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Monday, December 20, 2010

Montana November 2009 Part1

Running without purpose.

While working with the yearlings I had one female whelped by Arrow, his leader that helped him win an Iditarod. Her name is Tennille, named for the Captain and Tennille. In training, she ran all around, jumping up, not paying attention, running into things and not following commands. When I got to the house that evening and gave Doug a report on how the dogs were doing, I told him she was running without purpose. He looked at me and said, “That’s way too technical for me. She is a sled dog. Her whole purpose is to run. If you tell me she doesn’t pay attention or is screwing around I can understand that. Don’t say she is running without purpose. That doesn’t mean anything.” From then on, every time I did something I shouldn’t have done or I was wasting time doing it Doug would say, “Jim, you are running without purpose.” He wanted me to become more efficient. Don’t make three trips to get things from the bedroom when one trip would do. Don’t walk to the house to get a headlamp when I would be going there in the next ten minutes to get water.

Montana October 2009 Part 6

Saturday, November 7 In the afternoon I got to go into town to pick up a few things. It was good to get away. I felt like a ranch hand in those old western movies, Doug liked to watch. We ran the yearlings when I got back. Then Doug ran me. I needed to be able to sprint to the front of a sixteen dog team and back to the sled. It is eighty feet from the sled to the leaders of a sixteen dog team. I  would have some more things to do when I got home.

I was beginning to hurt all over from the workouts Melanie and Doug had me doing the last two days. Before I went home in September, Doug had told me he wanted me working out and getting in shape. He said, “If it is not hurting, you are not working.” Anything worth doing is worth doing well. He wanted perfection. He was beginning to sound like my father. I needed to push myself beyond my comfort zone, beyond what I thought I could do, beyond my limits, and keep going. He wanted to see some results.

Sunday, November 8, I would be heading home this afternoon, after doing my chores and running the dogs one last time. Yesterday, Doug had stopped the ATV several times to have me fix a problem or move a dog. While I was working with the dogs he would say, “Jim, the snow hook came lose” and start moving the dogs forward. I did not realize what he was doing the first time he did it, but soon caught on. He was trying to simulate a real life problem that I would encounter on the trail. What was I supposed to do? I was supposed to run as fast as I could and get back on the sled anyway I could before they left me in the middle of nowhere. When I got ready to go to the dog yard I expected that we would be doing that again. I was not disappointed. I would be going home bone weary tired.

Montana October 2009 Part 5

Thursday, November 5 After feeding and scooping, Doug arrived and we began moving dogs around in the yard. When we were finished, there were two teams in the main yard with the extras in the yearling yard nearby. The teams were set, one for John Stewart, who would be running the Iditarod in March and one for me. Doug even gave them nicknames, Mr. Gadget’s team and Scooter’s team. John was Mr. Gadget because he had all these electronic gadgets. I was scooter because I was riding my scooter everywhere around the ranch. That afternoon we ran John’s team seven miles. They were so strong it was scary. There was no stopping them as we left the yard sitting on an ATV. Doug said they could have pulled two pick up trucks.

Doug told me I needed to be asking questions, then asked me if I knew anything about the harnesses, what size were the dogs and which dogs got which harnesses. I had wondered about that and had meant to ask the day before, but didn’t. Doug was still one or two steps ahead of me. The harnesses with red loops on the back were for small dogs, the yellow loops were for medium dogs. Blue loops would have been for large dogs, but Doug didn’t have any large dogs. A harness with a red and yellow loop on the back would be for dogs that were between small and medium and a harness with a yellow and blue loop would be for dogs between medium and large. Doug tried to simplify everything, I was still trying to make it complex.

Montana October 2009 Part 4

I took the dogs away from the yard so they would not be disturbed by the other dogs. As I left the area, I would walk them through a grove of trees, leading them around in circles and back and forth between the trees to get them used to following me and keep them from running back and forth and wrapping the line around my feet. Silver managed to get me all tangled up and jerk my feet out from under me. As my knees hit the ground I bellowed a loud NO. The fall and the command startled him and he started to quiver. I had to pet and reassure him that everything would be OK. After that, he behaved well and followed along. I fell again near the end of the day when Penny tried to get into an old abandoned dog house and I dismantled it with my feet. She was still very shy and would need a lot of encouragement. The rest of the dogs performed well except for Tennille. She ran without purpose, did not pay attention and kept getting herself all wrapped up in the lead line. Sometimes she would get her leg wrapped; on a towline this could be dangerous. Dogs have had their legs ripped off when their legs get wrapped. My stars for the day were Princess, Fiver, Dandelion, Leyla and Beth. Bonzo would not do well on a sled with me. He was directionally challenged, just like me. As I was bringing Dandelion back to the yard, we were met by Fiver, who had broken the ring on his collar. A dog fight ensued and I had to break it up by keeping him away with my foot while pulling Dandelion away with the lead line. It all worked out and nobody got hurt. I have always said, “Don’t send your hand where your foot should go.” I have sewed up too many hands of people who tried to break up a dog fight by reaching in to grab one of them.

Montana October 2009 Part 3

Wednesday, November 4, I had set my alarm to go off at 6AM, but when it went off, I rolled over for another 45 minutes. I had figured that it would take me 2 hours to get ready and Doug wanted me going to the dog yard at 8AM. I would live to regret rolling over. It was 8:40 before I set out for the dog yard. By that time, Doug had already gotten the dog food out of the container and was heading back to the house on the 4-wheeler. Every minute after 8:15, I had anticipated his return and dreaded his disapproval. When he walked into the house I was fully dressed and ready to get to work. I was also 40 minutes late. He looked at me and said, “Jim, you’re slipping back into your old ways. Imagine leaving your checkpoint 40 minutes late. Mark Nordman will wonder what I was teaching you. The old women in the villages will laugh at you. You cannot be late.” It was the piercing look in his eyes more than the tone of his voice, that got to me. I COULD NOT BE LATE AGAIN!

After I watered the dogs, I took a break to eat an apple. The entire time I was standing there, Sultan was barking. About halfway through the apple, I realized that Sultan was barking at me, as if to say, “Get to work. Stop wasting time.” Sultan was a lead dog and Doug liked him because he would bark at the other dogs if they were going too slow. He was Doug’s alter ego.

