I completed the Iditarod in just over 12 days and was greeted by friends and family at the finish line. It was for sure the hardest thing I've ever done and will take me several months to pools my thoughts before sharing my experience. Stay tuned and thank you for all your support.
I had a little Q&A on facebook and here are the results!!
The Iditarod, beginning March 3rd is 1000 mile dog race going over mountains, lakes, and barren land in temperatures as low as -60 degrees. The trail takes you into the past stopping at several isolated villages only assessable by plane. Starting on a frozen lake filled with fans barbecuing in Willow and if you are lucky and prepared enough you will finish on the coast in Nome.
What is usually the most challenging part of the race for participants generally? What do you think will be the most challenging part of the race for you personally? (Physically, mentally, etc).
Oh gosh. I think what’s so challenging is the combination of cold, lack of sleep, food, and water. Everyone will hallucinate due to the above conditions. These hallucinations are amazing. I’ve swung at tree branches while being on a lake and heard noises of wolves and other dogs coming from the trees. The mind really plays tricks on you.
The hardest thing I think people will have to deal with is going to be their own mind. The dogs can do it. The weakest link will always be the musher. When’s it’s 3:00 am, -40 out and you just got up from a 45 min nap, you can choose to get out of your sleeping bag or call it quits. Gosh. I’m not looking forward to that part. To help prepare you do these types of things at home and are forced to do them on smaller races.
What kind of challenges do the dogs go through on this journey?
Dog and human are going to be going through a lot of the same things. Most notable would be lack of sleep, the cold and the ample amount of exercise compared to rest.
Dogs will get tired and get sore muscles. You can choose to carry them or leave them behind at a checkpoint with veterinarians to be returned after the race. Dogs will also get sore feet as well and chaffing from the harness in different places.
Talk about your mental prep, what are you doing the day of and during to stay focused?
This is a great question as well. I think a lot of the past challenges has helped me prepare for this one in that the mental game is all practice. I like to look at things as it’s just another day. Whether you workout all day or lay on the sofa that 24 hours has passed so why not do something that pushes you.
Breaking your goal into small manageable chunks is important so not to get overwhelmed with everything you haven’t done yet.
However, I think the biggest thing is staying positive. Not only to trick yourself, however, the dogs as well. When they see you are upbeat and happy they will be as well. Same goes if you are down and hating life!!
“Life’s great and I’m excited about this challenge.” The more I tell myself that the easier everything becomes.
Finally, my mentor, Nick was saying that he hopes the Weather is good and it’s an easier Iditarod for his girlfriend who is also running. I told him I hope it’s the opposite. I hope it is the hardest one ever with storms and -60 temperatures. If I plan on this and it comes true I will be ok also if it doesn’t then the challenge just became easier.
How many competitors will there be? Do you all start at the same time/place? Do you expect to be racing in a group or do the sleds typically split up?
There are just over 70 people signed up for this year's race. The biggest challenge for one of these races is to get to the starting line so we will see how many make it. We all start on long Lake with I think 5-minute intervals between us. Our starting position is decided by a draw and the time is trued up at a checkpoint, holding back the people who went early.
Most of the time people are solo. It’s difficult to run in groups because different teams travel at different speeds in the race. I suspect that along the way you will hang out with familiar people at the different checkpoints and probably make some lifelong friends!
How do you know where the trail is the whole time? There must be points where it is blown over, unclear etc...
Great question. There are thousands of wooden stacks pounded into the snow, ice, and the ground to let you know you are on the trail. You do hear stories of people getting lost however it’s probably because they missed a marker.
You are right though with markers getting blown over. That does happen. Especially on the sea ice towards the ladder part of the race. You will also see moose knock them over. Something to do with the reflective tape that attracts them.
How old is this race? what is the "prize"?
The Iditarod started March 3rd 1973 envisioned up by a musher named Joe Redington. Following trails used for trading by the natives, no one knew if it was even possible to make it the full distance. 20 days and 15 hours after the start there was a finisher! Nowadays to top mushers will do it in under 9 days.
The prize is different every year. This year it is $500,000 divided among all the finishers. Everyone who crosses the finish line will get at least $1,049. The 49 reflects the 49th state to join the United States!
What is the rescue plan?
Every musher wears a GPS tracker which has a button that can be pressed if you get into trouble. They will then send helicopters or snow machines depending on the emergency.
When does the Iditarod start making snow for the big race?
Great question. We need more snow!! 3 of the past five years the Iditarods official start on March 4th had to be moved 400 miles north to Fairbanks. There is a ceremonial start done for the fans to meet the mushers in Anchorage and the past couple years there was not enough snow and it had to be trucked in. Wouldn’t be surprised if this happens again this year!
No ones talking about wolves.... what about the wolves...?
I really haven’t seen any on the trail. Mostly will see moose, caribou, and once I’ve seen a ram.
How many dogs will you be running?
I currently have 17 dogs on my team that I am training. Took them 140 miles the other day over a 24 hour period. At the race start, you are allowed to have up to 16 dogs however several people start with fewer. I will probably start with fewer because some of the dogs I’m currently running might not be in good enough shape.
What are you bringing with you? How long does it take? What are the biggest risks to prepare for? What emergency systems are in place?
The Iditarod sets mandatory gear including snowshoes, ax, -40 sleeping bag, a cooker to boil water, fuel for the cooker, booties and good for the dogs.
I will also be bringing with me coats and blankets for the dogs. Extra gear including change of clothes for myself. Snacks and of course my camera!
I feel like the cold is your biggest enemy to prepare for. I don’t even know what -60 feels like. Lack of sleep, food, and water are never fun as well.
Every sled has a GPS with an emergency button that can be pressed. The helicopters will come looking for you if needed.
When did you start doing all this fantastical crazy stuff?
Two years ago I came up to Alaska to try it out to see if I even liked it. Staying only for 5 days it was pretty easy to fall in love with it. Unbelievable challenging, that demands 100 percent of your attention all while dealing with the elements. You should come give it a try!
Is Bradley Farquhar the sexiest man to ever run the Iditarod?
Haha. That’s the best question ever!! My guess is I’m probably the sexiest Nova Scotian to ever run it. Given that I will be the first! (Fingers crossed) love your support!
Once you have finished the race, would you be interested in talking to Australian students about the experience?
Would love to talk to some students about it. Anyway, I can share this experience I will. This is a life-changing event and everyone should know about it.
There has recently been a pyridine shift in my mind knowing that there is under a month until the Iditarod. Five months ago when I got back to Alaska everything seemed so far away, now the days are flying by with most of my remaining time booked with packing drops backs for the 16 checkpoints on the Iditarod, vet checks, friends visiting, and the meetings the Iditarod has us booked for.
This experience has already been life-changing one and I'm already starting to miss it. Getting away on an adventure allows you to take a moment and get out of the bubble at home and think outside of the box to solve your problems. Time alone to think has to be one of the most valuable things that most people don't get enough of or are scared of. In my experience, I was scared of it. In fact, I almost didn't come up to Alaska last year to dog sled knowing I was going to be living in a dry cabin by myself. Standing at the doorstep of the Iditarod I have grown over this two years; more than I have over any other two years in my life. I stand here confident and excited for the challenge ahead.
Like I said this experience is flying by. I just finished my last middle distance race a few days ago and was hit with emotion when crossing this finish line. Emotions lefts me thinking back on all the fun it has been up to this point. The people I met and the scary situations I put myself into. Knowing that these are coming to an end soon with only the Iditarod left I couldn't help but feel a little sad.
Hello, new season!!!
I road tripped the 8000 km from Nova Scotia to Alaska with my Mom traveling about 10 days arriving at the beginning of October 2017. In fact, we made an Amazing Race Canada video application out of the journey.
This year I am living with Nicolaus Petit in Willow Alaska. Knowing I wanted to learn different techniques this year I figured switching up the mentor wouldn't be a bad thing. I looked at the list of top finishers of the Iditarod and Nic was 3rd place. I went to his website and sent him an email asking if he was interested in teaching everything I will need to know for the Iditarod. After a few emails and a couple phone calls we came to a deal. At this point, I already struck a deal with Ken Anderson to lease his dogs for the season.
