome yet it seemed as if they were in a greater hurry to leave. Was ironic that the only veteran mushers besides myself to stick around for a few extra days were Tim Osmar and Lance- guess we just couldn’t soak up enough of that “Iditarod Spirit’. It was fun attending the finishers banquet for the back of the packers- though they were all individuals to the core, the group also shared a sense of camaraderie that was quite refreshing. Having finished 3rd in the Salmon Lake 150, the weekend following the Iditarod, we loaded up the pooches and headed north for Kotzebue.

The Jayne family was kind enough to care for our Iditarod dropped dogs after the race and took care of flying most of them from Fairbanks so I could use them for the Kobuk race. 17 pooches were in Kotz as I had originally planned on competing in the sprint race. Unfortunately only 12 dogs were allowed for the 440 so Mike Jayne agreed to use some of the extras on his team in the sprint race while the rest were part of my squad. It was an interesting smorgasbord of pooches ranging from Flame, Titan, Maestro, Mahoosic, and Omen who were completing in their 6th race this year compared with Sampson who hadn’t competed or even been ran much, since the Copper Basin back in January. There was a reason he would be a part of this team however, this was our “Big Man’s retirement run” – at over 70 pds and nearing 10 year’s of age it was Sampson’s last hurrah on the mushing merry-go-round. Originally acquired from Lance, he’s a Dean Osmar dawg that is old school to the core with a personality to match. Better stay aware around this King of the Kennel- or else you’ll end up with a nice tattoo like the one on my arm. (It wasn’t his fault, I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.) He had instinctively swung around and lashed out in defense after one of his compadres tried to bite his tail from behind while we were hooking a team up. As they say it’s a “Dog eat Dog world”. Nice tat though.

On with the entertainment; outdoor theatre at its finest. This year’s field consisted of 19 teams, as usual a mass start was set for the beginning. The 1st stretch of trail sent us up and over hills and straight east for the village of Noorvik. The terrain was fairly flat after the initial 12 miles as we crossed over Kobuk lake and then swung onto the river. Organizers had opted for using the “Butcher and Browning” shortcut portage that would knock off about 20 miles, thus Lance had dubbed it the ‘Kobuk 420’. The trail was re-routed to alleviate confusion as some teams had accidentally left the river too early in years past. One can imagine the view as nearly 20 squads were spaced out along the trail within a few miles of each other. With many top Iditarod teams in this year’s field there was a renewed sense of energy as well. Though fellas like Mitch Seavey and Martin Buser might be deemed ‘rookies’ for this race it was obvious to most of us who we were traveling with that these guys were some of the BEST there is. Before the race Lance and I were discussing over a few cocktails how we were just hoping for a top ten finish.

Lil’ Colby and Flame were up in lead to start, much as they have been all year. Amazing to think that Flame was running sprint races last year- this would be his fifth mid/long distance event this season. Along with Blondie, Darkie, Friday, Oscar, Dozer and Snow it has been a humbling experience to watch these “Tanana Dawgs” convert to the much longer distances in such a short period of time—keeping our prospects for the future brighter than ever. Temps hovered about ten above and though it was a tad sunny there was a light wind to alleviate the heat of the day; the race having begun at half past noon.

We traveled much of the 1st stretch with Mitch Seavey, just before pulling into Noorvik Gerry Sousa’s squad came flying up from behind to lead our group into the village. A small Eskimo town on the banks of a river, cheery faces and thunderous applause greeted each musher as they arrived. That is what makes the Kobuk race so unique- the incredible support for the race in all of the villages along the way. While apathy has been growing in some sectors of the North for dogmushing; in the Greatland’s Northwest, support was alive and vigorous. Local favorites John Baker, Louie and Darin Nelson as well as Ed Iten and Tollof Monson are some of the best around. Great folks to share trail time with and learn from as well. Mushers carry small pocketbooks in which they keep track of the mandatory 20 hours they are required to complete.