That afternoon I passed my second hurdle. Melanie would not be home until late and Doug had to take a horse into town. He would be gone all day. He gave me a lead line with a snap on it and told me to start training the yearlings, calling them by name and getting them to come on command. I was alone at the ranch, with the dogs. I was the dog handler again today.

Montana October 2009 Part 2

Sunday, November 1, the trip to Missoula was long but uneventful. This trip would be a paradox. I was coming to learn how to drive a dogsled, but was bringing a push scooter to build up my legs and save my knees; Doug wanted me jogging six miles but didn’t think my knees would be up to it. I was met at the airport by Melanie, Doug was hunting. He would regale us with stories of the trip tomorrow, when he returned. We stopped at Wal-Mart to get some groceries and I grabbed a sandwich to eat on the way to the ranch. When we got there it was too late to visit the dog yard, so I unpacked the car and made myself to home. I was glad Doug was gone and would not be back until tomorrow night. It would give me a chance to ease back in to the routine without the up tempo he always set.

Monday, November 2, I spent the morning in the dog yard getting reacquainted. I learned the names of all the yearlings: Nona, Princess, Bigwig, Dandelion, Penny, Silver, Bluebell, Cobra, Fiver, Lola, Beth, T-Bone, Bonzo, Captain and Tennille. I would be working with these dogs this week, teaching them to sit, stay and come on the short leash and them a long line. This would help me get to know them and get them used to following my commands. It would also help Doug select the ones he wanted to keep. The afternoon was spent fixing up the place and doing chores.

Tuesday, November 3, I spent the whole day in the yard, working with the dogs, spending extra time with the shy ones, getting them to come to me. I also had a break through with Doug and Melanie. Prior to this, Melanie always fed the dogs and I scooped poop. But, she would be gone all day and Doug would be busy around the ranch. The feeding was entrusted to me. Melanie had showed me how to mix the dog food and gauge how much each dog should get. I felt like I had been promoted to dog handler. That was no small feat, much like Harry Potter dabbling in the dark arts. This was one of the subtleties between kennels (what to feed, how much and how often). I wanted the merit badge in animal husbandry, but settled for the satisfaction that they had trusted me to do it. I also learned how to operate some machinery around the place, after Doug’s gentle ribbing when things would not start.

Montana October 2009 Part 1

“If it’s not hurting, you are not working.”

Before I had come home, Doug had told me that I was not used to being uncomfortable. I did nothing outside of my comfort zone. He, on the other hand always pushed himself and lived outside of his comfort zone. He was used to being uncomfortable. I would have to start living that way, too. I would need to run till I got a wind cramp, walk until it went away, then run again. This past summer he did not account for the heat and rode a 50 mile endurance ride. By the end of the ride he was draped over the horse’s neck, barely holding on. He had become dehydrated and overheated. He spent the afternoon drinking Gatorade and water mixed with salt until he felt better. The next day he rode again. Others in the event were concerned for his health. Melanie told them not to worry, Doug would survive. It was the horse that would be stretched. He was right.  Except for the few times I had pushed myself during wrestling, in my senior year in High School, and when I had been a commercial fisherman, I had not pushed myself so hard physically that I was uncomfortable.

Friday, Oct. 23, I had been home for 3 weeks and would be going back to Montana in 8 days. I had not done any exercise since I’d come home, except for one 12 mile bike ride. I was in a rut! I would need to do something to shake it up and get exercising again, and fast. I had made an appointment to get my car serviced and decided to walk home after dropping it off. I clocked the distance on the way to the service station. It was 6.25 miles. I dropped off the car and began walking home. It started to rain, but I was prepared with layered clothing. Halfway home my feet were soaked and water was sloshing around inside my boots. I would have to dry my boots and feet when I got home. Wet feet inside wet boots for a long period of time was not good. Soldiers during WWI stood in water for days and weeks on end as they remained in the trenches. Many of them developed immersion injuries called trench foot. The extreme cold and wet conditions would cause the skin to break down, form ulcers and get infected. In some cases, the skin would peel off with the socks when they tried to remove them. A lot of soldiers lost their toes and some lost their feet from these injuries. I got home in 94 minutes, having walked 4 mph. Soldiers in the Civil War would routinely march 20 miles in 5 hours (4 mph) with 50-75 pounds of equipment, then dig trenches or build fortifications and fight a battle. I still had a long way to go.

Montana Sept. 2009 Part 6

We put the dogs away and got ready to go to the airport. On our way into Missoula Doug talked about what we would be doing when I returned. I would be teaching the dogs to sit, stay and come. I would be calling them by their names. We would be watching to see who the smarter dogs were and deciding which ones he would keep; and we would continue cart training with the dogs pulling the ATV.

He then turned his attention to my training. He noted that I was now handicapped by my shoulder injury, but I was not unique. Mark Johnson was a sprint musher with one arm; and William Kleedehn raced in the Yukon Quest with one leg. Doug told me that about 20 percent of the active dogsled drivers were my age or older. In fact, Joe Reddington Sr. ran his last Iditarod when he was 73 and, the polar explorer, Norman Vaughn, who has a mountain in Antarctica named for him, ran his last Iditarod when he was 87. I was not unique. In fact, at the rate I was going in my fitness program I might be running my first Iditarod at the same age Norman was when He ran his last race. Doug was concerned about my fitness and my handicap, but at some point the would become more concerned about his dogs than about my well being. That was understandable. If I was unique, it was because I had no experience with working animals and no athleticism. All other dogsled drivers had grown up around animals, been involved in sports or activities that required physical fitness or both. I was banged up enough and, although I admired both men for their grit, I did not want to emulate Mark Johnson or William Kleedehn or become more handicapped. Norman Vaughn and Joe Reddington Sr., well that was another matter. Two old men following their dreams and succeeding, that was something I could sink my teeth into.