When we arrived at the kennel I parked the car and Mom and I walked up to the front door. A woman answered and I asked if Nic was home. She said he wasn't and I told her who I was and she gave me the impression of never hearing my name before or knowing I was coming to live with them for 6 months. Almost not surprised there would be a hickup I got back in my car and started to drive down the long gravel road exiting the property to get something to eat. My mom's worries were soon put to rest when on the way, we ran into Nic. :) I said we were going to get some food and he joined! I later found out that people come and go from this house so often that it makes sense the owner Sam wouldn't know what date I was coming.
With Mom only in Alaska for a few days we got to work right away. We rented a Truck for the season down in Anchorage and drove it hauling a dog trailer 600 miles north to Fairbanks to pick up the dogs.
When arriving at Ken's yard and seeing the dogs for the first time there was a sense of unfamiliarity. I wasn't sure of all their names and forgot most of their personalities. In fact, I had already negotiated to purchase Jerry and wasn't sure if I remembered him or if he even rememed me???
Getting him back to Willow it didn't take long for him to cuddle back up.
In fact it didn't take any of the 16 dogs a long time.
To start this post off, I would like to thank Ken Anderson for taking me on this year and passing on his dog sledding knowledge. Without a mentor like him, there is no way someone can learn everything needed to complete the three qualifying races.
This race is where everything came together. Months of training all came down to one last 300-mile race and Ken ensured I went into it with the mindset just to finish. Too much is on the line to risk pushing the dogs too hard. I ended up crossing the finish line after two days, 16 hours and 20 minutes with nine happy and healthy dogs.
This race was very different from the copper basin 300 being a much flatter and faster course. Having six new dogs added to my team only a week before the race I did my best to get to know them and find out their motivations. My last race all the dogs finished in the same place they started, however, this race I moved almost every dog to a different position as needed. The highlight of the race was getting my first experience crossing open water.
This race is where everything came together, and I wanted to go over some of the dog care and mushing techniques I've learned over the season.
But first!!! This is a photo taken an hour before my last race and just after getting up from a nap at my last checkpoint. A Little bit of a difference!
Sleeping on the Race
Probably the most unglamorous thing on the race (if you put aside the thought that you’re probably covered in dog poop) is where you sleep! If sleeping on the trail, you will often sleep on a camping matt or straw inside your sleeping bag (which is mandatory gear). I’ve seen some people sleep on top of their sleds however I prefer to inflate my matt. It takes a few extra minutes, however, provides a much better sleep.
At the checkpoints, if you are not sleeping outside with your dogs you can be sleeping on the floor in the middle of a bar, dark empty rooms, a bunkhouse or my favorite, beside a fire truck on a cout. I have also fallen asleep several times on my sled nearly falling off a couple of times.
Placing your Dogs on the Gangline
Dogs get sore muscles and injuries just like humans and just like humans they can still run however we need to tend to and baby the sore spots. The musher can choice to position the dog in the front, back, on the left or right side of the gangline. If one of the dogs have a sore front leg we place them on the opposite side of the gangline to the sore limb and the opposite for a hind leg.
The back of the gangline the dogs have to pull harder, and leading can be more mentally excusing.
You have to make sure the dogs get along with each other. I’ve seen dogs fight mid-run where I stopped the sled ran over and body slammed one dog off the other. What's funny is they ran the rest of the run beside each other fine.
With four females on my team, it's almost a given that one will be in heat. The in heat dog should be position beside another female and surrounded by other females or fixed males. One thing to keep in mind, the females want it just as bad.
During the race at most checkpoints, you have the option to drop dogs. Meaning any dogs that are injured, we can leave behind at the checkpoint and get them back at the end of the race. Some injuries are manageable on the trail if caught soon enough with a trained eye and others are not. Feet, wrist and shoulder injuries are the most common. When a dog starts to limp or act funny, you need to figure out where the injury is at.
For the feet, you will check the underside of the paw to see if it has become pink, called raspberry foot or if there are any splits in the skin. These issues are often found in cold, fluffy snow conditions where the snow can get up into the paw and forms an ice ball. With raspberry foot we apply pink foot cream, for splits, we spray purple spray and squirt baby powder into the paw. To prevent these injuries we put booties on the dog's feet.
For the wrist, you would squeeze each paw back to the wrist slowly to see if the dogs show signs of pain. Wrist injuries can be manageable on the trail by massaging the area with a soothing cream and using wrist straps wrapped around a small bag of snow to reduce swelling. If the injury gets worse, you will need to drop the dog.
For shoulder injuries, you would stretch out their arm forwards and then backward. You would do this on both sides and compare each side to see if one is stiffer than the other. Shoulder injuries usually mean we have to drop the dog. To treat we will massage the area with cream, and put a specially designed coat on them containing several pockets where hand warmers can be inserted to provide heat to the injured area.
Some other things you want to keep an eye on are the dog's pee and poop. If the pee becomes brown, the dog is breaking down muscle and you need to immediately stop them from running. Diarrhea and black poop can be indications of stomach issues.
Finally, with the dogs wearing harnesses and coats, there is always a chance these items can chaff their skin. If this happens, you need to fix the issue or put cream on the sores.
Arriving at a Checkpoint
Being efficient and deliberate is important to give yourself more time to sleep and eat.
When you arrive at a checkpoint a volunteer usually tells you where to park, and you guide your dogs into that location. Not going to lie, it’s mind blowing how they can be controlled to park right where you want them too. Once parked you secure your sleds position with an ice hook, grab your second ice hook which will be used to secure the front of the gangline. As you are walking up to the front, you are undoing the dog's tug lines to reduce the pulling power of the dogs. After securing the front ice hook, you work your way back to your sled removing dogs booties, harnesses from chewers, and switching rope necklines to metal ones for chewers as well. Once back to your sled you retrieve your drop bags and bail of straw usually located close to the parking area. Once back you sprinkle straw over the dogs, get water for your cooker or pack it full of snow. Lite the cooker, as it heats up, you start tending to dogs injuries. When the water is boiling you prepare the meal, give it out, and then depending on how cold it is you might place blankets over the dogs. Tidy up your area, and you’re good to get some food and sleep.
What is in Drop Bags
Preparing my drop bags a few days in advance I packed 16 pounds of thinly sliced beef, two 12 pound bags of kibble with the powders already mixed, two zip lock bags of fat, trail snakes, booties, and cooking fuel. It takes about a day to prepare the drop bags which are provided to the race volunteers a day before the race.
Leaving a Checkpoint
The first thing I do is start making hot water to prepare a trail meal for the dogs. Any leftover food from the last feeding would be distributed and then I start preparing the dogs to go by putting harnesses, tug lines and new booties on. Make sure everything is in order on my sled, and we are off!!
Feedings on the Race
You can imagine after running 100 miles the dogs might prioritize sleeping over eating. Their meals consist of water, kibble, beef, fat, and bonemeal/psyllium powders. Preparing a checkpoint meal, you first figure out where you are going to get the water. A hole cut in the ice, running water at a building or melting snow are the usual methods. It's important to serve the dogs a warm meal, so it takes fewer calories for them to digest the food. Part of every musher's mandatory gear includes a cooker that can boil a minimum of three gallons of water. Taking 15 to 35 minutes to bring the water to a boil you pour the hot water into a cooler along with the fat and a half pound of frozen beef per dog. Giving time to thaw the meat you can then add the kibble and powders. After giving the kibble time to soak up some of the water, you can begin to feed the dogs in little dishes. The placement of the dog dishes is important. You don’t want it to be too close to other dogs where they feel like they need to protect their meal however you want to ensure you put it right in front of their mouths reducing the amount of effort required to eat. Sometimes the dogs prefer not the eat from a dish, so you pull back a patch of straw and make a little hole in the snow and slowly pour the food into the spot making a small pile.
