A real nice training runWe spend christmas on the trail and I have to say I could not have thought about a better way spending the holidays. We left on the 23rd of December, early in the morning, leaving a little later than we wanted at 7 a.m. Andy was driving a string of 14 dogs, Maren 10 dogs, myself 14 dogs and Pierre the Iron dog our Tundra pulling a heavy sled with a lot of our supplies. This was the first time I ever went on a skidoo supported training run, as I usually like to do it the old fashioned way with dogs only. Only about 5 minutes into the run I was glad that we had a skidoo along. I had my headlight off, as I mostly do, but looking at my team ahead of me things just did not look right. Looking closer I realized, that I was missing my leaders, Tang and Wondar were nowhere to be seen. Stopping the team I walked a head of the dogs and sure enough, there was a set of tracks down the trail. Both tuglines were not chewed off and totally intact, very weired but what ever happened I needed to get my leaders back. Once Pierre caught up to me on the Tundra I hopped on it to zoom down the trail to go look for them. Only about 1 mile down, where we had the start for the Gin Gin 120 race, they were both sitting and givng me the look: “Hey got about time you got here“.
The remainder of the run to Mc Laren, 50 miles in total, was rather uneventful and we made good time getting there at noon, an average of 10 miles per hour. In Mc Laren the dogs were treated to doghouses, something they had not seen for a while. It started to snow pretty heavy. The hosts of Mc Laren Lodge, Susie and Allen made a nice buffet dinner for us, and told us that we were in charge of the lodge for now, as they wanted to go to a X mas party in Paxson. After a quick nap we woke up to heavy wet snow and wind. Pierre went ahead with the snowmachine breaking the trail and Andy and me following with our 2 teams. Maren stayed behind in Mc Laren, to take care of the dogs who were not ready for a 300 mile run. As soon as Pierre got ahead more than an hour I barely could make out the trail he left. The mile markers are always a tease. Mc Laren sits at Mile 42, my plan was to go somewhere around Mile 92, thus doing a 50 mile run again. As mile markers make a great tourist souvenier, they were getting pretty spotty along the highway. Once we crossed a big Bridge, the Susitna River Bridge, which gave us some idea of where we were. It was still snowing so we could see nothing of our surroundings. We were climbing above treeline, not ideal for camping. I stopped at 00.30 after a 5.30hr run, the spot was not ideal, as it was still a bit windy there, but not knowing what was coming ahead I wanted to make sure to keep the run under 6 hrs, at least for me, Andy usually arrives 1 hr after me. We split a bale of straw for each of our teams and fed and watered the dogs, they all ate well, which is a good sign, that they feel comfortable with the running distance. Normally I carry some extra large garbage bags, which I put over the sleeping bag in case of rain or snow, but could not find any in the sled.
Luckily it stopped snowing about half way through our campout, which as usual, became longer than planned. We wanted to leave at 7 a.m., but it was exactly that, when I crawled out of the sleeping bag. Arghhh, putting on wet frozen cloths is always a joy first thing in the morning. On the trail an hour later, at 8 a.m. we were treated to many sightings of Caribours and Moose. With daybreak we could finally also enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the Alaska Range. We were running alongside the Nenana River, which has its headwaters up here. The snow was getting less and less, the closer we got to Cantwell and that run ended up shorter than we thought, with only being 38 miles long, from mile 92 to mile 130. Cantwell itself lies annother 5 miles down the road. Pierre had found 2 nice spots to tie out our teams beside the parking lot, out of the way and wind. Rick Casillo was supposed to meet us here, but his truck was not there, we bedded the dogs on our fleece mats to sleep on, but it also was fairly warm out. After Andy finally took care of his dogs, he always takes his time, which drives me sometimes nuts, we all hopped on the Tundra to check out town. Everything was closed, we were hoping for a big greasy burger, but after all it was X mas eve. We visited Jane Hempsted and her husband Bob hoping to be able to dry out our wet sleeping bags. That brief visit lasted for several hours with Jane and Bob making us a great x mas dinner. Where else than in Alaska would you find that kind of hospitality on x mas evening, when 3 wet smelling mushers invade you house? Ready for the trail we drove back out to the dogs, I did not feel quite comfortable leaving them unattended in that parking lot. They are used to a lot of change, travelling all over the place and are a mellow bunch, but having nobody there at all did worry me. There was constantly other dogteams hooking up, arriving, skiers passing by, but once we got back, they were just laying there and relaxing.
