On when there are too many ‘what-if’s: Can Am 250 2019
There was a power under my hands, an electricity; when I stopped the team to snack them, they almost popped the snow hook loose and took off on me. The rhythm of their paws poofed snow. The trail was hardening up, but still populated with long stretches torn up by moose. I barely had to help them up hills.
On the second night of the Can Am 250, 200 miles into the race, with 9 dogs on the team we faced the toughest leg of the race. 55 miles to Allagash, up and downhill. Weaving along the edge of a watershed, looping back and forth in a way that confuses dogteams and mushers.
A sign appeared in the glare of my headlamp: ’Allagash 15 Miles.’
We hit a long uphill, steady, finally reaching the section of trail that has absolutely no downhill at the other side until we reached the Allagash River. I pushed with my ski pole and kicked with my foot, I committed mentally to the positive mantra I had been using the whole race, the mantra of one leg at a time: ‘Let’s get to Allagash.’
A dog stopped to pee. And then another. And another. It passes through dogteams easily, a sign that they are tired in some way, mentally or physically or both.
And then, Gem and Willie wouldn’t get the team going again after one of those stops.
At this point in retelling the story, over a month later, my brain still insists on going backwards, to the previous 200 miles in that race, to the weeks leading into the race, to every mile traveled since September, to the four years prior that had created the team on the trail at that moment.
The heart and mindset I had set up for the Can Am this year was positivity, calm easy going-ness, teamwork, and gratitude for how lucky we are to be on trails with some of the best mushers around. The rest schedule was designed to have us resting in more or less equal measure to our runs, 5-6 hour rests that kept the musher and team happy. The team had accumulated more miles in training than in previous years, and included finishing veterans of multiple 250 mile races. By objective analysis, this team was set up well.
So, what led to that moment, 15 miles from Allagash? That then led to the moment, 12 hours later, where our race ended on the trail during the last leg to the finish? Answering that question does require that look-back, but also considering decisions I made during the race itself. And, also, acknowledging that there will always be an intangible percentage that I just might never figure out.
Problems started three weeks before the race, when Ariel and Aurora revealed deeper, longer-term injuries from the Beargrease. Ariel’s left wrist was sore, on extension. Aurora’s injury was more of a mystery, a limp in her right side, a knot on her left, and 10 days of favoring when she stood up from resting. Tracing these back, Ariel had been nursing that wrist since December, when I ran a large team on fast trail. Aurora’s injury, thanks to analysis from veternarians and other experienced mushers, was likely a torn muscle from Beargrease that I had missed, that only became exacerbated as we started running again in February. These are huge errors on my part that require deep analysis of training plans, with the help of fellow friends and mushers.
With Ariel and Aurora out of the picture, the leadership of the team fell to the three young leaders. Gem, a 3 year old slip of a hound dog who has been showing strong promise as a solid leader. Victor Hugo, a 2 year old who leads out of emotional connection and love. And Willie Jr, a yearling who led 250 miles of training in February alone with a rock-headedness. These three are naturals in front. But yet those three had not led any race miles, nor finished long races before. These three were in their very first race season. Victor had not finished Beargrease, and this would be Willie’s very first race. Running Can Am would be a huge undertaking for them.
‘It depends on how much of a gambler you are,’ Al Borak had said to me, in discussing whether we should stay in the 250 or drop to the 100, given this shift in leadership. I knew we would have a solid 100. To stay in the 250 was going to ask a lot of those young leaders. And ask a lot of me, in a way I did not expect.
So, I stayed in the 250. I took the gamble. I rolled the dice. I committed to the unknown, choosing the active embrace of that wide expanse instead of a contraction of fear. I made this decision, with likely a lot less awareness of how serious a gamble it was.
The other gamble was the deep snow. The trail this year was soft, the product of one of the deepest winter snowfall in years, including a storm that brought a foot of snow earlier that week. The risks posed by this trail were long sections of trail churned up by the tracks of moose (‘moose holes’ is the term used by mushers to describe this trail hazard), deep snow on either side of the narrow packed track, difficulty in passing teams because of that deep snow, and steep snowbanks for when we went on and off plowed roads. The forecast was for warm and sunny, and with long rests planned at checkpoints it would be tough for me to avoid the heat of the day for some runs. No matter what, it would be a slow going race.
Slow going was what I had planned for the team, anyways.
The first leg of the race was slow, 65 miles in the heat of the day, with the first 25 miles or so churned up by the 50 teams from the 30 and the 100 mile race. The downhills were deep tunnels, my feet on the drag mat digging deeper into that rut watching helplessly as dogs fell into soft snow because soft snow was all we had. Ariel was in lead with Willie, running without necklines so they had maximum ability to find good footing.
We got passed by a lot of teams in this first soft leg, usually creating tangles as the soft trail made it hard for teams to pass. My friend Matt came to pass with a ‘go on Beezy’ to his leader Beezus, who led the team by but midway through we got tangled. The soft snow made it hard for more than one musher to be up working on the teams, so I stayed on the brake. While untangling Willie from his wheel dogs, Matt’s team took off, dragging Matt along with Willie, Willie pulling hard as he ‘joined’ his new team. With much laughter, we got him back on the team and Matt took off.
