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Friday, February 4, 2011

Montana December 2010 - Part 3

The trip back to Lincoln was eventful, as I crossed through some areas in northwestern Colorado and Wyoming where the deer and the elk migrate. Signs and fences were everywhere, but you still had to keep your eyes open for herds across the highway. By running with my hand on the light switch on the column I was able to keep all the lights on (the high beam, low beam and fog lights). This let me see far ahead as well as off to the side. I have done this at home for short distances with no problem, but out here driving for endless miles like this the light got so hot it burned out the element and the bulb shattered. I got my first chip in the windshield and stopped to get it repaired. By the time I found a place it had already started to form a crack across the windshield. It seems like all the vehicles out here get chips or cracks in the windshield unless they are only driven around town.

The remainder of my time was spent running dogs. At first there was not enough snow for a sled, so we ran them in front of the ATV. One run took us up the mountain into a foot of snow. It was hard pulling for the dogs and a few times we had to get off and push the four-wheeler. Finally it got stuck and we had to turn the team around. We got back OK and retired the ATV for the season, which had officially begun. We would be on sleds for the rest of the year. I left for home a few days before Christmas and would not be back until the middle of January. I needed to be home to work as much as possible during this time. I had some expenses for the race and I would not be working much in February or March. I HAD to make as much money as I could now and hope we had enough to make it through March and April, when my paychecks would be skinny

Montana December 2010 - Part 2

I couldn’t sleep, so I watched two movies. The first one was an action packed thriller with Angelina Jolie called Salt. If you like action, I highly recommend it. The second movie with Leonardo DeCaprio was called Inception and was equally as good. But I almost turned it off because it was more cerebral and seemed slow to get started after the first movie. It explored the possibility that we can control our actions in real life by controlling our dreams. I highly recommend it also. If you are going to watch them both, like I did, I would suggest that you watch it first.

I got into Lincoln too late to do anything except feed and scoop. The next day I drove to 12 hours to Colorado Springs to pick up the sled Tom Thurston was making for me. Doug had made a deal with Tom, that he would build the sled in exchange for a free breeding of his female to one of Doug’s males. Unfortunately, I did not realize the breeding had not occurred yet and did not take the male with me. Tom was disappointed to say the least, but did give me the sled to take back to Montana. I had screwed up, again. I owed him big time.

Montana December 2010 - Part 1

I left the meeting with Scott, another local rookie and went back to the Millenium Hotel. I got to see the Steelers play the Ravens and it was quite a defensive shootout. After the game I left for the airport and waited for my plane to leave. I would be flying to Salt Lake City with Kris, another rookie who raced with me in the spring. He was going home to Colorado. I was going to Doug’s to resume my training.

There would be no food service on this flight so I bought a breakfast burrito and a Sprite for the trip. When I checked in, I had been given a request for an automatic upgrade. I did not think anything about it until my name was called before we left. I would be flying in First Class, for the first time. Kris made a comment about that and I told him if I got food he could have my burrito.

I did not belong in First Class. I was going to stuff my coat in the overhead bin, like I always do, when the flight attendant took it from me and hung it up. I took my backpack off and the water bottle I keep attached to it swung around and hit some gentleman in the face. What was I doing here. I apologized and he graciously accepted, but I could tell he was not used to this kind of treatment in First Class. We did get food in First Class, shortly after take off and we were supplied with snacks constantly while we were in the air. I saved the burrito and gave it to Kris when we landed. I remembered Doug telling me that the previous Governor of Montana had impressed him once by recognizing him when they got on the same plane and came back to sit with him, while giving up his seat in First Class to the stranger who was seated beside Doug. They talked the whole way back to Montana.

Alaska December 2010 - Part 3

Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010
We got up early. Kelly and his handler went out to take care of the dogs while I caught up on some reading. We left about 9:30 AM to get to Martin Buser’s place by 10 AM. Martin is a four time Iditarod Champion and he hosts the rookies every year at his kennel for a tour then a talk about dog care, how to set up an efficient kennel and how to prepare for and run the race. He showed us his techniques for training dogs from the time they are born.

As new born puppies he takes them with him wherever he goes, stuffing them inside his shirt. He handles them constantly, especially their feet. From the time they are weaned, he teaches them to eat quickly by removing the food dish after a few minutes. A few weeks later he teaches them their first commands. He puts the food down but will not let them eat immediately by pushing them away from the bowl and saying, “No.” Then he will say, “Eat.” and let them get to the bowl. By doing this, he is conditioning them to obey the alpha dog on two feet. It is impressive to watch his 4 month old puppies quivering with anticipation, staying away from the bowl until told to eat and them devouring all their food in a matter of minutes. He uses certain corrective maneuvers that mimic what their mother does, to train them. He does not believe in punishment and says the dogs do not read the paper or hit each other with sticks so we shouldn’t do that either.

We went inside and the remainder of the day was spent telling us about the race and what to expect. There were slides of the more challenging place along the trail, like the Happy River Steps, the Dalzel Gorge, the Fairwell Burn, and the Coast. We were given his list of mandatory gear as well as packing lists for our food drop bags. After the meeting we had time to look around at the sleds his handlers were making and the large indoor treadmill he is using to conduct research on his dogs at different altitudes and weather conditions he can simulate in a chamber.

Alaska December 2010 - Part 2

Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010

The meeting began at 9AM, but we had to be there at 8 AM to get our official picture taken by Jeff Schultz. The meeting lasted all day and had a lot of information about the race. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had built some new safety cabins along the trail and we were given the GPS coordinates for them. We were going to be allowed to use GPS during the race this year. This was the first time that mushers would be able to do this, since they had been banned years before. There had been a large burn (forest fire) over the summer along a stretch of the trail and they were waiting for enough snow to send a team out to clear the trail from all the debris and fallen trees. Several veterans talked to us about the race and Stu Nelson, the chief veterinarian talked to us about the health and care of the dogs, the metabolic changes they go through and the types of injuries and illnesses they can get during the race.

After the meeting, I went home with, Kelly, one of the local rookies. As we were rounding a curve a moose stepped out just in front of us. If we had been going any faster we would have hit it. That could have been lethal for us. These animals are so big that they can peel the roof off a car when their legs are knocked out from under them and they fall through the windshield. I have seen some of these accidents. Sometimes the moose survives and wonders off, but the occupants of the car are killed from massive head injuries or decapitation. Kelly said the moose did not cause him problems around Big Lake, where he lives, because they are hunted in that area. The moose on the Kenai Peninsula and on the Iditarod trail are more aggressive. Susan Butcher lost several dogs in her team one year when a moose attacked them. When the snow is deep, the moose prefer to stay on the hard packed trail and can be very temperamental.

Alaska December 2010 - Part 1

Friday, Dec. 3, 2010

I worked until noon, then drove to the shuttle for a ride to Atlanta. I would be flying to Anchorage for the mandatory Rookie meeting. I arrived in Anchorage about 2AM and slept on a bench at the airport. I would need to be up at 7 AM and did not want to get a room for a few hours rest. The bench was comfortable enough. I had slept on one last year when I came up with Doug to help John Stewart get ready for his race. We had gotten in too late to get a car and ended up sleeping at the airport. In a few months I would be sleeping on the floor or wooden benches as I drove across Alaska. I had better get used to it. I got up at 4 AM and got ready to go into town for the meeting. People started arriving at the airport at 5 AM for the early flights out of Anchorage and I was glad I had gotten up earlier. I had finished getting ready in the restroom before they arrived.

Montana October 2010 Part 3

When I got to the ranch about noon the following day, Doug told me that Dodge pickups are reliable but all have the same kind of problems. My lights had come on because either my rear brakes were getting worn or the sensor on the rear axle was bad and needed to be replaced.

