Thursday, February 28, 2008

Since my blog has started to become more about our life in general, with a decent helping of dogsledding still, I have moved it to:
I hope the new format will give me more freedom and a cleaner layout. Bear with me while I figure it out.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Short race, long post.

The second week of Feburary will always be, for me, one of the most important weeks of the year because that is the week that the Yukon Quest starts. I have a link to that particular race in that I handled for a Quest musher several years ago. I spent many, many hours on training carts and dogsleds, conditioning the team and preparing them for the toughest race in the dogsledding world. When it came time to leave for Fairbanks, Alaska and the start of the race, I was not able to go because - and this is the main reason why the second week in February is particularly important - Jenn was in labour with our daughter, Hunter.

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Our race bibs

Hunter was born as teams from across the continent, and some from another continent entirely, gathered in Fairbanks. Her first day at our cabin saw her arrive at our door by dogsled and her first trip to town a week later was to see the winning Quest team cross the finish line. How, then, do we as parents mark the birth of our daughter? How do we celebrate her four years on this planet? Why, we give her a kid-sized dogsled, pack her up in the truck and drag her to a dogsled race.

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Hunter's sled

Jenn and I, along with Jenn's mother and our kid, of course, spent the weekend in Kearney, Ontario at their fantastic race. Although my real desire is to be in the mid-distance circuit, I simply don't have enough conditioning on the dogs this year to ask them to do a 40-mile race so we spent the weekend running the sprints instead.

Friday was Hunter's actual birthday and we had a small party for her where she opened up her gifts, among them the gift-wrapped sled I and a friend had made a week previous. Sled-giving just may become a family tradition with me since my mom and dad gave me one for Christmas a few years ago. It was a busy day Friday: I had the race to get ready for, which included fine-tuning the sled tie downs on the truck to accomodate our wider-stance sled, and the race to pack for, which included the food and all the dog gear. By the time my preparations were made, it was way past dark and we still had to clean the house for the dog- and house sitter we had coming to stay the weekend. We were a tired bunch when we finally fell into bed, five hours before we were to leave.

Our intentions were to leave no later than 05h00 to make the morning musher's meeting and to register for the weekend before the late registration closed at 08h00. As it was, we rolled out of the driveway at the somewhat tardy time of 05h25. Kearney is almost exactly two and a half hours away. I won't say we flew down the road - how could we? We had eleven dogs, five sleds (yes, five), three adults and a kid plus all related gear for the dogs, sleds and people. No, we didn't fly, but we somehow managed to make it with two minutes to spare and that includes the time spent looking for the friggin' turn off to Kearney. I have only been to Kearney once before and that was before they re-routed Hwy. 11 so the road up to the town proved a bit elusive to us. It didn't help that I managed to leave the map on the kitchen table.

The first race to leave the start chute was the mid distance mushers and I was able to see the first few teams leave, but since Jenn's race was to immediately follow, we both had to get back to the truck to get the dogs and the sled ready. While I arranged the gangline and sorted out the sled bag, Jenn dropped and harnessed her four-dog team. Since she was to leave third, we had to keep a close eye on the mushers around us so that we'd be able to get to the starting area on time. We managed to do just that and, as the Race Marshal counted down the last five seconds, I let go of the leaders and Jenn took off. I helped a few other mushers to the line: you wouldn't think that a team of four needs a lot of help - afterall, it's just a four-dog team - but once those dogs know they're going, they get pretty wound up.

It wasn't long after leaving that Jenn was back and when I asked her about the trail and her run, she could only give me a disgusted look and say "What a joke! I was passed by about fifty snowmobiles and nearly hit by some." In the musher's meeting earlier that day we had been warned of certain trail hazards, like trees, steep hills, trail sweepers and possible moose, but the amount of snowmobilers to be encountered was sort of glossed over. Jenn's was not a lone complaint either and by the time it came for my race, I was filled with more pre-race jitters than normal. The six-mile racers had been warned of a few other trail hazards, two notable ones were the public road we had to travel down which was "not heavily used" and a very steep and icy hill with a ninety degree turn at the bottom followed by a six foot drop in the trail as you make the turn.

