It was my first race. The Denali 300 -- 270 miles back and forth along the closed Denali Highway between Paxton and Cantwell. I had been training dogs all winter for musher Jeff King. I had no idea what a competition would feel like or how I would react. Would I be able to maintain a high enough level of awareness to care for the twelve dogs I was driving? Twelve dogs was more than I had ever run in a team and they felt powerful and stronger than my ability to stop them. I wondered about how the first miles of their exuberance would feel, whether it would be exciting or just frightening.
During the moments of the countdown I gripped the handle bow and tried to look relaxed. Of course I should have walked along the team giving the dogs one last pat, or joked with my friends -- I had seen other mushers do it for years, always looking so relaxed and happy -- but I wasn't and so I didn't. Basically I was so afraid of losing my team right at the beginning that I didn't want to step off the brake. It really wasn't fear so much as knowledge that kept me pinned to one place. I knew that I wouldn't lose the team if I didn't ever let go of that handle bow and so that was what I was doing, right from the beginning!
We departed at two minute intervals, and I shot off down the trail loosening my grip long enough to wave briefly at some of the folks who lined the chute. The crowds quickly disappeared, and soon it felt almost like one of the hundreds of training runs that I had done all winter. Quiet and beautiful, with only the sounds of sled runners and an occasional yelp of enthusiasm from Moose. Pretty soon, on longer stretches of trail, I began spotting teams in front of me and behind. In those first miles everyone stayed evenly spread out up and down the long hills. It reminded me of the miners I had seen photos of on the Chilkoot Trail to Dawson.
|Lisa Frederic on her sled.
The dogs were doing great, as they should in the early part of a run. I took Nickel out of double lead with Pena and put Moose up front so I wouldn't burn out my main leader too quickly. Nickel was in heat, but it seemed like the male dogs' interest level wasn't very strong yet, and with Moose's enthusiasm in front, the whole team happily sped up. Soon enough we caught up to another team, and I had to make the decision to pass.
I had never passed a team other than one from our kennel, and I wondered if it seemed rude, whether I should smile or if that would seem arrogant, though passing without some kind of greeting seemed odd. Passing can turn into a nightmare if the dogs balk or want to visit the other team, so you want to do it as fast as possible. My pros did a great job and I was able to mutter something pleasant to the other driver and his leaders once we were by.
The hours sped by as I studied the dogs and stole glances at the magnificent scenery. I watched the teams ahead and behind and planned my passes accordingly. I actually got quite a delight out of the planning, and the fast moving required to make it work. The split second my snow hook was planted and the team halted, I was sprinting along handing out snacks or untangling tug lines or changing the positions of dogs. I leapt from the sled with an opened bag of snacks in hand and was back on board in less than a minute, having given treats and words of praise to the entire team. At some point later in the race, Jeff saw me "snack" the dogs in this manner and he said it was a ballet of efficiency.
I tried using the ski pole and quickly saw the addictive qualities of it. You can help propel the sled forward by pushing it off with one foot; this is called "kicking." With a ski pole you incorporate the kick into a movement quickly followed by a push with the pole. It takes a little coordination getting the two movements together without loosening your ironclad grip on the handle bar, but it is very important not to fall off!
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Both ends of the Denali Highway are a series of steep hills and they wore me out. I could kick and I could ski and I could run along behind the sled when the hill was steep enough and the team slow enough, but never for very long. I got tired, and though I tried hard to keep giving it my all, I was simply limited by my strength.
|Lisa Frederic's team in the mountains.
Day one passed quite pleasantly and coming into the Susitna checkpoint I was in front of all four or five of the other teams. I parked the team in deep snow, tying off the leaders to some brush. I moved Nickel, who had come fully into heat at this point, into some brush further away and ahead of the rest of the team. I wasn't sure how long I was going to stay because there was a mandatory six hour rest 42 miles further along the trail, so I snacked the dogs dry kibble with water, which they gobbled up. Each time you get the dogs to eat well during a race is points in your favor, because as they get tired they lose their appetite, so I was thrilled to see them drinking well.
While the dogs rested I repacked the sled and prepared to leave though I still wasn't sure how long I'd be staying. I went for juice and soup at the checker tent. I got to talk to a few of the other racers, though my mind was definitely not into socializing. My team started fussing, and to everyone's surprise, barking. They were done resting. I think it was Deedee Jonrowe who finally said, "I think your team is ready to go."
I went looking for a checker to sign out with, and a couple people helped hold my team as I pulled them off their straw beds and pointed them toward the outgoing trail. They were screaming to go as I repositioned Nickel into the lead and jumped onto the sled. Deedee was smiling, holding the team and said, "Are you ready for this?" I laughed, "I never know if I am ready for this!" and off we went. It was wonderful. We sailed.
Last winter we trained as far as McClaren, twice making it to the lodge 93 miles from Cantwell. In December we spent the night; it had been dark both times with the last hours on the trail being cold and beautiful. Little had been visible except what the light of a faint moon showed, so I was anxious to now see the trail. There was a late afternoon sun and I ran with my coat open. My face turned to seek the last rays as the sky slowly turned from yellow to soft orange to a delicate blue with the first star of the evening. The mountains rose steeply on both sides, peaks that had been fantasies of my youth, and they were all mine. I was alone on this trail with twelve fine friends and the whole world daring me to call anything more beautiful. I thought about how incredibly lucky all of us in this race were, to see this country like this, to do it in this perfect way, what a blessing.
By nine o'clock I was in McClaren, watering the dogs. I rubbed their feet and massaged their necks. I fed them once and then again two hours later. I slept a couple hours in a bunkhouse. As I was getting ready to lie down, I talked with Jessie Beebee for a few moments. We were the only racers into the checkpoint. I kept forgetting his first name, and I called him "Mr. Beebee," which made him chuckle. He had long hair and looked like a biker in the dim light. I had heard he lived in the bush and was known to fight, neither of which discouraged me from wanting to talk to him. In fact, it made me more interested.