While on the trail we will also feed the dogs the same meal reducing their portions down to only one scoop and feeding it to them right on the ground. Sometimes the dogs do not want to eat on the trail so you can offer them an assortment of frozen treats including thinly sliced beef, turkey skins, beaver or dry kibble. These trail feedings happen every two to three hours.
Before starting this journey, I severely underestimated how much there was to learn and how long it would take. Looking back over the four months I don’t know how we covered everything we did. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be qualified for The Last Great Race.
I'm not exactly sure what to write about. I could write about the sites I saw or the thoughts that were going through my mind. I could talk about how physically and mentally demanding it was to workout for three days straight with only 6 hours of napping on floors, snow or in community bunk rooms. However most of what I saw, thought, and the challenge can never be described to do it justice. At the end of the day, I wish everyone could have been there with me. This is my attempt to paint a picture.
"Warm inside my sleeping bag on top of a blow-up mat which is separating me from the three-foot-deep snow I stomped down, I think about how lucky I am to be 50 miles into this race taking a short two-hour nap. The dogs are asleep beside me curled up on a bit of hay. It's a starless -15 C night, with a little freezing rain falling. Dogs are fed and I've been satisfied with some chicken I ate as my first meal. With 250 miles to the finish line, the dogs are looking happy and healthy. I'm going to start this nap now."
With other dog teams passing on the trail distributing my team there wasn't good rest to be had. When the time came, I prepared the dogs and off we were again.
"Made it to my second stop! It's slow moving out there with powder snow. I gave the dogs a single scoop of food each and am letting them rest here at Sourdough Checkpoint. I put some hay down for myself and am going to take a quick nap laying on top of it without bothering to get my sleeping bag out. Once I get up, I will put booties on the dogs, maybe feed them a little and be on my way. Night!"
That wasn't the best sleep. Got 30-40 minutes exposed to the elements before I got too cold and had to get up. Back on the trail, it is still dark, and the dogs are moving slowly in the deep snow, but are keeping a good pace. Only being 34 miles to the next checkpoint Meiers Lake, I felt the run was taking forever. We had some steep climbs where I would get off the sled and run beside it. Hill after hill I found new motivation with the sun rising and the distant site of Meiers Lake checkpoint. Only a couple downhill miles left heading to the checkpoint I snapped this picture.
Once into the checkpoint, I got the dogs bedded down and fed. Meiers Lake Checkpoint has a restaurant where I indulged with french toast and shepherds pie. They provided an open dark room for mushers to sleep where I just unrolled my sleeping bag and slept on top of it for cushion.
It blows my mind how few hours of sleep mushers are able to get on the trail and the ones you do get are done laying on snow, hardwood floors, or in a small bunk room with dozens of other mushers snoring.
After an hour of sleep, I ate some fudge, got the dogs ready to go and just before pulling out I saw Torsten coming back into the checkpoint the opposite way. He noticed that a couple of his dog's pee was brown in color. This happens when the dog's muscles are breaking down from pushing them too hard. When you see this you must stop running them right away. Torsten was back in the checkpoint originally to drop these two dogs off, however, decided it would be best to drop out of the race to give all the dogs a break.
Once on the trail, we followed the great Alaskan pipeline for the majority of the run. There were two extremely steep sections. Every time I see steep sections I get excited. I know I can out run anyone going up hills.
"I arrived in Tolsona at 1:36 am. I've had a total of three hours of sleep, and my body seems to be still functioning normally. I'm currently waiting on boiling water to feed the dogs a warm meal. In about 40 mins I will be in bed. Hopefully will get about two hours of sleep and then on to a 50-mile run. Currently, I am sitting in 20th place which puts me in the top 75%. That's all I need!"
At Tolsona checkpoint there is no restaurant however the fire station located right beside where we are parking the dogs has a few cots available for mushers. I hung my wet outer layers up to dry on different parts of the tuck's latter and plugged my headlamp into charge. I slept well and was soon back on my sled.
Throughout the final third of the race, I started hearing noises. Dogs barking to my right and left; I would look around and see nothing. My brain was playing tricks on me. The sounds wouldn't go away. At one point I could hear a humming sound every time I chewed. Conscious my mind was playing tricks on me and started to play with it by chewing my beef jerky to the beat of, "Twinkle twinkle little star." Soon after, I began to have super powers and could look at an object and hear sounds from the object's location. Sounds made by the sled's runners going over the snow to the crunch of snow under each dogs foot. Being sleep deprived can do some funny things to a person, however, I never got upset or worried about it. I went with the flow, enjoyed it, and thought of it as a fun high.
"After a 9 hour run, I made it to my last checkpoint, Mendeltna. I'm giving the dogs a good 6-hour rest and giving them as much food as they can eat. The dogs are so cute curled up in their straw. I'm laying down now to get a 2.5-hour nap in a bunk room beside several other mushers. 60 mile run to the finish line. So much fun!"
Waking up tired at 9:30 PM, with a slight headache the first thing through my mind, was, "Why the hell does anyone do this?" I wanted to sleep. I didn't want to get out of bed. Knowing it is my choice I couldn't let this idea sit too long and had to get moving. I would sled through the night to the finish line.
My final leg was 60 miles. With temperatures dropping to -20 C the snow became hard and compact allowing the sled to glide smoothly. With the moonlight shining down I was able to turn my headlamp off, navigating through the night seeing only the silhouette of my surroundings. Moving up hills and around corners, I felt as if I was on a magic carpet being pulled through an alien planet by little underworld demons. Through the unfamiliar snowy landscape, I had several spiritual moments and knew this run was a once in a lifetime experience.
I crossed the finish line 2 days 22 hours and 32 minutes after starting greeted by Ken. I was full of life and was so thankful to have completed the race with nine happy healthy dogs.
Dog sledding is fantastic however, I'm getting more out of the experience than expected. Being out there; out there where inherent danger could be around the next corner, where messing up could put you in a life-threatening situation. It makes me feel alive! More alive than I have ever felt. It makes life simpler and more manageable in many ways. Your thoughts are all in the moment. You are incredibly present focusing on the needs of your dogs, the beauty of your surrounding. You appreciate the little things like a warm hat, eating peanut butter and crackers, and that your body can stand up to the physical demands. The thing I was most appreciative for was not having my cell phone turned on. Going three days without the distraction, being solely in the moment with the dogs is almost takes a level of stress out of your life. I also feel the dogs deserve 100% of your attention while on the trail and is the respectful thing to do.
I am lucky to have completed this race and will be forever thankful! This is the tracking info http://trackleaders.com/copper17i.php?name=Bradley_Farquar
Waking up at 7:00 am for an 11:00 am race, the family we were staying with had breakfast prepared served with last minute advice. Ken and I arrived at the starting line located on a frozen lake. All the teams were set up like a horseshoe so when their start time comes they sled up to the line of departure. Ken knowing pretty much everyone in the dog sled community ensured we were going last so that we were not worried about other teams passing and so we could take it slow. We only have so many dogs in the kennel which three of us are sharing and can not afford to have any dog injuries.
Moments before my starting time arrived I finished attaching my last dog to the gangline and did a double check to ensure I had everything I would need. Volunteers helped lead my dogs to the starting line which gave me a few minutes to reflect. There has been a ton of money and time invested into getting to this point, and ever penny has been worth it. I get to push myself every day and live a lifestyle not many people do. I have seen incredible views and was able to build a great bond with the ten dogs pulling me. I'm living a life where I get to be excited and am so thankful for that.
As I pull into the starting shoot, the guy standing there says, "Are you ready?" With a nod of my head, the guy says, "Good luck" and "Goooo!"
My team is off! There are three-minute intervals between each starting time. Knowing Ken is right behind me I dreaded the idea of messing anything up, and Ken comes around the corner and sees me tangled in a tree.
Keeping my foot on the drag break, Ken soon caught up and sticking to our plan we sled together. Myself in the lead, I followed the blue markers indicating the correct path. Before the race, Ken and I planned everything out. The first checkpoint is about 50 miles out where there is a lodge, food, and a place to park the dogs. We planned on going there resting the dogs between 2-4 hours. Maybe catch an hour of sleep ourselves and then making the journey to our next checkpoint at Yentna Station which is a checkpoint in the Iditarod as well. Only being a short 35 miles over a frozen river from the last checkpoint there is a 6-hour mandatory layover, so we intended to nap there in the bunk house. Finally, the goal was to go nonstop on the way back.
