Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Playing with Da BIG Dawgs (part II)

"Can you see what this life can be...?"

Dawson is my favorite city in the North; it's a magical place-haunting yet enticing. Quest mushers are required to stay there for 36 hours as handlers tend to the pooches while they are resting. Each musher is given a space in the campground across the river for their dogs to receive some rest and TLC. Yuka Honda, a Quest musher not racing this year volunteered to help Tamra out, she was also our security guard. Yuka's a great gal who we hope makes it to the finish line one day soon! The team is fed every 4-6 hours, massaged and taken for walks during this time period. Tamra's been doing this for several years now and has a great eye for injuries that even the veterinarians might have missed. Unfortunately Tam noticed that one of our main leaders Wonka had a bump on his left front leg, we kept our fingers crossed that the swelling might go down, also using massage and a wrist wrap to help the situation. After consulting with Dr. Renee we thought it best to leave Mr. Wonka behind, they'll be other races for him to enjoy. Our pooped out puppy Jester was rejuvenated thus we decided to keep him in the team.

The amazing aspect of this year's squad was the age- our oldest was five (Annie, Walter and Watson) with the average being around 3. We had 3 two year olds, along with Jester were his brothers Amigo and George. Famed Iditarod musher and friend Paul Gebhardt is always telling me how he loves racing 2 year olds, now I could see why- their enthusiasm and energy! Once times were readjusted we would be leaving in 2nd, a few hours after Hans, with Lance twenty minutes behind us. As far as I was concerned we were all tied for the lead. Before leaving I chatted briefly with Josh Cadzow. I was happy to see that though low on dogs he was excited- that energy would enable him to put on quite a show the second half of the race. Departing the following morning I was listening to some MJ on the ipod as we left Dawson headed for the Klondike Gold fields, " Billie Jean is not my lover, she's just a girl who..."

It was gonna be a long day at the office as our destination, Scroggie Creek was 1oo miles away. 1st things 1st however- King Solomon's Dome, at over 3,600 ft. is the highest point of the trail with amazing views that stretch for dozens of miles in any direction. The team was moving well as we ascended up the winding road. Numerous film crew folks were taping us, a camera was once again placed on the sled too. An hour from town one passes by Gold Dredge #4 which is a massive ship sized relic from a bygone era. In the dark of the night it sends shivers down my back though this time around I was just amazed by what a feat of engineering it is. All went well as we began our gradual descent to the mining area on Solomon's southeastern side. The team was a splendid, cohesive 11 dog unit now with Annie and Tyler still leading the way. Three hours out I stopped to snack the team and replace some booties, realizing it was a matter of miles before Mr. Mackey would be joining up with us.

The trail to Indian river is a rather flat and fast mining road that thankfully was semi-shady considering it was the heat of the day. A few hours later we reached a cluster of homes alongside a bluff- Indian river. I once again stopped the team for a quick fish snack. Suddenly Watson began to growl and howl. Looking back Lance's pink paws came into view. All his pooches were wearing pink booties this year, getting a lil' light in your loafers there buddy? He explained that they had been donated to him and were made with good material. Having just snacked his squad as well he passed on by as we ascended Eureka Mtn., though not too difficult a climb we took our time in the warm afternoon sun. Minutes later a snowmachine appeared from behind- it was 'Haywire Harry'- a local photographer who went on by. Unfortunately his machine broke down shortly thereafter and he would be stranded for a few days. Hence the nickname.

A dogteam's speed tends to diminish on these longer runs yet as the sun set ever so slowly our pace picked up a tad. Lance had to bag a dog that was overheating as we passed by him in the black hills. The view from up above here is gorgeous, especially the reds, purples and pinks as the sun sets to the west. Leaving the mining area we were back in the tree lined trail, nearing Scroggie creek for a well deserved rest. Early that evening we pulled into the newly rebuilt spot that we were eager to check out. William Kleedehn and co. had recently built a plywood cabin for mushers to use. It definately lived up to the hype though we think he intentionally made the door squeaky so people could not sneak out on other mushers. Hans was leisurely resting upon our arrival. The temperature was just below zero which was rather balmy for this section of trail. Jester was to be dropped here, it was obvious that the longer runs were too much for him to handle. We'd save him for the Iditarod trail which is typically easier on a dog`s body.