The trail after the split with the 100 smoothed out. The teams’ pace picked up a bit, and I relaxed as the remaining miles to Portage are fairly uncomplicated, some long uphills and some sharp turns, but most of the teams had passed us so I knew we’d be mostly by ourselves. It was starting to cool off a little bit. We hit some churned-up moose sections, and slowed the team down. Blake Freking came up and passed us, and then we didn’t see any teams until we reached the checkpoint.
After flipping the sled on a turn onto a plowed road, climbing back onto soft trail, descending onto snowmobile trail and then back onto soft trail again, Willie looked over his shoulder at me. I stopped the team, checked a few feet that had tossed their booties, as the deep snow just sucks them right off as they fill up. I swapped Willie out for Gem, and Gem stayed in lead for the remainder of the race. Gem and Ariel led a smooth remainder of the run to Portage, coming in around 6:30 as I had predicted.
It has been three years since I ran the normal Can Am route, and I had forgotten the beauty of crossing the long and silent Portage Lake, the humming glow of the town a mirage that is impossible to measure distance by. I felt happy and energized and relaxed coming into the checkpoint, as did the dogs as they pulled us past the sign-in line.
In this checkpoint, I was most concerned about Ariel. The leadership of the race hinged on her, and her wrist. While waiting for the meal to cook for the dogs, while they rested on straw I worked on Ariel: massaging every muscle, seeking knots on her lower back, and stretching out that left wrist while loosening up and massaging it. She got a therapy vest, which is a neoprene half-jacket that goes on like a bib, with pockets strategically placed over triceps and biceps for handwarmers. Her wrist was wrapped in plastic and then in a neoprene wrap. I worked down the rest of the team, finding a slightly tight shoulder on Fanzine and wrapping Hilde and Gem’s wrist as they were swollen. Hilde during vet check had been identified with a tight tricep, and she also got a special vest. Once this was all done, I fed the dogs and went inside to find food and water for myself.
Traditionally I have always disliked Portage as a checkpoint. The teams are crowded together, the checkpoint building cramped with tables and noise and bad lighting. Because of the long first leg, good rest for the dogs is a priority, but with teams leaving at regular intervals they don’t rest well. I was worried about Victor staying confident. Our plan was 6 hours of rest, but watching them stand around hour 4 had me decide to pull out at 5 hours. Maybe cutting that rest down was one of those early decisions that could have been improved, resting them only 5 hours between an 8 hour run and a 6 hour run. What ifs.
Going into this race, I also wasn’t sure who I’d be traveling with. The camaraderie of mushers is one of the many reasons I sign up for races, to celebrate this sport with the crazy folk who love it as much as I do. Leaving Portage, it was clear that the group I’d be entering and leaving checkpoints with, and passing on trail was Amy, Giles and Marie-Eve. Throughout the race, Giles would leave before me and I’d pass him about an hour in, and he’d get to checkpoints after me. Giles is relentlessly positive, an intensely competitive little Frenchman with his fluffy Siberians, talking constantly to anyone around him or to his dogs.
Giles left well before us in Portage, and Amy was behind us. Other than passing Giles, I didn’t see anyone on the next leg to Rocky Brook.
There were still all 12 dogs in the team. Before leaving, I had walked all the problem dogs, the question dogs, Ariel and Fanzine and Gem and Hilde. They moved well and their wrists seemed fine. The next leg, proposed as 52 miles but logged as 45 in my GPS, is a long leg coming after the first long leg. It is sneaky because it seems smooth and flawless, as dogs run well at night and the darkness gives the brain illusion you are going much faster than you think you are. There aren’t many hills, and the trail starts on 20 miles of snowmobile trail, and you leave Portage with a team amped up after watching so many other teams leave. It is a fun ride. But, again, it is a long run coming after a first long run.
The cooling of night was so welcomed. Gem and Ariel were in lead, and I had total confidence in them. Loki and Oriana were in wheel, where they ran the entire race, as the cheerleaders and the rev to the engine. Loki and Oriana, hailing from the same valley in Quebec, unsurprisingly have some similar genetics—Loki’s grandparents on his father’s side are the same great-grandparents on Oriana’s mother’s side. Those two are an inseparable pair. Ahead of them were Rocky and Inferno, twinned floppy-eared tail waggers. In the middle of the team were Victor and Nibbler, and then Hawkeye and Hilde, with Fanzine and Willie right behind the leaders.
Leaving Portage just before midnight, we ran through the toughest part of night for me to stay awake, those waking-dead hours between 2 and 4 a.m. I slipped gummy candy and chocolate-covered espresso beans into my mouth, moving the object around for as long as I could. I blinked my eyes a lot. Measuring time by when the dogs needed a snack stop, and the inaccuracy of my watch, which was set for an hour ahead despite my constant attempts to re-set it, the light greying of the sky snuck up on me in the last 10 miles before Rocky Brook.
