Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Never give up, no matter what is going on, never give up..." - His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

(aka the harrowing tale of Aspen's get away)

Sometimes, something happens that throws even my own story telling abilities for a loop. Lots of people have asked for updates about our first race, and when I sat down to tell the tale, I didn't know where to begin. So, I did what I suggest you do: grab a cuppa joe, sit back, and read on for the harrowing tale of Aspen's get away. 

The dogs and I arrived in the Upper Peninsula on Thursday - just enough time for a short 15 mile run to stretch the legs before race day on Saturday. I had been fretting before we left because one of my main dogs - Tak - had come into full standing heat. I decided to bring Aspen, who I had dropped from training for obnoxious behavioral issues like neckline chewing, and turning around on the gangline. Aspen was also coming into heat, but was not as far along as Tak.

Our pre-race run went off without a hitch. The team looked great, and I was only going to take them 10 miles, but they looked so strong, I let them go a little further.

My team stopped on the trails outside of Nature's Kennel

Things seemed beautiful on our short run, with more than adequate snow cover - enough to hook down with snow hooks. When we arrived at the drivers' meeting Friday night, however, we received a different message. Trail boss, Bob Shaw, went over the trail conditions for the race course, warning that there were bare spots and lots of ice in the beginning right out of the starting chute. Conditions up at Rainbow Lodge where the race start is held can be very windy, which was the case the morning of the race start. Wind had apparently blown much of the snow cover off the open parts of the course, and with the mild temperatures and thaw a day or so before the race, and then the freeze again, the start was an ice rink.

I spotted my friends Larry and Joann Fortier parked in the 8 dog pro parking area and walked up to Joann.

"Have you walked the chute yet?" she asked.

"No," I replied.

"Go walk it. It's scary," she said.

Sure enough, it was every bit what Bob Shaw described. Barren with mostly ice, some rocks, and a big mound of dirt/sand about 30 feet from the starting line.

"Okay, it is what it is," I thought. "We will make the best with what we've got."

Mushers always have the option of not running a race course if they think it is unfit or are worried about it for whatever reason. But, I had driven nine hours for this race, and it is always one of my favorites. Tahquamenon country is some of the most beautiful winter country I've ever experienced on a dogsled. Not running it was not an option.

The Start
I was super delighted to be joined by my friend and supporter, Dennis Waite, at the race site. Dennis has single handedly contributed more to our success this season than any other sponsor. For whatever reason, Dennis believes in me. He says I have "grit." :)
Dennis and me with overstuffed pockets at the race site before the Tahquamenon race
The race site was barren. I wondered briefly if we'd even be able to make it to the starting line, there was so much grass exposed.

Hooking up eight mutts
I was most nervous about the very beginning. But, really, it was clean sailing through the starting chute. It was afterward that things began to get hairy, and it had nothing really to do with the trail initially.

Leaving the starting line
Yeti, my big male leader (on the left in the photo above) has this habit of stopping the team on a dime to poop. When this happens, I have to quickly react with the brake - otherwise, I have a tangled up bunch of dogs on my hands. Ruffian, my other leader (white dog on the right in the photo above) has an equally annoying habit of turning around to look at the team and me when we stop for Yeti to poop. Within the first mile, this scenario happened, except, we were on solid ice - nothing for my brake to grab onto in order to stop abruptly. Before I knew it, I had a tangled mess up front, and no way to stop the team in order to fix things.

I frantically began looking for a tree or anything to hook to, but there was nothing. The eight dog pro class was full with 20-some teams signed up, including Ryan and Erin Redington, and blazing fast competition. While I struggled to find anyplace to hook to, the competition was flying past me and my dogs became increasingly tangled. And furious with each other.

Tangled dogs tend to blame their neighbor for their entrapment. It's like they can't wrap their doggie brains around what's happening and have to lash out at someone in their frustration. This situation was quickly happening between Ruffian, and Gwennie, my point dog just behind Ruffian who were beginning to fight. I desperately needed to right this situation, and fast.

I finally took a chance. I managed to vaguely hook down on the berm along the icy roadside and jumped off the sled, running up to my leaders and whoaing the dogs repeatedly praying to God they didn't take off without me. They were so tangled, however, that they likely couldn't have gotten very far if they had taken off without me. I got my leaders and point dogs untangled, but missed Aspen, in wheel, who had other things in mind.

Aspen's Getaway 

Remember I said I had dropped Aspen from training? She had probably chewed through thirty necklines this fall alone. I tried everything - running chains so she couldn't chew for a month, doing mock hook ups to correct the behavior - but as soon as I put a poly neckline back on her, she was back at it, chewing her way through the thin 6 millimeter rope in one snap.

Unbeknownst to me, while I busily untangled the mess I had in the front of my team, Aspen was chewing away like a beaver in the back of my team. In a flash, suddenly, she chomped through her neckline, backed out of her harness, and was gone loping beautifully and freely up the trail without us like some wild and gorgeous gazelle, all legs and flash.

