{Tsuga Siberians}

July 7, 2007 - "Taiga 300 (Page 1)"

On Monday, March 19th, two weeks after Sue and I had finished the Can-Am 250, I took my first sled run from our home all winter. We had just spent the weekend up north, at camp running 12 and 14 dog teams in fresh snow. The white stuff that had eluded this neck of the woods all winter finally started falling in March. We had left camp thinking we’d just made our last sled runs for the year, but found that it had snowed significantly at home, too. The dogs were in great shape and great spirits. I left the yard with 8 strong dogs early that morning, before first light. As Stump and Hawkeye led Logan, Romeo, Wilson, Merlin, Hood and Super Jim across the very dark Stinson Lake, I was hanging on for dear life.


I had already spilled once before getting to the lake, less than half a mile from home. By the time those eight boys brought my bruised body back to the dogyard after a thrilling 30 miles of black diamond mushing, I was thankful to have stayed with them. They had done their jobs perfectly; I was the slacker who had forgotten how to drive a sled through challenging terrain. Or was the team just so much faster and stronger than the last time I had run these beautiful, but steep and narrow trails out our backyard? It had been a couple years since I’d been on some of the trails we traveled that morning and I’ll admit, I was glad to be home safely after the harrowing ride, on which I crashed and burned several times. Inside the house, after brothing, and loving-up the dogs, still smiling from the exhilaration of the run, I checked the internet over my coffee. There was an announcement of the Taiga 300, a new 300 mile race in Alaska starting April 2nd , two weeks away. I’m sure my heart skipped a beat. Immediately my thought was, “We’ve gotta run this race!”


I got the ball rolling by calling Sue at work. “Can we do this?” “Maybe, Let’s see…” I sat down and started figuring mileage to Whitehorse, then Glennallen. 4,500 miles, one way. Almost $4/gallon average for Canada and US driving. 10-12 miles per gallon for the loaded dogtruck. Ouch!! Well, if I live out of the truck and stay with friends, with what is left in the “dog account” we might make it. We’d be qualified for next year’s Quest!! That was this year’s goal for the kennel. There is still time. I knew I’d have to give up the chance to go to first day sign-ups for the Quest, but going with the dogs and getting qualified seemed to trump the planned August trip.


By Wednesday, enough compromises, phone calls, and emails had been made to decide to go. Although it wasn’t yet, it “should be no problem” that the race would be designated a Quest qualifier. Sue couldn’t get away from work and would have to stay home, but I had my good friend Bob O’Hearn on board as handler/driver. We had a place to stay and run the dogs in Whitehorse with friends. Wow, I’m really going to try to do this. Heck, it’s only across the continent and I all I’ve got to do is pack up enough gear to run 300 miles with 12 dogs. I’ve got a few more days before we have to leave. No problem. Two days to think about it might not have been enough…


On Friday I went up to camp to get a longer run with 14 dogs. The dogs had only done a few short runs in the last couple weeks, but we did a fast 50 miles with a bunch of weight in the sled in under 5 hours, through 40 degree heat, with light drizzle falling early, then clearing to bright sunshine. I felt great that the dogs did so well after not having done any real distance since the tough Can-Am race. Saturday I spent the day with a pile of gear on the porch trying to figure out how to pack a sled for 250 miles of un-resupplied travel, which the Taiga called for. Using my lists of what I pack for Can-Am and trying to taper that to what I really NEED for that distance was a challenge. Eventually, I felt confident in what I was packing and that I would have enough, without filling the sled so full the dogs would think I was crazy. Sue cooked and packed food for the trip and the race while I rambled on about the driving route, the race trail, the weather, the “qualifier question”, and the trip and race in general. My mind was spinning, but finally, coolers and plastic bins were packed with gear and clothes on the porch, ready to be loaded into the truck.


Sunday, we had a pre-arranged trip to visit our friends at Nevahome Kennel for a kind of end of mushing-season party. I was pretty well packed and ready to go, so we stuck with our plan to visit Mitch and Krik. Bill Bartlett from Newport, NH, was there giving us a showing of his Iditarod slides from 1980. He thought we were crazy to be hanging out looking at his show the day before setting off on an adventure of our own. I took it as great inspiration and a chance to get away from the worries of leaving Sue and the other dogs home. Bob and Rhonda watched those slides of beautiful Alaska with us and occasionally Bob and I exchanged a nervous or excited glance, especially as Bill showed some slides from when he and Heidi had broke down on an Alaska highway at 30 below zero with a fully loaded dogtruck. Inspired? For sure! Scared silly?? Well, kind of. With a lot of good luck wishes, we headed home to get some sleep, something that was to become cherished in the next few weeks for Bob and me.


