Truck Days

My days with Jodi are full of dogs and dirt and kibble, tuglines and harnesses, tire chains and trailer hitches, sawed, stewed meat, gray jays picking at the scraps and squirrels in the awnings waiting their turn. There are voles in the dog food bags, fat and happy, not even scrambling to get away from the human hands dipping in with their scoopers for the next meal. There is firewood to be chopped and brought in, stoves to be stoked, water to be hauled. The clouds hover around the foothills of the Whites, promising snow, refusing to follow through. The temperature is below freezing now, hopefully for good.

In the mean time, the work of early season training goes on. With the trails nearby too icy and rutted for decent quad runs, we switched to truck training on some nearby* BLM roads that are unmaintained and therefore sufficiently snow covered in early winter.  This involves quite a circus of mid-morning activity as Jodi and I chain up her truck tires, hitch the dog trailer, play “catch-and-release” (or really release-and-catch, but the other way has a much nicer ring to it, no?) to shuttle dogs between the dog yard and the trailer to load up. My experience with my own dogs bolting into the woods to chase whatever scent or bunny/deer/moose/grouse is at hand leaves me vaguely nervous for this part, but her fantastic team has proven reliable to sprint around for a minute before heading to the trailer to load up for the run. Packed up finally, we head out, unchain once we reach the highway, and make our way to what has become our trailhead. Once there, the trailer is unhitched and the dogs are unloaded, harnessed and hitched to a gangline attached to the front bumper of the truck. They look fantastic, lining out and settling into their runs like professionals. Even the young dogs are figuring out the routine and sliding seamlessly towards being a part of the team. Watching the team line out, lean into their harnesses, lunge forward at the call to go, swing gee and haw through the turns, take their breaks and launch back into the run with the joy and enthusiasm they are born to is beautiful to see.

The other thing that’s beautiful is the landscape around this network of roads in the foothills of the mountains. It doesn’t take long to leave the (mostly deserted anyway) highway behind and top out a long climb into 365 degree views of mountains, spindly northern forests with her Charlie Brown Christmas Tree spruce scattered across the lower elevations, ridgelines with ominous rock outcroppings, the weathered landmarks of centuries and on the near horizon, snowcapped peaks rolling into further distance. There is wilderness in every direction, and even on blustery, overcast days with just the dim blue sub-arctic light glowing below the clouds, the views and the stomach churning vastness of it all, of being in the midst of such wilderness, makes me catch my breath a little.

But of course, the real and immediate thing is the dogs. Their smooth, ground-eating trot over the landscape, ears perked towards ravens overhead or grouse in the bushes even as they follow the command to continue ahead and not give chase. Their eyes bright as they sidle up for a quick scratch during a break and foot check. Their tails flagging back and forth happily after a run, each leaning in for a back scratch as we go up and down the line taking off harnesses, dolling out praise and compliments, then loading dogs back into warm, straw-filled boxes for the ride back to the kennel and  a warm dinner of meat stew and kibble.

It goes without saying that mushers would rather be on sleds, sliding along trails through the mountains and not stuck on the backs of quads or in trucks, the miles suddenly interminable without runners and handlebars and snowhooks and trail. Oh, good trail! But these early season runs are still something I look forward to each time we head out. They are full of strong, happy dogs and a fantastic wilderness that I still have to pinch myself sometimes to believe I’m trekking through. Snow will come, trials will solidify and sleds will be pulled out. But in the mean time, this foundation is critical – both for the dogs and for me as Jodi and I talk about routes and mileage, dog gaits and habits, injuries and booties and feet, feeding (oh, the endless talk of food – ours and theirs!) training and conditioning. These conversations won’t be possible later, at least not in the volume we are privy to now with so many hours in the truck behind the teams, so I’m trying to make the most of what we have for now – truck training may not be ideal, but it is nothing I’ll turn my nose up at. Especially given the alternative.

* Alaskan “nearby” here referring to something closer than an hour away if the roads are decent.


