North Wapiti Siberian
February 6, 2002
Race to the Sky 2002
Mark and I headed off to Montana for the Race to the Sky. Race to the Sky has a lot of history for us – both good and bad. In 1996, this event was our first distance race and we were very pleased to finish 4th. In 1998 we attempted the Race again, but scratched in Seeley Lake. In 1999, after successfully completing the Knik 200 and Klondike 300, we were confident this would be a good year for us. It was not to be though, and some health (or maybe stress) problems with our dogs caused us to scratch in the last checkpoint, 50 miles from the finish line. So the score was; Karen 1, Race to the Sky 2.
We spent Wednesday at my Mom’s place in Calgary. On Thursday morning our friend, Rick Austin (Rick and his wife, Jackie have a number of dogs from here) met up with us to help out for the week. The only glitch in the trip down was some trouble at the border crossing. It seems some of the ‘due dates’ on a few rabies certificates were not filled in to the satisfaction of the Border Guard, so we had to have properly completed ones faxed down from our vet in Westlock. Thank goodness we were crossing the border during office hours!!
We arrived that evening at the home of our hosts, Margo Brooks and her daughter, Nellie. Margo and Nellie warmly opened their beautiful home to us. That’s one of the really special things about racing – the wonderful people that you meet along the way.
First order of business was a school visit. The class I spoke with had done some studying on Iditarod and mushing in general and were full of well thought out questions. Rick brought Chester up for a visit. I’m not sure who enjoyed themselves more – Chester or the kids!
After the visit we headed over to the County Market for our vet check. Everybody checked out fine. The vet commented on the excellent condition of the dog’s feet and inquired as to what type of booties I was using. He was shocked when I stated that I hadn’t had the need to use booties in training. That’s one plus of well fed, well conditioned, Siberians – feet of steel!
Later that afternoon was the Driver’s Meeting followed by the Business Card Social, which is where we draw our bid numbers. The highlight of the meeting was an encounter with Rick Swenson. As I’ve said many times before, long before I was a musher, I was a fan of the Iditarod. Rick Swenson and the likes are heroes of mine. It still boggles my mind when they recognize ME and say ‘Hello’. When Rick saw me at the Driver’s Meeting he said ‘Hi Karen.’ and commented that he had seen our dog truck on the highway yesterday. Pretty cool!
Saturday is the ceremonial events for Race to the Sky. In the morning we spent a few hours on the downtown Helena walking mall, doing a ‘Meet and Greet’. Most of my dogs think this is the greatest thing – although Butchie opted to spend the time lounging in his box. Some friends from Montana, Marlene and Doug, kept us company for a good part of the morning. Marlene even brought wonderful fudge for me to pack on the Race! YUM!
After the Mall, we headed to an athletic field for the ‘Ceremonial Start’. This was far from the highlight of the Race. One musher at the post race driver’s meeting described it as ‘degrading, demoralizing, and dangerous’. That about summed it up for me. We hooked up 8 dog teams to sleds on grass and then attached them to 4 wheelers to weave through a confusing (for the dogs) obstacle course. The spectators didn’t seem to think much of it either, because most of them cleared out long before all the teams had done the course. Oh well, I understand Race Giving Organizations need to try different things to attract sponsors and I appreciate that they were open to the driver’s criticism of this event and will look at fixing it for future events.
Seven Up Loop
The next morning the Race starts for real in Lincoln. The weather was quite lovely and the dogs and musher happy and ready to get rolling!
For the first 5 miles we have a rider in our sled basket. My rider was a delightful, young man from Helena. We had a nice chat as we glided along under a beautiful blue sky. When my rider was dropped off, I picked up one of my handlers, Rick, who rode with me another 5 miles until a road crossing at the High Country Beef Jerky. The team moved steadily and confidently through the crowds and along the streets of Lincoln – I was very proud of them.