On Monday March 26th by 5am, after an emotional goodbye with Sue, I drove the loaded truck down the driveway and said to Bob, “Here we go!” Ambler, Gecko, Gila, Hawkeye, Hood, Jim, Kobuk, Logan, Merlin, Mugs, Romeo, Stump, Trip, and Wilson came along. I’d have to decide which 12 were racing later. Also with us were Kluane and Togo who were traveling from Kim and Kelly’s kennel to be delivered to Karen Ramstead, another musher entered in the Taiga 300. I was a little concerned about the social dynamic with our dogs, especially with Gila in heat, and just the extra work of having two unfamiliar dogs on the truck. We’ll just see how it goes.


North through the Notch. Across the Connecticut River into Vermont. They basically waved us straight through into Canada. “Where are you headed?” “Alaska.” “How long will you be in Canada?” “Less than a week.” “Have a nice trip.” Montreal traffic slowed us down. I always feel bad for the dogs when we’re in urban areas. The fumes and noise can’t be fun for them. Cobden, Ontario was our first dogdrop at a town park with an information board telling of the finding of Henry Hudson’s astrolabe in the area. Pembroke, North Bay, Sudbury, with lots of miles in between. A fatal wreck near Espanola had the road closed and forced us into an early dogdrop and dinner. Sault St. Marie was foggy and dark. So foggy, we thought we might have to pull over and wait for morning light. After feeling our way down the road, out of the city, through the thick fog rolling off the lake, a semi truck passed us and I accelerated to stay with him, following his lights since I couldn’t really see the road. For the next 200 miles or so, I stayed with this one trucker who must have known the road like the back of his hand. How he kept that pace (60-70 mph) through fog that thick, I have no idea. At one point, his lights flashed on and off a few times. A second or two later we flew by a moose standing right on the white line. Wow, that was close. When he finally pulled off onto a side road, our pace dropped back down to a sane speed for the conditions, but wow, did we make good time following him.


Dawn on Tuesday found us somewhere near Nipigon, Ontario for breakfast and another dogdrop. Thunder Bay. Ignace. I got a speeding ticket somewhere near Dryden with not another car in sight on a straightaway for 5 miles. Truckers had been passing us regularly. A musher named Burton Penner stopped to see us at a dogdrop in Vermillion Bay. “You guys need water for the dogs or a place to rest?” “No Thanks,” came my answer, “we’ve gotta keep moving.” Through Kenora, and then finally, out of Ontario. Wow, that’s a big province! Winnipeg. Portage la Prairie. A hotel bed in Moosomin, Saskatchewan. We’d just done 1931 miles in a day and a half. Time for food and some sleep. Dinner was horrible. I don’t know how the beer and beef can be so bad in Canada. Sleep was short. We skipped breakfast in that place and got an early start Wednesday morning. Many miles still to go. A snow storm between Regina and Dundurn. Then a little trouble finding my way through Saskatoon. Circle Drive just keeps going in a circle! After waking Bob up to help with reading the map, I finally got it straightened out and pointed for Lloydminster, on the Alberta border. When I went to turn around in a Wal-Mart parking lot there, looking for a spot to drop the dogs, a big, yellow concrete light post support snuck up behind me and dented the back of the flatbed, knocking out two running lights. No damage to the dogbox, but “Damn, that was stupid!! Bob, you ready to drive? I guess I need some sleep.” After getting us through Edmonton at evening rush hour, Bob drove on as we turned north. This brightened my mood, out of some doubt, on to expectation. Around midnight on Wednesday, after a gas fill up and dogdrop, we “set off” from Milepost Zero of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, with me back at the wheel.