First Dew Claw Day

Outside the barn, next to the woodshed, half of one fifty gallon drum sits atop another. In the bottom drum, a roaring fire makes short work of the logs fed into its voracious belly. Above, soup for the thirty-some dogs in the dog yard below bubbles and steams. Jodi flips the lid off the top drum, and I flinch a little as the sharp black ears and then dull lower teeth and lolling tongue of a horse’s head bobs to the surface, turns once, and sinks again. The smell of a bland beef stew permeates the chilly fall air and my mouth waters a little in spite of myself. I knew that horse’s head stew was on the menu for the dogs this morning, but seeing the beast’s muzzle surface and dive was another thing altogether. I stood by as Jodi measured out kibble and meat into buckets for the dogs, then scooped the fragrant, steaming broth over top. I tried hard to pay attention to the number of scoops in each bucket, the level of water, the relative proportion of meat chunks, but the black pony’s muzzle kept bobbing to the surface of my mind. Jodi sent me with two buckets back up to the house to fetch water to refill the soup pot, and when I returned we made our way down the slick driveway – so thankful for her extra pair of spiked overboots, as mine were back at my cabin an hour and a half away – to the dog yard where a chorus of anticipation met us and the buckets of steaming, kibble-laden equine soup. Jodi dished out breakfast – a substantial kibble meal for the retired dogs and a lighter fare for the working dogs about to hit the trail – and we proceeded to carefully scoop the yard clear of dog shit while the now silent team inhaled their breakfast.

Between the tour of the kennel, including the walk-in freezer with stacks of salmon and horse quarters arranged neatly along one side, the shop with its nearly finished dog-box project, and piles of errant equipment, chains, gloves drying over the barrel stove, coils of spare runner plastic, benched sleds, mountains of booties and first aid equipment for man and beast alike, it was late morning by the time we were done. We retired to the cabin where Guppy, the sweet grey and white lead dog that broke her ankle on Iditarod years ago and has been a house husky ever since, met us to solicit an ear rub and some cuddles. Jodi talked about the kennel, feeding, mushers we both know, as she threw together a kefir smoothie with bananas, blueberries and bee pollen to get us through the next part of the day (her triple-B smoothie, she proclaimed.) It was truly the tastiest, most refreshing thing that has passed my lips in months if not years. We bundled up again, despite the unseasonably warm weather that was quickly turning the trail heading away from the cabin and towards the White Mountains into an ice chute, and headed back to the dog yard.

Jodi’s yard, like many serious racing kennels in Alaska, consists of dogs they have carefully bred over years for the qualities they need to populate their team; a solid physiology, a adoration for people, an insatiable drive to run and an appetite to match. Many of the litters of brothers and sisters look nearly alike, some black with blue eyes, some grey with white-edged ears and muzzles, others brown-flecked. Each dog eager to be chosen to run today, all running into a muddle of fur and ear and wet black nose in my mind. How will I learn so many names, with such subtle differences between siblings (his head is a little more square than his brother’s, and see, she has a tiny bit more white under the chin than her sister.) I have no hope, at least today, with my addled brain already full of harness sizes and kibble proportions and the ingredients of horse-and-salmon stew. I don’t try very hard, yet, and instead fetch one dog at a time, harnessing where Jodi points, hooking up a team of thirteen along the line from her four-wheeler to the trailhead at the top of the yard.

The trail is icy, but uphill, and the dogs pull hard for a hundred yards then a few stop to relieve themselves after the excitement of hookup. We pause, then head up the trail again, pause, then begin the slow climb up a 4x4 hunting trail into the low rolling foothills. After a mile, Jodi stops and I hop off the quad. There is a scramble as we realize we have forgotten the bear spray carefully set aside in the barn for this part of the afternoon – she hands me instead her .45 and calls the dogs to head on up the trail. I am alone among the paper birch and fox tracks in the snow. I start walking back down the trail towards the kennel, hefting aside loose rocks that will tear up the trail groomer later in the season. Behind the birch trees, the sky is a clear blue, cloudless and perfect. The sun is bright and I quickly shed layers as I make my slow meander back down the hill, flinging rocks into trees and humming into the echoing silence of the forest. There could not have been a more beautiful day for an amble in the woods.