Montana Sept. 2009 Part 5

Friday, we ran the first team again. This time, getting some of them into harness was more difficult. Doug kept yelling at me to bend my right elbow and keep it into my side. This would keep me from pulling my bad shoulder. He said that I needed to go home and do a whole lot of bicep curls to strengthen them and do triceps exercises to counter the increased strength I would get in my biceps. This time I did not have to go very far, but the dogs were barking and the leader got into it. It was Sultan, my old nemesis from last year. He missed the turn and had to be turned. I offered to get off and go to the front of the line and lead him around, but Doug said that would not teach him to lead any better. Instead, Doug told me to get off and walk about six feet away from the 4-wheeler in the direction he wanted to go, to give Sultan the idea to go that way. He later explained that I could do that now because the 4-wheeler was heavy enough to keep the team from leaving me; but when I was on a sled, I should never be more than an arms length away in case I had to jump for the sled if the dogs took off. One of the dogs in the fight had gotten so tangled that we had to stop to undo the mess. I started to pet the dogs but Doug stopped me. This stop was to correct a problem, not reward misbehavior. There would be no petting at this stop. A little farther on, another dog remembered that we had stopped at that spot the last time and started to slow down. We would not be stopping there again. If we had stopped, that dog would have stopped there every time we came back that way. Doug informed me that dogs are a lot like kids. You reward them when they are good. You discipline them when they are bad. You gain their trust. You spend a lot of time with them and praise and encourage them often. This was good advice and would serve me well when I got home.

Sultan - my old nemesis lead dog

When we got back to the dog yard I put the dogs away in the order I thought we might use the next time they went out. The dog I would use in swing would be put in the doghouse nearest the lead and the dogs I thought did not do well would be put in the houses farthest away, to be put at the wheel position in front of the sled. Then I had Doug critique me. He said we would never get out of the dog yard with them in that order. I had put T-bone in the position of swing and had forgotten that he had been there before and did not do well. He dug in and drove well but was easily distracted and needed to be at the wheel. He also did not like the other dog that would have been next to him in swing and we would have had a dog fight before we left the yard, the next time. I was learning, but as Doug said, I had a whole lot to learn and not a lot of time to learn it. While I was gone, Doug would continue to run the dogs to train them and increase their endurance. By the time I came back at the end of the month, he would have condensed the 15 dogs into two teams. He would run each team every other day. They would be running 5-10 miles during each training run when I returned.

Montana Sept. 2009 Part 4

Gator one of the best Leaders - retired from racing, used in training

After cleaning the dog yard, the next day, I had the opportunity to work with another group of five unbroken puppies. This trip did not go as well as the first. I made a ton of green rooky mistakes. First I picked the wrong dog to put in lead, Gator. He kept intimidating the other leader who kept trying to get away from him. To make matters worse, I had snapped my lead line to the wrong leader and pulled her harness off over her head. Then I compounded my mistake by lunging for her and tackling her when she broke free. Doug shouted at me to “never do that again.” A dog’s natural instinct is the defend itself and I could have had my face bitten or worse. Doug told me of a veteran Iditarod musher who lost half his nose from a similar situation. I also had snapped the neck line to the wrong ring on the collar and the dog could have pulled out of the collar also, and run free. Most of the collars have two rings; one is for tying them out in the yard and the other one tightens when the dog pulls against the neck line. It is only used with the puppies until they get used to pulling and then is not needed anymore. The rest of the run went better and ended well in the dog yard. All is well that ends well.

Thursday, Oct. 1, we harnessed the third group of five puppies to the 4-wheeler and I took the lead. This group had some issues. Several dog fights broke out and Doug increased the speed of the ATV in order to get the dogs to focus on running instead of fighting. Six months ago, I would have been fighting, too, for my life. But I had been working out over the summer and been jogging. I was able to stay ahead and keep the line taut. In spite of it all, we had to stop and Doug had to break up one fight that just would not quit. He informed me that he would be the bad cop and be responsible to discipline the dogs when they misbehaved and I would be the good cop that praised them when they behaved. He reasoned that he was not taking them to Nome, so if the were afraid of him and ducked away, that was OK; but they had to know, trust and like me if I was going to take them on the Iditarod. You could not have a dog duck away from you or drag the team on the trail. That could be disastrous for you and the dogs. 

One particular dog kept trying to pull back against the towline and when that did not work she tried to lay down. Luckily, it had rained and the ground was very muddy, and we were not going faster than a walk, so all that happened to her was that she got very muddy. Doug said that she was stubborn, but sometimes the stubborn ones made the best dogs. She might be the one to go through a blizzard or across difficult terrain when the other dogs would have quit. When we got back I told Melanie about the dog that thought she was too good to have to run. She asked which dog it was and laughed when I told her. She said the dog was named Princess and she had always been a Princess from the time she was born.


Montana Sept. 2009 Part 3

Melanie had worked hard all summer and passed her exams to become a certified personal trainer. This was something she had been wanting to do for seven years. In addition, she still had to take care of the horses and dogs and compete in Endurance riding events. Everything had fallen into place like it had been planned by a higher being. She worked at a place in Helena, had a few personal clients on the side and was leasing space with the option of going into partnership with another trainer who was also a drug and alcohol counselor, named Steve. She and Steve had found a place where they could begin their own clinics and both of them were interested in helping troubled youth. The clock in their bathroom said it best, “God’s timing is perfect.” I knew exactly what she meant. I felt the same way about my training. This was a God thing.


Tuesday was a busy day. I got up in the middle of the night and read and wrote in my journal. After breakfast, it was off to the dog yard for some serious scooping poop. As I was finishing, Doug appeared with the ATV, towline and harnesses. We were going to harness five of the puppies and run them for their very first time. Doug said that this and the actual race were the hardest parts of dog handling.  The harnesses went on easily, but Doug said next time would be harder because they would know what was coming. I was supposed to walk ahead of the two leaders, who were seasoned veterans, used to being in the lead, and keep the line out to keep the puppies from getting all balled up. Doug had some basic rules. Never put two females beside each other. Always leave one open spot in case you have to isolate a dog that is misbehaving. Cinch the harnesses tight enough, with the neck line and back line, that they could not get tangled. Make it pleasurable for the puppies. Stop and pet them often. Let them work out their problems like leg over unless it is too dangerous. Watch them to see who digs in and wants to go; who is not distracted and might make a good leader. Watch their body language, ears perked up, tails, feet. Be able to identify them and their differences in and out of harness. We would not run them for the first few trips and not go more than a mile or two. We would not make them pull unless they wanted to and we would keep the towline taut. If a dog kept picking fights with the dog next to it, we would isolate that dog or put it next to a bigger dog that could take care of itself. Once they straightened out, I could get on the ATV and let puppies continue pulling behind the leaders.