This early in the event most squads opt to snack the team and continue on to Selawik for a longer layover. The dogs appetites satiated we signed out and continued on our way. In early April there are but a few hours of complete darkness this far North, some 130 miles above the Arctic Circle. The sun’s intensity requires a nice pair of sunglasses or goggles in order to protect one’s eyesight. Even at six in the evening the ray’s glaring off the surrounding snow was quite brilliant. Hills await the teams as they set off to the southeast towards Selawik. This next section we were once again traveling with Gerry Sousa. Though not as well known this Iditarider is one of the best around having finished 16th a few years back. His squad looked powerful as we slugged up the hills in their wake. The trail was becoming softer and slushier the closer to town we got. Finally as the sun waned to the west, a late evening darkness descended upon us as we pulled in that evening. Lance was there with a smile on his face to greet us, keeping an eye on the four dogs in our squad that were once his, especially Sampson. A few years ago I had asked Lance if he had any bigger pooches ‘with personality’ for sale. Little did I realize at the time that he was giving us one of his best- Sampson is a behemoth not only in stature but his heart as well. Earlier in the week we had covered a couple of thirty mile training runs. How long Sampson could hold up in such a demanding race with so much time off was a continual enigma. Keeping the team at his pace was our main objective. One aspect of mushing that takes awhile for most long-distance mushers to figure out- especially yours truly- is that when a team is flying is when you slow them down. John Baker had even joked at the banquet about how ‘slow’ his team was - they finished in 5th place- figure that one out folks. A continuous consistent energy is the key to success (from what I’ve heard) in these long- distance marathons. Allowing one’s team to go ‘all-out’ is only inviting injury and fatigue upon oneself. Peak your squad too soon and it will be a slower trip to the finish line in the end. That’s what’s great about village races like the Kobuk- a chance to see how the top mushers conduct their affairs without being distracted by all of the media circus that typically follow the major events. Mushers seem to let down their guard a bit and are more open to sharing stories with one another this late in the year. Too bad mushing couldn’t always be this way, a communal event as we all show reverence for this unique lifestyle.

Besides selling us a few dogs Lance also gave me one of his Iditarod trading cards. This was 2 years ago. On the card the title read, “Alaska’s Rising Star” which at the time I thought was a bit cocky since he had yet to even win a major event. He’s a Mackey though and this manchild can most definitely ‘Walk the Talk’. Nobody can match his energy for talkin’ Dawgs or for racing them either. Since we’ve met his pooches have won the Quest twice, the Copper Basin as well as numerous top ten finishes in other events. They are the hottest team in the world. Lance Mackey has quickly gone from a race champion to ‘mushing phemomena’. Fortunately I’ve been able to witness much of their success firsthand. What’s the key? It’s all about LOVE and Desire. Just before we met Lance had recovered from Cancer—this man respects life like few others I’ve ever come across. He always proclaims, "they’ll be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.” His dogs match his spirit- that’s why they’re some of the best around. There are a plethora of great Dawgs in the north, nowadays it’s all about how one places the pieces of the puzzle together. “Races are won in September and October Hugh- way before the competitions have even begun…” Needless to say Lance had pulled into Selawik 20 minutes before another team arrived.

The frontrunners leaving were Jeff King, Ed Iten and the other Iditarod ‘Heavyweights’. These folks were sticking to their schedules, resting just over 4 hours, hoping to rest more in Ambler. Before the race had even started I decided to focus more on ‘happy faces’ than how quickly we were going places. Better to try doing ‘your best’ than ‘failing miserably’ seeking to keep up with all the rest. Dogmushing, much like any of life’s pursuits, isn’t just about one race – it’s about the BIG Picture- we’ll let history be our judge. Nearly six hours later, at 2:30 that morning we took off across the open windswept flats for Ambler. The 440 consists of 4 major runs - this one coming in at just over ninety miles. It's a lot easier running pooches on a flat surface compared with hilly terrains, longer distances may be covered as well. The wind was picking up that morning as we were once again following behind Gerry’s squad with Tollof and Mitch in our rearview mirrors. Having worked for Ed Iten, Tollof knows this area quite well though I’m sure he was a bit surprised as dozens of reindeer flew across the trail in front of his squad. It was a sight to behold. This was some twenty miles from Ambler, his team having passed by us a few miles earlier. National Geographic eat your hearts out - the only thing cooler than looking at a picture is… living inside of one. Through the years I’ve witnessed all sorts of bizarre wildlife happenings on our journeys in the northland yet now I realized why Santa chose Reindeer as his mode for hauling supplies - those things were flying! (It’s interesting to note however that within seconds the whole herd stopped to graze, their eyes never leaving us ‘slow-pokes’ with our dinky dogpower).

