Thursday, April 25, 2013

Iditarod Qualifier #1: Eagle Cap Extreme

    The Eagle Cap Extreme was very welcoming from the begining. I'm so glad it was my first qualifier - not only because it was so well run and had me leaving the starting line very confident but also because the challenging trail and non-handler-assisted checkpoint allowed me to focus on the dogs entirely.
    An unexpected sponsor, Jim at Chandler's Inn supported me at the last minute - sponsoring my lodging! I was so grateful and he even came out to see the dogs and see me off; which was nice. There were also lots of grade school kids who came out to the Vet Check and Race Start. It was so special to see one little girl and Legolas; I've not seen him so friendly with anyone before! And then at the start the kids made signs and asked for signatures - just a lot of fun. Being alone on the trail so much; it's nice to get to share your experiences and the wonderful sport of dog mushing with so many enthusiastic kids (and their parents!).
    The afternoon start is great for spectators, but hard on the dogs because of the beautiful sunshine. The race started up a ski slope and I really had to help the dogs - as well as manhandling my sled to stay on the trail. Needless to say, I was soaked when we got to the top...and wondering if I was carrying too much gear.
    The next few miles of our first leg, 50 miles, was along a steep hill side and the trail, being a bit icy, tended to slope towards the edge. The trail was somewhat rolling and we got passed by a team and then caught up with another 200 mile team.
    Just when you thought the hills had levelled a bit; we came to a steep uphill. Here we ran with Chris Miller for a while; as darkness fell. His team was so well matched and they all seemed to be cookie cutter dogs - when I looked back at one point they were all in the same step so it almost looked like he had a 6-dog single string rather than 12!
    It was a long run. It took us longer than I'd expected; but I guess the heat really slowed us down at first. The fog rolled in, which didn't bother the dogs at all, but left me with my headlight on low as I tried to see the trail.
    We came down about ten miles into the checkpoint, Ollokot. There were christmas lights and almost too many people to help us find our spot! The dogs ate and bedded down and I was only taking a short break, so I ate and tried to get some sleep - which didn't happen because I was too awake at that point.
    The second leg was almost entirely in the dark - I'm sure the view would have been stunning, if only we could've seen it! We climbed up and up, I believe to about 7,000ft. The wind was blowing and snowing at the top, which reminded me of some trails in Alaska, except you were on top of a mountain.
    Towards the top we saw Jill Taylor coming back, which was a relief because it seemed to be never ending.
    There was a brief respite, coming down the other side to a dedicated volunteer in a tent who took our tags (rather than signing in/out) and then I stopped to snack (I usually snack every 3 hours). The way down the dogs really looked good...and then we hit the rain. According to my time, we were faster than I'd expected on the second leg and I was very happy that all nine of my dogs were going to finish the first half of the race strong - and looking forward to drying out at Ollokot for the 6 hour layover.
    All the dogs ate, but I'd noticed Duke limping coming in and decided to drop him - he ate and his feet were good but a sore wrist could easily turn into a more serious injury and he's such a hard-driving dog I didn't want to risk it.
    The hard part about the six hour layover was that I was tired, but it was daytime so I didn't get much sleep. Plus, everything was soaked from the rain. The poor dogs had soaked blankets and I wasn't much better.
    About halfway through the layover it was decided to shorten the race to 150 miles because of the excessive rain...which meant heavy, wet snow posing avalanche risk in the mountains. I was rather disappointed, because I wanted to see the whole race through, but it was my first distance race and I knew that even if it wasn't going to be a qualifier for me, it was still a great learning experience.
    The vet's checked my team and one of the vet's asked what I did to my dogs feet. I was afraid there was something wrong, so I explained the routine care I gave to them (not mine really - all learned from Scott). He smiled and said he'd not seen such good feet from any of the teams in the race! I think this might have been the highlight of the race for me - but at the moment I was a little too tired to properly appreciate the compliment.
    When we left Ollokot, I thought I'd made a terrible mistake. The dogs were slogging through slush and with eight left on the gangline I felt the disadvantage against a twelve dog team. But after the first five miles, we got to more snow than rain and the dogs picked up the pace. It was really a good run; I didn't realize until the end that we'd been pretty close to Jill and 2nd place about 14 miles from the finish!
    The most challenging part of the race was the last several miles. The sun and cool night temperatures left the trail icy along the extremely steep hillside - and my dogs insisted on running right next to the edge...and going fast! I almost went over numerous time and thought that I would die if we went over; I didn't think I'd be able to get the sled back up on the trail. To prevent us rocketing off the trail, I ended up running and pulling the sled on one runner towards the middle of the trail. The dogs were miffed at me; and maybe that's why they decided to have some fun going down the ski hill...
    We started out well enough, but while my brake did work on the icy trail I zoomed off the trail and flipped the sled. The dogs were patient enough while I got going again, but then I did it again - this time with the snowhook pinning the sled on it's side.
    I was so, so thankful for the help from some volunteers up at the top who helped me unhook tuglines to give more control and help me get going down the right direction - ON the trail.
    Nevertheless, farther down the hill the dogs decided to go straight down the slope - and there was nothing I could do to stop them. It was straight, but punchy and without the tuglines I was terrified that one of the dogs would get a shoulder injury.
    Laura Dangereau and Steve Riggs were waiting to see me in. I stopped the team in the chute and they said I could go up and praise the dogs. I didn't want to let go of the sled or get off the break, but Laura and Steve convinced me it was ok...I think I may have been in shock from the crazy ride down on such little sleep. But I knew even then that I would be looking forward to next years race...
    The dogs all ate pretty well and although they weren't lunging and barking, they were rolling in the snow and happy - so I was happy!
    Now it was really late and, driving down alone and not thinking I'd need a place for Friday night (because I'd expected to finish Saturday morning), I'd not booked a room for Friday night. I was still soaked and really, really appreciated the chance to get a hot shower and collapse in my damp sleeping bag on the floor of Steve's hotel room.
    Saturday was spent seeing to the amazing athletes - my dogs - and hanging out with mushers while we waited for the finish banquet. I really enjoyed the afternoon spent talking dogs with Laura and going to breakfast with Steve and Roy; I'd really missed all these friends last year when I was in Alaska...and it's always fun hearing about great sled dogs and past races.
    The banquet went late and I was touched by the amount of enthusiasm from the locals...and the surprise of getting the best cared for team award!
    I wish I had pictures, but not having a handler meant I didn't get any (and I'd probably have ruined a camera if I tried to take one!). But there are lots of great pictures of the race, including the Ollokot checkpoint, at the Eagle Cape Extreme website.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Preparation for Eagle Cap Extreme