The weather was really hot as we covered the 40-mile loop back to Seven Up Ranch, where the start was. I played ‘leap frog’ with Rick Swenson a fair bit and on one sharp little downhill our teams briefly tangled and I got a good face wash in the snow. J Several miles of the trail had horses wandering around on it. Although the actual animals had safely retreated away from the teams, their hooves left big holes in the trail and I had to go slow to avoid any dog injuring themselves. Despite that, we were making good time.
We had been warned that there was some open water ˝ mile from the checkpoint. I came across another team having trouble there. My leaders, specifically Oreo, briefly balked at the water, but a sharp verbal reminder that I wasn’t going to tolerate that kind of behavior sent her diving into the shallow water crossing. I had to get my boots a little wet straightening out a little tangle, but nothing to be concerned about. The dogs and I rolled into Seven Up Ranch spunky and happy.
Mark and Rick knew I wasn’t planning on staying and had a snack for the dogs and some other gear waiting for me as I pulled in. We turned the dogs around at the entrance to the checkpoint. They barked and bounced for their fish. I quickly took advantage of the outhouse, grabbed some Gatorade, piled on some extra clothes, and readied the dogs to leave. They were keen to get going and we heading off on the 90-mile leg to Whitetail Ranch.
Seven Up to WhiteTail
I remember some of the climbs on this leg from previous Races, the dogs were doing so well that these hills seemed insignificant. That is such a neat feeling and shows me how far the dogs and I have come in the last few years. We briefly got lost in the dark. The spot was confusing to the dogs and I because of a whole bunch of snowmachine tracks crisscrossing a meadow. After traveling 15 minutes or so with the feeling I was on the wrong trail, I called Gus around and headed back. He had sensed my unconfident mood and was glad to turn around. We regained the trail and I stopped to give everyone a pat and scratch to put them back in a cheery mood. Pretty soon we started passing other teams camped along side the trail. I intended to do the same, because we hadn’t stopped at Seven Up, but wanted a quiet spot. The wind picked up quickly and intensely. Pretty soon, I was just looking for a somewhat sheltered spot.
We found a spot on the edge of some trees and I pulled out my cooler and bowls to give the dog a meal. They ate well and then slowly settled into the snow for a nap. I crawled into my sled bag and pulled my sleeping bag over top of myself to keep warm. Sleep didn’t come for any of us though, every ˝ hour or so, it seemed, a light would shine through the dark and a team would pass by. The dogs and I all lifted our heads and watched each one go by. I had planned on staying 4 hours, but after 3, I decided none of us were getting much rest and it was time to move on. It took me a ˝ hour to snack the dogs and pack up. About that time the dogs all started staring into the woods, obviously aware of some visitor – time to leave!
We passed and were passed by a few teams as we traveled along. We traveled behind Cindy Gallea for a while. By this time the wind was getting downright scary. Trees were whipping and swaying above us. Nik started to limp, I checked over and massaged his leg, shoulder, and foot hoping it wasn’t serious, but he continued to favor it and eventually I loaded him into the sled. As there wasn’t much gear in the sled, he found a great spot to curl up and nap.
As we approached the top of HuckleBerry Pass the wind was incredible, it actually was moving the sled on the trail – and seeing the edge of the trail dropped off the side of a mountain – that wasn’t good. It was a major struggle to keep the sled on the trail and my arms ached by the time we crested the Pass. The blown in trail made for slow going for the, normally fast, 10-mile downhill trail into Whitetail Ranch. Dogs and I were all ready for a real rest when we pulled in.
Turns out the wind had been causing trouble in the checkpoint too. All the trucks were stuck here, as the one road out was blown in. One of the dog trucks was actually stuck out there. Race officials were worried that they couldn’t get drop bags into the Wilderness Checkpoint at Seeley Lake, as that was the next stop for teams. Mark lent them our second sled and they ended up ferrying supplies over by snowmachine, pulling the sled.
