Friday, February 19, 2010

Playing with Da BIG Dawgs

" One's life is judged not only on what they achieve but on what they have overcome..."

1st day was a bit ruff on the Quest trail this year. The previous evening we were watching Alaska's famous balladeer Hobo Jim at my local watering hole, Ivory Jack's, in Goldstream Valley. Towards the end of his gig Hobo shouted out at the audience, "Are there any YukonQuest mushers here?" Zack Steer had just left so everyone pointed in my direction. "You're my hero- now get the heck out of here!" I shouted back that you're my hero as well Hobo- we quickly grabbed our jackets and headed for the door. The Cadzows were kind enough to let us stay in their guest cabin. Josh was once again signed up, we were all hoping he'd make it to the finish line this time around.

The following morning the Japanese film crew that was doing a story on us and Josh arrived early to film us preparing for the race. Compared with 2 years ago the Quest start was rather balmy, in '08 the temp. was 50 below- one could barely even see their dog team, this time around it was in the teens, purrrfect dog weather. Pat Barrett, one of our main sponsors, flew in from Philly to catch a ride to the starting line as well as some pics with the team. Her cheery demeanor is always wonderful to have around the pooches. For any musher, once the race begins the worst part has already passed- the waiting! Thousands of folks lined the chute as Watson and Wonka led us on our merry way. Folks along the route handed out hot dogs, cookies, cokes and even an Alaskan Amber beer! Let the 'suffering' continue...

This being our 10th anniversary run of the Quest I could not help but reminisce about all I've witnessed throughout the years- the good, the bad and the ugly. Nowadays I call the trail my 'office'- imagine knowing nearly every nook and cranny of a 1,000 mile rollercoaster ride, experience is a powerful entity in this world of ours. As in past years I had decided to avoid the throngs of other teams by doing a longer run. There were a couple stretches of nasty, icy overflow that I wanted to pass over as well, it made sense to push the team a bit further so that they would be less energetic and thus easier to control in these dicey situations. All went well as we pulled over to rest with Dave Dalton, Brent Sass and my buddy Mike Ellis. Once our teams had been fed and cared for we enjoyed some campfire chat. Though competitors, we are also comrades who all realize how lucky we are to enjoy such a beautiful and adventurous lifestyle.

A few hours went by before teams came whizzing past, it's always fun to 'size up' the competition, even though it's the middle of the night and pitch black out. Their goes Gerry W. looking good, Hans is as powerful as ever, too funny Lance is just a minute behind him- already playing head games. As Brent's team departed I bootied up the kids for our next leg of the journey- Mile 101 checkpoint. At over 3,500 ft. Mt. Rosebud would be the big test for this section of trail. Before ascending her steep slopes we had some nasty twisty trail to cover. At one point we missed a turn and dropped some fifty feet over a riverbank and on to the ice below. Fortunately Watson turned us around and back on to the main trail as I apologised to Abbie West who we were travelling with at the time. Approaching Rosebud I noticed a sled up ahead, we were gaining on Brent. Being much younger than myself I decided to let this young buck from Minnesota be our sherpa guide up and over the mountain. This year I had decided to use a sit down sled- yes I was kicking up the steepest section of the Quest trail while sitting on my bum- I know-lazy! Thanks Brent, owe you one Brotha.

The trail was in decent shape as we pulled in to 101 for our mandatory veterinary check. The pooches did well, were eating and now resting as I sauntered off for an hour of shuteye. Lance Mackey was already in the cabin crashed out. I call Lance my 'soul brother'- we've witnessed alot together over these past 5 or 6 years. However before the race I repeatedly told Tamra that I needed to stay out of his sphere of influence, one loses focus when travelling with such a legendary figure. Concentrate on the dogs and not other mushers, realize how lucky you are to be you. Well, so much for that plan- from here on out we'd be travelling together for most of the race. Karma- it is what it is.

Hans Oettli, the Race Marshall had given us permission to place a camera on the sled to film the notorious descent down Eagle Summit. This year the conditions were ideal as we flew up and over without any problems. Unfortunately the camera was knocked out on the bumpy ride, nonetheless I was hootin' and hollering all the way to Central- what a rush of enjoyment! 20 miles from town we cross over the steese hwy., I noticed that Lance's Mrs., Tonya and handler Braxton were hanging out in a truck awaiting his arrival. Waving to them, we continued on thru the next portion of trail known as the Schandelmier gauntlet. John is an old school musher who has won the race twice and is now the head trail person on the Alaska side. Each year he makes a point of reminding mushers they are on the Quest trail - the next section had numerous twists and turns over small uprooted trees. Nothing too major but a reminder of how lucky we are to have such great trail for most of the way.