All of the checkpoints are quite hospitable though most of our rest time is spent in Ambler due to its strategic location. From this point mushers head due east to the villages of Shungnak and Kobuk returning on the same route back to Ambler. With less rest time the lead pack was some twenty-five miles ahead of us by now thus there would be much criss-crossing on this section. It’s a relatively flat 26 miles to Shungnak, then 11 to Kobuk before turning back around. We came across Lance a few miles outside of Shungnak, his expertly trained leaders literally jumped over mine avoiding a collision. “You’ve got it in the bag!” I yelled out over the howling wind to my Coldfoot Brother. “I’m not so sure of that”, he replied, glancing back at the team flying up from behind. It was Jeff King, followed a few minutes later by Martin Buser, Ed Iten and Paul Gebhardt. We all exchanged high-fives. Though quite windy with major drifts along the trail; all of the participants seemed to be having a wonderful time. This race truly is the Mardi Gras of the Northwest - hundreds of folks awaiting your arrival, kids requesting an autograph or two. Each musher was required to draw a name from a can in each village as well. The winner would receive an Easter basket the following week.

At the halfway mark of the race we were still in the middle of the pack, Aaron Burmeister, Gerry Sousa and John Baker were ahead with Mitch, Tollof and Pete Jayne just behind us. Pete is Mike’s brother, this being his 1st major long-distance race I was quite impressed with his performance. He had one major advantage over most - his team knew the trail and they had just won the ‘rookie of the year’ award with his brother at the helm in the Iditarod. Their father Eric is the “Bush Vet’ who has been helping care for our dogs for some ten years now. Having also spent 2 years residing in Coldfoot, it was great to see these kind folks performing so well over the last few years.

Just before our return through Shungnak a headlamp flew up from behind and went on by. “Hey Hugh.” It was Mr. Seavey who had been taking it relatively easy but looked as if he was ready to kick it up a notch. Ten minutes later another team flew up from behind calling for “Trail”. Man, I was thinking, we sure must be slowing down a lot. “Sorry about that.” The musher replied. Glancing over I did a double take- it was Mitch again. This former Iditarod champ had just gotten lost. It happens to the best of us, typically not when we’re out in the middle of nowhere but around villages or cities where the abundance of trails can be a maze to figure out. We followed Mitch through Shungnak having signed out in our logbooks. The folks were as cheerful as ever, the native ladies wearing beautifully adorned Anoraks, a jacket designed for wind protection as well as elegance. Two years ago there was NO snow on this section of trail so it was enjoyable to be heading back to the comforts of Ambler with the wind at your back. Unfortunately the trail literally was drifted over every few feet but with Sampson up in lead we plowed right through. At this latitude there are few trees, nor any serious brush for that matter thus one’s view is endless with only the mountains of the Brooks Range to the North giving any sense of proportion. Ambler’s lights could be seen from nearly 30 miles away though it would be hours until our arrival.

As the race wore on I opted to snack the pooches every few hours typically with salmon or white fish in the warmer temps. We arrived back in Ambler early that morning, having gone over feet, massaged and fed the pooches, I enjoyed some spaghetti and conversation with Lance, Martin, Mitch, John and Myron Angstrom whose son Andy was competing as well. Though Jeff had returned 1st Lance was technically in the lead having rested his team more. It’s interesting to note how important rest is to a team’s overall success. Makes one wonder if more rest was required in races wouldn’t there be larger squads finishing. Of the dogs I had dropped so far, Piccalo and Dozer, there were no major injuries, just lack of recovery time. In any other competition they probably still would have been running. However a team is only as fast as its slowest dog thus necessitating their removal in order to maintain our overall pace. Having rested 6 hours we left Ambler for our next destination: the village of Kiana, nearly 100 miles to the west. A series of mellow hills awaits the musher; with Titan and Nova leading the way we set off in pursuit of Aaron and Gerry who left nearly an hour before us.

