Willow 300 Sled Dog Race Recap
I have had a few dreams this past week, including last night, where I am late for the Iditarod start. I realize that the race is starting, and I need to get there, and whoever is driving me is going too slow or isn’t available. When I sling shot awake in my bed, my heart rate drops as I see Louisa sleeping soundly at my feet and Benny right next to me, I am in fact NOT late for the Iditarod start…! There is some definite lingering anxiety and elusive butterflies surrounding the 1000 mile sled dog race that we are now 13 days away from, and having our food drops delivered hasn’t seemed to really help all that much, We completed the Willow 300 Sled Dog Race at the beginning of the month, and immediately went into cutting and bagging all of our Iditarod food. So, how did the race go? I honestly couldn’t have been happier with how our 300 went. I started out with 12 dogs, five of which were yearlings and 9 of which had never been in a race before, and a race plan that had us finishing nearly as the banquet was taking place. Not only is this sport insanely expensive when compared to how much you stand to earn, but it also requires a vast amount of human support and generosity. Most of you who are reading this have helped us out in one way or another, and my friend Dave was able to provide his dog truck and lend us a hand at the start. A hand that I needed quite literally right away. The flag was waved, signaling the mass start as a GO, and I couldn’t get my snub line free! The rope that connects the whole operation (dogs and sled) to our anchor (the truck), wouldn’t come loose! The dogs were so insistant on going that they pulled it completely tight, and Dave had to come over to give it a good yank, and we were off! Across Willow Lake, we actually were on the Iditarod trail for a bit.
The first run was very enjoyable. Temperature around -5 at 1pm, and really trying hard to keep the team down to about 9mph. We got passed by a hand full of teams who wanted to travel a bit faster than us, but after about an hour or so we were on our own. The trail had us traveling the river for about 30 miles, popping onto some sloughs and drainages, fixed with sharp turns and eye opening S curves. We climbed up out of the water and onto a swampy area, and after 40 miles into the race, we pulled over for our first camp. It was just starting to get dark when we pulled over, and the color faded the sky from light blue to dark purple, with a pink mountain range to the west. I have a few picky eaters in my team who won’t eat if fed right away, so I like to wait a bit before giving a meal. So, I offer snacks, take off booties, put on coats and lay down straw, and then go to work massaging and looking for soreness. I'm always on the look out for good spots with fire wood to camp, so I built a fire out of the black spruce that surrounded us. They’re spindly little trees, not much to them, but flippin flammable! The whole tree, dead or alive, will go up super easily. I guess that’s why all of these Alaskan wildfires spread so quickly…! With a good fire foundation ablaze, I started prepping for snow melting. All mushers carry a cooker that is used to melt snow and heat up about 3 gallons of water, which is used to pour over the dog food, as well as thawing out our human food. As the water heats up, I put in my vacuum packed meals as well as frozen water bottles. When the water reaches temperature, I pour it on the dog food to soak for a few minutes, and I eat my food and chug my water.
I usually don’t soak the kibble that I feed out in meals, so just the raw meat gets hydrated and thawed into a stew that gets bowled out for each dog. I then pour different amounts of dry kibble onto the stew depending on the dog, They all ate like alligators! After a few hours to digest, and some quality camp fire time, we were on the trail to our first checkpoint at Deshka Landing. Deshka was 60 miles from the start, so we reached it after about 20 miles into our second run. We pulled in at about 1am with plans to grab food and gear from our drop bags and continue down the trail. My thermometer broke earlier, it was totally inaccurate at this point, so I asked a volunteer how cold it was. “I don’t know, fucking cold!” I grabbed food and a bail of straw, signed out, and we were off. The whole first leg of the race was a big loop, so when I left Deshka I immediately recognized that we were on the same trail as earlier. Down a super steep hill known as Corral Hill, with a hard haw (left) at the bottom that spit us back onto the same river as before. I should have paid more attention at the mushers meeting, because I was sure I was lost already. No way was I supposed to be going back on this river loop again! Well, I didn’t see any head lamps around, but decided to just trust the trail markers, which was wise because we were not lost. We did another 40 mile run and camped, this time it was about -25 when we pulled over to rest. You really don’t notice the cold immediately as you’re walking back and forth to do dog chores and what not, but sitting still for an hour on your cooler will allow to cold to take hold. The cold woke me up from my micro nap, and I just walked back and forth on the trail for 15 minutes in order to get back to normal. I'm sure the dogs thought I was insane! Morning is close, and the sun will bring heat and energy with it, We headed for the Amber Lake checkpoint, 30 miles up the trail, and mushed through a welcome sun rise. We were traveling north into warmer temperatures actually, and the run was super. Quite technical, with lots of sharp corners and a hand full of steep drops that allowed no opportunity for slowing down. This run was of course capped off with the infamous hill leading to the checkpoint. We were warned at the musher meeting, it was going to be a doozy… You’re on a road basically for about ten miles, until the trail drops off the side into the trees, where you’re maneuvering through multiple S curves. There aren’t really any opportunities to slow down, because doing so would pull your team into the turn, so you just have to kind of steer and hold on. As we swung around the last turn, a sign on a tree grabs my attention, “Steep Hill”. I look up at the sign, I look back at my team as they are making a 90 degree turn around a tree, and down said steep hill. It was steep. Frightening and steep, but short. The