I had stopped the team after any combination of potential leaders had failed to move us forward. Littlehead was sleeping in the sled bag with a sore wrist, Shane had been spooked irrevocably by fireworks shot at the team leaving Chistochina, & Andy-dog had put in as much effort & energy in one run as most dogs do in ten. I wasn’t even sure at that point that I was on the trail, as I hadn’t seen a blaze for some time. It had been twenty hours since we left the last checkpoint. It had been nineteen since Littlehead came up a little lame. In the meantime, I had been sprinting from the sled to the team, back & forth, switching dogs around, giving encouragements, essentially consolidating weeks of leader training into one very long run. We had camped along the trail, next to Kristin’s team. We, like everyone else, had plowed through twelve inches of pure sugar snow the whole way, along seemingly never-ending straight lines cut through the black spruce. I had developed a bit of trenchfoot & a corona of blisters around my heels & found walking, running & pushing or pulling the sled uphill a bit of a challenge. & so, twenty hours in to that run & nine hours after our last camp, we figured alright, enough, let’s camp again. As I kicked in a little pullout in the deep snow, my team quiet behind me, I heard a dog team howling to go close by. It was decidedly a team getting hooked up—there is no mistaking the enthusiasm in that sound. It was only a few miles away—I had almost camped the dogs within earshot of Mendeltna.
It was a process indicative of the entire race for me. I created a race plan based not on what was best for the dogs, but what I thought best suited the training we had done. I didn’t account for snow conditions or hills or the pressure of a race. I didn’t account for any of the variables that you absolutely have to consider in running a successful race. & accordingly, I walked a very fine line for 310 miles, verging precipitously on blowing up my dog team. I made all of the errors that you wish you never had to make yourself. I knew better, but knowing intellectually & knowing viscerally are two very different things. What I figured I would never do I now know I will never do, if only because it was such an enduringly difficult feat for us to right a race that started in paucity of rest.
The first run to Chisto was good in terms of dog performance. Kristin & I had an interesting tangle during a pass during which her sled’s bridle hitched itself to my claw brake just in time for our snowhooks to pop. Our teams were inadvertently hitched together until they weren’t. Thanks to Nic for catching my team once it loosed itself.
& once we bedded down in Chisto, we regarded a very loud, very busy checkpoint wherein fifty hot teams of dogs interpreted the idea of rest quite variably, you could say. In any event, we should have trusted our teams to rest appropriately, as they trained to do all winter out at Alpine Creek in the presence of other dogs. Instead, we stayed just three hours, hoping to get in front of the bulk of the teams that would tear up trail conditions. It would have been a fine plan had we considered topography & trail conditions more appropriately. It didn’t help that within a few hundred yards of leaving the checkpoint, someone shot fireworks at dog teams. Kristin made it through fine after yelling at the responsible party. I didn’t realize they were shooting them at the teams or I likely would have been arrested. I saw them burst overhead & then I saw my very frightened leader try to turn around & come to me as quickly as possible along the gangline, making for a giant tangle. Shane had been on edge after the sonic booms we hear periodically on the Denali Highway in training (it’s an air force training grounds), but this sent him to a new place. For the rest of the race, he wouldn’t run anywhere but in wheel. Headlights scared him to the point of stopping. Noises got him jittery. People don’t really consider the full consequences of their actions, I don’t suppose, or if they do, they are bereft of some essential compass to guide them. In losing a leader right away, I was set up for a very trying & long run.
By the time we got to Meier’s Lake, I had three of our biggest dogs in my sled bag & was out front of the team pulling on the gangline with a leash to help us up the hills. I had relied on Littlehead the whole way & she needed a break, so I put Loretta up front a few miles out on the pipeline trail & she brought us in. Until the Mendeltna run, it was the longest run of my life in terms of challenges & exertion.
Meier’s into Sourdough was fairly fun, actually. The trail demanded a good deal of sled handling, winding through thickly treed forest, up & down quick hills. The dogs felt good & it showed.
Leaving Sourdough they still looked great until an hour down the trail , when Little came up lame. She had a sore bicep & we got her off her feet quickly enough that she was able to run again later. I put a shoulder coat on her & against all of her protests got her in my sled bag to bed down & enjoy the ride. From that point on, with Little & Shane both out of commission, I was in leader training mode. Mendeltna was so far away & I wasn’t sure I’d make it there at all, let alone in a timely fashion. Once I did, I hobbled around the dog chores, rubbed by own feet with emu oil & caught a few hours of sleep. JJ & Nora had come along as our handlers & did an amazing job throughout of remaining positive & energetic & helpful even as it was evident that we were slogging through certain sections. I was incredibly grateful for their help at Mendeltna especially.
When I awakened there, I knew that the bulk of my work was behind me. I had worked almost in fifty yard splits with the dogs for the last two runs, building Loretta’s sense of what it was to lead, working up Andy-dog’s confidence, getting Tex some time up front too. I left Mendeltna with Littlehead & Andy up front & switched Andy out for Loretta about twenty miles in. She got it. That little girl (a yearling) took us the remaining 45 miles without a single problem, enjoying herself along the way. We cruised the last leg, with the dogs settled in, the leader woes cleared away, & the mood of the team vastly improved by a good rest & some good massage work at the checkpoint,. The yearlings were playing tug of war with booties found along the trail. They were speeding up with overflying ravens, nipping at one another, feeling positive & looking good. I just ski-poled & smiled the whole way.
When we pulled around the corner of the Hub & saw the finish line, we heard a chorus of cheers go up. Kristin & JJ & Nora & the Squids & Matt & Kate were all there, ready to help unharness & feed & assist in any way. It felt wonderful after all of that to bring a happy team across the finish line & into the company of such good friends. The Squids both had amazing races & hadn’t exactly slept a great deal & nor had their handlers, & here they all were to cheer us on. Extraordinarily good people abound, once you find them. I tried in crossing the line to see Kristin’s reaction to Loretta powering her way through in lead. I was so proud of her performance.
All told, it was an invaluable race due to the lessons it reinforced in us. We didn’t run particularly well, or plan the race appropriately, or do very many things right, really. But those mistakes we made we won’t make again. & in the meantime, I crossed the finish line with a yearling looking like an old pro in lead. It was enough of a slog that nostalgia won’t do its usual ruinous work on memory (to borrow a Chabon phrase) & I won’t be glowing about the experience & pining to do it again, but I will hold the lessons it taught me very close at hand in races to come.
Until then, better get back to the bandsaw. The Quest is right around the corner for my lovely wife, with dropbags due on Saturday. Plenty of time to rest up come May, maybe.