Obviously one would prefer to not be running in the ‘heat’ of the day but fortunately for everyone it was windy and cloudy which helped to aid us. Halfway between the two villages there is a shelter cabin, unfortunately the trail disappeared just a few miles from it. For twenty minutes I had to walk the team from marker to marker, unlike the Iditarod which uses lathe markers, the trail had reflectors hanging from the occasional tree or scrub brush. (The trail actually would have been easier to follow in the dark as the reflectors would have appeared in the musher’s headlamp beam easier.) The constant wind dissipated most of the trail hence we were quite fortunate when Phil Meyer, the race’s veterinarian, along with the officials came flying by on their snow machines. The Kobuk is a low budget affair necessitating the volunteers to get as much of a workout as the participants by using snow machines instead of airplanes. We caught up to everyone at the shelter cabin where they were taking a lunch break. John Baker’s sister, Marci, was one of the officials. She offered me some caribou jerky that was incredible; I was tempted to enjoy some coffee with them but decided to press on. After all Gerry and Aaron were now within sight- less than a mile ahead of us.

Out of all the runs in the 440, the trip to Kiana is the most difficult, not for the hills coming out of Ambler but the wicked winds just before entering this remote Eskimo village. We’re talking vicious- Marci’s face would be ripped apart from them- my chin as well. One had better have a decent hood over their head in this neck of the woods. Unfortunately the “Big Man” was running out of energy at this point. I realized that this would probably happen that’s why I had opted to use my larger five and a half foot toboggan sled compared with the tiny mid-distance sleds the rest of the competition seemed to be using. We’d be hauling this 70 pd. beast the remaining 15 miles into Kiana, unfortunately for us they were the most demanding we’d see all weekend. The drifts were enormous, as I literally, though on a flat river surface, had to push with all of my might to get the sled thru them. The team was bogging down under these harrowing conditions. The leaders glancing back inquiring, “Are we there yet?” In retrospect it would have been nice to have some pooches that had been over the trail before but unfortunately all my older gals are retired now- miss you June-Mari, Shyela and Gracie! Sampson did make it over 300 miles, which I though was quite impressive.

We finally pulled into town at 9 that evening and there were two snowmachines awaiting Tollof and our team’s arrival. In every village machines were leading teams in and out which made it a lot easier on the mushers and more importantly, less confusing to the Dawgs. This late into the game with only 70 some odd miles to the finish line everyone was keeping a sharp eye on each other making sure that no one ‘snuck off’. Our group consisted of Aaron, Gerry, Tollof, Ken Anderson, and myself. Ken’s famous for being a slow starter who comes on strong at the finish. This mushing method isn’t going to win many races but one tends to be ‘in the mix’ if they can have their team peaking at the right time which Ken is great at doing. Unfortunately his squad was recovering from a virus, this year’s race had been quite demanding for Ken. Gerry and I had decided to make a deal with Aaron agreeing that we all leave at 3:30 that morning. Having grown up in Nome we let Aaron be the decision maker- we figured he’d know what was best for the dogs. In dog mushing competitions ‘agreement’ is a very loosely followed term however, especially with only a few miles left and other mushers breathing down your back. I awoke just after 1:00 that morning asking those few volunteers who were still awake if any teams had left recently. “Yes”, they replied, Aaron took off about ten minutes ago.” (A few days later at the banquet he told me that he couldn’t rouse me from my slumber - which is probably true.) Anyhow, upon hearing the news I instantly slammed my coffee threw a quick fish snack to the dogs, threw everything quickly into the sled, booties once again on paws and, voila, twenty minutes later we were heading home to Kotzebue- in search of a cerveza and a hot shower.

Looking back a few miles out of town I noticed a headlamp just behind us- had to be Gerry or Ken I thought to myself. The winds were whipping up a ground storm as we skidded across the icy river surface some twenty miles towards Noorvik. Unfortunately an hour out my headlamp went dead. My replacement wasn’t working either but Gerry came up and was gracious enough to let me have an extra one of his. That situation rectified, we followed his team in the early morning darkness into the sleepy village of Noorvik. Colby and Titan were now at the helm as we pulled into town. Unfortunately my drop bag had disappeared with all of our trail snacks yet the officials allowed us to grab some from Paul Gebhardt’s leftovers now that he had already passed through. They also notified us that Lance had already finished with Ed Iten and Jeff King at his heels some 20 minutes back. Having snacked the pooches we followed a snow machine back onto the river, Gerry’s squad going by us a few minutes later.