Montana Sept. 2009 Part 2

When we got back to the house, Doug came up, shook my hand and said he was going to put me in with the horses  on the new automatic walker so I could get my exercise. Behind him I could see a large circle pen with a mechanism, called the EuroXciser, that had six spaces separated by metal gates that Doug said were electrified (he may have been trying to rattle me). The gates were suspended from metal crossbars that attached to a large metal box in the center of the ring. It had a large electric motor that made everything turn in a circle, causing the horses to walk around the outside of the circle pen. He was exercising four of his horses so he had two spots open for me.

After unpacking and putting groceries away, I headed for the dog yard to reacquaint myself. The first dog I saw was Sultan, the leader that had been afraid of me. The one who left me in the snow and ran back to the dog yard. The one I had tried so hard to make like me. He was in the same spot I left him, 7 months ago, at the end of the dog yard nearest the trail. I worked my way through the yard petting the dogs I knew. I was relieved that many of my dogs were still here. The two that were the first to adopt me, Washington and Patriot were still here; so were Reece, Hershey, Herbie, Hook, Hemi, Toro, and Gator. Melanie had 15 puppies from last year that she moved up from the puppy pen next to the house in another part of the yard. I would find out later that these would make up most of my team this year and the ones I ran last year would probably be going to Nome with John.


Washington and Patriot are brothers born on the 4th of July. They were the first two dogs to befriend me and are still some of my closest friends on the team. I look forward to sharing the trip with them, all the way to Nome. It's the least I can do for their friendship.

Montana Sept. 2009 Part 1

Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans. James 4:13-15

I arrived at the Atlanta Airport in plenty of time. I was delayed at security because I was carrying soft hand weights made of metal BB’s that showed up on the x-ray scan; and had to have my backpack unpacked and sent back thru the scan without the weights, before I was cleared to enter the boarding area. I probably set off other risk profiles, being male, traveling alone, and using an E-ticket. I repacked the backpack to make sure nothing was left behind. In the hustle and bustle of clearing security it is easy to forget something. I once left a beeper in Nashville and didn’t realize it until I returned and went to work without it.

I went down the escalator to the trains and checked the board for departure gates. I was suddenly reminded of Doug’s remarks in January, when he told me that I was directionally challenged, and the Iditarod was no place for false pride (it could seriously hurt you and your dogs). I was directionally challenged and began to think about what I could do to avoid getting lost when I ran the Iditarod or minimize the effects if I did get lost. I had read stories of a musher who got lost. One took the wrong trail, several others followed his fresh trail and got tangled as the first musher turned around and came back upon those who had followed. Another musher went two hours out of his way; by the time he realized his mistake he was four hours behind and his dogs were tired so he had to rest them and lost four more hours because of his mistake. Doug was constantly telling me to think of the dogs first and be ready and willing to give myself for them, because they would give themselves for me. I would talk to Doug about strategies to keep from getting lost and what to do if I did get lost. One strategy came to mind from my training earlier in the year. At the first sign of doubt, STOP and park the dogs, set the hooks, undo the towlines to the wheel dogs and turn the sled over on the snow hooks if necessary, then walk out ahead of the dogs to look for signs of the trail.

When I arrived in Missoula I did not see his truck. I turned on my cell phone and got the message that he was at a Vet check and Melanie would be picking me up. As I turned around to look for her, she came out of the airport and we hugged hello then got into her “new” car. Doug called to tell Melanie that things were not going well at the Vet’s.  Veterinarians are not Doug’s favorite people. He likens many of them to thromboses hemorrhoids; both are pains in the butt. The Vet check was for a horse Doug was going to sell to a couple from England and the Vet was being particularly picky. He told Doug that the horse was lame in the right rear quarter.  Doug was not buying it. When he asked the Vet about it, the Vet said the horse was subtlety lame. Melanie and I got groceries and headed home. We talked about what we had done all summer, how things were going at her place and mine, and what we would be doing this week.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Montana January 2009 Part 6

January 3, 2009 I stopped being a tourist intent on running the Iditarod and started becoming a musher, interested in driving, training and taking care of dogs.

I went home to have surgery and found that I had completely severed three of the four rotator cuff muscles. One of them was shredded so badly the surgeon could only find 50% of it to repair. I had also blown out the anterior capsule so that I had no stability in the joint anteriorly.

I returned to Montana in February to assist John in his Race to the Sky qualifying race for the 2010 Iditarod.

For the rest of the year I was involved in rehabilitation and conditioning to prevent further injuries. I returned to Montana in the fall to continue my training.

You can see the photos from my surgical repair as well as learn more about rotator cuff and knee injuries as well as why younger athletes are getting these injuries in, you guessed it, My Great Alaskan Adventure.
It is the journal I have been keeping since I began training. It contains much more than just my training notes. I hope to publish it in book form, either online or in print.
Preoperative photo of my shoulder after the injury.

Montana January 2009 Part 5

Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009

We took the day off and I rested my right shoulder by looping my thumb over my belt and doing everything with my left hand. We were going up into the mountains on Monday to run the dogs 75 miles back to the ranch, along the race route from Seeley Lake. I thought that my shoulder would cinch up after some rest and that I just had a simple dislocation. I was concerned enough about the injury and difficulties during the run the day before that I had called home and asked everybody to pray that I would not get hurt anymore and would not fall off the sled.

We got ready to go and ate what little snack food we had before hitching up the teams. Until this point, I had not used my right arm. Now I had to use it. As I leaned over to put booties on the dogs, my shoulder spontaneously dislocated and it was then that I realized how serious my injury was. I called Doug over and told him that I had a shoulder dislocation and needed his help. I had him feel my shoulders and told him that when he was done, my right shoulder, which was sunken, would feel like my left. Then I told him how to reduce a shoulder dislocation. There was a look of surprise and satisfaction on Doug’s face when he felt the pop as the shoulder went back into place. Once that was  accomplished, we went back to work. A few minutes later, my shoulder came out of the socket and he had to put it back, again. Now there was real concern in his eyes as he said, “This is not going to work.” I looked at him and said, “This has got to work.” Tom and John had stopped what they were doing to watch all this.

