Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Travelling Back Thru Time - '09 School Tour

" I ain't no pretty boy and I'm certainly not a saint. Just a simple creation of the Universe that has never understood the word... can't." -HHN

(Under threat of having to sleep outdoors tonight I've decided to promptly finish a brief essay on my recent sojourn to the 'lower 48')
At heart I'm a soul man, constantly exploring not only the world around us up here in the north -but the world within. It was an honor to be invited to the sleddog symposium held in Helena,Montana this past september, from there we set off to Denver, St. Louis, Bellville, Il., Amarillo and Austin, Texas as well as Spokane, Washington. Before I set foot on any plane however, we had some unfinished business to take care of.

One can only imagine all of the teasing I have endured, and will continue to, over last season's YukonQuest experience. While many uninformed fans believe that it was race officials misguided allocation of the race rules that determined the winner of the Quest I believe that another major issue was improper trail marking. To prove my point my buddies Brent Sass and Mike Ellis, as well as myself and a few other mushing friends hiked up Eagle Summit to have a look at the trail markers which are mainly tripods for this section of steep trail. Upon reaching the area where Jon Little and myself were forced to wait out blizzard conditions not knowing where the exact route was for nearly 8 hours, my initial reaction was confirmed. 3 of the tripods had no reflective markers on them at all, 2 were lying on the ground, while the rest had minimal markers on them. After spending half a day fixing up the mess I'm glad to say that the mountain trail looks more like an airport runway now. (similar to the trail coming into Nome on the coast)
In hindsight I'm just glad that a veteran like myself was the one who had to endure this plight- better me than some bewildered rookie musher. Many folks would think that I'd be livid about everything but to be quite honest w/out Lance being there last year it would have been a hollow victory. I just hope the Quest is wise enough to learn from its mistakes- half of the mushers who finished in the top 10 have spoken with me over this past summer. They also admitted to running dogs on the road in Central, after all it was a better trail- why was I the only musher to be penalized? Guess you'll just have to ask the 'powers that be'. In life however one can choose to whine or hold their head above the fray, seeking to make this world a better place for those who travel on down the trail in future nights to come.

I've always been impressed w/ the contingent of people who travel up North every year from Montana to compete in the Iditarod. Having visited Great Falls, San Coulee and Helena now I can see why they perform so well on an annual basis. My 1st stop was quite enjoyable as I had the opportunity to spend a day w/ Chris Adkins and his legendary father Terry who was the Iditarod's 1st veternarian. Both men are signed up for this year's race though we spent most of the time listening to Dr. Adkins' stories of bygone races. The 1st year he was the only vet for all of the dogteams, instead of going over dogs in checkpoints he would have the pilot land the plane on a frozen river whenever suitable so that he could go over every team in the field- talk about a hero.

The symposium was an eye opener, lots of good info. as well as a chance to see old mushing friends- Jason Barron, Cindy Gallea, Rick Larson, Laura D. and others. I also had the chance to meet Billy Snodgrass who develops Long-Distance dogfood which we are now using. He's quite the character, cowboy hat w/ the toughness to match it. As far as 'energy' no one matches Jason B.- when he was up on stage it felt like a 'doggie religous revival convention'. I've done a few ID's w/ Jason so it was great to see him in his home element- few people can match his passion for the pooches. What made my trip to Big Sky Country truly exciting was the opportunity to see my old neighbor from Evanston, Il. who now lives in Bozeman. It had been 20 years since Paul Thielemann and I had seen each other. He now has two lovely kids and looks to be doing great. All of those years of letting him beat me on the b-ball court have seemed to have paid off!

Our next stop was in Denver, Colorado where I was to be staying with one of my oldest and best friends, Mr. Tim Rubel. We've known each other from grade school and have been involved in scouts forever. As kids I was the wolf wannabe where Tim always wanted to fly like an Eagle. 30 years later and I'm running around w/ a bunch of varmits in the woods every night as he jumps off of cliffs and glides around in the sky often. Our two talks in Colorado went fairly well though we got a bit lost finding Dr. Robert Forto's school. Known as the "Dog Doctor" Robert hopes to particpate in some racing up north one day soon. He was kind enough to ask us to speak at his child's school. His wife Michelle even ran back to their house so we could borrow a sled for the demonstration. Leads was where the other school was that we spoke at. It was a few hours drive through some rather foggy conditions but more than worth the effort. If there are people out there that don't know very much about dogmushing it's our duty to get out there and spread the word!
Our next stop was in St. Louis, my old buddy Mark Delaurent from U. of I. was kind enough to let us stay at his place in Brentwood. He has 2 beautiful old english sheep dogs that are truly gifts from above. Having spent most of my time w/ huskies the last decade it's always enjoyable to travel and see other breeds as well. Mokie and his roommate Tom were kind enough to chaperone me around while I was in town. Each talk in the area had a great audience w/ informed questions. I'm a true believer that students are a reflection of their teacher's attitudes and abilities to... TEACH. Out of all the schools, Amy Jo Mueller's was the best prepared, it was fun visiting and having a lovely lunch w/ her and the other teachers.