Too soon, I hear a quad coming back down the trail, but instead of a dog team and Jodi, there is a lone, bearded man, a trailer of firewood behind him and a shotgun slung across his back. Jodi had warned me that I might run into Trapper Jon, and here he was, heading home after a morning in the woods. He stopped his machine and remarked on the beautiful day, pointed out marten tracks in the snow, talked about the windstorm that had blown in the trail with downed timber for weeks last winter. He showed me the two grouse he had just shot, and explained how each part would be part of a trap for a different animal, the breast meat for himself for dinner, the tail feathers saved to sell to a girl in town who used them for some kind of crafting. He talked about his respect for Jodi and Dan and their operation with the dogs, their care for the trails. He talked about the recent crash of the mouse population and how that effected his marten trapping, but how the numbers are coming back – he can see by the tracks already criss-crossing the woods around us that it’s going to be a good year for marten. He talked about the opening of beaver season and how he’s already bagged two animals, how this will bolster his trapping already for the bait they provide. His eyes crinkle in the bright sunlight, and after a while he bid me a nice walk and continued on town the trail, firewood in tow, towards his own cabin and lone hound waiting for him there.

Just before I had reached the cut-off to the house, Jodi and the team came down the trail behind me. The icy downhill proved difficult and she couldn’t stop the quad until a flat place in the trail further down. The dogs, tails wagging and faces grinning even at the end of their eleven mile workout, barely let her stop long enough for me to clamber aboard for the short ride back to the yard.

Jodi declared the trail too icy for venturing out with a second team, and instead we spent an hour catching up with visiting friends who stopped by the cabin while I let my own dog out to stretch her legs and go through her obedience paces. Late in the afternoon, Jodi made short work of the horse’s head, breaking up the bones for  the older dogs to gnaw and filleting the meat from them with a skill and efficiency I could not hope to match. I took the easier task of slicing frozen salmon with a meat saw to add to the soup for the next morning’s brew and fetching more water from the cabin. We fed and scooped the yard again, built up the barrel fire and put away the quad. My arms were sore with the unaccustomed work, and I was glad it had been a warm day for it, this first foray into the day in the life of a working kennel, the first of many this fall.

We took turns showering and I hopped on the internet to catch up on some email while Jodi cooked dinner. Dan came home from work and headed to the shop to continue working on the dog box, then joined us a delectable turkey-and-sourdough casserole. Later that night, I left the cozy warmth of the cabin perched on the side of the mountain to drive back to town under the eerie glow of northern lights along the horizon, dancing in long green streaks in the clear night sky.


Two years later ...

I am spending the fall in Fairbanks, and spending several days a week at Jodi Bailey & Dan Kaduce's Dew Claw Kennel. Although I've had a chance to attend a couple of lower-48-style mid-distance races in Minnesota over the last two years, I've missed Alaska and her unique mushing subculture badly. Although I can't put together my own team for just a few months - and there won't be enough snow for sleds for most of the time I'm there anyway - Jodi has been generous enough to let me moon around her kennel & dogs, getting my fix and learning about the inner workings of an Iditarod team deep in fall training for the big race in March.

So I'm opening up this blog again for the fall to keep track of the lessons learned and stories gleaned from a few months back up north. In the mean time, I'm writing again over at my old blog Entelechy about everything else is going on during my brief return to the north country on the ground and in my snow-addled brain.


On Hold

We have made our way to Iowa for the next few years. Jodi & Aliy's dogs have gone home, Norrin has found a forever home with a skijoring family where he will be much happier without the stress of a big team around him. There are a few stories left to tell between my last post and the last snow, but they will have to wait. We have traversed the interim miles between home and the cornfields of the midwest with Pico, who is adjusting to his new city life with the usual laconic ease of his even pawed temperament. In the mean time, you can follow our Outside adventures at http://entelechyproject.wordpress.com

Happy Trails.



The next adventure on our plate came unexpectedly. A friend of mine who teaches at the community college is thinking about getting back into mushing, now that her son is five and old enough to hold on to the sled and help out with the dogs. Every year, Jenny takes a trip out to some public-use cabins near Fairbanks. She usually goes with visiting family, or friends with kids, but this year no traveling companions had materialized. She proposed a trip out to one of the cabins with my dog team and her snow machine, both for companionship and to get a feel for if she really does want to put together a team of her own.

This seemed like a perfect match. One of my goals for this winter was to do some cabin trips and some camping, but I was still a little wary of setting out for my first trip all alone. I don't have enough dogs to haul two people and all the gear and food we'd need. But with her snow machine available for most of the heavy hauling - and the company of another adult - teaming up for this first trip seemed ideal. I could bring more gear than the bare minimum, and would be able to see what I really did need without worrying about too much weight. And we wouldn't have the chaos - this time - of trying to cut and haul firewood back to the cabin with the dog team.