In fact most of the team will be performing in both 1,ooo mile events. It might be difficult for cityfolk to understand but these animals, beautiful northern beasts of nature actually get stronger as they go- their bodies become 'hardened in'. Other mushers are always amazed how I rarely look tired or discombobulated despite days with lil`sleep on the trail. What they fail to realize is that since the year 2000 I will have now competed in 17 thousand milers, including both major races back to back the last 6 years in a row. While some are always focused on what place they finish personally it`s all about retaining the Passion within us! Lance and I had numerous discussions on this subject. The internet has been great for expanding coverage of our sport but what many fans fail to realize is: We`re not competing to impress You or `win one for the gipper`- for many of us this is a sacred event in which we are trying to evolve into better dogmen, true sons of the North. Nowadays so many people are trying to latch on to mushing `celebrities`in order to use them for their own selfish gain. As mushers we need to realize this, concentrate on what is most important- the Dawgs- and be satisfied with whatever place we finish, as long as they are happy and healthy. Lance commented how insulted he was by people telling him how sorry they were for his not `winning`a race. Just because you don`t come in 1st in an event does not mean you have not had a good run. If there's any musher out there who only cares about winning I suggest they sell their dogs and get some therapy.

After enjoying some hot dogs and soup we waited for Hans to leave, bootying up an hour after his departure. All of us were experienced enough on the trail not too waste much time playing head games with each other. In this year's contest may the best team win! Next place to rest would be Pelly Crossing another 1oo miler that by now the dogs were used to running. The trail to SteppingStone is quite hilly thus we would be setting no speed records, a nice consistent pace is what we were seeking. Fortunately this run would be done in the dark, heat would not be an issue. Descending down towards the river I noticed that Lance was pumping his fist in the air. We had caught up to Hans- he looked back at us bewildered at our arrival. As he bedded his team down in SteppingStone we continued on to Pelly. Hans, like all mushers, was enduring a tough run, having had to carry a dog in the sled. He's one of the best in the world however, this was just a glitch for him to overcome.

An hour later as we travelled on the Pelly river I looked up from staring at my dogs to see Lance chasing after his dogteam. With one last leap he jumped forward and lurched onto his sled's handlebar. Glancing back at me with a big grin on his face I couldn't help but start laughing- what's the deal with people leading races and losing their dogteams? I would later find out that his seat had busted, I couldn't believe how fast he ran to catch his squad, talk about an adrenaline rush! Nearing Pelly early that afternoon media were once again on the trail filming us. The sun was heating up as our pace diminished, just outside of town Lance whistled up his squad as they left us in their wake. He obviously had more power to play with. We were greeted by friends and race fans upon our arrival. The pooches were really in a nice groove now with healthy appetites as they chowed down on some beef chunks and chicken breasts.

During our break I was heartened to learn that only 1 team of the entire field had scratched from the Quest- this was an amazing year considering normally only half the teams finish this grueling event. Having finished a delectable meal of spaghetti the excitement suddenly peaked amongst the assembled fans as Hans arrived- the race was on. The temps. were in the 30's that afternoon so we decided to wait til early evening before departing. Heading out of Pelly one must ascend a rather steep hill before crossing over several lakes that lead to Minto and McCabe Creek. McCabe's checkpoint had burnt down last year and is now under construction. Our run time was just over a few hours as we arrived there being greeted by Jari Kruse. Lance instructed me to guard the teams while he ran into her parent's house to grab some coffee and cinnabuns. Unfortunately as we left McCabe jumble ice awaited us- it was a bit difficult drinking coffee while navigating these bouncy sections.

Carmacks was our next destination, some 40 odd miles away. This section can leave you quite disorientated with twisty up and down narrow roads to follow. Thankfully the final few miles leading into this native village are downhill as both man and dogs were once again in need of some rest. Lance, Hans and our team were blowing the roof off of the record book. Last year's pace felt like a crawl compared with this contest's accelerated environment. Fog greeted us as we came into the checkpoint, coming up to the parking area the team accidentally went on to the road. Fearing a time penalty I quickly ran up to the leaders and pulled them back over to the trail. "You need not have worried Hugh", the officials called out once we arrived. Now ya tell me.
Twenty minutes later Hans arrived. "Race is on.", Lance chimed in. I grabbed some eggs and ham before enjoying a quick rest. We realized that Hans had the best team among us, our sole choice was to see if their speed would diminish if they had a bit less rest than ours.

