On Siblings: Paolo and Oriana Fallaci

 

It was a rolling rhythm. The gallop of paws, silent and light movement. Grace in motion.

 

Paolo and Oriana.

 

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I hadn’t had them together alone like this since they were puppies. I always paired them with an older dog, so they could learn the ropes about hiking and the responsibilities of being loose. Paolo dropped out of the racing pool last year for maturity, and Oriana raced in every single race team. They were apart.

When I decided to go for a hike, to scale Mt Success, I knew I wanted Oriana to come with me, with her joy and experience and her fuzzy face. Maybe because I was reading about antoher training run, when I paired all the siblings and relatives together, but I wanted to bring the siblings. Keep it in the family.

Cut loose from the dog yard, they tore around the front yard and the house, Oriana roughhousing with her brother. She came to the truck first, and I had to chase down Paolo who wanted to go back to the dogyard. Once both were into the truck, we headed up Mill Brook Road to where the trail crosses the logging road. Oriana came out of the box first, frenetic energy directed entirely at me, but once I unloaded Paolo she attached herself to him and they took off.

They were so fast.

They chased each other around and around, playing in the wildflower fields along the dirt road.

They moved as one. Siblings.

 


It was cool and cloudy at first, the walking was easy, including the part I dislike the most, the greened-over road grade once we leave the crumbling logging road. They were ahead, smooth circling movements on and off the trail.  I trusted them completely, and let my mind wander and my feet move up the trail I’ve walked up so many times, for so many years.

They would unexplicably tear into the woods, Paolo usually leading the charge, and Oriana closing the gap quickly because she’s so damn fast and athletic.

On this trail, the road grade levels off, and the hardwoods become softwoods, the dirt becomes ledge. From the ground up, the ecosystem is different, a sharp contrast. In a few steps, the world changes from growing-in clearcuts and skid roads to lush boreal swamp, twin planked bog bridges and beaver dams. Silence.

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Mahoosucs. The ridgelines I’ve loved.

As we crossed a broken bridge, Oriana trotted right along. She has crossed this bridge a handful of times already this summer. Paolo attempted to follow her, but distrusted the log, and chose his own route. I tried to correct him, assuming from my decade of crossing this bridge that there was thick rushing water beneath.

The beavers had stopped up the flow, leaving a trickle of brown water.

I laughed, as I descended and crossed the muddy stream, avoiding the bridge entirely.

‘Thanks for opening my eyes, Paolo.’

Paolo and Oriana’s movements were fast but familiar. They wanted to run, to flow. Pure beautiful movement. They chased squirrels not to get the squirrel, but to look for a reason to run off trail. I know this, because after the squirrel was treed, they’d circle back to the trail immediately. More so than any of the dogs in the kennel, in the team, they embody pure athletic desire to run.

We reached Gentian Pond easily, quickly. I had been entertaining the thought of not going to Mt Success, but instead doing a different loop over Upper Gentian Pond and through Dream Lake. I had done that with Ellie and Foreman a few weeks prior. It would be shorter and faster, getting me home earlier.

Yet we got to Gentian Pond and the trail junction so easily, in just over an hour. Of course I knew I wanted to go to Mt Success.

The trail to Mt Success is a series of ups and downs, of steep ledge and flowing water. I have hiked it in so many conditions and for so many reasons over the years. I have hiked it in cold spring rain, postholing in snow as we tried to guess where the mud pits were so we could helicopter the trail bridge materials a few weeks later. I have hiked it in late June, with a heavy pack loaded with the tools necessary to move rocks and fell trees, misty clouds curling around the trees. I have hiked it in the dry clear August, for no real reason other than I wanted to see the view in the middle of my work day. I have hiked it in September, in the middle of a long weekend of overnights on my way to Carlo Col. I have thrashed around on the boundary that edges the mountain, repainting blazes and trimming back brush. I have slept on the side of that trail, camped out with Trail Crew. This mountain and I have a long history. But I still have so much to learn from it.

On this day, the climb to Success was straightforward. It was breezy and cool, perfect weather for moving uphill, for moving my body higher into the atmosphere. There was no humidity pressing me down into the earth. It’s easy to climb when the wind urges you on.

The air got cooler, the breeze fiercer. I regretted not bringing a warmer jacket as we climbed higher.

 


Paolo and Oriana would unleash their loud gruff sibling bark and everyone we met. I learned to get them by hikers by rustling the snack bag, distracting them so they would follow me silently. Paolo figured it out first, Oriana less sure. We didn’t encounter many hikers, and the few that we did were trail-hardened Appalachian Trail hikers, who aren’t disturbed by much at that point in their journey.

 

Of course, as we walked, I thought about racing. About training. About how I wanted to show up this year.

 

I wanted to go fast. I wanted to re-cultivate speed. Watching Paolo and Oriana run, I wanted to bring that back to the team.

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Oriana and Paolo are siblings, and they interact as such. Paolo gives confidence to Oriana, urging her to keep ahead of me and explore more things in the woods. Oriana brings a degree of reasonableness to Paolo’s decision making, keeping him close and encouraging him to respond quickly to my calls. Towards the end of the day, I did have the thought ‘imagine if I could train them both to be leaders.’

 

The sun started to come out about halfway up the mountain, pieces of blue sky and bright white clouds. Oriana would light up glowing, the sun on her golden coat, iridescent. She and Paolo were still in constant movement, running ahead and returning.

 

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At the summit, I returned to the spot where I had sat with Oriana and Bonobo in early July. It was windy and there was a notch where I had a windbreak. The sun came out and the earlier thoughts about needing a jacket disappeared, and I settled in, Paolo in my lap for a short while. I held him, surrounded him, kissed his ears and eased him more fully into my lap. He was a little calmer, having been tired out from the hike up. I held him, and then let him go.

 

Paolo and Oriana each had their noses in my lunch until I discouraged them enough that they moved away. They settled above and behind me, on a ledge. I was able to eat my sandwich in peace. Paolo had learned to sit on that ledge from Oriana, who had been hiking with me so much already. Eventually Oriana moved over, to a rock by my face, and I leaned towards her and kissed her fuzzy nose, her golden soft ears.

 


There were so many times throughout the day when they both rushed at me, paws thumping my chest, pushing me back, tails wagging and grinning.

 

Just like when they were puppies.

 

It had been so long since I had stopped seeing them as puppies, not fully realizing that they had grown. Part of that was acquiring other puppies behind them, a lot of it was running and racing with them last winter. I saw them as adults. For the most part.

 

The same bark that Paolo and Oriana have, I heard first from their father when Stephane’s team came up behind me on Portage Lake in Can Am in 2015. I had been waiting for Stephane to catch me, as he had in the Eagle Lake 100 earlier that season, moving past in a beautiful fluid lope. These fast fuzzy dogs. My jaw actually fell open when they passed.

 

I got to know Stephane in Can Am that year, as we ran together and I looked over his dogs at checkpoints. He laughed at me stuck in my sleeping bag in my sled at Maibec. He dropped out of the race not long after that, and said to me when I passed him in the night ‘Ah it is good for you, you can move up a place in finishing.’

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That was the first Can Am 250 I finished.

 

At the finisher’s banquet, I got up the courage to ask Stephane and Nancy if they had puppies they would sell. I wanted those puppies so badly, I wanted those fast fuzzy dogs of my own. I called and bothered them, and emailed them, and in July I finally came up to get the puppies.

 

Paolo and Oriana are special in a number of ways, and it shows through the way I talk about them, the times the show up in the stories and the photos. A lot of that is because they are the first and only pair of puppies that I sought out intentionally, not opportunistically. I pursued them. Their origin story is tied up with my own origin story, of finishing the 250 for the first time. There is a lot there.

 

I took them for their first hikes, I put them in harness the first time, and I crossed the five finish lines with Oriana this past winter.

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I sent a photo of Oriana and Paolo to my sister Rachel, who adores Oriana’s little paws. Rachel pointed out their symmetry, their sibling-ness. She reminded me that there was something special in siblings.

 

Their movements, the entire day, were coordinated. They sensed when ther was something to speed p for. They encouraged each other. They played with each other. If I can train them both to be leaders….watch out.

 

The light on the descent was golden afternoon glowing through the trees. Golden light like that at 3 p.m. is the sign of the tilting earth, the swiftly darkening day. The tilt in the earth and the way we receive the sun. The evenings are cool enough now for fleece and warm pants.

 


What else can I say about this day of suspended time, of walking through the memories of the lives I’ve lived on that landscape, and with these dogs?

I will say that my feet hurt, from gripping ledge for 10 miles.

I will say that I relished in that time away from screens.

And I will say that I am so happy with Paolo and Oriana.

We covered 10 miles in about 5 hours. It won’t be long before, in that same 5 hour period, we’ll be covering a lot more ground.

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On the nature of trust: Wembley and Inferno in the Mahoosucs

There was a rush of a heaving brown body, a deer bursting from the stream bed right in front of us. Wembley and Inferno in pursuit. I sang and clapped. It was the beginning of seven miles of trail and I felt like I had been calling to them too much already, their energy was so high and their minds so awake. It was Inferno’s first hike, and Wembley has such a strong prey drive. I was on the edge of control. 

Before long, they both zipped back into the trail, having gone barely out of sight.

‘This just might work after all,’ I said to myself.

I have been going for long hikes with the dogs once a week. Throughout the rest of the time, we go for short hour long hikes or bike rides, but those are just for them and me to get some energy out. These long hikes, especially this particular hike I chose on Saturday, are about firming team bonds, facing challenge, and spending three or four (or more) hours on the trail together.

The Mahoosucs are my heart and soul. They are rugged and raw, quiet narrow trails and skinny trees. Thin topsoil clinging to ledge, and so many birds and moose and bears and more. The trails are relentless and steep, ledge and bog and hand-over-hand ladders. There are no buildings, visitor centers, or craggy alpine ridgelines that are screaming with people. To reach these trailheads involves bumping along for half an hour on Success Pond Road, a private logging road with minimal maintenance and a lot of cobbled rubble, washboard ridges, and so many potholes. This is my place to be. The path I chose that day was over Goose Eye, a three-mile steep and ledgy ascent, with a similarly steep descent and then a rolling ridgeline to Carlo Col. It was not a simple out-and-back. It was going to be an adventure.

 

I stood at the edge of the dogyard that morning, deciding who would come. Wembley was a for sure, but the second dog? Bonobo was in heat, as was Vega. Chai was still too much of a risk, Oriana already went this week, as did Victor Hugo and Hyside, and I didn’t really want to bring Foreman or Paolo, and Hilde and Wembley would not get along. Whatever dog I chose, it would be a transformative experience. I wanted, needed to train the dogs, train myself, go through challenge and not just a straight, easy, uncomplicated hike.  

I chose Inferno.

Inferno is a young lead dog, just barely two years old. During the last 100 miles of the Can AM 250 in 2017, Inferno rose to lead with Wembley, albeit not without youthful indiscretion or occasionally reaching his limit. It was his first time in lead, and he crossed the finish line with pure joy. Wembley is my soul dog, wildly intelligent and driven by a thirst for adventure. This past year she led the entire Can Am 250, without doubt and with a drive I've never seen before. Wembley has led me through so many things, over 1,000 miles of races and across glassy windy lakes, twisty trails, open water and from darkness to dawn. This is a unique pair of dogs, natural leaders who can learn from one another. 

At the start, on a gravel road before we got to the trail, I kept Inferno on a leash. Inferno is loose a lot, around the dog truck or in the yard, but I didn’t want to cut him fully loose until we made the turn on to the trail. Wembley zoomed ahead and came back, ahead and back, a perfectly timed recall that I never have to remind her of.

When we turned onto the Goose Eye Trail, I cut him loose and he immediately dove down into the woods, chasing Wembley. I kept an eye on her and an ear out, these first few yards of excitement always the hardest to keep them in check with. I called for them, and Wembley came back, solo and grinning.

I called for Inferno and heard nothing, no rustle of brush or crashing through trees.

‘Have I already lost my dog? How on earth did this go so terribly wrong right away?’

Inferno blew out of the woods, having been distracted by a swamp, a rustle past me and he and Wembley zoomed ahead. Not long after, we encountered the deer that I opened this post with, an explosion that they chased, and circled back, frenzied.

 

We kept going.

 

About a mile in the trail starts to climb, gentle at first among the hardwoods. The scale of gradebecomes much more insistent as we gain elevation, a short and sweet and steep climb, my favorite kind, where we quickly reach the spruce fir forest.

Inferno and Wembley began to mellow and tire as we climbed and the trail grew much steeper. They stayed close and I began to wonder at them, Inferno’s pure joy and Wembley’s drive for adventure.

The breeze moved through the skinny trees, mossy green all around. I felt like I was moving slowly, a plodding and steady pace that matched the steep trail. I didn’t care when I got to the summit, and I knew we’d be there before I’d get hungry. I could see the blue sky through the trees on either side and ahead, a sign of the narrow steep topography.

There is a different feeling in this place, the northern edge of the Mahoosucs. These mountains are so isolated. When I stood still and connected with the land, I could feel the lack of buildings and human intrusion. I feel more wild. The path unfolded beneath my feet (and my hands as I crawled up), no one behind, no one ahead. Silence.

 

We reached the top quickly, the last few pitches sheer ledge. Wembley went up fearlessly, confidently, but Inferno hesitated and paused, and moved behind me. I stood on the ledge, and saw he had doubled back beneath. I didn’t want to go back down and coach him up, I was hoping he would make a choice on his own first.

 

He reappeared at the bottom, and launched up unquestioningly. Trusting those ahead of him, both myself and Wembley.

 

We weren’t alone at the summit, two groups of two, including a young couple who asked about the breed, whether we raced at Laconia, the common questions I field when out and about with the dogs. It was windy and I kept Inferno on a leash while I ate my sandwich, only slightly concerned as Wembley drew too close to the edge. I waited for the other people to leave, give them a head start to create space between us.

 

The ladders, the ledges, the sheer cliffs. Those were next and I knew it.

 

The wooden ladder was first. They both paused, but didn’t double back behind me in fear. Wembley descended easily, uneventfully, a fluid movement that made my eyes grow wide. Inferno I took by the collar and eased him onto the ladder. He tried a few steps and then launched down.

The times I’ve descended this trail with dogs before, I have taken the hands-off approach. Quid chose that method, always preferring to figure things out on her own. Last year with Bayley and Hyside, Hyside flailed and had a hard time being patient enough for me to help him. Knowing that I wanted to build confidence and resilience, I began this section of trail just as I begin tough sections of trail with the dog team, not knowing fully how we’d figure it out, but knowing that we had the ability to work as a team together.

The next section was a ledgy corner with no ladder, but a distance of a full human height between the initial ledge and the next step down. I crawled ahead, saying ‘watch where I go,’ and then reached up to them. Wembley backed away, but Inferno stood patiently and I managed to get my fingers into his collar, and I eased him down, pulling up on his collar as he descended to break the momentum so he wouldn’t crash into his front legs, much as how they emerge from the dog truck.

Wembley came forward next, and let me do the same.

 

We descended one last section in the same manner, a ladder of rebar drilled into the ledge. They waited while I crawled halfway down, easing them carefully.

So much trust passed between all three of us, in that moment, those minutes. It was a problem we solved, together.

Wembley and Inferno resumed the lead after that, charging ahead and then circling back to look for me. We rolled through ledgy ridgeline and open views. I thought about work, about projects, but mostly I let my legs move and my heart followed.

I slid down a ledge, close to the ground with my legs in front of me, and when I squatted at the bottom I called them to me. Wembley came first, circling around, and Inferno second. Throughout that day, I hugged them so much, their heads against my heart and underneath my arms. I was smeared in dog, fur and breath. I felt connected to them, and laughed.

 

In the last few miles of trail, I recognized trail structures I had built, trails I had designed and relocated, trees I had transplanted into impacted denuded areas. Like flipping through pages of an old photo album, the ghosts of so many nights and days spent in that place return to me, still.

At every river crossing, on the way out, I would pause and play with Wembley and Inferno. Taking a slower pace, drawing out the last two miles. Enjoying our time in the wild, together, experiential and not about speed or work. I watched them splash and drink, Inferno often standing to cool his feet. They were always in constant movement.

We returned to the gravel road we started on, and their circles away from me grew further in distance, as the terrain was easier and they could break into a faster run. There was a moment when they returned back to me, running towards me on the gravel, Wembley on one side, Inferno on the other. They were paced evenly. Wembley was focused on me, and her trail ahead, and I watched Inferno, subtly, glance over at her, a slight twitch of his head and a lift of one ear. Wembley was training Inferno. We were training each other.

 

There were more than a few times throughout the day when Inferno would come to me, and I would flop his ridiculous ears, wrap my body and arms around him in celebration. I would stare into his eyes and he would stare back.

 

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘This is a good day.’

 

On the bonds of fellowship: Can Am 250 2017

Inferno at the start. 

Inferno at the start. 

Wherever I went in this race, I heard this: 'she started with only 10 dogs.' I heard it when I would arrive at checkpoints, I heard it when we would be visited by the vet team, and I heard it directly when another musher said to me 'you're crazy.'

 

But, none of them knew these 10 dogs.

 

The Can Am is a true test of teamwork, always. The terrain is relentless, and this year the trails were hard and fast and icy, so much so that I ran with chains under my runners for the first 10 miles after we left the railroad grade in the first leg of the race. We crossed open glassy windy lakes, the sled drifting sideways in the wind as Wembley and Ia dug in with their toes to keep us on track. We ran down wide plowed ice roads, and up so many hills, scaling ridgelines. I broke yet another sled in the first 50 miles of the race and drove it with a broken stanchion for the remainder, as I managed to break the one thing that couldn't really be field repaired (although I did like Race Marshal Don Hibb's suggestion of finding a piece of tree and bending myself a new piece of lashing). All, with these 10 dogs.

