Copper Basin 2021

In the days leading up to the race, we packed drop bags, got COVID tested, prepped race gear, and cut blocks of beef and chicken into power bars for the dogs. On Thursday, January 8th, we started our 265 mile journey south to Glennallen, AK. The dogs were being pulled behind the truck in our trailer that is outfitted with insulated individual dog boxes padded with straw. Halfway through our drive, in Delta Junction, we stopped in a parking lot and brought each dog out of the trailer to empty their bladder and bowels before continuing our journey.

We arrived in Glennallen around 1pm. Jeff checked in and filled out the necessary pre-race paperwork. Next, each dog was evaluated by a veterinarian and their team. Once the dogs passed their vet checks, we loaded them back into their boxes to go to our host’s house in Gakona, about 20 minutes away from Glennallen. Our friend, Joelle, moved to the Copper Basin region a year ago and graciously offered to host us during the race. It was the perfect set up. She had a guest bedroom, several dogs and a beautiful property with plenty of space for our crew. We dropped the dog trailer at Joelle’s place and headed to the musher/handler meeting at Lake Louise Lodge.

During the meeting the race marshal reviewed the rules, described trail conditions and mushers drew their bib numbers. Jeff drew bib #21. We were able to get a few beers and delicious burgers before heading back to Gakona to feed the pack and get some rest before the big day. We brought Brock and Buttercup inside to sleep, giving them some extra love for being our fearless leaders.

We woke up early the next morning to bring the dogs out of the trailer to get their morning stretch. We loaded them back up and went to park at the race start. Once we got there, we unloaded the dogs again and fed them meat stew with a little bit of kibble. We laid each dog’s booties and harness out and began donning their race gear. The excitement started to build as the dogs were now familiar with this process.

Photo by Willie Vernon

The race started at 10AM. Bib #1 was reserved for Jamey Kemp, who was a board member and trail boss for the last 7 years who passed away suddenly on December 8, 2020. Jamey spent countless hours making sure the trail was as best as it could be for each and every race. He did this on a volunteer basis. He leaves behind a wife and young daughter. If you are able, please consider donating to his families GoFundMe here.

The first dog team left the start chute at 10:02AM. We started putting the dogs on the gangline around 10:20AM. They banged in their harnesses as their excitement built. A side by side came around to guide the team to the start chute. We got to the start line and the team took off at exactly 10:38AM.

The first leg of the race was 70 miles long. About two miles into the race, the team realized that this section of the race was going to be extremely taxing due to the very punchy trails. Punchy trails occur when a snowstorm deposits denser snow over less dense snow, creating a thin crust over a weak base layer. As the dogs ran down the trail, their paws punched through the thin crust into a soft sand like base making for difficult traveling. About 20 miles in Stuart slowed down and stopped pulling. Jeff stopped the team, made room in his sled bag for the 75lbs dog, and gave Stu a lift to the next checkpoint 50 miles down the trail. Under decent trail conditions 75lbs isn’t a big deal, but when the trails are like sand, the extra weight can really zap the team. Shortly after bagging Stu the team slowed down and couldn’t seem to find their fifth gear.

While the team was on the trail, Jeri went back to the truck and cleaned up what was left behind. She took the dog trailer to the finish line to unhook it so she wouldn’t be pulling the trailer to every checkpoint. Our truck has 3 dog boxes on the bed for dropped dogs which is much easier to manage than a 14 ft trailer. She then got lunch at Ernesto’s Mexican grill with our friends who came to help out, Willie, Daniel and their sweet daughter Emelia. Once she was refueled, she relaxed for a bit in Willie and Daniels hotel room and refreshed the race tracker incessantly before heading to the section of trail that paralleled the highway, about 20 miles into the race.

Jeri was able to catch a glimpse of the team before they headed back into the forest. As Jeff passed, he yelled over that Stuart wasn’t pulling and would need to be dropped. It wasn’t long after that Jeff put Stuart in the sled bag. Jeri continued on the road to the first checkpoint at Lake Louise Lodge.

Jeff came into the first checkpoint at 1926, meaning his runtime was 8 hours and 48 minutes. This translates to an average speed of 7.95 mph. For comparison sake, our average training speed was 11 mph. It was apparent from the first leg that the team was a bit out of sorts and that the trail conditions were much different than our home trails. Coming into the checkpoint, Jeff had Stuart, a 75 lb dog, in the bag. Stuart was bagged because even at their slow speed, he couldn’t keep up with the team. Tommy, Joanna and Brock also had looked a bit stiff coming into the checkpoint. It was decided immediately to drop Stuart. He clearly was not into racing and we weren’t going to try to force him.

Jeff asked the vet to come evaluate Tommy. The vet suspected a triceps injury. She recommended heat and massage, and to reevaluate for pain prior to taking off on the next leg. Jeff gave Tommy a thorough massage and put a shoulder jacket on him that has pockets sewn into it for hand warmers. He determined that Joanna and Brock had sore wrists and wrapped them after he got the dogs bedded down with straw. He then went on with his typical checkpoint routine: prepare a meal for each dog of meat stew and kibble, give digestive and joint supplements, and massage and evaluate each dog for soreness. Jeff decided to take his mandatory 6 hour rest plus differential of 24 minutes (this race mandates a minimum of 18 hours of rest, of which one must be 6 hours plus start time differential). The dogs rested for several hours and on repeat exam, Tommy, Joanna and Brock had seemed to make a full recovery after their long rest. Jeff left the checkpoint at 0150.