We did not run dogs at all the few days I was there. They had gotten a new batch of dog food and all the dogs were sick. I spent the time learning how to care for dogs with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. This was a valuable lesson for me, because dogs will get diarrhea during the Iditarod. Diarrhea often means they are stressed, either from the driver pushing them too hard or running them in the heat of the day; or they have been overfed. The other reasons are not related to driver error and involve bad food or infections they get from other dogs. Doug said that as long as the dogs are pulling they can stay in the team for a day or so to see if things settle down. They need to maintain hydration and food is offered but water is encouraged. They will drink without difficulty unless they are too sick. If that happens, they will need to be dropped from the team. Doug’s rules were eating and pulling stay. Eating and not pulling, watch to see why. Pulling and not eating, watch to see why. Not eating  nor pulling drop the dog. Minor injuries can also be watched and treated. If they get better with shoulder jackets or wrist wraps and Algyval, they can stay. If they do not improve they need to be dropped.

I helped out with chores around the ranch and kept up with my workouts by unloading and stacking large bales of hay one day and bags of dog food the next. I also tried, unsuccessfully, to find my wedding ring and watch, using a metal detector that I brought with me. I had wanted to visit with Jason and Harmony Barron, but we kept missing each other. I went home with the anticipation that the dogs would be better and I could begin training when I returned in November.

Montana October 2010 Part 2

I stopped in Kansas City to visit relatives for a few hours and then headed north through western Iowa toward South Dakota. There was not much going on in western Iowa. The lights were few and far between. I slept in the truck at a rest stop, over night. The next day I drove to eastern Montana before stopping for the night and slept in the truck, which I parked in the hospital parking lot of the Crow Indian Tribe. The drive through South Dakota was picturesque, but seemed to take forever.  Endless miles of fields and prairie lined both sides of the interstate, with huge round bales of golden hay  framed by expansive fields of beige in the warm afternoon sun. I stopped in the Town of Wall to get fuel and was pleasantly surprised to find the old drug store. It is a veritable museum of the high plains, the Indian tribes and early settlers. It also has the largest collection and articles for sale, boots, hats, western jewelry, saddles, etc. You need it, they got it. You want it, they probably have that, too. The store is actually a collection of buildings strung together for an entire square block; much like a modern day mall. I was so impressed that I called my wife to tell her about it. She knew all about the place. She had eaten her first buffalo burger at the Wall Drugstore when she was a teenager on a trip out west with her family. It was evening when I pulled over again. I was only 35 miles from Mount Rushmore and decided to see it. I was glad I did. The amphitheater in front of the rock bluffs is imposing with flags from all fifty states framing the walkway to the viewing area. It was almost dark when I got there so I staying until the lights came on so I could see it all lit up. It is as impressive as Stone Mountain in Georgia and ironically was carved by the same person who started the carving at Stone Mountain before going out west to carve Mount Rushmore.

Montana October 2010 Part 1

I had scheduled myself to be off for two weeks and was planning to drive out to Montana and work with the dogs before it got cold. The plan was to have ten days for cart training. I wanted to see how the dogs would run with each other and where I should put them in the team. I did not want to wait until the snow fell and I did not have as much control over them from a sled. I had purchased a used pickup truck during the summer and was going to use it in my new business venture, raising and running sled dogs.

A few days before I was to leave, the ABS and brake lights came on. Everyone was worried that my brakes were going bad and I did not want that to happen while I was out west, driving over mountains. The dealer kept it for a few days and ran it through their diagnostic computer, but could not find anything wrong. I had my mechanic visually inspect all the brake lines, cylinders and pads and drain and refill the brake fluid. Nothing changed. I decided it was OK to drive and left for Montana five days later than planned. I stopped for gas in East St. Louis and was sitting at the red light, waiting to turn onto the ramp to get on the interstate, when a man drove up beside me and yelled, “You have a bad water leak.” When the light changed, I waited until it was safe and got out of line. I pulled into a gas station at the corner and stopped. There was a lot of clear fluid dripping onto the ground from under the hood, but when I raised the hood to look, it was not coming from the radiator or water lines. It was diesel fuel coming from the water separator that had come loose. I had to replace it with a spare one I had. This was providential. If I had continued I would have either run out of gas on the interstate, or I might have had a fire in the engine compartment.

Montana November 2010 Part 3

Sun. Nov. 14, 2010
Doug left for Colorado. He is taking runners to Tom Thurston, who is making a sled for me from Doug’s design. It will be lower and wider to keep me from tipping over so much. It will be  Doug’s gift to me when I get to Nome. If I don’t get there Doug gets to keep it. He is also picking up beef and chicken fat to feed the dogs.

For the last run, we left the dog yard with Herbie and Washington in lead, with no necklines. Reece was in swing. At the second turn Reece stopped, Washington went one way and Herbie went the other. There was confusion at the front. By the time I got there, Herbie was backing out of his harness. I had to catch him and wrestle him to the ground to keep him from getting away. If we had put a neckline between the leaders that would not have happened. One leader could have pulled the other in the right direction and I would not have to worry about a leader slipping out of his harness and getting away. If I was going to run the leaders without a neckline between them, I could have  looped a neckline through the harness and snapped it to the collar to keep him from getting away. Live and learn.

Montana November 2010 Part 2

Monday, Nov. 8, 2010
It was business as usual, sort of. I declined a ride on the ATV and jogged up to the dog yard with Greg following on the four wheeler. I had gained twenty pounds over  the summer and needed to get in shape. Doug had told me that was typical and happened to him every year when he was running the Iditarod. The place was much more subdued now, from the days when he had 125 dogs and three handlers. The pace was relaxed. I only had 17 veteran race dogs, 16 two year olds, 19 yearlings and two retired dogs to take care for.

Greg parked the four wheeler and stretched out the towline. We harnessed and put the twenty dogs I would be running on the line and waited. We let them lunge and bark their heads off. I tried to calm them down by petting them. Doug arrived and told me to leave them alone. He was trying to condition them to wait and said my petting them was reinforcing their behavior. Because I was old, inexperienced and out of shape, he had to get the dogs used to running slower and not get so excited. Finally, Doug and Greg took off with the dogs and I cleaned the yard.

Greg went home that evening. He would be staying at Doug’s and handling Friday through Monday every week. That was when we would run the dogs. That left me Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to do chores around the house and care for the dogs.

Montana November 2010 Part 1

Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010
Was it me, or had the atmosphere changed? Doug had arranged for his brother, Greg to be my handler. Greg had  scores of records and first place finishes in mid-distance racing. Doug had actually started sled dog racing as Greg’s handler, before going on to win the Iditarod. We were no longer in our prime and I wondered, as the silence and limited conversation hung in the air, if we were trying to relive our pasts and capture the magic and glory of them. Doug was nursing a sore left forearm with tendonitis , that he said he got from all those years wrestling sleds. Greg was hobbling around with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, that Doug said came from standing with the ball of his foot on the runners and his heels on the track for the 13 years he raced and ran dogs.

Montana February 2010 Part 12

Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 arrived at finish line at 3:10AM with time to spare. At the banquet I thanked Melanie and Doug. He had just gotten in from Arizona. I told the story about my shoulder, Doug and Rodeo. I said that I had found a sport I really liked and would be back and would be better. I suggested that Rodeo was watching all this from his skybox. After the banquet, I went to the ranch and packed. I got to bed at 1AM and up at 3AM. I felt OK, but was a little tired. No problem, I had driven like this before. I would just have to get something to eat while I was driving to keep me awake. As I drove out of the yard, I thought about turning left and going into Lincoln, to get something to eat. I got a strong premonition that said, “No, turn right.” As I drove down the dirt road, I again thought about turning left and going into Lincoln. I again had a strong impression that I was supposed to turn right. When I got to the stop sign at the end of the road I started to turn left, to go into Lincoln to get something to eat. Again I had an overwhelming feeling that I should turn right and head to the airport. I reasoned that it would be OK, since there was a convenience store about 45 minutes away, in that direction, and I would be OK until then. When I got to the store it was closed. All I could do was buy a bottle of Sprite from the machine outside. The wind was blowing and it was cold. I wasted no time in getting my drink and getting back inside the car. As I drove away, I was wishing I had something to eat, to keep me awake.

