Quest, Dogsledding, Musher race history, Dog Sled Race
READER please note: This is a first hand acount of my 2005 Yukon Quest. I've done it while my memories were still fresh. I could have gone more into detail, but barely had enough time to put down what you see. There was no editing or proof reading. This text is as raw as the race itself.
|The trail from Circle over to Cochran's Cabin was pretty soft, to
put it mildly (it was a bottomless distaster on a good day), and often the broken runner
turned 90 degrees under my foot and dragged the footpad in the snow, which is similar to
stepping on the brake. The dogs kept looking back because they certainly needed no one to
step on the brake in this s%$t, but I just could not run on just one runner. After a few
miles the trail reaches Birch Creek. I wanted to give some of my three main leaders a
break to save them for the climb up Eagle Summit the next day. Jack had been in lead all
the way from the start, and I kept rotating Maggie and Blaze in and out of lead. Tequila
was leading one leg once, as was Jeckell. This time is was Takotna's turn. Even though she
is only two she did an excellent job in the soft snow. I think I have a great leader
coming up in her.
The comforts of Cochran's Cabin make up for all the hardship endured on the trail. Carl Cochran recently turned 70 and has lived here since 1969, the year I was born. His first cabin burned down in 1980 and until the completion of the present structure in 1986 he lived in what he calls the teepee, a cone-shaped sod house complete with barrel stove and two bunks. The teepee is now the guest house for the mushers, peacefull, 100% quiet, away from the "hustle and bustle" of the Central and Circle checkpoints. Bring your own food because Carl will not feed you, but he will welcome anyone in for a chat, and has a big pot with water ready for the dogs. He even put up a sign on the river indicating the distance to his cabin: "Cabin 1/4 mile or less".Carl Cochrane in his cabin
Carl is a man of few words, and acknowledges most news the mushers carry with a cheery "I be darned!" He seems always cheerful, even when talking about his upcoming trip to Fairbanks to see a doctor. The medical issue seemed to bother him less than Fairbanks itself, the city of 80somethousand which he successfully managed to avoid since his last visit in 1995. He does not make it to Circle (population 73) too often either because it's too busy there as well. Refreshing to hear for any musher is that while he knows there is a guy who must have participated in a whole bunch of Quests he is not quite sure if his last name was Tyler or Tanner. I be darned.
I spent 5 hours at Cochran's and left at 7 PM. I was hoping for the temperatures to cool down and was glad 5 mushers had been over the trail before me. The trail seemed not to be any harder, even though it must have been. This was the most miserable time of dog mushing during this Quest (only 24 hours I would have the best night of dogmushing ever). I was seriously thinking of hopping onto the highway at Birch Creek bridge and driving the team to Central on the highway to scratch there, but kept on going and cursing. It took me 5 hours from Cochrans to where the trail left Birch Creek. The dogs were chugging along, the trail was soft and it was snowing a bit. Birch Creek has countless meanders, and even meanders within bigger meanders so it seemed like I got a look at each and every tree from all sides. In the distance the Central light beacon was lighting up the sky, seemingly close but still a good two hours away.
After leaving Birch Creek the trail runs through some muskeg and eventually crosses Medicine Lake. Last year I loaded Jack right in the middle of Medicine Lake and had to haul him all the way to Circle. He did not see Birch Creek because he was in the bag. This year, going the opposite way, he had no spunk on Birch Creek. He looked lost and a bit aimless. When we were in the middle of Medicine Lake, during a god-forsaken dark night with a bit of wind and blowing snow and no visibility to speak off, except for seeing the damn beacon, his ears perked up and he started charging ahead down the trail, speeding up the team. There was no wildlife to see, no tracks. I figure he remembered this spot (where he disappeared into the bag last year) and knew Central was not too far. Amazing. Or in Williams words: UNbelievable!)
Eight miles from central the trail passes by Arctic Circle Hot Springs and the parallels the road into town. The last mile is right on the hard road and a big relief. I arrived at 2:48 AM in a foul mood because of the soft trail and because I was questioning the purpose of this whole undertaking. I "barked" at bit at Leslie and the trail vet Jerry Vanek, but they did not take it too seriously. It is well known that every musher has a low point somewhere during the race, and especially handlers and vets have been warned about this before. I took care of the team, ate the huge steak dinner (at 4 AM), which got me in a better mood. I even agreed to talk to some media reps about the broken runner. This was the first place the media caught up with me since Dawson some 380 miles away. I got some sleep in the hallway of an ATCO building. Lance and Hugh got ready to leave at five and William just got up when I laid down. It was clear now that I had lost too much time to stay in the mix. All I wanted is to keep my sixth position.