Gary and Susie, who worked at the lodge, wished me luck, and soon enough I was preparing to go . It was 2:54 a.m. and snowing really hard when I pulled the hook and headed out of the yard. I couldn't see very far in front of the team in the darkness and almost immediately had a moment of doubt about which way the trail went as it left the checkpoint. I knew what seemed like the rational direction, but felt for the first time the insecurity of not immediately finding a race stake.
Beebee was a couple of hours ahead of me, and the dogs turned to follow his old trail. Since it mirrored my gut feeling, I eased my foot off the brake just a fraction and off they took. I soon spotted a stake, and then the team sped along into the darkness.
Traveling at night, in heavy snow, knowing there was no one else nearby on the trail was a new experience for me. I was alone, really alone, and though obviously one is only so alone in the middle of a dog race, it seemed different from anything I had done before. My headlamp was bright, but each pair of dogs in the team became a little less clear along the towline towards Nickel, who was once again in lead. I could see her, but I had to carefully aim the beam of light and she was more of a moving entity than anything clear.
I had negotiated the first doubtful part of the trail. Everyone was pulling hard and I felt in good spirits.
About an hour later I came to a strange marking on the trail and though Nickel at first wanted to go straight, I stopped her to peer through the darkness at a line of stakes. It seemed illogical, but they seemed to indicate that the trail turned to the right. At my hesitation, Nickel immediately leapt through the deep snow towards the other trail, and I stood on the brake with both feet to hold the team as I strained to look in both directions. I could see a short way, but the snow and darkness kept me from getting a really good look. It made me uneasy.
I could barely make out dog prints on the new trail and it seemed to have been used more recently by snow machines. Though I wasn't totally convinced, I called "all right" to the team.
I have no idea how long I traveled before doubts about the trail really began to worry me. At times the trail seemed too narrow, too uneven, but with the heavy blowing snow the highway had often seemed more like a footpath than a road. During the last hours I tried to convince myself of this.
When I started noticing the first brush I started talking to myself. Brush doesn't grow in the middle of a highway, even if it is closed during the winter. For a while I wanted to think it had blown there and was being held down by the snow, but I never really believed that. Long moments went by as I desperately swept the beam of my light in all directions, hoping to see a stake tipped with reflective tape. When the sled runners ran over more brush though, I knew that I had lost the trail and had to turn the team around.
Turning a team of sled dogs around is very difficult. Even if you have great leaders, there is almost always a tangle as the dogs leap around in a new direction, leaving the towline slack. If the leaders can't figure out what you want them to do by verbal commands you must somehow anchor the sled and physically show them. The snow hook only works in one direction, so as soon as you are furthermost away the sled starts freewheeling toward the dogs. In training I had always tried to find a tree to secure the sled so that no matter what, I wouldn't lose the team.
There were no trees to tie off to, the snow was deep, and I could hardly see my leaders. I also knew the dogs were too fresh to park and wait for daylight. Still, I felt strangely calm.
I waited until we came to a wider part of the trail and was cheered to see a snow machine track off to the left that would give Nickel something to aim for. I called out "Haw!" for her to bear left. She hesitated, but when I called out a second time, she plunged herself and the whole team into the deep snow. Suddenly she started to lead the team back directly toward me.
Driving dogs teaches you to move fast. I am not yet that good at it though, preferring to think things through before I move, but split seconds count and can make the difference between disaster and peace. I had been fishing commercially for 18 years and the moves come naturally. On the boat I can leap through the air tying a knot if I need to. But I hadn't quite gotten all the moves ingrained enough yet with this sled dog business, and I often hesitated where I knew immediately I shouldn't have.
On this night though, I didn't hesitate to leave the sled and try to block Nickel's race toward me. In the darkness, the knot of dogs that was about to happen would be so terribly unfortunate that instinct made me react and start bounding through the snow towards her. I called "No!" and was glad to hear my voice sounded calm. By the time I reached her, the whole team was moving, but slowly enough for me to gain ground and grab Nickel's harness.
I stopped long enough to get my bearings by shining the headlamp back towards the trail in the direction we needed to go and then quickly started heading that way.
I caught the sled as it moved past me, grabbing hold with an iron grip. I immediately lost my footing and was being dragged along. I thought wryly how sad it would be to have turned the dogs around successfully only to lose them moments later. Luckily though, the deep snow made the trail slow enough that I was able to finally pull myself back up onto the runners. I laughed, not a happy laugh, just a big relieved laugh. We were back on our way.
When I first had doubts about the trail I should have looked at my watch. I would have known how far from the turnoff I had gone, but I didn't. Maybe it was twenty minutes, maybe more. Once again, I stopped the team at the confusing corner of markers and tried to see more stakes in any direction, but with no luck. I yelled out "Gee!" to Nickel, directing her to turn right, to head back in the direction she had originally wanted to go, though I was totally confused. There was no sign of dog prints from another team and the only snow machine tracks I could make out were quite old. It was my only choice, though, so we took it, and a few long minutes later we were rewarded with the sighting of a reflective stake. I was so relieved I felt almost giddy, and the dogs picked this up in my voice and trotted along happily with renewed enthusiasm.
The snowdrifts were often very deep at times, and the dogs swam though them gallantly. The race stakes comforted me. Jessie Beebee's tracks also made me wonder, but I decided he must have taken the same wrong turn. This was confirmed at Mile 43 when in the early morning light I saw a side trail join the one I was on. There were dog prints in the snow where a team had recently traveled. I guessed he hadn't turned around as I had, and he eventually made it back onto the race trail. I wondered if he had even realized his mistake.