We reserved the Stiles Creek Cabin, about eight miles off road in the Chena Recreation Area near Fairbanks. I spent the week before the trip trying to figure out what all I needed to secure eight dogs and keep them fed and comfortable for two nights without dog houses or running water. In the end, I decided to use the drop-chains I had made for the truck, planning to string them together and secure them with the two snow hooks I was now carrying on the sled. I picked up a bale of straw from a local supply store for their bedding, as we are using grass hay in their houses here and it didn't seem bulky enough to keep them warm in the snow at the cabin.

I arrived home at seven am from work on the morning of our trip, and fed the dogs immediately. While they digested their breakfast, I scrambled to pack dog food, moose snacks, water pots, food bowls, harnesses, lines and the sled, as well as food and sleeping gear for myself. (Peter had generously taken care of making and freezing chilli and putting together pancake fixings for us while I was at work.)  One thing that surprised me was the sheer weight of the dog food we would need for just two nights - four meals - away. I began to wonder about the feasibility of longer trips without a place to resupply heavy food. I was going to have to work on getting the team used to hauling a heavier load.

I had decided to bring Pico along on this trip, even though he hasn't been running with the team. I knew that he'd be able to free-run the distance to the cabin with no problems, and I wasn't planning on hooking him up with the team although I did bring a harness for him just in case. When we arrived at the trail-head, however, he and Marley, my friend's one year old lab-golden mix, did not hit it off well. He was uncharacteristically growly with her, and I made a last-minute decision to hook him in with the team (putting Norrin back up with Billie) to keep them separated until they could work out their differences. Pico was ecstatic to be back in with the other dogs, but his lack of conditioning this year showed and he stopped pulling about two miles in. He kept up, however, running happily with a slack tug and wagging his tail whenever we stopped for a break.

And we stopped for a lot of breaks. Even though the trail to the cabin was only eight miles, it was a steep, hilly eight miles. The dogs were carrying all of my gear (their heavy food, bowls and chains were in Jenny's sled) as well as Jenny's son Sawyer who was perched happily on top of my duffel bag taking it all in. I ran up the hills behind the dogs, sweating through all my layers and glad I hadn't put on a parka as we left the parking lot. The views from the ridges were worth it though, the hills of the interior giving way to the sharp white peaks of the Alaska Range further south and everything covered in snow and sunshine. I was happy to stop at the top of each rise to catch my breath and take it all in.

We arrived at the cabin in one piece, Sawyer having ridden like a champ on top of all my gear without complaint the whole way in. We stayed two nights, spending most of Friday on the trails gathering firewood to restock the meager store at the cabin and running the dogs along the ridges further down the trail. Jenny had brought a rickety little sled from a friend, and we tried to split the team in two so she could get a feel for running dogs again. I put Billie and Norrin in front of Devilfish and Parka, but Norrin - again in the unseasonable heat - wasn't willing to pull up the hills and Billie wasn't willing for force him. Although Jenny's chase team of Reese, Pepper and Xtra were on our heels the whole time, it wasn't hard since we stopped every ten paces going up anything resembling a slope. Jenny had fun, but it wasn't a very successful run as far as that goes. I was left pretty frustrated with Norrin, and more sure than ever that Billie does best up front alone.

I let Pico run free with Marley and the snow machine on the trip back to the road on day three. Initially, he ran ahead to the snow machine and then bolted back to the middle of the team, causing some chaos and eliciting lots of yells and frustration from me. But eventually he tired of this game and just ran a few yards up ahead of Billie. This was great for me, as the dogs charged up the hills chasing him and I didn't have to do quite as much work behind the runners. But he tired even of this the last couple of miles, and decided he wanted to be with his pack. Much to the confusion of Xtra and Pepper, he took a place right next to them - no harness or lines - and ran the rest of the way back to the truck head held high, right in the middle of the team.

Overall, I got a good sense of what I would (and wouldn't) need camping with the team, and the whole thing was incredibly enjoyable. The dogs did great camping out. It was clear which dogs had raced before, as the race-savvy crew settled down immediately to sleep when they saw straw in the snow but Norrin and Pico stood confused for several hours before figuring it out. One thing that concerned me, besides the weight of the food, was the amount of time it took to melt enough snow for the dogs on the woodstove in the cabin. It took hours. I knew that "dog cookers" - camping stoves designed specifically to melt large amounts of snow for camping with dogs - were commercially available but prohibitively expensive for our little outfit. I'd heard that DIY versions weren't hard to make, and realized now that this was something I'd have to look in to if were were going to do any more overnight exploring. 