The last few miles to Rocky Brook is some of my favorite trail of the race. There are some single track loopy sections that connect between logging roads. The last few miles itself have some short steep hills, but with a wide vista to the right across the forestland of Maine. Rocky Brook arrives straight ahead, in the smell of bonfire and the three short squat buildings that make up the logging camp.
At every checkpoint, we pull out our vet book so the timer can log our in time and the number of dogs. After that time is logged, the musher is required to initial as well.
I could barely hold on, the dogs leaping and with both feet on my brake and volunteers holding the sled, I only just made an ‘x’ and we catapaulted into the checkpoint.
In previous Can Ams, my rest at Rocky Brook has been short. 2 hours, three hours, I think once less than 2 hours. I was looking forward to a long five hour rest, getting good meals into the dogs and caring for them. Once again, while the cooker steamed, I wrapped wrists and massaged Ariel’s back and shoulders. Hilde and Nibbler weren’t eating, the sign of something possibly deeply wrong with them but as dogs that sometimes don’t eat right away, I didn’t check them (what if moment: even if the dog isn’t a ‘normal’ good eater, always check them if they don’t eat). Aside from those two, there was full compliance with eating, including little Victor.
Victor Hugo is a two year old, in his first year of big races. As I’ve written many times before, Victor possesses an insane degree of emotional intelligence, a strong communicator and sensitive to those around him. During the chaos of the Beargrease, the noisy populated checkpoints, Victor became overwhelmed by what he had to process. He drew inward, he lost confidence, he stopped participating and stopped eating. Analyzing that race, I knew that if Victor would make it past Portage in Can Am, he would learn to enjoy the more remote and quieter checkpoints.
That turned out to be true: at Rocky Brook Victor sighed with relief, smiling and satisfied in the sun in the straw. He ate and drank and was relaxed and confident. (What if moment: what if Victor didn’t figure this out?)
Gem, at this checkpoint and at all checkpoints, sat sentry and stubbornly refused to lay down. I watched her close her eyes and wobble, but refuse to lie fully down. Fanzine, Willie, and Ariel formed a cuddle-puddle around her. Rocky, who had shown resistance to resting during training and the Beargrease, had finally figured out straw and was happily snoozing with his cousin Inferno. Hawkeye barked to announce the arrival of Giles’ team, thankfully doing so by only raising his head from the straw. Once the dogs were fed and bedded, I went inside to enjoy some Can Am volunteer hospitality, eating both soup and eggs at the same time because why not.
After four hours, it was time to check the dogs. Nibbler and Hilde still weren’t eating, so with the help of the vets we looked them more fully over. Both of them had developed rear-end injuries, Hilde a ball of tension and Nibbler a pinch and swelling in her lumbar spine. Whether the result of choppy trail, or the product of the injuries both of them had incurred earlier in the season, their race ended there. We decided to leave them sleeping with the team until I decided to leave.
Clipping the lead into Ariel’s collar I knew the moment she stood up that her wrist was a problem again. I hoped I was wrong. I tried to get her to run out of it, moving faster and faster around the parking lot. I conscripted the vet team to watch her as well. Fayth Weed, one of the gifted vet team members who possesses the unique skill set of both human and canine emergency experience, sighed. ‘Yeah, I know,’ I responded.
I returned Ariel to the straw. Both Willie and Victor had moved around in their straw with a gingerness around their wrists, swelling that I had missed but quickly wrapped. Leaving Ariel behind meant we needed Willie and Victor. The predicted 5 hours was going to be a longer rest, while I waited on Willie and Victor’s wrists to go down.
Sitting on the cooler in the heating sun, watching the team rest and looking at the emptied parking lot, I had decisions to make. This was the time to roll the dice. From Rocky Brook, the trail becomes tougher, the hills steeper. The dogs figure out how remote this race really is, good in some ways for dogs like Victor but challenging for young leaders. We would be running in the heat of the day. There was 150 miles ahead, and 9 dogs in the team. We were officially facing the biggest ‘what if’ of the entire race.
‘Shoot.’ I thought. ‘Let’s do this.’
As I shortened the line, as I prepared to leave, big crocodile tears streamed down my face. I mourned the loss of Ariel, my loving redhead who can lead by herself when things get tough. It’s a big hit to leave behind your main leader, heading out into trail with young inexperienced dogs. I had to cry in the checkpoint, because once we were in the trail I could only look forward.
Every ounce of confidence I had, gleaned from so many races and from this race in particular, I passed forward to the little dogs that would lead the team.
Leaving Rocky Brook, the trail starts on a plowed road. The trail has always started on a plowed road, and trail relocations a few years ago lengthened the duration of that plowed road start. The old trail, you could see the turn from the signout station. The new trail, it was almost a quarter of a mile away. When we hit the trail, I couldn’t remember if the volunteers said it was on the right or the left. I kept the dog team slow and squinted my tired dried-out-contacts-eyes to watch for that little red paw print on a stake.
