It was -25 degrees Fahrenheit when we parked the truck at the race start. We were one of the first teams to arrive and parked adjacent to the race start line, the designated spot for bib number one. I jumped out of the truck, opened the trailer door, and began unloading dogs when I realized that I forgot to pack a crucial piece of equipment. I forgot my @$#%ing harnesses! Embarrassed and pissed at myself, I broke the news to my handlers, Jeri and Emily. We had one hour before I needed to be in the chute and ready to pull the snow hook. We had to make a decision: pack it in or somehow gather up 12 harnesses that fit our dogs. The dogs trained all season for this race. We knew that we had to exhaust all efforts before calling it quits. Despite being competitors, other mushers were more than willing to hand off any spare harnesses they had. We were able to outfit our team with 12 mismatched harnesses, and adjust our gangline accordingly. Without Nic Petit, Matt Hall, Allen Moore, Laura Allaway, Joanna Jagow, Ryne Olsen, and Jan Miller, the FTK team would have never made it to the start line. Thank you all so much for bailing my dumb/rookie ass out and allowing my dogs to do what they love.
Jeri, Emily, and I harnessed, bootied, and jacketed all the dogs with minutes to spare before our start time. I outfitted myself and double-checked the sled bag for all necessary gear. The dogs were jumping in harness and howling their favorite song, knowing they were about to go on their next great adventure. The race official counted down, "3,2,1…" I pulled the quick release freeing the sled from the tie off on the truck and the sled launched forward as the dogs blazed down the trail. The dogs were so fired up to finally be on the trail, it was difficult to slow them down to our normal training pace. Their intensity lasted for the whole 32 miles to the first checkpoint, Chistochina. We rolled into the checkpoint hot and I needed two people to help stop us!
Once the team was parked, I laid out the pupper's straw, took off their booties, and began cooking their meal of beef soup and kibble. I hoped the dogs would rest when they saw the straw but they were confused why we stopped after only 32 miles. They were still fresh and not ready to wind down. I knew it was important to try and rest as long as the dogs would allow, as the next section of trail would be a nut-kicker. When the dogs saw other teams leave the checkpoint, they erupted into a roar of excitement, and I knew it was time to prep the team to run again.
I put on their booties, fixed their coats, and clipped them back into the line. When I pulled the snow hook, we ripped out of the checkpoint and began ascending into the mountains. Darkness overtook the daylight. The moon’s light appeared hazy as it struggled to shine through the clouds but it provided enough light for me to see that we were quickly approaching what was known as "The Hump."
"The Hump" is a steep 4,000 foot climb. As soon as we began our ascent, I jumped off the sled runners and began pushing the sled up the hill. No ducking boat here. If the dogs are working, I'm going to be working too. Together, all 12 of my dogs and I pushed and pulled the sled up that hill, foot by foot, inch by inch.
After we summited, we then dropped down the backside of "the hump" and came to Excelsior Creek. We were warned that Excelsior Creek had about 3 inches of overflow, or liquid water, on it so I was on the lookout. If the dog's booties get wet, they freeze and have to be replaced with fresh, dry booties. Brock and Silas saw the overflow first and began running off the trail. Just as I began to yell, "stay Gee!" (stay right) I saw the water and quickly ate my words. Luckily the leaders did not obey. "GOOD BOYS!!!...I know Brock and Silas...You guys are smarter than me." I yelled back to them instead. Brock and Silas' quick thinking kept the teams booties dry! Good dogs!
A few hours later we came into Meyers Lake, the second check point. It was almost 1am, nearly 15 hours since leaving the start line. I repeated the routine I did in Chisto. I laid out straw, took off booties, and started cooking the dogs meal. After the dogs were fed, I left the dogs in the safe keeping of my handlers and went inside the Lodge to have a burger and Gatorade. I sat by the fire to thaw out my frozen clothing. This was going to be the longest layover during the race so I knew if I was going to get any rest, it was now or never. I laid down in a bunk in the designated mushers cabin and was able to rest for a solid 2 hours, the only sleep I would get for the entirety of the race.
After letting the team rest for just over 7 hours, we were blazing down the trails again, singing, "On the road again, Just cant wait to get on the road again." The 55 mile leg between Meyers Lake and the third checkpoint, Sourdough, was beautiful. The trail was narrow and winding as we trotted through the mountains. We continued forward onto frozen rivers where the trail opened up a bit. We arrived to Sourdough at half past noon, with the sun high in the sky and the dogs ready for a warm meal.
The dogs rested for 4 hours before we ventured out towards the final checkpoint, The Point Lodge on Lake Louise. As we traversed more hills, the daylight quickly faded and stars tumbled out from above. Looking out at the team, I could see Sierra's line had gone slack. I stopped the team to check on her. I didn't appreciate any injuries when I examined her but thought she needed some rest. I released her from the gangline and put her in the sled. She curled up inside the sled bag and fell asleep as the team and I continued down the trail to the final checkpoint.
After I parked my team on Lake Louise, the vets stopped by to check in and see if there was anything wrong with Sierra. I just smiled and said, "She's just a princess." I made the tough decision to drop Sierra and Mack from the race at this point, enabling the team to run a little bit faster. I let the dogs rest while I ate a sandwich and slammed a lot of water. The dogs rested 5 hours before getting back on the trail.
We left The Point Lodge by running across the frozen lake and then began climbing more hills. Twenty miles in into this 73-mile leg of trail, Dredge looked like he wanted to ride in the basket. I made him a cozy little spot in there and we continued on down the trail. Occasionally Dredge would pop his head out of the bag so I could give him a little pet and then he'd go back to lying down. Dredge was a good co-pilot.
As we ate up the miles I began telling jokes and messing with the dogs to show them that I am still in a very happy and pleasant mood. The dogs pick up on negative energy and it’s always important to stay positive no matter what when you’re around your team. I would occasional shout out to Brock, "Hey Brock...are we there yet?"
Fifty miles from the finish I began ski poling, using my arms to dig the ski poles into the snow and ice and help carry the burden of the sled and my own weight. I promised the team that I would ski pole the rest of the way and if they see me slow down then they can slow down. After about 30 miles, I began to slow down, but the dogs didn't! They continued to push hard. Even though I slowed down, my grip strength diminished and I had to remove my gloves to keep a hold on the poles, I pushed forward.
For the next 2.5 hours I dug the ski poles into the frozen ground as hard as I could. For a brief second I thought about how eerily similar this was to memories I have of BUD/s; Digging deep, putting out, pushing your self through the misery. Not for your self or for some selfish goal, but because your buddies need you too. Every ounce of effort you put forth makes it easier on the whole crew. No ducking boat here, I was working hard for my dogs, to lighten their loads as much as I could.
Working together, the team crossed the finish line at Old Paths Baptist Church in 18th position. The dogs were tired (except for Dancer) but in good spirits. They had a warm meal waiting for them at the finish and then were put into their straw filled beds while I went into the church where there was delicious, warm food for the mushers and handlers.
My team did such an amazing job and I am so proud of all them. I learned a lot throughout this race and am looking forward to using all of this new knowledge in our upcoming race, the Willow 300.
“Now this is the Law of the Jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the Law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”