The Can Am 250 celebrated its 25th year this year, and for the first time in its 25 years, the trail was rerouted due to open water and lack of snow on plowed roads. The entire race was restructured, all in the two days before. As mushers, we found out on Friday. The race started Saturday.

The chaos of the volunteers was palpable. Not many people knew the full story, rumors were flying about where or what kind of checkpoints there would be, and whether dogs would be trucked to get from the trails to the checkpoints. On the drive to Fort Kent, once I heard the news, I was even strategizing potentially breaking up multiple 60 or 70 mile runs with camping on the trail. When I saw the map, and the mileages, when we arrived at registration, the entire race was different. The entire middle of the race was gutted, the long descent climb out of Rocky Brook to Maibec to Allagash. Gone. 

The streamlined checklist of the musher’s meeting devolved into exclamations from the floor, different people trying to answer the same question, and so many questions that the answers were made up on the spot. I sat in the back of the room, asked questions of the trail volunteers next to me to get a sense of how plowed the plowed roads were, and waited. The one question I had, which I didn’t ask but would later apply, was if they had decided the latest-out times for the new checkpoints.

The new race format was Portage-Portage-Allagash-Finish. Knowing that we had done so many camping runs at the same exact spot, returning and leaving from it over and over again, I knew it wasn’t going to be a big deal for me and the team to return to Portage a second time. In fact, I kind of liked the idea. And, honestly, I liked the mileage: 209 miles.

I didn’t intend to change my original plan, which was rests of 5-6 hours at each checkpoint. The longer rests were to keep the team’s speeds and spirits high, building in a positive experience for the younger dogs on the team and a fun experience for the older dogs. And, well, with only 10 dogs I wanted to make sure they stayed well-rested. It had been less than two weeks since the UP200.

Thus, Elissa and I quickly repacked the checkpoint bags, combining and cramming the coolers full of meat.

There are always a lot of unknowns in races, especially in Can Am as the trails are described sometimes in so much detail that they feel risky, or not enough detail to make sense. One person’s unplowed road, meaning it hasn’t been plowed recently, is another person’s plowed road if the unplowed snow has melted away. The trail is often laid out without understanding of the physics of a long string of dogs, with 90 degree turns off ungroomed snowbanks onto plowed roads. One just doesn’t know.  

And, the sled, was a sled I was borrowing from a friend. It was a sled that had sat for a few years, and a sled that I had only driven twice before the race. The brake was a specialized design, that I called a ‘non-brake’, being a drag mat with three sets of carbide tips, instead of the classic bar brake/ drag mat combo. I was having a hard time re-learning how to stand, steer, and slow down the team using that brake. It was a sturdy sled, but it still felt unknown.

Last year at the UP200, I finally learned the essence of the phrase ‘run your own race, run your own team.’ Since then, I feel even more honed in on the dogs in the team, and only the dogs in the team. It is a zeroing in on the immediate in front of me, not worrying about teams that might be ahead of me or behind me, or when or how or if we’d reach a checkpoint.

Thus, combined, there were a lot of things to distract me, to stress me out, the unknowns were so amplified. Sleds, trails, wind and cold. 

I was so thankful for these 10 dogs. 

At the start, Wembley and Hyside were in lead. I trusted them completely. This was Wembley's fourth Can Am start chute, and Hyside has led so many start lines. These dogs are professionals. 

 

Hyside. All eyes forward. Wembley probably looking for someone to bark at. 

Hyside. All eyes forward. Wembley probably looking for someone to bark at. 

Leaving Fort Kent at the start, the railroad grade snowmobile trail we start on was sandy icy snow. I saw Ashley, who had left in the position in front of me, and knew it was a ridiculous idea to pass her this early in the race, since she would just pass me anyways, so I slowed the team down until she left my sight. Denis passed me, as I hoped and told him he would. After 7 miles, we reached the true start of the Can Am trail, and the true finding of what the rest of the race would be like.

We swung through the skinny section in the woods, and then slid into the wide road with the uphill. The trail had already been run on by the 100 mile teams and the 30 mile teams, and any traction on that trail had been shaved away. Not confident on the sled I was driving, it wasn’t long before we started sliding down the slight camber in the snow, and off into the trees. I slowed and stopped the dogs, and we made it back to the centerline.

Not long after that section, after crossing a glassy lake, the trail became moguled, with long downhills. Still having a hard time steering the new-to-me sled, I said ‘f*ck this,’ and stopped the team, set the snowhooks, and in a few seconds had run the chains I had tied to the bed of the sled around the runners. For me, in that moment and absolutely at that point, the trail had become about maintaining a healthy and strong dog team. Nothing else mattered. 

With the chains in place, controlling the sled and the speed became comfortable. They kept a happy 9-10 MPH, and I was happier with the twists, turns, and occasional pothole. After about 10 miles, we left the 30 mile trail, and started hitting some longer uphills. I stopped and put the chains away, and we had an unremarkable rest of the run to Portage.

 

Well, almost unremarkable.

 

In this first leg of a race, we all end up passing, catching or being passed by teams often, throughout the entire length of the 70 miles. About halfway through the run, I was in a group with Marie Eve ahead, and Gilles behind. I watched Marie-Eve stop her sled, and hop it around a turn. I slowed down so I wouldn’t overtake her, and in slowing down the sled, kept it tooooo sloooooow….and then pivoted the sled directly into a tree. Head on.

I’ve hit trees before. I’ve hit rocks before. I’ve had my sled jammed in-between tree stumps and gate posts. This was no big deal. I set the snowhooks, and was standing with my snubline in my hand, looking for a tree to tie off too so I could pull the sled back away from the tree, and not have to rely solely on my snowhooks, when Giles came along.

In a rapid few seconds, chattering to me in what I think was English, Giles performed what I was going to do with a tree, pulling back on the line while I stood on the brake. The team was released, and we continued on our way. I noted the broken brushbow, and that the bridle was now loose, adding to the difficult of steering. Just something to mac-gyver the next time we hit a wide road and a snack break.

The unplowed roads on this trail were, after all, plowed ice roads. It was on these sections that I learned to love the non-brake on the sled, the three rows of carbide studs offering more control than a drag mat and smoother movement than the brake bar. Ia and Wembley were in lead, Ia leading so intelligently and smartly, her gift to the team in these long runs.

 

On one of these sections, I noticed that I had also broken the connection in the front stanchion when I hit the tree. Having just broken a sled in the UP200, and knowing that the remaining sections of trail wouldn’t be technical, I knew we would get to Portage fine, and that there would be a lot of people with opinions on how to fix the sled.

 

Going on and off these plowed roads can sometimes be less than straightforward. The markers are small and not always well placed, and the trail you turn into can be narrow. On one of those sections, we came upon Becki’s team doing 180s in the plowed road, her screaming at them to try to direct them as her sled bent in half as her team flailed around her. I told her to hold still, gave Wembley and Ia the ‘haw’ to turn across the road and into the narrow trail, and they executed it flawlessly. I stopped and set my hooks, and waited to make sure Becki’s leaders followed suit.

 

Throughout the year, I have been training the team for what I call ‘resilience’. One part of that was, indeed, turning across wide snowmobile trails onto a narrow ungroomed ATV trail. We did that in training because I found it fun, different, and a change of pace, and also a way to get away from the snowmobile traffic. It was amazing to see that training come into play in this race.

 

The remainder of the run to Portage was quiet. We had one gnarly plowed road left to execute, shooting through a classic Can Am narrow break/ 90 degree turn snowbank (me somehow landing on my behind, but still holding onto the sled) and then taking a fast right hand turn off the plowed road and up a steep hill. We were surrounded by other mushers, Jaye and Becki and Marie-Eve, but I stopped a lot to let them get ahead of us, so I could enjoy the evening and the long slow downhill to Portage, one of my favorite 20 miles of the entire race.

 

Crossing Portage Lake heralds the end of that long 70 mile run. This year, instead of the long run across the lake, we crossed a narrow end. Wembley and Ia were leading well, so inbetween bumpy icy jolts, I managed to get out my camera to capture the sunset. The wind was moderate. The glassy ice was so many colors in that setting sun. We. Felt. Great.

Crossing portage Lake at the end of the first long leg

Crossing portage Lake at the end of the first long leg

 

Pulling into Portage, we were greeted by volunteers we knew well, from so many checkpoints. It was going to be a different kind of race.

Portage was a cold and windy place, temperatures somewhere around the single digits but the blowing wind making it that much more colder. Booties I put on the ground blew away. I used the sled as a windbreak for gear, and put every ounce of warming gear I had onto all of the dogs. In the rush of packing, somehow I had mislabeled bags, and the checkpoint bag I opened was the checkpoint bag for the second checkpoint, missing the warming shoulder vests that Ia and Ariel received at every checkpoint to help them rest well. I did what I could, using excess straw to build windbreaks, and wrapping Hilde in a burrito of wool blankets, but some dogs weren’t resting well. Some dogs didn’t seem to mind a thing, such as Wembley, Hyside, Inferno, Hawkeye and Oriana.  

I asked the opinion of everyone about the sled, and what to do about it. Knowing that the next section was non technical, a simple smooth 40 miles of snowmachine trail, I wasn’t too worried. I braced the stanchion, and would keep an eye on it.

The next leg was unremarkable, save for the opportunity to pass all the mushers head on. It was on that leg that I knew that Jaye Foucher was having a great run, seeing her team charge at me. I was so so so happy for her. I struggled to stay awake, Wembley and Hyside in lead leaving me very little to do. It also grew cold, and I wished I had thrown some hand warmers into my beaver mitts.

Hyside at portage 2. 

Hyside at portage 2. 

Back at Portage 2, in the rising sun, it felt strange. The teams were starting to get spread out, the Canadians readying to leave when I was still bedding down the dogs. The day seemed too bright, and the wind was still blowing. Scott Giroux, one of the super volunteers who manages the Syl-Ver dog yard, pointed out that the stanchion I broke was not structural, but instead would only affect steering. The bed of the sled, the other stanchions, and more were doing the work of holding the sled together. I would be fine.

Readying to leave Portage 2, to head to Allagash, I looked the team over. No one had eaten well, and I called the vets over to potentially drop Oriana, as she was not eating well and as a young dog, I didn’t want that to be a negative experience in long races. However, by the time the vets came over, Oriana was eating like a champ, but Ariel was displaying some non-identifable soreness and Ia had developed a shoulder cramp I couldn’t work her out of. Everyone else seemed great, Nibbler rising to cheer us out. It felt strange to be leaving Portage in daylight, it felt stranger to be heading to Allagash so early, but the 8 dogs in the team and I were ready.

Until, Hyside's gait was different immediately. I stopped the team, and sat down on the trail in the sunshine with the wagging happy dogs, and found a wrist injury on him. I knew we had to go back to the checkpoint, I was not carrying Hyside up all the hills to Allagash, and we were only a mile or two from Portage. I cut them all loose, turned the sled around, played with them and made them happy, and called them to me and drove back to the checkpoint. I thought my race was over. When I got back to the checkpoint, I couldn't quite say the words scratch.

When the crew brought me through the dogyard at the checkpoint, to return me to my truck, a flash of inspiration and hope returned. 'No, wait.' I said 'Bring me back to the dog yard, bring me to my straw.' There was a possibility that if we treated Hyside, he could get back on the trail.

 

Icing hyside's wrist, chatting to remy about his team. 

Icing hyside's wrist, chatting to remy about his team. 

Everyone at that checkpoint did everything they could to get us back on the trail: the managers who figured out what rules applied (how long could I stay? Could I access all my checkpoint bags?) and the vets who coached me through the options, including sitting and helping me hold Hyside still while we iced his arm. Remy Leduc said, as we sat in the sun and cared for our teams, ‘can your dogs chase? You can follow me and we can go together.’ I asked him if this was legal, and he said ‘of course it is, we just can’t tie our teams together.’

I came inside, and sat with Elissa, working through the options. I felt not-so-sure about our ability to continue without Hyside, leaving only Wembley as a leader. Hilde was still in the team, but she would not lead with girls.

Then, Elissa asked, ‘What about Inferno?’

Inferno is a young dog, a yearling. Elissa got to know him last year, as he was transported to the race for me by Laura Neese, and Elissa cared for him when I was on the trail. Inferno became famous during that time, as he destroyed and busted out of the box, and ran around Portage, chasing snowmobiles. Inferno comes from a long line of leaders, his mother Salt a lead dog before age 1, and going further back to his great grandmother Lily, who lead the Yukon Quest as a yearling, her very first time in lead.

But all of these things did not come to mind, for me, when I thought about Inferno. I thought of his immaturity and slight goofiness sometimes, and of the few times I’ve put him in lead, where he showed promise, but not something reliable. I was worried about exploding his head in a tough run, like forcing him to lead for 100 miles. But, then, I remembered watching him in the UP200, where he seemed to get stronger and more confident as the race went on.

With Remy, and with Elissa, and with the others at the checkpoint, we had a plan.

Leaving PORTAGE for a third time, heading to allagash. Wembley and inferno in lead. 

Leaving PORTAGE for a third time, heading to allagash. Wembley and inferno in lead. 

I dropped Hyside, whose wrist was still swollen, and headed out onto the trail with Wembley and Inferno in lead. Paul Roy, one of Remy’s friends, was waiting on the trail and caught a photo of the team leaving. It was one last moment to cheer us out and on. We were 7 dogs, 1 musher, and a broken sled facing 50 tough miles to Allagash. I needed that cheer.

The slow climb out of Portage was banked with beautiful setting sun. Inferno was running beautifully with Wembley, and she seemed happy. Oriana and Nibbler were right behind the leaders, and they displayed so much patience when Inferno would lose focus and slow down, leading to tangles that they would somehow leap their way out of. Foreman and Hilde were in wheel, Hawkeye solo. They were all working as a team.

 

As sun gave way to darkness, and we started climbing ridgelines at mile 20-25 or so, Inferno decided he was done. Knowing better than to force dogs to do anything, and also knowing better than to stop or slow down too much, I kept them moving, and coaxed other dogs into the front with Wembley. I walked up and down the team, tired. This was not the run I wanted, a complex and confusing run to Allagash, in the darkness and cold.

 

Remy’s headlight appeared not long after, coming up with his puppy team. I said I needed to follow him for awhile, and helped his team pass. Sure enough, Inferno perked up and we chased him most of the way to Allagash, Remy stopping to wait for us when something happened and we fell behind. (How on earth did he know when he had lost us? I later found out that Remy knew that we had fallen behind when his young dogs suddenly became more focused and were running better.)

 

Night falls on the way to Allagash. 

Night falls on the way to Allagash. 

The last 15 miles to Allagash were a long mostly-downhill iced road. Wembley somehow knew were she was, and her speed and focus picked up. I was drifting in and out of sleep, waking to find the sled close to Remy’s. I eventually let the team pass, Wembley and Inferno leading us into Allagash at last. Remy and I talked after bedding down our teams, I thanked him for helping us get here, and we talked about the run.

 

Allagash always feels like a bright happy party. The diner is lit up with so many lights on the outside, and the teams are spaced in a way that they can rest well. The volunteers and staff are smiling, a lot. It is a short walk from the dog yard to the diner, and there is so much warmth and cheer in that little building. And, also, the sleeping quarters for the mushers are quiet warm bunks. Elissa was there, as were Paul and Kat, and they all greeted me with big big big hugs. ‘You did it’ they said. ‘We did it!’ I said.

 

As always, I knew if we got to Allagash, we would get to the finish.

 

I had intended to rest for 6 hours, but that rest became 8, as I just was moving slow myself, having expended a lot of energy on the hills to Allagash. Inferno and Wembley stood right up when I went to check on the dogs, and everyone ate. They felt recharged and ready. I was worried a bit about Foreman, his wrists were sore and his appetite was never great after Portage. But he ate ok, and he moved well. In this race in particular, I don’t like taking ‘iffy’ dogs, because it is not fun going up and down those hills with a dog in the bag. Nor, does it feel quite right coming into a finish line with a dog in the bag, as I did with at the UP200.

Leaving allagash, heading for the finish, inferno and Wembley still in lead. that's hawkeye in the hot pink shirt. 

Leaving allagash, heading for the finish, inferno and Wembley still in lead. that's hawkeye in the hot pink shirt. 

 

I knew the trail to the finish would be doable. I knew we would have to climb out at first, but thanks to Amy Dionne leaving right after us, we had someone to chase when she passed us. I knew the remaining trail well, it being burned into my brain from the runs before. Rolling hills, some steep climbs, and a heating sun were still to come.

 

As I had expected, but not hoped, Inferno declared he was done, again, at mile 20. I shuffled dogs around, figuring out who would run with Wembley. Nibbler carried us for a short while, Oriana not far at all, and as a last-ditch effort I put Foreman up there. Foreman had led before for about 100 yards in a training run, and he did well enough in that training run, and Wembley was pleased wit his company, that I thought it would be worth a try again. At least, Foreman had more maturity than Inferno.

 

Yup. I would say that wembley was pretty darn happy with foreman.

Yup. I would say that wembley was pretty darn happy with foreman.

With a shortened-up tug, Foreman was slightly behind Wembley, so he had someone to follow. Wembley was thrilled with Foreman, and they moved us slowly but surely in the direction of Fort Kent. I remembered something that my friend Matt Schmidt had said about his Beargrease run, which was he would know they were moving slowly, but even slowly, that they were moving well.