So, now a word on the 'jitter's' thing: I have always, no matter the competition or sport, had these to some degree. Part of them derive from the inevitable excitment of the nearing contest but the other part of them are due to my imagination: I visualize all the bad things that can happen; all the missed turns or awful passes or overly-shy leaders folding when they see the crowd. I can deal with missed turns or spooky dogs, but I dread an unclean head-on pass. "Have confidence in your dogs." Jenn told me and I thought to myself: "I am confident they will work hard. I am confident that they won't miss any turns. I am confident that they will see another team and want to visit." Bouyed up by such thoughts, I stood with both feet on my brake as Jenn and another lady helped me to the start line, my dogs barking and lunging at the line the whole way there.

As my two-minute countdown neared the end, a team was spotted coming in to the finish line, which was the same line I was standing on: my first head-on pass was about to happen. "Let him come in." I said to the volunteer sled holders. As we watched the team near the end of its' race, I was aware that the two minute countdown for the team behind me had started so as soon as the incoming team was past me, the sled holders let go of the sled and I shot out of the chute and straight at the second inbound team and one that I hadn't heard about or seen. "Gee side! Gee side, Mouse! Okay, on by... on by... that's it! Good dogs!" and, just like that, we were past. It was as flawless as I'd ever hoped with nary a sideways glance from my team to the other. The trail led away from Main Street, past the liquor store and into the bush and all of a sudden, we were on beautiful, snowy trails with nobody in front, beside or (close) behind me.

We wove through trees, went up hills and down hills and then exited the bush onto a road. The "not heavily travelled" road. For about a mile we ran along with no problems and then came a hill that curved off to the left, and then began to rise again around the corner. Fortunately, I could see through the trees. There was a truck coming and I know he didn't see me. It was precisely this point that my dogs decided to cheat the corner, cutting over to the left instead of following the far right of the road, as we had been doing all race long. My brake was completely ineffective on the icey road: it made lots of noise as it shaved ice from the road's surface but that was all it did. I put down my drag mat - a one-foot square piece of snowmachine track - and stood on it, hoping the increased friction would slow the team down sufficiently so that the driver would see me in time. As I was doing this, I also told the dogs to get back over to the right side of the trail, which they did almost immediately. The problem with their quick response was that it swung my sled sideways so that I was now fishtailing towards the truck, both feet on the drag mat and no idea if the truck had any intention of stopping because there was no way I had gone unnoticed by this point.

I was only about five feet off the driver's side corner and preparing to dump my sled on it's side, away from the truck, and drag along with it until we passed, at which point, I'd figure out a way to right the sled and continue on. Sled dogs, by and large, don't "whoa!" very well. It was a last-ditch plan, and one I nearly used, but at that critical time I managed to give the sled a little shift to the right, like I was stopping with a pair of skates, and we swung wide and past the truck. Just past. The driver and I exchanged a glance: mine, relief, and his a likely mixture of stunned incredulity at what nearly happened and what I took to be an apology. With my heart still hammering, I managed a "Good dogs!" as I picked up my drag mat and continued on.

Barely had my heart calmed down when I crested a hill, saw a trail volunteer on the side of the road and heard him say "Steep hill, hard left at the bottom! Steep hill, hard left at the bottom!" I could see a gang of people gathered behind a section of snowfence, no doubt happy to volunteer at this point to watch the wipeouts. They guy at the top wasn't kidding: it was a steep hill. And it was a hard left at the bottom. Just as we had successfully negotiated the turn and I was feeling good, I felt the trail disappear beneath me. It just fell away and, of the twenty one feet of dogs in front of me, I could only see the front half of my leaders, so steep was the road bank. I didn't even realize I was airborne until I hit the trail with a soft thump and felt the gangline tighten. Above me, I could hear the gathered people congratulate me on making the corner, but I'm sure there was a hint of disappointement in their voices because I managed to stay upright.

With what turned out to be two miles left in the run, nothing else of note happened. I was passed twice and when I arrived back on Main Street, my dogs did a great job of passing by the noisy and active crowd.

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My team, coming down Main Street, Kearney.

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My wheel dogs getting a post-race scratch.

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A snowy Olive

I had barely watered and put away the dogs after my race when Jenn came to tell me that the Kid and Mutt races were starting. We got Hunter ready, Ruby ready and Hunter's new sled ready; she'd been sleeping in it only moments before. Jenn's mom was already down at the start chute awaiting the race. With Ruby harnessed and Hunter astride her sled, we gathered with the fifteen or twenty other kids at the far end of Main Street.