only saving grace was that it was over before you really had time to be afraid. The balance to that saving grace, was that we would have to drop that cliff one more time later in the race… I rested my team at Amber Lake in the heat of the day. It felt tropical. I began undressing as soon as we were parked, taking off my parka and puffy. I still coated the dogs though. Some folks won’t put coats on if its warm, but i just think that as warm as I can keep their muscles, the better, so they go on every time we camp. We were already basically at the back of the pack, but there was still warm housing and soup available inside. I got no sleep here, basically staying up to socialize, and we hit the trail for Trapper Creek checkpoint as the sun was setting. So, up that terrifying nightmarish hill, and see you in a day or so…! This run was very fun. Again, no falling asleep allowed, as the trail curved and wound basically continuously. Sarcastically, it felt like we only went five miles as the crow would fly, on a 30 mile run. Half way in, we crossed a small creek that had trail markers on both sides of the trail upon leaving the creek. It appeared to be more reasonable to go left and that was the natural direction for the dogs to go. I stopped the team once we were off the creek and headed down the trail to the left. I looked right, which would have meant a 120 degree turn off the creek, and saw no trail markers but a lot of sled tracks. I walked up to the front of the team and looked down trail to see no trail markers and only a few sled tracks. So I turned the team around to go the other way, and fixed the misleading trail markers. I made the correct move! As we approached Trapper Creek, the moon appeared just at the horizon. This race weekend, took place during a full moon, and were gifted with incredible moon rises each night. It is especially beautiful to catch the rise at the beginning, when the moon is yellow and swollen, and beaming through the tree line on the horizon. Experiencing all of this while traveling hundreds of miles by dog team is pure magic. Pulling in to the checkpoint, there were only a few teams left there, we were officially the caboose. Our friend Cheryl was there to greet us, and it was just so nice to see her, and to have a familiar face to talk to. Cheryl and I headed inside after dog chores, into the trading post that felt like it was 120 degrees inside. I ordered a burger and fries, and decided to try to sleep for a bit. I laid down in the overly warm building, having not slept in a day and a half, and I could not fall asleep. That damn hill, and knowing that I had to do it again, kept me awake. My mind flooded with visions for going down it, constantly calculating my upcoming race plan to see if I would be there in the daylight or not. So I rested my body for two hours, my mind raced on, and I was up to boot the dogs for our next run. We were headed back to Amber Lake, about 62 miles, on a super wide and easy trail. The kind of trail that puts you to sleep if you’re not careful. I nearly dozed off a few times, getting my ski pole out just to have something to keep me awake. My well rested and youthful dog team was still cruising, so I would be ski poling to stay awake and pressing the drag mat to keep them slow. I camped half way to Amber, pulling over as soon as I found a good spot that was out of the wind. I passed the two young Seavey teams camped on the trail, and they passed me back once I was pulled over. Again, not sleeping due to the upcoming hill.
Well, we made it to Amber in one piece. Making it back down the hill, although barely this time. As you come around that sharp 90 degree turn, you’re pulling your sled to the left to avoid the tree, as your team is already fully committed to the descent. I bounced off of a left sided root system that pushed me right, where I bounced off of another root system, and inevitably came down the hill with my knees on the drag. All safe, and all healthy!! Woo Hoo no I can get some sleep! Or not, I just stayed up and socialized…this is admittedly a horrible habit that I will tackle consciously during Iditarod!! It was still warm at Amber, even as we pulled the hook to take off on our final leg at 8pm. I had trail reports that it was very cold in Willow, and getting colder as we got closer. So I kept the dogs coated for the run. It seemed to slow them down a bit, they might have been a bit hot at first. I was hot, no parka for me. I took it off and packed it on the go. A good idea to get used to not stopping the team, and being able to do things like take your parka off or eat snacks while moving down the trail. We stopped to camp after a 40 mile run, leaving us about 30 miles shy of the finish. It was a cold place to call home. Turned out to be around -35 that night we slept on the river. I was able to fall asleep laying on the sled in my parka, but the cold would shake me awake before my alarm in an uncontrollable shiver. So I paced the trail until warm, fed the dogs, and layed back down. Another hour long nap, woken by the onset of chill. The easy thing would have been to cut the rest short, and just hit the trail, but the better thing to do for the dogs was to finish our planned rest, so we did. Our mush to the finish line was accompanied by another warming sunrise, a balmy -25 at the finish. There were trail markers on that last section labeled MVTC (Matanuska Valley Trail Club I think), but those Vs sure looked like Us, and the Cs sure looked like Os. So I followed the MUTO markers all the way in!!
The dogs looked wonderful at the finish. I had all 12 that I started with, energized and happy little guys and gals, and we were welcomed by a good crowd of supporters and colleagues. I rode my drag the entire race, keeping the dogs going 9 mph. However, sleepyness has this ability to mess with comprehension and cognitive function. There were many times where I thought we were crawling and moving really slow. I would look down at my GPS and see that we were at 11mph. Shoot, better slow down!! I am super proud of what these dogs did, and how great they looked at the end, and Im proud of myself for getting them there in that great of shape. We were more than a day behind the leaders, but ya know what we were supposed to be. Rookie dogs, rookie musher, this is the sustainable pace for a young dog team that will allow for a healthy body and mind in future years.