‘It was a tough Eagle Lake 100 trail, open water and a few inches of sleet, but I relied on my older leader and she carried us through, slow and steady.’
I wrote that in an email yesterday, and that sentence has become the headline for the race. The further I get from the race itself, the more the experience condenses into that one sentence. But, there was so much more than that.
It started with the rain on Friday, soaking pouring rain during the seven hours of travel up to Eagle Lake. Everything got wet. I made the idiotic mistake of dropping dogs in the pouring rain, which did not help dogs or straw stay dry.
Knowing there was going to be a freeze-up overnight, anything that was wet became dangerous: straw, the sleeves of my jacket, my gloves. I shut down two dog boxes from the wet, doubled dogs up, brought Wembley and Hyside into the motel room, and left Foreman wrapped in a dog jacket in the backseat of the truck so he could dry out. The truck was parked in a soft grassy puddle, but everything was a soft grassy puddle. I brought my sled and gear inside to dry out, turning up the heat so I was panting almost as hard as Hyside. We needed to dry out.
The snow absorbed the rain, and when we pulled back into the motel after the musher’s meeting, the wind picked up and started clearing the damp from the air. The warmth was moving on, and behind it was a deeper cold and a winter storm. All of us were guessing about what was going to happen to the trail, and what was going to happen to the plowed roads. Jim Cunningham, who has seen so many races and so many kinds of weather, predicted the trail would freeze hard and we would be fine. He, also, predicted that there would be water.
We woke on Saturday morning, race day, to the tinkling of sleet on windows and doors, and an ambient temperature of 17F. Everything outside was encased in ice: dogbox doors, car doors, chains, and more. The parking lot was full of the sound of banging and cursing as we all tried to release the ice, and I helped Tristan Longchamps get the trailer door open with the lever of my snowhook. The dogs looked fine. They ate and drank and went back into their boxes. No matter what, we would be racing.
In the days leading up to the race, and even up until the start of the race, I really wasn’t sure about the answer to that question. My hesitation was because of the ridiculous weather. Ridiculous weather for the first race of the season. My least favorite kind of weather, as being wet is my least favorite feeling. And knowing that the dogs are so far behind in miles, compared to where we usually are by the first 100 mile race, a team average of 850 miles instead of 1,100. It would be about getting through the race course with a healthy and happy team. It would not be about where we would place, although I had predicted 8th place in a message to Christine earlier that week.
The starting area hadn’t froze as hard as other places. With 4WD and second gear, we were able to gun the truck around the corner and parked next to Gavin Baker. Others weren’t as lucky, as a dozer came along to pull out Marco and Anny’s truck and trailer, which had beached deeply into the mud. I ducked into the truck when I could, to avoid the ice pellets falling from the sky, and was more than a little bit envious of mushers like Remy and Kat who had the dryness of their trailer to work in.
Everything was a little bit behind, all of us looked for bag checkers and veternarians to mark the dogs. The Vets showed up as I was harnessing and booting dogs, and in the distraction I forgot to harness Inferno and Elim (although both of them managed to be bootied?) and failed to bootie Bolt. I noticed all of those things when I started hooking up the team, we were the second bib out of the shoot so time was short. I bootied Bolt on the line, breathing calmly and keeping an eye on Jake Golton in the start chute. I did not want to miss my start time.
Wembley and Ellie were in lead, Ellie to lend speed and drive and Wembley to lend experience. I suspected that I would need to rely on Wembley in this race, as both Ariel and House were home recovering from injuries, and while Hyside can lead anything he does so usually at only 8.5 miles per hour in terrain like Maine. (he does like to crank up the speed when he’s in the UP, and only when he’s in the UP!). Behind them were Fanzine and Hyside, and the rest of the team was Hilde and Oriana Fallaci, Bolt and Inferno, Hawkeye and Elim, and Foreman and Nibbler.
The first sections of the trail start on the snowmachine trail, tracking a long road out of Eagle Lake until we turn off onto the race trail. I knew there were a number of mushers to catch up and pass us, the Massicottes, Andre, Carl and Remy. About 15 miles in, not long after Etienne had passed me, I saw Etienne navigating an awkward turn ahead of me, I slowed the team down, saw the signs for the turn, but in the blur of the whiteness of the landscape we blew right by the turn. I stopped the team, and within seconds Andre came up behind me. I stopped him, and then Martin came up next. And then Carl.