Twenty minutes outside of Carmacks I had my answer as we let Hans team pass by. Before leaving I had mentioned to the japanese film crew not to be disappointed if we finished 3rd, I'd give it our best shot but in dogmushing it tends to be rather obvious by the last stages of a long-distance race who has the more powerful squad. Even though Lance had a 15 minute advantage on Hans I was relatively confident that he too would be passed somewhere during the 75 mile run to Braeburn. There was a mandatory 8 hour layover there thus if any team had more than a 20 minute advantage on their nearest competitor the odds were heavily with them to cross the finish line 1st. It feels more like a 100 mile run as numerous lakes and portages cover this section of Quest trail. Coghlan lake offers the most panoramic views with massive pingos jutting out from islands in its center. Though a bit disappointed that we could not keep up with the other outstanding squads I still reveled in the moment, thanking the pooches for giving such a wonderful effort. Ya know folks, often out on the trail tears are streaming down my cheeks- even to this day after tens of thousands of miles traveled- joyously celebrating the fact that a simple cityboy from Chicago is so fortunate to have witnessed all that these eyes have seen.

Nearing Braeburn it was obvious despite all of my efforts at massaging Watson that his massive chest muscles were impeding him from running properly. I decided this would be the 1st time he would not be finishing a 1,000 miler. Considering this was his 6th major race in 5 years it was an emotional experience letting my lil' buddy know that we'd be leaving him behind. Steve Watson is the owner of Breaburn and a good friend. His massive meals along with a cold Kokanee really hit the spot. The weather was getting quite warm as we neared the finish line in Whitehorse. Fortunately our departure was set for 3am when the temps. would be a bit cooler. Each year we do some training runs on this last section of trail thus the dogs attitude picked up knowing they were heading down the homestretch. By this point Hans was an hour ahead of us and 30 minutes in front of Lance. The famed Austrian musher was in control now as he would be tied with Lance as the only 2 people to win the Quest race 4 times each. I had wishful thoughts of catching Mr. Mackey but realistically it was a longshot.

I made a musher's mistake by bringing the team up too early to the departure chute, they became bored waiting for the clock to tick down. I replaced Tyler in lead with Walter who pulled us down the trail and on our way towards home. Thankfully it was quite windy that morning much like air conditioning for the pooches. Nearing the Takhini river, just a few hours from the finish line we met up with an old friend Colin Morrison who was checking out teams as they passed by the Flat Creek parking lot. Unfortunately this was the spot where we start most of our training runs- they looked at Colin's car wondering if it was a miniature dogtruck. Stopping them for a fish snack, Colin offered me some Kiwi mentioning that Lance was 40 minutes ahead. By now the temps. were in the 30's, considering the nearest competitor behind us was over half a day back I decided to take our time and enjoy the last remaining hours of this historic race.

Passing by the Takhini river bridge I noticed a bearded fella awaiting our arrival, "I'm so proud of you Hugh." It was retired legendary Quest musher Frank Turner, his thoughts were truly heartwarming. Rounding the river's bend I noticed Keizo Funatsu and the japanese crew were there to film the final sequence. We were now all friends after what we had shared together the previous weeks. Pulling into Whitehorse, Annie and Walter led the way, followed by Amigo and George, Delilah and Tyler and finally Nathan and Zodiac. It was easily the smoothest run I have ever had in any race let alone the Quest- having finished a 1,000 miles in just over 9 days it felt like the event had just begun yesterday. As I explained to the gathered crowd after checking in and feeding the Dawgs. "No matter how many Iditarod races and other competitions I compete in, no matter how successful we might be- at Heart - I'll always be a YukonQuest dogmusher."
And that's all he wrote...



At 9:54 AM , Blogger Rob Fradette said...

Very inspiring Hugh. Many words and paragraphs that will forever be in my head as my mushing life begins.

Thanks, see you in Anchorage.

At 6:26 PM , Blogger Libby the Lab said...

Great writing. I loved the part where you remind us all that follow via the internet that it truly is about the dogs and not all about winning. Looking forward to following you in The Iditarod and hoping for no frostbite this year!!!

At 5:41 AM , Blogger TomInStL said...

Nice writing! I am a new follower, and I want you to win win win....but there can be no "win" unless the spirit of the race and the dogs is honored. I just know you keep that requirement sacred so I can concentrate on simply cheering for the win! Great Race, and I am looking forward to the 2010 Iditarod.

At 3:36 PM , Blogger Mirco said...

Thank you so much for your insights! It's just soo cool to see the whole race from a mushers point of view! Thank you :)


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