 

When we reached the last 10 miles, Foreman was clearly done helping. Knowing that Wembley would know where she was, I put Inferno back up with her, still keeping the slightly shortened tug for him. He zipped in line. We kept going.

 

Wembley sure as hell knew where she was going. She jerked the team forward when we stopped. She guided us flawlessly through the open fields, even when Inferno would take us in a weirdo direction. She corrected turns when Inferno would try to take us down the plowed road instead of right across it. I trusted her completely.

 

There was still one last trail hurdle, that came unexpectedly. The trail curved to the right through the trees, and Wembley hesitated and then decided to go straight instead. I tried to see around into what was up there, and saw only an open pit of undermined snow, open water and mud. I saw no trail markers, and I saw no runner tracks. But, from my best guess, through the crevasse and the mud was the trail. I gee’d Wembley out of the woods and towards and into the big hole.

 

Trusting Wembley, but not the giant sled I had already broken, I set the hooks and used my snubline to belay the sled up that section of trail. The dogs were patient and willing, and we made it through, but not without the sled tipping sideways and me finally and at long last breaking the other stanchion piece on the opposite side.

belaying the sled across the hole. I was not brave enough to drive the team through it. 

belaying the sled across the hole. I was not brave enough to drive the team through it. 

 

I stopped not long after that to pull the snubline back in, and to thank the dogs left on the team. Nibbler was impatient and screaming to go, knowing exactly also where she was as well. The sun was so bright. I slowed the team down to enjoy these last few moments on the trail, sliding downhill with an exhale. 

 

We came sliding into the finish, and Inferno tried to take us into the parking lot instead of the finish line. I could hear ‘GEE GEE’ being screamed at me from the finish line, and Stephane Duplessis ran out to help direct the team, but I smiled as I knew that once the team stopped taking the turn, that Wembley would fix it. The video of the finish shows that moment after she did, with me waving to Stephane as a thank you.

 

The smiles we all had at that finish were unlike the smiles at any of our other race finishes. I smiled because we were surrounded by so many friends, so many mushers, so many congratulations and thank yous and big bear hugs. Stephane stared so proudly at Oriana, the girl he reluctantly sold to me two years ago. Everyone laughed at Nibbler, leaping and ready to go again, and Wembley as she barked at everyone, her energy undiminished and unchanged. The dogs looked like they could keep going. I felt like I could keep going. It was sunny and warm, and we lingered in the finish line.

With wembley and inferno at the finish. 

With wembley and inferno at the finish. 

This race was about every dog on this team. About Ia who led us into Portage, confident on all the wide iced roads, and Ariel who drove and drove and cheered. About Hyside, with his steady and even pace and massive heart. About Hawkeye who was a steady and strong invisible member of the team, and Hilde who ran next to him the entire time, screaming with intensity when we left checkpoints. About Foreman who rose to lead for exactly 10 miles in the last leg even though he absolutely did not want to. About Oriana Fallaci, a yearling youngster who remained focused in point, even when the leaders would create constant tangles. About Nibbler, who was just a spark of energy in a harness, snapping forward every time I whispered it was time to go again and leaping and screaming when we waited too long at the finish, wanting to go again.

 

About Inferno, who led with so much confidence and blind happiness. Inferno is a young dog, less than two years old, and had only led three runs before this, a truck run, a short fun run, and half of a longer training run. Seeing the photos of him coming into the finish with those floppy ears, there is a confidence in him that will be carried forward for so many years in this team. As Remy said, 'your young leader learned something, right?'

 

More than anyone else, this race was about Wembley. Wembley led the entire race. She knew when we were getting close to a checkpoint and would drive harder. She ate everything and was always the first one to stand up when I returned to the team after a rest. She drove like a steering wheel with every turn, and I had total faith in her. She led fearlessly through open water, glare ice, and rough terrain. She came into the finish line with the biggest grin and the tightest tug, with the same energy as how she started. She knew, the whole time, what she was doing, and as her fourth time in this race, she sure as hell did. This race, the Can Am 250, will always be Wembley's race.

So important was the superb Elissa Gramling, who coached me back onto the trail with the right mix of support and tough-headedness, offered so much laughter and cheer, and also constantly put water and food in my hands. Every time I came into the checkpoint building, or emerged from a nap, there she was, with a row of filled water bottles, and so much support and laughter. Elissa is the perfect Can Am handler. I couldn’t have done it without her.

I run these races because of so many things, to explore landscape with these amazing dogs, to be out in the wilderness, and to be on the trail with so many friends. This race is a celebration of the sport, as so many friends met us at the finish line, the volunteers and officials and almost all the mushers who had finished before me. We all stood around the team in the finish line, smiling and celebrating, the dogs smiling as well.

This was my fourth time in this race, and the third time across the finish, the third time in a row. This race was hard. But a different kind of hard compared to two years ago, to three years ago. It was the kind of hard that I knew I could wrap my arms around and lift, and I knew I could do so because of the dogs standing there with me.

We started with 10 dogs, and finished with 7, coming in 9th place as we did two years ago. 

These. Amazing. Dogs.

On running your own race: The UP200

When I finished the UP200 last year, I said to Leanne Bergen, 'I loved this race, but I don't have enough dogs to return.' I knew that 2017 was going to be an in-between year, with dogs aging out and not quite enough dogs aging in.

 

Whispering to Ellie in the start line. 

Whispering to Ellie in the start line. 

When I saw Leanne again, one of the first things she said was 'I didn't think you would be back, you said you didn't have enough dogs!' It was a good thing I came, she said.

 

I really didn't have enough dogs to run this race. By mid-January, because of youth and older age, the race team was 12 dogs. Exactly 12 dogs. It is very daunting to go into two big races with only 12 dogs, two big races that are less than two weeks apart. It would take all the skill I have acquired in the past five years as a musher, and all the things I knew about these 12 dogs, to finish this race with a strong and happy team, ready to continue.

 

But I just couldn't not run this race.

 

The UP200 is a magic carpet ride, swooping sinuous turns and quiet trails. The start line is unlike any other, as thousands of people throng the main street with bells and lights and so so so so much celebration. The energy is contagious. The energy is open and welcoming.

 

The events that lead up to the start line build that community. There is a dinner and banquet on Thursday night, so many friends and mushers reunited for the first time this season. We spend the next day, Friday, running into each other again at vet checks, and then at the Mining Journal lunch as we drop off our drop bags. On the tip of all of our tongues was the looming hot temperatures predicted, and the damp trail conditions. But, also, there were many laughs, jokes, and smiles. And, somehow, Ron Hewsen, the UP Board President, seems to be everywhere all the time. As were so many other key volunteers: Darlene the VP, and Brenda Eagle-Ransom who seemed to be doing everything.  

 

We spent the Friday afternoon in the Wal-Mart parking lot, the dogs resting in their boxes, and me taking a nap in the front seat of the truck. It was there that we met our handlers for the race, Jon Brown and A.J. Downey. Jon and A.J. are locals who have handled for the Stielstras in so many prior UP200s, and knew the race and the routine. ‘What are you doing?’ Jon asked right away, ‘We need to get you to your park time!’

 

Main Street of Marquette had acquired the trail of snow for the start, and it was balmy and spring-like as we pulled in. Water was running down the sides of the road, puddles of slush had developed in places. There was intense debate and decisions being made about dogs feet, about booting or not booting, and about runner plastic being shredded on asphalt. The decision I ended up with was to cream the dogs feet (thank you Colleen Wallin for extra zinc ointment) and bootie, and take off the booties as the run went on. For, as Julie Albert pointed out, ‘do you really want to stop and potentially boot the whole team?’

 

I remembered, last year, there being a crowd on Main Street, spectators wandering among the dog trucks. This year, because of the comfortable air, those crowds were huge. There were families, and so many people in light jackets and no hats. As Bib 3, we were close to the start line, and thereby closer to the concentration. As I prepared the team, House thrashing in excitement as he always does, I had spectators asking questions about my every action. Why did I have boots? What was that cream? Why is that dog barking but that dog not barking? It was one of the most stressful starts I’ve been in.

 

The photographer, Will anderson, who took this commented that our team stood out among all the others, as looking very happy and in our element. I can only guess that it was because we were so releived to be in the start line at last. 

The photographer, Will anderson, who took this commented that our team stood out among all the others, as looking very happy and in our element. I can only guess that it was because we were so releived to be in the start line at last. 

Once we got to the start line, I relaxed. I walked up the team, and kneeled to the ground in front of Ellie and Hyside. This was to be Ellie’s first big start line in lead, with thousands of people crowding the trail with cowbells and lights and cheers. She was ready and excited. It was time.

 

As Bib #3, I knew we would be passed by pretty much everyone in the first leg, to the point where I jokingly learned how to say 'you can pass' in French for the benefit of Martin and Andre. The warm temps had watered the railroad grade at the start down to slush and asphalt, but by the time we entered the woods the gliding was there. Over the course of the first 40 miles, we were passed by Carl, Matt, and Leane. Many of these passes I watched the headlamp approach slowly for miles, and then stayed close behind them for miles as well. We were all pacing our teams in similar ways.

 

By mile 40 in that first leg, the dogs and I had settled. All the teams had passed us, and we were in that space of quiet calm. As we neared the Wetmore checkpoint, Shawn McCarty approached and ran behind us for awhile. I paused and let his team go by, and said ‘I wasn’t sure if you needed to pass or not.’ In response he said ‘I wasn’t sure either.’ He came into the checkpoint a minute ahead of us, me watching his team the whole way.

 

Wetmore, the first checkpoint, is the only checkpoint in the race where I needed to pack drop bags and couldn’t work out of the dog truck. It is the quiet and lovely kind of checkpoint I have grown used to, after so many years of Can Am. In solitude, I bedded down the dogs, rubbed them down and snacked them. The vet team did their mandatory dog checks, while I prepared the dogs’ meal, and then after feeding and blanketing every one, I went inside to eat soup and sleep.

 

All of us took the minimum mandatory of 5 hours at this checkpoint. We were all trying to race the heat of the day, coming that morning. I left the garage early to water the dogs again and to check over for possible soreness. There was a pause where I knew I had time to kill, so I pulled a blanket across my cooler and sat and watched the sunrise, and watched other teams rouse, howl, and depart. House was sitting sentry at the front of the team, facing the rising sun, along with Hyside.

 

I moved as little as possible, to keep the dogs resting, and even as I moved around them, and even as so many other teams became anxious and agitated, all of the dogs stayed laying down. These dogs are veterans of so many races at this point, that they have learned that go time is when the jackets come off, and the lines get hooked, but not before. The other teams would rise with squeaks and howls and the bark bark bark of the cheerleaders, one by one they all took off ahead of us.

 

The rising and departure from this checkpoint was one of my favorite moments of the race. Usually the first checkpoint feels harried, busy, or rushed, confused as I adjust to the long-haul mindset of races. But this one felt different. The sun was rising. I had plenty of time before we were going to get on the trail. There was only the small array of gear to go back into the cooler and bag. I sat and drank water. Calm. There was nothing to rush into.

 

Hyside stood at this checkpoint, insisting to be in lead. I had planned on him leading us out of every checkpoint, to keep our pace steady when everyone else wants to charge hard. I, also, had planned on him coming out of lead halfway through each run, as he has been sometimes less-than-focused after the first snack break. I put him in lead with Ariel, and we followed Shawn onto the trail.

 

Pointing east, we met a sunrise on that burned a whole spectrum of colors, misting fog among the standing pines and the frosted breath of the dogs. It was silent. We encountered a small family of spectators, sitting around a bonfire watching the teams go by in the morning. I was breathless with beauty and didn’t quite know how to greet them.

This is not our team. Blake Freking shared this photo after the race, after I had described this sunrise at the race banquet. 

This is not our team. Blake Freking shared this photo after the race, after I had described this sunrise at the race banquet. 

 

The sun burned more intensly. The light snow puffed around the dogs bodies, the Upper Peninsula sun that is a glowing ball of fire was in front of us as we headed east. I lifted my hand to my pocket, and remembered that I had forgotten my camera. A flush of understanding, connection with the team and with landscape, came through me. This was an important moment, and this was an important day. I smiled, and cried.

 

After a few miles we caught Shawn, passing him I said ‘This is probably a bad idea, you’ll just catch us again.’ To which he replied ‘Doesn’t matter.’

 

The sun rose. I swapped out Ariel for Wembley in lead, and she and Hyside drove the team with speed and focus, into the warming heat I could feel through the trees as we left a section of plowed road for the winding trail to Grand Marais.

 

There had been a lot of talk and anticipation about the heat in this race, temps forecasted to be in the 40s and 50s on Saturday and Sunday. But the trail stayed firm, the air remarkably cool. When we passed through the open fields, in the last half of the leg, the sun was hot. Anytime we passed through one of those sections, at the next shady spot, I would stop and let the dogs cool off. Just as Hyside is our speedometer, I used him as our thermometer, and let him roll in the snow a lot. Their appetites and attitudes stayed high. I got sunburned.

 

 Each time, after Hyside and Wembley and others rolled around, a quiet ‘alright let’s go’ would snap them back into line. And we’d be off again.

 

In the last 10 miles, weaving among the hardwoods, Shawn’s team spooked me as they caught us silently. I slowed down to let them pass, and watched their fluid movement in front of us for the rest of the run to Grand Marais. His team moved beautifully, flat backed and leading with their wrists like wolves.

 

Hyside motored into Grand Marais as if he knew what awaited him there, a long rest and a big meaty meal. This was his fourth time in this race, twice with me and twice with Nature’s Kennel. I have no doubt that he knew what he was doing.

 

Grand Marais was a warm, busy, noisy mess. The parking spots for the teams were muddy and sloppy, the dogs resting on two layers of straw and snow. As the vets did their mandatory checks of heart rate and hydration, they laughed as they found Hyside’s resting heart rate of a calm mellow 68 BPM, compared to Hildegard’s racing 102. Hyside was in his element. I tried to dry out my gear by opening my sled to the sun, hanging equipment everywhere on the dog truck. Leaving the team under the watch of Jon and A.J, I went inside, ate soup, and then slept.

 

During this race last year, I truly began to learn the import of the musher’s adage: ‘run your own team.’ To make decisions based on what I knew about these dogs, and not on what I was guessing about the other teams. To run a rest cycle that met their conditioning, and run a pace that matched their endurance. To, more than anything, not let the head game start of ‘wait, but the other teams are doing so much better.’ To know that the measure of success would be found in the finish line, in the happy faces and tight tug lines of each member of the team. And, to know, that when you are in the back of the pack, it is where you can find the most solitude.

 

Leaving Grand Marais is where Shawn’s team and mine changed pace, he staying another hour and also ended up gaining a lot of speed in these last two legs. We wished each other well in these last runs, and I didn’t see him again until the finish line.

 

 

The night was clear and not-quite-cold, as we scaled the hills out of Grand Marais I could feel waves of melting heat and the growing cooler air. We traveled under a starry moonless night that had me turning off my headlamp in the fields to stare at the glittering darkness around. I started nodding off, and seeing shadow buildings in the trees, as I am prone to do in this second night of sleeplessness. It was in this leg that Inferno ran in point, the position right behind the leaders.

 

Sun and warmth had done damage to the trails, and dealt a tough hand to the trail crew for when we crossed water and when we ran on road. In this leg, the snow-covered plowed road had turned to pure dirt during the day, leaving a slight strip of rutted up ice and snow on the edges. The team splayed out as they each tried to find their footing, and I noticed a section where the trail crew had shoveled snow out of the banks and onto the trail to give us a slidable surface. As I wrestled to keep myself upright on the rougher sections, I watched only Nibbler in wheel, as I always watch the wheel dogs when the trails get rough or twisty. Because you go where your eyes go.

 

The last checkpoint, Wetmore, arrived quickly. It was there that I learned how close the race for the top three spots were, and offered my ski pole to Ward as he had broken his. As I bedded down the dogs, they settled right in, and I looked up the team, amazed that all 12 were still there. The vets did their mandatory checks, me holding the nervous Hilde and Oriana still, and the vets reaching under Ia’s pile of blankets to find her. (‘is there a dog under there?’ one of them asked).

 

In each checkpoint, there was specialized care for almost every dog. House and Ellie got wrist wraps, Hawkeye, Ariel and Ia got therapeutic shoulder vests. Wembley, Nibbler, House and Foreman need extra fiber. Hyside needed extra foot cream. And for each dog, every foot is checked and rubbed down. They all ate, and then slept. The veterinary team said that they looked great. They did look great.

 

This checkpoint was hosted by a log home company, and the musher’s sleeping quarters was in the heat of their kiln. Every single item I had that was damp or wet dried in the two hours I slept there. Looking at the earliest departure board, I saw mushers 20 minutes ahead of me, and 20 minutes behind me. If I did things right, we would enjoy a solitary trail all the way home to the finish.

 

I walked all the potential problem dogs before we left, Hawkeye, Ellie, Ia, Ariel, House. They all moved well and stood up well. We hooked the team up early to get to the start chute early, also so I could have a few more minutes looking over the team and making sure no one needed to be left behind. All 12 were standing tall and lunging forward. Hyside and House were in lead, Foreman and Nibbler still in wheel. Hilde had been running next to Hawkeye the entire race, the smallest dog and the tallest dog. Oriana with Ia, and Inferno with Ellie. Wembley and Ariel were in point. They were happy and strong.

 

We left the checkpoint, and my left stanchion on my sled flew up and hit me in the face, breaking the handlebar. Cold and shaky with adrenaline, I steered the team with the drag mat through the twists and turns and loopedy doos of the first few miles.

 

At the first straightaway, I set the hook, and strapped the handlebar in place with the NRS strap that held my cooler in place. I put the cooler in the sled bag, feeling like the problem was now controlled.

