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.