On life below zero
The cold showed up on a Wednesday. In the darkness of 4:30 a.m., I got out of the truck and the cold hit me. It seeped immediately into my arms and back, sliced through my hat, and crushed my fingers when I got careless with my gloves. The metal, of my sled, of the snaps, of my truck, of the dog's collars, burned my skin. For the first time in years, I wasn’t sure I had enough clothing.
The dogs came out of the boxes and their paws went up in the air, the shock of the cold ground. If they didn’t eat their food quickly enough, it would freeze to the bowl. But with this kind of cold, I never worry about them not eating fast enough.
As I write this now, it’ll be seven straight days of subzero temps, including some multi-day stretches where the mercury never rose about zero. Some days were windy, some days were still, but all days were ‘not warm,’ which is the term I prefer rather than saying that ‘it’s cold’.
There is a raw and rugged beauty that comes with this kind of cold. The clarity of the sunrises, the fog around the moon. Stars that are so bright. Snow on trees, the light so crisp and defined. Snow that squeaks and firms solid. The snap and pop of trees in the wind. A hazy mist of incredibly cold snow blowing around the summits. The hoarfrost that forms on everything: faces, fur, jackets, and anything left in exterior pockets.
The dogs are built for cold like this. They have extraordinary metabolisms, efficient use of the fuel I feed them, keeping them running well. They might not look ‘puffy’, but the warmth of the coat is not found in the visual heft. They all lived outside through this cold, burrowing into the new straw and eating the multiple meals with gusto. I slipped a few dogs into jackets during set up, and kept three (Nibbler, Ellie, and Hilde) in their jackets during the runs. And, I swear, some dogs got heftier as they thrived in this cold—Fanzine, Elim, and Oriana look bigger than a week ago.
The runs we’ve had this week have been unlike any other. They have been fast and joyous, sheer glee from the team. They have been unstoppable. The glee is found in the extreme cold, the perfect trails, and the silence as most snowmobiles have stayed home. And without snowmobiles, wildlife has become more active—birds, moose, and deer have all crossed our paths in the past week.
Humans are much less efficient in weather like this. I added layers in ways I haven’t before, as I wore my insulated bibs, a relic from my Gray Knob caretaking days, on the sled for the first time. I slipped my inner jacket hoods under my helmet, my neckwarmer around them. I also added chemical handwarmers to my overmitts, my boots, and in the pockets that held my GPS and my phone. I only put on liner gloves if they were dry, and changed them out if they were wet. Zippers stayed closed. I constantly put food in my mouth. My phone (and thus my camera) were usually locked in my pocket, excepting for a few moments that were just too stunning to ignore. I came into my house every night, enlivened and at peace from the time spent out in the cold, but also sore and still hungry, no matter how much bacon I ate on the trail.
The trails are extraordinary right now, hard and fast and clean. We can take any trail, any turn, and know we will find the same—smooth snow, soft berms, and consistent ability to stop and hook down. It took awhile for this to sink in for me, having spent the past few years with limited trail networks because of plowed roads, and bad trail conditions. So it is still a surprise that when the dogs got bored of Errol, we simply moved to Nash Stream. Anywhere we want to go, we can.
I can’t predict what the weather will hold for the remainder of the winter. It could, and very well probably will, warm up and rain. The snow could turn to ice. Trails could disappear. Winter could change from perfection to something else. Team sizes could drop from 14 to 6. Mileage could be cut from 40 to 14.
The blessing of this deep cold, which has no real end in the 10 day forecast, is that that will not yet happen.
It’s almost like it’s actually winter.
We are on the edge of the race season, the Eagle Lake 100 less than two weeks away on January 13th. We will be entering this race with the lowest annual accumulated miles I’ve ever entered a 100 mile race with, but in this case the accumulated lifetime miles matter. I’ve run over 8,000 miles with Wembley, over 6,000 with Nibbler and over 5,000 with Ellie and House. Dogs like Zippo and Bolt have experiences in Alaska, from the Copper Basin to the Two Rivers 200 to draw from. Fanzine comes from a kennel that regularly puts on 2,000 miles before January, Fanzine herself having raced in the Beargrease and the Defi Taiga. I am not worried about these dogs. We are ready.
How is everyone doing?
Ariel: Ariel has turned into one of my most trusted leaders. She drives, she knows her commands, and when she doesn’t quite get it right the first time she is willing to fix it. She is pure joy in harness. She is so eager to please. I can’t wait to see her race.
Ellie: Ellie has been backseat or in point for most of the season, partly because she doesn’t like ATV training. I put her in lead for a few runs on the sled and she’s dominated the trail, taking her commands like a pro and driving the speed so fast that we still average 12 MPH with me riding the drag the whole time. Too fast, Ellie! Too fast. Ellie’s only flaw is that she is not so great at hill climbing and gets immediately bored.
Fanzine: Fanzine is hilarious in lead. She looks back and howls when she’s ready to go. She has absolutely no clue on commands, but is tireless in front of the team. Fanzine has earned a lot of freedom, and like Hyside and House spends set up and break down wandering around the truck.
Hilde: Hilde has led a ton of ATV training, but has faltered some in sled training. It’s a lot of pressure to lead a team on snow. I expect Hilde to grow into it this winter. Hilde also has the second-most miles of the dogs in the team, having barely missed a run.