The temperatures were so mild that the cabin stayed warm for most of the night even without a stoked fire, and it felt good to be able harvest and leave so much firewood for the next cabin users - something that would have taken a lot more work without a snow machine and trailer to haul it all out of the woods. The trip re-energized my desire to do more overnights - both cabin and camping - before the suddenly fast-approaching end of the season. We got back to Fairbanks ready for more. My new plan was to spend the next few weeks doing longer runs, hauling more weight and hatching plans to get out again overnight, hopefully sooner than later.


single lead

After returning from Circle, I was eager to get the team out on the trail. Based on our last run, I knew I needed to focus on my leaders - particularly on turns and on confidence. The temperature as we headed out that morning was unseasonably warm for February, sitting between twenty five and thirty above zero. I hooked up a very restless team with Billie and Norrin up front, and we started out towards the lower Rosie Creek crossing.

My leaders took the turn from the road at the trailhead on cue. There was a tiny patch of refrozen overflow on the edge of the creek, the ice brown and churned from passing hikers and skiers, but it was covered in a dust of new snow and the dogs didn't notice it until we were already over the ice. It wasn't long before I noticed Norrin slacking his tug line. His tongue had been lolling nearly to the ground before we even started running, and it was clear that in the heat his motivation was bottomed out. Billie wasn't willing to keep up the pace if Norrin was lagging behind. Before we had gone a mile, the whole team had stalled out in the sun.

It had been over a month since I had last - unsuccessfully - tried to run Reese up at the front of the team. Thinking this might have been enough time for the Reese Brain to forget its obsession with U-turns, I started the process of switching him with Norrin up front. Eager to go, Reese looked back at me and began shrieking and slamming his harness before I'd even gotten Norrin backed up and clipped in. His enthusiasm caught on. Parka and Devilfish began slamming their harnesses, popping out the snow hook as they did so. I grabbed the sled as it passed, using its momentum to swing onto the runners with a sign of relief. But no sooner were my feet down and my eyes back up on the trail than the sled slowed and I saw Reese weaving his way back through the team, bounding towards me in a blind ecstasy of enthusiasm and energy. The snowhook was still in my hand, so I set it and dove into the fray in one motion. I hauled Billie and Reese back up front, unclipping Reese as I went. Stepping over lines and tangles, I hauled Reese back to wheel, leaving him with Parka and moving Devilfish up, working hard to figure out what to do next.

I put Devilfish in swing, and moved Xtra up front with Billie. Reese and Devilfish were now both yelping in tandem for us to get moving again. Norrin, alone in the team position, stood with a slack line, watching and panting and occasionally taking a mouthful of snow. No help. I was sweating from running back and forth along the team. Xtra hung back, and Billie didn't seem willing to line out with her pressure on his neckline. I pulled the hook and called them to go anyway. Billie took up the slack between his collar and Xtra's, and when she didn't move forward with him, he stopped. Xtra looked back at me, sideways in the trail. It was clear she wasn't going anywhere next to Billie. Pepper dove into the snowbank. I set the snow hook again.

I unhooked Pepper, who was now tangled in a knot around Devilfish's line, and moved her up with Billie. I got Xtra back into Pepper's spot in swing, but as I was giving her a reassuring pat on the shoulder I felt a bump. Pepper's squat, powerful little body had managed to haul Billie by his neckline back down the trail towards us, and she was smacking her head into my legs and trying to climb up on my back to get some of the attention I was giving Xtra. I walked Pepper and Billie back up front, gave them a pat and told them to line out. I turned. I took two steps back towards the sled and a still-shrieking Reese. I felt my knees give as Pepper bolted back towards me and knocked me off the trail into the snow. Now that I was at her level, there were kisses all around. Devilfish and Xtra joined in, creating the biggest, most complicated tangle to date and effectively pinning me in the snow. Billie hung back and stared at the chaos in the snow bank. Reese continued to yelp at full volume, nearly in my ear. Pepper yipped along with him, tail wagging happily at all the excitement. Norrin stood on the trail, panting, lines slack. A mile from home. I wanted to cry.