After 5 hours of sledding, we arrived at our first checkpoint. Greeted by volunteers, we signed in and told where the park our dogs. As I drove my sled to an old runway where all the teams were parking, I stopped as soon as entering the area. I decided to wait for Ken, who moments ago was right behind me. Looking back, I didn't see Ken. Several minutes went by and still no sign of Ken. Thinking I must have done something wrong I started to worry. Thankfully as these thoughts were going through my mind, Ken comes around the corner, parks his team and then shows me a good spot to park. I later found out he made a wrong turn.
Once my team was secure, I decided to avoid asking Ken any questions and do everything as if I was by myself. I then took the dogs booties off, detached their taglines, got a pail of water and a bail of hay which was a close walk away. I put the pail of water into the cooker to start heating it up. I then poured the hot water into a cooler full of frozen meat and kibble for the dogs. Sprinkling hay over each dog, they patted it down making a bed. After walking the dogs up with a warm meal, they quickly ate everything allowing Ken and me to make our way to Eagle Lodge. There we ate a meal and caught an hour of sleep laying on the floor above the restaurant. When we finished eating I realized, I was without my watch to set the alarm. I didn't like the idea of relying on Ken however it was a learning lesson. Ideally I could just use my phone; however, most of these dog sledding races are all about banning any device enabling two-way communication which includes cell phones. In the case of emergency, we are provided a GPS tracker that has a button that when pressed sends emergency help.
Waking up from our hour nap on the floor feeling a little dazed. We made our way back to the dogs, put booties on them and got back on the trail. With our headlamps providing light and following the blue markers we soon found ourselves on the frozen river. In years past this can be a frigid section. With the temperature sitting around -27 C / -15 F I started to feel my hands become cold. I opened a pack of hand warmers, sliding them agents my skin they are covered by the three layers of gloves I was wearing. Before long my hands were feeling well, and the dogs were moving at an excellent pace. It's pretty amazing being out there, on the ice with only the sound of your sled going over the snow. There were several things to avoid when traversing the ice including what's called drum ice. Drum Ice is when the ice is not solid all the way through, and there are open gaps full of air. You know you are on drum ice when you hear a hollow sound. This becomes dangerous when the top layer falls into the next layer leaving a big open hole. Several of these were marked with two stakes making an X however just as many were not and last minute you would maneuver your sled around them. It was hard to worry about this too much when the northern lights were dancing above us and seeing the fiery entrance of a meteor making its way through the atmosphere to the ground. Arriving at Yentna Station, I parked my team, fed them and then went into the lodge to eat and then we took a 5-hour nap in the bunkhouse. Sleeping in my -40 bag reminds me of being a kid on snowy cold days and Dad yelling down that schools canceled allowing me to stay in bed.
When Ken's alarm went off, we put our gear back on, got some eggs and pancakes, fed our dogs, and we were off again. At this point, we were in last place. We were the last team to leave this checkpoint. Here's the photo I had taken before we left:
This is not a huge deal because we wanted to rest the dogs however for this to count as an Iditarod qualifying race I needed to finish in the top 75% of the finishers. Thinking this might be unlikely I was a bit concerned however knew, life always works out. On the way back we followed the same trail and decided to go the full 85 miles. We did give the dogs snacks about every two hours.
We passed through the checkpoint at Eagle Lodge and kept going. With only about ten miles left in the race, the dogs started to click and work as a team. I began to run up the hills beside the sled making it easier on the dogs trying to keep the intensity for as long as possible. As we approached the finish line, I felt so thankful to be able to work with the dogs and complete my first race.
Ken and I received one more surprise. As we crossed the finish line, we were told we are 20th and 21st out of 33 racers. Putting myself in the top 75 percentile making this race count as my first Iditarod qualifiers.
Tracker info can be found at http://trackleaders.com/knik17i.php?name=Bradley_Farquhar
Unfortunately with the looming question if the Gin Gin is able to find a veterinarian or not, hanging over our heads. We decided to scrap the idea and go to a different race a little farther away which is a 200-mile race as well.
The Knik 200 starts on Saturday vs Friday giving us an extra day to pack. Also, enables Ken to sled with me for my first race!! Winning!
I took the dogs out for a short 9 mile run yesterday just so they were not sitting for three days in a row. Just as I was getting ready to pull out, Josh gets back from grooming the trail and walks over to me. He says, "you know how to use one of these?" And hands we a handgun. After walking me through how to use it he says "there's a moose on the trail, I've scared it off however it could come back!" After putting the gun in my sled he says, "If it gets near fire a shot in the ground or the air to scare him off!"
Haha. Never shooting a handgun before I took it hoping not to have to use it. On the way out I didn't see a moose and also on the way back. No moose. That's a happy ending to a run if you ask me.
The rest of the night I continued packing my stuff and now we are off to Knik 200 which starts tomorrow morning!! :)
My friend Daniel from San Francisco visited me this week, and we gave him a week he won't forget.
When he was getting ready to come up, I told him, “It is cold. Colder than you can imagine.” I explained he could bring all the clothes he owns and still wouldn’t be warm enough. With that in mind, Daniel went shopping in SF to prepare for the trip.
I meet up with him for the first time in Anchorage where I was at the Iditarod Rookie meeting. We met at our hotel called, Lake Side located on the largest float plane landing lake in Anchorage. The first thing he said was, “It’s cold.” I quickly replied, "Hell yeah it's cold. It's -15 out!!"
We spent the night in Anchorage catching up and flew to Fairbanks later the next day.
While back in Fairbanks I wanted to make sure I took him on a longer run and camp out with the dogs for the night. Daniel being from the city has never been camping before and certainly not winter camping. I was thinking about taking him on a dog run to a cabin 50 miles away. This one room log cabin has seen better days; however, it has a wood stove, and because it is so far out there, Daniel will get the feeling of Alaska's openness.
Ken suggested we do a shorter run first to get Daniel use to being on the 4-wheeler and of course the cold. We did a 20 mile run both sitting on the 4-wheeler while the dogs pulled it. Daniel for sure got cold; however, the next day we went to Beaver Sports to buy some new gear to ensure he doesn’t get too cold and avoid the serious frost bite.
With the new gear, we decided it's time to attempt the camping trip. Keeping the dogs overnight requires a lot of packing including, hay for them to sleep on, blankets to put over them if it's too cold, lots of extra food just incase, a device to heat up water (cooker) to give with their meals and lots of methanol to run the cooker. Some of the stuff we packed included enough food for the day, a smaller meal for breakfast, -40 sleeping bags, and extra fuel and oil for the 4-wheeler.
Ken decides to join us leaving about an hour afterward on his sled. The route to get to the cabin is pretty straight forward. We were on dirt roads for the first 2/3’s going to the highest point in Fairbanks, through 6-foot high snow drifts which making us feel like we were in another world. Finally dropping down into the Mento flats where the temperature drops and additional ten degrees. The last third of the journey is pretty bumpy, going through single lane trails surrounded by snow covered spruce trees with bows hanging down making natural archways. This trail is seldom used and is overgrown in many sections with tree limbs that need to be ducked under. As Daniel can speak too you can not dodge them all.
When we got about an hour away from the cabin, I stopped to put more fuel in the tank. I got off the 4-wheeler and walked back to the gas can and noticed it was on its side and I could smell gasoline. Realizing it has been slowly leaking out over that past several hours, we were left with a fraction of what we started with. Pouring the remaining fuel into the tank, it didn’t take long to realize we were not going to have enough fuel to return home the next day. Trying to get that out of my mind and continue with the journey proved to be tough. I kept going over scenarios on how we are going to get the 4-wheeler back the next day. Ken did mention in the past they have put the fuel used for the cooker into the 4-wheeler, and it didn’t cause any harm. However, we are going to need a lot of cooker fuel to make it home.