 

And then Ia started backing off her tugline.

 

And then I remembered that I had intended on dropping Ia at the last checkpoint. After that rough section of dirt road, Ia had been stressed and backed off a little bit. Oriana had as well, but she had found her confidence again and was pulling well.

 

Not super thrilled about putting a dog in the bag of a broken sled, I slowed the team down to see if Ia would ease into it, as she sometimes does. I stopped and snacked her, I unclipped her tug. And then, at mile 15 or so, I put her in the bag, imperfectly at first which resulted in her leaping out, but then cinching her in and zip-tying the bag shut calmed her down. Throughout the rest of the run, when I would reach into the bag to get my water bottle, I would also rub her on the nose.

 

The remaining 11 dogs showed remarkable patience during all of this, Hyside rolling around in the snow, looking back once in awhile to see if it was time to go again. A simple whisper of an ‘ok’ from me, would bring all of them back to focus, and launch forward once more. I thought of all the times during the years we have stopped for a long time, to teach them patience and calmness. Our snack breaks in training have been calm and quiet, willing. I could see this coming out in them now.

 

I steered the sled for the rest of the run using only the drag mat, and a light tough on the crosspiece where the snowhook was. I watched the remaining stanchions come slowly out of alignment, but knew the trail was a slow downhill with well-designed turns. The team was keeping a steady 7-8 MPH pace. We would be ok.

 

One of the remarkable things about an out-and-back race is that you learn the trail quickly. This was only my second time in this race, but the fourth time on some of the sections of trail. I had begun to learn them, already. I knew where we were for the most part, anticipating the twisty sections through the beaver ponds, and remembering the long straightaways where we ran with Andre last year.

 

As we descended in the sun and blue sky towards Marquette, for the finish, I stopped the team and set the hook. I had no idea of Sylvain or Blake or someone was close behind us, but I knew I wanted to thank each dog outside of the business of the finish line. Their tails were all wagging. Inferno was leaping in his harness. Nibbler sent out a purring cry of a cheer. This was at mile 210.

 

They came into the finish with House trying to break into a lope, Hyside insisting on remaining in his prancing trot as we motored up that uphill railroad grade. The photos of that finish look like photos from a start line, tight tugs and huge huge huge smiles. I am so incredibly proud of these dogs. These dogs are an inspiration. These dogs are solid.

 

At the finish line were so many of my fellow mushers, Matt and Erin, Colleen and Mike, and Shawn who said ‘where were you? I had to run by myself the last two legs.’ Leane Bergen was at her truck, happy with her finish and run. I was so thrilled to find out that Denis had won, had won his first race and also the first Canadian to win the UP200.

 

Putting the gear and dogs away back at the truck, in that haze of exhaustion, two girls quietly came up to me. I had met them at the start line last year, they had come to the truck before things really got busy, so I was able to talk to them a little bit without being too distracted. I remembered them well, intentional and curious and quiet. I was happy to see them again, Elisabeth and Gabrielle. They had been following us since then, and knew so many of the dogs names.

 

‘Is this Hyside?’ they asked. ‘Can we pet him? Can we take pictures?’

 

‘Oh absolutely!’ I said.

 

These moments of connection with those who follow the race are the reasons that the UP is a special race. The opportunity for these connections are so real and possible, as the race is run in such close proximity to and encouraging of spectator engagement. While a great deal of these races, for me, is about time spent on the trail with the dogs and with fellow mushers, it is also about that human element, about how everyone else connects to these events, and to each other. It is a rare and wonderful human moment.

 

The parking lot emptied out as I repacked the truck, preparing it for the long journey home to NH. The dogs were socked out in the boxes, Ariel sleeping on her back with her nose towards the door. Wembley had no one to bark at, and probably wasn’t interested in barking at anyone as she was sleeping. We had dinner that night with so many of the other mushers, Wallins and Matt and Erin and Andrew and Peppy, and all the Canadians: Andre and Amelie, Manon and Sylvain, Julie and Denis and Morgan, and Martin and Dominic. We took over a corner of the bar, and Julie teased me relentlessly for my sleepiness. We were all celebrating.

 

Friend and fellow musher Matt SCHMIdt, who earned the cooley award for best kept team (well-freaking deserved! finishing with all 12 dogs ready to continue!), and myself with the Porn SPORTSMANSHIP award. We took this photo for our friend Elissa gramling. 

Friend and fellow musher Matt SCHMIdt, who earned the cooley award for best kept team (well-freaking deserved! finishing with all 12 dogs ready to continue!), and myself with the Porn SPORTSMANSHIP award. We took this photo for our friend Elissa gramling. 

This race could not have been run without a tremendous amount of help. Thank you to Jon Brown and AJ Downey for being the support crew, making sure I slept, ate, and drank water. They knew to find me a good sleeping bag spot, and knew that, more than anything, the important task of the handler is to keep an eye on the time and timing, to do that math when the musher can’t. Thank you to Lynne Witte and Nature's Kennel for being such tremendous hosts for the week before the race, so the dogs could get out of boxes and stretch out for a few runs. Thank you to Maria Gaffney and Tashi for cheering us on from the sidelines, and for my sister Rachel for doing the same. Thank you to Erin Altemus and Matt Schmidt for being bunkmates before and after the race. Thank you to Chuck Johnston for holding down the home base through two Nor'easters and playing with puppies and caring for my siblings. Thank you to my fellow mushers for advice and inspiration before the race, along the trail, and for awarding me the Sportsmanship Award.

 

Oh....these dogs. Hyside, who stood at the second checkpoint and insisted on leading, and there he stayed until the finish, assisted by Wembley's speed in the second leg, and House's surprising focus in the third and fourth legs. Oriana Fallaci was a tail-wagging bundle of joy, and Hawkeye was mellowed and intentional. Ellie led the start line with prowess and skill, and her cousin Nibbler ran the entire race in wheel, patient with the moguls that slammed the sled and cheering the team. Foreman remained, always, a coiled spring of energy, unending. Hilde, at two years old, displayed remarkable maturity and was screaming for more as we left the last checkpoint. Ia led most of the first leg, but got stressed by some of the rough trail conditions in the third leg and ended up in the bag in the fourth. Ariel was a hard-driving, constantly eating, machine. Inferno, the famous Inferno, ran in every position except for lead, and got stronger as the race went on, driving the team with a lope in the last leg.

 

I chose to travel over 2,000 miles for this 200 mile race, with a very small dog team, for all that I described above. For the love of wilderness, for the love of these dogs, and for celebration of all of us who show up.

 

Less than two weeks until the Can Am 250. We are ready.

On the Third Phase of the Run: Wrap Up of the Wilderness Race

In high school, I briefly trained to row in crew. I rowed in the spring in the sub-JV boats, and made it into exactly one race. One winter was spent in training for the spring, running in the track and churning along on the stationary rowing torture devices known as Ergs. Not a natural athlete, especially when I was young, memories of that winter brings the bile of overexertion to my throat. Memories of the spring on the boats brings softer moments, of the company of the women on the boat, the drift of the river, and the peeled-back skin on my palms.

The first few miles of the Wilderness Race, Wembley and Hyside in lead.

The first few miles of the Wilderness Race, Wembley and Hyside in lead.

While ultimately the sport was not for me, there was something that I pulled out of rowing that informs these long runs now. The woman who coached our winter training sessions broke down the 2,000 meters of our races as thus: the first 500 meters of easy pulling, the second 500 meters of pace setting, and the last 500 meters as the push to the finish.

And the third 500 meters? Well, her explanation was not as simple because the third section of the race is not as simple. It is the section when the goal is less clear, the speedy energy is starting to be spent, and the finish line is not there. In short: grit and grin and dig deep, and you will make your way to the tipping point towards the finish. A mix of patience, steadiness, strength, and focus when there isn’t a totally clear focus.

On Saturday, around mile 40 or so, as we crawled along sandy snow before climbing the Blue Ridge and descending towards Greenville, I thought ‘yup, here we are in the middle of that third 500 meters.’

The Wilderness Race this year was a very challenging course. For the past three times I’ve run this race, the trail leaving the start line (and ultimately the trail we return on) has been different. The second half of the trail, up and over the Blue Ridge and through the Appalachian Mountain Club property, has been the same for the most part, rolling hills and steady climbs. I knew, going into it, that the trail would have some big hills to climb, and that the start would have some twists and turns that were sharp enough that the RGO dropped the team size to shorten the lines, and thus minimize the whiplash. It was a big pool of mushers, 12 teams, and included so many champions and incredibly skilled mushers.

Going into the race, I felt good about the team’s stamina. They were steady and strong, and solid. I chose Ashley Patterson as my pace car, as I have long admired her ability to run a steady pace and gain speed in the end of races. If we were within a few minutes of Ashley, either ahead or behind of her at the finish, I knew we were doing well.

Hyside and Wembley in lead. 

Hyside and Wembley in lead. 

Throughout the prep, set up, and hook up for the race, I was so unbelievably calm. I hung out inside the lodge and drank tea, I laughed with volunteers, I quickly did the chores to prepare and then ran out of things to do. The sled bag was fairly empty, as the required gear list was short, and it was only 10 dogs. As bib 11, and 3 minute intervals, I had over half an hour between the first team being brought to the start line and our moment in the chute. Hyside and Wembley would be leading, capable and experienced start-line leaders. And, also, it was only one leg, one 60-ish mile leg. I really didn’t have much to do. The dogs and I were ready. After swapping a few jokes with Shawn, the race marshal, in the start line, we shot out into the fields and into the woods, on the trail at last.

The first 10-15 miles of the race was new, a mix of dog-trail-only on private land, and snowmachine trail. The air was clear and cold and the snow was hard and fast. I slowed them down so that Hyside was trotting, which is the speedometer indication of us at the ideal speed of 10 MPH.

Driving the semi-race-proven rebuilt sled, I didn’t know what to expect, but we skidded around corners and I stayed upright. The line holding the brake bar taught did give out in these first few miles, adding the extra complication and adaption of figuring out how to keep the brake bar off the snow when I didn’t need it, and keeping it loose enough so I could use it. All of this done at 10-12 MPH, of course.

Being at the back of the pack in the start line, there weren’t many mushers I expected to catch. I passed Ashley early on, knowing she would catch me again by the end. Next was Yann Shaw, a happy and graceful pass. And after him was Giles Harnois and his fuzzy Siberians, Giles smiling and saying with his Quebec accent ‘They are doing good, yes!’

I sighed with relief when we passed onto the ski trails of the Appalachian Mountain Club, saying to Wembley ‘we are now in the promised land,’ as I knew we were on impeccably groomed non-motorized trails. We encountered a few groups of skiiers, and based on how they were clumped in the middle of the trail, I knew that there was a great stretch of time between the teams ahead of me and our place on the trail. From years past, I recognized so many sections on the trail, the sidehills and the turns, and the long climb up and then the steep roll down. As we neared the halfway point, in rapid succession we head-on passed with Martin, Etienne, David, and Andre, Andre shouting to me ‘where’s the next team?!’.

We arrived rapidly to West Branch Camps, the turnaround point, whizzing along in the single track. I love this particular section of trail, winding through the woods and bursting through the camp itself. This turnaround is the only chance I had to guess as to where we were, based off who I could see. Sylvain came at us as we entered the turnaround, so I figured we were within 10 minutes of each other.

Ellie and Wembley were in lead at this point, and as we entered that third section of the race, the third 500 meters, I felt that rumminess in my head. The dogs picked up on it, and became a little distracted. They stopped to pee more, Ellie’s tail when up more often, and House scooped up a lot of snow from the side. I felt the pressure of Ashley behind me; not wanting her behind me, just as I don’t like people behind me when hiking, I planned to stop at the Hedgehog gatehouse to snack the dogs before the big climb, and assumed she'd pass us then. 

As we neared Hedgehog, I saw two dogs with the group of people, and heard their barks. Having passed so many teams, and also passing so many dogs with hikers and skiiers, I didn’t think anything of it. One of our training trails, the Wild River, is rarely without a hiker and their dog, and we have always passed without incident.

This time, we were not so lucky, as the dogs were completely loose and their owners made no attempt to grab them, shouting at them only. Both of the dogs, big black dogs, chased and dove into the team on the turn, my dogs reacting confusedly and silently with their tails up. As the team tangled up, the sled flipped. The owners got control of their dogs and left. Ashley came by not long after, and I took the welcome pause to snack the team, untangle them, and play with them a little bit.

The climb back up the Blue Ridge is steep, the team and I walking at times with the sled above my head. We paused to catch our breath, and launched ahead again. The snow had become churned-up sugar snow from the snowmachines, soft and sandy underfoot. It was hard and slow going, and I knew that climb was not the end of the hills. As we descended the other side, I watched Moosehead lake come into view, the ridgelines framing the lake, and ate the last of my sandwich.

Leaving the snowmachine trail, we re-entered some of the dog-team only trail, a sidehill that wove through trees and next to a small lake. In this section we caught Becki, who stopped her team so we could pass safely in the tight trail. After this pass, both Ellie and Wembley were a little more distracted than usual, as sometimes the thrill of a chase gives way to reclaiming the steady pace.

At the finish. Eyes ahead. 

At the finish. Eyes ahead. 

As we neared the end, Wembley caught on to what was going on and picked up her pace. The hills became steep and constant, killing momentum, but thankfully, every so often, a long chain of snowmachines would arrive and give us reason for pause. The team would launch forward again, climb again, in that sandy soft snow. I have never had to work so hard in the first leg of a race before. We reached the height of land of Greenville, and landed in the straight home stretch and the open fields of the airport. Wembley broke into a lope, that she held for the rest of the race, landing strong in the finish line.

Throughout the race, while I did have that lull of the third section, I also found myself mentally locked into the long game. I was thinking of how to preserve the team for an additional 160-180 miles, of the next legs and the checkpoints. These were thoughts that were not active thinking, but a deep understanding ingrained into the subconscious. We came into the finish line, happy and calm, myself prepared to run again, and that led to a look on my face that likened to confusion, as I look at some of the photos of that finish.

However, this was a single-leg race, and after feeding the dogs and checking them over, there was food and drink to be had in the restaurant inside. It was a wonderful celebration, as mushers and volunteers trickled in, and as I got to share the stories of the race with Chuck, which I don’t usually get to do as he does not come with me to races.

There were over 70 volunteers involved on that day, to make the race happen. They were at road crossings, turns, intersections, and reaching out to every single snowmobiler. They brought our teams to the start line and caught us at the finish, checking the gear in our bags. They hosted events throughout the day to make it a full experience for spectators. It was an incredible celebration of the sport, of winter, and of these small communities.

Foreman and Nibbler were the bruisers in wheel, strong and pulling hard. Ahead of them were Hilde and Hawkeye, Hilde driving a focused and fast pace the entire race. Young fuzzy Oriana Fallaci was a tail-wagging phenom, with House a mature role model next to her. Ariel was a happy little girl behind the leaders, I considered putting her in lead at times, but knew she was perfectly content where she was. Hyside held our pace so steady in the start, and Ellie kept it fast in the end. Throughout it all, was Wembley, my soul dog, who nailed each intersection and turn like the steering wheel she is. All of them finished content, and happy. 

And how did we do? 6th place out of 12 teams, only a few minutes behind Ashley. That’s just about right.

Less than two weeks until the UP200. We’re ready. 

On the Edge of the Race Season

For some reason, on the trail to Portage, I parked the team, and left them on the trail. A tall building, near the trail, had a series of open windows and doors. Entering the building, there was a crew of folks who asked me to help with their project, pushing me into and onto a ladder that was rickety and extended too tall.

When I got back to the dog trail, the team was gone, and the snow had all melted. Chasing down the trail, I entered a town where someone had found the team, but someone else had took all of my gear and sold it on craigslist.

 

And then I woke up.

 

Stress dreams have not bothered me in a few years. Those dreams took forms like the above: getting to a race start too late, not having the required gear, driving the dog team through buildings lost on the trail. The dog team version of forgetting your speech, or arriving in front of the audience without your clothes on.

Five dogs, 12 miles. Paolo, Foreman, House, Inferno, and Hyside

Five dogs, 12 miles. Paolo, Foreman, House, Inferno, and Hyside

For the past two weeks, after our snow melted, I was training no more than 6 dogs at a time, for no more than 20 miles at a time. To extend the training, I extended the runs by stopping a lot on the trail, letting the dogs loose and playing with them, all in an effort to maximize the trails we had.

The training log and training goals called for longer runs, bigger miles, to stack on the conditioning the month before the UP200. Missing those runs, missing that training, and looking at a team of 5-6 dogs on ice and gravel…. that induced a little bit of stress.

The stress came from not being able to see the team run, see them run far, and see them trot along effortlessly. I was losing the trust and security I had in their ability to take on long runs. As my friend Christine pointed out, after I shared with her the stress dream, I would feel better and different once the team started racing and running together.

This past weekend, 13 dogs were packed into the truck along with gear and food, and we crossed the border to Quebec, to stay with Denis Tremblay and Julie Albert in St Michel des Saints. Denis and Julie live in the heart of the Quebec mushing community, with some of the best trails around, maintaining the trails with competitive sprint musher Marco Rivest. These are dog-team only trails, and mushers travel from across Quebec to train there: Martin Massicotte the weekend before me, and Sylvain Robillard and Manon Moore only a few days before I arrived.

As I pulled together the 12 dogs for the first run, decisions met me with blankness. Who would lead? Where was the remaining sections of line to make a 12 dog line? Who would be in wheel? Who would be paired with whom throughout the team to maximize efficiency? I stumbled around the truck and the team, putting the sled together and booting each dog. 