At 9 AM, after 3 hours of sleep I hauled my sled over to Jack Hendrikson's shop. Race Marshall Mike McGowan had made the connection. I was able to do this without penalty because he offered to fix all the sleds in the race if needed. He welded the runner back together and added the aluminum scraps Jon had given me almost two days earlier, while a few buddies of his lounged around in the shop to watch the spectacle and have a few breakfast beers. We chatted about mining in Central, running dogs and old Ford Pick-ups. He had a 69 F-250 there in very good shape, and I am abusing a year 71 at home for snow plowing and log building, so we had something in common. The atmosphere was very relaxed, and I knew the competition was gone and I was not going to push my team to make up the the 5 or 6 hour head-start Mackey & Co had. I don't think my team could have done that.
I left Central around 11:30 AM standing on TWO solid runners. Thanks a million to Jack for fixing the sled! It was barely below freezing and had snowed a few inches over night, so the trail was still in soft. I had to change runner plastic because my dark grey did not slide worth a damn. It took me 25 minutes on the welded runner to change the plastic strip because it was not lined up 100% and we put lots of steel expoxy in it too. On the good runner changing the plastic took 25 seconds. The sled ran like brand-new from here on to the finish even though the weld started cracking.
Leaving Central the trail snaked through some mining claims and it was painfully soft and slow. We were baking in the afternoon sun. After crossing the Steese Highway we slowly started to climb up towards Eagle Summit. The dogs were doing better once we were in some shade. At about 3:30 we hit treeline and the steep part of the "hill" started. I was walking behind the sled, hanging on to the handle bar with both hands. At first I stopped the dogs at every trail marker, giving me a chance to catch my breath. It seemed like the dogs would have been able to go up in one shot, but I'd like to think it was better to take some short breaks. I only wore some old fleece long johns and a windbreaker pant. My heavier mushing pants were in the sled. It was a wise clothing choice, I was dressed just right. After the first part of the climb the trail rides over a "hump" and then a section of sidehill. The wind was picking up and I could see the dreaded part of Eagle Summit ahead. A 200 or 300 meter long steep climb, which graduately gets steeper and culminates by crossing a huge snowdrift at the top. This is essentially what it is: climbing up a huge snow drift. At first we walked up, one team length at a time, and then stopped briefly. Then the intervals became shorter and shorter. The teams ahead of me had taken a skidoo track that was about 50 feet next to the trail markers. Maggie started to look over to the side as we passed one marker in the distance. "Oh man" I thought, "if she starts going for the marker we will all end up rolling down the mountain side sideways." I kept praising her from my position behind the sled, maybe 40 feet below her, and she stayed focused. Her brother Jack did not seem to be strained at all, whenever I stopped he looked back, asking why we were stopping. After a few minutes, it could have been 5 or 15 (all sense for time was lost) we crested the summit, the sky got lighter and we saw the sun above the horizon in the west. I stopped, praised the dogs, put on my parka, and started the descent down to 101 dog drop.
On Eagle summit the trail is marked with permanent tripods, and I came too close to one on the downhill stretch and had my sled ride right to the top of the tripod. I jumped off on the downhill side, the sled fell off, and the snowhook caught the tripod. 11 dogs were "hanging" down the mountian side on the hook and eager to keep going, but I was not able to pull the hook back. So I had to kick the tripod into little toothpicks. (Peter Kamper, are you reading this? Please put a new tripod there. I'll pay for the material.) I quickly jumped on the sled and down we went. It was good to have two runners there for sure.
A few miles later I pulled into 101 dog drop, another oasis on the trail. Peter Kamper runs the show here, and makes it hard for mushers to ignore the hospitality and go through. As I was out of the race for a top position I no reason to push on. The second half of the field arrived in Central over 9 hours behind me, so I sat down for dinner with Leslie and a few volunteers, and vet Anette, who had her birthday. After 2 hours of sleep in a warm cabin not far from the main house I got going again. Takotna hadn't been pulling 100% leaving Central, but was doing fine up the summit. To make sure she would still enjoy running 1000-mile races next year I took this 2 year old female out of the race here. I continued on with 10 dogs, leaving 101 at 10 PM during a clear, fairly cool night.