After reducing my shoulder dislocation, again, he told me not to use it for anything and he moved the rope loop he had attached to the handle from the right side to the left. This loop was like a dead man switch. If I fell off, with my hand through the loop, it would pull the sled over and help to stop the team. Obviously, he did not want my injured shoulder in this loop since it could tear it out. A big, burly mountain man, named Rodeo, had come up to see Doug on a snow machine. He looked like Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. Doug got him to stand behind me on the runners until we cleared the turns getting out of the parking lot. 

We traveled about 25 miles before stopping. When we did, Doug laid a can of Coke and a giant Snickers bar on my sled bag. He was always getting on me about being overweight and out of shape. He had even made me put a candy bar back the night before, when we stopped for gas and supplies. Now he was giving me the same candy bar he had made me put back. I would get nothing else to eat until we got out of the mountains, and I would only be able to eat snow for my thirst. If I got dehydrated it would harder to keep from getting hypothermic.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Montana January 2009 Part 4

Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009

Doug must have been pleased with our run the day before, because he had Melanie run six of her dogs with me following running ten of mine. After applying zinc oxide and booties to all my dogs, they were put in harnesses and tethered to the towline. Melanie took off and as I was getting ready to pull my snow hook and follow her, Hazer lunged and broke the snap on his back line. Doug ran over and tied a knot in it and told me to get going. This was a harbinger of what would be the worst day of my life. I pulled the snow hook and stood on the runners with my heels on the mat brake but did not apply the steel brake. The dogs shot out of the yard and I fell off into the deep snow beside the trail. It grabbed me like quicksand and dragged me down as the dogs dragged the sled out of my grasp. Without a driver, my dogs ran wildly down the trail and quickly overtook Melanie. She had heard the commotion and just had time to stop her team, set a hook and turn to catch my leaders as they went by. I got up and started running, but John quickly passed me and got to Melanie first. Doug followed him and got there just before I did. They turned the sled on its side and told me to sit on it while they straightened out the team. I fell two more times before we got to the main trail and each time Melanie had to help me stop the team. I was not bending my knees as I should have and was leaning too far to the side and back which caused me to fall every time I went around a corner.

Doug finally got on the runners behind me, grabbed the handle bow and yelled for me to lean forward. Because of my inexperience and anxiety, I had been standing with my feet too far forward, which forced me to lean back instead of forward over the handle bow. John later told me that what I was doing was standing like a sprint racer. By leaning back, I was lifting the front of the runners off the snow, making it run faster and turn quicker; but I was loosing control.

Doug and John Stewart before the Race to the Sky

As we got to the main trail, Doug stepped off and we headed up the hill. Everything was fine until I cut a turn too short and the sled tipped over as the inside runner went into some deep snow. I was dragged about thirty feet and lost the team again. Melanie stopped them and in frustration, she yelled back at me, “You cannot do this! You cannot let go of the sled! I cannot catch your dogs for you.” I felt badly about putting her in that position. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to use my right arm. We straightened out the team and the rest of the trip up the mountain was uneventful, until we hit Melanie’s corner. It is a sharp turn to the right as the trail we were on comes down the hill and the other trail makes a 180 degree turn.

Melanie had crashed on this corner, been thrown from the sled and knocked unconscious by a snow hook a few years before. Once again I cut the corner too short, got one runner into deep snow and tipped over. This time I did not let go, because Melanie had told me to wrap the snub line around my arm after my last fall. I had done this and the force of the fall along with being dragged behind the sled caused my right shoulder to come out of joint. With a sickening feeling, I could feel the humeral head sliding over my upper rib cage like the hammer of a xylophone sliding over the wooden keys. It came to rest between my shoulder and right nipple. I lay there for what seemed like an eternity trying to get up. The struggle to get up caused my shoulder dislocation to be reduced as the head of the humerus slid back into place. All the stuff that had been in my pockets was laying all over the trail behind me and a couple of snow machine drivers stopped to help me pick it up. I got back on the runners and we took off. I completed the loop without falling off and we headed back to the ranch. I got separated from Melanie, fell and was dragged one more time, missed a critical turn, and was still on the trail after sunset with the temperatures dropping, without a headlamp or cold weather gear.*

I had laid my gear out the night before and was expecting to go back to the house before running dogs, but the plans changed while I was in the dog yard. It was early enough that we could run the dogs and be back way before dark, so I didn't mind leaving without all my gear. I DON'T DO THAT ANYMORE.

* You can learn more about thermal injuries and how this training run turned out by reading "My Great Alaskan Adventure"

Montana January 2009 Part 3

Friday, Jan. 2, 2009

We took 14 dogs and attached them, in harness to the front sled. We would be double sledding with me on the front sled so Doug could see how I handled a large team. Since my glasses were of no use because they either fogged up or fell off, I left them in my pocket. Without them, I was unable to see if my leaders and swing dogs had thrown booties. I would need to get contact lenses if I were going to run a large team. This was the first of many changes I would have to make. Doug wanted me to make mental notes about things that needed to be done and stop periodically to fix all of them instead of stopping, like a rookie, each time I saw a problem.

It was getting dark and I tried to turn the headlamp on that Doug had given me. Because I had not used it before, it took me several minutes to turn it on. My gloves had gotten cold and wet and I had taken them off. By the time I had turned on the headlamp, I had chill blain to the tips of my thumb, index, middle and ring fingers.*

My fingers two weeks later. Still peeling

We followed the same route that the race would go and ended up in Lincoln. This put me on some trails I had not been on before. To get there, we had to cross a couple of cattle guards. These are shallow ditches dug across the road with pipes laid longwise in them spaced several inches apart. This keeps cattle from wondering onto the main roads. If a dog team crossed an open cattle guard, they could break their legs as their feet went down between the pipes. Doug kept stopping the team to make sure the guards were covered or the gates were open beside them. We snubbed the team to a fence beside the road when we got into Lincoln. Melanie and John met us and we snacked the dogs with some kibble and water. I had maneuvered some ninety degree hairpin turns coming into Lincoln without any trouble and was feeling good about the run.  