The team looked good leaving the check point. They traveled over the frozen Lake Louise for a few miles before hitting the overland trails. Once on land, the team began to climb a few hills. The trail conditions were great for the first 20 miles due to heavy snowmachine traffic in the area. The further away the team traveled from Lake Louise, the punchier the trails became. By mile 30 of this leg, the trails were once again like sand. It was around this time that Jeff noticed Jojo had a slight limp. He stopped the team, made room in the sled bag and gave her a lift to the check point.

Meanwhile, Jeri raked up the straw, with the help of Willie and Daniel, and bagged it. She tended to Stu and then headed to the second checkpoint, Sourdough, that was 1.5 hours away. By the time she arrived it was around 0430. She took drop bags to the designated area and again took Stu on a walk and gave him water. It was around 0530 when she was able to slip into her sleeping bag in the backseat of the truck for an hour of rest before getting up at 0630 to go wait at the check in area for Jeff to arrive. There was no cell phone service at this checkpoint so she was unable to track Jeff to determine how long it take for him to get in. Jeff came in at 0821. He had Joanna in the bag and it was apparent at the time that the team was struggling.

Jeri helped get the team parked and Jeff started his checkpoint routine. Tommy was still showing signs of triceps soreness so Jeff continued nursing the injury as recommended by the vet. He also wrapped Brocks wrist again and knew that Jojo’s wrist was too sore to continue on with the race. She was taken to the truck to rest with her Uncle Stuart. Jeff rested for another 6+ hours, hoping that another long rest would restore the team’s power before hitting the trails again at 1440.

The trail to the third checkpoint, Lake Meiers, was 32 miles. Jeff and the dogs traveled along the Alaskan Pipeline before making a left turn onto frozen lakes and wetlands. The team enjoyed 10 miles of flat trails before they began to ascend the hills. The next 20 miles were all uphill except for a few spots where the trail had glaciated. The rough trails and steep hills really slowed the team. Jeff knew the team would need another long rest if there was any hope to continue down the trail.

After the team left the checkpoint, Jeri cleaned up the straw and went back to the truck to tend to Stu an Jojo before heading to the third checkpoint, Meier’s Lake. Jeff arrived at the checkpoint at 1942. Tommy’s tricep injury was becoming more apparent and so was Brock’s wrist injury. Jeff got the dogs bedded down and tended to dogs showing signs of soreness. He continued on with his checkpoint routine and knew at this point that this was no longer a race for the FTK team. He would simply be trying to get the team to the finish. He decided he would give the dogs an 8 hours rest and reevaluate. Jeri and Jeff rested in shifts (each getting about 2 hours of sleep). Jeff walked each dog on a leash after their 8 hour rest. He decided to drop Tommy, concerned if he continued to push him, it could lead to a worsening injury that could end his season all together. Silas, Maverick and Brock were all limping on various limbs when Jeff walked them around. He talked to the vet who said that they could warm out of the soreness, but they may not.

The next leg of the race was 70 miles with a 4000 ft elevation gain. On the other side of that run was another 50 mile run. Buttercup, M, Bonnie and Tate looked bright but the rest of the dogs had various ailments that had Jeff concerned. We weighed the teams options. They could push forward, camp out on the trail when the dogs needed it and then take another long rest at the final checkpoint, and likely need to camp on the final leg as well. With this plan, Jeff would be risking having to bag Brock, a 75lb dog, or worst case, more than 1 dog. When we weighed the pros and cons, it didn’t seemed fair to the team to continue forward. Did we think the remaining dogs could make it to the finish? Possibly. Did we think it was in the best interest of the dog’s mental and physical health to push to the finish line? No. Getting to the finish line would have been purely an effort to satisfy our own egos. Jeff talked to the race officials and decided to scratch.

The trailer was still in Glennallen so Jeri left Meier’s lake at 0400 to make the 1.5 hour trek to pick up the trailer, refuel and head back to the checkpoint. She got back to Meier’s lake, trailer to tow around 0700. We loaded up the dogs and hit the road back to Two Rivers. We both were exhausted and collectively had less than 5 hours of sleep over the past 36 hours so after about an hour of driving, we pulled over amongst the mountains of St Elias National Park and took another hour nap before finishing our trek home.

We learned so many valuable lessons over the course of the race. Scratching is not quitting, it is a failure to meet our goal. The goal was to get to the finish line with happy, healthy dogs. Although we failed to meet this goal, the dogs share zero responsibility in that failure. The dogs went above and beyond what we could have asked and we are beyond proud of the effort that they gave. Right now we are reassessing our goals for this season. Our number one goal is to get our race team back to 100% before pressing forward with training. That may mean withdrawing from the Summit Quest in February. Although this would delay Jeff’s qualification for Iditarod, the health of the team will always come first.

Thank you to the Copper Basin 300 volunteers, veterinarian team, Wille and Daniel, Jeff Sr and Nate for holding down the homestead, FTK dog sponsors, Nonstop dogwear, Nonstop polar, Natural Rapport, and everyone who has supported and encouraged us along the way. We appreciate you more than you know.