Monday, March 27, 2006

Camp Rimini To Deerlodge, Part Three

The snow continued to pelt me in the face as I began to catch up to another team. Just as I got close to overtaking them, we passed a race marker that had a pie plate nailed to it with a straight ahead arrow and a little smiley face. Now, pie plates are not what we are supposed to follow in this race, but I thought maybe the Deerlodge snowmobile club had decided in their enthusiasm to give us some encouragement. The race marker itself only showed that we were on the trail and did not indicate any kind of turn. Nonetheless, I instinctively distrusted that pie plate, and if I had not been right on someone's heels, I probably would have stopped the team to see if there were other alternatives besides straight ahead. However, the team was in chase mode and whisked me past that pie plate almost before I could think. Then suddenly we were plunging down a steep hill, and it was all I could do to stay upright and under control, so there was not a chance to look sideways or back.

At the bottom of the hill we made a sharp turn and started crossing a field. The snow was soft and bottomless, and the dogs were really floundering. I rode the brake hard to keep the dogs from plowing into each other, and all thoughts of passing the team in front of me were banished from my mind. There were markers all along the way, but they were no longer the official race markers, which have reflectors on both sides. No, these were just sticks with orange paint at the top. I was getting suspicious, what with the bottomless trail, the different markers, and finally the barbed wire fence we went across which lacked the usual hazard markers that the trail boss always puts in. Apparently, the guy in front of me was entertaining the same thoughts as he stopped his team and hollered back to me that he thought we were on the wrong trail.

I wondered about all the sled tracks in front of us, but he had convinced himself that the trail was wrong and said he would run his team up a little ways and get them turned around. While he was doing that, I convinced myself that he was right, and I turned my team around. Luckily, my team will turn around on command, so I was able to stay on the sled as they turned. If you got off your sled, you immediately sunk up to the knee or higher. The other guy was having a heck of a time floundering through the snow to get his leaders turned around and all the tangles sorted out. The snow hooks won't hold well in soft snow, so the back of his team kept pulling the sled forward and getting tangled with the front of the team.

My team turned around with only a couple small tangles, which I was able to get sorted out fairly easily. For some reason, my snow hooks were holding somewhat, and my team was minding me and staying calm. Meanwhile, more teams were coming down the trail, and we were now facing them head on. Those teams stopped to assess the situation. Pretty soon one of the teams that had been in front returned, and it was none other than Rick Larson, who had a fast team and had started near the front. He informed me that absolutely everyone had taken this wrong trail, and finally some snowmobilers had told them they were not heading for Deerlodge, and they had all turned back. All except for Mark Stamm, who had been the first team out and was a potential contender. He had refused to turn around and was still going.

Sure enough, here came John Barron again and then several more teams. We all figured we needed to go back up that steep hill and try to find where we had left the real trail. I drove my team past the teams that were facing me until I reached the bottom of the hill. Coming down the hill was an endless line of teams that were wondering what was going on. After a short discussion, I helped the teams nearest me to get turned back up the hill, and some of the teams behind me also needed help to get their leaders to turn up the hill. I was very grateful that my team was calm and not yanking my snowhooks out. This was not true of most of the other teams, and most of the other mushers had to stand on their sled brakes or risk losing their teams.

At last I turned my team up the hill. There was now a long line of teams going up the hill along with a few more still behind me in the field. I stopped part way up the hill because all the other teams were also stopped, and I thought maybe they knew something that I didn't know. We ended up all sitting on that hill for upwards of an hour or more. Far above us, I could see someone walking around the shoulder of a hill. They were looking for another marker, but they never found one. It turned out that that was the trail, but the next marker was half a mile further along. The confusion was compounded by a snowmobiler telling someone that we were nowhere near the trail. At any rate, we eventually all took the correct trail, which was deeply snowed in and drifted over.

Pretty much all of the teams were together now, except for Mark Stamm, who had still not returned. I had hoped that the long rest would rejuvenate Ghost, but as soon as we got moving, it was evident that he still was not right. I wanted to pick him up and carry him in the sled, but the deep, soft snow meant that my snow hook would not hold at all, and the rest of the team was very energetic after the rest, and they would not stand still long enough for me to unhook Ghost. So, I stood on the brake to at least keep them slow enough for Ghost to stay on his feet. I knew we were less than 10 miles from Deerlodge, and I was hoping we would hit a more packed trail that would allow me to stop the team and pick up Ghost if necessary.

A team or two passed me, but since we were all traveling together, and I no longer knew who was ahead and who was behind, it really did not seem to matter any more. We finally hit a more packed trail, but now the snow was too thin, and we were basically running on a thin icy strip. Ice is not very good for sinking a snow hook into. Nonetheless, I zipped open my sled bag and made room for Ghost so that I could get him loaded in a minimum of time. Eventually, Ghost wanted to lie down, so I stopped the team and picked him up. They had calmed down by this time, so I was able to get him in the bag, thank goodness.

Two miles later, we reached the finish. My handlers told me that the blizzard was the only reason we had any snow to run on, and that was only a couple inches. When the dog trucks had first parked there, it had been bare and dry. Turns out we were pretty near the front of the pack, but it probably didn't matter much since there was not the huge spread between teams that there would have been if we hadn't all gotten lost.

A veterinarian looked over Ghost but could find nothing wrong. He suggested maybe the harness was pulling up into his windpipe, and perhaps he just needed a different harness. I was happy to think that it might be that simple. At any rate, he ate and drank like normal as did all the other dogs.