Instead, I gently fended off Pepper's affection, righted myself and got my feet back on the packed trail. I unclipped, untangled and reclipped the mess of lead and swing dogs. I took off my fleece and threw it back into the sled basket and threw my hat in too, for good measure. I held Billie and Pepper forward by the neckline and stared back at the team. What to do?

I unclipped Pepper completely, and walked her back to Norrin's single spot in team. Unclipping his neckline, I secured her with it. His huge, unmoving bulk kept her on the trail while I walked back up to Billie. I took the second leader tug and started working it backwards out of the gangline. Billie was going to have to lead on his own, or I was going to be walking in front with him, all the way home. I got Pepper set up with a tug next to Norrin. To my surprise, Billie was still up front when I turned. The gangline was slack and sitting on the trail, but he was peacefully munching snow and hadn't made a move back towards the team. I walked forward and pulled him with me until his lines were taunt. I gave him a pat on the shoulder and said, "Line Out, Billie." I walked backwards down the trail towards the sled. Billie sat down primly on the trail and turned watch me over his shoulder. He didn't move.

I tentatively pulled the hook, calling "OK, let's go." Billie took a couple of steps forward. Everyone else took off at a dead run, weary of the extensive stall-out in the sunshine. Devilfish and Xtra slammed into Billie's hind end and he jolted forward, hitting the end of his tug hard ... and he stayed up front, tug straight as an arrow, leading the team over the hill, past the old burn and behind the Quist farm.

We skidded down a little hill to one of the intersections that had given me so much trouble with Reese in November. I called "Billie, Gee!" sounding much more authoritative than I felt, mentally preparing for another giant tangled mess of dogs and lines. Billie banked right and disappeared around the corner. I let out a whoop of elation, and nearly lost the sled as it whipped through the turn and hit the snow bank on the other side.

Billie charged up the next little hill, and I thought about what I knew of this trail. We hadn't gone this way all year. Last year, with the old girls, Pico and Norrin we'd kept straight and hit a huge, steep hill about a quarter mile further along. I didn't want to stall out Billie's spectacular progress with a challenge like that, not now. Up ahead, I saw where a snowmachine had plowed a trail to the left. I called, "Billie, Haw!" and like a miracle (it felt like a such a miracle I nearly burst with the relief of it) my stocky blond boy sped up and whipped to the left, disappearing behind the snow bank, never looking back. The team followed at full-tilt, and I hung on for dear life. Finally, I had my leader.

For the next week, I left Billie out front alone.  Devilfish and Parka went back to wheel, Norrin and Reese pulled together in team, Pepper and Xtra were my swing girls, backing Billie up. He thrived. We did a series of short ten mile runs, testing out commands. He wasn't always perfect, but he corrected and kept going. The temperatures stayed warm. Overflow built up on the lower Rosie Creek crossing causing some stall-outs and tangles but we worked through it and kept on trucking. Over the weekend, I had another Paramedic from work come out to the house. For the first time, I took someone on a sled ride out of the yard, over the big road berms and overflow and maze of trails across the creek - and it was a success! Billie turned on command like a dream, the team hauled us over everything without wavering and my friend had a blast, asking to come out for another run any time we were willing.

I did a lot of thinking about Billie over that week, as we navigated turns that had us stymied all year and explored trails we'd never been able to negotiate before. I hadn't bonded with him much. He's a reserved guy. I'm not even sure I'd ever seen his tail wag.  Instead I put my energy into the potential leadership of other dogs and took Billie's position up front for granted. A placeholder, nothing more. When the other dogs stalled out, Billie took his cues from them and stopped. When they took a wrong turn or refused to correct, he stood by and watched. This week, I began to realize that Billie and I have more in common than I thought.

I am a relatively new paramedic in a position of unusual leadership at my job for no other reason than that there aren't any better qualified medics in the area willing to work where I do. Whenever there is a doctor or nurse or even another paramedic around, I automatically defer to them because I assume they must know better. But in doing so, and getting burned by my deference on many an occasion, I am (slowly, painfully) learning that the training and experience I do have, and the instincts that are growing as I practice pre-hospital medicine, are worth something. Worth a lot, in fact. I'm beginning to trust myself more, but I still find that I let go of my own control and leadership at the drop of a hat. I stand back and watch instead of stepping up and engaging. And when I defer what I know, and what I know I can do, I usually regret it. Like Billie, I do best when I'm left out there on my own. When I'm given a chance and show what I am capable of without the easy out of someone else to fall back on, I usually manage to do just fine. 

