(from Rookie Handler Colleen Hovind)
A request from Ann Hernandez for photos from my 2006 Iditarod experience as Karen’s handler has sparked this entry. Since returning to Saskatchewan, I have enjoyed sharing my Alaska story with family, friends and basically anyone interested in listening to me babble about my “experience of a lifetime”. The reality is that a lot of my favorite memories of the trip are stored in my memory rather than in photos or video. I kept a diary of my experience, so will share some of my favorite Kodak moments with you.
Saturday, February 18
Moses in Single Lead
Karen decided that Mo would run single lead and left the yard with 10 dogs. (Moses is the first North Wapiti dog that I fell in love with when I met Karen for the first time a few years ago in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Canadian Siberian Husky Specialty.) On returning to the yard a couple of hours later, Karen claimed that Mo was trying to kill her, but she was grinning from ear to ear. Turns out, Mo hadn’t run lead for a while and Karen figured he was reminding her that not running him in lead was a mistake on her part. Karen figured Mo was having flashbacks to his days as a sprint racer. I think I might have seen a couple of the team dogs picking their lungs up off the ground after having to maintain Mo’s idea of a “swift pace”. Everyone received extra snacks that day – pieces of salmon were flying everywhere.
Sunday, February 19
It was a clear night as Karen and I took one more walk out to the dog yard to make sure everyone was tucked in. Both of us were in awe as we looked up at the night sky. Karen showed me how to find Orion. Later that night when I was walking back to my sleeping quarters, I was looking for Northern Lights but instead found Orion, shining bright. Big smile from the tired handler.
Tuesday, February 21
My first experience at loading and unloading the North Wapiti kids from their truck boxes. Karen shows me how it’s done, we load the 22 Olympians into their respective boxes and we’re off to Iditarod Headquarters to visit the Vet Techs. The parking lot at Iditarod Headquarters is a sheet of ice – thank God for my ice cleats. Karen is inside with the techs, Mark is reading in the truck and I am attempting to pretend to know what I’m doing – retrieving dogs from boxes a few at a time, putting them on drop chains, relaying them to and from the make-shift clinic, then putting them back in their boxes. Easier said than done. I think I’m doing not too bad. I’ve managed to get five or so in and out without incident. The “chicks” are on the top layer of boxes because they are lighter and it is easier to lift. Enter Nahanni. I open her box and get a firm grip on her collar. Just as I fully open her door, she flies out of her box and before I know it she and I are both sailing through the air. I remember the sacred rule of mushing – never let go. I hit the pavement first, she lands on me but somehow we right the wrong and manage to get to our feet. I shake myself off and am checking to make sure Nahanni is okay when I hear a voice “are you okay lady”. A guy walking out of Iditarod Headquarters witnesses the Kodak Moment – great. When he realizes we are okay, he bursts out laughing saying he wished he’d caught it on video – I think his exact works were “that was worth a million bucks”. He and I have a good laugh while Nahanni and the other furry faces note the incident to report back to Karen.
Saturday, February 25
Crunchie’s Burp and The Need for Speed
While we are feeding this morning, a few snowflakes start to fall. Karen gets very excited and counts the three flakes that have fallen on her jacket. We consider doing a “snow dance” to motivate the Snow Gods. No dance needed. By late afternoon there are several inches of fluffy white stuff on the ground. We hook up a team of 10 and Karen invites me to come along. This will be my first sled ride with the dogs, although I have been on a couple of 4-wheeler training runs with Karen back in Alberta. The snow is still falling as we head out. We pass over lakes along the trail and Karen points out her favorite spots. I can’t believe this is happening. I’m in Alaska, out on a sled with the North Wapiti team. Karen and I chat back and forth, commenting on the dogs and the scenery - both are breathtaking. Karen stops along the way to give the dogs a break and a much deserved roll in the snow. We admire the sun that is peaking out from the snow clouds and for a few seconds all is silent. I think to myself this is a moment that I will remember forever – then the silence is broken. I believe Crunchie is the culprit. He let’s out the biggest dog burp that I am sure echoes across the lake. The sound catches the dog’s attention and everyone gets back into position from making their snow angels. A few more seconds, and we’re back in motion. I laugh to myself thinking what a perfect way to end a moment in time. Further down the trail, Karen decides to let the dogs go at warp speed as a reward for their hard work. They voluntarily take the opportunity and Karen clocks them at 20 mph. Ohhhhhh
Tuesday, February 28
Hector’s Post It Notes
This morning is Vet Checks at the Big Lake Veterinary Clinic. Today we will go through a similar routine as we did when the dogs visited the vet techs. I will drop dogs and bring them one at a time into the clinic. The difference today is that Mark feels well enough to be out and about, so he will be able to give me some tips on what needs to happen and when. In retrospect, I think Mark was actually getting a little bored and needed some entertainment – well he got it. My first of four mistakes that day as “rookie handler” occurred early on in the process. We use dog food bags to collect the “dumps” that the dogs make while out on the drop chains. After getting the first set of dogs onto their drop chains, I got out the dog food bag and placed it behind the truck along with the scooper. Thinking everything was under control I went into the clinic with a dog. When I came out Mark was standing at the back of the truck with a smile on his face and said he had something to show me. There were a million bits of dog food bag scattered around the parking lot and there was Hector, busily shredding more and totally unaware of our presence. Seems I had placed the dog food bag too close to Hector’s well muscled front legs and he had managed to keep himself quite busy making Post-It Note sized pieces out of the bag. Oh, he is so cute. I wrestle the paper bits from Hector’s clutches and spend a few minutes cleaning up the mess. Mark walked away with a particular skip in his step that had nothing to do with carrying around a cast. I consider kicking him in his good leg, but decided that if anyone needs a kick it is probably me for leaving a paper bag close to a Siberian. After four hours at the clinic and an “all clear” from the vet, we head off to Wasilla for lunch to reflect on the morning’s events, including an entertaining recap of my rookie handler errors.
Friday, March 3
The Collar Ceremony
Today was a particularly busy day with another successful open house. Once the majority of visitors were gathered in the house visiting, I started the task of giving each dog a new red collar that includes their official Iditarod tag. As I made my way around the dog yard, it dawned on me that this was a very important right of passage so to speak. As I struggled to remove the old collar I wondered why it was so hard to get the buckle to slide. I don’t have this problem taking off my own dog’s collars which are the same style. Then it occurred to me that these collars have been with these dogs for an entire year, through every step on their stake out chain, every mile of training, every moment of the last year. My head starts to conjure up a sentimental journey. For those dogs that went on last year’s Iditarod, I can make out faint traces of their names that were printed on the cloth last year. I give each dog a scratch under their old collar and then carry on with the ceremony. Of course ceremony for me always has to come with a few tears, so the dogs help me wipe them away and they seem to enjoy the extra salty taste. After all 22 are sitting with bright new collars, I decide that it wouldn’t be a ceremony without a song, so I convince Hector to lead the group in a celebratory howl. Later in the day, I confess to Karen that I got all emotional while changing the collars. In true Karen fashion, she smiles and says she understands.