Sonny Lindner and Rick Swenson usually maintain the trail from 101 over Rosebud Summit down to Angel Creek and into Two Rivers for traingin purposes. And it showed: the trail was is absolutely immaculate condition, hard and fast. The dogs picked up on it too, and kept breaking into easy loaping from time to time.This run turned out to be the best one I've had in all my years of mushing. Every dog was 100%. The trail was hard and fast, just the way a 200 pound musher (o.k. 900 miles into the Quest I was probably at 190 pounds). 15 below Celsius, just past full moon, clear sky, some northern lights. We climbed up Rosebud Summit between Midnight and 1:30 AM. A few hours earlier Lance and Hugh had rested somewhere here, and William had unexpectedly caught up to them. Several times during the race, when William's team did not seem to be 100% he had talked about how Bruce Johnson once made a push from 7th to 2nd place at this stage of the race. I knew William was trying to repeat this, but that he actually captured the lead for a while I could not know. In the end he placed second by 8 minutes, and actually had Lance in sight a few times just before the finish.
We rode up a few rocky humps that mark Boulder Ridge. Last year I got dragged down sideways over the exposed shale, now I was walking behind the team, unsure if we had to climb that last huge mountain at the end of the ridge. The view was just spectacular, beyond any words. I stopped a couple of times just to soak it up. (The next musher behind me, Frank Turner, had left Central more than 9 hours after I did, so there was no danger of losing positions). On top of the last ridge I put my parka back on, closed all my zippers and my velcro sleeve closures, because we were in for the probably most dangerous section of the trail: the descent down from Rosebud Summit. Sky-diving with a dog team. The trail dropped very steep for about 100 yards, I had two feet on my brake and actually lifted the sled up. I had absolute control all the way down to the saddle (this is where it is extremely helpful to have 200 pounds), a quiet Gee directed the leaders Jack and Blaze over to the right, and down again we went. The trees got bigger quickly, we were losing altitude like a wounded airplane. At a narrow spot of the trail my sled bounced off a tree. I tipped over and rode down the hill sideways, but got too far to the right. I was faster than the dogs for a second, and started to pass them on the other side of a tree. They kept going, the gangline tightened around the tree and pulled me back up. The nose of the sled got folded around the tree, the "nose bag" (A small bag for booties, custom made by Gattsled), ripped off. Further down we went, I grabbed the bag (luckily, because it contained my vet-book! Losing the vet book would have gotten me a hefty time penatly), and managed to get the sled back up eventually. I had a blast in a way, because this was the last mountain of the race. In a sense we had made it.
We kept on cruising, and did not waste any time. I knew William & company would leave Angel Creek at 4 AM, and I wanted to be there to see them off. I could not believe how many miles we had to follow this creek further down. I kept pulling out the map trying to figure out where we were. Eventually we passed a few cabins, still with "full speed". Jack knew where he was going. I had to slow the team down, because I did not want to have a dog injured. Just before 4 AM we rolled into Angel Creek, while everybody there was busy watching Lance's team jerk around and bark before departure. He was scheduled to leave within 10 minutes, William and Hugh would leave 10 minutes behind him. The scene made me think of my f***ing runner, and I wondered where I would have fit in. (It turned out the runner really started to bug me after the award banquet, when I got my check. With a good runner I might have doubled or trippled my prize money from $6.000 to $18.000, which would have been a summers worth of work/pay for me. Bummer. To this day I am thinking a lot of "what if"-thoughts. Next February better come around quick so I can settle this matter once and for all!)
I took care of the dogs, and took special care of their joints. The run had been so fast and the trail so hard, that I got worried I might have overdone it. But they all were o.k., no sore or swollen joints. Overall my dogs seem to be pretty maintenance free, I hardly have to deal with any of these wrist and shoulder issues, regardless whether training or racing. Is it the breeding, or the conditioning, or good luck for once? Who knows.