The dogs ate really well, even Nik – but his shoulder was obviously too sore for him to continue. I tried to sleep, but it just didn’t happen and eventually I headed back out to hang with Mark, Rick, and the dogs. After our scheduled 4 hour break we pulled the hook and headed to the Wilderness Checkpoint at Seeley Lake. I wouldn’t see Mark and Rick until another 98 miles down the trail at Holland Lake.
Whitetail to the Wilderness Checkpoint
This wasn’t the best leg for the dogs - they seemed sluggish in the heat of the day. As dusk came Gus started to limp and got loaded in the sled. Despite the extra weight, they picked up their speed for the final 13 miles or so into Seeley due to the cooling temperatures. I was hoping to make it in before I had to stop and put on my headlamp and we did.
Wilderness Checkpoint to Holland Lake
We got the dogs settled into a nice sheltered spot next to a snowbank. They didn’t eat with great gusto, but they eventually polished off everything. I had talked to one of the other mushers in the checkpoint and we had decided to travel to Holland Lake together. We agreed on a wake up time and I emptied out my sled bag, stripped out of all my outer clothes and boots, and crawled into my sleeping bag inside the bag. Man, that was the best sleep I have ever had on a race. It was so cozy and comfortable I hated to get up. Nancy had some sore dogs in her team and asked if we could stay for a few more hours before leaving. I agreed. I puttered around my sled and the dogs. I had scratched Gus as soon as we pulled in, but left him with the team until I was ready to leave. Now as I sat around the fire watching him get up and move around in the gangline I began to question my decision. I went over, got a line and took him for a bit of a walk. He looked great. I brought the vet over to look at him and she agreed he was not sore anymore and good to go. I asked if I could ‘undrop’ him and she agreed. As he was marked out with orange paint on his white head, she wrote “OK” in orange next to the other mark. Gus was beginning to look like a walking billboard.
The dogs were up on their feet and ready to go. I gave them each a little ‘Training Bit’ treat that was in a Goodie bag given to us by High Country Beef Jerky. They practically ripped off my fingers and danced for their treats. Surge was in lead and he pawed and nosed at the vet that was helping us out of the checkpoint. The extra 2 hours rest and cool night temperatures had really perked the team up, they were looking to play!
I waited on the trail for Nancy when we pulled out and she roared by a few moments later. Looked like the idea of traveling together was out the window. A mile or so out of the checkpoint I came across Rick Swenson and Kelly Williams each camped on opposite sides of the trail. Grover balked at going through the teams, in fact I thought he might even be lining up to (Gawd forbid) lift his leg on Rick’s sled. Kelly popped out as I was setting the hook to go up front and offered to lead my leaders through. I thanked her, but told her I’d like to try to drive them through. I went up front and moved Grover away for the sled and told him to go ‘On By’. When I went back to my sled and repeated the ‘On By’ they threaded through with no problem. ‘Very impressive’, said Kelly and I smiled.
For the first 10 miles or so out of Seeley the trail is continuously uphill with a lot of switchbacks. It was fun to watch other headlights in front and behind us blink in the very dark night. Grover and Surge were still spunky and actually moved the team at a lope for a lot of the climb.
About 20 miles out of Holland Lake I started to pass the front-runners that were heading back towards Seeley. First was Harmony - we passed on a narrow twisty piece of trail, but Surge and Grover did an admirable job of getting by the other team. Next was John Barron, this pass wasn’t so good, as Surge ended up getting between John’s leaders. I apologized profusely as I ran up front to straighten things out. John was cheery and insisted it was no big deal. He even made a very nice comment about how nice my team was. We had no other problems with the 4 or 5 more head on passes we made coming into Holland. Steve Madsen had passed me (going the same way I was) about 1 hour before the checkpoint, so I was surprised to see him coming towards me at the turn off into the checkpoint. Turns out he had taken a little detour and lost the time he had made up on me.