Not far out of Fort St. John in the dark hours of Thursday morning, we passed a couple of bad moose/car wrecks that were very recent. At one, the moose was still laying on the white line, unable to move, but not yet dead. Poor beast. Just up the road from that one, we passed a dead moose still in the middle of the road with a smashed truck off the road. Numerous other cars were stopped at both wrecks, so we passed by cautiously and continued on our way. For the rest of the night, every rock, tree, or bare spot in the snow alongside the road became a moose in my mind. I did see a couple more real moose in the ditch that night, but luckily, none in our travel lane. It was pretty scary for that stretch and I vowed to make sure it’d be daytime when we came back through here, coming home. This area was bustling with oil company trucks and loaded logging trucks, even in the middle of the night. Fires burned off gases at the tops of oil rigs here and there along the road. The flames looked so out of place, seemingly floating at tree top height in the dark spruce forests. When we finally got to Fort Nelson at 5am Thursday, I was nearly falling asleep at the wheel and had been fighting it hard for a couple hours. After another dogdrop and a breakfast with a whole lot of coffee, we headed for the crossing of the Canadian Rockies that lay just ahead. Jere had told me to expect about a 12 hour drive from here to their place.

 

With clear, sunny skies and only half a day to go, we were really looking forward to getting out of the truck and sharing some time on Annie Lake Road, near Whitehorse, with our great friends, Moe and Jere and their two kids, Finn and Maible. Bob was driving again, and I was super sleepy but looking at mountains took priority over snoozing. The road was too rough and twisty to sleep anyway. The mountains looked just awesome in the dazzling morning light. Steamboat Mountain. Tetsa River. Stone Mountain. Summit Lake. Quick stop at Toad River. Muncho Lake. Then the big downhill to Liard Hot Springs. We were too tired and too desperate to “just get there!” Our rollercoaster was back on a low, so we skipped a dip in the springs and only dropped dogs before getting back on the road. From the vistas atop the Rockies, we had seen very dark clouds looming in our future and not long after the hot springs dogdrop, it started to snow. Apparently, British Columbia and Yukon snowplows don’t bother coming out too much for just a little 6 inches of snow. By the time we got to Teslin, the driving over snowy roads had me so frazzled, when I called Sue from a gas station payphone, I said, “Hello.” She immediately said, “What’s wrong?!?” My tired, stressed, worn-out voice had said it all. I called Moe, too. She said, “You’ll be here by dinner.”


Home cooked dinner is a pretty big motivation for this skinny guy. The roads got better quickly as we drove out of the falling snow. Getting back in to some mountains after the rolling hills of the last 6 snowy hours helped brighten our sprits too! Then the turn on to the South Klondike Highway, just before Whitehorse. It felt so good to be “getting there!!” Moe and Jere have been friends for a good many years. I first met Moe well over ten years ago. Jere saved my butt as the one person who volunteered to spend his Columbus Day weekend 2004 putting the roof on our new home with a closing scheduled for the old house in only two weeks! We were in serious need of help, and Jere had bailed us out. We’ll always owe him for that one. Zirkle, Stump, Mugs, Gila, Gecko, and Hawkeye are all from their Four Winds kennel. We’ve only seen them once since they moved from Vermont to the Yukon almost three years ago. Pulling in to their driveway 3800 miles from our house after three and a half days of driving felt great. I knew we’d found the right place when I saw the purple-stained cabin through the trees. Jere had beers for us almost before we could unfold ourselves out of the truck! Ahhhh… The welcoming hugs, food, drink, and conversation with beautiful scenery and a spectacular northern sunset took our roller coaster back to the top!

 


Friday morning came all too soon after our conversation and feeding frenzy had lasted well into the night. The one mission for the day was to get the dogs out for a run. Jere was going out with a team of their dogs, too. We ran from the community center just down Annie Lake Road from their home. The first few miles were pretty hairy as I didn’t know the trail and was running all 14 of my dogs with Bob along on a second sled, behind me. That makes for quite a long train and this trail wasn’t really made for that. We both had trouble staying upright in a spot or two, but luckily not at the same time. One screw-up had me leading the dogs over a short, but open railroad trestle after we had missed a turn. Too late to turn around, so Bob just stayed on the second sled and I walked the leaders over. We might have bounced off a tree or two as well, but then settled on to a calm section down a railroad grade where we could enjoy the mountain views and take a few photos. After turning around 14 miles or so from the truck, we retraced the trail and now being ready for the turns and trees, got back to the truck without further incident.

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