There it was. A narrow steep trail on the left, cut up and through the tall snowbanks. The classic Can Am turn across a plowed road. I had done some turns like this in training with these young dogs, turning across a groomed trail into a narrow single track, but only once. If they took that turn, we would be on our way. Of course, this turn is aided by the smell of dog scent, but still I have seen teams miss these turns easily.
‘Haw,’ I said, the command for left turns.
Gem put her nose down, and with Willie they took that turn.
‘Well, I guess we are on our way.’
That 35 mile run to Syl-Ver is usually a prediction of the remainder of the race. Are the dogs groaning when they see hills? Has their speed plummeted by two or three MPH compared to the first leg? Are they still snacking and zipping forward after stops? Do they seem a bit down after passing the checkpoint-like bonfire smoke and people of the Jalbert Camps? When I’ve had tough Can Ams, the problems show up in this leg.
I waited for problems to show up, and none of them did. Gem and Willie were steady, and seemed pretty happy. I lengthened snack breaks so everyone could get some good snow-rolling in, and with some talkative howls from Fanzine and some gruff barks from Oriana and Loki, we were always on our way. I waited for the steep hills of Syl-Ver, but before I knew it I saw the 10 mile mark, and then the 5 mile mark, and then we were speeding around the exterior of the checkpoint.
Once again, I could barely sign in as the dogs charged forward.
Something clicked for the dogs metabolism in this checkpoint. They ate like maniacs, every snack and every bowl. Egged on by their appetites, I probably gave them too much food (another ‘what if’ moment). Rocky tried to grab any bag I had in my hand, even if it was full of booties. I sat on the cooler, eating the dinner I had thawed out in the cooker, looking at them sleep in the darkness. I was so proud of them, in that moment. They were working well as a team. We were working well as a team.
Syl-Ver is designed as an unassisted checkpoint, without designated sleeping areas or big buckets of water. It is a big, spread-out parking lot with lots of space for teams to rest apart from each other. In past years, with a slow slogging run to this point, I have felt that parking lot echo with amplified emotion. Syl-Ver is a turning point, a haven of ‘scratch fever.’ Yet also, in past years when I have arrived with a full team of 12 dogs after a good run, I have enjoyed this checkpoint.
There were no signs that we needed more than the 5 hours I had allotted for this checkpoint. After sleeping next to Rocky, I roused myself. Loki and Oriana stood up immediately, anxious and ready. Victor was watching me. Gem was sitting and staring down the lot towards the exit.
The next leg, that long middle-of-the-night-uphill climb to Allagash, has always been the crux of the race for me. I’ve had teams stall. I’ve had teams slow down. And then there was the team that needed to chase Remy, led by Inferno and Wembley. I’ve played musical-chairs with leaders on that leg. I’ve laid on my back on the snow underneath the lead dogs and wondered why. I’ve run up every single hill with an ache on my big toe from an ill-fitting boot. The bright colored lights of Allagash are always hard-won.
And yet, while still in Syl-Ver, as I prepared mentally for the run, I was giving condolences to Yan Shaw, who had scratched, His team was sick (another ‘what if,’ as we had run over the vomit from his team on the way to Syl-Ver), and while he was disappointed about the end of his race, he was also disappointed for another reason.
‘This next leg is my favorite leg,’ he said, as it’s night time and he loves night runs.
I thought about that. What if this was my favorite leg of the race? What would that change? What would stay the same?
As the team rocketed out onto the trail, I decided that this would be my favorite leg of the race. It would be hard, but we would work together. The team was well rested and had eaten and drunk well.
Perhaps a little too excited by their speed, I let them stay excited. (another ‘what if’ moment). At snack breaks, the team almost popped the snowhook and took off on me. The trail was still chopped up with moose holes, and I slowed them down every time. The constant vigilance kept me awake, aided again by small candies. My iPod had failed to maintain a charge so I had left it behind. (another ‘what if’ moment, as sometimes having something upbeat in your ears helps).
They flew up hills, and I assisted them but didn’t push them. We caught and passed Giles, and Willie seemed to lose some of his steam after passing his team. It took awhile to shake Giles, as we were going uphill and Giles’ constant barking at his dogs was something that both Willie and myself had a hard time tuning out. We hit the safety station and the 30 mile mark in about 4 hours, a lot faster than I had planned. Maybe too much faster than I had planned.
I had forgotten that the hills of this leg come entirely in the last 15 miles. Long uphills without a downhill at the other side. We had been on the trail for over six hours. Perhaps because I had fed them too much, perhaps because they were getting sick, perhaps because I had let them go too fast at the beginning, when we hit those hills the steam went out. A dog would stop to go to the bathroom, and then another, and another. What ifs.
One of the things I had noticed, in the weeks before the race and during the race itself, is that when two young dogs are in lead, and are not paired with or backed up by an experienced leader, it poses a unique challenge to the musher. It is not commands that they need to learn, or manners, but they need to truly understand that they are able to lead. Instilling that confidence is incredibly tough to do, and before I had always relied on the assistance from an experienced leader: a Wembley, an Ariel, a Hyside.