Leslie was there, we had breakfast in the lodge. My truck was parked outside. Where does all the snow in the bumper come from, I asked. Why are the high beams pointing at the sky cross-eyed? It was the wrong question to ask, it turned out, Leslie was not too happy about being quizzed. Bottom line was I did two Quests and the truck was in the ditch or snow bank three times. Not that I don't appreciate all the help everyone gives me during the race. I just thought next time I better provide the handlers with a cheaper truck, one that just can be abandoned by the side of the road when things go wrong. The public does not realize that one of the challenges in the Quest is not getting from here to there by dogteam, it is getting all your equipment and gear back in one piece. From my own days as a handler I know how all the support crews on the road share duties, and help each other. As a result mushers find a wild mix of things in their trucks once they get back home. Example: I found Sebastian Schnuelles UNDERWEAR !!!! in my truck after the 2004 Quest. How did it get there? I don't know, but I returned it in a hurry. In 2004 I found two month old seafood in my truck ready to walk back to the ocean, broken gear, missing gear, gear that did not belong to me, pregnant female dogs, missing cash, you name it. Every year I am missing a couple hundred dollars of equipment. In return there always is a bunch of stuff from someone else. Runner plastic, batteries, harnesses. It is like a huge gear swap in your absence. Don't get me wrong: I don't complain, I now know this is part of it, and accept it. If you don't like it, do the Iditarod. There stuff gets lost in the villages or in between flights. The mushers always loose.
Anyways, I went to sleep in a cabin where the temperature was going on 30 degress C (90 F). I turned down the propane heater and got 4 hours of sleep! 4 hours! I felt (almost) like brand new after that. Angel Creek is a mandatory eight hour stop. The vets had checked my team and all was fine, except that a couple of dogs could have used bit more weight. They were ok, given that it was warm and almost over. Next year I will take different measures on keeping their weight up.On the last run, closing in on Fairbanks
At noon our eight hours were up and we pulled out. The dogs knew were we were going, they all stood up willingly, and trotted out of the checkpoint. Burnt forest lined the hard packed trail. The sun was superbright and mercyless. We did o.k. speed but were not to spiffy. Near Two Rivers, where the trail parallels Chena Hot Springs Road, cars followed the trail. I felt uncomfortable to see all these people. I was bushed. I wished I could just disappear in the forest again. And my wish was granted. We left the road, scooted down Rick Swensons rock hard-driveway and disappread into the maze of trails of Two Rivers. One musher came my way but I did not recognize him (It turned out it was Rick Swenson who was training near his home). Everyone else was in downtown Fairbanks, watching the finish of the leaders. In a way I was glad that I was not part of that circus. On the other hand I wished I would have been..., oh well.
Tequila and Ruby were in heat, which did not cause too many disruptions, but now Jack in lead completely lost focus and actually stopped the team once. I tried to get him going a few times, but all the encouragement did not help. So I had to take him out of lead. Did he ever work after that. We rolled into Northpole Dog drop with well over 10 miles per hour, one foot on the brake, sitting on the sled. The vets and volunteers had big eyes. On the Chena River we saw a couple of moose and loose dogs, and the dogs charged forward, but I kept them slow. The last few river bends in downtown Fairbanks were painfully long. And finally, after yet another bend, a bunch of people (maybe 30 altogether, it seems like a "bunch" when you've been in the bush for 10 days) at 10:30 at night. Not very emotional, but I was sure glad to be here with 10 dogs that looked like they could go have went on forever.
A few days later I scored big time at the banquet. I did not even remember buying a raffle ticket for the sled, and just before the draw went outside to drop dogs. Sure enough Lance Mackey pulled my name out of the hat. The new sled is an easy rider, wood on aluminum runners, made by Wayne Valco. I have it up for sale because it is too low for me (I am 6'5"), but it's a beautiful sled. Maybe I will keep it for a second team as training sled. I have a new Gattsled on order, and am now also better prepared for runner repairs in the field (I had plenty of time to think about how to fix runners). But I won't carry a welder during the race, even though that would take care of the problem right there. A million thanks to Jack in Central who welded up my ride!
On top of a new sled I was selected for the vet's choice award, which is quite the honor. There is nothing more satisfying than having a dog team that runs like a well-oiled machine. And I already have plans for oiling that machine even better next year!
I now have a new set of runners on my sled, and will continue to use it in training (And just placed 3rd with it in the Percy). I don't hold it against the Gattsled's design that the runner broke, I think close to 10.000 miles on the sled just resulted in fatigued material, and then I ran through a really rough stretch of trail. Snap.
on the way home, a pee-break for the dogs