‘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.’
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.
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.