Once we arrive to the cabin Daniel started to get the dogs harness and booties off so they could sleep comfortably and I lite the cooker and the fireplace in the cabin. Soon after Ken arrived and I was still feeling like an idiot for losing fuel. Wasn’t sure how I was going to tell Ken. Once we were all done with the dogs the three of us were in the cabin cooking our food on the wood stove and I lightly touched on the fact that the fuel leaked out and I wasn’t sure if we would have enough fuel to get home. I also followed that up with confirming it would be ok to have Josh place a can of fuel on the trail for us to get on the way home. Ken was clearly tired and didn’t think too much of it, and we all went to bed.
Morning came fast, and after Ken had looked into the 4-wheeler tank, he explained there is no way we were going to make it back home, and we would have to stay in the cabin until he can get more fuel down to us. He left his remaining dog and human food, survival gear including jumper cables for the 4-wheeler, phone charger, and a device with a button you can press if you are ever in trouble. He also suggested trying not to use any of the cooker fuel and heat water on the wood stove.
With Ken now gone, Daniel and I filled all the cooker with snow to melt into water. While Daniel was napping, I went to the frozen over creek behind the cabin to try and cut a hole in the ice to get water. After clearing snow, it took me about 20 minutes to cut about 18 inches into the ice and was surprised that I didn't hit any water. I figured the creek has to be frozen right through and we are not going to be able to get water this way.
I began chopping more firewood just outside of the cabin. As I was bringing it into the cabin, Daniel woke up, and he said he wanted to learn how to chop wood. After demonstrating a few times, he picked it up pretty quick. We also had a serious conversation concerning how long we could be down here for and that we should conserve our food.
Ken also asked us to clear some of the trails of overhanging tree limbs. With a hand saw ready to go we cleared the trail for about four hours.
Once we got back to the cabin, we turned my phone back on to see if we go any text messages from Ken or Josh. We got a text saying Josh was going to stash fuel on the trail and suggested pouring one can of the cooker fuel into the 4-wheeler.
With limited food for us and the dogs, we decided it would be best to make an attempt to leave now vs spending another night.
Being -35 C out we are unsure if we can get the 4-wheeler started. First off we had to put the battery back into the 4-wheeler which we brought in overnight to keep warm. When we were reinstalling it, we noticed that both the positive and negative sides of the battery had two wires that look like needed to be attached. When trying to do so, we just couldn’t get them both put back on. Now unsure if both of them were originally on we decide to fasten the most important looking one and see if that works. Secondly, Ken suggested the day before to take coals out of the fire and place them into a metal dog dish underneath the 4-wheelers engine. Then cover the engine area with blankets to keep the heat in.
Pulling the choke and hitting the starter the motor started to turn over. With high hopes, we continued trying prying the engine would start. To our amazement it did! Holy crap! Everything went into high gear at this point. There was a lot of work that needed to be done for us to leave. We let the engine run for about 10 minutes to heat up and then started it once again about 30 mins later as we were packing things. Once we had all everything ready to go and we fired up the engine one last time. Once again, it started!!!
We are off! We quickly moved through the section of the trail with all the tree limbs that needed to be dodged and onto the smooth trail. I was keeping track of the time and the amount of bars on the fuel indicator. With only three on there and a 4-hour journey to the stashed fuel I roughly knew how far we needed to go per bar. After about an hour one of the bars disappeared. Completely let down and disappointed I knew we would not have enough fuel to make it to out. To add to the feeling the 4-wheeler just turned itself off.
I knew it wasn’t because the fuel tank was empty so I figured it must be the cables we didn’t hookup to the battery. We took the seat off and figured out a way to hook the other two cables onto the battery. The 4-wheeler fired back up! This was a win that we needed.
Daniel asked me a couple of times if we would have enough fuel to make it. I told him. “Yes, I think so.” Knowing there is not a chance in hell. I started thinking of ways we could still make this happen as I turned on my phone to see if we got any other text messages. We got one from Josh. It said he couldn’t put the fuel where he hoped, and he placed it additional 2 hours away. Now there is for sure no way in hell we are going to make it.
Trying to think of solutions I remembered there were a couple of summer cabins we passed on the way out, and we are not too far from them. Knowing we could make it there I could hunt through their sheds and see if they have any extra fuel. When we arrived at the cabins, I told Daniel to stay with the dogs as I went searching. I searched the three cabins that were in sight and couldn’t find any fuel. I went back to Daniel as he sits taking in one of the most impressive northern lights display I’ve ever seen and laid out the options. Firstly we could see how far we can make it on the fuel we have leaving us camping in the snow or a 5% chance we would make it to the fuel. Secondly, we could try to get into one of these cabins, spend the night and see if Josh can bring fuel to us the next day. I reminded him we are out of food for us and only have a limited amount for the dogs.
We made the decision to try and get into on of these cabins and spend the night. As we tried the first cabin, everything was locked other than a sauna which we could probably sleep in. At that moment off in the distance, we could see a silhouette of a fourth cabin. We decide to check it out. Walking through the snow, Daniel would check the doors to see if they were unlocked and I would walk around looking for fuel.
I heard Daniel yell, “Success!” Coming around the conner expecting him to tell me the doors unlocked he said he found the mother load of fuel. We walked up to the little shed, and there were six red jugs. We dumped a little out of the first one to ensure it wasn't mixed. “Crap, it's red!” We grabbed the second jug, and sure enough, it was the right fuel. We filled our 4-wheeler up and returned the jug. Knowing we had enough fuel to make it home we started the 4-wheeler back up and went on our way.
Not knowing what time it was both Daniel and I was having a hard time staying awake. As we made it back onto the dirt road, I started seeing tree branches and would dodge them with my head. Knowing we are on a two lane dirt road there really were not any tree branches, and I was hallucinating. That, along with my hands being very cold, I knew we needed to get home asap.
As we arrived home, I was surprised to see all the light on in the house. We stopped the 4-wheeler and jumped off to find Ken there saying he was happy to see us return. I asked him what time it was, thinking it was 2:00 or 3:00 am only to find out it was 7:00 am and Ken was awake to start his day.
We put the dogs back into their houses and went to bed.
We got through what could have been an awful experience with only a little bit of frost nip on our fingers. We only did this by working together, and if I could do it all over again, I would choose to do it with Daniel again. Thanks for the great experience!!
Over the past few days, I've been running the dogs between 25 and 40 miles. With the last minute change in my leaders, I am starting to feel more and more comfortable with Toby and Jenna. With all the new snow that has fallen over the Christmas break, we have been running a new trail that will eventually take us out to the White Mountains. Each run I have been solo with directions on where to go from Ken. It's always really exciting being on a new trail looking for landmarks that Ken has mentioned so you know you are going the right direction. This trail takes you over two lakes, by an old beaten down cabin, beside and under the oil pipeline and finally out the Elliott highway. With all the new snow it's like you are gliding on a cloud in some sections and others where the dog's feet are punching through causing them to move slow.
Each day I have been texting Ken when I leave and return so he knows how long it is taking me and then afterward I would tell him all the details of my run. After my second run, I was telling him all about it at the kitchen table. Said to him how much fun it was, and told him at the end of the run I used about 200 feet of the Elliott Highway to turn the dogs around. His face immediately changed, and he calmly clarified that I took the dogs on the road. After telling him again what I did his face became red and it was evident he was not happy with him. He then went on to say how stupid that was, how you have no control on the road and said with Sebastian dogs just getting hit by a car I should have known better.
Feeling a little caught off guard I just apologize and explained I didn't know that was such a bad thing to do. With the subject changed I thought it was a lesson learned and it was over.
Two days later as I am preparing all the food for the race I passed Ken in the house, and he brought it up again. He said that was a major step backward and he was worried I didn't know better. He then re-explains that the only time we take them on the road is just to cross it. That's it! Because I took them on the road, they could be more prone to do that in the future when you don't want them to. He then followed it up with he is worried about me racing and said I might not be ready.
Not the words of encouragement you want to hear only two days before your first race.
