If you haven’t already read the overview of my dog team’s performance during the 2016 Cooper Basin 300 you may want to start with that. Although it is not necessary to enjoy this post, it will add another layer of depth and understanding for the reader.
The 2016 Copper Basin: Part One – The Starting line
The 2016 Copper basin 300 marked a departure for me from all my previous racing experiences. Butterflies never filled my stomach. Anxiety about what lay ahead never danced around in my brain. For once, it seemed that hooking up my team was not about to cause a panic attack that, at times, can only be stopped by the early intervention of my mediciation.
No, today was race day. Today was when I could finally escape from life – if only for a few days – and simply run dogs. There was a lot of things that weighed heavily on my mind both from weeks and even years before. But I wasn’t going to think about any of it. Just racing. Just dogs. Just having fun.
Travis, who was handling for Wyatt and Justin, and myself, was far more nervous than I was. As I unpacked my things and slowly got ready, he’d buzz about with the nervous energy he thought I should be exhibiting. He paced arround the truck from team to team trying to assess how Justin, Wyatt, and I were doing. Dwayne, Travis’s uncle and our other handler, was taking photos and fully absorbed in the moment. Every few moments Dwayne would lift his camera away from his face just long enough to say things like “oh my god this is so cool!” and “I can’t believe I’m at a real dogsled race!” and “wow!” to simply “This is so awesome!” Dwayne was clearly having a great time, completely absorbed in the controlled chaos that every dog race starts with. His enthusiasm spread to this around him and we all filled with giddy excitement.
That morning, I felt completely in control of everything around me – Not just myself, but my dogs, and my expectations for my amazingly young team. I was slow and methodical as I readied myself. This was my third 300 mile race and by now I had the routine down. I knew what gear I wanted to take for myself and for my dogs and I slowly began packing it into my sled.
There was of course, the mandatory gear: ax, snowshoes, sleeping bag, dog booties, dog food, human food, and of course the all important dog food cooker. Those, of course, were loaded first. I had borrowed a sled from my good friend Lev Schvarts, who had given me my first real mushing experiences and my first race back in the winter of 2010. The sled I had been training on suffered a devastating blow a few days before the race, and I knew I could count on Lev to help me out. He gave me a custom-built sled that he had designed with a blue sled bag that had reflective silver flames dancing on its front. It was pretty awesome.
Although the sled was heavy, it was also reassuring in its weight – it meant that a tumble here or crash there wasn’t going to destroy it. The sled bag was also huge which meant I would have no problem fitting all the gear I wanted to take and I packed heavy. I was driving what I thought was going to be the youngest team on the Copper basin 300.
I had handled two times on this race, once with a freshly broken arm, and I knew that conditions could change quickly. In one race, we saw temperatures as high as 40 above and raining and then a few checkpoints later back to 20 below zero. Mushers struggled because they had no way to get gear dry at the remote checkpoint of Sourdough. I wanted to be ready for anything because this was the first race for 10 of my dogs, and I was going to completely cater to their needs.
In the end, I packed what I usually pack when I go camping with the team. I had a new water bottle from my sister that prove to be more than useful, at times it was the only thing that kept my liquids from freezing. I also had a backpack that I filled with my extra cold weather gear. Travis couldn’t understand why I wanted to take the backpack. I’ll admit it did take up a lot of room in my sled compared to the compression sacks and other things that I typically used. But, at a checkpoint, I love having my backpack. I can quickly put layers in that need to dry or food or drinks that need to thaw. I can put my sleeping bag or any other odds and ends that need to go inside either in the backpack or strapped to it outside. In the end it allows me to make fewer trips from my sled to the nearest bed where I can go inside why down and let them thaw. I may have taken up a little extra space, but it always saves me a little time and a lot of my own energy – so for me, it is completely worth taking. Not disturbing the team by going back and forth between my sled and the checkpoint building also allows my dogs to sleep more restfully.
Trying to get three dog teams set up and ready to go off of one dog truck and trailer proved to be easier than expected. Justin and Wyatt each took a side of the truck and trailer and I tied off to a nearby tree. I unraveled my gang line, went through it for the umpteenth time to make sure that all my snaps were good and all my necklines were solid and then began laying out harnesses for my dogs. Each dog wears a different size harness. The size varies based on their weight, their body type, and their overall size. I had a rather small, younger team. Most of my dogs wore small or a small/medium sized harness. Bud, the freight horse of my team, was the only dog who wore a large and wriggled into it with zealous delight when I came around to him.