That weekend I was asked to be on a radio program that was held during a convention at the Arena where the St. Louis Blues Hockey team plays. It was amazing to see thousands of folks lined up to get autographs from various players, all of them wearing their blue jerseys. After the show I had to show off my jersey to my buddy Greg- it was red: Go Blackhawks! Greg showed me around the press box way up above in the arena and we shared a nice Italian meal as well. Unfortunately after the trip I found out that his station had been harassed by anti-mushing people. That's the thing about Positive energy- you have to expect to draw negative energy around you. It's just the way this world wanders I suppose- it's how you react to the bad vibes that determines who YOU are.

From St. Louis it was on to the Lone Star state. I had promised my Iditarider a few years ago, Ann Shofner, that I would come visit her school in Amarillo one day. The time had come for some southern fun. My PuertoRican mushing buddy from Skagway,Ak.- Jaime- was my navigator for this stretch of the trip. Both talks went well but the Shofner family's friendship is what we'll savor the most from this trip. Ann's classroom was adorned in mushing pics and her kids were quite knowledgable highschoolers. The 2nd talk that day was in a hispanic area where some of the kids were still learning to speak english. Needless to say I loved it! The look of awe on their faces was eye popping. Most of them had never even seen much snow before.

The next part of the journey was the most harrowing- a 7 hour drive thru a lightning storm. Jaime guided us to the south and around the storm. There were white flashes of light constantly for 4 hours straight though lil', if any, thunder. I was still white knuckled having never witnessed a Texas size storm before. Later the locals would tell me that the ' Big Ones' are in the spring. Having reached Austin we would be deluged with rain for the remainder of my time there. We had a nice dinner with a group of Iditarod Fanatics though my main focus while in town was to visit SRV. As far as 'soul', few have had it to the degree of blues man Stevie Ray Vaughn, his guitar riffs are immaculate. My friends and I were at his last show in Alpine, Wisconsin after which he tragically died. His talent remains unique forever more. There's a large statue of him that we visited along the river. (as well as numerous pubs and stores around Texas capital city) Hanging out in our host's backyard is what I'll remember most about the visit to Austin. It had a lovely garden but in the alleyway one could here hobos looking for shelter to rest away from the rain, up above in the sky helicopters w/ spotlights were on the prowl for criminals. Just a reminder of the times we live in.. Around every corner both beauty and danger are constantly lurking...

The last leg of our tour brought us to Spokane, Washington where I was to be speaking at my buddy Bruce Hagstrom's school. His daughter Holly had written a published novel w/ one of our old leaders, Sampson, as a main character. We were originally going to speak at their school in May but were unfortunately unable to attend. The Hagstroms are good friends, Bruce even ran in the cermonial Iditarod event a few years ago with me. They have 5 pooches, 4 of them are beautiful huskies. With Lola in lead we ran them down the street w/ scooters. Seeing them in action really made me homesick- the North is where my heart is after all.

We enjoyed a fun visit at his school though it took us a while to figure out how to run the video properly. That afternoon I ran off to the bank to finalize our purchase of the new training sight in Tok. We then climbed to the top of Mt. Spokane, where you can see nearly all the way across northen Idaho. That evening we met up with my buddy Greg who is a camerman that helps produce the Iditarod films each year. Beware mushers- when out on the trail learn to appreciate who you are talking to! Over dinner we sat listening in awe to Greg's mountaineering stories; having climbed Everest and most of the rest.

That's the beauty of this present day world of ours- it's amazing to connect with all sorts of characters- not only in Alaska but around the globe! After 3 weeks on the road I was completely exhausted- nice way to start training for this pivotal upcoming season, eh?
We already have numerous invitations for our next tour in May and this upcoming summer: from Fairbanks to New York to Cape Town, South Africa. Word spreads quickly when we seek to spread some positive news for others to reflect upon and learn from. For yours truly it's easy- it all starts with a smile!
Peace, Hugh and the Laughing Eyes Crew