I nodded off a couple of times and did everything I could think of to stay awake. No big deal, I had done this before with no problems. I had no time to pull over and sleep. I needed to be at the airport in an hour to check in. I kept on driving. I felt a bump on the right rear tire and awakened to find myself skidding to the left. I had fallen asleep and run off the side of the road, hitting the right rear on the hard packed pile of snow. I corrected and cut the steering wheel to the left. I over corrected and spun the rear end to the right. I tried to correct again and turn the steering wheel to the right. I was oscillating violently now; the car spun out of control and turned 180 degrees, sending me down to road backwards. With each oscillation I had yelled, “No, No, No.” The rear end of the car hit the hard packed snow on the opposite side of the road and I went airborne. The passenger side of the car struck a large Ponderosa Pine and rolled over onto the roof. I yelled, “Shit.”  I had wrecked Melanie’s car. It was 5AM.

Montana February 2010 Part 11

Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010
Restart at Lincoln. I fell trying to step on the steel brake going down steep part on Martin’s  Hill. Hit my face on a tree, scraped my upper lip and bloodied my nose, jammed my left hand between the tree and the handlebar and had to release my hold on the sled. Dogs took off dragging the sled down hill on its left side before it hit a bump and righted itself on the runners with me running behind, trying to catch up yelling stop the team, God stop the team. I thought all was lost when the sled righted itself and yelled again. God stop the team. The sled ran off the trail and hit headlong into a tree, smashing the whole front end, bending the brush bow over the front of the sled and popping all the slats from their lashings to the front cross piece. I ran to the sled and secured the snub line, checked the dogs and began pulling the sled off of the tree, thanking God for stopping the team. Mark Ibsen came along and helped me get it off the tree and make temporary repairs. He offered me the use of his spare sled and I told him I would consider it. I limped on down the trail looking for Chris, but he had stopped, fed his dogs and gone by the time I got to the place we were to stop. I traveled on past the turn to the dog yard before stopping so that the dogs would be tired and easier to control if they tried to turn home, and they did. John was at the turn and I called to him to get some parachute cord and bring it to the White Tail check point, that I had busted the front end of the sled badly. At the top of the hill I stopped, fed the dogs and repaired the sled. I was able to get it almost as good as new and decided that I didn’t need any more repairs. It ran fine and crossed the finish line. Mark commented at the banquet he never thought it would hold up and was amazed that it did.

There is a whole lot more to tell aout the race but you will have to get the book to read about it.

Montana February 2010 Part 10

Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010
Start at camp Rimini. Forgot cooler with dog food at Jeremie’s. Very nervous about running sled without fixing it. Pulled in many directions at once, John wanted McBride added and other dog removed. Needed vet check. Tom wanted to talk to Kris and I about how we would run our race. I wanted to fix the sled. Tom said he would fix it but then said he couldn’t. John thought it would be good to go. I WANTED IT FIXED. I finally got enough time to run some baling wire through the holes after string and electrical wire did not work.

At the start there was a long straight away then a hard right (110 degree) turn around a tree and snow fence. I jumped off, tipped the sled up on the outside runner and ran around the curve in front of a large crowd. Jumped back on the runners and was thrown off again, almost fell but was determined not to fall in front of the crowd, ran and jumped back on. It felt good to be able to do that and make it. Some technical spots in the trail were just like dog sledding in Alaska (I was told later by Terry Adkins, at the banquet - Dalzel and Happy) I loved them.

Montana February 2010 Part 9

We finished a run of 38 miles in 4 hours. That was a good run. I had a clean run on my sled but fell twice on John’s. The dog in the bag shifted her weight in a turn and caused the sled to head straight for a tree. I missed the steel brake and couldn’t stop so I dropped to my knees on the snow, between the runners, to slow us down then got back on the runners and stood up. I could never have done that last year. Another time, my feet got knocked off the runners while going around a turn and I had to run to keep from falling. I managed to jump back on the runners after a few steps. There was a scary moment when I almost went down a steep embankment beside the trail. The snowmobiles had been cutting a corner closer and closer to the edge, then made a chute in the middle of the corner by riding up and down the steep hill. As I rounded the right hand corner, my inside runner drifted over to the edge and would have gotten into the trough and taken me on a one way ride down the embankment. The only way I could avoid that was by standing on the outside (left) runner with my right foot and hanging my left foot off in space to the side of the sled and jerking the handle to the left causing the right runner to come off the ground. Another rescue was narrowly avoided.

Montana February 2010 Part 8

Monday, Feb. 8, 2010
John and I ran dogs today. It was a picture perfect photo postcard day. The sun was shining brightly in a cloudless robin’s egg blue sky with fast hard packed snow and the temperature between 10-20 degrees.

I took ten dogs and John had nine. I ran the same big dogs I ran when I finished in 3 hours 55 minutes, with two additional yearlings. We got to Reservoir Lake in 60 minutes and turned around. Our return trip to the house took 45 minutes. This was much faster than my best run. John was letting all his dogs lope going downhill. I did the same at times in order to keep up with him.

On the back of a dogsled, you hear and see things you couldn’t on a motorized vehicle. At the turn around at Reservoir Lake I heard the sound of a steam engine blowing its whistle off in the distance. This high in the mountains there were no trains anywhere. It was the sound of a bull elk trumpeting. On a previous run a group of five deer jumped the trail in front of me. As long as I was with the dogs, I was part of the team.

At the entrance to the dog yard we turned our teams down the main trail and continued to follow the race route. A little further on we stopped and John suggested we switch teams. I would be driving his race sled, the one he had just used to secure his ninth place finish in the stage race in Wyoming. It was like getting out of a minivan and getting into a corvette. I was humbled that he would trust me with it. We continued on with John goofing around, running up the hills beside the my sled then jumping on the sled bag and sitting like a tourist up front. A little farther down the trail he stopped and brought one of my dogs back to his sled to be carried in the bag. She had started to limp and could not run anymore. I had noticed her gait change a few times while I had her, but she always got back into her usual gait. I still had to learn how to tell when a dog wasn’t running right. She had a mild strain and would be fine with some rest.

Montana February 2010 Part 7

Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010
The dogs got the day off. I spent the day helping Melanie, Colin and Warren getting everything ready for the truck that was leaving on Monday to take all the drop bags to Seattle, to be shipped to Anchorage, for the Iditarod. Tomorrow, Doug would be back with John. They would make any last minute adjustments to the drop bags. I would probably run a 12 dog team every day for the next 4 days, then rest them the day before the race. At least one or two of the runs would be 50 miles.

Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010
Doug and John arrived around 6 AM, after driving all night from Utah. John had slept most of the way and didn’t need any sleep. Doug went to bed and got up before noon. The rest of the day was spent in final preparations of the food drop bags and relaxing as Doug talked race strategy for the Iditarod with John, Tom Thurston and Warren Palfrey. I was disappointed and a little frustrated. I had expected to run dogs today and the afternoon was slipping away. I occupied the time doing the mundane things I needed to do to get ready for my race.

Montana February 2010 Part 6

Friday, Feb. 5 2010
I ran my second  8 dog team to the Helicopter pad and back. They were a stronger, faster team with 4 dogs big enough to haul freight. We did the run in 3 hours 55 minutes, 20 minutes faster than the day before. Four of the dogs, including both leaders had never run with me before. I was nervous, not knowing how they would behave. Would they test me as the others had done. Lennie was the biggest dog in the yard, but was gentle. He was a lot like Gator and proved to be a good steady leader, just  like Gator. My times were as follows. Time to Reservoir Lake 65 minutes, then 50 minutes to the helicopter pad, 5 minutes rest and turn around (it went smoother this time with no tangles), 45 minutes back to Reservoir Lake, and 70 minutes back to the dog yard.

It took us 25 minutes to go from mile marker 14 to mile marker 10 with Skipper, Hershey and Cobra all in a brisk trot. They were my pace dogs. If I could keep them at the threshold of breaking out into a lope, we would be going 10 mph. I kept them in that trot but allowed the other dogs to go at their own pace, trot or lope. Lennie, like Gator, liked to lope. Washington, like Toro, liked to trot, but would break out into a lope from time to time.

Melanie’s corner was not as kind to me this time. I was not going to take her like a downhill skier on their edges. I side slipped, caught the outside runner and flipped the sled, landing on the left side of my head with the snow hooks just missing my head and landing on the ground right in front of my face, effectively stopping the team. It took me a minute to get up, adjust myself, check everything and right the sled. The dogs were barking loudly and wanted to go. I would need to get up and going faster the next time. The rest of the run was clean. It was a very good run, over all.