I apologized again and explained it would never happen again. At this point the lesson was learned and talking about it more is not going to benefit anything. The subject then changed and went into all the gear I needed to pack and put together.
I then went into town to pick up several needed items only to return home with Ken giving me the news that this weekend's race had their veterinarian back out last minute. This means the race would not count as an Iditarod qualifier. Fingers crossed they can find a vet within the next day. Thankfully we planned for such a thing, and I am signed up for another race down in Wasilla called the Knik 200. All the gear I needed for one, I will be needed for the other.
We will see what tomorrow brings.
During this time of year, most people are planning a getaway down south to escape the cold. Well, Brad Farquhar is doing the opposite.
The Windsor native, who now resides in San Francisco, will be travelling back to Alaska in January as he prepares to qualify for the Iditarod dog sledding race.
The race takes place every year from different points in Alaska. The race itself usually takes more than a week to finish and can include things like racing overnight or even camping overnight in unbearable conditions.
Now what would possess someone do this race in the dead of winter?
Well, for Farquhar, the idea came from the silver screen.
“When I was eight years old, and there is this one movie called Iron Will I used to love to watch,” says Farquhar.
“It’s a story about a man who enters a dog sledding race to save his family’s farm from going bankrupt. While I don’t need to save the farm, it’s something I wanted to try and right now was the right time to do it.”
Farquhar made a trip last year to Fairbanks, Alaska, for a week and worked with a trainer to see if he wanted to give it a shot. While the experience was fun, he knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk.
He has since spent more than $30,000 on the trip, for training and equipment to prepare for what lies ahead.
To qualify for the Iditarod, Farquhar has to complete two 300-mile races and one 200-mile race, with the 300-mile competitions going in the first and second weekends of January. The 200-mile race will happen in the final weekend of the month.
If he is able to complete these races, he will be able to compete in 2018.
The obstacles he has endured during the trip include whiteouts, very little daylight, camping outside and trying to command 12 sled dogs to work together as unit. While these things have proved challenging, the biggest hurdle he is facing is the simplest — the weather.
“People talk about -40 degrees but until you have felt it, you really don’t know what you are talking about. That and sleep deprivation.
“Every week we are running the dogs pretty much everyday and often times we are running them straight through the night.”
Sleep deprivation has been a major problem.
During one run, he was doing an all-night race in -40 degree weather, plus wind chill, and he started to hallucinate. He was seeing tree branches in his path even though the trail he was on was in the middle of the road.
While there are many obstacles he will face as he prepares for what lies ahead, the one thing he needs to focus on more than anything is the dogs themselves.
If an incident was to come up, the dogs can be a liability because you could have as many as 20 out there with you at any given period.
While you have to focus on your survival, you have to care for them as well.
“Any musher will tell you, it’s the most important thing and you just can’t spend money for a dog and expect it to bond with you,” says Farquhar. “You need to spend time with them, feed them, clean up their poop, but most importantly, run them and be on the trail with them, because they will test you.”
While Farquhar has been enjoying the experience, there has been some negative press lately when it comes to the sport.
A recent documentary titled Sled Dogs appeared at the Whistler Film Festival. Toronto filmmaker Fran Levitt made the film to push for better rights for dogs that have been treated inhumanly.
“In dog mushing, horse racing or any sport that involves an animal, you are going to have those outliers and have people that are cruel to them and they are bad people,” says Farquhar.
“Now, I am not saying there is no one out there that doesn’t mistreat the dogs, but the majority, the 99.9 per cent, look at these dogs as family members and treat them with respect and these dogs look at these people as family members as well, and they want to run. They’re excited about it.”
Things will not be easy for Farquhar on the road ahead. More people have actually climbed Mount Everest then have completed the Iditarod.
Either way, it will be the experience of a lifetime.
Credit goes to DEREK LEBLANC
Yesterday I got up really early and started putting everything together to go on my longest run with the dogs yet. Six hours out, six hours rest and six hours back. Total of 100 miles. I packed my sled with everything that is needed including the cooker to boil water for the dogs feedings, sleeping bag and survival gear.
As the dogs and i set out on this journey it was easy to see when the sled has some extra weight it handles differently. Mostly when we are going downhills it doesn't steer as well making me over shoot the turn and hit whatever is there. Not always a bad thing however the trouble comes when you are caught by surprise and do not have time to prepare. Over shooting the turn into fresh powder I had a rude awakening when there was a smaller tree stump only standing about 4 inches off the ground with a diameter of less than two inches.
I know what you're thinking. Why would that be so bad? The way my sled is designed is there is a storage section in the front and back, with me standing in the middle. I have a break to slow me down when standing on it called a drag break. Essentially the drag break is a thick rubber door mat with spikes sticking out of the bottom to catch the snow and ice slowing the sled down. Now the problem comes when you run over small tree stumps your foot can sometimes get thrown back off the drag map making contact with the moving ground, pulled underneath the back part of your sled. As this took place I yelled for the dogs to woo and lied forward off my sled onto the ground so not to make my food to a 90 degree turn as it gets dragged under.
As the dogs stopped I laid there in the snow taking stock of my situation. Never breaking a bone before I slowly moved my foot out of my boot and placed it raise up on the cooler attached to my sled. Giving time for the adrenaline to disapate I slipped my sock off to examine the area of my foot where was pain emerging. After several mins I decided to stand and see how it feels. Going through my mind was how Ken's client last year broke her leg from dog sledding last year ending her season. Preying it wouldn't end my dog sledding plans, I put weight on the foot and could feel a sharp bearable pain coming from one section on the outer side of my left foot. Thinking I may have dodged a bullet I started walking up and dog the gang line checking on the dogs and distributing their meal. With the pain being bareaable I decided to keep sledding and nurse the foot through the remaining 40 miles to the cabin and the return 50.
Once at the cabin I could still feel the pain however it wasn't slowing me down. Got the dogs ready for their nap and took one myself. When I awoke, I could see my foot had swelled and was in more pain. Pushing though I decided I would take it extremely slow on the way home to avoid any chance of making it worse. Sledding though the night and arriving home at 6:00 am. I did a couple conference calls for work, lite a fire and went to bed. After sleeping 4 hours I called mom and explained the foot was still hurting and she more than advised me to get an X-ray. Without having insurance in the states I called several places in Fairbanks to find a suitable price. I made the 50 min drive to the location where I was created by a super friendly staff excited to charge be the $500 it would cost. After getting the x-ray I was in the waiting room playing over scenarios on what to doctor could tell me. This whole dog sledding trip is costing me close to $30,000 and the last thing I would want to hear is you should take a few months off ending my season. The doctor came is and said it looks like you have some soft tissue damage and could have hurt your ligament. Sometimes this can hurt more than a broken bone and take 9 months for the pain to go away. I asked the obvious question, "so I can still sled tho right". He said yes!
I chalk this up as another situation where life always works out. Sled on my fiends. Sled on.
Dog sledding is one of the hardest sports I have ever done. No matter what way you look at it there is more to dog sledding than any other sport. To give some perspective I have listed out a few of the last challenges I have completed.
Swimming the English Channel
Training time: 12 months
Training Regiment: Swim four days a week in the pool two hours at a time. Longer 5-10 hour swims on the weekends, many ice baths, and cold showers for 8 months straight.
Challenge Time: 15.5 hours
The hardest thing here was dealing with the cold water. I purposely gained 20 pounds of fat to help hold in body heat during the swim. Outside of the cold just swimming for 15 plus hours is diffecelt in its own right.
Training time: 10-day mountaineering course in the Denali National Park.
Training Regiment: Keeping in generally good shape from going to the gym and running. Added a couple unique workouts to my normal routine including bringing a hiking bag to the gym, filling it with weights and walking on the stair climbing for hours.
Challenge Time: 17 Days
The Hardest thing about this challenge was dealing with the cold, thin air and having trust in your team members.
Running Marathon Des Salbes
Training time / Training Regiment: Increasing the amounts of runs per week and the distance, however, didn’t need to change my lifestyle.