The confidence went out of Gem and Willie. They found it harder and harder to get the team going after a break. Until, eventually, they had completely stalled.
We inched forward, hill by hill, slowly. I heard Giles coming up behind us, ‘allez allez allez-ing’ to his Siberians.
I let him pass, and we chased and leapfrogged with him until we reached the final descent to Allagash. That chasing and leapfrogging was slow, as Giles’ dogs are fairly slow and my team being around him distracted them and also had him yelling more. And yet when we’d pass, Willie would lose confidence. Victor didn’t enjoy traveling with Giles so I didn’t want to put him up there. Somehow, eventually, with Loki and Gem in lead we flew along the river, reaching the checkpoint a full five minutes ahead of Giles at 6:30 AM. (‘what if’ moment: wheel dog is in lead?!)
With almost 8 hours on the trail, I knew this had been a tough run. Working with Cindy the most thorough race vet, in addition to the wrists I had already identified and wrapped, we found two shoulders and one more wrist. Not everyone ate. This was a very different team than when we had arrived at and left Syl-Ver. Maybe the planned five hours wouldn’t be enough (another ‘what if’ moment: what if we had stayed until evening, gotten more meals into them, and finished the race at night?).
The gift of Can Am, in contrast to other races in the Midwest, is that instead of a departure rule where you must leave checkpoints within a certain amount of time of the front-runner, there is a pre-determined ‘last out’ time where you must be back on the trail. For Allagash, that time was 6 AM on Tuesday. I pack extra food in my checkpoint bags, anticipating that I might end up needing to prepare multiple meals in case a longer rest is needed.
And yet….Having more recently run more Midwest races instead of Can Am races, I had forgotten this fact. I truly, truly did. With Chuck (who has no knowledge of mushing racing rules) as a handler, and no other friendly experienced mushers like Remy or like Christine or John the race marshal to remind me of this, to talk me through what the run was like, I defaulted to the feeling of needing to get out of the checkpoint. This is potentially one of the critical ‘what ifs’ of this entire race, where their positive physical responses overshadowed a mental vacuum, a subtle questioning.
Like clockwork, at 4 hours I went to check on the team. Rocky was up and ate. Willie ate, bringing full compliance to everyone eating and drinking at this checkpoint. Loki, Fanzine, and Victor all watched me intently, and Oriana bounced up as she always does. Willie grinned and stretched. I walked each and every dog and they all moved well, including the various sorenesses and wrists. And yet, Hawkeye stood up and let loose the longest loosest poop (sorry-not-sorry, as mushers are obsessed with bowel movements). Inferno had eaten earlier, but barely moved his head when I was moving among the team. Gem trotted around noncommittally, but she practically yanked me over back to her straw. I saw these signs, and instead of thinking ‘let’s stay longer,’ I considered how to keep them moving on the trail, still in the mindset of needing to be on the trail as I described above.
It was warm and the flat light of day.
As I write this now, I don’t feel a rush to move to the next leg of the race. Partly because it’s tough to write about. Partly because I want to keep pulling apart Allagash, to look for more signs. And, perhaps, because the longer I linger in Allagash in the re-telling of this tale, the more column inches I grant to this checkpoint, it’s some weird reconciliation with the fact that I didn’t stay longer. That maybe if I write more about it, or spend more time thinking about it, that will somehow counteract the short period of time I spent there. Perhaps it is my way of making reparations.
But, the reality is we left. The dogs stood and I didn’t bootie the Mackey boys because the snow was warm and wet. Loki and Oriana were barking, Inferno leaping forward in his harness silently. Exiting this checkpoint, we leave the dog yard and cross a paved road, before descending to the river to be released into the woods. Unsure how long it would take, we got to the start line with 90 seconds to spare. While nearly all the 9 dogs were clearly ready, yet Gem and Willie and Victor were serious and not harness-banging like the other dogs. Watching the team, standing with the team, I knew the next leg, the last leg, would be hard, but we’ve run hard last legs before. What I had forgotten is that those hard last legs were always run and led by Wembley. Thus, I defaulted to the mantra that had gotten me through each and every Can Am before ‘if you can get to Allagash, you can get to the finish.’
We faltered leaving, Willie looking over his shoulder at me. Thus, with Loki in lead with Gem again we headed out. What ifs.
Looking at the safety station times for this leg, Giles who had left half an hour behind us passed the next safety station about half an hour after us. Becki, who had also left about half an hour behind, had gained 15-20 minutes on us. We were going about 5 MPH. This is insanely slow. This is too slow. This is not right.
Becki passed us, as I was checking on Victor and Fanzine who had just vomited.
Giles caught us. At this point, my goal was to get the team to the next safety station, where I could rest them in a place that resembled a checkpoint, or choose to end the race. I talked to Giles about this and asked for his assistance in getting there. Giles, in response, pulled the map out of his pocket when I asked him, in a motion that I find endlessly charming, that he kept that map in his pocket the entire race, the wilderness guide that he is. Giles having expressed a personal dislike of a team following him too closely, and knowing it is a lot to ask a musher moving slowly to have another slowly-moving team on your heels, I tried to maintain a distance that was just far enough from Giles but also just close enough so the team could chase. That was a tough balance to find.
