Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tahquamenon 2014: Keep on Sloggin'

Is there such a thing as too much snow in mushing?

It's difficult to believe as I type this, that last weekend the dogs and I were in a veritable winter wonderland. Today it was 50 degrees and raining.

Driving through a blizzard
Driving up to Michigan Thursday morning, a whopper of a blizzard fell across Ohio and lower Michigan. What normally is about a nine hour drive took 13. The dogs and I arrived at the motel in time for a meal and stretch.

The team from left with ages: Perry (2) stretches, Cinder (2), Fiona (6) and Tosh (2)

The rest of the team with ages from left: Dirk (2), Wailer (2), Yeti (6) and leader Ruffian (6)
As I arrived at the mandatory mushers' meeting Friday night, the wind picked up and snow began to fall. And it just kept falling...and falling...During the two hours I was in the American Legion hall in Newberry for the meeting, about seven inches fell. The wind howled like a freight train all night. Sleep didn't come easily; I was worried about what the trail conditions would be like by race time.

The next morning, it was nearly impossible to get out of the motel parking lot. Many mushers were stuck and running late to the race start. By the time we arrived at the race site at Muskallonge Lake State Park, reports of some 18 inches of snow had accumulated overnight. Mushers' trucks and trailers with dogs were lined up along M-407 in the biggest traffic jam that county highway had ever seen waiting for race volunteers to plow the parking area of the race. Once we all made it inside the staging area, race officials delayed the race start an hour and a half. Only the 8-dog and 6-dog portions of the race trail were opened; volunteers couldn't get to the 12-dog course in time to sweep the trail, so it was decided that the 12-dog teams would run the 8-dog course.

I began to get nervous. For four months, the dogs had been training with the four wheeler on relatively clean ground without much snow accumulation. We completed our final training run Wednesday before the race, still with the four wheeler. Taking them from that type of training to slogging through 18 inches of fresh powder on top of the already two foot base would use entirely different muscle groups. It's akin to a person used to running on a treadmill moving to running on the beach. I knew going into the race I would be running very conservatively so as not to overly exert anyone. Five of the eight dogs are still only two-year-olds. Just like training with young people, giving young dogs lots of positive experiences is crucial to their growth as sled dogs. I decided to make the best of it, but run slowly and conservatively. If nothing else, it would be a good training run for the dogs.

We left the starting chute at 11:44 a.m. Everyone, including myself, brought good working headlamps because we all knew we were going to be out on the trail for awhile, well after dark. We flew down M-407 toward Grand Marais and I had both feet on my drag mat to slow the team. We had 41 miles to go; best to hold 'em back.

We came upon a familiar place where the trail cuts left into the woods from M-407. I slowed the team  nearly to a stop and looked up the trail.  Most who follow this blog know that I lived in a cabin three miles from the race start for almost five months last season. I know these trails and I knew that trail. But the trail markers for the race were not there, and there was a clear trail heading straight ahead toward Grand Marais. I hesitated, knowing instinctively I needed to take that left turn into the woods. But I didn't listen to my instinct and followed the tracks straight ahead toward Lake Superior.

Soon, I saw a musher heading straight for me ahead. She passed, and I saw a cluster of six or so more teams up ahead as well, all turning around. We had all taken the wrong turn, and we all had to turn around. Six or seven teams of dogs and mushers all trying to turn around is not my idea of a good time!

Once we were all on the right trail, things were smooth sailing, but slow. Eight-dog teams typically run a fast pace (between 10-13 mph) compared to distance teams (between 7-9 mph). My team, whose running average is between 10.5-11 mph was slogging along at about 7 mph. Most other teams were no different.

My team moving right along in the deep, deep snow

We finally came to a point where the six-dog trail turned right and the eight-dog trail went straight ahead. I called to my leaders, "Straight ahead!" but Ruffian, who seems to love going gee (right) did just that down the six dog trail. I had my drag mat up and couldn't stop the team in time before the whole team was heading down the six dog trail.

I stomped my snow hook to set it and right the team, but they popped it. I stomped again, this time using my extra snow hook too, but in that top 18 inches of powder, there was nothing for the hooks to grab onto and the team kept popping them. Finally, knowing my hooks weren't going to hold well, I tried to set them again as best as I could, ran up to my leaders and turned them around, grabbing onto the sled handle as quickly as possible so as not to lose the team. The hook which wouldn't hold before, now miraculously held, but as the team turned around, the rope to the snow hook wrapped around my brush bow (the front of the sled) and in a split second, snapped it.
The new sled, my little Risdon Euro Sprint sled, that I hadn't even used yet was injured on its maiden voyage! Luckily, I think it's a pretty easy fix.

The dogs kept slogging along at a steady pace, but that pace was about 6 miles per hour with all that snow. Thirty-one miles in, when we came to the dog drop (where you can leave a dog who is too tired to finish the race), I asked Dr. Tom Gustafson, one of the race vets, to have a look at a couple of my dogs who seemed tired. They checked out fine with Tom, but I made a decision I've never made before: I decided rather than to burn my mostly young team out on the first race slogging through all of the really deep, slow snow, I would scratch. I'd had a scary experience at the end of the Midnight Run last year (read about that here), and I just didn't feel like finishing the race was worth demoralizing my team at that snail's pace.

The Luce County Sheriff and another volunteer graciously escorted us up snowmobile trail #8 back to M-407. We finished 37 miles of the race according to my GPS. But more importantly, all of the dogs were wagging and ate heartily at the end.

Here is a video of the team and all that snow!

Our next race might be at the end of the month if I can come up with the funds and a decent vehicle! Stay tuned! Mush love!