Julie and Morgan met me with the snowmobile to guide us onto the main trail, past the other kennels and driveways. They waited as I slowly booted the last few dogs, hooking them into the gang line. House and Wembley were in lead, House catapaulting around while Wembley held steady. Hilde pounced on Oriana, the fierce female that she is, so she got moved next to Hyside. We set off, fast. The string of dogs seemed impossibly long.

It was mid-day, warm and humid. Within the first 10 miles, the dogs slowed down. They became unfocused, diving into snow and stopping often to pee. I had taken House out of lead, putting Inferno up there, realizing that the quiet trail with no intersections was a great place to experiment with leaders. Inferno zipped into the line when we stopped, and while he was often the prancing youngster, he was also showing the confidence that will guide the team for years to come.

With the leadership experiment, and the warmth, the team was slow and inefficient. They felt kinked and disjointed, a group of individuals, unconnected. It took over 5 hours to run 44 miles.

Admittedly, when I do these long runs, I am not doing them fast. I do want to maximize trail time, as many of our runs during races end up as 5-6 hours, with speeds of 8-9 MPH. But in this first run, it wasn’t just a slow pace, as the team clearly had not remembered how to work as a team. I also had not remembered how to work as a team.

I had originally planned to take the dogs out for 38-40 miles, but as we headed back a determination crept in. I called them to gee onto another loop, to add another 5-6 miles. We had gone almost completely past the turn, because of the downhill and soft snow. Wembley turned the team back in on itself to take the gee.

From that moment on, the team started clicking back into place.

Hilde, leading solo, for 20 miles. 

Hilde, leading solo, for 20 miles. 

In the next run the next day, I placed siblings with siblings, cousins with cousins, remembering that there usually is magic in dogs that are related running with each other. Nibbler and Ellie, Foreman and House, Hawkeye and Inferno.  The goal on this day was to run long enough for two rounds of snacks, to run for 6 hours. So I calmly stopped them often, I played with them when we stopped, and I let them roll in snow often to cool off. I placed Hilde in single lead, to experiment and see.

During these long runs, I calm my monkey mind. I let the goals unravel to allow for stops and starts, to not worry about when or how the run ends. The biggest personal mental challenge, for me, is learning to be ok with the slow pace of time, especially in the middle of a race. The calmness unfolds in the last run of long races, when our finish placement is fairly predictable, and the dogs know they are on their last leg. This year, I am working to spread that calm throughout the race, throughout the runs.

The third run, on Sunday, we got an early start, because we had to do the long drive home. Ellie and Ariel were in lead, two relatively new and moderately experienced leaders. Unbelievably happy. 

The team flew through that run, as if they hadn’t run the two days before. They were smooth and effortless. I knew we were going to be ok. I set everyone loose when we got back to the truck, the dogs wandering and sniffing and just generally being dogs. I kneeled down, and each one of them came to me in turn to de-harness, have their sore spots rubbed, and push their heads to my chest in gratitude. 

Hyside, foreman, Oriana, House, Ariel, and Wembley. HAWKEye just behind the tailgate. 

Hyside, foreman, Oriana, House, Ariel, and Wembley. HAWKEye just behind the tailgate. 

When I came back inside, I talked to Denis and Julie about the runs. ‘They were fast!’ I said. ‘Mine too!’ said Denis. ‘The air is colder, not so humid.’ We ate, laughed again, and then packed up for the long drive home. 

Before this weekend, I had begun to lose faith and trust in the team as a whole. The dogs had lost some of that as well. I feel good about the race season, just around the corner.

 


 

Race Schedule:

January 28th: Brownville KI and Beyond 30 mile (this is a ‘fun-run’ race, to run the yearlings)

February 4th: Wilderness 70 Mile, Greenville ME

February 17th: UP200, Marquette MI

March 4th: Can Am Crown 250, Fort Kent, ME

On Hope and Resilience: The first long hard run

‘To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.’ –Rebecca Solnit, ‘Hope in the Dark.’

 

‘I would do this again, with 8 dogs,’ I said to myself as we bumped along the water bars and skidded across ice.

It has been a tough time finding the trails for long runs with the team, this year. Both of our normal big-mile trail networks are being plowed for logging, and there were questions in my head about the quality of terrain elsewhere. In short: I was being cautious. This left some sections of trail that are straight, fairly short, and boring.

I had had enough. So I did my research, asked the snowmobile clubs, and decided to load up 8 of the steadiest dogs, the ones that will slow when I ask them to, and who stand silently and patiently, and who also I can let completely loose if I needed to. I made a thermos of tea, ate a almond-butter sandwich, and headed out in the brightness of the afternoon.

The start of the run was divine. It was warm. The sky was the bright and cloudless blue that is made so much brighter in contrast with the whiteness of snow. Silence.

Hyside and Hilde were in lead, Hilde leading with a forceful charge and confident directness, sometimes dragging Hyside ahead. Hyside was getting warm quickly. He is a big fuzzy boy, but I wanted him in lead for our descent down the backside of the height of land, a mile of switchbacks, blind spots and continuous downhill.

As we approached that descent, I performed the superstitious acts I always perform as I approach that descent, not knowing what was on the other side. My wish for safety, paired for my wish for the unknown. Remembering that I have been descending that trail for years, with teams as small as 6 dogs and as large as 12. And remembering that it is North facing and would be drifted with soft wet snow.

We plunged around the first turn, and the speed picked up but remained controlled and steady. There was glare ice under a dust of snow, there were sticks on the ground that caught in my drag mat, and there were more than a few open water bars and crusted rutted tracks from snowmachines. It took balance and an open heart.

I knew that under my feet was just a skim of snow on top of the ground. The ground was peeking up everywhere, open patches of dirt that would only grow in the sun and the heat radiated out from the dark earth. Water was running everywhere.

Hilde charged forward fearlessly, with Hyside there to guide her. I chose Hilde because I wanted her to be challenged, to learn how to cross water and leap across water bars, and trot among the whipped pieces of brush that stuck up through the snow.

When we entered Jericho, and turned gee to make a loop through the park, Hyside declared that he was just too hot to go on, and dove into the snow. There was no real way to hook down, and standing in a former clearcut, not many options for a tree to tie off too. I trotted them forward a bit further into the trees, and then hooked down, my snowhooks digging into something, but just barely.

What was a quick substitute of leaders did not work right away, as Hilde made Ia uneasy. As I unclipped Ia to move up Ariel and Bayley, the snowhooks released and the team came at me. However, instead of leaping at the sled like I usually do, I grabbed the gang line, and just unclipped everyone except for Ellie and Ia. I set the hook gently, and then tied off to a tree. It was warm, it was mid-afternoon, and I was grateful to be on the trail with these dogs.

They ran around playing with each other, as I sorted out the lines and decided what configuration to call them back to me for. Bayley was standing stock-still in the front of the team, and I didn’t have to move her as I clipped the lines in for her to lead, joined with Ariel. Working my way back the team to Foreman, the last one in wheel, I simply stood on the runners and released the line, and the team shot forward.

Recently I have been bringing up the concept of how I train resilience into the dog team. Sure, I want to cultivate a team that is fast, strong, and tough, but also one that responds to challenges with adaptation and grace, beyond physical strength. I want to build understanding, joy, and an open heart. Training is not just about miles covered, elevation gained, or the splits of a race. There is something, deeper.

The entire afternoon was bathed in the golden slanty light of December. Long shadows, honey bright sun, and the ridgelines in the distance marked by alpen glow, even at 2 p.m. The sharpness of winter air. We were on trails that I have run so many times with them, in fall and in winter, but I was seeing it anew.

The run back was slow. The air was warm and the snow had grown sticky. There was 60 pounds in the sled. We stopped to snack before the last 10 miles, my snowhook digging into dirt. In silence, before I pulled the hook, I asked them softly ‘are you ready?’ and in silence, they all leaned forward. It is a different experience, running the team that is absent of the screaming impatient cheerleaders of House, Taz, and Nibbler.

The whole run back, as we hugged the side of the Crescent range, I couldn’t stop watching the glow in the west.

I needed to pay more attention to my footing, of course, as we bounced through water bars and slid down muddy hills of water and rock. But I didn’t want to watch for trail problems, I wanted to watch the sunset.

On this run, I was awake and alive. In the past two weeks, it hadn’t felt like I was truly running dogs, in the straight flat Wild River runs, out and back without elevation or turns.

It was a feeling of strength, as I pedaled uphill, coaxing the dogs to remember their steady gaits and speed. Ariel and Bayley had their heads down.

As we descended from the height of land, the sun had passed behind the ridgelines in the west. It glowed, firey red and yellow and fading to blue black, the iridescent edge marking the mountains.

I looked to my left, at my old friends Mt Adams and Jefferson, seeing immediately all the times that I had watched the sun set from those slopes, looking down in to the valley, and to the west. I pointed and waved and said to no one in particular, ‘I used to live up there.’

As the sun set, the temps cooled, and we were on the wide uncomplicated road back to the truck. Bayley and Ariel picked up speed, and the team responded in suit. They were racing to the truck, faster than we had left it. I thought of the speed that comes with those last few miles to Portage, in Can Am, as the warm afternoon gives way to the cool brisk dusky twilight.

All the tails were wagging at the truck. They were happy, but not spent. I had been worried, unnecessarily, about their endurance, speed, and drive.

As a post-script, one of the last things I did, after the dogs were loaded and gear stored, was take a good long look at the sled. The runners were crusted with grit and mud, but the bolts were still strong, the stanchions intact, and the sled plastic showing a few dents from rocks but runnable still. I thanked her for her work, and her toughness, and then hefted her onto the roof. 

 


I opened this with a quote from Rebecca Solnit, on the nature of hope in the face of uncertainty. It was those words, that I had read that morning, that powered me into the unknown, instead of staying in gloom and safety.

 

Hope. Hope in our resiliency.

 

Keep it coming.   

 

 

 

On Moving from the Truck to the ATV

There is something about the sun rising when you are on the trail. The shift from the deep darkness of solitude, of the unknown, of quiet wildness, to the brightness of day, shared among so many other awake people.

It had only been my second run on the ATV. The first one was so wild. I felt so exposed, rocking on every bump on the trail, the air across my open skull, unprotected. The physical memory of the helmet I wear in the winter felt so recent, and so absent. A fritzing energy sat in my chest as we approached each turn, and the energy dispersed when we navigated it just fine. There is a release of so much control, and also a deep commitment to trust, when you are sitting on a small machine attached to 100 feet of powerful dogs.

Today, on this second run, early in the frozen morning, I rushed as I started the process of setting up the team. I struggled against inefficiency, as I walked around and around and around and around the truck and trailer, pulling out dogs in no clear order and having to feed and collect bowls before harnessing. I then, confused, began harnessing the dogs while the bowls were still on the ground, and then stopped harnessing halfway through to get the ATV out of the trailer. More time lost happened then, when I rebuilt the main lines, adding in new sections I had put in the trailer the night before to the gritty semi-frozen rest of the line. It was dark, it was cold, and I still hadn’t had a cup of coffee yet.

Every movement without purpose was a loss of time. I was so out of rhythm, aware of the pressures of scheduled meetings and phone calls and work when I got back home.

The hookup was crazed. Noisy. Engaged. Loud. They had a screaming need that was different than the runs we did on the truck. A 16 dog team takes a while to hook in, running up and down a string of dogs that is roughly 120 feet long. Yet, just as I’ve noticed when loading dogs, I seem to come to the last few dogs rapidly: Chase and House, the brothers, and Taz, who is always last because he is an impossibly unbreakable line chewer.

And then, we’re off.

I had been noticing so much more on the ATV. Closer to the team, I can see Paolo’s funny gait, the pink of Inferno’s ears, and just how much taller than everyone else Hawkeye is. I see how uniform they are all becoming.

I had never done so many truck miles before. They were comfortable and easy miles, I was warm and able to drink my coffee easily, but ultimately not the kind of miles I want to be doing.

The sunrise today, viewed from the trail, I had the same feeling I ran through the night and felt the welcome and disappointment of the dawn.

The sunrise.

It was all around me. The lightening blue sky, the pinks on the high elevation ridges. I saw the frost that had been there all along, I saw the landscape and the river. Suddenly, there were other things competing for my attention than the dogs. 

I was singing and happy when we got back to the truck, the sun starting it’s golden rise above the ridgeline of the Carter-Moriahs. Golden yellow light.

It was beautiful. 

Times like that, I know I have encountered something else. The overwhelming presence of otherness. The life that is so important to me.

Training the dogs disrupts so many of my natural rhythms, as I run through sleepless nights, wake up early in the morning, or run through the evening into the night. I have seen so many sunrises, moonrises, and sunsets from the trail.

It is a life lived in openness, where any moment could be spent on the trail. So much possibility.

Welcome to November. Counting down the miles until snow. 

On the First Few Runs

When I went into the dogyard to load the dogs, for the first run, they were quiet and calm. It was like they almost didn’t believe it was happening. It was twilight, and we would be running into the night. They had started settling down for the evening, as they had every night for the almost seven months since Can Am ended.

The hookup and run was flawless. By the end of the first mile, they had clicked into place, moving as one and moving well. The yearlings could be spotted, a slight flail of curiousity once in awhile, an irregular gait, moving under the line to lean against the dog next to them.

Now, three weeks into the training season, it all feels so normal and straightforward. Taz and Wembley take naps until it’s time to be hooked in, Ia pops out from under the truck to get her harness and then pops back under, Hyside stands staring straight down the trail, leaning against his chain, waiting for the moment he’ll be released to the front of the team. Ellie is as difficult to harness as ever, as she is far more interested in licking my face and hugging me than in getting her harness on. Hawkeye is as cool, calm and collected as ever. Nibbler is the cheerleader who starts the whining, and them amps up House and Taz, and she kisses Foreman when she runs next to him.  

Then there are the newbies, Foreman who seems to be willing to run anywhere in the team, Inferno who is already moving up towards the front, Paolo who is the most consistent in harness, and Oriana who just wants to go fast fast fast fast. Hilde and Ariel are rising to lead, with Hyside and Bayley and Ia as their capable trainers. House has joined us once again.

As I watch the team move effortlessly together, I can feel the miles and hours and days and experiences of all the years we’ve spent together. For Bayley, this is the fifth time we’ve started a season together, for Taz and Wembley it is the fourth, Ellie and Nibbler the third. The lifetime miles matter, here.

Training the team this year feels different. It feels like I can wrap my arms around our goals and lift them, for I have the support of these incredible souls. They, and we, are a team.

Last year we had some of the poorest snow conditions I’ve seen and the warmest December, but we had one of our best racing years ever. While I still know that anything can happen and this team and I are not invincible, and that race performance does not come without incredible effort, I can tell how good this year will be. I can see the miles adding up, I can see how it will pull together. I do not doubt this, as I have in years past. 

These dogs are professionals. We can only improve. 

As for our race goals, early this season I admitted wanting to run the Beargrease Mid Distance. Those goals have shifted to being the Haliburton World Championships in Ontario, a three day stage race of 50 miles per day. Can Am 250 is still the ultimate end goal, and I’m hoping to make things work for another trip to the UP200. 

Or, the way I look at it, we have a first fun race in January, a big race in March, and in February a race that will keep us engaged and get us out. If we do not make it to the UP200, then the fun will be found in racing the Greenville 70 mile Wilderness Race, and going for long camping runs on the weekend, running through the night as we did last year.  

But before any of that happens, we have many early mornings, late nights, and long runs on the ATV. So much to do.

Dwelling in possibility right now. Planning for the hope of snow.  

On 'She's the Top Dog'

It was a big deal, when I was in third grade, to decide to wear pants instead of skirts. To wear a long sleeved sweatshirt instead of a blouse. For me, it was an important act of independence.

 Yet wearing a dress never stopped me from being up to my knees in mud, or scratching my elbows while I climbed trees, or collecting and burying acorns for the squirrels in the cove of trees I played in with my sister. There are photos (somewhere) that capture this, my rainbow-colored dress, my long dark hair, a pair of muddy rainboots, and some stick or tool in my hand.

 I have been thinking about this period of life as this photo of myself, wearing an orange dress and holding my chainsaw, has become utilized twice in NH Magazine. In a modern world of branding, has this become my brand?

 The glimmering and ever-shifting force that defines gender roles is something I constantly try to elude and yet have recently become compelled to focus on. Some of this compulsion has come from assuming an extraordinary amount of leadership and responsibility in my life and work and community, and some has come from noticing the times when I am not given my voice. Those times when I am not allowed to speak and am trapped in a set of rules I did not create, agree to, or understand.

 I was raised by a mother who insisted that I could self-define based on what I believed, but was also raised alongside a brother and a sister who were given that same opportunity to self-define, self-emerge, in a world where there was, and continues to be, not a lot of comfort with or understanding of the differently abled. My brother didn’t talk in full sentences until he was well into his teens, he was prone to bouts of violent actions, and broke so many pieces of furniture with his excitement when he watched movies. My mother, and thereby us, insisted on our family being accorded the same rights as ‘average’ families. I was raised to be an advocate, a tireless questioning of the status quo.

 I continue to live in that environment, as I stand now as the guardian and caregiver for my brother and sister. Sometimes that life is straightforward, the system of gears and fluid movement that makes up our household flows easily. Sometimes that life is difficult, such as when our stressed well runs dry, when my brother gets sick, or when the power goes out.

 The intention of sharing this story is to show what inspired the concept of ‘She’s the Top Dog: Stories of Women and Their Dog Teams.’ I was asked first by the Museum of the White Mountains, and then by Amy Dugan for the Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars, to present on women and dog teams. As I chewed on what that meant, I landed on what I felt was the bigger story, and the bigger question: What ARE the stories of women and their dog teams?