I’m so dang cautious when it comes to turning teams in the trail. I set the hooks, I tied off to the tree, and I turned the team. It takes longer to do things that way, instead of the hook-and-move-fast method. But, as my goals were happy healthy and safe….I tied off to the tree.
I remembered that turn from the last Eagle Lake Race, Bayley and Wembley whipping us around breathlessly. The trail that year, in 2015, was a hard and fast maelstrom, slick and icy. It was a very different race trail than what I experienced this year.
After that turn, the dogs found a groove. We were in a narrower section, winding among trees and passing a lake. Wembley and Ellie zoomed up and down the hills, and I breathed a sigh of relief. We just might have an ok run after all.
Then we turned onto the plowed road, which had accumulated a layer of sleet, This made for easier steering than the glare ice and mud I was expecting. We came up upon a mis-colored section of the road. I slowed the team down.
‘Oh man.’ I groaned, as I realized it was overflow, water that couldn’t soak into the frozen ground so it sprung up and puddled on the road. It’s been a few years since we’ve crossed that slushy water.
I slowed the team down, and let them try to find a way around it. They didn’t realize it was all water at first, and went right through it, water and ice encasing the runners and my boots.
They navigated the rest of the overflow spots just fine, avoiding the water. Wembley’s ears would perk up when she’d see the patches, and I could see the wheels turning over in her head as she made decisions. She is a thinking lead dog, and needs decisions to make to stay engaged. She needs a challenging trail so she stays motivated. She is that kind of a lead dog.
After the ice loaded up the sled, their pace slowed right down. We still had a fair distance to go, and I looked at my watch and my GPS, and hooked down to snack the dogs. It was in that point that I decided that the race, truly, was a training run.
Most mushers say that races are ‘training runs.’ Sometimes they mean it, as they have a bigger race later in the season that is their focus and true goal. Sometimes it’s a ploy, a bluff. Sometimes even when it’s supposed to be a ‘training run’, competitive spirits emerge.
As we neared the end of the first leg, the winter storm moved on. The sun emerged, and we were silent among the trees. The trail becomes more interesting, weaving among bogs and breaking on and off of roads. My GPS didn’t quite synch up with the mileage on the trail markers, nor with the timing of my watch, I had a longer measure of distance than the trail markers were telling me. So I let that thought go, and just focused on running the team.
We turned onto the plowed road that led to the checkpoint, Moose Point Camps, and I felt we were home free.
And then….more overflow. This time churned up by the trucks that had driven along the road to the checkpoint, rutted and challenging to balance the sled on. Those were some of the worse patches, and the water spots were relentless as we cruised down those four miles of road. It was exhilarating, and just as Wembley likes to have decisions to make, sometimes I like having a course that is challenging as well.
The Moose Point Camps checkpoint is a warm and comforting kind of a checkpoint. The teams nestle in among the cabins and trees, and the later teams like mine can score quiet spots alone inbetween cabins. The vet team came up immediately, and I talked to them about dropping Bolt, who had developed an un-Bolt like gait in the last few miles. He had a slight soreness in his right thigh, and I knew immediately he needed to be dropped, which we’d do right before it was time to go. So I went about bedding down, feeding, and rubbing each and every paw, settling into the checkpoint routine I know so well. I re-packed my sled for the run home, chipped the ice off the stanchions and runners with my axe, and then went inside in search of soup and a fireplace to dry off my boots.
This checkpoint truly is one of my favorite checkpoints of all races. It is quiet, remote, and the lodge offers places to sneak in a nap on a couch, a warm fire to dry out equipment and gear, as well as the best chicken stew I’ve found anywhere. The hosts display the best of Northern Maine hospitality, and as I rested on a couch I listened to the volunteers and checkpoint hosts tell stories to one another, and pass around a bottle of wine.
Everyone had had a slow run. Gavin and Ashley showed up when I was caring for my team, and the frontrunners were only 45 minutes ahead. It was the ice that caked our sleds, and the sandy sleety snow that was hard to run in. It was the steep hills of Aroostook, the straight-ahead ribbon of the Can Am trail. All of us were slow.