After snacking the dogs, we turned and headed back to the dog yard. A blizzard began to blow, making it impossible to use the headlamp. The snow was blowing sideways and the light was reflected back into my eyes. By turning the headlamp off, I could see the dogs shadows on the snow, once my eyes adjusted to the low light. I made some rookie mistakes once we got back. I left some harnesses and the iodine ointment outside and they were frozen stiff. I learned to bring everything inside after that.

Montana January 2009 Part 2

Much had changed in Montana during the weeks I was gone. Night time low temperatures were below zero. There had been several snowfalls in excess of six inches and one snowfall with winds so fast that the snow was blowing sideways, causing a whiteout. The dogs were now running fifty miles and were much tougher.

Doug met me at the airport in one of the two red Dodge pickups he had won at the Iditarod. He had John Stewart with him. John was the son of a friend from Scotland, who had gotten dogs from Doug and was running a dogsled touring business in Scotland. John had been raised around these dogs and had won several European sprint and short races. He was also a Commercial Diver who worked on the oil platforms in the North Sea. He is an athletic, red haired, 24 year old fellow. He had recently completed training for the first of three levels of diving and wanted to complete the third level, that would qualify him as a saturation diver. The would allow him to travel anywhere in the world to dive and command a very healthy salary. John had trained with Hans Gatt in Canada the year before and come to Montana to train with Doug, run the Seeley Lake 200 mile qualifying race and apply to run the Iditarod in 2010.

Montana January 2009 Part 1

For my next trip to Montana I had arranged to fly on Delta from Atlanta to Missoula by way of Salt Lake City. This was intentional since the weather around Minneapolis can be unpredictable and changes quickly in the winter, causing travel delays. The week before I was to leave, there had been blizzards with white out conditions in the upper tier of states.

This trip was more like my usual trips. I had worked New Years Eve and gotten off, at 7 AM. I rushed to catch the shuttle that would get me to Atlanta at 10 AM so I could get on a plane that was l leaving at 10:58 AM. Because it was New Years Day, there was no morning rush hour traffic and we arrived in plenty of time. I was unable to sleep because of the sun in my eyes. The driver was a retired school teacher with a passion for historical trivia. He had a fact sheet about all the similarities between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations.* The driver had been in remission from leukemia for six years and had moved from Florida to
Chattanooga to be closer to his grandchildren. The only other passenger was a woman who had survived cancer. We were all survivors. I had survived my first two weeks of training and still had a banged up shoulder that I had babied while I was home.

My wife had noticed all the bruises the second night I was home and said, “When you said you were going to do the Iditarod, I did not think you could get seriously hurt.” If she only knew. As a volunteer, I had treated a man, who had frostbitten ears and a woman with a broken hand at the halfway point and she was intending to finish the race. Doug had won the race in 2000 with two broken ribs and frozen his corneas in 2002 after he had lasik surgery. His vision in low light conditions has never been the same and his eyes are more susceptible to cold weather, freezing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Montana December 2008 Part 4

I was exuberant and already looking forward to coming back as I packed to go home.On the way to the airport I told Doug there was no t an appendage that didn’t have a bruise. He chuckled and told me Melanie and her girlfriend used to compare bruises when they were training to run the Iditarod. One bruise in particular was ominous and would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. It was forming over the anterior of my right shoulder, chest wall and armpit.

Rock City Festival of Lights at Christmas
Between work, spending time with the family and shopping for Christmas, I managed to find a personal trainer and get a fitness exam. I was out of shape. While getting examined, my bruises were quite obvious and I told him that I hoped he would be easier on me than the last one was. He looked at me and said, “Good Lord man, what did he have you do, pull stumps with your teeth?”  I explained that I was training to run the Iditarod and he was genuinely interested. The training paid off  and the change was obvious when I returned to Montana. As I continued training the changes would become less obvious. Melanie had told me to keep a training journal and this proved valuable. Melanie’s first entry had been, “Doug Swingley is an asshole.” Her last entry was, “Doug Swingley is still an asshole.” In between she had documented how he had taught her and caused her to improve in skill and fitness. Doug had warned me that he would be yelling at me a lot and by the second year, I would be looking forward to the Iditarod just to get away from his yelling. I heard Doug’s voice in my head while I was home always telling   to get in shape and watch what I ate. One night I was feeling particularly guilty because he had told me to look at a bowl of ice cream and put it away and here I was putting it away into my mouth. He just smiled when I got back and told him about it.

Montana December 2008 - Part 3

SultanThursday, Dec. 11, 2008
Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008

My graduation ceremony from my first session of training involved driving an eight dog team thirty-five miles by myself. I had been over all the trails and Doug told me which trails to take. He had told me which dogs to watch in order to set a pace of eight mph. Some would trot and others would lope and I could tell how fast we were going by which dogs were trotting and loping. It would take me about four hours to make the trip. Doug did not tell me, but he planned to leave the dog yard thirty minutes after I did and follow me. I was able to put a dog in harness and then put them on the towline with necklines and backlines.

We had only gone about a mile when, Sultan, my lead dog decided to go back to the yard. He made an unexpected right hand turn and took the team with him before I could get them stopped in the deep snow. I set the snow hook , but there was nothing for it to grab and hold. I laid the sled over on the hook to hold it and went up to the front to turn the team. As soon as I started forward, Sultan lunged with the front half of the team and dislodged the snow hook. The sled shot by me. I grabbed it with one hand and was dragged a few feet before I let go. I ran as long as I could and then walked back to the dog yard, fearing that Doug would still be there and see the team coming in without me. I would be in big trouble. The dogs were bunched up at the far end of the dog yard when I arrived. Thankfully, Doug was not there to see this. The dogs had been on this side of the yard all summer, but had been moved the day before. So now they were mixed in with the dogs that were there now. It was only by the grace of God that they had no gotten tangled up with the other dogs and no dog had been hurt. I had turned the team around, undone the Gordian Knot and stretched out the team before Doug appeared in the yard. He asked what had happened and wanted to know if I had been separated from the sled. I was embarrassed and had to admit I had been left behind. I did not get the response I expected and he told me to get going.