 

I suddenly wanted to know.

 

I wanted to hear women talk about their dogs, about their passions, about the fabric of their lives and their dogs. I wanted to hear about what they see and feel on the trail, and what they learn from the teammates. I wanted to hear what they thought about their gender.

 So I asked: distance mushers, sprinters, mid-distance mushers, and recreational mushers. I asked women who have been in the sport for 20 plus years and women who are early in their career. I asked women who have run multiple races and women who might not race at all. They have all manner of dogs and kennel sizes, structured in so many different ways. I asked them a short list of questions. I asked for pictures.

 And, as these names and voices populated my inbox, I was moved. I smiled and cried. I felt the presence of so many other women, a community.

 The pictures of so many women and their teams, women standing tall on the runners, and leaning into embraces with their dogs. So many women. The voices that range from the nuts-and-bolts-details of excitement, to the warmth and joy of celebration, to the singing love of life. I have found all these voices so powerful. Reading all the answers from all these women brings me to life.

 As I started this project, I held onto a lingering confusion about why the media and people not involved in the sport paid attention to my gender. I crafted the title because I disliked the phrase ‘female musher’ because we are all mushers, and also in annoyance at so many times that someone asks ‘who’s the top dog?’ and doesn’t understand it when I say ‘I’m the top dog'. In the Can Am 250 last year, there was a local woman who posted on Facebook my arrival at the halfway point by saying ‘Sally Manikian is the first woman to Camp Syl-Ver.’ For her, it mattered that I was a woman. For me, it mattered that I was arriving in the afternoon and Martin Massicotte was still there and there was still 12 dogs on the team, and that I would be starting down the trail in daylight. When I finished the race it mattered to my friend Shannon that I was a woman, as she shared the video of my finish and said that she was so happy her daughter had so many women to look at for role models. There is a constantly shifting force at work here. 

 There have been times, outside of mushing, when I know I am not being listened to, and my voice is ignored as valid. I am never quite sure if it is gender, or age, or skin color, or the ring in my nose, or the challenge I usually offer in what I am thinking about. Recently, a comment I made at a Board meeting was assigned to a man, even though that man had not said anything throughout the entire meeting (‘Just like Jay said’, and Jay and I looked at each other in surprise) 

 As mushers, we do acknowledge and expect an equitable environment, an inclusive environment of men and women competing and traveling together, where women notice our genders when we have to pee but do not always feel the constant male gaze. There is a powerful example of how to build an inclusive community within mushing, as it is when we leave mainstream expectations for life at the fringes.

 Yet…..and yet…..I pay attention to the gender at the table when I sit down, at race banquets and musher’s meetings. Just as I pay attention to the gender when I am at the table in so many other different circumstances: Boards, discussion panels, committees, and around the coffee or at the bar during conferences. I feel my voice passed over, I feel myself marginalized, and sometimes I do feel myself heard.

 There is something wonderfully important about the stories told from women and their dog teams. The presence of women in certain roles in the world is becoming less rare and more ordinary, and in the transition from rare to ordinary I have become fascinated with the opportunity to raise up all these voices. I see the raising up as I chart the rise in signups in my local race, the Can Am 250, from zero women to 50%. And, I absolutely love the diversity of voices that have been showing up in this process. It has become a powerful celebration of life. 

  

Numbers. Numbers of women in the Can Am 250.

Numbers. Numbers of women in the Can Am 250.

 

As more women emerge in these races, in these roles, we all have a choice to celebrate their presence, and encourage confidence and acceptance. We all shine brighter when we hold up each other equally and honestly, and do not tear down, speak ill, or envy. That desire to tear down comes, I think, from a misunderstanding that there isn't room for everyone at the top. 

So, living among all these beautiful and honest stories, I give thanks to those who have been willing to explore this with me. This has been an experiment in emergence. This has been transformative. This is my offering to building a confident and positive culture. 

 For those who are interested in seeing some of these stories writ live and large and presented with as much honesty and beauty and humor as I can muster, come see this presentation (free and open to the public) live:

 Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth NH September 28th 6:30-7:30

 Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars, Hopkington Fairgrounds, October 1st, (Time TBA, but I am expecting it to be sometime between 10 a.m. and noon). 
 

Also, since this post opened up with me in a dress, I think it's appropriate to point out that if Kelly Rowland can realize that she shines brighter, not less, when standing next to Beyonce, can't we all do the same? 

On July, August, and the Year to Come

I realized something recently. That I had been walking through the dogyard, and not talking to Nibbler. That I had been moving fast and seeing only bowls or dog poo, seeing the water buckets or worn chains. I had not been seeing the dogs.

A shift in the time of year made me look up more. I greeted each dog individually. I let Hawkeye put his paws on my shoulders, I played with Foreman, I gave respectful nose kisses to Ia. I braced myself as Wembley punched my stomach with her strong legs, I sat on Inferno’s house with him leaning into my lap, his head under my arm. As for Nibbler, I stood quietly and let her lean her long body towards me, as I gently stroked her forehead.

The dogs in the summer continue to reveal parts of their personalities. Ia stands completely still, reserving her energy and never moving quickly enough to break into a pant. Bayley is a chaotic mess of dirt and movement. Foreman and Wembley grind matching trenches into their circles from their fast paced energy. Hyside rests in a perfectly-shaped depression next to his house. Ariel digs holes that Maihi would have been proud of, and Ellie spends a lot of time napping on her roof. 

Every time I go to feed Ia, this is how I find her standing. Playing peekaboo with me.

Every time I go to feed Ia, this is how I find her standing. Playing peekaboo with me.

The trust between us all continues to build and bond. It started with noticing how Taz will look up at me, after I fill his bowl and before he eats, a thank you and greeting. I started saying 'you're welcome' each time. Recently, I've noticed that Foreman, less consistently, offers the same devoted look. During the winter and training season, the caring and trust that passes among myself and the dogs is obvious, as I lift them into boxes, rub down their paws and joints, and thank them for the work they do. It is less obvious in the summer, but still part of our lives. 

 Instead of rushing through chores, I began to have those long conversations about the winter to come. I talked to Oriana and Paolo about the possibility of adventures, picturing them in the team with their ears forward. I asked Hilde what she thought about spending more time in front of the team. I watched Inferno bounce around his circle, trying to translate that into a harnessed juggernaut of momentum.

The team will be different this year, and I feel that shift in the dogyard now. I am curious about how the yearlings will do, I am curious about how some of the younger dogs will step up to lead. I am curious about what the team will feel like as long time team members like Taz and Bayley turn seven, and some of the original heart of the team continue to retire out, as I said goodbye to Thai, Maihi and soon to Gunnar.

For the young dogs, I invite them to trust in me and try new things. For the dogs in their sophomore or junior years, I ask them to join me in becoming stronger and more confident. For the dogs in their last years of racing, I hold them close and give deep thanks for the thousands of miles we’ve traveled and for the miles still to come.  

For everyone, I know the winter ahead promises so much. There are many unknowns: will it snow? Will it grow cold and the ground freeze? There are also many knowns: that we will have adventures, that we will travel far and wide and cover so many miles, and that, throughout it all, we will all take care of one another.  

I can feel all of those promises threading throughout the dogyard now. Even though we won’t be starting until October 1st, the shift towards the start of the season has begun.

 And, yes, I have been thinking about what races we might enter. About returning to the Midwest and returning to Fort Kent. In what way that will happen, in what classes or races or whatever we end up entering, that is still to be decided. The team, as always, is a small one of 16 dogs, and three of them are yearlings in their first young year of racing. But the hope is to return to the Midwest and to return to Fort Kent. The rest, well, it is only August. 

Sleds at rest.....for now

Sleds at rest.....for now

On Gratitude for our Sponsors and Supporters

Last weekend I spent a few hours writing thank you cards to folks who supported us through sponsorships. I wrote about each dog, I wrote about the adventures had as a team, and I wrote about how we could not do it without them.

When I first contemplated opening up a dog sponsorship program, to raise funds for the race season and the trip to the UP200, it felt like a big ask. I had been racing for a few years already and hadn’t attempted to fundraise before, so why would I need to start now? And, after all, isn’t it my own selfish desire to run dogs and race them at this level?

I learn so much about myself and the dogs in every race, in every run, and in every year. This year I learned and saw that while I like running dogs, and like racing, the dogs love it. They are competitive, they are athletic, and they love adventures and seeing new things.

In many ways, I am merely a facilitator or coach. I create a training regimen, I drive them around, I wash their harnesses and rub down their feet. I forgo my natural sleeping habits and my social calendar so they can run when it works for them. They are the athletes, bred specifically for racing, and I do everything I can to help them meet their full potential.

The funds raised through sponsorships made it possible for us to travel to the UP of Michigan for a new and wonderful race. It made it possible for all the logistics of a 250 mile race, the booties and beef and chicken and kibble and liniments and more, and for the long journey there and back.

Hyside and Bayley arriving in the start chute of the UP200

Hyside and Bayley arriving in the start chute of the UP200

I can still see the excited smile on Hyside and Bayley’s face as we pulled into the start chute in downtown Marquette. I can also see a similar face on both of them as we motored into the finish line. This race was a good race, for them.  

I can see similar faces shared among all the dogs throughout the season. Ellie’s grin as we shooted out onto the trail for the Mahoosuc 100. Taz’s leaping bounding joy on every mile of every run. House’s catapaulting gymnastics before he’s brought to the gangline at hookup. Ia’s quiet rocking back and forth, silent but smiling. Wembley’s total focus on the trail ahead. 

The dogs don’t have a way to train themselves, to get to trailheads, or to order the booties that protect their feet. Likewise, when we take on a bold and long adventure like the UP200, it takes a lot to get them there. When I saw the dogs in these moments of joy and glee and excitement, I would also see all the names and faces and notes from those who sponsored the team and who have supported us. 

Thank you to all of those who helped us get there. Because, truly, we couldn’t do it without you. The dogs couldn’t live their full potential without you, and I couldn’t help them see that full potential without you. To paraphrase John O'Donohue, thank you for freeing the possibilities within these dogs. 

In gratitude, humility, and honor, we thank you.

 

Our Sponsors:

Dog Team Sponsors:
Margaret McNamara for sponsoring Bayley
Barney and Honey Rydel for sponsoring Maihi
Joan Fullerton for sponsoring Hilde
Chris Garby for sponsoring Ellie
Brooke Holton for sponsoring Taz
Stephanie Miller for sponsoring Nibbler
Cooper Hill Axe Works for sponsoring Taz
Belle Fullerton for sponsoring Hawkeye
Carole Martin for sponsoring Ia
Kieron Coffield for sponsoring Ariel
Bridget Sprague for sponsoring Thai
Stephen Bartley for sponsoring Hawkeye
Tom Callahan and Bliss for sponsoring Taz
Cooper Hill Axe Works for sponsoring Maihi
Donald Stickney for sponsoring House
Margaret McNamara for sponsoring Gunnar

Lori Langlois for sponsoring the whole team. 
The Whiting Family (Suzy, Brad, Steven, and Joseph) for sponsoring the whole team.
Cooper Hill Axe Works for sponsoring the whole team.
Mary and Tom King for sponsoring the whole team.

Bootie Sponsors:
Chris Garby
James Bailey
Martin Schap

In-Kind support:
Kara White Hunter for her incredible trail mix
Matt Moore for the music in my ears
Andy Bartleet for construction projects, sled repair and design improvements, and for helping train the youngsters.
David Manikian and Will O'Brien for feeding the dogs three days a week, rain or shine.
Katie Laflamme for my good-luck charm
Rachel Manikian Grossman for notes in every checkpoint bag. 
Angela Powell for the presence of the raven
Chuck Johnston for patience, caring, and support of the musher., and for holding down the homestead during so many long training runs and for the long weeks away for the UP200 and the Can Am 250.  .

Race handlers:
Maria Gaffney and Tashi for the UP200
Elissa Gramling for the Can Am 250. 

Host families:
Bill and Simone Vadja for the UP200
Laura and Don Audibert for the Can Am 250  

On why I wear a helmet

Start of the Can Am 250.

Start of the Can Am 250.

 

‘Do you wear it all the time?,’ Ward Wallin asked in seriousness, after he had made a joke about the helmet I have been sporting all year.

‘Of course. I hit my head and I have no desire to hit it again.’ I replied.

Ward was the first musher all season to keep returning to and asking about the helmet on my head. It was volunteers and spectators who noticed and commented on it the most: the person standing by me when I was leaving the first checkpoint at the UP200, a volunteer at the third checkpoint at the Can Am, and a journalist at the Mahoosuc 100. 'I'm glad you're wearing a helmet' they said. 

To mushers, the need to protect our heads doesn’t seem obvious. Most distance teams aren’t going terrifically fast, sometimes only 7-8 MPH, much slower than our sprintier counterparts. (Sprint mushers are usually wearing helmets these days, though, so take note). It’s also something different, something not worn by many and also not worn by the champions, excepting Brent Sass. Also, since distance teams are out for a long time, no helmet will be that comfortable, right? These were things I told myself, before I hit my head. 

But for those observing the sport, it seems clear that we should wear helmets. Helmets are preventative, intended to protect the head before something bad happens. Think about all the other places helmets are worn: on bikes, on skis, on horses, on ice skates, operating chainsaws, on snowmobiles and ATVs. From friends of mine who engage in other extreme sports such as backcountry skiing or mountain biking, I often got asked why I never wore a helmet. I would shrug it off and say ‘we don’t go that fast.’

Can Am 250 start. Pete Freeman photo

Can Am 250 start. Pete Freeman photo

 

The thing is, you don’t have to be going fast to hit your head. It doesn’t take much from flipping a sled sideways to hitting your head on a tree or rock. I have had some mushers point out to me that in those situations, when something is coming flying at your head, they will let go. But is that really how that would play out? That you would see the object before it hits you? That you would be able to overcome the deeply ingrained instinct to hold onto the sled…..and let go?

I hit my head on a rock. A big rough piece of grainy schist rock. I was knocked unconscious for sometime between 10 and 20 minutes, and when I came to, I saw the 8 dogs sitting and waiting. They stood and looked back at me.

I was still holding onto the sled. My first action was to grab the snowhook and set it.

But I write now not to describe how I hit my head, but to acknowledge that it happens to any of us. It can happen with a small dog team on a short run, as it did with me, or with a big team in a 1,000 mile race as it did with Brent Sass. We don’t really know how we’d react in the split-second the rock comes towards our head, or if we’d even be able to see the rock before it hits our head. (I ended up with a concussion and 21 stitches, by the way).

As an experienced mountain biker described why he wears a helmet, helmets are preventative, they can be worn for years without anything happening, but you will be glad the helmet is there the moment something does happen. I've heard the same from skiers, and others. Once I hit my head, it has felt all the more fragile and vulnerable. 

During ATV and truck training, I admit I did not wear a helmet. However, the very first sled run, 8 dogs on a short trail, I brought out the helmet.  

I bought my helmet in October, knowing that if I didn’t assign the task in October, the first sled run would arrive in December and I would not have one yet, and use the fact that I didn't have one as an excuse why I wasn't wearing one. An hour at our local ski shop, and I was the new owner of an modestly priced unremarkable ski helmet. It went into the gear closet, and for the first sled run, I loaded it into the truck.

Start line of the Mahoosuc 100. Heather Eich photo

Start line of the Mahoosuc 100. Heather Eich photo

As I brought it from the truck to the sled, it felt cumbersome, and like another piece of gear I’d have to remember to deal with.  Halfway through the run, I realized how warm it was, and how windproof. It felt light and weightless. I barely noticed its presence.

So the helmet quickly became just another piece of gear, along with my parka, mittens, thermos, and axe. Once it became part of the program, I adapted quickly.

As mushers we like trying new things. We try new race formats, we try new gear, we try different harnesses or dog jackets or supplements or runner plastic, all in attempts to help our dog teams go faster, run longer, and train harder. So I ask, if we are so willing to try different things for our dog teams, why can’t we do the same for ourselves?

I really like my brain, and from what I’ve learned about head injuries, they only get worse the more often you have them. My brain is how I make my living. No brain and no income means no dog team.

I am a modestly athletic person, with fair balance and a well-steering sled, so I manage to stay upright most of the time. In this past year of mushing, even with all of our sketchy ice-road conditions and the 1,000 miles traveled by sled, I only flipped my sled once, at Can Am.  It was halfway through the race, when the sled flipped on a sharp turn off a plowed road, and my helmeted head smacked on the icy ground. The team was only going 6 or 7 MPH, but had I not been wearing a helmet, it would have hurt that much more.

So yes, I will be wearing a helmet. Even though it makes my head look goofy. Even though I’ll need to widen the hood of my parka so my fur ruff can better cover my face. Even though it means my headlamp is always attached to my head on long races. Even though I might not hit my head with the same force again. Even though I’ll be the only one out there wearing a helmet. 

I will be wearing a helmet.

 

 

 

 

On finding confidence in darkness: Can Am 250 wrap-up

Can Am start, Bayley and Hyside in lead. Pete Freeman photo

Can Am start, Bayley and Hyside in lead. Pete Freeman photo

The last few miles of the Can Am 250 are wonderful twists and turns through a downhill slope to the finish. The emotions that go with those last few miles are gratitude, love, and a little bit of amazement at the challenging miles that lay at our back. On those miles this year, I said to the team 'soak it in, this is our last sled run,' and I reached out to touch trees, tap trail markers, and knock at branches, just as I reached out in joy to so many people at the start line 250 miles earlier.

 

This was my third time in the 250. The first year I scratched, and last year I was gifted with the extraordinary challenge of having only 8 dogs for the second half of the race. On this year’s 250, I approached it with curiousity. How would the dogs do? How would I do? How would the foot of new snow slow the team down?