Hyside: Hyside is best for ATV training, as he won’t go above 9 MPH when he’s leading on snow. Once we switch to the sled, he spends a lot of time in point, where he is more comfortable going a faster pace. Knowing this about Hyside, I don’t plan to use him in lead until we are well into the UP and for the Defi Taiga. Hyside continues to spend a lot of time in the house, mostly because I adore him. As a reminder, Hyside always rides in the cab of the truck because he’s too heavy to lift into the box.
House: House is another one of the trusted command leaders, and continues to be driven in lead. House doesn’t have the high-end speed of someone like Ellie or Ariel, but really we shouldn’t be going that fast anyways. House has been in the house for months now, and I expect him to stay in the house for the winter. As a big gangly dog, who's size is finally catching up to him, House is getting sore occasionally and the warmth helps him recover.
Wembley: Freaking Wembley. She was supposed to be retiring, and she has moved into the house as part of that. When I left her behind during one 40 mile run, she terrorized the house dogs and got so frustrated with me I took her the next day and she led the 40 miles herself. She is still driven in harness, but I have found that she is started to get tired of repetition in lead. I still don’t know if she’ll find her way into a race this year, but it’s been powerful to me emotionally to see her still holding her own at 8 ½ years old, not slowing down or sore at all. She seems unchanged.
Bolt: BOOOOOLLLTT!! Oh Bolt. Any time I do anything with Bolt, he does a quick lick to my nose and wags his tail. Bolt is so strong and steady in the team, a truly magical dog. He is happiest in the middle of the team, and I can trust him to be flawless. He eats like a pig. He can run with anyone, from Inferno to Hilde to Ellie to Elim. He and Hawkeye have a grumbly thing with each other, but I am going to try to get them to work through it as I will potentially need them to run with each other at some point in a race.
Elim: Jeezum. I am so impressed with Elim. Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect, as he hasn’t been training super hard the past few years, but he’s extraordinary. He is a constant: his energy never diminishes and he is always on his tugline. He eats everything. He gets along with everyone. His smaller size means he is not likely to get injured. He’s got a beautiful coat and wrists that magically keep their booties on. The only flaw is that sometimes his curiousity when the team stops creates tangles he can’t get out of himself. I fully expect Elim to be a superstar in the UP and in the Defi Taiga, and he might find himself on the Eagle Lake team.
Foreman: Foreman is one of the best team players on the team. He is serious about his job, and is usually found towards the back with Nibbler, his longtime running partner. He steps into his harness himself, and places his feet in my hands for booties. He is a wonderful boy and I can’t believe this is only our second winter training together.
Hawkeye: Hawkeye is another one of the bruisers in the back of the team who is an incredible team player. This year is absolutely Hawkeye’s year, as his tug is relentlessly tight and he is always driving, and usually loping. When he backs off to poop, I can feel the loss of his power. Hawkeye has matured into a beast of a dog, and I expect him to be on every race team this year.
Inferno: Ferno has been moving up to lead, and then after he gets stressed after a few runs he finds himself in the middle-back with Bolt. When Inferno wants to lead, the results are extraordinary: he lopes and drives the speed, and he is learning commands. Inferno elsewhere in the team is much the same, a driving energy. I still enjoy watching his ears the most out of all the dogs on the team, like two flopping manta rays.
Nibbler: Nibbler is the truly most important team dog. We are never going far enough or fast enough for Nibbler, and she is happiest when we run multiple runs and don’t stop a lot. I can’t believe she is only four years old. When we ran a short 20 mile run this week, we came to the truck and Nibbler started her purring call to keep going. Nibbler is also thriving being loose, and trots around the truck waiting for me to de-harness her.
Oriana Fallaci: I forget about Oriana sometimes because she is so flawless. She runs towards the front of the team, a smooth rhythmic trot and a beautiful driving lope. She and Fanzine are the two Quebec girls who keep their weight the best, proof of their good genetics. Oriana has shown some promise in lead, fast, confident and looking around sometimes but not looking back. Oriana, like Elim, is full of the same energy at the end of the run at the start of the run. This fuzzy golden girl is growing up!
Paolo: Oriana’s brother Paolo has finally figured out how to be a good sled dog. He has figured out how he likes to get into the dog box, and he has figured out that he’s not supposed to chew on things (although I do have to snatch a bootie out of his mouth once in awhile.). He has been running with Hawkeye and has learned a lot from him: how to roll in snow, how to stay on his side of the line, and how to quietly drive the team forward.
Vega: Vega is spectacular. She is a hard driving girl and runs beautifully. She dinged up her toe about 10 days ago and has been benched since. She’ll miss Eagle Lake, but I bet she’ll be on the team for the UP200. Heal up Vega!
Zippo: Zipper, Zip, Mingo, Zippi-dee-doo-dah. He is ready for everything and anything. I used to think Zippo’s relentless barking was because he wanted to get going, and while that is part of it, really it is because he need to be moving. Standing on the truck, or standing on the gang line, he needs to be moving. Erik LaForce, a Quebec musher, looked at him barking and said ‘can he be loose? He wants to be moving.’ Once I got that insight, Zippo has been silent and in motion around the truck until it’s time to go. Zippo has been showing a slight shoulder soreness with these hard fast trails, and he might also miss Eagle Lake but only because I’m saving him for the UP200. I want to see him stare down those trails!
As reminder, the race schedule is thus:
Eagle Lake 100, January 13
Wilderness 60, February 3rd
UP200, February 16th
Can Am 100, March 3rd
Defi Taiga 120, March 17