Some side information that might be handy for the race was noted (17 minutes from the pad to the large yellow sign noting one lane traffic ahead, 17 more minutes from the sign to the creek.

Montana February 2010 Part 5

 At the helicopter pad I turned the team on the road, at Melanie’s suggestion, instead of making a loop through the deep snow. This involved releasing the back lines of the four dogs at the back of the team and taking the neckline between the leaders, then gently pulling them around as the other dogs followed, or sometimes stepped over into the group, causing some minor tangles. The backlines had been released to keep the team from bolting off. One dog, Nona (a possible future leader) had her leg wrapped tightly by her neckline and the gang line. Had the team bolted, her leg could have been torn off. We rested for 8 minutes before making the return trip.

It took us 48 minutes to get back to Reservoir Lake and another 87 minutes to get home. The trail out to Reservoir Lake uphill and took 65 minutes. The trip home was downhill and took 87 minutes. Doug had said that a common mistake novice drivers do is allow their dogs to run downhill. That’s how many of the dogs get hurt or pull a muscle. Let them run uphill but make them trot downhill. That’s just what I did. Going uphill, if they loped I stood on the sled, if they trotted I pedaled, if they walked I got off and ran behind the sled. Going down hill I stood on the steel brake and made them all trot. I finished the run in 4 hours and 15 minutes. I found out later that Doug had wanted me to do it in 3 hours 30 minutes or 4 hours. Not bad for my first solo expedition.

As we entered the yard, Gator staggered for 2 steps then collapsed. He was my best leader and my buddy. I set the snow hooks and ran to him as he lay unconscious on the ground. A lump was in my throat.

When I had returned to Montana, after Thanksgiving, Doug told me that Rodeo had died. He was the bear of a mountain man, 6 feet 3 inches, 300 pounds and full bushy beard, who had stood on the back of my sled last year to get me through the tight turns out of the lot where we had camped, after I had Doug reduce my right shoulder dislocation. He had been sick and in the hospital for a few days. They could not find anything wrong and sent him home. Two weeks later his 16 year old dog died and he went out in the woods to his favorite spot to bury him. He never returned. They found his body next to his dog.

Montana February 2010 Part 4

Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010
It was 17 degrees when I got up at 5AM and gradually warmed up. It would get up to 38 degrees shortly after noon and then slowly drop back down to the mid 20’s this evening before going back into the teens overnight.

After doing our morning chores, Colin and I went back to the house and ate breakfast. There was a note on the table from Melanie. If I was running 2 teams today, I needed to get her up right away. If I was only running one team I should let her sleep in. I let her sleep. She got up about 9 and after eating and checking emails we headed to the dog yard. She showed me how to shorten my gang line from 10 dogs to 8 dogs; tie a knot in it with a loop to go through the carabineer. We harnessed the dogs I would be running today and off I went, screaming out of the dog yard with Melanie yelling at me to stand on the brake. I was standing full weight on the mat brake, but the dogs had been idle for so many days that nothing would stop them. After clearing the tight turn around a tree, that had marks from previous sleds exiting the yard, I stood on the steel brake and slowed the team down. I got to the turn that takes you out onto the main trail with no problems; avoiding the deep snow in the turns that had previously tipped my sled and thrown me off. I was having a good run. If I avoided any falls or mishaps, I would have a clean run.

I had told Melanie what my backup plans were if I had problems. She told me to stop thinking like that. Focus on a clean run. You get what you plan for. A client of hers had skinned his shins when he missed a box jump. He later confessed that he had been thinking that he wasn’t going to make it, even though he had done it before. I was an Iditarod musher now. There was no back up plan. Failure was not an option.

I still had one back up plan she didn’t know about. I had emailed a bunch of people and told them I would be “Going it Alone” and asked them to pray for a safe, successful run.

I had no worries about taking the wrong turn. I had my two best leaders in front, Toro and Gator. I had a clean run. The trail was fast. Two to four inches of new, soft, dry snow had fallen on top of the hard packed trail. We got to Reservoir Lake in 65 minutes and 55 minutes later we were at the helicopter pad. We had gone a little over 17 miles in 2 hours. I had even cleared Melanie’s corner on one runner by shifting all my weight to the inside runner then, letting the outside runner come off the ground. This allowed me to steer through the corner for the first time, like John had suggested, instead of being whipped around the turn.

Montana February 2010 Part 3

Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010
There was a freezing ground fog this morning, much like the last day of the Seeley 200.  Everything exposed had a thin coating of ice. The harnesses were in the house and the towline was in the sled bag, that had to be pried open. I had learned my lesson about leaving stuff outside a long time ago. I got everything ready to go and waited for Doug’s call. Melanie had told me I would probably run dogs today. I was excited and a bit nervous. Melanie was in Missoula, on her way home after dropping off some horses Doug had trailered up from Arizona. Doug was in Wyoming, with John, at the International Pedigree (dog food) Stage Stop Sled Dog Race (IPSSSDR). The call never came. At 11 o’clock I called Doug. He did not have his list of dogs and could not take notes as he was out on the trail following the race. I would have the day off, but would be running dogs tomorrow, after Melanie got home tonight. We spent the day weighing out and packaging (45) 4 pound bags of beef fat. It would be added to the dogs food while they were running the Iditarod.

Montana February 2010 Part 2

I flew out of Atlanta in the afternoon and was met that evening by a man a little shorter than me, with bushy eyebrows and a thick Scottish accent. It was Colin, John’s diving supervisor on the oil rigs in the North Sea. He was going to be handling dogs for John in Alaska.

Tuesday, Feb.2, 2010
The weather was mild, by Montana standards. It had been above freezing for much of the time I was gone and there had been some rain. The ground was still covered by several inches of hard packed snow and the circles around the dog houses were iced over in spots, making walking in them treacherous.

I spent the day getting reacquainted with the dogs and working around the house with Colin. There was much to do, feeding the horses twice a day, feeding, watering and cleaning in the puppy pens, and taking care of the dogs in the dog yard. The dogs were genuinely happy to see me, and I was glad to be back. Walking up to the yard, I was struck by the idea that this was how men were supposed to live, hard physical work, outside. I had gone soft. It felt good to be alive. I felt more alive out here.

Montana February 2010 Part 1

Monday, Feb. 1, 2010
After work, I drove to the UPS customer service center to get the headlamps. The tracking papers showed that they had come in Friday and an attempt had been made to deliver them. But because of the sudden snow storm had been returned to the customer service center. That storm had caused me to sit in traffic at the foot of Signal Mountain for 2 hours as they towed away the cars that had been abandoned by drivers who got stuck trying to get up the hill. I had only gone a half mile during the first hour as other drivers tried to get around the stalled vehicles. Finally, a few of us got our turn to try and go up the mountain. There were cars and trucks everywhere and pointing in every direction, like so many Pick Up Sticks at the start of the game. I slowly inched around each of them, never stopping for fear that I would become stuck also. As long as my wheels were turning, no matter how slowly, I would continue to climb the hill.

We had been stopped for so long that the kids had gotten out and made a snowman on the roof of my Durango. They named him Little Jimmy. As soon as I got home and dropped off Dianne and the kids, I had to pack up clothes for the week-end and go back down the mountain to work, winding my way around the stalled vehicles again. A freezing rain had begun that lasted all night. Little Jimmy not only survived the trip up the mountain, but down the mountain, through the night and up the mountain again in the morning. Many people were amused to see him riding on the roof like he owned the place, A few took pictures.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chariots Of Fire

One of my all time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. Eric Little is having a discussion with his sister about running or going to the mission field when he says, "When I run, I feel Gods pleasure." That is how I feel on the back on a sled, running dogs.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010
I arrived in Atlanta and discovered a voicemail from my sister. She was glad I was back and safe but wondered why I would want to continue doing this when I was gifted in helping others medically and needed in Haiti. Maybe it was time to quit chasing a dream and get back to work. I called her on the way to Chattanooga in the shuttle and had a long talk. The conversations behind me hushed as I talked to her about her concerns. This training had been planned for the last five years and was on track. God was not surprised by the recent earthquake in Haiti and knew it would happen before I started planning to run the Iditarod. My talents did not lie in the sport of driving dogs, but Doug and Melanie were working with me teaching and equipping me for the tasks ahead. I was progressing well. I had already considered the possibility of going to Haiti and felt guilty about not going. I had been comforted by several verses that came unbidden into my mind. “He who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not worthy of the kingdom.” “We walk by faith and not by sight.” I felt secure that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. God could be glorified by my efforts in this sport as much as he could be glorified in my going to Haiti for disaster relief.

