Welcome to 2005!
It's 4 am right now, and I am awake with a cold,
unable to sleep. Maybe I am able to put down a few lines to keep you in the loop.
The weather has had its ups and downs in the last 4 weeks. The day before
Christmas we got our annual warm spell, with temperatures as high as 9 degrees Celsius and
strong winds. Not having too much snow to start with resulted in the loss of all our snow
cover on our fields and on Lake Laberge. On the lake there were a few inches of meltwater
on top of the ice, which "nicely" froze into glare ice. I went out there with my
ski-doo and played a bit "ski-doo curling": You go as fast as you dare to on the
"biggest skating rink in the world" (Lake Laberge is 60 km long and 10 km wide),
and then pull the break. The ski-doo will spin and skid for hundreds of meters across the
frozen lake. Don't try this at home.
For dog mushing this scenario is far from ideal however. My trails were strips of
ice and the team had to stay home for a while. The danger of injuring dogs was just too
high. You woudn't go jogging on an ice rink either.
A few days later we got some snow which stayed in the bush, but was largely blown
away on the lake. So I decided to truck the whole outfit to the Canol Road once more.
There of course was more snow than needed, so I had to cut my run short. I did 50 miles in
6,5 hours with 18 dogs and 120 pounds of weight in the sled. It would have been a 4 hour
run under normal circumstances, but it was snowing non-stop, about 10 inches during that
After the Copper Basin the thermometer plunged
to 56 below Celsius here at home (For readers in the lower 48 and Alaska: that's -70
Fahrenheit!). I have a photo to prove it, and it is not manipulated in Photoshop! At that
temperature the dogs stay in their houses of course. I usually avoid running
"after" 30 below, because it simply is not as enjoyable for the musher as
slightly warmer weather. The dogs got extra straw in their houses and seemed all fine,
except for Rohn who had a stomach flue and refused to eat for two days. I decided to let
him sleep in the shop, where the temperatures were around zero to minus 10 degrees. He
would have lost too much weight staying outside in the extreme cold. In the evenings I
brought him into the house, where he sniffed everything out for a couple of hours. Last
time he was in the house might have been two years ago as a puppy, so everything was new
and exciting, especially the cat. Keesha was busy keeping him out of the kitchen where we
store the dog food for the pet dogs, and soon he found his own place next to the boots,
where he laid down and had a good view of the TV.
Between New Years and now I was not able to run
the dogs in temperatures warmer than 25 below, and with the snow conditions steadily
improving it finally was winter. On January 15 I finally used the sled for the first time
from home. I might have mentioned that earlier, but here north of Whitehorse we are in a
quite arid zone and it can take a while before we have enough snow for sledding. (While
you can run a sled a on couple of inches of snow you also have to think about stopping it.
Sled brakes and snow hooks only grab effectively starting 6 to 8 inches of hardpacked
trail, and you definetly want to be able to stop!)
Copper Basin 300
There might have been quite a bit of head scratching for the ones who followed the
race on the internet. In this year's Copper Basin 25 out of 40 starting teams
scratched, including myself. Here's how it all went from my perspective.
My neighbor, friend and long-time hockey-rink master of the Shallow Bay Sharks
Darren "DH" Holcombe came along as a handler for the week long trip. We left on
January 6 in the morning and had an uneventful drive, arriving in Glennallen, Alaska
around 7 pm. This was my third trip to Alaska this winter and I always enjoy the drive up
the empty highway, a far cry from the traffic jams and madness I used to experience when
living in Europe. At the border we had the usual scenario - no dog food was allowed
across. As I had been across before I was prepared and had joined up with William Kleedehn
to solve this dilemma. The day before we drove up we sent his handler Didier to Fairbanks
by car. There we had ordered meat and kibble for our time in Alaska. Didier was to bring
it all to Glenallen where we would meet him.
On January 7 we prepared the food drops with the dog food Didier brought. While the
kibble was the same as the stuff I feed at home (REDPAW!) we could only get beef in
Alaska, while I am feeding horse at home. Both kinds of meat seem to be similar enough
though, as the dogs showed hardly any symptoms when we switched to the new food.
(Switching food can be quite problematic - diarrhea or congestion can be the result, and
you want to avoid both during a race!)
While we were around our trucks packing for the race news spread amongst the
mushers that the race only had $13.000 purse (the sum of all the entry fees), while it had
been advertised at $30.000. While I didn't think I had a shot at the big money I was
aiming at recovering my race expenses of about $1.500, which I would have gotten for 8th
place. So this was not too much of an issue for myself and I decided to stay in the race.
Others like William Kleedehn and Bill Cotter retracted their entries protesting what would
turn out to be a poorly organized event.
That evening the mushers and race official met for a trail briefing, which revealed
that the trail manager had no knowledge of about half of the trail, so the trail
descriptions were quite scetchy - often we were just told things were fine and similar to
last year. Especially rookies did not appreciate this, as they were here for the first
Anyway, the start banquet was nice, as it happened in the cozy, historic Gakona
Lodge. (It was held in the school gym under a million watts of neon lights in previous
years, so dining in a 100 year old log building was quite different.)