Marie-Eve passed both of us, her team looking good and her energy upbeat. I felt happy for her, even as we were struggling. Marie-Eve had been a pleasure to travel with.
But in the rolling hills, we lost sight of Giles.
It was time to stop. I cut Gem, Oriana, and Victor completely loose, and snacked the dogs and unclipped their tug lines and removed their booties. The weather all day had been slightly miserable, hovering around the freezing point with everything from wet snow to ice pellets. I considered making a fire, but looking at the scrubby young striped maples buried in waist-deep snow around me I knew there wasn’t much in the way for dry wood. I had stripped the contents of my sled bag (‘what if!’) to only the required gear needed to finish, not enough food for dogs or myself for camping and running again. Cooking a meal for the dogs passed through my mind, but then passed out again, another one of those decision-making moments I’ve recognized. I chugged a bottle of water, and I peeled off my wet layers and curled into my sleeping bag in my sled.
Before too long, I felt a little wet nose. And then a paw. And then Gem was in my lap. The message she communicated is tough to put into words, is tough to pull apart from the emotions rioting in my own veins in that moment, but it was rooted in love.
The feelings burned in that moment and burn still. Crushing sadness, and fear, and worry. The heart and brain rocketing in so many directions at once. And then, the numbing nothingness of pure shock arrives, the body moving and cutting the head and heart out of the process. This is the unique and flawed human ability to push down the animalistic ‘fight or flight’ response, leaving the head and heart screaming for attention, in silence. There was a sensing, here, that the well of confidence that needed to be instilled in the young leaders, not only had it run out in them, it had run out in myself.
It was dark when the SAR crews arrived, the product of me being over-due and the warnings passed forward from the three mushers who had passed me. We tried to follow the machines out, but the drivers of the snow machines weren’t familiar with this process and were a little too far ahead. I was tired, too, and the dogs had jumbled for too many times to re-align into the team we were. The same challenges that brought us to park, were still at work in the team.
‘We need the rescue sleds,’ I admitted.
While one snowmobile headed out to meet the others, the head SAR volunteer Jim stayed with me, stood and kicked his feet to stay warm. I stood with him for awhile, but informed him that I needed to get warm and dry until the crews arrived. Trying to avert hypothermia, I again stripped off my outer wet layers and curled into my sleeping bag, falling asleep immediately sitting upright in my sled.
It was 10 p.m. when I awoke. ‘Jimmy-Joe’, the SAR coordinator who had waited with me, alerted me that the crews were only a few minutes out.
The volunteers arrived in a burst of light and noise. It was SAR volunteers and two vets. Thankfully one of those vets was Fayth Weed, a musher who was able to translate my own needs and inform the SAR crews of the best way to transport my sled and dogs out of the woods. I relied deeply on Fayth, as my personal advocate for the best solution and to only ask me questions I could answer. I anchored myself to her, like a shy dog does to their musher. I am so grateful for her presence on that trail in the middle of the night.
The jarring experience of a crowd of machines on the Can Am trail is alarming. For 200 plus miles up that point, and for the over 1,000 miles of Can Am racing I’ve done, the trail is quiet and remote and usually traveled in complete solitude. Another team can be two minutes ahead or behind, and you might never know. The roar of the machines and the voices of the vets and volunteers crowding out the silence of sleds and dogs and wilderness….it is just too weird. Traumatic, even in the moment of being assisted.
The dogs and I rode in a giant sled all the way to the road we had passed, the St Francis road. Loki, who doesn’t travel well, stood up most of the way. Rocky leaned against me. As I was placed in the back of the sled, the volunteer at the front of the sled ended up with most of the dogs in his lap, Gem and Victor and Oriana. All of the dogs had leads and tethers and leashes, and we held all of them. I slept, shivering wet in my damp parka, that had been sent in with the volunteers but was still soaked damp from the sweat of climbing to Allagash.
Chuck and the truck waited at the St Francis road, and the dogs were loaded still harnessed into the box. The sled lifted onto the roof, fully assembled. I immediately took off my parka and put on my dry down jacket. I watched the volunteers solve their own problems, of how to load snowmobiles onto trailers and who was riding in what truck.
I asked Chuck’s permission to fall asleep in the frontseat. I tried drinking water but I spit the cold sip I took back into his thermos, my hypothermic body rejecting the cold sharp bite of unaltered clear water. I placed a bottle of Gatorade on the dash, waiting for the heat vents to warm it. Chuck cared for the dogs when we got back to our host family, the Audiberts, letting me sleep as he dropped, de harnessed, fed and watered, and then reloaded them all. He then set an alarm for two hours later to see if anyone needed to pee—they were, of course, all sound asleep.