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race Part - 7

Monday, January 18, 2010
Doug congratulated me on successfully completing my first Qualifier. Then he critiqued my performance. He noted three areas where he wanted to see improvement. First and foremost, I needed to move faster and be deliberate in what I was doing. Second I needed to be thinking ahead of time about what I had to do next and stop doing one thing at a time and then just stand there like I didn’t know what I was doing as I tried to decide what to do next. Third, I needed to interact with the dogs more. I should have checked their feet when we stopped to snack our dogs between the first and second check points. I could have seen the split in Cobras foot and treated then and there with zinc oxide ointment and a booty.

The best compliment came from Warren Palfrey, who had come down from Canada to run the race. He had been here with his family last year the day after my injury. He told me, “ Don’t let this go to your head. For  your first time, you ran a good race. You still have a long way to go.” Then he added, “You got grit.”

After Melanie took Doug to the airport, we cleaned up our gear and started preparing for our next races. I took all the trash to the dump and we took dogs into Helena for their vet check. When we got home I stated packing for my trip back home. One (qualifier) down and one to go.

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race - Part 6

Once over the pass, things improved. We were back on the trails we had used in training. As we went past the trail that led back to the dog yard, I had to stand on the brake until they turned left, away from the yard.  I had moved several of the dogs around by this time and had put my two best leaders, Toro and Gator back in the lead. Toro had tried to head home and I was getting ready to set the hook and go to the front to turn them when Gator leaped into the air and jumped over Toro taking the team down the trail away from the turn for home.

At 6:30AM we stopped to snack the dogs and give them a rest. There was significant ground fog as we climbed the hills around Lincoln for our final descent into town. The fog left a pattern of ice crystals on everything, the dogs, the sled and my clothes. John hollered at me to pick up the mat brake and pedal up all the hills. The dogs were tired and needed all the help they could get. On the shorter, steeper ascents I had to get off and run behind the sled, pushing it up behind a team that was worn out and kept looking back at me as if to say, “Are we there yet?” Had I not been driving them forward with my own efforts to keep the sled moving, they would have laid down and quit. Doug had told me stories of teams who laid down and refused to go any further. One team had caused a well know musher to be rescued from Mt. McKinley.

I no longer checked my watch. If we made it, we made it. It was out of my hands. The dogs and I could not go any faster. I had to trust that our efforts would be rewarded by success. As we neared the finish line, I saw Doug standing there with some others, but did not see a finish line and kept moving the team forward until the leaders were past Doug. He asked where I was going and I told him I did not see a finish line. He yelled at somebody to paint a line behind me. I had finished the race in 42 hours and 3 minutes. Had I been 15 minutes later, this race would not have qualified. One down and one to go.

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race Part - 6

When we arrived back at the White Tail Ranch on the return trip, we checked the time of the leaders. The winner had already crossed the finish line. We had planned on leaving the checkpoint at 6AM. After doing the math, we knew that we had to leave at 3AM or this race would not count as a qualifier for me. I had to finish in 42 hours and 18 minutes (1.5 times the elapsed time of the winner). I fed and watered my dogs. They were not getting enough water from eating snow. I removed their booties and checked their feet and gave them clean straw to lie down on, kicking it up around them. I noticed that Toro, who had a voracious appetite and always ate everything you gave him, did not eat, but tipped his bowl over and tried to bury his food. Only later did I find out that he had been secretly eating the food of the other leaders, who were tied out with him. I should have moved him to the front of the lead line, by himself. His overeating was my fault and it almost cost me the race.

I managed to get 2 hours sleep before I was awakened by Doug, who had come to the same realization that we had and drove out to make sure we got up in time. I was still holding my new watch in the position, in front of my face, that I had when I was trying to set the alarm function.

 When we left, I had Hershey in the lead with Toro, to give Gator a break. He had worked hard and exceeded all my expectations. He was the best Gee/Haw leader on my team. Hershey kept stopping as we left the checkpoint and I ended up moving him back to swing. I moved Hobart into lead. A few miles from the checkpoint, we started a long steady climb up to Huckleberry Pass. It hard pulling with me pedaling to help the dogs get through the four inches of new snow. It took a couple of hours to go 10 miles to the top. Toro kept pulling over into the deep snow and gulped snow. He was thirsty from eating everybody’s dry dog food. Doug noted later that he was the only one to have diarrhea; a sure sign of overeating (over feeding).

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race - Part 5

We left at 3:35PM and I ran in front of John until we stopped to snack and rest our dogs after running them for 25 miles. I stopped and snacked my dogs. They were all eating well. Toro, always eats well and tried to eat Gator’s food also. I had to stand between them to make sure Gator, who eats slowly, got enough to eat. When we started out again, I let John pull ahead. I would be following him for the next 25 miles into the checkpoint. I reached into my pocket and got my headlamp before we left. It was getting dark.

We ran for a while through the woods until we came to another section of road. As I dropped down onto the road one runner hit some deep snow and I fell taking the sled over with me. I skidded along the road, with the sled on its side, until the drag on the sled caused the dogs to stop. I set the snow hooks and realized that my headlamp had come off when I hit my head. I secured the sled as fast as I could and ignoring John’s advice from a few days ago, ran back to pick up the headlamp before the dogs could pull the snow hooks and race off without me. John had said, “You never go back. You never  leave the sled except to go forward to the team or ahead of the team. That way, if they pull the snow hooks and start running, you can jump on the sled as it goes by. If you are behind the sled and they pull the hooks, you are left behind, stranded.” I had no choice. I could not leave another headlamp on the trail or I would be disqualified. I got it and got back to the sled before they could leave me.

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race - Part 4

John had been waiting down the trail for me and had been told of my escapades by two other drivers who watched with some amusement. One of them had stayed until I turned my team around the first time. But when he saw me heading back to the ranch, riding on top of my sled bag, he left, realizing that I needed more help than he could offer. John came back to help and arrived just as I had finished getting the team lined out. I was ready to go, but he needed to turn his team around. I had already pulled my snow hook off of the post, before I realized that he had wanted me to leave it there and come help turn his team around. He had to turn them by himself, while I stood helplessly on my brake to keep my team from running past his.

The rest of the run to our next check point was fairly uneventful. We rested and snacked the dogs at the 25 mile, halfway point and I moved into the lead ahead of john’s team to give his dogs a break. I arrived at the Seeley Lake checkpoint, just before daybreak, two minutes ahead of him. 

It was raining when we got there and continued to rain all day. We tried as best we could to stay dry, but even the dry socks that I had sent ahead in my drop bag were wet 30 minutes after I put them on. We stayed for eight hours at this checkpoint and I was told to sleep. I still wasn’t very tired but would need to sleep before we got to our next checkpoint. I managed to get a nap for an hour or two, sitting up in the shelter. Several of the dogs had developed splits in their feet, between their pads. For the return run, all the dogs would wear booties. Interesting, since they hadn’t worn booties all season and several of them were yearlings who had never worn booties. Could I get booties on all my dogs in a timely fashion, without causing them to yelp, which might cause the Vet to come check on the dogs, to make sure they weren’t injured. I only had trouble with Hobart, a veteran and had to wrestle with him to get his booties on.

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race - Part 3

We left before daybreak. John had suggested that I put Herbie in the lead with Hobart. We cleared the field and started down the road. It was hard packed glare ice which made for a fast run, but left no place to set a snow hook.  I tried to ride the mat brake or pad to slow down and stay behind John.

