Somebody is shaking me. I roll over onto my back, and there's Jason, at least I think it's Jason...all I can see is a giant beam of light from his head lamp, it's like I'm being abducted by my handler..! My eyes are dry and out of focus, and I should have definitely taken my contacts out for that little snooze. I was able to surrender my body to that cot for nearly an hour, claiming a bit of real estate in a garage surrounded by a few old school fire trucks, and about six or seven smelly dog mushers and all of their gear. My body got rest, which is especially good for my quickly deteriorating feet, but my head stayed alert and in the race.
We are about 180 miles into the Copper Basin 300 sled dog race, at the Tolsona checkpoint in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. The constant skateboard-like kicking and the running and demands of steering the sled for that long are beginning to ally themselves with my lack of hydration, and as I sit up to swing my legs off the cot, both of my quads cramp up. This isn’t really anything new for me, but the pain speaks for itself, and the process of gearing up now takes twice as long. Ahead of us is a 50 mile run to Mendeltna, and I step out of the firehouse into a snowy scene at 1:30 a.m. It's pretty warm outside, about 20 degrees above zero (F), but as I acclimate from coming out of a well heated garage, I dig through my pockets for a fresh set of hand warmers and pull my neck fleece above my mouth and nose.
The team is resting beautifully under a fresh blanket of snow, and as I shake off the sled, a few of the dogs stretch out and shed their own snowy blankets. The dogs next to us are up and ready to take off, they're all eager and barking to go. Another team is just showing up at Tolsona for their rest, and I can hear the checkers welcome them in and go over mandatory gear. It takes about a half an hour to go through all of my chores; taking coats off, putting leggings and booties on everyone, packing the sled. The booties use velcro to secure themselves, and at this point after having put on over 150 booties, there is a painful hole in my thumb where I generally press down on the velcro. I also cut my other thumb open with my pocketknife at the last checkpoint, so these two inconvenient self-induced handicaps add another seven to eight minutes to my chore time. Now I have to wear gloves to put booties on. It's all part of the experience!
We charge out of the checkpoint, and we are breaking trail. The team before us left only a half hour ago, but their trail is invisible. This is when your lead dogs step up and display their intelligence the most. With literally no sign of any trail ahead of us, the dogs are able to pick up the scent of other teams, and they can tell where the trail is by feeling the snow under their feet. Completely pitch black, dumping down snow, with only the narrow beam of my weak head lamp. My reality is condensed to whatever fits inside of that beam, and the snow fall is like entering hyper speed. A million tiny snow bullets block my vision and the well-aimed shots go straight into my eyes. The race does do a really fantastic job of marking the race route with reflective tape, so that in conditions of reduced visibility, a highly sleep-deprived dog musher can still feel somewhat confident in their journey between checkpoints. STILL, there is only so much that can be done. There is always a moment in a race, when I have to concede my human weakness and truly rely upon my dog team. Perhaps I have grown too tired and failed to pace myself properly, or perhaps the snow conditions are such that I just literally cannot see the trail. Or both. There is also usually a moment when I wonder why in the world I am willing to put myself through this. That was the longest fifty miles of my life, physically and emotionally, and as I begin to have thoughts of doubt and regret, the sun starts to rise. My outlook brightens with the sky, and I can smell wood smoke. We're getting close!
This story was originally posted on Dog Yearbook