I hope I can begin to step up when I find myself out front, alone or not. I want to learn to charge around those corners with courage, trusting all that is behind me and acting on the training and knowledge I've built up there, even if I don't know what lies ahead on the trail. Billie and I have a long way to go, but for a while this winter, we can work on getting there together.


Checkpoints :: Part II

I had been told that the checkpoint in Circle was at the fire house, and I should report there on arrival. Having been in Circle for the wildfire two summers ago,  I knew that it wouldn't be hard to find, even after dark. Circle is a primarily Athabascan community of about one hundred people. There is a school house, a community building, a washateria and a gas station with a few shelves of dry goods. If you fly your plane into the little air strip there, you must taxi down the main street - which is also the highway - to the gas station to fill up your fuel tanks. The one road into town terminates at a boat ramp on the banks of the Yukon river.

I drove past the few houses on the outskirts of the village proper, passed the big field where I lived for three weeks while the wildfires raged, nearly missed recognizing the darkened gas station and saw the fire house like a beacon, brightly lit with a huge checkpoint sign hoisted above the fire doors. I drove to the end of the road - about fifty more yards - turned around at the boat ramp and parked on the street. The entire town, with the exception of the fire station, was quiet and dark. It was about seven o'clock.

Walking into the parking lot of the fire station, I could see a small group of volunteers hoisting the "Circle City Checkpoint" banner over the entrance to the dog yard from the trail and another group walking towards me. I approached them and introduced myself. Jean, with a strong Australian accent, was clearly in charge. This was her third year as a checkpoint volunteer, and she does one checkpoint on each side of the border. She gave me a quick tour of the dog yard - where straw was stored, where mushers' drop bags had been arranged in alphabetical order, where teams would be parked when they started arriving, and went over Checker's responsibilities. We would stop teams at the entrance to the dog yard, mark the time, check mandatory gear (ax, snowshoes, sleeping bag, cooker, vet paperwork, etc) then help the musher park their team. We would deliver straw and drop bags to the musher, replace the batteries in their GPS tracker and make sure the tracker was replaced securely on their sled bag. When the musher left, we would double check the GPS, tick off mandatory gear and mark their exit time. We walked down to the Yukon river and placed a few more trail markers out. I noticed a pool of overflow already seeping up onto the ice right on the banks of the river, slick and shiny in our headlamps. It was twenty below zero.

Then we went into the checkpoint itself - a small two-bay fire station that apparently doesn't get much use during the year. The fire truck didn't look to be in service - at any rate it wasn't going to roll out during the Quest - and there was no fire gear that I could see anywhere inside. A huge tank labeled "dog water" sat precariously on a wooden frame right next to the front doors. The other bay held several picnic tables, a large rack for drying gear, a set-up for someone to cook with electric griddles, crock pots, coffee pots, a microwave and human-grade water jugs. There were two tiny side rooms, off the fire bay. One was labeled "musher's sleeping quarters" and the other had a ham-radio set up as well a a few cots tucked away in the back for the race veterinarians.

I realized quickly that my expectation of sleeping on the floor inside the checkpoint was not going to happen. There was simply no room. Even before the mushers began arriving, media, spectators and handlers began crowding the tiny empty bay. A couple of people had crawled under the fire truck with sleeping bags but looked restless and miserable in the cramped grimy space. Bright lights and a hundred conversations in the echoing building were going to make indoor sleep - at least for me - impossible. I reluctantly went out to my truck and arranged all my cold-weather sleeping gear to try and get some shut-eye on the bench seat of the cab.

I should pause here to talk about my expectations of working at a checkpoint. I knew I could and would be doing anything that needed doing. I also expected (this being Alaska, and a volunteer effort) a certain lack of organization overall. I had half-expected the utter lack of indoor accommodations despite being told they were available, which is why I had brought enough cold-weather gear to comfortably sleep in my truck. I had brought food for myself and cash to purchase food from students in the little village school, knowing there was a chance the checkpoint food wouldn't be fair game for anyone but mushers. I expected to be cold, and to not get much sleep. But the biggest expectation I had was that working for the race, I'd be able to be in and around the mushers in the checkpoint - overhearing interviews & conversations, listening to stories from the trail, observing checkpoint routines & organization, seeing what gear different teams were using. Basically learning all I could by osmosis and proximity. This hope is what drove me out to Circle in the first place.