You can read more about the other problems I had on this training run in "My Great Alaskan Adventure"

Montana December 2008 Part 2

First snowfall Montana 2008

Life settled into a familiar routine with me getting up two hours before everyone else. I would eat breakfast, usually eggs, tea and toast; then got back to read or exercise. The morning chores began about eight o’clock with the feeding of the six house dogs and letting them out, feeding the puppies in the puppy yard and feeding the horses before going up to the dog yard to feed, water and scoop poop. My lessons in mushing would begin after the chores were done. It had been unseasonably warm with daytime highs in the 60’s and nighttime lows in the 40’s. The first three days we did cart training with the dogs pulling an ATV.
Doug's house in the western pines

Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008
We awakened to a snowfall that had blanketed the ground overnight with a few inches of snow. It would continue to dump eight inches of snow over the next twenty-four hours. After chores were done, Doug came flying up into the yard on the ATV dragging a sled behind. He told me to hop on the sled and he roared out of the dog yard, down the trail. He made a sharp turn and I fell off. He stopped, got off and walked back up the trail and analyzed what had happened and why I had fallen off. He could tell by the tracks in the snow how I had been leaning the wrong way. This was the first of many lessons he would share with me to teach me how to control myself, the dogs and the sled. I had made a good decision to train with him. For the next twenty minutes we went flying around the country with him trying to dump me again. But I hung on. I was now bending my knees and crouching so low that my butt was nearly rubbing the ground. We went back to the yard and hitched the dogs to pull a double sled with Doug on the front sled and me on a drag sled behind him. We continued training like this for the next five days with more dogs, going greater distances until Dec. 6. I still fell a few times but I never let go of the sled. Doug had told me, “No matter what happens, DO NOT LET GO. Everything you need to survive is on the sled. Without it you could die. Without a driver the dogs can get injured, dragged or die.” I was proud of the fact that even though I fell many times I never let go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Montana December 2008 - Part 1

Pride goes before … a fall. Proverbs 16:18

It was a different trip than usual. I usually wait until the last minute and then hurriedly throw things together and race to the airport, barely arriving in time to get on the airplane before they close the door. This time I had spent a week in preparation and was genuinely excited, but a little nervous to be going. This trip would begin the quest for my great adventure, which I had been looking forward to for several years. It had been four months since I had seen Doug Swingley and committed to train with him. I had attended a conference in Wilderness Medicine at the Big Sky Resort and driven to Lincoln MT, after the conference, to talk to him about training to run the Iditarod. I had wanted to have a meeting so that we could eyeball each other, to see if we could work together, before signing a contract. I had met with Tim Osmar, but that option was not going to work out. There were too many issues to resolve. Doug and his kennel were first class and I felt comfortable that he would teach me everything I needed to know about driving dogs and surviving the Iditarod.

I was flying on Northwest Airlines from Atlanta to Missoula by way of Minneapolis. Doug was going to pick me up at the airport and drive back to Lincoln. The first part of the trip was uneventful as I pulled my cap down over my eyes, leaned against the side of the plane and went to sleep. The second part of the trip was on a smaller Canadian Regional Jet with me seated in the very back, next to pleasant middle aged woman with hazel eyes and strawberry blond hair. I don’t usually strike up conversation, but she noticed that I was playing with my wedding ring and asked if it made me uncomfortable. To her I must have looked like a man who had just decided to go to the bar and was thinking about taking my wedding ring off and forgetting my vows. I told her, “No. I was glad to wear the wedding ring because I loved my wife. But I never did like having jewelry on my hands.” Then I related the story of how I had lost my first wedding ring at the beach when a giant wave knocked me down and rolled me over and over in the sand, almost drowning me. We chatted for a while and she asked me why I was coming to Montana. I told her that I was coming to learn how to run sled dogs. She was impressed and wanted to know more. I told her the story about how I had become interested after our trip to Alaska a few years before. She told me that she tried to take a trip every year with her brother. Her last trip had been hiking in the middle of nowhere and she had spent months exercising to prepare for it. When we landed, we exchanged e-mail addresses so that we could keep in touch.

I grabbed my stuff and got off the plane. As I was heading to baggage claim, one of the flight attendants came running after me to give me the fanny pack I had accidentally left on the plane. This was a blessing, because it contained my water bottle, GPS and headlamps. I threw my stuff into the back of Doug’s pickup and got in. One of the many household dogs was jumping back and forth over the seat and laid his head on my lap after I got in. For the next two hours I petted his head as we drove back to Lincoln. When we arrived, I put my stuff in the spare bedroom, which would be my home for the next two weeks. Doug and Melanie live in a log cabin that sits at the end of a long dirt road surrounded by forest and pastures. There was a door in the bedroom to an adjoining room that had been used as a greenhouse and a spa, which was not being used because of the extreme cold in the winter. This made my room cooler than the rest of the house.

The Beginning - Part 5

I went back as a volunteer for two more races, 2007 and 2008. By this time I was good friends with the coordinator of communications (COMMS), Mark Kelliher. He looked like Santa Claus and had an old Irishman’s sense of humor. He had traveled extensively with the military and then again as a civilian contractor. He had been to Russia numerous times and had many friends there who would toast and drink, drink and toast until they all passed out, every time he went for a visit.

I did not go back as a volunteer in 2009 because I had begun training with Doug Swingley, in anticipation of running the Iditarod in 2010. I did go back in 2010 as a handler for another musher, John Stewart, who was training with me at Doug’s. It was then that I found out that Mark Kelliher had collapsed of a massive heart attack and died instantly at the McGrath checkpoint, getting it ready for the race. His funeral was to be held the next day and I arranged to be there. He was loved by all who knew him, especially those who worked closely with him, the pilots, the communications and logistics people and the race officials. He was the one person who had made it possible for me to experience the interior of Alaska in the winter. I would dedicate my run to him.

The Beginning - Part 4

The contacts I made at headquarters allowed me to go back the next year, 2006, and work the first checkpoint at Yentna Station as well as a remote site at Cripple, the halfway point. Yentna Station is a Roadhouse, owned and operated by the Gabryszak family, on a switchback of the Yentna River called the Big Bend. (p.139 of Iditarod Fact Book by Sue Mattson, Epicenter Press) Jean Gabryszak and her husband have raised a family there and serve as a rest stop for boaters in the short summers and snow machine drivers during the long winters. Her husband sings and plays a mean guitar. He even opened for some famous acts when he was younger. On the last night of my stay we were treated to some of Dan’s infinite repertoire for several hours. All the racers had cleared the checkpoint hours ago and all we had to do was wait until morning so we could leave. There were some problems getting the out times because the girl who usually did it had died in a house fire. She had been incapacitated by a neuromuscular disease years ago but was able to sit on a couch they drug to the river bank with the children roasting marsh mellows and singing songs until a team would go by and she would call out to them asking who they were, their bib number and how many dogs they had. All this plus the time out is dutifully recorded at each checkpoint.