Pulling in to Central I was a bit apprehensive considering a 2 hour penalty for yours truly gave the race away to someone else last year. During that contest I had gone down the road while giving an interview to a german film crew, the head fella told the reporters assembled that I was a 'cheater'. One must ask the question however- who is the cheater? The person who is given a penalty that decides the race or someone else who might have performed the very same action, though for not as far, yet hidden their agenda and successfully used this to their advantage? (Despite the fact that they left a fellow musher hangin' in the wind by their covert actions and thus dishonored the integrity of the race.) Race fans might tease me about staying off the road but we in the 'biz' know what really went down and which musher should be haunted by what they have perpetuated. This time around I could only laugh as I noticed that all of the teams in front of us went straight down the street despite being told before the race of the trail that ran in the gully along side it- it was completely unsafe to stop the team on the paved area, oh well. Pulling into the checkpoint I couldn't resist humming a lil' Willie Nelson tune- "On the road again..."- a few folks in the crowd began giggling...

The beauty of this year`s race was its mellow atmosphere, after last season`s embarassing finish everyone wanted the world to once again see what the YukonQuest truly is all about. Hans and his crew allowed the media a bit more access to the mushers, handlers were not being harassed, etc.. Everyone was having fun and smiling- it truly is a celebration of our unique northern lifestyle. It being the heat of the day I decided to stay for a burger, the bar was packed as the super bowl began. In sauntered this wild woman from down south, Kathy Chapoton is Martin Buser's wife and man was she pumped up about her Saints. She knew that I am hoping to do some school presentations there one day soon and was kind enough to give me a New Orleans souvenir to carry with for good luck. There was some bad news however as Shifter. a 65 pd. blonde pooch had to be dropped. The speed of the smaller, quicker dogs had worn him out.

The temps. in the mid teens were quite comfortable as we set off late in the afternoon, our next journey being some 75 miles to the village of Circle on the Yukon river. Crossing over Medicine lake we began to pass by numerous teams that were camping: Hans, Gerry, then Dave and Brent. Dropping down on to Birch creek we were now in 2nd place behind Mr. Mackey- deja vu Hugh. The sun recently setting set up a firmer trail as our speed accelerated. 10 miles later we caught and passed by Lance who was snacking his pooches. I was excited to go see my buddy Carl Cochrane whose residence is some 28 miles from Circle. Pulling up to his cabin a few hours later we exchanged pleasantries and a cup of joe. I would have loved to stay longer yet was afraid the young energetic squad might pull the hook and leave me stranded. After replacing some booties on the pooches I bid Carl adieu as we set off towards the mighty Yukon river.

The team was in a groove as we pulled in to Circle, Lance and Zack Steer were now ahead of us after our brief restbit at Cochrane's. The race officials, fans and japanese film crew were floored by our pace. "We didn't realize this was going to be a speed race", the head interpreter Izumi blurted out. "Blame it on Mackey", I responded. Once head veternarian Kathy McGill and her crew were done going over the dogs I went into the fire hall to grab some chow and shuteye. Lance was on his 2nd plate by the time I arrived. Quest checkpoints provide a variety of chow for mushers to enjoy, suppose that's why we're always in a hurry to get to the next one.

From circle we would travel on or near the Yukon river for nearly 300 miles with only one checkpoint, Eagle, to resupply our outfits with. For much of this section of trail the lead alternated between Zack, myself, Hans and Lance. This year's poster depicted a musher crossing over jumbled ice, now we understood its meaning. It can be quite unnerving travelling the brief areas that contain ice such as this-they typically cut across the Yukon from one side to better trail on the other. You can only imagine all the difficult work the trail crew puts in creating these pathways. Slavens cabin was our 1st resting spot, Zack's team was bedded down upon our arrival. Unfortunately we had a major wipeout a few miles back and my sled's seat had broken off the back as I was drug down the trail. After tying it back together we continued on as I noticed one of our wheeldogs, Ellsworth, was doing a small bunny hop. After discussing the matter with Al the vet we decided it best to drop our slanty nosed buddy. It's always tough mentally to say adios to one of your furry compadres but their health should always be numero uno on a musher's mind.