Challenge Time: 6 Days
The hardest thing here other than the fact you are running 150 miles over 6 days is doing so in the heat and sand of the Sahara Desert. Add in the fact you need to carry all your survival gear and food it becomes a pretty tough challenge.
Training for the Iditarod
Training time: 8 Months
Challenge time: 10 days
Dogs: Working with the dogs and building the miles they can run just as if you or I was going to run a marathon. We start in early September before there is snow by attaching the dogs to a 4-wheeler and having them pull it in 3 or 4 gear. As the miles build and snow starts to fall, we switch to sleds. The dogs will start running 4 miles in September and a few months later they are running 100’s of miles.
Human: This sport is different where you don't have time or will to workout at the gym. Much of your day is spent with the dogs, and the little downtime you get is spent relaxing and healing. I can't overstate the amount of effort it takes to maneuver the sled on the trails. It is a lot of work!
You have to relocate to Alaska 4 months a year for two years.
You need to learn how to tend to the dog's needs. Sore wrists and shoulders are the biggest concerns. You need to get to know your dogs on a personal level. These dogs communicate to you through body language and only by getting to know them will you be able to understand what they are telling you. I am still a big rookie at this and learn the hard way. The other day I was on a 50-mile run and part way through on the return trip one of my lead dogs looked to his right in a meadow. Thinking he might see a moose or smaller animal, I looked myself. Before I knew it the whole team took a right-hand turn and is now pulling me into the meadow. He didn’t see an animal. He was asking if this is where we are supposed to go. Not responding and shining my headlamp in that direction the dogs took it as a sign to take a right.
Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest challenges. You start hallucinating, making poor decisions and start falling asleep on your sled. There is no good way around this other than getting used to exercising 20 hours a day and only sleeping four.
All in all, I am super thankful to be here going down this path of becoming a competitive dog sledder. The challenges stated above are some of the reasons that fewer people have completed the Iditarod than submitting Everest.
Ken is a busy man. With kids, wife, personal stuff, and recently starting his own sledding race, I don’t get a lot of time with him. However, when he does share some in his day, he tries to share as much knowledge as possible. One morning I received a text we are going to double sled. Being a rookie do dog sledding, I wasn’t sure if that meant we are going to be sledding with two teams of dogs, one team of dogs with both of us on a sled or one team of dogs with two sleds. After clarifying I was correct in thinking, we were going to have one team of 11 dogs pulling two sleds.
Ken went ahead and attached the sleds together while I started to harness the dogs and put them on the gang line. With the snow falling adding to the 4 inch that had already fallen today Ken decided it was time to put booties on the dogs. A "booty" is a cloth bag that slips over a dog foot and velcro around their wrist. These are put on the dogs when its cold and there is fresh snow on the ground to prevent snow balling up inside their paw. Of course, there is a perfect technique on how to do this that Ken shows me in detail and I enviably mess up, only to hear about it after Ken finds out. Part of life.
After preparing the dogs, we both hope on our sleds and give the command to start moving forward. For some reason, the dogs were not feeling up to running. However, with a few com commands, Ken encourages them out of the yard! It was great sledding behind Ken to study the way he moves from one side of the sled to the other. With Ken having over 25 years of dog sledding experience there is no one better to study. We ran the dogs about 17 miles and about half way through Ken asked if I wanted to get on the front side. Feeling confident, I agreed. Everything was going smooth other than Ken pointing out that we were going a little fast. I did receive one compliment. On our way back I didn’t get to the outside of a turn fast enough to avoid a protruding branch which almost tipped my sled over. As this was happening, I jumped off my sled and started running beside it while placing it back on both runners and jumping back on. Ken yells out, “Nice save!” Knowing you need to earn your compliments from Ken, I’ll take it.
After working all morning I went outside in the -30 degrees temp to start the 4-wheeler and prepare the dogs for another training run. On first and second attempt the 4-wheeler didn't start due to the temp. With fresh snow falling I called Ken and asked if I could take the sled out instead. To my surprise he agreed.
Going this route isn’t necessarily the easier path. There were several things I needed to prepare including attaching the gang line & snow hook to my sled, placing a bag of cuble for weight inside my sled and finally fishing a quick release system so when I am on my sled and ready to go I can pull on a top and my sled would be free.
All these extra steps are worth it. Sledding is an amazing experience and I wish all my friends have opportunity to do it.
As I am attaching my team of six dogs I can tell they are feeling sluggish and were not motivated to run. This was really clear to me when I detached the front of the gang line. Where they would normal start barking and wanting to run towards the trail head, they just stood there looking back at me when i was giving them to command to run. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like an idiot while I could feel Ken watching me from the house. I tried encouraging them again however by this point they really didn’t care what I had to say and the leaders started running back to their house pulling the other dogs with them. I’m in a mess.
Ken comes down to give me some advice and says this is a really important moment. The dogs have control and you need to get it back. He holds my sled for me as I repeatedly straighten out the dogs in the direction of the trailhead and looking both leaders in the eyes explaining to them what I wanted, I nearly got them out of the yard.
Once out I felt relieved. There are so many distractions for them in the yard. Other dogs, their house, lots of cool things to pee on. On the trail they only know to run. And run they did. It was great being on the sled. Its also a lot of work keeping the sled in the position of the trail you prefer. To steer right and left you need to get on that side of the sled and drag your foot on the ground to slow that side of your sled making you turn in that direction. This comes in very handy when the trail is slanted and gravity is making your sled slide right off the trip, you need to jump to the other side of the sled and start working your butt off to get it back where you want.
All in all it was a great 13 mile run. When I returned I went inside the house to let Ken know how my ride went. He explained to me that he left the dog yard light on with expectations the team of dogs would return pulling the sled without me! Messed up right! No faith!
19.5 hours with the dogs today! Wow, long day. So fun! I wouldn't have it any other way. I love when life is more difficult. The pain cold brings is welcomed. I want this to be a tough experience. When it's hard, I get that accomplished feeling. With the temperature at -25 C believe me, I was feeling pretty accomplished. Josh and I traveled 70 something miles today. About half way we were surprised to see Ken who was supposed to be way ahead of us cutting trail on the snowmobile. He explained the ice is too thin to go any farther and pointed at his pants as evidence. Ken while marking trail ended up falling through the ice up to his waist. We got the dogs some hay and their food while Ken lit a fire and started to dry his boots and socks. It was fun hanging out with Josh, Tavina, and Ken telling stories and laughing. I had some chicken I already cooked wrapped in tinfoil that I placed in the fire along with a can of soup. After Ken had felt good about this boots being dry him and Tavina took off towards home with the snowmobile. The dogs still needed about another two hours of sleep, so we brought out our sleeping bags and pads and slipped inside for a rest near the burning fire.
After awaking, we got the dogs ready to go and started heading home. On all these longer trips we bring a kennel with us in case a dog gets injured we can place them in there and drive him home. One of Josh’s dog’s named Tar was hurting so he ended up getting a free ride home. These dogs love to run, even if it hurts them. Once Tar was put into the Kennel, he broke out and ran off into the woods. Sometimes when these dogs get free, they will just keep running, without looking back until they get home. Nervous for Tar we hooked both our teams of 12 dogs on one 4-wheeler freeing up the second 4-wheeler and Josh went off into the darkness looking for him.
Success! Josh found him and placed him back into the kennel. After successive successful escapes, Josh resorted to holding him in his lap for the remaining 24 miles.
On thing, I learned today is that even with wearing six layers you can still get cold. I don't think there's much you can do when it is -25 C. It's just cold, and you have to get used to it and deal with it. It's not going to kill you, and it will only bother you if you let it.
Knowing a big day was coming I got up around 4:00 am so I could get a few hours of work in before feeding the dogs around 7:30 am. After feeding them Ken and I went over the options for training. We decided to take the 30 min drive to the white mountains. To take the dogs on a road trip takes a few extra steps including packing their food, harness, sleds, 4-wheeler, our lunch, and emergency equipment. Most of these items are packed in Ken's custom designed enclosed trailer that has ten little dog doors on each side that leads into their small section while still leaving enough room in the middle of the trailer to transport the sleds. After loading all the dogs, we soon were unloading them at a trail head in the white mountains. After about 40 minutes we had 19 dogs tied to the 4-wheeler and 7 to my sled.