The first wave of mushers began arriving at about two fifteen in the morning. Brent Sass was first in, and there was some confusion as we tried to get his team parked as the checkpoint manager had suddenly changed the way we'd been told to steer and park the teams five minutes before he arrived. As we got his team parked, Hugh Neff pulled in with a dog in his sled bag and suddenly we were scrambling. There were only three adults and a teenage boy working as checkers at Circle, two with no experience around sled dogs at all. One of us was always out on the trail, watching for approaching headlamps. Another had the clipboard to do the official check-in. Another was trying with only middling success to help mushers get their teams parked (this is usually a multiple person job.) The last was scrambling to get gear and hay to mushers as they came in. We needed more help anyway, especially since mushers tended to come in waves, and the way things were looking, nobody was going to get any sleep any time that night. 

The front runners continued to come in until about six that morning. I had ended up with the job of standing out on the trail watching for teams for the rest of the night, and by the time it was determined that no more teams were on the immediate horizon I was exhausted. I hadn't been indoors since about ten that evening, except to occasionally run an arrival time to the ham radio guy. My socks inside my bunny boots were soaking wet, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I hadn't seen the face of a single front-running musher all night, or heard them say anything except "Where do I park?" When Jean told me I could go get some sleep, I stumbled into my truck and crashed hard, not even changing my wet socks. I slept for about two and a half hours, and woke to sunshine and boots crunching on the road. I was cold and instantly wide awake. I bolted out of the truck, shoving my feet into frozen bunny boots and stumbling back into the checkpoint. I stared at the leader board with a sinking stomach. Sass, Neff, Moore, West & Linder were already headed down the trail. I had missed every single one of them.

The rest of my time in Circle went this way. Long stretches of standing alone on the trail, stamping my feet and watching for incoming teams. Occasional respite in the checkpoint, scarfing what food was available, pounding coffee and thawing out slightly before running back out to the trail to stand and watch. I didn't talk to any mushers, overhear any conversations, observe any media interviews. I got sleep in two hours snatches, in my truck, before going back out to stand on the trail and wait, direct a team to a parking spot, and then watch from a distance while the musher took care of their team and stumbled into the checkpoint themselves to warm up, eat, sleep and move on.

And I was glad to do it, glad to be there, glad to see (through a haze of exhaustion and cold) a little more of the inner workings (and disorganization, and discontent) that follows the race. And from what I've picked up on since, this is true every year. That's just the way the Quest works.  It is essentially a small-town volunteer effort to put on a thousand mile endurance event that traverses incredibly remote country with little available support, technology or infrastructure. Everyone is tired and sleep deprived and cranky and stressed - mushers, handlers, trail-breakers, veterinarians, officials, media staff, volunteers. Everyone. But everyone, in the end, is happy to be a part of the craziness of it all, and eventually time and sleep cover a multitude of small insults and frustrations along the way.

When I packed up to drive back to Fairbanks - Jean in tow - I'd gotten barely twelve hours of sleep in the last sixty. The only interaction I'd had with a musher was to ask Kyla Durham what sort of boots she had under her Neos (Lobens!) I talked to lots of other people, though, including locals and folks from all walks of life and spots around the globe that came together for the race. I did get to see some of the gear and checkpoint routines of mushers, if from a distance.

Having neither cell phone service nor internet access in Circle, it was weird to have no idea what was going on in the race for several days right in the middle of it. As soon as I got back to Fairbanks (and a cell signal) I called Pete and had him look up the race standings for me. I had no idea who was ahead, or where they were on the trail. I was glued to my computer for the rest of the race, but was left with very mixed feelings about the whole experience of being out on the trail itself.

It's been a month, now. The Quest is over and done for another year, and Iditarod starts tomorrow. I've caught up on sleep and had several conversations with other folks - mushers, handlers and volunteers - about it all, the good and the bad.  I'm glad I went out to Circle, and grateful for the experience. But even after all the time that's passed, I'm not sure I would do it again. Given my rabid fandom of the sport and pipe-dream hopes of running a thousand mile race myself some day, I feel weird about saying that. And weird about my newly mixed feelings about racing at all. Admitting it is uncomfortable, and seems somehow wrong. Which makes it hard to write about. Which is why it took me so long.