Moving through the next day was hard. It was only accomplished thanks to the love around me, as I was in shock still, my nervous system still on the trail with the team. The first step was Chuck (and Erin, via messages) insisting that I get up and eat. The next step was my host family Laura and her daughter Rachel filling me with eggs and toast and love and support. The next was talking to the dogs, Oriana who burst at me with a hug and a hammer of paws, and Ariel who licked away my tears, and seeing everyone eating and drinking and Rocky was wriggling in joy. The final was being handed over to my fellow mushers, Matt and Erin who never left my side for the rest of the day, and Ward Wallin who gave one heck of a bucking up session.
‘This has happened to a lot of mushers,’ he kept saying. ‘You are not the first,’ as he listed the names of so many dog teams who had been pulled off the Can Am trail not under their own power. Ward gave me Jasmine, one of his lead dogs. ‘You need more leaders.’ He also insisted that I go to the mushers banquet, and threatened to do it by dragging me in. As a joke, I chose that method.
‘We wanted to send Beezus out to you,’ was the comment from Matt and Erin, and I smiled thinking of their serious lead dog Beezus in a bright red superhero cape coming down the trail towards us to lead us home.
Like with all traumatic events, it’s one day at a time. Maybe you pretend you’re ok for awhile until you feel ok. Sometimes its wallowing. Sometimes it’s still feeling all the emotions when the concrete lid of compartmentalizing lifts.
In the two weeks after the race, I lay in bed with pneumonia. This limbo was exhausting, mostly because of that bacterial infection, but it also didn’t offer much in the way of true recuperation, or opportunity to analyze from a positive place.
‘You are sick and in no position to analyze things,’ everyone kept insisting.
What comes from learning about this failure, this stumble?
Buried in an article I was reading, a few weeks after the race, was this:
‘Training to fatigue is effective because muscle fatigue, or, in some cases, failure, serves as a critical signal, telling your body it must grow and adapt in order to withstand future challenges. When you fail, your body learns on an innate biological level what it needs to do differently. Failure sets off a cascade of changes that help you evolve so you can meet a greater challenge next time. In other words, your body can’t really grow unless it fails. This principle holds true far beyond your muscles. It’s true for everything. Along any lasting and meaningful journey, you are bound to fail. So long as you use those failures as informative opportunities to grow, that’s fine.’
‘Be patient with yourself, and be patient with your process. Small steps taken consistently over a long period of time lead to big gains. Walking your path with others—community support—helps you navigate the ups and downs and keeps you moving forward.’
The work of training a dog team is not just the single season, is not just a single calendar year. Momentum is built over years, generations. Small steps and then small steps and then the ‘ready’ of a launch. The acute phase of mourning is a moment in a long lesson of training a team. While by no means do I believe that it is necessary to train a dog team to fatigue, there is a lot to learn from what led to the team parking on the trail. As I move out of that acute phase, it is time to rely on that community and use this failure to grow, we will be fine.
There were a lot of things that did go well in this race: the confidence of Victor, the positivity of the team as they neared checkpoints, the incredible leadership that Gem offered as a young dog, and even with the faltering, that run to Allagash is officially the fastest run we’ve had for that leg. This was not an under-trained team, but a team lacking key dogs from the start.
When I talked to Victor Hugo after the race, after we were home and he was inside for an evening, he said just this: ‘I’m glad I went.’
I am so proud of this dog team. Of Oriana and Loki as the beasts in the back of the team, stumbling into trail churned up by moose holes but bouncing right back up again, Oriana’s impatient bark calling us up from a stop. Of Rocky and Inferno, tail wagging floppy eared snack monsters who drove and drove the team. For Victor Hugo, the little two year old who realized that this was what he truly was meant to do. For Hilde and Nibbler, two tough experienced girls who gave what they could before being injured. For Hawkeye, my big blue-eyed beast and safety blanket. For Fanzine, the chatty chubby comic relief who kept me laughing and kept us moving. For Willie Jr, the young yearling who did what he could to take on leadership in a tough race with that ridiculous grin. For Ariel, my little redhead who started the race with a sensitive wrist and led until she had to be left behind. And, especially, for Gem, the fun loving slip of a hound dog who led the majority of the race, from 30 miles in until the race ended at mile 230.
The array of humans who helped care for me after this race are incredible. For Chuck who took care of the dogs, dropping them at midnight and feeding them when I slept hard and being the quiet kind companion he is. For that one hell of a bucking-up session and fierce 'I got your back' from Ward Wallin and for the patient supportive gentle care from my dear friend Erin Altemus, and the ‘god-damn I’m so sorry’ from so many other fellow understanding and compassionate mushers. For all of the volunteers who brought us safely to the truck, the pro emergency responders that they are. For my generous host family the Audiberts, for filling me with love and also coffee and eggs. For Brianna, for meeting us when we got home and helping me unpack the truck, and play with all the dogs. There is a hollow-ness and hurt, and love helps.
The array of humans that make this race possible are also extraordinary. I've had the good fortune now of traveling to new and other long races, and there is something special about Can Am, about the ways the community comes together to celebrate the race and celebrate Fort Kent. It is a race I will never be missing as long as there are dogs in my life.