Holland Lake to Seeley Lake
The vets had nothing but nice things to say about the team when they checked them over in Holland Lake. In fact, one even commented how very proud I should be to bring such a healthy, happy, spirited team as mine into the Race. He gushed over the condition of their feet – which were still bootie free! Gus was a worry though, he had moved strongly through most of the run, but about 1 mile out of Holland, had started to favor his leg again. I decided it was prudent if he remained behind.
Mark and Rick had a room at the Holland Lake Lodge, so in addition to a great meal and a nap in a real bed, I got a shower! What a bonus!
Although I was concerned about the sun beating down on us, we left on schedule.
Sure enough, the warm temps slowed the team down again. They shuffled instead of trotting smartly along, but they kept moving and I knew things would improve when darkness came. We passed Nancy shut down on the trail. She asked me to send her husband out for her when I got into Seeley. She said her team had had it and wouldn’t go anymore. I sure felt for her.
Our speed did indeed pick up during the night. By the time we started the final 10 miles back into Seeley Lake they were smoking along. Grover could see flashes of lights from the town through the trees and that really gets him rolling!
The last 2 miles through the trees we had head on passes with a few teams heading out on the final push to the finish line.
Mark and Rick had a good spot picked out to park the dogs. I understand they had to bribe Terry Adkins with the offer to clean up straw for the team he was handling for to secure it.
Rick Swenson was parked next to us. Rick was just looking at getting a good solid training run on his Iditarod team, so he was not up there with the front runners. It was a real treat to see so much of him on the trail and in checkpoints this Race. Rick gets a bad rap from the media but I consider him to be one of the real class acts in the sport.
The Seeley Lake checkpoint had GREAT food. While I was busy pigging out, race officials were scurrying about trying to get help out to Nancy and looking for another team that was apparently lost. Eventually, Nancy was brought in and Lachlan was found safe. I curled up in the corner and got a good 3 hours sleep. Promptly on the nose of my 6-hour mandatory break, we hit the trail for the 80-mile leg to the finish line.
Seeley Lake to Lincoln
In the early morning I had one of the neatest experiences on this Race. We were kind of slugging along, still waking up and getting ourselves together, when from a steep hill above me came the distinctive barking howl of a wolf. The dogs stopped and we all snapped our heads, trying to get a look at our visitor. I didn’t get one, but the dogs obviously did as they all of a sudden bolted! I was busy gawking and wasn’t hanging onto the sled well. Luckily I was wearing my ‘suicide line’, which is a line that is on the driving bow and is wrapped around my wrist (I only wear this on easy trails and when I’m tired and there is a risk of my drifting off and losing the team). Unluckily, this line was one Mark had made for himself and it was too long for me. Instead of being dragged in a position when I can regain the runners or press down on the brake with my arm, I was dragging helplessly behind the sled. I was never in danger, in fact, I was thinking how comical this must look as I pleaded with the dogs to stop. They did and I climbed back up on the sled, bummed that I didn’t get a glimpse of the wolf.
Predictably, things slowed down as the sun gained strength. Smiley was now riding in the sled, so the extra weight didn’t help either. I wasn’t pleased about having a ‘passenger’ for 60 miles, but Smiles is an honest, hard working dog and if he says he needs to ride – he needs to ride.
The trail pops out for a few miles onto a plowed road and then swings back into some really big ‘hills’. As we came off the road, there were a few signs on the post indication hunting restrictions and such. A big, bright sign that I hadn’t seen before caught my attention – it said “CAUTION – GRIZZLY BEARS IN AREA”. Hmmm – I began to mull over in my mind when exactly Grizzlies come out of hibernation – it was awful warm and spring-like out. (For anyone that might know the answer to that question DO NOT email me – I think I’d rather stay, blissfully, in the dark about this!). About this time Surge grabbed something off the trail and was packing it along with him. I stopped the team and went up to check out his treasure. It was a deer leg. Hmmm – probably some hungry grizzlies first meal since coming out of his winter nap. That ought to be him in a GREAT mood! I tossed the leg far off the trail into the snow and, nervously scanning the countryside, got moving.
