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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.