Rick had also arrived, so we loaded up more gear, more dogfood and also quite a bit of his stuff. The little Tundra was maxed out with 2 huge bales of straw on it, gas and pulling a sled weighing about 800 pounds. I have been trying a lot of differend snowmachines over the years and always came back to the Tundra. Not only are they very reliable, but if you ever get them stuck in deep snow or overflow, they are light and realatively easy to get out. Once again the Tundra did the job, although not being much faster than out dogteams specially on uphills. Our plas was to go back the 38 miles to our campspot. The dogs were flying and I got there in less than 4 hours despite having a big load in the sled. None of the dogs were giving me any reason to worry about. We were apporaching the 200 mile mark on this run, which is always a critical point, either the dogs find the routine and really come together, or they fall apart and need more rest. The run was beautiful with Northern Lights dancing in the sky and no wind or snow this time. Andy pulled in 30 minutes behind me and Rick annother 30 minutes after that with driving a big string of 20 dogs. Pierre and me could see their headlights each time and we thought, that they are right there and rushed to help them park the teams, but that was an optical illusion, it took almost 15 minutes for the teams to arrive. The lights looked like they were just arround the corner. It was a clear dry night, very little humitidy in the air and the snow was dry real dry, it was minus 17degrees out but it felt warm. Our dogs were right in the rhythm of eating, sleeping and running. Rick could not train as much as he’d like to due to the rain they lately got in Willow, so we rested a full 10 hrs this time. What a way to spend x mas. We woke up to a clear beautiful morning and pulled the hook at 10 a.m. My dogs, who are usually really mellow were fired up and pulled my hooks. My warm Beaver mits were laying back on the trail and I hoped that one of the 3 behind me would see them. I rigged up a seat on my sled, a very simple but effective setup. A plastic platform with 4 foldable legs which bolts on to 4 bracket on the runner. It takes less than a minute to put on or take off. On that platform sits my cooler which functions as a seat. Boy do I love that thing. I can sit 90% of the time and feel totally relaxed, even after 200 miles on the trail. It was funny to watch Rick, he was trying to find comfortable positions standing on the runners, crouching down, leaning over the handlebars, something which felt all to familiar to me. The run was spectaular, sunny clear and the Denali Highway winds though the most amazing scenery. That combined with me sitting down, listening to AC DC and Metallica, eating Chips and drinking pop, it could not much better. The snow was getting very sugary and I stopped 2 times to put booties on all of the dogs. That is when Rick caught up to me. We ran together the remaining miles to Mc Laren, practicing passing each other. Rick asked me to load Rockstar one of his dogs I knew all to well from Skagway. Rockstar war a bit tired out and just enjoyed the ride in the basked. The trail was going downhill through a place called Crazy Notch short before Mc Laren and a very nice run came to an end all to soon. We bedded the dogs down at Mc Laren in their houses again, they ate like alligators, a sign that they are in full running and resting rysthm. Some dogs as always found their way in the cabin, this time they took full charge of the bed though, so Andy and me had to both sleep on the floor. Although our running schedule would have called for leaving after a few hours, we decided to stay the whole night. The dogs were in rhythm, I saw what I wanted to see, so there was no point to rush on. Instead we enjoyed a fantastic X mas dinner which Susie and Allen made for us in Mc Laren. Not only did they welcome us bunch of trail smelly mushers in their lodge. Once again the Northern hospitality is amazing, as the dinner was on the house, it was X mas after all. Maren had found some new friends at the lodge, a bunch of kids constantly teasing her.
One of Ricks dogs, Sunny, needed some stitches after becoming tangeled in his gangline. Sled dogs amaze me over and over again. Sunny was just calmly sitting there, lette me, a total stranger stitch her up, never even whinced. Than she settled with our dogs on the bed. Sled dogs must have an unspoken bond amongst each other. There was no sign of any agression or jalousy, I had my main alpha bitch, Tang, inside and she just licked Sunny also a female a few times and they all slept besides each other for the night. Imagine that scene with most house dogs. At night when I let everybody out to pee, Sunny just did like the rest of the gang and came back inside, this time determined to crawl into my sleeping bag and she kept me nice and warm for the night.
The next morining after taking care of the gang, Rick decided to not come with us to Paxson and to return to Cantwell instead. We all had a great breakfast at Mc Laren Lodge, what a nice place this is in the middle of nowhere. That life has its price, they go though 15 gallon of fuel a day for electicity alone, that is 2250 gallons for the winter or about 9000 liters, now add to that oil to heat the place, gas for the snowmachines back and forth, as well as a snow cat using 1 gal per mile…., no wonder that they have an own gas station.
I was expecting a slow run, but once the dogs started barking at hook up, something my dogs usually do not do, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Sure enough we were flying up Mc Laren Summit, a 2000 foot climb in full lope, but Mickey and Jack could not keep up to the rest of the gang. With 2 dogs in the sled and only 12 dogs pulling we flew towards Paxson. This was my first time to see this strech to trail in daylight. High Mountains to both sides again, crossing thought deep valleys along the Tangle Lakes, the Denali Highway winds its way east. Summit Lake came into view, a spot I know from the Copper Basin Race, it was getting dark. The dogs kept an unbelievable pace and that at the end of a 300 mile run.
It took me only 4.45 minutes to cover the 50 miles home. While running along, and eating chips as usual, I got my new toy out , a cell phone, and sure enough, I could pick up a signal. Calling friends and family for X mas right while running a team, well that was a real treat and defenitely a new experience for me.
Once back at John’s cabin in Paxson Pierre had already prepared all the dogfood and heated up the place. This run did defenitely bond the team as a tight unit, amongst each other and also to me. I had one of the greatest times in my life. To foster that relation to the team, I unhooked all dogs right in front of the cabin and took them inside for the night. Dogs who had never been inside in their life before and who I never imagined that they like it, like Gas and Diesel settled right in. The Copper Basin is still a few weeks away, the trail is in, we can see the markers on Paxson Lake. There is time to do a few more nice runs, we will go up to Mc Laren for New Years again and maybe do run to Chistochina on the Copper Basin Trail.
Enjoy life while you can, you never know whats around the next corner of the trail. I wish to all of you a good start in the new year.
More pictures see in the album on the right.