I was scheduled to leave only a few minutes ahead of Yan Shaw, which meant that I needed to be punctual, something I am not great at in the first face (or in general). I fumbled that exit, and left the checkpoint a few minutes later. Not knowing Yan well, and not knowing his dog team at all, I didn’t know what to expect. So I ran the dogs.
The ruts on the road that had been fun on the way in were a different story at night. The temps had plummeted to somewhere in the subzeros, and the banks on the side had frozen harder. The ruts had gotten wider and longer, the ways to go around them thinner and steeper.
And while I know the trick to getting around things like that is to NOT hit the drag mat or brake, unfortunately I tapped the drag with my toes and immediately the sled dumped into the water, falling sideways and tossing me fully into the water. The water flash-froze on my jacket and boots, and I flipped the sled up, but had overcompensated and was dumped on the other side, earning some bruises that are still sore a week later. After repeating this in the next series of ruts, I finally figured out how to balance the sled, remembered NOT to hit the drag mat, and found a mantra to say to myself to stay upright.
Wembley and Fanzine were in lead, as past experience has taught me that Ellie does not like to lead the second legs of races. Fanzine didn’t seem fully happy up there, whether because of the trail, or because of Wembley, I don’t know. After we made it off the plowed road and back onto the trail, I gave her a few miles to settle in.
Yan caught and passed us about halfway through the run, when I stopped to switch out Fanzine for Hyside. Hyside burst to the front of the team. I knew then that our pace would be steady, and would definitely not be fast. Hyside is a juggernaut, taking awhile to build up momentum and losing it easily when we get to steep hills.
For the remainder of the run, Yan and I were within sight of each other. We traveled really closely together for awhile, me passing him and him passing me as we stopped to snack or fix our dogteams. I watched his dogs, beautifully running and with perfect trail manners. It was a team that clearly spent a lot of time on the trail together. Yan pulled ahead and stayed ahead for the remainder, a headlamp just ahead in the distance.
Once Yan passed us, I relaxed. There was no one behind. The stars were alive above, and the temps were cold. Sure, the sled was a block of ice, and my boots were frozen solid, but the dogs were running well and driving ahead, even if slowly and steadily. It is moments like this that I see how they work as a team, even when they all goof off at once and decide to all pee while going uphill.
Wembley just wouldn’t quit. She zipped ahead when it was time to go. She knew when we were coming into the last 10 miles, and pushed us into a lope when we hit the last few miles. I thought a lot about the Eagle Lake 100 in 2015, the first race that Wembley truly rose to lead. The Eagle Lake trail is a good tough training trail, especially for leaders, as they turn off and on plowed roads, burst in and out of the woods, and cross roads blindly.
We came into the finish line, me singing to the song that was pumping into my ears from my headphones. We were greeted by John and Guy, who somehow manage to greet every team at every place: the start line, the checkpoint, and the finish line. It was 2:30 in the morning. I was ready for bed.
Breaking down the team was a slow affair, each snap encrusted in ice that took patience to thaw. Foreman and Nibbler stood so patiently, waiting like the good team dogs they are. With the help of Jim Cunningham, who was waiting for Gavin, the team was taken care of quickly. A few cuts on feet from the ice, but other than that everyone looked great, and ate and went right into their boxes. Taking apart the sled was impossible, as the bag was frozen to the sled itself. I left the bag on, and brought it inside my motel room to thaw.
The Eagle Lake Race was, as I wrote above, a tough trail. The things that filter through were about the trail, and the weather. But it was also a race where the other things about racing shine through: the camaraderie of other mushers, the dedication of volunteers who staff their jobs through the night and spend weeks preparing for the race, and of course the dogs themselves. Every dog on the team had a job in this race: Foreman and Nibbler who just kept getting dumped in overflow and snow and kept on trucking in wheel, Elim and Hawkeye who set aside their personal differences to run together flawlessly the entire race, Inferno and Bolt who were steady in the middle of the team, Hilde and Oriana Fallaci who brought both crankiness and pure joy in equal measure, and the four leaders of Ellie who led the entire first leg with focus, Fanzine who brought us out of the checkpoint, Hyside who brought us home, and Wembley who rose to lead once again despite her being almost 9 years old and led the entire race. Races like Eagle Lake, just like the Can Am, are Wembley's kind of race: challenging, decision making, and route finding.
These are the kind of races that good stories come from, and as we all found ourselves sharing the next morning over breakfast.
That was a good race.