This ends a race season that has been unlike all others, having one of the strongest training seasons but then running only two races and not finishing either of them. I give thanks to everyone who supports us in these races, in this months of training and preparation.
After two weeks, I ran the dogs. They were happy and joyful, and the yearlings had all come back. The puppies started running in harness. The snow stuck around so I could get three more weeks of running in. I thought a lot about the future. I thought a lot about the present. I decided it was time to make a lot of changes in the way I train the team, and take some big steps I have been putting off for some time.
And, of course, start thinking about next year. Because, as I’ve begun to say just as Stephane Duplessis says, mushing is a ‘next year’ sport.
I started writing this post on a Thursday, getting a few pages in. I stopped because I ran out of emotional energy and had to go to work.
That night, I dreamt a Can AM dream, not the usual dream of running dog teams through buildings, but instead dreaming of a dog team on a normal trail. At the front of the team, the lead dog was my first dog Quid, who died in 2015.
Quid was leading the team. Solo. Up this crazy steep hill. All by herself with that fluffy white tail and her pointy ears facing forward, and she was smiling. It is important to note that Quid is not a lead dog, she came from my tour kennel and I adopted her as a pet, and she was 11 before I started building my own dog team. Quid also was not a very good sled dog. Quid, to me, has become the symbol of my younger, wilder self. The one who flew in helicopters and ran across ridge lines and swung an axe.
Anyways, we get to the checkpoint, which was Rocky Brook, but of course it resembled the checkpoint only in name. The buildings were spread super far apart, and I got lost in-between the sleeping area and the dining area. Everything was inefficient and I knew it, as I left stuff all over the place, including three or four dogs in the building where I had been sleeping, as for some reason not all the dogs were camped in the dog lot. This dream-Rocky Brook had the feel of Grand Marais in the UP200, with tons of people everywhere in the middle of the day.
I went to the dining room area, with Quid on a leash, to get food and talk to my handler.
My handler in this race was my mother, who died in 2011.
I never saw her in this dream, but she had set up the place where I slept, the pillow and the sleeping bag.
At this point, when I was sitting at the table in the dining room, watching the waitstaff walk around in white shirts and black ties, I had one of those weird dream-moments when I thought to myself ‘I’m going to Google what the appearances of the dead mean in your dreams.’
In my dream-Googling, the appearances of the dead meant shame.
I woke up not long after this. I knew that feeling of shame was one of the feelings I’ve felt about what happened, but I refused to believe that is the only message to learn from this dream.
It was two full days before I finally Googled what ‘dead people in my dream’ means.
Most online information about the dead in your dreams are addressing the most common theme, which is the appearance of a dead loved one who has recently departed. Guilt and anger, or incomplete feelings about them.
I was unsatisfied. I don’t think either of them were there because of guilt about them. Maybe some guilt about the dog team, sure, but we already know that from the dream-Googling.
I Googled again. ‘Dead people in dreams as guides.’
Some more of the same, some more that was different but also not helpful. But then, I landed on one sentence, that made sense, that resonated enough that my eyes watered with tears:
The dreamer is in need of guidance, protection, comfort — a spirit, familiar or unfamiliar, will appear with a message, or love and warmth, for the dreamer, whether the dreamer realized he/she requested assistance or not.
Of course my first dog would lead me, solo, up a hill, cleanly and without fuss to the next checkpoint. Of course my mother would be there, making my bed.
Spirits appearing in a dream may symbolize an aspect of the dreamer. They may appear representing a hidden element of the dreamer that has been lost or forgotten and are now needed to merge back with the dreamer for their own personal growth and healing. The dead may also appear to be a symbolic representation of undiscovered powers offering the dreamer creativity and inspiration.
Dream Advice: Lean closer into your dream and take a look at the traits this spirit encompasses. Next connect the dots on how these attributes can feed your body, mind, and soul in your waking life.
A Deceased / Loved One returning symbolize the dreamer’s desires to re-connect with the qualities this someone represents to the dreamer — a need for comfort and strength from the person who has passed. A deceased loved one may also illuminate a memory of the past or provide an offering from the future for the dreamer to heal within the present.
There are more layers of interpretation to the dream, of course, but the guidance of these two integral parts of my being, the reminders of what will always counter the ‘what ifs’, are a powerful message. It taps into something deeper than the narrative I have presented, to the things that can’t, and probably shouldn’t, be narrated.
‘And in the end we follow them--
not because we are paid,
not because we might see some advantage,
not because of the things they have accomplished,
not even because of the dreams they dream
but simply because of who they are:
the man, the woman, the leader, the boss
standing up there when the wave hits the rock,
passing out faith and confidence like life jackets,
knowing the currents, holding the doubts,
imagining the delights and terrors of every landfall:
captain, pirate and parent by turns,
the bearer of our countless hopes and expectations.
We give them our trust. We give them our effort.
What we ask in return is that they stay true.' --William Ayot.