Although I was offered help numerous times, I preferred to harness and booty my dogs on my own. Because I drew number 37, I knew I needed to take my time – if I got ready too early, got the dogs harnessed, got them bootied, and then had them stand around for 30 or worse 45 minutes, they would bark and scream and they would end up taking away from themselves and their performance because of their excitement. All that barking and jumping and screaming would most likely lead to them losing a little water and getting dehydrated more easily. You never want a dehydrated dog team.
Justin was the first to take off out of our three teams, as he drew the 24th position. We got a bit of a scare because before it was his turn to go, the rope he tied from his team to the truck to hold them in place, snapped. For a brief moment we watched, stupefied, as his team took off without him. Miraculously, his snow hook got caught in the cable of my gangline and snapped the team to an immediate stop.
It was a bit of a mess getting Justin’s snow hook out of my gang line but once we did, Travis helped secure the team to a tree in front of us. Justin finished hooking up his remaining dogs, and with spots now open on the truck, I began dropping my team.
An air of excitement settled over the dogs: they could hear and smell hundreds of their brethren filling the parking My team spinned about on their drop chains, tongues hanging happily out of their wide grins, and peed on anything they could reach. With so many dogs around the need to mark territory seemed like a high priority amongst the males on the team.
I slowly started to put booties on my dogs. They squirmed anxiously unsure of the commotion around them. Out of 12 dogs, I had 2 five-year-olds and the rest were two years old or younger. The 10 pups that I had brought as the soul of my team had no racing experience whatsoever. Most mushers, would have considered this rather foolhardy. But I wasn’t about to race the Copper basin, I was using it as a training run for the Iditarod. I was also using it as a way to gauge the ability of some of the youngest athletes in my training pool. Doubt never crossed my mind. Why would it? I was a capable driver and these dogs were plenty prepared.
I got the harnesses on one at a time, taking a moment to pet each dog and the love on them. They danced joyously unsure of what exactly was going on but certain of one thing: we were going mushing. Once everybody had been harness I threw a snack of frozen chicken to the team. The dogs crunched on it delightedly.
When it came time to hook up, we got the dogs on the line in less than five minutes. A Side-by-side ATV pulled up to my sled and we attached one of the snow hooks to it so that we could have a smooth ride up to the starting line. Travis rode on the ATV, Dwayne having already walked up to get pictures of Justin and Wyatt taking off, and we started off.
I really wasn’t thinking much about anything as we approached the starting chute. I focused on the dogs, tries to keep my sled from tipping on the hard corner before I got into the start chute. The atv was putting pressure on the wrong side of my sled and it wanted to rip badly. Thankfully, it stayed up right.
I reminded myself how a few years ago I told myself that the Copper Basin 300 was my favorite to handle on – you learned so much – so I was somewhat surprised when I signed up. I love everything about the copper basin and was excited for the 2016 race to begin. What could be better than running dogs from lodge to lodge and eating good food? Handling was worthwhile – I certainly credit a majority of what I know in terms of vet care due to this particular race and the fine handling experiences I’ve had on in the past. But here I was, now I the driver’s seat. This was it. The toughest 300 mile race out there: The Copper Basin.
I approached the starting chute and I watched Robert Redington, the musher before me, another 2016 Copper basin rookie and also a 2016 Iditarod rookie, take off ahead of me. Word on the street was he had one of the teams to beat. A lot of his dogs were on Nick Petite’s sixth place Iditarod team back in 2014. So he certainly wasn’t lacking athleticism, maturity, or experience. All of which, I feltmy own team was sorely lacking – we were young and inexperienced.
Robert took off, and then I pulled my hook and was in the chute. I had two minutes under the starting line before I could take off. Volunteers stood on my sled and. I went up and said hi most of my dogs, although not all because some were too freaked out by all the bystanders to want to do much of anything except bark and scream and get the hell out of there. To be honest, I was more than willing to oblige.
Pulling the hook is always the best part of a race. All the work you’ve done to get to the point is now behind you. Ahead of you, lays an unknown trail and unknown adventures. You’ve done the work to get here and now, all you have left to do, is run, take care of your dogs, rest, Eat, drink, and do it all over again day after day until you reach the finish line.
On the race trail, there is no worrying about bills, or phone calls, or what you did or didn’t do, or the stack of unopened mail you left on your desk, or the fact that you don’t have a race sled for Iditarod yet, there is none of that. All there is is your team, the trail in front of you, and the desire to travel.
I was more than ready when the volunteers told me I had 15 seconds, then 10 seconds, then five seconds, and then it was time to go.
Part 2: Chistochina will be released soon.
If you are able, please consider donating to my Iditarod fundraiser. I am woefully short on necessary gear!