There was now only 50 miles left to the finish line but one can imagine having traveled over 350 miles in just a few days time all of the team’s energy levels were starting to lag. We were to be tested by Mother Nature as well. There are a series of ponds and small lakes through the shortcut portage that were drifted over, it being nearly impossible to find any sign of trail. The winds were whipping into us from the side causing the team to continually veer off into the surrounding bushes. Most of the trail markers were not to be seen having been blown over or mysteriously disappearing somehow. In our groggy state I was starting to wonder how we were going to even FIND the finish line. An hour out I noticed a headlamp coming from behind, I stopped the team to snack figuring it would be a lot easier traveling together with another squad. Ken Anderson arrived some ten minutes later, he was having his problems as well. Though still with a fairly large team of ten dogs, they had been sick and were slowly recovering. We continued on down the trail following his team. The bitter winds had left most of my pooches disheartened as we pressed on. I had to laugh though because we still had lots of energy - just no sense of direction. Where's a good leader when you need one- Junie?

Approaching Kobuk Lake, Ken yelled across to me notifying us that the trail veered off of the river at this point. I was starting to realize that without his assistance we would have been in deep trouble, his aid was a godsend. A few hours later the hills gradually appeared in front of us - there was a thick fog that left one in a world of white no matter what direction they looked.

The nice thing about the remaining 12 miles into Kotzebue was experience. Though it was quite a challenge, especially at the end of a grueling 3-day race, we had already gone over these very hills twice during our practice runs earlier in the week. We were still about a quarter mile behind Ken's squad when I decided to switch Flame with Colby- he was now up in lead next to Titan. While doing this a snow machine suddenly flew by-- what happened next still has me smiling! The team shot off as if we were at the starting line, within minutes I could tell that we were easily gaining on Ken's squad. He glanced back a bit later, scratching his head trying to figure out how to pick up his team's pace. I had already decided in the back of my mind that we weren’t going to pass his squad just because they deserved to beat us. Most folks won’t understand this type of logic but without Mr. Anderson's kind help a few hours earlier we probably wouldn’t have even been this close to town yet. It's doubtful that we'd have caught his team anyways- Ken's as competitive as they come, in fact I'm 0 for Anderson - as his dogs have 'had our #' for years now. This didn’t mean that we weren’t going to have some fun however- "C'mon you guys, Let's Go- C'MON!! Encouraging the Dawgs on we were literally flying up those hills, by now Ken was running up the steeper terrain carrying his sled- a one-time wrestler, this guy's a big dude who probably could have played pro ball. To see him working his tail off, I couldn’t help but start to laugh. He was definitely earning that extra $200 for coming in 10th position. I was also laughing because I was starting to get rather dehydrated as the day's heat arose. Flame was setting a wicked pace however as we rolled into town. At the same time, around noon, the sprint race was beginning thus we had to navigate thru a throng of fresh teams squawking away- one can only imagine what was on the pooches minds viewing all of this bedlam. Coming into the finishing chute I couldn’t have been more elated. Anyone who truly knows me realizes that $ and what place I finish are really not what's foremost on my mind. (Unless there's a chance at top 3 I guess :) ) Learning to become a better Dogmusher, a more complete person is what my daily struggles center on. I'm at war with myself. As I said before, we'll let history be our judge. This past season has been the most challenging and demanding, however we ended it on a very happy note, which bodes well for the future. Someone recently asked me, "So Hugh do you have dogs so that you can race or do you race so that you can have dogs?" Interesting question, eh? It's a no brainer to me- without their LOVE as well as that of my sweetie Tamra there would be no "Laughing Eyes". For this dream is not just about a boy and his dogs, it's about LIVING life to its fullest, which I hope you are all seeking to do as well. May our paths cross some day soon. Until then...
Enjoy the View, Hugh Tamra and The Laughing Eyes Kennel Crew


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