 

On the team were 10 dogs from the UP200, joined by young Hilde and Gunnar. Hilde, as a yearling, I planned to drop in the third checkpoint, to keep her from burning out too young. Gunnar I didn’t expect to finish, as he is weird with eating at times. I knew that the team was resilient and tough enough to make it through the race, and tough enough to keep intact as a team of 12 for awhile, as long as I did my job of caring for them along the way. House would need wrist attention at every checkpoint, and Ia would need a shoulder vest to keep her muscles loose, and the rest would require attention and care.

Caring for House's wrists, the necessary routine for every checkpoint. This is what kept him in the team, and as a key lead dog those are steps worth taking. 

Caring for House's wrists, the necessary routine for every checkpoint. This is what kept him in the team, and as a key lead dog those are steps worth taking. 

 

The first leg of the race is a 70 mile run to Portage. It starts on a railroad grade, flat and groomed. Once we turned off the railroad grade and hit the Can Am dog trail, the team’s speed plummeted. The machine of their movement become derailed, as they flailed in the soft snow, their first time in soft snow all year.

 

It is a shock to see such a drop in speed and an inefficiency in movement in the first few miles of a 250 mile race. It was at that point that I simply decided to keep it slow, keep it steady, and accept the long slow runs that likely lay ahead of us. I laughed to myself, and enjoyed the ride.

 

As the day cooled off, the trail firmed up, and the last 30 miles were much smoother and the team reclaimed their speed. Bayley and Ellie were in lead, and I swapped out Ellie for Wembley as we neared Portage. Wembley and Bayley guided us across Portage lake, a wide three miles in darkness. Once we made it to Portage, I knew that the longest run was behind us in miles, but I knew that long runs still lay ahead. I knew also that a cold night lay ahead, and I couldn’t wait to get out into the darkness.

 

Leaving Portage was a bit of a cluster. A bunch of mushers were trying to leave at once, and the volunteers weren’t quite set up to let us leave. Miscommunication between myself and the checkpoint managers had me hook up the team too early and we were waiting for 10 to 15 minutes, until it was our time. The team ahead of us was having problems leaving the checkpoint, which slowed down our departure even more. Once we were released into the trail, the team flew and I rode the drag mat for the first 15 miles.

 

At Rocky Brook, the second checkpoint, I wanted to get out onto the trail again before the heat of the afternoon softened the trail and slowed down their spirits. Usually I find confidence in the daylight, but this race was different. It was warm. The snow grew soft and punchy. I wanted to rest them in the heat at Camp Syl-Ver, instead of bringing them through the long hills. So I chatted with Matt a bit about the trail to come, rested and ate, and then we hit the trail again after 2 ½ hours, still with all 12 dogs on the team.

 

The run to Syl-Ver is an indication of the run to Allagash. The trail begins to ascend out of the river valley that we descended into on our way to Rocky Brook. I planned to rest them four hours, and begin the climb in the evening light, when the trail grew hard. I also planned to drop Hawkeye here, as Hawkeye has tended to get a little distracted in the fourth run, as he did at the UP and during training runs. Hawkeye was joined by Ariel, who was stiff all over for no clear reason, a mix of front and back end. The rest of the team looked good, all eyes on me when I went out to start to rise them up for the run.

Resting in the sun at Maibec/ Syl-Ver

Resting in the sun at Maibec/ Syl-Ver

 

Mike Hoff, who was well ahead of me at Rocky Brook, took a long rest at Syl-Ver and asked if I wanted to go out together. Mike is a friend and all-round nice guy from the Midwest, on his first 250 running Ward Wallin’s a-team, and so of course the answer was yes. Mike and I headed out together at 5:15, and we passed each other a few times as our teams settled in, and then he blew past me about 10 miles out from the checkpoint. We faced that long climb, and I kept my headlamp down so I wouldn't see the unending hills, and got into a rhythm with my kicks and ski pole.  

 

Throughout the training season, I’ve been fixated on this run to Allagash. It’s the toughest run of the race, 50 miles of true uphill as we ascend out of the river valley to the headwaters of the Allagash. Before leaving Syl-Ver, I took Hyside’s head in my hands and told him what we had to do. Hyside has been inconsistent in lead since the UP200, and I knew deep down that he had to connect with the tough head he inherited from his mother Enzo to lead us there. That pep talk must have worked, because he led most of the run, and did so smoothly.

 

While many parts of that run were smooth, some were not so smooth. I kept falling asleep on the runners, which is dangerous as I could run over the team if someone stopped the team to pee, or dangerous to speed if I fell asleep on the drag mat and slowed them down uphill. Turns out both of those things kept happening, and they annoyed the dogs, especially Hyside and Wembley in lead.

 

As we neared the last 20 miles to Allagash, that was when the wheels came off the bus. I shuffled dogs around to find the combination that would work, and through that shuffling somehow House ended up in single lead. House, the mama’s boy pet dog, ran confidently for about 5 miles, charging uphill like a natural. I cooed to him and to Gunnar and Nibbler, who were in point just behind him, and I thought of my options.

 

There are so many things that can fly through my head in the middle of the night, sleep deprived and on a slow-going trail. Should we camp and rest? Should I push them through? I knew if we got to Allagash we would get to the finish. I did look at the side of the trail and wasn’t impressed by my options for camping out.

 

We passed the sign that said 10 miles remaining. Hyside and House were in lead. I decided then to drive them to Allagash. I dug deep. I pushed myself. We passed Mike Hoff, camped along the side of the trail, in the last 6 miles. He asked if I could lead him in, but as I slowed down to talk to him, I saw the dogs dive into the snow, and if I waited too long my team would stop like his.

 

At Allagash we found a longer rest, and met Elissa and Erin and Christine, who all affirmed the pep talk I had already given myself to raise the team to the finish. With the faster teams ahead, and the slower teams unknown, I risked taking a longer sleep for myself and the dogs. If I did things right, we would keep 6th place and finish mid-day.

Leaving Allagash, 200 miles at our backs and the last 50 miles ahead. That's House leaping forward! 

Leaving Allagash, 200 miles at our backs and the last 50 miles ahead. That's House leaping forward! 

 

The run home was smooth. I listened to a series of podcasts and Hyside and Wembley lead the team steadily. We had left behind Hilde, who had run like an adult throughout the race, but whose inability to rest at checkpoints finally caught up to her, and also left behind Nibbler, who had some diarrhea and I wanted to go light and fast to the finish.

 

We arrived at the Wallagrass safety station rapidly. Ia and Wembley were in lead together at that point, and I smiled because I knew we were only a few hours from the finish. The last 20 miles of that run were the hardest part, with new tacky snow falling and a series of short steep hills. I made errors of my own, moving dogs around when I didn’t need to. Bayley and House assumed the lead and took us home, downhill into the finish, Bayley with a giant smile on her face that I knew echoed the smile of my own.

 

As I look back at the race, and at what the essence of that experience was, I come back to the dogs. The dogs are the obvious deep power within this whole experience, but in this race, with all the challenge we went through, the dogs are the critical part. It is the kinship, power, and love among us all that made this run possible.

 

The dogs are amazing and always amaze me. Gunnar, who didn't come to the UP200 and wasn't expected to finish Can Am, was a never-quitting cheerleader who ate and drank like a star. Hilde, the youngster who I had planned to drop before Maibec, made it all the way to Allagash, running and acting like an adult beyond her years. Ellie, who so dislikes slow runs, led most of that soft snow trail to the first checkpoint. Most amazing was House, who stood sentry at almost all checkpoints, exuded confidence and power, and led almost half of the race, including a few miles in single lead on the toughest hills to Allagash.

 

Then there are the things I knew I could count on, that Bayley would pave the way on a good run to Portage, that Taz would be a tireless machine at the back of the team, and that they would all rise screaming for more as we faced the new trail ahead. 12 dogs stayed on the team for the first 150 miles, leaving behind Hawkeye and Hilde as planned, and Ariel and Nibber due to injury. The 8 dogs who came into the finish were Bayley, House, Gunnar, Ellie, Hyside, Taz, Wembley and Ia.

 

Team photo with Elissa, BIG SMILES at the finish!!! 

Team photo with Elissa, BIG SMILES at the finish!!! 

And, at the first and last checkpoint, was the superb handler Elissa Gramling with soup, good cheer, and boundless joy for the adventure. And invisible to what I saw, was all the work that Elissa and Erin Altemus put in as a handler duo, from fixing broken boxes to caring for so many dogs and for shuttling so much gear around for so many mushers. And at all checkpoints were the volunteers who care so deeply and give so much. And on the trail are the mushers we share this adventure with, who help us pass each other on tight trails, who chat easily at checkpoints, and who laugh together at the dog trucks at the end. We are all so lucky.

 

The Can Am is a tough race. The terrain is relentless, and this year the snow was soft at times and the temps were warm. The first 70 miles were so soft from the foot of snow received a few days earlier, that the dogs had to re-learn how to run, and their speed dropped quickly, but remained steady. The 52 miles to Allagash, all uphill, is a run that is always a hard run for me and the team, and this year was no different. It took the full range of the emotions I possess to run this race: patience, joy, openness, directness, intuition, and insistent stubbornness.

 

That's a wrap. One musher said to me after the race that mushing is a sport that seems to always be about 'next year.' While of course all season I have been thinking about next year, I plan to spend some time first honoring the incredible athletes that ran two 250 mile races this season. Good dogs.

 

6th place and a faster finish than last year. Onward.

Wembley and House

Yesterday, in weather that evolved from snow to sleet to freezing rain to rain, the team and I had one of our best runs all season. It was because of Wembley and House in lead.

The plan for yesterday was simple: a nice 30 mile run, in our normal trail network, but taking new trails and running turns in different directions. I wanted to give Hyside and Bayley and Ia a break, so they would feel fresh for Can Am’s hills, so I decided to put Wembley and House in front. I also wanted to test these two, on their ability to take directional commands on the fly, and to head down unbroken trail. The trail conditions were soft enough that I had control to stop or slow down the team, so I felt this was a good time to try. If they didn’t take the turn right off, I could stop the team and help them figure it out.

Turns out, I never needed to do that. When I would give a command, Wembley would look up and around and dive into the turn. In the first few turns, House didn’t comply fully, but once he realized he would be making more and different decisions, he started paying more attention. They worked fluidly together, focused.

Wembley rose to lead two years ago, when I saw how driven and athletic she was in the team. She led a few spring runs, and then in the fall started her full training as a leader, learning speed from Grenade and learning drive from Bryn and learning commands from Bayley. She led the entirety of the Can Am 250, including a few stints in single lead. She then went on, two weeks later, to lead the team in a series of super fast runs in the Stage Race to second place. House is Wembley’s half-brother, serious and earnest and a pet dog during the rest of the year. He started in lead this fall, and showed drive and a desire to please. There is something about House, maybe his earnestness and willingness to be told what to do, that Wembley plays off of. There is something about Wembley, about her random fears, that House pulls her through. There is something between the two of them that makes them a good pair.

As we turned onto a new trail, an ungroomed ATV trail, the team slowed down as we broke trail for a few miles. Soft snow will bring a team into good alignment, as they bunch together into the trough left by the trail breaking dogs ahead of them. They looked good as they pulled steadily ahead. The trail had twists and hills and bridges, all things that make Wembley excited to see what’s up ahead, and charge forward into each new thing. There was an electricity in the air.

On that ungroomed section, new to me and to them, I felt the beauty of winter. I felt the capability of the team to explore and run smoothly, I felt the quiet of the trees, I felt the deepness of the snow. I, also, felt the fragility of this experience, knowing that rain would eliminate the trails.

We ran the 30 miles at a faster pace than I wanted to, even in the sticky snow and with a heavy sled. In training for Can Am next weekend, I wanted to go slower and ease them down. But it’s hard to slow down Wembley when she’s on fire.

When we reached the truck, everything was iced. The sled was iced, the lines were iced, and the front of my jacket and hood and helmet were iced. But the dogs were happy, tail wagging and wet, and they all dove into their food bowls. At the front of the line, were Wembley, goofily and excitedly rubbing her face into the snow, and House, standing seriously and patiently waiting for the moment when I would let him into the backseat.

It was one of those runs when the bond grows closer, when I appreciate so deeply the individual souls of these dogs. And give great thanks.

Wembley and House spent the night inside, of course. House socked out on a dog bed, Wembley alert for what’s next. Sounds about right. 

On lightness of spirit and the feel of the wild: UP200 Wrap Up

Here’s what I knew about the UP, gleaned from other mushers before the race: that the first 10 miles take place along the crashing waves of Lake Superior, that the crowds that line the start are unlike any other, that it was a straightforward structure, that the challenge lay in the length of the runs and not in the terrain, and that there was a fairly sharp right hand turn at the bottom of Main Street to watch for.

All of those things were true. All of that, and so much more. I found beauty and grace on that trail. I found a lightness of spirit and the feel of the wild, the lessons one learns from long runs with dogs.

The night before the race, I sat with Ward Wallin, who has run the race for over two decades. Ward started talking about the trail, about what happens in each leg, about the turn at the bottom of Main Street, but he quickly trailed off because I think he knew that it was going to be fine. Ward had seen me run Can Am the year before.

The Main Street start truly was unlike any other start line.  For the full length of the street, the trail is crowded with people five to seven rows deep. They all have lights and bells and are full of so much positive energy.  Bayley and Hyside were chosen to lead the team, since they lead so straight and true and have so much experience. When I reached the bottom, and turned right, I could hear the waves crashing along the shore. I cried, at the beauty of the experience about to be had, at the powerful emotion from passing through the chute, and in pure joy.

The first 15 miles are a flat railroad grade, and those miles were blizzard whiteout from the blowing snow and strong winds. I often couldn’t see the dogs right in front of the sled. Amidst the blowing snow were bonfires, parties, and so many people. After passing Blair and Shawn, we crossed a road and entered the woods.

The UP200 is a 245 mile race, and an out and back of 67 miles followed by 58 miles. The only strategy I was using was to keep them slow and steady in the first leg, and rest them more or less in equal measure at each checkpoint. I wanted to maintain as even a pace as possible, even if that pace was 7-8 MPH. 

So I emptied my mind of everything other than watching Hyside’s trot, which I use as a gauge of how fast the team is going. They ran smooth and happily, up the easy gradual hills and winding through the tight trails.  I could hear the swish of pure clean snow under my runners as we took turns. I was breathless with love of winter.  Early in the run we passed Leanne Bergen, and she caught us again towards the end of the run. She was so nice, and when our teams tangled both times we laughed as we figured it out.

Another lesson that a musher imparted to me before the race is that there will be one run that is not so smooth. Having had some difficult runs at Can Am before, when the speed drops and tails are slow to wag and dogs question what is going on, I prepared myself mentally. That not so great run was the second run, when I bagged Ariel after 15 miles because she was favoring her right front leg. I stretched it out to find her squeak in pain. I tied the team to a tree, and wrestled her into the bag, Taz leaping and barking impatiently the whole time. I knew it would be a slower run with that extra weight, and, sure enough, in the last half of the leg coming to Grand Marais, the motivation was difficult. I expect the motivation would have lagged without Ariel in the bag, but the extra weight didn’t help.

You can see the drop in speed and inconsistency and lots of stopping represented between mile 80 and 120, when Ariel was in the bag. 

You can see the drop in speed and inconsistency and lots of stopping represented between mile 80 and 120, when Ariel was in the bag. 

During this time, in quick succession, Andre, Ryan, Ward and Denis all passed me. They all did so politely, kindly, and quickly, with a high-five from Ward of course. I watched the teams respond to the musher, and watched the musher maneuver around my sled in that tight trail. These interactions, these moments on the trail with experienced mushers that I hold such deep respect for, are what build camaraderie.

Maria and myself after the race. Matching team jackets! 

Maria and myself after the race. Matching team jackets! 

Grand Marais, the halfway point, was where I met Maria for the first time. She caught the team, she helped bed them down, and she already had food mixed and snacks chopped up. Within minutes of the dogs being cared for, she made sure that I had food, water, and ibuprofen. She interacted with the vets about dogs to be dropped and fed metrodinazole to the dogs with diarrhea. While every training run, and every other race, I am the only one caring for the dogs, I will say it was nice to have help and have a partner. It’s the same feeling as when I have the mechanical advantage to do a chore, like switching from an axe to a chainsaw, or from a shovel to a tractor. It’s just a little bit easier. (Maria commented after reading this post that her trail crew nickname was 'the human grip hoist', so this analogy was appropriate and fitting!)

While at Grand Marais, inbetween settling the dogs down and taking a nap myself, a young couple approached me, and handed me an envelope. We chatted quickly, and they backed away saying that they didn’t want to interfere too much with the dogs. I didn’t think much about it, and slipped it into a pocket. When I pulled it out before I lay down, I found a two page letter and a donation. The letter spoke of how they met me at the start line, which I remember, and I gave them advice about how to spectate at their first dog race. They watched the dogs and I interact, and they heard my biography at the start line. That combination inspired them, of the story of the life led and the bond between musher and dogs. It was moving, to me, and another example of how powerful this race is for all who attend.

Right before leaving Grand Marais, I talked briefly to Ryan Anderson, who has won the race five times and would go on to win it one more time. Ryan said that the next run would be one of the best, the dogs run well and it will be smooth. After the race was over, I asked him why that was. It was a mix of contrast to how foggy the end of the run into Grand Marais can be, as it takes place in the heat of day and the dogs realize that the have been on the trail for a long time. You come into Grand Marais with doubt in your mind, he said. But leaving, everything is different. It is night time and colder. The dogs are well rested and know they are going home.