During training, we had each put a 40 pound bag of dog food in our sleds to simulate the weight of our mandatory equipment. John had put an extra 40 pound bag in his sled to compensate for the difference in our weights. He weighed about 154 pounds and I weighed a little over 200 pounds.  I had started out with more yearlings, but we kept changing dogs between his team and mine until I could keep up with him. By the time we started the race, I had gained three new veterans, Hershey, Herbie and Hobart. They had not run with me before and had not gotten used to me as their musher. I would be tested. I would need to gain their respect.

At the first turn from the road, I was put to the test. While the rest of the team was behaving, the dogs in lead became like an unruly class of teenagers, checking out the new substitute teacher. They blew on by the turn to the right, despite my commands and protests. Grabbing the handlebar with my left hand, and squatting as low as I could, I tried to drive the snow hook into the road wit my right hand. It skipped and skidded along the ground until it finally caught something and brought the team to a stop. I go off, set the other snow hook in the snow bank beside the road, went to the leaders, grabbed the neckline, yelled at them and turned the team around. We went back the 100 yards to the turn and I tried to get them to left onto the trail. This time I was ready, but they still ran past the turn. I stopped the team and started to unhook the back lines from the wheel dogs when they took off again. I barely had time to jump onto the sled. Hanging the sled bag and facing the wrong way, we were headed back to the last checkpoint, we had just left. I could see it now, my entry back into the yard, out of control, clutching the sled for dear life, laying on the bag instead of standing behind it. I grabbed the snow hooks and tried to drive them into the ground again. At last they caught and we stopped. I quickly unhooked the back lines from all but the first four dogs, changed leaders to my trustworthy Toro and Gator and put Herbie and Hobart in swing. After turning the team again, the dogs took the right hand turn with no problems. I stopped the team and drove the snow hook into a post beside the trail, then reattached the back lines and straightened out all the tangles. 

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race - Part 2

John and I would be next to last to leave. By the time we left the starting gate it was late in the afternoon. With darkness less than 2 hours away, I decided to put Doug’s headlamp on my head so that I would not need to dig for it later. Big mistake. After we  cleared town, the trail turned to the right as we began to climb toward Martin Hill. There was a long, steep hill on the other side of the climb. The trail narrowed and made several tight turns. Near the top of the downhill my left runner got off the trail and pitched the sled over. I fell and struck my head, righted the sled and took off again. But I over corrected and fell to the right, striking my head again. I righted the sled again and made it down the hill without further incident. As the trail leveled out, I was aware that I had lost my hat. I hurried to catch up with John, who was waiting a mile of two away. As he saw me approaching, he started off again. By now, I was more than a mile away from where I had fallen. Only now did I realize that I had also lost Doug’s headlamp. It was part of the mandatory gear. Without two headlamps, I would be disqualified. I reached in my pocket and pulled out my headlamp and put it on my head. It was getting dark. It would have to do until I could get another one. We drove on for several hours, resting the dogs after 25 miles. When we got to our first rest stop, at the White Tail ranch, I got another headlamp out of my sled bag. We rested the dogs four hours. John was finished with all his tasks way before I was and was taking a nap. It took me almost two hours to get everything done. Oh well, I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.

The Seeley Lake 200 Sled Dog Race - Part 1

Friday, January 15 thru Sunday, January 17
Race day arrived. Doug had flown in last night and was here through the week-end for the race. I got up at the usual time and pulled my outer wear on over the sweatshirt and pants I wore to sleep in, before going to the dog yard to feed and water the dogs. When I got back to the house, Doug was up and there was a flurry of activity as we got everything ready to go into town. We had a musher’s meeting at 9AM followed by the Vet, check and preparations to get ready for the start of the race.

I thought I would be going back to the ranch after the meetings but Doug had other ideas. He would take John and Warren back, but I needed to stay with the dogs, who had been loaded into the trailer and driven into town. Luckily, I had grabbed my long underwear and the other gear I would be wearing in the race, and changed clothes in the pickup. Otherwise, I would have had to run the race in my pajamas.

Montana January 2010 Part 13

Thursday, January 14, 2010
I got up at 2AM. I couldn’t sleep; I guess I had pre-race jitters. I had not gone to bed until 11:30, after watching John play the new Guitar Hero 5 we had just gotten. I had gotten a Wii for Doug and Melanie for Christmas. This was no longer just a business relationship but and good friendship. I had stayed up as long as I dared, because John and Melanie were really into Rock and Roll. They knew every band and all their songs. Doug and I were old school and could not appreciate the new sound. To us it was so much noise. Melanie called them artists. We called them scream machines. John and I got our mandatory gear and drop bags ready for the race and got some of our equipment packed into our sled bags.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Montana January 2010 Part 12

Wednesday, January 13, 2010
It was 35 degrees outside and the footing was treacherous. There had just been enough rain during the night that the ground was covered with a sheet of ice. According to it was 7 degrees warmer here than it was on Signal Mountain. Initially John had said that we would run the dogs at 10AM then come home and do chores. When he went outside he changed his mind. We would do chores this morning and run dogs this afternoon, once the sun melted the ice. If we had run the dogs on ice there was a chance they could have injured their feet. In a race you have no choice but in training you do.

We got up to the yard about 1PM and got ready to go. I had three yearling females who might chew on their harnesses so I always got the other dogs harnessed and on the line before I harnessed these three. Tenille, one of my here yearling females, was not interested and pulled out of her collar after I had put her on the towline. I tightened her collar, put it back on and got ready to go. John was waiting for me to leave the yard. As we started out Hobart turned left and headed for his doghouse. John ran over, grabbed his neckline pulled him back onto the trail and yelled at me to get going before he had a chance to do that again. In the confusion, Nona had slipped out of her collar again and then managed to back out of her harness. She was running loose around the dog yard. I wanted to stop and get her but John screamed to get out of here. I was not using my track/drag. It is a piece of thick rubber with metal studs driven through it that drag on the ground to slow you down when you stand on it. I had secured it to the handle bar so that it would not slow me down. As we dynamited out of the dog yard I was out of control. The brush bow glanced off a tree as we rounded a corner and we went flying down the shoot to the first turn. As the dogs made the 90 degree turn the left the sled veered right into the deep snow throwing me to the ground, hard, on my bad shoulder. Only then did I realize that I was not wearing my shoulder brace. My hat flew off but my new sunglasses stayed on. They had survived two falls. I would use them for the race. I had jumped up, righted the sled and started off down the trail when Nona shot past me. She ran to the front of the team and caused so much confusion that I had to stop and untangle six dogs. But first I grabbed her and put her collar and harness back on her. They had been dragging and flailing around since we left the yard. I had planned to secure them at the first available opening on the trail. In my haste I had put her harness on sideways and had to take it off and redo the whole thing.  John had pulled up behind my sled and was waiting as patiently as he could. What would have taken him a minute or two had taken me five minutes. When I got back to my sled the track was down. I thought John had released it. I did not realize that the force of the fall and dragging behind the sled in the deep snow had ripped it from its securing strap. We would run 14 miles to Keep Cool Lake and back. 

As we rounded a corner on a downhill with me standing on the track to slow the team down, it happened. The right runner ran off the road over an embankment dragging me and the sled sideways and pulling the wheel dogs into the deep snow. I had to wrap my arms around the handle bar and dig with my feet to push myself up the sled taking the snow hooks with me to dig in at the front of the sled to keep it from sliding down the hill. At least that is how I had envisioned it. Actually, when the right runner went over the edge the increased drag forced the team to stop long enough for me to get off and pull the sled back up, onto the road. I have read about some places on the trail in Alaska where my scenario actually could happen.

Montana January 2010 Part 11

Tuesday, January 12, 2010
With Arrow out of the line up, on injured reserve my team had no trouble keeping up with John. As we cleared Melanie’s corner, my outside runner caught on a ridge of snow made by the snow machines and flipped me and the sled onto our left side. I hit my head on the ground and left an impression. The snow hook bounced off the handlebar and landed right in front of my face. I grabbed it and set it before the dogs could pull away, righted the sled and we took off.

On the way back I had to really slow my team on the down hills. As a result I almost slid off the side of the road down the steep embankments that dropped away to my right at a 70-80 degree angle. Some of them dropped off for hundreds of feet. I worried that one of these trips, they would be calling for a helicopter to save the dogs and remove my body, if my runner dropped over the edge.

