Thursday, January 31, 2008

Soldier Mountain Quest, Conclusion

On the second day of the race, I was up early to see if the truck would start. Some clouds had moved in and brought a little snow overnight, keeping the temperature warmer, so I had no trouble getting the truck started. The race start was earlier than the day before, so I got quite a bit colder out on the trail even though I dressed warmer on the second day.

The trail had been freshly groomed and had set up nice and hard, so the trail conditions were fantastic. I left the chute first, but the second place team, Kate St Onge, caught me while we were still going uphill. My team got all excited to chase and stayed on her tail over the top and all the way down through the switchbacks.

I had done my best to tie my drag track on more securely, but trying desperately to control the team on the downhill caused the broken side to come loose again. Nevertheless, we made it safely to the river bottom and passed back and forth a couple times with the other team until I hooked down in order to try to tie the drag track back in place. I had another motive for stopping, and that was that I did not want our two teams to be at the tiny little turnaround loop at the same time.

Kate got about five minutes ahead of me, and there was nobody at all close behind us, so I had the turnaround all to myself. It was a good thing because I had all sorts of trouble this time. The dogs just did not understand what they were supposed to do there. At first they tried to visit the trail help. The trail help got them headed the right way, but they were all tangled up. Then the trail help thought they should untangle them and could not seem to hear me hollering at them to come back to the sled and stand on my snowhook. It was a tangle that only a musher can undo. These things always seem to take forever, but it was probably less than five minutes, and we were blasting back down the trail.

Once again the head-on passes went very well, and the rest of the race went smoothly. I did not see Kate again, but I finished only ten minutes behind her. This left me well ahead in the overall time, so I was the winner of the first Soldier Mountain Quest.

They gave me this beautiful hand painted gourd as a prize.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pictures From The Race

Hey, I can finally post pictures again! I could not take pictures during the actual race, so I hope my title did not get you too excited. Instead, I have some pictures from the high school where they gave me a nice army cot to sleep on.

Here is something I found in the girls locker room. It is a sign made from duct tape.

It reads:

I believe I mentioned that the High School in Fairfield, Idaho has the nickname of the "Mushers".

A couple banners in the gym, and a painting in the entryway.

This is a sign above the bleachers, indicating where people should sit. I got such a huge kick out of this.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Soldier Mountain Quest

The Soldier Mountain Quest was a new race this year in Fairfield, Idaho, near Sun Valley in the south central part of the state. They had a 12-dog class which ran 30 miles and a 6-dog class which ran 17 miles. The trail was run two days in a row, and the times were added together to get the total.

I was supposed to take two 12-dog teams to the race, but since Mike got stuck at work and could not get home, I went by myself with just one team. I thought about rearranging the teams to take my best 12 dogs but decided to stick with the team I had originally planned to run. This included some of my best dogs but also four rookies who had never even seen another dog team. I was hoping to give them some good race experience at a friendly, low-key race.

Fairfield, Idaho is about 250 miles away, and I arrived there at 9:30PM on Friday, December 21st. The winter solstice seems like an appropriate time for a sled dog race. The local high school, whose nickname is the Mushers, had opened up their gym for us, and there were army cots for sleeping on.

There was a mushers meeting bright and early on Saturday morning. The in-town start that had been planned was judged to be too dangerous due to low snow conditions, so the start was moved to a trailhead seven miles out of town. To give everyone time to adjust and also allow some people to participate in a small ceremonial run in town, the start time was delayed until much later in the morning.

The temperature had dropped well below zero overnight, and there were no outlets for plugging in my truck, so I had a great deal of difficulty getting it started. It was lucky that I could wait for the day to warm up some before I had to be at the trailhead. The truck finally started, and I got myself up to the start and ready to go.

I was scheduled to start fourth, and the National Guard was on hand to help get the teams to the starting line. When my turn came, I released the sled from the truck and rode the brake while several burly Guardsmen held onto the gangline to direct the dogs up to the starting line. Almost immediately I felt something give way, and I looked down and saw to my horror that my main brake had broken completely in two.

At the start line, I put down a snow hook to stop the dogs, and I mentioned my broken brake to the race marshall. He said there were some switchbacks "after you get over the top", but he thought if I could ride my drag, I would be okay. I use a piece of snowmachine track as a drag, which I stand on if I need to slow the dogs or tighten up the lines to keep the team strung out. My drag is attached to the main brake, and because of where the break was, it was now only attached on one side. I have had my drag come undone on one side before, so I felt I had the experience to ride it lopsided. Besides, there was no way I wanted to abort my race, so they gave me a countdown and sent me on my way.

The race was on a wide groomer trail, but the snow conditions were very soft. Normally I would ride the drag to keep the dogs under control and prevent injury in these conditions. Unfortunately, the drag was only about half as effective as normal, so I had to trust to my dogs to keep themselves safe. Luckily, all our training runs in the past two weeks had been in deep, soft snow, so I felt hopeful.

The trail rose gradually for a few miles, and I passed two of the teams who started in front of me. There were also a couple cattle guards which were not completely covered by snow, and I cringed as I saw a few dogs punching through. No one got hurt, though, and I made a note to watch carefully for any more cattle guards. Then we rounded the shoulder of a hill and started plunging downward. It did not seem as though we had gone high enough to be "over the top", but as we started around some sharp switchbacks, I knew that we must be. This was a big relief because the trail was really not that difficult, so I knew everything would be okay from then on.

The trail leveled off and followed a river bottom for the rest of the way to the turnaround. There were more cattle guards, and without a main brake, I could only slow the team somewhat and hope for the best. I passed the final team in front of me shortly before the turnaround.

The turnaround was a bit of an adventure since there was no defined loop but merely a wide spot at a fork in the trail. My dogs headed for the right fork but turned so sharply when I said "haw" that the turnaround crew exclaimed "look at that!" Unfortunately, my leaders thought I meant to take the left fork and ignored my command to come around. They were halfway down the left trail before I could get my snowhook down to stop them. The turnaround crew helped me get them turned back the way we came with minimal tangles.

The return trip was an adventure because I now had to do head-on passes with all the other teams. Dogs do not usually move to the side of the trail when they see someone coming the way people do. Instead, they like to head straight for each other like a game of "chicken" and then veer aside at the last instant. If they do not veer aside, then you have a tangle or a pile-up. I had to crouch down holding a snow hook ready to instantly stop the team if they did not pass cleanly. Luckily, my dogs did great and got by everybody cleanly, even those teams that were tentative about passing or wanted to visit my dogs.

The only other tricky part was a steep downhill with a sharp switchback a couple miles from the finish line. I crashed the sled there but managed to hang on. At the finish line, the burly marines were ready to hang onto my sled to get us stopped at my truck.

I checked all my dogs over for injury and was really pleased that my lack of braking ability had not resulted in any problems. I fed and watered the team and then put them away in their boxes where they could rest and stay warm.

It took a long time for the next team to come in, which surprised me. It turned out that I was in first place by almost half an hour. This was a formidable lead to take into the second day.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, everybody. I am always hopeful that each year will be better. Seeing that the new year comes in winter, I am always thinking of the success of my sled dog training and racing efforts.

I wrote a message about the season's first race, but I had left it unfinished, and when I returned, all my programs had been closed, so the message was lost. Now I have to hunt for the time and energy to recompose it. Perhaps tomorrow.

Today I took my main team for a 40 mile run, the longest so far. It was a beautiful sunny day, and not very windy for once. My husband also got his snowmobile out for the first time this year.