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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.