He was right. That third run, led by Hyside and Ia, was one of the best runs of the race. They ran smoothly and cleanly and steadily. So much so, that I fell asleep most of the time, and would be jerked awake when we took a turn. One time I was bolted awake when the sled caught on a tree. This was also the coldest night of the race, somewhere in the subzeros. Ellie and Nibbler ran in jackets, the two skinny girls. I ate almonds constantly to stay warm. I noticed it was cold, but didn’t feel any effect other than a slight creeping of cold air when I would pull my hand back into my fur overmitts.

The third checkpoint was my favorite checkpoint. I ate soup and slept in the back of Maria’s truck, while she had the heat running and while she listened to a podcast in the front seat with her dog Tashi. It was comforting and relaxing. The dogs left on the team, the nine dogs, were solid and as I checked them over I found no problems. I would be running into sunrise and a bright new day, heading down trail that would lead us home.

The sunrise that morning was breathtaking. The sky burst pink and yellow and gold and white. The air was clean and cold, that subzero clarity. I was surrounded by the beauty of winter, engulfed in that feeling of being chased by the breaking dawn, and of welcoming the new bright day. Hyside and Wembley were in lead, setting a steady pace. The glow of cold winter sunrise echoed for three hours, until the sun had fully risen by mid-morning.

That last leg home was slow at times. It was a long trail, that 67 miles, coming after so many long runs. The terrain was not difficult, long gradual hills and fast fun twisty single track. I rotated out the leaders every few hours, to give them a break and keep our pace steady. With no one ahead I expected to catch, and no one behind who I expected to catch me, my only competition was with myself, and I was hoping to finish that run in less than 8 hours. I watched the sky, the trees, and saw a bald eagle circle overhead.

And then, suddenly, I came upon a dog team. Slow to comprehend, I was surprised to see that it was Andre, who had left the checkpoint an hour or more ahead of me. Andre let my team go by, and I waited for a half an hour or so to stop and snack the team, to get ahead of him a bit. He caught up to me then, when I was snacking, and I asked if he wanted to pass. He waved me on and said only ‘No, you finish.’ After the race was over, Andre came up tome in the parking lot, and we hugged and talked about that moment on the trail. One of those moments that bring mushers closer and make us friends, building understanding about our dog teams.

We burst shortly after that onto the railroad grade again. And, just as the way out, there were so many crowds and parties on the way back in. I met a woman the next morning at the awards breakfast, and she said ‘give us a reason to party and we’ll do it! We don’t have much to do in the winter.’ For the 15 miles home, those cheers jazzed up the team and jazzed up myself.

The last few miles of the race take place at the edge of the Lake, passing by the highway and out in the open. I again encountered a dog team, Normand Casavant, whose team was lying in the snow. When I asked if he was ok, Normand replied ‘No, but such is life.’

At the finish, being interviewed for the crowd. Taz's happiness is contagious, even in this photo.

At the finish, being interviewed for the crowd. Taz's happiness is contagious, even in this photo.

As we met the last mile, which wound around downtown Marquette, going onto sidewalks and crossing parking lots, Hyside and Bayley broke into a lope, the dogs all running strong. In the finish chute, they stood happily, strongly, and proudly. I was so proud of them all, as I thanked them individually for all the little things they brought to the team throughout the race.  For Taz for leaping and cheering, for Hawkeye for being strong when he didn’t want to, for Wembley for leading when things got hard, for Nibbler for enthusiasm, for Ellie for cartoonish energy and constant forward momentum, for Ia for leading half of the race, for Schultz for her sweet effortless gait, for Bayley for bringing us home, and for Hyside for leading the majority of the race with his wagging tail.

They were happy, not out of relief at finishing, but at celebrating the experience we all had. I was glowing in that finish line, surrounded by so many people and greeted by the mushers who had already finished.

I have said before, and throughout this post, that I wasn’t racing. That I wanted a clean run, that I wanted a strong run, and that I wanted to experience winter. I wanted to have a wonderful time on the trail with the dogs, to be in the wild, to celebrate all the work that has gone into this life. That was achieved, and so much more.


‘May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us

May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.’

--John O’Donohue. 

On Being Chased by the Breaking Dawn

I couldn’t take my eyes off the changing sky.

 

The darkness of a long night run is a different experience. The world grows close, the limits of sight are what my headlamp throws for light. I feel alone, and special, as the dogs and I travel through the darkness and the wildness of night, alone on the trail at a time when everyone else is asleep. Time is experienced differently. 

 

As the sky broke with the start of the day, I smiled. The slow glow at the edges of the mountains came first, a red burn smudged in a gray sky. The sky had started brightening with a lighter cloud cover and a brighter moon around 4 a.m. The dogs and I had started this third run after a rest from 11:30 pm until 3:30 a.m., heading out for a brief 35 mile run as the last leg.

 

The dogs were running well. Ia and Hyside were setting a nice 8-9 MPH pace. Wembey would occasionally stop the team to pee, as she does, but they would zip back in line again and resume their pace and recover the forward momentum.

 

We wound around the higher elevations, the wide valley basin of Millsfield Pond below, an open view to the left, the openness delivered by clear cuts and the sloping hillsides.

 

The sky turned an electric blue. I could make out the thinning cloud cover that had lifted through the night. The moon was above, as well, and I tried to get both the rising sun and the declining moon into my vision at the same time, to recognize the activity and exchange that was going on. To recognize the loss of the wild beauty of night, of the adventures just had with the team through a whole night. 

 

The electricity of the changing environment, relinquishing the mystery and pure solitude of night for the shared brightness of day.

 

IMG_3681.JPG

During this long night run, I didn’t see a soul from 9 p.m. on. I did see multiple small critters zip across the trail, and a moose lope off to the distance. As we neared the end of the run, I kept listening for oncoming human traffic as the day grew bright, but encountered only a pair of moose that crossed the trail and ambled in front of the dogs, giving Hyside something to chase for a brief moment.


The run had started at 10 a.m. the day before, taking the dogs and I through a run/rest/ run/rest/ run cycle, testing the endurance of both them and myself, testing their pace, testing their training, testing their knowledge that straw meant it was time to lie down and removing their jackets meant it was time to stand up. Throughout it all, I was greeted with affirming positivity from them. It came from Hyside and Ia in lead, it came from Taz in wheel, it came from Ariel and Nibbler’s steady and constant pace in the middle. It came from every leap of excitement, it came from the eager eyes and tails at snack time, and it came from guzzled bowls of food at rest time.

 

It was a good run. Smooth and calm. Affirming. Empowered by that smooth and calm confidence, I greeted the day, and regretted the passing of night, and the end of the time on the trail.

 

There are so many times I’ve had night-into-day runs that were less than smooth. The run to Rocky Brook when I ran the Can Am 250 for the first time, a long and hard run with reluctant leaders that led to the end of our race. Last year, the unknown of the first time I ran an all-night training run, camping along the trail with the team, waiting and wondering if Bayley would lead.

 

Those other runs were infused with something else. They were a different kind of fear, a mix of the unknown and discomfort. A lack of confidence.

 

A lack of faith.

As the sun rose, I felt regret that the night was over. I regretted that the day would be bright, and that the light would make things easy, and that the small family of the dog team and I would have to share the world with so many others, alive and awake in the daylight. We pulled up to the truck, and I set the hook, and as I worked up the team, removing iced-over booties and thanking each dog, they shifted over and lay in the straw, remnants of the previous two rests.

 

 

 

 

I cut most of the dogs loose, and they wandered around the truck, exploring and sniffing and stretching out. So many of them looked like they hadn’t just run through night and day. So many of them looked exactly the same as when they started. There were wagging tails, constant fluid movements, and smiling faces. 

 

It was a good run. Two more weeks until the UP200.

Mahoosuc 100 Wrap Up

Most all mushers will admit to race jitters. To the anxiety that is either visible or internalized, to the excitement and adrenaline, all in anticipation. All of that fades away once I hit the trail, which is why I am even more anxious for races to start, so the anxiety can go away.

In the case of the Mahoosuc 100, that anxiety was exponential as I was so deeply involved in organizing the race. Where there going to be enough volunteers? Where mushers really going to show up? Would we all start on time? What was going to happen on the turn onto the plowed road? And, more than anything, the deeper question of ‘Was this whole event really going to work?’

There were parts of the race that were like other races. Those were the parts that involved strategy, involved watching the team and listening to their needs. Deciding to let the team open up and run, I put the speedsters of Ellie and Bayley in lead for the first run, knowing they would set a fast pace. They flew across the challenging trail conditions of the first few miles, of open ice and thin snow and across roads and around a right-left zig zag of a turn onto a plowed road.

We passed teams in quick succession, Giles and Gen and Guillame and Jaye and Colby and Sydney.  I said hi to all of them and greeted their dogs. There was a wonderful quiet 20 miles when I didn’t see any teams, passing only my friends Lori and Lise who were manning the halfway point on their snowmobiles. I kept waiting for Martin to catch me, as he was only four minutes behind at the start, and he finally did at mile 35 or so. As we leap-frogged for a few miles, I would give him a high-five every time he passed.

There were parts of the race that were unlike other races. The trails the race traversed were the trails we have been training on since October, first on the ATV and then on a sled. There are turns we take in training dozens of times that we were not going to take during the race, and until we made it around the course the first time, I wasn’t sure if they would take the race trail or choose to disregard my opinion for what they thought we were doing.  All part of the unknown.

Throughout the race were so many familiar faces and smiling cheer from good friends. So many friends showed up to man the start, to help get teams to the line. They were friends who didn’t always know each other, but who were all there because I asked. They drove ATVs, they helped hold out teams, they manned road crossings and more. A group of friends camped out on one of the most challenging turns, with a campfire and hot dogs, and stayed throughout the duration of the race. I joked that it felt like a wedding, because it had that sense of celebration. It was a rare and wonderful gift. It was a day rich in kinship.

 

The second leg took place in the dark and growing cold. It was my first time departing a checkpoint in a race this year, and I let my anxiety get the best of me. I had to be really intentional to stay calm, as House screamed and hollered to get going again, ramping up Ariel next to him and Taz behind. I wanted to shorten the gang line, as I had dropped two dogs, and felt so inefficient as I moved up and down the line, rearranging. All the while, House was screaming to run again. The frenzy leaving a checkpoint can feel like a different kind of pressure than leaving for the start line at the beginning of a race.

Hyside and Bayley led the start of the second run, Hyside steady and Bayley knowing the way. After we negotiated the zig-zag turn and the plowed road, I pulled Hyside back and put Ellie back in, so we could maintain a faster speed. Hyside in lead is a strong and steady motoring dog, which will be a wonderful gift in the long races of the UP200 and Can Am 250. But if I wanted to maintain the edge in this race, I needed a faster leader.

The anxiety that started this second run fed into their energy as well. Two thirds of the way through, on the return trip back, Bayley and Ellie suddenly got bored. A bit of team fandangling had me replacing them with Wembley and House, who both simply trucked the whole way home. Perhaps these stops and starts ‘cost’ me the time from third to fourth, but at the time I wasn’t thinking that being ahead of Christine was a possibility. I don’t carry at GPS when I run, just a watch, so I had some sense of the speed at which I was traveling, but it was just an educated guess.

 

 

The last 4 miles of the race were on a straightaway under a power line. Singing the soundtrack of “Rent” to myself (‘To days of inspiration playing hooky making something out of nothing/ the need to express, to communicate’), I saw a headlamp up ahead. So, I wasn’t that far off Christine after all. I pushed the dogs, and I pushed myself, and we gained 17 seconds on her in that leg.

 

Christine and I are good friends. We train together, we talk on the phone constantly. We know each other’s dogs and we ask genuinely how they are doing. We helped organize this race together, and help each other in any way we can. To be able to share friendly and respectful competition with each other is a wonderful and beautiful thing. She took third place, and I happily took fourth. 

 

And the last friendly face to greet me? My dear friend Faith Kimball, who was the late-night bag checker, standing out in the cold at midnight with a clipboard. So much wonderful support for this race, requiring long hours and constant work. It is inspiring. 

In the midnight cold, I cared for the dogs, I eased off their harnesses and thanked each and every one of them. I held them close, I checked their paws, I scratched their faces and massaged their shoulders. 

I am so incredibly proud of these athletes. Wembley spent the night in the house that night, and she was bouncing off the walls with her own form of adrenaline, as if nothing had happened. Heading to feed the dogs in the morning, only a few hours after we had gotten home, they all looked as if nothing had happened the day before. Times like that, I know exactly what every hard-earned mile of training has built towards, those long ATV days and nights. 

First race has come and gone. Three more to come!

 

Team leaving the start line:

Ellie, Bayley

Hyside, Wembley

Gunnar, Nibbler

Ia, Hawkeye

Ariel, House

Taz, Thai

 

Team leaving the checkpoint:

Hyside, Bayley

Gunnar, Nibbler

Wembley, Ellie

Ariel, Hawkeye

Taz, House

On Finding Ease in Risk

I opened my arms to the blowing cold, the blue light that comes before dark, and the open sky and declared aloud ‘Winter is freedom.’

It had been a good run.

By now, the team and I have traveled nearly 1,200 miles together since October 1st.  So many runs, so many harnesses, so many trails. So many days, mornings, and nights spent in the woods. Yet, a good run has adventure, finding ease in risk.

I had just run 35 miles of the 50 mile loop for the Mahoosuc 100 race trail. We started on a plowed road, and then dove into the woods down a long narrow wooded trail that paralleled the road and bottomed out in a wide section of open water that plunged the sled and almost knocked me off. From the start, we traveled on and off the plowed road, never quite making it fully across as the trail dictated. There were a lot of unknowns. But with confident and responsible Hyside in lead, and knowing fully where I was because we had trained there by ATV so many times, I had faith.

It was lightly snowing the whole time. It was 10 dog team of reliable dogs, leaving behind the ever-tangled Gunnar, the strong Thai with a cut toe, and the young and yipping Nibbler who is coming into heat. It was Hyside and Wembley, Maihi and Ellie, Bayley and Hawkeye, Ariel and Ia, and Taz and House.

My eyes felt more open on that run. It was because we had traveled from a new direction on new trail. I could see more possibility, more adventures. I felt the openness of new beginnings. The ability to conquer challenge, as we took turns, climbed hills, and crossed open water. I watched the snow fall, creating the shaded levels of trees along the ridgelines. We saw only five snowmobiles. I kicked behind the sled, the team hauling fast up hills.

It was beautiful, and so wild.

At the end, I let dogs loose around the truck. Hyside, Taz, Maihi, House, Bayley. They roamed, but stayed close, my teammates, and friends.

I fed them, I cared for them, I removed the ice from paws and checked for cuts. I leaned in to hug and thank each one of them, something passing from my chest to theirs. Ia had ice on her ears, Ellie wrapped her paws around my shoulders, and the tall Hawkeye folded himself into my lap. A promise was made among us all, and to each other.

The wind picked up as I was packing up the truck, loading up the gear after the dogs were already in their warm straw-lined boxes. My pants were iced over from water crossings. I could tell it was growing cold, as my fingers froze to snaps, as I loosened iced-over straps, and as I put on a warmer jacket.

I felt powerful, strong and a little more wild. I felt like I held a secret experience, something held only by me, shared in silence with the dog team. I was filled with the beauty of all things new.

Some of the best runs are the most challenging ones. They are more confirming. They weave the team together, they pull me in. I stayed in the dogyard in the darkness after I fed them, and held young Oriana and conveyed to her the same promise I made to the others: that we will have good adventures, that we will run and explore and be alone in the wilderness, that there will be joy in the world. And, importantly, that I will always care for her. 

The evidence of a good run was found the next day in a chapped and dry face, in tingling taut muscles, and a state of slight dehydration. Three of the dog team slept around the woodstove in the morning, Maihi, House and Bayley. When I went out to feed in the morning, they were satisfied. 


I leave you with this:

 “Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

-John O’Donohue, a Blessing for New Beginnings.

 

Of Rain and of Straw

It rained two inches on Sunday. Heavy, soaking rain. The kind of rain that turns snow into deep ankle-sucking slogging slush, and turns pathways to water ice. Feeding the dogs in the evening was an exercise in misery, every thing wet and the dogs soaked through.

I pulled the straw out of the truck in the morning, knowing that warm weather had thawed the damp soaked straw that lined the boxes. This meant that I could get it all out by hand and rake, instead of using an ice scraper. In that same pouring rain, I stood by the truck in my full raingear with damp straw in my face and mixing with rain to creep up my sleeves.

It dropped 20 degrees overnight, a deep freeze. As a joke to myself, I thought about Oriana being frozen in place. Of course, Oriana would never stand still for that long, but I knew what was going to happen in the ground, following this fast thaw.

The next morning, as the dawn broke with winter light and snow squalls over the mountain ridges, I fed the dogs. The ground had turned hard and boilerplate, ice and hard-caked snow. The dogs were dried out once more, and little Oriana was moving quickly around her circle, as expected.

I pulled up a bale of straw to the dogyard, and wielded a rake, pulling out wet and snow covered and damp straw, to re-line the houses with warm, dry, and fluffy beds. They all dove in, smelling and scratching and sighing contentedly.

Why is this story of straw and rain and slush important? To me, it is a story of how weather doesn't just affect our trail conditions, our ability to run and train, but it also has small impacts on the homelife, the dogyard life. I willfully ignored the weather to do what had to be done, and willfully acknowledged the weather to do what had to be done as well.

I suppose I could have ignored the rain soaked straw, I could have left the straw in the boxes to freeze again...but could I have, really? I want to care for them, as they care for me at times. It was a simple need, and I was happy to serve. 

Anyways, let it snow.