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Hunter and her dog Ruby

We've been asked in the past how we make things work with a kid and the dogs. Or even WHY we make things work with the kid and dogs. We just do. Some days the successes are great, and others they are not so great, but when I see Hunter in the video below, or in some of the pictures in this blog, those are the days of the greatest successess, the biggest rewards and all the justification I need for having a kid and the dogs.

Hunter's first Kid and Mutt race.

During the wait for her turn, Hunter decided that she wanted only Jenn to run with Ruby and her, so I was sent down to the finish line to catch kid, dog and sled or dog and sled, dog and kid or whatever might make it that far. The timer said 'GO!' and Jenn, Hunter and Ruby were off like a herd of turtles; Hunter, aware of the audience, started to wave to everybody as though she was in a parade. She did really well, though. She hung onto the sled and managed to not fall once and I think that her overall race time, if handicapped to match mine or Jenn's, was faster. We let her drive Ruby back to the truck and help us give Ruby water and take off Ruby's harness and put Ruby away, just like we did for our races. Hunter was quiet about it, but secretly, just below the surface, she was proud of herself. We were proud, too.Image Hosted by

Our little racer.

We visited with some friends and ate an early dinner in the auditorium and then dropped our dogs once more before driving to Sundridge and our cabin for the night. Since it was a vacation of sorts, Jenn had found a nice little cabin to stay in. The hotel it was associated with was at the road side but we were behind the hotel and in front of the lake. We could drive right up to our door which was perfect. I looked after the dogs while Jenn and her mom and Hunter went into the hotel to use it's pool. When they came back, it was only around 18h30, but all three of them went to sleep.

I woke Jenn up a few hours later when I went out to drop the dogs one last time before turning in myself. Jenn said she'd help me, so we went outside and let everyone out for a pee. Then, since we were up, we decided to go to the bar in the hotel for a beer. We didn't stay all that long because we had to be up early the next morning to make it back to Kearney for the Driver's Meeting.

It had snowed overnight. When I awoke at 05h30, there was about fifteen centimeters of new snow on the ground. At first, the morning was calm: I fed the dogs, got packed and went back outside to load the truck and practically had to tie a rope to the cabin door so I would be able to find my way back in. A squall had whipped up that hid everything behind white curtains of blowing snow. Driving was pretty interesting: there were no lines on the road to follow, and no light to navigate by so we drove somewhat parallel to the snowbanks - and likely on much of the sidewalk - on our way out of Sundridge. It was early in the morning and anybody who'd've cared wasn't out yet, anyway.

Day two of the race was not much different from Day One. We dropped dogs, loaded dogs, went to the driver's meeting, ate breakfast, dropped dogs again, watered dogs, loaded dogs, wandered around, dropped dogs, harnessed dogs, raced dogs, watered dogs, loaded dogs, wandered around, dropped dogs, harnessed dogs, raced dogs, watered dogs, loaded dogs, wandered around, visited, sat through an awards ceremony in which Jenn and I both won a bag of dogfood, ate dinner, said goodbye, dropped dogs and loaded dogs, and drove down the road, out of Kearney and towards Sudbury.

When racing, it is expected that you conceede the trail when somebody who wants to pass calls "TRAIL!" While driving home, we came upon one of our friends, who was also at the race. Suddenly, Jenn is searching around the truck for something, rummaging through Hunter's bag, in the center console and under the seats until she found what she was looking for. She quickly scribbles something on a piece of paper and holds it up to the window as we drive past our friend's truck. She had written the word 'trail' on the paper. Maybe we were tired, I'm not sure, but it was the funniest thing in the world for the next forty kilometers. "Ha ha ha! You held up a sign that said 'trail'!"

We made it home in one piece and put the dogs away. I fed them, Jenn gave them all new straw for their houses and then we came inside and went to sleep. We both had to work the following day.

Some shots of our team

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Moxy, Dora, Hope, Risk, Ruby, Chili, Olive, Mouse, Baby

Some race shots

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Our friend, Claude

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Richard 'Baz' Bazinette

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Lou's handler, Thomas

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Someone's team

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This guy passed me just after the 'crazy' hill. He was racing; I wasn't.

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A mid-distance team coming in off a 40-mile run.

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Mark, Baz's son.

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Damian (I think) of the Jamaican Dogsled Team.

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And, lastly, a tired little musher indeed.