I have to admit, it was a sight to see, watching her loping up the trail next to other teams. She was having a blast! And luckily, I free run my dogs daily, so she comes faithfully when I call her.

Only, this time, she had apparently lost her hearing...or she was just having too much fun to pay attention to me, because she didn't seem to notice me screaming her name.

I hopped back on the sled and off we went, chasing Aspen up the trail.

We chased her for a good mile before we came to a turn off where the trail goes into the trees. Former musher-turned-trail-help Lyle Ross stood at this turn off.

"Did you see a loose dog?" I yelled at Lyle

"Yea," he said nonchalantly. "There are people at the first road crossing. They'll catch her."

We turned the sharp left into the trees. I saw Aspen two teams up still loping along joyfully. Then, she stopped abruptly, looked at me, and then suddenly darted into the woods. I feared the worst. If she didn't come back to me, I would be disqualified. Worse yet, I didn't want her loose in those woods, which are populated with wolves.

I began to get a bit angry. I thought, "if I catch Aspen, I am dropping her at the first dog drop! That's it!"

But then I remembered my own mantra: they're just dogs. 

It wasn't Aspen's fault she was causing such chaos. She was having fun cavorting about with her fellow doggie friends. She was just being her silly, flirtatious, fun-loving doggie self.

We turned the curvy, winding trail and I continually stopped to attempt to hook down. In vain. I thought if I could just stop the team and call her, she would come to me and I could hook her back in the team. Meanwhile, teams kept passing me. Once, while I attempted to hook down, Bruce Magnusson, winner of the 8 dog pro race, suddenly came up behind me and his leaders necklined the back of my knees. He apologized profusely, but I felt bad too as if my dog wasn't loose, I wouldn't have been trying to hook down in the first place!

Finally, after at least 45 minutes of attempting to hook down in vain, my friend Liza Dietzen came up behind me. She passed me and asked if I was alright. I explained briefly that my dog was loose, and just then, Aspen appeared on the trail. Liza and I somehow managed to hook down - me to a tree and I'm not sure how Liza stopped. Liza reached down and gently grabbed Aspen's collar, and I ran up and grabbed her. I thanked Liza, telling her I owed her one, and she was off.

In seconds, I had Aspen back in harness, a new neckline attached to the mainline, and had her back in the team. I hupped the dogs, and around this time, we headed into the trees where the trail was more normal for this time of year in the U.P. Aside from a little bumpy ride at the first road crossing, and a little icy section through a logging yard, the trail was gorgeous, and everything I remembered. We had a fairly uneventful rest of the 42 mile course. Before I knew it, we had reached the road crossing back that marked five miles left of the race. And for all of the craziness, I had a blast.

A beautiful photo by my friend and fellow photographer, Aladino Mandoli, of my colorful team running down the race trail

A little bumpy ride at the first road crossing leaves me looking a bit nervous :) Another beautiful capture by Dino - thanks Dino!

Red lantern

No matter how long I'm out on the trail, I don't ever want our runs to end. I started running dogs thinking 10 miles was long. We gradually moved into 20 and 30 miles because I just couldn't get enough. I can honestly say, at the end of this 42 mile race, I didn't want it to end.

I said when I started this journey six years ago that I wanted to eventually run the U.P. 200 - a 240 mile checkpoint race and Iditarod qualifier. I have also said I had no interest in ever running the Iditarod.

But, for the first time, not only can I see that goal of running the U.P. 200 becoming a reality, I am not opposed to doing a super marathon like the Iditarod. Someday...

I don't care where we place in our standings. I knew going into this race that the competition was fierce, and that we would likely be at the back of the pack. I don't race to hurry through and get to the end, never seeing the beauty all around between the start to the finish line.

We ended up finishing the 42 mile race course in 4 hours, 58 minutes and some seconds, and winning the red lantern. But I am super proud of my fur kids. They held a steady pace, and finished tired but happy and healthy, which is all I could ask for. And five hours out on that beautiful trail wasn't possibly enough, so after a day off, we headed out for another 20 mile run :)

And, maybe I shouldn't even race, because really, I just love being out there in solitude with my dogs in the woods. It's the ride I adore, not the end point.

And, after all, it's just a ride...


  1. Your team looks good! No tails up. Just keep going...

  2. They look awesome! You are an inspiration to people like me who are about six years behind you and about a few thousand dollars short, but you make the rest of us believe that it can be done. On top of it all, you never seem to lose enthusiasm or the drive. I have to agree, "grit" is probably the best word to describe you.

  3. This entry gave me chills -- the good kind :) I agree with SilverStar. You are such an inspiration for newbies like me. I cannot wait to have more dogs and 20+ mile runs with them.


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