Today is my first time on the sled this season and my 7th time in total, however, I have always felt confident riding it. The first seven miles went by really quickly as I watched the sun completely disappear now navigating by headlamp. The trail conditions were sub par with three inches of snow down. Any musher would tell you the most dangerous part of sledding with such a small amount of snow is not being able to stop. Your primary breaking source is your drag break. This can be described as a rubber mat with spikes sticking out the bottom. When stepped on it drives those spikes into the snow slowing you, however, the drag break has little effect when used on minimal snow. Seeing the trail beginning to slope downwards I wasn’t immediately worried thinking I would just have to hang on tight and hope to make it to the bottom. What started to worry me was seeing the lovely flat trail I have been sledding on turning into a trail with deep 4-wheeler and rainwater ruts. Even though this is my first time sledding in these conditions, I know to avoid these ruts because if half your sled falls in you will be trying to ride at a 45 degree angle. Good luck! Unfortunately, I would soon find out that similar to dogs having an internal magnet that always takes them home, I have one that takes me right into ruts.
The dogs are running ever faster now down the hill; I yell woooooo repeatedly as both of my feet are on the breaks watching the ruts grow ever closer. As I was approaching the first one, I knew there was no getting around it, and I was going in. Trying to position myself on the sled to hopefully stay on we entered our first rut. With one significant drop of the right runner, my feet were thrown off and I was hanging on by one hand. Grabbing on with my second hand still sliding down the hill I righted the sled up, only to be back off again moments later.
I’ve watched several Iditarod and Yukon Quest videos and always saw mushers going through terrain similar to this and thought, that doesn’t look bad and I would sled through that no problem. Well, I’m here to tell you it is that hard. There was one moment I was scared. Dog mushing on a smooth trail is amazing, and I think everyone should try it. The current situation I am in going down a light snow covered, rutted out trail with seven dogs pulling, is not a good one.
As I am getting thrown around on the sled my foot gets almost sucked under the back part. I imeditly drop my body to the ground creating more drag to slow the dogs down allowing me to remove my leg before breaking it. Yelling wooooo and using my body as the break the dogs came to a stop. Shacking up, I knew I didn't have another option but to continue down the hill. As I right my sled the dogs are almost waiting for the tension on the rope to go away to start running so I had to jump back on right away making sure I didn't lose the sled.
As Ken sits at the bottom of the hill, I am giving him updates over walky-talky on my progress. Undeterred I continued getting back on my sled and eventually making it to the bottom of the hill. I joined Ken at the bottom of the hill one cooler top, spoon, and a half a hay bail lighter.
Ken described the conditions, “wicked” and said the 4-wheeler almost rolled once. He also said how impressed he was that I made it through. Ken doesn’t usually give out too many compliments, so I felt pretty good about myself.
On the return trip as we were going up the hill, he commented that it's almost like I tried to hit every rut! Funny guy!
Why are we driving on the 4-wheelers and not sleds?
For any human running, a marathon takes several months of training. To run 1000 mile race you need all the training you can get. Same goes for the dogs. To start building their mileage early, we begin on 4-Wheelers from middle August before there is snow. We start slow running 2-3 miles couple times a week. As the weeks go on we continue to add miles waiting for the snow to come for us to switch over to sleds. We need about 18 inches of snow to fall before we can start sledding, and Ken can recall some years not switching over to sleds until the middle of December. If we didn’t start training them on 4-wheelers, there is no way they would be ready to run the 1000 mile Iditarod race in March.
How do you feel about the dogs being changed up?
I've gotten this question a few times by people saying they feel sorry for mushing dogs because they spend a lot of time chained to their house. I can understand where people think this. However, I believe that these dogs are doing pretty good. Every dog gets let off their chain at least once a day to run around with 30+ other dogs; they get to interact with humans every day, fed beef, beaver, salmon, & kibble, and they get to see some of the most beautiful Alaskan wilderness. I feel bad for all the dogs that live in the city in a small apartment that gets walked by their owner for 30 minutes a day.
Are the males the leaders?
I have four females on my team of 12, and I have to say they are some of my best leaders I have. The female dogs for sure pull their weight and a lot of times seem more intuitive than the males. The only time you need to worry when having females on your team is when they are in heat. The females want it just as bad as the males, and you have to do your best to keep them separated. The last thing I want is one of the females to get pregnant which will end their season of racing.
How far away from town do you live?
I live about 40 mins outside of Fairbanks. We can see the town being perched up on a mountain chain that surrounds Fairbanks.
How old are they before they start racing?
The dogs start pulling the sled when they are between one and two. Most of the dogs won't make it to a race until they are 3 or older and can continue racing until they are around 7 or 8. Afterward, they retire, and the musher usually keeps them as a pet, or another family adopts them.
The whole goal of being up here this season is to complete three qualifying races to be able to enter into the Iditarod the following year. Sounds easy enough however there are a lot of moving pieces and luck that needs to happen for me to qualify in one year. Also, all the of qualifying races are in the month of January. This is mostly because you have the larger 1000 mile races in February and March. Focusing on the month of January you need to have enough snow on the ground for these races to be put on. In past years several of these races have been canceled due to lack of snow. Also if the snow conditions are marginal, they may still have the race however, it is hard on the dogs. The dogs will need extra rest and may not be able to run the following weekend. You also need healthy dogs. You can imagine if you ran 300 miles on the weekend you might want more than a week of rest before doing it again. Dogs are the same way. Finally, there is always the chance I will get injured or do something stupid to be disqualified from the race. Taking all these things into account, you need to get lucky to complete all of these races in one season.
To prepare these dogs we have to start training them as early as possible. We do this by attaching them to the 4-wheeler and running them before snows on the ground. We slowly work their miles up and rest down between runs taking them from 3-mile runs to 100-mile runs.
These dogs are so impressive, and I feel fortunate to be able to work with and get to know them.
The night before leaving to Alaska I set aside a few items knowing they needed to be packed including long underwear, gloves, Canadian flag, banana shorts etc. For some reason, I wasn’t feeling well so I decided to go to bed early and pack all my usual travel stuff in the morning. Falling asleep pretty quickly I set the alarm for 5:30 giving myself an hour to pack in the morning. However, this happened:
After landing in Anchorage I got a taxi to the Hertz car rental place where I negotiated a 3.5-month lease of an all wheel drive car for $2,500. Not going to lie, that was a pretty sweet deal considering some companies were asking over $10,000.
Jumping into my Jeep I headed north to Fairbanks stopping for the night in a familiar town called Talkeetna which I stayed in while climbing Denali. I got there just in time to record this video of the sun going down.
Waking up around 6:00 I started the remaining 4-hour drive north. This journey takes you through the Denali National Park which is home to North America's tallest mountain. With tremendous views, excellent road conditions, and all while listening to the audio book Alibaba I arrived at what would be my Alaskan home. As I drive into the driveway, I am greeted by a sign reading, “Home of the Iditarod.” Now you know you are in the right place to learn how to dog sled when he has this at the end of his driveway!
As I pulled in Ken was splitting firewood just after the cabin I will be staying in. Stopping the car; he greeted me and started to show me around the property including introducing me to all the dogs. With 38 names and dog stories to remember I decided I would try to learn two names each day. He showed me to the cabin I would be staying in over the next three and a half months. I was blown away how nice it was. It's a two story cabin with the main level having a fridge, cooking & wood stove and the upstairs being the sleeping area. The cabin is referred to as a “dry” cabin because there is no running water. Apparently, this is very common here in Alaska. For water, I have two jugs that I refill about every two weeks. There is a sink that I could do dishes in which drains into a 5-gallon bucket that gets dumped out whenever needed. However, I choose to bring my dishes over to Ken's house which is about 50 yards away. This being my first time living in a home without a bathroom I took to the lifestyle of peeing outside and using the outhouse very quickly. There is something about making life a little harder which makes everything easier.