Monday, March 9, 2015

CopperDog recap and top 5 mushing myths debunked

I put my sled away today. The dog trailer is cleaned out and put away as well. It would seem the season has come to an end. And I haven't even updated here!

At the very top of a map of Michigan is a wide strip that runs along Lake Superior known as the Upper Peninsula (U.P.). This area of Michigan is confusing to most of the U.S. population and even some Midwesterners. The U.P. is like no other place I've ever been, and has an identity and culture all its own. Separated from lower Michigan by Lake Michigan and the Mackinaw bridge - the "Mighty Mac," - the U.P. is a stones-throw away from Canada. Once, on a pier in Whitefish Point, I walked to the end and my cell phone thought I was in Canada.

If you continue to look at that map of Michigan, and the U.P., you'll notice at the top of that long strip a peninsula, called the Keeweenaw.

Some call Grand Rapids in the lower part of Michigan the "thumb," but the Keeweenaw is the real thumb. Jutting out into Lake Superior, the Keeweenaw is the "thumbs up" of the U.P. - the fat phalange that says "Say yea to the U.P., eh"; the hitchhiker of Lake Superior; the universal symbol of approval. This particular phalange gets quite cold in February. Best bring some mittens.

Snow whirled around in the arctic equivalent of a dust devil on the horizon as we headed across M-28 again for the second time in two weeks. Only this time, it was a balmly 10 degrees. The dogs were tired of riding in their dog boxes - individual wooded dog compartments that, in my case, sit atop a 13-foot flatbed trailer. A traveling dog condo on wheels. We had traveled 582 miles, and still had nearly 200 miles to go to Calumet, the little thumbnail in the thumb of the Keeweenaw, the very tippy-top of the Keeweenaw Peninsula.

Dog races, for me, are a blur of traveling hundreds of miles, scrambling to mandatory musher meetings, gearing up and heading out on the race trail for hours. This particular race - the 40 mile portion of the Copper Dog 150 - is especially blurry. I worked until 5 p.m. Wednesday evening, and left with eight dogs early Thursday morning traveling 760 miles. Our veterinary check was at 11 a.m. on Friday morning, leaving little time for dilly dally. Or sleeping.  Our start time for the race was 8:18 p.m.

It may all sound exhausting from an outsiders perspective. Many have remarked that it sounds "stressful," or "draining." But this is what gives me energy, fills me up and brings me joy. Which got me to thinkin'...

As I drove across the U.P., I thought of all of the things others have said to me about this sport. These mushing myths are so common, I can't begin to recount how many times I've heard them. Aside from debunking the most common myth -- that sled dogs are all Siberian huskies (that only happens in Disney films) -- I thought I'd set the record straight about some of the other myths I hear so often. Here goes.

5. "Do you ever sleep?" I seem to hear this often. I think it's because most of the races I run are at night. Um, yes I sleep. In fact, I guard my sleep time like a proverbial mother bear guards her cubs. And while it might be true that mushers have a higher tolerance for functioning without regular sleep, most mushers I know make up for the sleep they don't get when they're not racing. I prefer running dogs at night, though on this particular race last weekend, my headlamp malfunctioned. Not to worry: mushers are required to carry a spare as part of their "mandatory gear" for just such an occasion. Only my spare was a cheap-o 80 lumen dim flicker I'd bought at a local feed store for $15. Luckily, unlike the Jack Pine two weeks earlier, we ran under the light of a perfect 3/4 moon and clear, star-filled U.P. sky. But I never want to run a race in the dark again! I've already purchased a new headlamp, and I am catching up on sleep - hence the slow blog post.

4. "Your dogs must love the cold!" While it is true that Alaskan huskies are made for cold weather, not all of them are equipped to run headlong into a blizzard at 30 below. Like people, their coats vary; some of them are shorter coated, have less body fat or just prone to being chilled. In fact, we mushers carry just about as much gear to protect our dogs from the cold and wind as we do for ourselves. We slather goop onto our dog's paw pads and cover their feet with booties to protect them from ice and snow. During the race this past weekend, I ran two of my dogs in custom-made jackets to protect them from the temperatures. And, when it gets really cold, mushers have special covers made to protect a dog's "private parts" from frostbite.

3. "I expected your dogs to be bigger." This is probably the number one thing I hear at sled dog demonstrations, races and from non-mushers. I can't speak for other musher's teams, and the sizes of Alaskan huskies varies, but, in general, the average size of my males is about 55 pounds and 45 for the females. My main leader, Big Brown, is 37 pounds. The dogs were bred for speed and endurance, and the fact is, Malamutes are pretty darned slow! My typical response to this comment is "you don't see many large marathon runners, do ya!"
My tiny main leader, Big Brown, on my bed

2. "You must love this weather!" a coworker said to me as several more inches of snow fell the week before we left for the race. My retort is always the same. There is a Swedish saying "there is no bad weather, only bad clothing." 

Taken during the "storm Neptune" a few weeks ago, do I look thrilled? No. 
Mushers have no higher tolerance to cold than anyone else. And, with back problems and a family history of Rheumatoid arthritis, I feel the cold, lemme tell ya! When you go swimming, you dress appropriately, right? Well, the same is true for mushers - or any other winter athlete. If you're going to spend hours outside in the cold, you dress appropriately. We invest in good gear, and that usually starts with excellent base layers, wool socks, winter parkas and snow pants specifically made to protect against severe winter cold.

So many people seem to shut themselves off to the unique beauty, awesome silence and pristine views of winter. As we ran the last 15 miles of the race last weekend, I turned my headlamp off (trying to reserve some of the battery). Shadows danced with us across the snow-covered forest and on as we ran along a frozen lake. The moon seemed to reflect off of each tiny crystalline snowflake that rolled on into the distance as each tree, bush and rock created long shadows across the white tundra. I thought about how many would never see that beauty simply because they shield themselves off from winter. I want to be open to take in all of life and what it has to show me. In all seasons.

1. "What kind of dogs are those?" This is, by far, the number one remark I hear. Numero uno. The most common myth - that all sled dogs are fuzzy, blue-eyed beasts - is one propagated by Disney. This is not to say that there aren't Siberian huskies at sled dog races; there are. But the more common type of dog is the Alaskan husky, a "mutt" if I'm being honest. Alaskan huskies are not an AKC registered breed. But they have pedigrees carefully traced back to some key recognized players in the sport of dog mushing: Roxy Wright-Champaigne, Doug Swingley, Lance Mackey, Mitch Seavey. Some Alaskans have blue eyes, but some have brown or even gray and gold colored eyes. Some Alaskans have fluffy gray coats, but others have shorter coats that are black, brown, spotted, or any variation or combination in between. Alaskan huskies are a varied breed.

So, to recap, we placed 10th in the Jack Pine in a veritable blizzard the likes of which I've never run dogs in. We placed 14th out of 21 in the Copper Dog in a very fast field of teams. Considering I didn't think I would be able to race at all this season, I am quite pleased with the fact that we were able to manage two races and place solidly in the middle-of-the-pack.

That's a wrap on the 2014-2015 season! Stay tuned for puppy harness breaking! And as always...