The next day turned out to be perfect for dog mushing: About 15 below, sunny with a
few clouds, not too warm for the dogs and not too cold for the mushers. The race vets
quickly checked out the dogs and found NSF (No Significant Findings) in the dogs. I was
team number 14. At 9:45 I started bootying the dogs while DH put the harnesses on them. At
10:15 started hooking them to the gangline while DH stayed with Jack and Maggie who I put
in lead. Next to us the teams starting before us were ready to go and ripping in their
harnesses. My guys are usually quite calm except for big Mohammed and Cassius who get
quite worked up before we go. At 10:26 we were out of the chute, crossed a frozen puddle
in the first corner, mushed along the highway by stores and houses in downtown Glennallen
and were off. The first 50 miles follow the Richardson Highway and Tok Cut-Off here and
there to Chistochina. Part of the trail is on the old Eagle trail, which was built in 1903
to connect the coast with the army post in Eagle on the Yukon River. It is billed as the
oldest highway in Alaska.
The trail had melted in the week before the race and then received only one inch of
snow, so it was superfast, hard and icy. I got to Chistochina in 5:02 hours, parked the
team with DH's help, and was right in checkpoint mood: snack dogs, take booties off, get
food drop bags, start cooker, give straw to the dogs, check their feet and joints and put
Algyval (a herbal massage oil) on their feet, and feed after about 1 hour.
I had some hotdogs in the checkpoint and then went to sleep in what seemed to be
the community fitness centre: Mushers were all over the floor between work-out machines
who served as drying racks for boots and parkas.
Just before leaving after this 5 hour break the race officials had to report that
the trail breakers had not reached the next checkpoint Paxson yet, quite a bad sign, which
shows that they must have run into some unexpected problems or left too close ahead of us
- or both. The run went quite well and the trail was soft but otherwise ok until about 40
miles in, were we crossed Excelsior Creek, which is always open, but not wider than 15
feet and about a foot deep. The dogs seemed unwilling to go through own their own, so I
walked through with the leaders and the rest of the gang followed. Crossing the next two
mountains get the teams well above treeline, and the trail deteriorated to the point were
the dogs were swimming in several feet of "bottomless" snow. Not too big of a
deal, even though the trail had been better prepared here last time. Rohn got a bit
discouraged and showed a lose tugline every once in a while. At Gakona River the trail
breakers had found the only spot were the river was open, about 50 feet wide and 1,5 feet
deep, and sent us right through there. Jack turned on me three times but then willingly
followed me into the water. Just as I stepped on shore on the other side the entire
team halted in the middle of the river. It turned out the sled had gotten hung up on some
piece of friggin' rebar in the river, so I had to walk back into the water to pull the
team back (try pulling back 12 dogs who try to pull the other way to get out of the
water!), but we managed and I sledded through the almost knee-deep water.
Rohn started to let his tug line loose quite a bit, and as I was a bit behind my
schedule I figured I better stop for a couple of hours to regroup, feed the dogs a light
meal, change booties, and cut this long run in in half. A few teams passed me while I was
pulled over including Sebastian and Bob McAlpine who both stopped for a quick chat. After
1:45 hours I got going again with fresh booties and fresh enthusiam. Rohn was back at it
and pulling hard. I was happy to see that taking the break was paying off, even though it
set us back a quite few positions.
For a few miles we followed the Alyeska Pipeline before dropping onto Summit Lake
where a wide assortment of trails indicated that the trail breakers had gotten lost.
Putting in a few more than the 5 existing trail markers during daylight hours would have
been a fine idea that noone had. I was lucky that Jack remembered the trail from last year
so we did not spin any extra circles like many others did. Arriving in Paxson the team
looked good. I went through the usual checkpoint routine, everyone ate and then they slept
"like logs". The trail had been tough, which the dogs were fine with. It angered
me though because just some better timing when breaking the trail could have given us a
much safer track. In Paxson one lone race judge reported that there was no trail ahead to
Meier's yet, and everyone had to take their mandatory eight hour rest here (some mushers
had planned this for Meier's), and that three trailbreakers had managed to break through
the ice with their skidoos in the moonless night (what about putting markers out in
daylight - didn't I ask suggest that before?), dropping the ski-ddos to the bottom of
Paxson Lake and narrowly escaping hypothermia (death?). They had to be rescued by
helicopter. I had breakfast in Paxson Lodge with Hans Gatt, Thomas Tetz and Martin Buser
(and William Kleedehn who was there as a spectator), and the mood was equal to 50 below
weather. Quite low. It turned out that noone at the table was willing to keep going.
Protesting the poor race management many mushers made the same decision here. Martin had
not scratched from a race in over 20 years of racing. This turned out to be his turn.
It was a first for me as well.
I went for a shower (US$7, but it was hot), woke up DH who slept somewhere on the
floor and then we loaded the dogs into the truck.
So, it's 6 AM now and I am going to continue this in the next newsletter, in a
couple of weeks. I am going to throw in a few images and then load this up.