The section from Slavens to Trout creek cabin passes by some of the more scary areas of the trail. The Nations river is typically windblown with nasty portions of ice. This evening however the air was still as we travelled upriver towards Eagle in the darkness and star filled skies above. Typically every few hours the team is snacked with meat, kibble or fish. Frequent rest breaks are taken along the way to check on booties, luv up the pooches, etc. Trout Creek cabin is run by Mike Seger who comes out from Eagle each year to man this rest area for all of us. This would be the 1st place I actually had some quality sleep since the beginning of the race, just over an hour or so. Most cabins along the way find Lance and I shooting the breeze with folks we don't want to miss the opportunity to share some story time with. As Mr. Mackey often says, "There's plenty of time to sleep when you're dead." This year it was quite noticeable that a voice was missing from the conversation. A good friend and mentor was not participating- William Kleedehn. One of the Quest's greatest dogmen ever, William was sorely missed, we all hope he returns to the trail again in the future- where he belongs.

Following Zack and Hans early the next morning we set off the remaining 45 miles to Eagle. The sky was illuminated with pinkish hues as the sun rose on the horizon, the mountainsides were adorned in splendour. Life was gorgeous - this was the Quest trail fluffing her wings for all to see! Nearing Eagle we immediately noticed that the Yukon river was wide open in the middle- it was unbelievable to witness such a scene in the arctic in the coldest part of the winter. Eagle had been devastated by floodwaters the previous spring as mammoth chunks of ice destroyed the native section of town. A few miles out a massive headwind nailed our teams as mushers were forced to hunker down low behind their sleds or else they'd become a sail and slow down the team's momentum. The cliffsides surrounding the river here resemble Yosemite- heavenly, a rock climber's paradise. Pulling in to the schoolhouse checkpoint, Lance commented that this area would not be too bad of a place to settle down. I heartily agreed though I doubted that our better halfs would concur .

The frontrunners, knowing each other quite well, were respectful of each other the entire race. The competition was heating up however to see who would be the 1st to Dawson to collect the 4 ounces of gold. Zack left Eagle 1st followed by Lance then myself. By this point in the race Tyler was up in front of our team next to Annie. I named him after a boy we had given a glacier ride to thru the 'Make-a-Wish' foundation. Tyler was a sweet kid that always seemed to have a big smile on his face despite having cystic fibrosis. His willful determination lives on thru the spirit of our mystic-eyed, white pooch who has superstar written all over. It was a blessing to watch him lope up the highway leading to American Summit. Even more harrowing to view was Hans' team as they flew by all three of our squads- it was obvious now who the favorite squad was for this race. The winds were howling as we travelled around the mountain's top. 4 dogteams against Mother Nature- yet another Quest test to endure.

From there one travels the Taylor hwy, which is not plowed, for several hours of hilly terrain finally descending down onto the forty mile river. By now Hans had left us in the dust, Zack had fallen back a bit as well. In past years we would have broken this 150 mile run up into 3 sections yet the times are a changin'- "Oh Canada"- here we come baby! The forty mile river is rather narrow compared with the quarter mile wide mighty Yukon. Large hillsides adorn either side of the stream leaving some amazing vistas for one to enjoy. A few hours downriver we came upon Hans who had set up camp at the border crossing, his dogs were bedded down on straw and resting. Having won the race 3 times Hans in my book is the champ. Not because of his victories but all he has done over the years. Many Questers use his sleds that can take a beating and keep on flying. The forty mile descends down to the Yukon thus its a mellow trail for the pooches to travel on. Exhaustion for humans was taking affect by now. "Lance, Lance.", I repeatedly yelled out, finally I hiked up Annie to go by his team. Suddenly he jumped up out of his dream state. A few hours passed by before he asked to once again lead the way.

As the sun rose that morning we pulled into Sebastian Jones cabin at forty mile. We were again back on the Yukon river now. We decided to stay at least 4 hours, it was Hans decision now. We had fun visiting with Sebastian, just over 2 hours passed when Hans' squad rolled on thru. There was no sense in not giving the dogs a proper restbit considering we were barely halfway into the competition. Besides we had both won the Dawson prize before. The remaining run into town was rather sluggish as the wind drifted over large portions of the trail. We could only imagine what Hans was going thru a few hours ahead of us. Twenty miles from town I noticed a few planes soaring above us. Rounding a bend in the river I was immediately awestruck- 4 Caribou were racing down the trail in front of us- was I seeing things? I had to laugh, both planes were heading upriver towards Dawson thus missing some incredible video. As we neared the 'Paris of the North' our pace accelerated. Unfortunately near Moosehide there was a large section of water that had been opened up, time to get wet kids!. Thankfully it was barely a few feet deep though my mood was soured as we pulled up to the multitude of media. Encrusted in ice, "Huge Mess" was not a happy camper. Pulling a pooped out pup, Jester, from within the sledbag I explained to race official Thomas Tetz that I had hoped to get a shower in Dawson, not before it!

to be continued...


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