The dogs crawled up the pass we were in – it was definitely the slowest they had moved on the Race, but they kept moving. Eventually, the trail leveled out a bit and speed improved. We passed the turnoff into White Tail and I was pleased that the dogs didn’t try to turn in the Ranch. They looked – but kept moving by. At the base of HuckleBerry Pass I stopped, watered the team and gave them each a fish. I had a little chat with Smiley and he agreed to go back in harness for the hellish, 10-mile climb up the Pass.
The climb was as brutal as I expected. What a hill!! A few miles up there is a nice spot that you can see over the valley for miles and miles. I stopped and gave the dogs a quick break while scanning the trail below looking to see if any teams were gaining on me. Sure enough there was a team moving across the flats at a phenomenal speed. My stomach sank, but I figured any team moving that quickly at this point in the Race deserved to finish ahead of me. But wait…something wasn’t right….it was hard to tell, but it sure looked like there were a lot of dogs in that team. Any race team should only have 8 – 10 dogs at this point. I had a clue who it was, but figured I’d know for sure in a bit. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later Doug Swingley, who lives and trains in the area, roared by me with a 20-dog team. That team was moving as quickly up that Pass as mine moves down it - very, very impressive. We exchanged greetings and Doug told me how far I had to go till the finish line (about 15 miles). About ˝ hour later, Sonny King also rolled by with a 20-dog team. This was just not a big confidence builder, but they are awesome teams and they were running much bigger strings then I was.
It seemed like the top of HuckleBerry would NEVER come. The dogs valiantly kept moving forward, but we were all tired. I understand a few teams had much more trouble with the climb then I. One team even shut down for 6 hours just before the top. Finally we were there. At about that exact moment the wind started. Very quickly my sunny day turned into another struggle to keep my sled on the trail.
Honoring my agreement with Smiley. I stopped and loaded him back into the sled. He had been fine at the slow speed moving up the mountain, but the speed coming down was too much for him. I took the opportunity to put on my wind anorak and headlamp. The wind continued to pick up and the team was heading straight into it. Grover was thriving on the challenge – it seemed the harder the wind blew the faster he moved the team.
By the time we turned off the main trail for the final miles into the Finish Line we were really moving. Still, I kept glancing nervously over my shoulder for other teams.
The team came out of the trees into a stiff wind on a barren ridge. I had my fur ruff pulled low to help block out the wind, but out of the corner of my eye I caught some light. It was the large Canadian flag on the finish arch – standing straight out in the wind and lit up by spotlights. How gorgeous. The US flag – also lit and standing straight out came into view and we were at the finish line.
Unexpectedly, there was a pretty good-sized crowd there. We took a few pictures under the arch (Smiley stuck his head out of the bag to make sure he got included!) and then moved the team over to the truck. John Barron stopped me and once again commented on how nice my team was and how nice it was to share the trail with us. I was so flattered. The next day at the Driver’s Meeting he said some very kind things in front of everyone about my skill as a dog driver and the journey I have taken to get there. I can’t begin to explain how that made me feel. It was one of the highlights of my entire mushing ‘career’.
I was touched to see that my friend Marlene had braved bad road conditions to come out and see us finish. Vet, Turner Lewis, went over the team and pronounced them all in terrific shape. He even felt that Smiley’s problem was not a big one and he would be back to himself in no time. It was so obvious to me how we have improved since the last time I finished this Race. I finished a longer version of the Race in less time, with a team that looked much, much better then the team I finished with in 1996. I couldn’t have been any happier!
Many thanks go out to Mark and Rick for doing such a TERRIFIC job of handling for me. But my biggest thanks, of course, go to my canine athletes for the wonderful journey. They were:
Grover, Oreo, Surge, Butch, Kaylinn, Orion, Draco, Mannie, Chester, Smiley, Gus (dropped in Holland Lake), and Nik (dropped in Whitetail).
Karen – 2, Race to the Sky - 2