Mark Stamm eventually showed up after all the other teams were already in. He decided to scratch, reasoning that he was too far behind to be competitive, and he could make more money by going home and going back to work.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Camp Rimini To Deerlodge, Part Two

This part of the race climbed up and over the Continental Divide. The first hill was very steep, but the dogs were fresh, so we zipped right on up. Then there were a couple short stretches of bare ground to cross followed by some stretches that had big drifts across the trail. Because I went out near the back of the pack, there were lots of teams ahead of me who had busted through the drifts, making our job relatively easy. I passed quite a few teams on the way up the mountain, and I was very pleased to see that Switch was passing like a pro although she had never been in lead in a race before.

After 15 or so miles, Switch needed to pee, and she seemed reluctant to continue leading after that. I finally gave in and moved her back in the team and put Current in lead. By that time, my old reliables - Ghost and Luna - were clearly showing that they would prefer to run slower, so I really did not want to put either of them in lead. Switch ran hard in the team, showing me that she was happy to race, just not in lead anymore. At 20 miles, the trail left the groomed snowmobile route and plunged down through a narrow, twisty route through the trees. We had been warned about this section, and one person recommended wearing a helmet. Fortunately, it was not that bad. I did not even come close to smashing into a tree. I rode the brake mainly to keep the dogs from floundering in the soft, punchy snow.

The trail crossed a creek and climbed up a steep twisty route through the trees. This seemed a little tighter than the route down but was not difficult to navigate due to our slow pace going up. Finally we popped out onto another groomed snowmobile trail. This trail was immaculately groomed, and the team was ready to really cruise along. Everyone except Ghost and Luna, that is. They were both having trouble with the speed, and Ghost, in particular, was starting to show a ragged gait. I slowed the team down to what Ghost could handle.

At about 30 miles, we got passed by another team for the first time. It was (eventual winner) John Barron, who had started four minutes behind me. I had expected him to pass me much sooner, so I was very pleased with how my team had performed so far. I continued to keep the team slowed down as I was now worried that there was something wrong with Ghost. His gait just did not look normal. His legs seemed to be flying every which way.

We went another 10 miles or so, and it started snowing. The wind picked up, and the snow was pelting me in the face. It had been a really pleasant day up until then. I was still passing teams, but I had lost count of how many at around ten or so. There were plenty of sled tracks in front of me, but the snow and wind had turned the trail soft and deep, and I was grateful that I was not in the lead and breaking trail. There was no sign of any tracks other than dog teams.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Sox is recovering nicely from her bout with parvo. You can imagine our excitement when she first chose to visit the water bowl. Poor little puppy had gotten quite thin with the illness.

She is now eating as well as drinking, and she has gotten inquisitive and playful again.

Where is my dinner, she wants to know.

Monday, March 13, 2006

More Deaths

Kindling died yesterday. She is the white, blue-eyed puppy in front here. Cinder is to the left, and Flame and Spark are behind her.

Spark passed away today.

The puppies in front are Kindling, Smoke, Soot, and Spark, along with momma Comet.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Instead of writing my race stories, I have been battling parvo in my kennel. This is a dread disease which mainly kills puppies. It took ten month old Robin from us. One day he was his usual energetic, happy self, and the next day while I was feeding, I found him lying dead in his house. There were no symptoms except a tiny, almost imperceptible trickle of blood coming from his rear end. A week after Robin's death, four month old Smoke came down with parvo. He had all the dreaded symptoms - diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, and extreme weight loss. Within 24 hours, he had passed away. This is heartbreaking.

Sox and Cinder both got very sick, but after nearly a week in the house, they are both on the mend. They have started eating and drinking again and showing signs of wanting to play. One result of nursing them inside is that they are a good way towards being housebroken now.

Yesterday, Kindling and Spark got sick. Today they are no worse, so I am hoping they will get through this like Sox and Cinder have, and maybe the vaccinations we gave them several days ago will help them to have a milder case. Today, 17 month old Raspberry is sick. He is one of our best dogs and future breeding prospects. He still acts happy and energetic, so hopefully he is genetically healthy enough to fight this off.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Camp Rimini To Deerlodge

Saturday morning was the start of the race with a timed leg from Camp Rimini, historic WWII war dog training camp, to Deerlodge, 50 miles away. Years ago, the race included a ceremonial run out of Camp Rimini, but this was the first year that we would go to the community of Deerlodge. The race started without a hitch. ATVs were fastened behind each team to bring them safely up to the starting line. I started 19th out of 24 teams, so I was near the back of the pack. The first mile was completely flat with a thin layer of ice to run on. I was nervous about running 12 dogs for the first time this season, but it went okay. Here we are near the end of the first mile.

My super leader Fresca (black dog) is in front, and next to her is Switch, my fastest dog. I knew the team would be moving pretty fast on this first leg, so I needed a leader who could keep them strung out, and I thought Switch would fill the bill. My other experienced command leaders, Ghost and Luna, are right behind the leaders. They are nine and eight years old, respectively, and you can see that Ghost is already having trouble with the speed. Luna is doing fine here but would start to struggle later. Behind them are Current and Charge. Current is on the wrong side of the gangline because she is afraid of the photographer. The rest of the dogs are Coconut, Gravity, Raisin, Almond, Phase, and Breaker.

At the end of the first mile, the dogs took the sharp right hand turn like a charm and started heading up the mountain.