Montana January 2010 Part 10

Monday, January 11, 2010
 I had the day off, since we run the teams two days in a row and then give them a day of rest. John was running two teams, so he was running everyday. I spent the day cleaning dog poop In the puppy pens and broke the hoe trying to dig a weeks worth of poop out of the frozen ground. First I broke Doug’s truck and now I broke Melanie’s hoe. I could tear up an anvil. Jeremy Gebauer stopped by to get some things for the race and said hello. I couldn’t see who it was until he told me. I had been looking at dog poop on the bright white snow that I could make out the details of his face.

I left early for Missoula. I had some shopping to do before I picked Melanie up at 7PM. John called when I was almost there to tell me she got in at 7:20PM and that she had emailed him to tell me to be nice to her car. I stopped and got it washed when I got to Missoula. What girl didn’t want to get cleaned up if they were going into town? I stopped at Target and purchased a Wii. Melanie had wanted to get one for Doug for Christmas, but decided she couldn’t afford it. It would be my Christmas present to both of them. I got some new sunglasses, a camelback water bottle and insulator at REI and went to Wal-Mart to get some cash from the ATM and a sandwich from Subway, then headed to the airport. On the way out of town we stopped at Wal-Mart to get groceries. Melanie was in a hurry to get home and prepare for her next day of instruction as a personal trainer for her clients. On the way home we talked about how training had been going and my frustration about not being able to keep up with John on the up hills. I also told her a complete story of how Arrow had been behaving. She told me that I needed to tell Doug about her. When we got home we called Doug and I told him the entire story. He said she had probably reinsured an old injury and that we should remove her from the team. 

Montana January 2010 Part 9

On the way back from our turn around at Reservoir Lake. Something was wrong with Arrow, she kept backing off her backline and dragging Gator, my other leader causing him to slow down. Toro, who had caused the tangle leaving the dog yard had been running up behind her the entire run. He caught up to her several times and once she got her left hind leg wrapped in her own towline.

 I had been standing on the brake or the track for most of the run to keep the gang line from dragging on the ground. As a result, we could not keep up with John. Gator must have finally had enough, because my reliable leader surprised me by turning right and darting down a snow  machine trail we never took. Six dogs were on this trail before I could stop the team. It was too late. We were in a thick stand of trees and deep snow all around. I drove them down the trail to the first clearing, stopped, set the hooks and unhitched the backlines of the last six dogs, then took the leaders and turned them around. I had to untangle another jangle after I got the team lined out, then reattached the backlines and headed back the way we came. When we got to the road, Gator wanted to go left, which would have taken us back the way we had come, in the opposite direction from where we where going. I had to get off and turn the team. This meant that the last six dogs and the sled would have to be untangled and lined out. I found John waiting at the clubhouse; he had been there about 30 minutes. I had wasted so much time that we had to abort our planned 50 mile run and do a 34 mile run. I told him about my problems with Arrow and he agreed I should switch leaders. I put Hobart up with Gator and moved Arrow into swing. Things went better after that.

When we got back to the house, John noticed how much clothing I had on and made a comment to that effect. I said we should wait until he was my age before we discussed the matter. He said that would never happen, implying that I was so old that I would be dead when he was my age. So I told him that getting old was like moving into an old house. I pointed to my head and said, “The wiring is going bad.” Then I pointed down and said, “The plumbing doesn’t work and it costs an arm and a leg to heat.”

Montana January 2010 Part 8

Saturday, January 9, 2010 continued

The wee people must o been working a bit o mischief. Getting the dogs ready was no problem, but as I left the yard the one leader, Arrow, and one of my swing dogs, Toro, bulked and I had to set the hook then go untangle a mess of dogs at the front. John was coming up from behind and had to dynamite his team to a stop to keep from running into me. We just got started when, Nona, one of my yearlings broke her neck line and was heading back to the yard. If she had been a veteran I could have run her without the neckline until we got to a safer place to pull over. Because of the deep snow on either side of the trail, she was trying to get back to the yard by running through the team. Somebody was going to get hurt if I didn’t turn her around. We stopped while I snapped a new neckline on her. The rest of our run went smoothly considering there were snow machines everywhere and we had to constantly make sure they didn’t get too close to our dogs. By the time we got to Melanie’s corner I had let John get a good distance ahead of me and could see him through the trees waiting on the road below. Standing on the brake, I was slowing my team when we took the corner. Good thing. There were two snow machines parked right at the point of the turn and my leaders were trying to decide whether to get past on the inside or the outside of them. They were eating sandwiches, oblivious to the whole problem they had created. I told the girl, who was following a guy she called Vic, that they had picked a bad place to stop. She said they didn’t know that to which I replied, “You know now.” Vic got up and walked between his snowmobile and my line of dogs as I inched forward. He acted like he didn’t want them near his prized machine. He could care less about the dogs. My brush bow finally cleared the track on the girl’s machine and careened up over the front of Vic’s left ski causing my sled to tip over on its side taking me to the ground with it. As the dogs dragged me down the trail I climbed up onto the side of the sled, stood on the track dragging behind and righted the sled then stood on the runners and kept going.

Montana January 2010 Part 7

Saturday, January 9, 2010
There was a dark foreboding about the weather outside. Although it was 10 degrees warmer than it had been yesterday morning, I felt colder. I would dress according to how I felt and not the temperature. Six degrees above zero was still plenty cold. Unlike the last few mornings, when the skies were clear and you felt like you could touch the moon and the stars as they hung high in the sky, the stars were invisible and the moon looked like a faint light smudge surrounded by high dark clouds. Except for the light from my headlamp there was no other light source as it struggled to overcome the darkness.

The dogs were in a festive mood and wanted to be petted as I watered and scooped the yard. I was a little uneasy being out so early in this thick darkness. What if a Brownie (Grizzly) or a mountain lion were to attack me. I knew that the dogs might keep the less aggressive ones away and they would warn me if anything approached. I felt secure. Deer were all over the place and would come within 50-100 feet in the summer to lay down on the dog pile in order to escape the black flies and mosquitoes. As I finished scooping the back of the yard the dogs went crazy, running around and barking. I looked to see what was going on in the area where they were looking. A dark shadow was moving in my direction. It was not a deer! It was Hoover, one of the house dogs, coming up to explore. He is a large black Lab that Doug says is the best bird dog he has ever seen. Hoover likes to chase the stick and is constantly bringing one to you to throw. He is quite intelligent and loves to watch TV. One night I saw him get up, walk over and look behind the TV to see where the dog was that he had just seen on the TV.

Montana January 2010 Part 6

Wednesday, January 6, 2010
We ran dogs 25 miles over Martin Hill loop and I could not keep up with John. Doug made some comments about me standing like a statue on the back of the sled instead of pedaling or getting off and running. He made me mad. He was not there and didn’t see me pedaling and running. But he did have a point. He wanted to see results (i.e. me keeping up with John) and I wasn’t able to do that even with all my hard work. I was after all paying Doug to get me up to speed to run the Iditarod. I prayed for humility and held my tongue. If they wanted results to show them I had changed, I would give them results. I started dragging all the morning feed and equipment up to the dog yard on a sled. I was getting a workout dragging over a hundred pounds of stuff up the hill behind me. It got easier with each new day. The first day I had to start and stop with every other step and had to turn around, face the sled and drag it up the hill while walking backwards. By the end of the week I was walking up with no stops switching hands as I went.

I had fallen on Contour road, had been dragged and lost my cocoon sunglasses. At the rate that I was losing stuff on the trail, they would be able to outfit another musher by the end of this season, if they found everything I had lost.

Montana January 2010 Part 5

It was dark when we got back and Doug was waiting for us. My headlamp was glowing with a faint yellow light that was useless for seeing any but the closest dogs. As Doug ripped it off my head and threw it on the sled bag he said, “Get rid of that worthless P.O.S. and get a real headlamp.” I finished putting the dogs away and went back to get my light. It was gone. Doug had it in his hand. He had no use  for anything that was useless or did not serve his purpose. I was afraid he was going to throw it away and told him I used it to walk my dog; to which he replied, “You are not walking your dog, you are running my dogs.” I got it back and put it away.