Day Time High at Cripple
Jim Gallea
Cabin at Cripple 2006

If Yentna is like an LA freeway at rush hour, with drivers trying to get through the toll booth, Cripple is like a back country road in any rural county. There is nothing for miles around. It sits in a hollow near a stream that the pilots use in the winter as a landing strip. It is inaccessible in the summer because it sits in the middle of a boggy marshland that extends for thirty miles. It is also one of the coldest spots during the race. The first year I was there it got to 60 below zero. I had brought my father’s old down insulated Eddie Bower sleeping bag. It is the same one he bought almost 40 years ago when he went on his dream trip to hunt in the Bob Marsh wilderness in Montana. It is rated for 60 below. I wanted to sleep outside once to see what it would be like and almost froze to death. In my ignorance, I had brought a lightweight synthetic sleeping bag and used it as a liner instead of the typical flannel ones. I got inside it and thought I had covered with the heavy down bag, but could not get comfortable and was bone weary tired. Earlier, I had stopped shivering, which is the first sign of hypothermia; but I thought that was because I was warming up. I started to hallucinate and decided to go inside. It took me 20 minutes in the heat before I was warm enough to shiver. I had only been covered by the down sleeping bag from the waist down when I was outside. I related this story to an Emergency Medicine Physician who specializes in cold weather expeditions and he told me that my core temperature had gotten down to about 92 degrees. That is dangerous. Your heart starts to get very irritable and can go into life threatening irregular rhythms at 90-92 degrees. I now knew first hand what freezing to death might feel like, at least in the beginning stages.* The atmosphere at the checkpoint was festive and infectious. The race official was Jim Gallea. He was a musher but could not race because he was in Medical School and was planning on doing a Residency in Emergency Medicine. He knew how lonely it could be and decided to bring inflatable palm trees and a hula girl to the checker tent. All the drivers seemed to appreciate his efforts and told the race marshal we      had one of the best checkpoint
Checker"s Tent Cripple 2006 
Cripple Checkpoint 2006

*You can learn more about the effects of hypothermia and what it is like to live in extremely cold environments in "My Great Alaskan Adventure."

The Beginning - Part 3

While in Fairbanks, I learned what it meant to walk around in the dry cold of the interior. It was about 10 degrees above zero as I packed the car to return to Anchorage. I was sweating from walking around outside and removed my jacket to continue loading the car in a light weight shirt. I had seen an Eskimo walk out of the airport in Anchorage, when I arrived wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, a short sleeved shirt and a pair of flip flops, with the snow blowing in a 10 mph wind and 20 degree temperature.

Having visited Fairbanks, I returned to Anchorage and worked a few shifts in communications before driving to the Kenai Peninsula and touring Seward, Soldotna, and Homer. I spent the night in the car, trying to sleep while the wind outside rocked the car with 30-40 mph winds. I got to see first hand the effects of an avalanche that had buried the railroad tracks and I got to see the towns as only the locals see them in the off season. I was captivated by Alaska. I went home more convinced that I had to return and pursue my dream of running and completing the Iditarod.

The Beginning - Part 2

My first job was to volunteer to help when we got home. I checked the website and sent off an email, offering my services as a physician. I was told that they did not need doctors; they needed vets. I asked how I could get out on the trail and was told that I had to be a vet, a dog handler with 5 years experience, or work in communications and have a HAM Radio License. I opted to get my HAM radio license, since it was the quickest way to the trail and was something I had wanted to do, anyway. I finally was contacted that I could work as a Trail Guard for the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage. That was enough for me. I scheduled a week off and went to Anchorage the first week-end in March.

I did not get out on the trail, in 2005, but did meet some HAM radio operators and got to work in the headquarters as well as in the starting gate for the restart. I spent the remainder of the week driving around Alaska. I had rented a car and drove to Fairbanks. I got to see a bit of the International Ice Sculpture Competition as well as the interior of Alaska in the dead of winter. I got a new appreciation for Alaska during this trip and for the first time in my life felt totally isolated. I stopped at the Princess Hotel at the entrance to Denali and realized that I was the only one around for possibly 50 miles. What had been bustling with people  8 months before, during the tourist season was closed with no one and nothing else in sight for miles. Driving 450 miles on the road from Anchorage to Fairbanks I only passed about a dozen vehicles, mostly trucks, all heading south to Anchorage. As I walked around the car and over to the closed stores, I realized that I could be attacked by wild animals and would be defenseless. I might never be found.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Beginning - Part 1

The Beginning
For who has despised the day of small things (beginnings)? Zechariah 4:10

On the surface, it would appear that My Great Alaskan Adventure began in July 2004. After all, that is when my wife and I traveled to Alaska with our entire family as well as my two sisters, my father, and my oldest daughter’s boyfriend. This was supposed to be our second honeymoon cruise to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Once everybody found out what we were doing the number of passengers on the cruise expanded exponentially. This trip with all these people was made possible by a generous contribution from my father.* Once ashore in Seward we continued inland for a tour of mainland Alaska. It was this tour that forever changed my life. One of the stops was at Jeff King’s Huskey Homestead. It was here that I first heard about the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. During the stop one of his handlers gave a 20 minute presentation of the race. After it was over, I stayed inside to look at all the equipment and think about the race. My wife, meanwhile was outside talking to Jeff’s wife, Donna. When I came outside, my wife turned to me and said, “You know, I think you could do this.” Not wanting to tip my hand I asked her why she said that and she replied, “You like to be outside. You love snow. You don’t mind getting cold. You go on little or no sleep; and you love solving problems.” I, then, told her that I had come to the same conclusion 20 minutes ago, inside. And so the idea was born. It would take several years to materialize.

*You can read more about how my father was able to do this after working as a truck driver and what it was like for him and my mother growing up during the Depression in “My Great Alaskan Adventure”.