    About two weeks prior to Eagle Cap, I finally got some camping runs on the team. We'd gotten a few long runs on (about 70 miles), but the camping had been hard. There has always been an invitation for me to go up to my friend Wendy and Steve's in MT and I was excited to finally get a weekend off to drive up for some training.
    Earlier in the season I'd attempted to go, but a broken trailer axle stopped me before I'd even gotten an hour from home!
    Needless to say, I was a little worried about the trailer axle even on this trip but my dad and older brother's repairs held...the entire season in fact.
    We got up there late on Friday night, and the plan was for me and Steve to run a 30, rest a few hours and run another 30 before  a third 30 mile run on Sunday - when I needed to drive home.
    The trail was snowplowed from their driveway for the first five miles or so. The dogs moved fast and I was on the drag a lot. Then we came to the loop, which was not groomed at all. I was kind of disappointed becase we'd broken trail all December, but Steve was kind enough to break trail for us and we had a nice ride down once the loop came back onto the road.
    The dogs bedded down on the line, but we realized it was going to be rough on the plowed, icy road to go a second time so at about 9pm we loaded up the dogs and went to the trailhead.
    Here the trail was snowmobile groomed and we had a nice run in the dark. It was a lot of fun. Steve did the loop once but I went twice to get the miles and it was so nice and cold - the dogs had a lot of fun and I did too!
    I'd planned to get up early to run on Sunday, but I slept in and we got out about 10am. Again, I ran twice and since Legolas had a sore wrist, I actually left him and Razz single led. I was pretty impressed with Razz, since he's not my main leader, that he stepped up and led single.