When we got back to the house, we replaced the worn out alkaline batteries in my head lamp with new lithium ones and it worked just fine after that. The alkaline batteries bleed off and get dimmer while the lithium ones continue to give a full 1.5 volt charge until they die.

I had just completed my first run behind a 12 dog team and survived.

Montana January 2010 Part 4

We took the turn. I had been warned to get as low as possible. Had it been summer, I would have had to wash the grass stains out of the seat of my pants. I had squatted low over the track, which would be useless until we cleared the turn, and leaned all my weight to the outside runner in order to throw/steer the sled out away from the corner. The corner is a hard right hand turn at the bottom of a long hill that allows the dogs to build up speed. As the leaders take the turn, they cut it short and become the pivot point that slings the back of the team and the sled, with or without a driver, like a sling shot around the turn. On a 12 dog team there is about 60 feet from the leaders to the back of the sled. There is a sign that marks the road which is approaching up the hill and forks into a Y. I had just come down the upper right hand branch, gone around the point and was heading up the left hand branch when I saw John waiting patiently. He flashed a smile and a thumbs up then took off; no doubt relieved that he did not have to catch my team or sled as it roared by.

The rest of the trip took us through some remote areas of beautiful mountains, forests and some sheer drop offs if you got too close to the edge. Near the top of the pass we turned around in what Doug called the helicopter pad. If it was a landing zone, it was big enough to land and park three helicopters. The snowmobiles had been up here and had a field day running up the pass and taking a jump from the road to the pad. John had already taken the turn and was approaching me, heading back to the ranch as I got to the area. I did not see his trail as we turned in and my leaders cut the turn short dragging the back half of the team, the sled and me into the deep snow beside the trail. The last six dogs were up to their bellies with their feet uselessly flailing in the deep snow. I got off the runners to turn the sled and immediately went down through the harder top crust into the soft snow below. The snow was up to my chest and my feet were still not touching anything solid. It was like quicksand sucking my boots off and beckoning me to stay through the spring thaw in June or July. I would have no part of that! The dogs, the sled, me and all my
equipment would leave this mountain. It would not win. I climbed, clawed and pulled myself out of the snow and back onto the runners. We were too heavy for the leaders to pull. I had to inch us closer to the road. As more dogs made it to the road, they were able to pull us. I turned the sled over on its side and lay across it to keep the dogs from jerking it away from me. That is what had happened last year. When I fell off the sled, it had stayed upright on its runners and the dogs had no trouble leaving me behind. Doug had fashioned a safety loop on the handlebar that I put my left hand through so that if I fell off, I would pull the sled over on its side. The drag would cause the dogs to stop long enough for me to get up, right the sled and get back on. As the last dogs cleared the deep snow, the safety loop was getting tighter and tighter around my left wrist. Back on the road and heading home, I checked he time on my watch. The mountain had won; they almost always do. It had claimed it’s prize, my watch and with it, my wedding ring. I had been wearing the ring on the watch band to keep it from getting lost. I had lost so much weight that it slipped off my finger easily and frequently at the wrong times. Until now, the watch band had been the safest place to keep it.

Montana January 2010 Part 3

Just before we left, the back line on one of my wheel dogs broke as he lunged ahead. He wanted to get this show on the road. Not a very comforting sight. The same thing had happened on my last run last year. It had to be fixed before we could leave. This delay just incited the other dogs to pull harder, bark loudly and jump around as if to say, "Hey, it's time to go." Doug had told me that the first 2 miles of any trip behind dogs is the scariest and most out of control thing you will ever experience. They will run with total abandonment until they get into their rhythm. Even experienced drivers can be a little apprehensive at the start. You have no control. The dogs will take you where they want to go. They can accelerate from zero to 15 or 20 mph almost immediately.

For the most part, the run went smoothly. John passed me at the top of the hill and from then on I hardly ever saw him. His team was much stronger than mine, carrying a much lighter load and pulled away with ease. I saw him at Melanie's corner. So named because Doug's wife, Melanie, had wrecked there a few years ago when her team took the turn so fast that she and the sled were thrown sideways and she was jettisoned from the sled as it rolled over, releasing one of her heavy metal snow hooks that hit her in the head and knocked her out. After she got home and put the dogs away she went into town to get some stitches. John had been told to take the turn and move ahead a safe distance, stop and be prepared to catch my team as they ran by without me. 

Montana January 2010 Part 2

Fear usually involves the unknown.

Fear is good in small doses and for a short period of time. But it is uncomfortable and it can paralyze us into inactivity when things need to be done.

I would be facing all my fears in a few more hours.
They have a saying in the south, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Doug had been busy while I was gone. Not only had he kept up with all the chores around the ranch and run the dogs 35 miles a day, he still had time to put a sled together for me. It is truly a thing of beauty. It is a basket sled; the kind trappers and back country people use. It is made of wood lashed together. To be sure, he made some modifications screwing essential pieces in place and fitting it with what he called "Jim Bardoner runners." They are wider, thicker and practically indestructible. There was only one hitch, it only came with a 12 dog towline. I guess I would have to take the good with the bad. Prior to this, I had been training with a toboggan. It is a cumbersome, clumsy freight hauling kind of sled with no ability to steer and totally indestructible. 

Today would be my day of reckoning. I would be traveling behind John Stewart, the boy from Scotland, who trained with me last year, qualified and would be running the Iditarod this year. If I hadn't gotten hurt I would have been running it with him. We would each take 12 dogs and run up over Huckleberry Pass before turning around and coming home. A trip of 35 miles on the same trail that messed me up a year ago, to the very day. The butterflies in my stomach were churning as we harnessed and hitched up the dogs. I would leave ahead of John and run to the top of the first hill then pull over, stop and wait for John to catch up and pass me. That way my dogs would not go screaming out of the dog yard trying to catch John's team. I would be running the puppy team with some veterans. John would be running the same dogs he would run in the stage race in Wyoming and take to Alaska. Doug would stand on the runners behind me until we safely left the dog yard, then step off and send me on my way. 

Montana January 2010 Part 1

Montana  Jan. 2010
In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence,
And His children will have a place of refuge.
 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
To turn one away from the snares of death.
Proverbs 14: 26, 27

Saturday, January 2, 2010
As we flew into Missoula Montana, the weather beneath our plane was an adequate barometer of my mood. Normally I am upbeat and look forward to my trips to Montana with reckless, child-like abandonment. The swell of dark grey clouds that enveloped the earth and our plane as we descended highlighted my somber mood. I was afraid.

There were many reasons for this fear.
1. While I had made some half-hearted attempts at working out every day while I was home, I had not thrown myself into the exercise program Melanie (Doug’s wife) had outlined for me. She is a personal
trainer and a good one. She works out HARD everyday. I once told her I appreciated her knowledge and help. Her reply was that if I truly appreciated her, I would do what she told me. Now I would be seeing her without having done what she told me. I was afraid of her disapproval.

2. I would be driving a much bigger team when I got back than I had when I left. The repeated falls that had torn my right shoulder out of the socket and totally severed three of the four rotator cuff muscles had happened with a bigger team. The injury had occurred  January 3, 2009. I would be back on the sled for my first run of the new year on January 3, 2010. I was afraid of getting hurt again.

3. My biggest fear, however, was seeing Doug for the first time since I tore up his truck while he was in Arizona. The truck had been parked outside in the deep snow and required 4-wheel drive to be engaged until I got to the highway. I needed to disengage it before accelerating on the main road and I thought I had, when the shift lever shot forward into neutral as I accelerated to 35 mph. When I returned to the ranch I could not engage the 4-wheel drive again and kept getting stuck in the deep snow, but finally managed to get it back to the house. I later learned that I had destroyed the transfer case. Boy, that was going to cost me some money. But my bigger worry was the look on Doug’s face when I saw him again.

Fear is one of God’s gifts to us. It makes us stop and think before doing something stupid and it prepares our bodies for the consequences should something go wrong. Our blood vessels constrict, our pupils dilate, our heart pumps harder, our muscles tighten.