    Coming off of the camping, I decided to get one more camping trip in on our trails. The dogs were a little confused when I turned them away from the truck and bedded them down, but they figured out what we were doing once the food came out! Then they bedded down and I snuggled into my sleeping bag with Summer and waited for 3 hours.
    They left the campsite as if they hadn't run before! It was a decent run out to our turn around and then they really flew back - not sure if it was because of all the night smells or that they were just feeling really good.
    And that pretty much wrapped up our Eagle Cap training. We had over 1500 miles on at that point - and the goal I'd set was 1200; so I was stoked with my little 9-dog team!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

April Training...brings puppies to the team!

    So before I finally get to the race stories; a quick update on training:
    The puppies have now had 15 runs on them - the longest being yesterday's four mile run. All seven are getting stronger each run and all three of the boys have led and didn't have any problems up front. Next week we'll see how the girls do up front...
    One of my favorite things about mushing is watching the young dogs grow up. The puppies are changing every run and you can tell when things start to 'click'. I really enjoy watching them settle down and
    This spring I've been running a 14-dog team, which is kind of crazy going down the driveway but thanks to two bags of dog food and, sometimes, my 'litter handler' (my sister) we've navigated down safely. Those extra dogs really make a difference coming up - even though they're just pups. It's also caused me to realize I should really turn in my "racing style" 4-wheeler for a 4X4 model with a rack so I could carry extra weight and have better control when I try going up the back hill into the mountains.

    In other news, I'm super excited about two new dogs to be joining the team from Scott's kennel. Belle and Sweetwater were just puppies when I was up in Alaska, but they are yearlings now and Sweetwater raced a 200 mile race with Leila this year. Since they are Mouse daughters, they should be good!


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lost Team

     A musher's greatest fear is losing their team. A few years ago, I lost the team and they ended up in my county 4-H coordinator's longhorn cattle a miracle they went through the barbed wire fence without breaking anything (dogs or sled) and the cows didn't trample them. It ended well, but the frantic minutes (or hours - I can't remember) of tracking them down, all the while imagining that they had run all the way down to the highway and that my team was destroyed, will never be forgotten.
    One of the challenges of mushing is hours and miles spent all alone in the wilderness. Most places there isn't cell service, so I try to check periodically at different summits or saddles and see where I have reception in case the worst happens...but no matter how careful you are, accidents happen.
    Before going to Alaska, I confess that I had a great fear of going out alone with a team. But miles and miles on the back of a sled, and learning how to properly train a team, cured me - or at least taught me to worry less. One of the things you learn is that the more miles you put on a team, the better you understand your team - it might be the little things that make a difference in tough situations.
    Lots of heavy snow early in December made the dogs calm down a lot, which helped with control on iffy trails, and by the time we had a fast trail the dogs had been trained to the point that they didn't lung and jump until I put on my parka.
    But one day when the snow on the parking lot had melted almost entirely off, I unhooked from the truck and the dogs surged forward before I could pick up the snowhook. Where I parked the truck, I needed some speed to get around the snowmobile fence so I let it drag as I steered - barely missing the gate. And then the hook caught - and held fast.
    I'm so thankful that when the cable and rope mainling snapped, my wheel dog's neckline snap broke - else he may have had a neck injury. So it was he and I, while my eight remaining dogs went their merry way down the trail - seemingly unconcerned.
    I immediately took off after them, calling them to 'come haw' - which got their attention, but not enough to turn around. One of my leaders has a terrible time 'going' on the run, and this made the team pause long enough for me to catch up and get them turned around.
    Thinking they would go back to the truck, I let them go as I followed them back up the trail...only to watch them pass the truck and continue down the plowed road out of sight.
    I wasn't panicked, but I was afraid they would get hit on the road - there's not much traffic, but it's a narrow road. I left the sled, threw my wheel dog in the truck and headed down the road. I found them just out of sight, standing quietly in the road - apparently waiting for me.
    I kept hold of them and loaded each into the dog box; then back up to the trailhead to get the sled. I seriously thought about going home - but decided it would be best to patch up the line and run. For the next several runs, I was paranoid about my snowhooks and lines...but nothing else snapped.
    This is one of those experiences that will never be forgotten; and I will never forget to pick up the snowhook first!