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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Beginning a New Era and Lessons Learned

As we enter Loon Lake

Helen's team on Loon Lake

Our destination at the beginning of Bridle Falls

Our return

Charred remains of the forest after the Ham Lake wildfire

Our return on the lake

Rocky outcroppings after leaving the lake

The swamp portion of our route

Two tired leaders

One really tired point dog with smiley Sweet Pea who is not even winded


Temps were in the low 30s. It was foggy and there were periods of light, wet snow.

Today’s run was of great significance for me and my team. It was the very first run with the dogs on new trails that did not include Zulu. I had specifically chosen to leave Zulu behind for fear of him tripping and being involved in a tangle coming down the steep hills leading back to the dog yard as he did previously. At 11 years old, this magnificent leader of mine is not as spry as he used to be and the arthritis in his ankles is of great concern to me when taking him out on challenging trails. I really gave no thought to the significance of my decision to leave Zulu behind on this run until out on the trail, dealing with the challenges my new leaders were creating for us.

The Bridle Falls run was an 18 mile run that lasted roughly 4 hours (this included the mishaps described below and breaks) so it gave me much time for reflection. This run has an extreme diversity of terrain and a wide range of trail conditions, making it exciting for the dogs and musher alike. The beauty found along this route is really only described best in pictures and then pictures still lack greatly from actually being there to combine all senses. Smell the fresh air. Feel the falling snow on your face. Hear the babbling of the creek water under the ice as it makes its way to the falls and then on down to Gunflint Lake. Listen to the swishing of the runners as they glide over the thin layer of snow on the lake. Feel the movement of the sled. It becomes an extension of the body as you move with it down the trail.

Klaus and Tuloon were my leaders. Phoenix and Sweet Pea were in point position. Ilu and Icoa were in wheel. As it turns out, this was way too much power for a nearly empty sled. Just to paint the picture; I took these 6 dogs on a run with two clients in the sled. The combined weight of clients, me and sled was around 470lb. Not a lot of weight for a young freight dog team, you say? Add to this, three steep hills, one of which has an approximate 40 degree angle to it. Well, the result was that I didn’t need to get off the sled going up the hills. That is an awesome amount of dog power and I was very proud of those dogs. So on this Bridle Falls run; I took my 12 foot long freight sled with only one bale of straw for added weight. Too much power not enough weight. What this meant was that I would have my foot on my heavy duty steel brake the majority of the time and at the end of the run, would have fatigued muscles from the excessive “manhandling” of the sled to keep it under control. Lesson learned for next time.

The run begins from the dog yard and climbs up to one of the highest peaks in the area. From there, it winds through the woods on a narrow trail that is fairly level with some minor hills. Dropping abruptly down into a swampy area for a short time, we then pop right back up onto an area of similar elevation to our previous trail prior to the swamp descent and the trail begins to get even narrower. This trail leads us to a ski trail intersection and the desire was to take a “Haw” or left onto this trail. This is where the first “mishap” took place when my leaders decided they would rather go to the right and completely ignore my “haw” command. This reminded me that Zulu was not in the team and that I really must need to do an awful lot more work on these new leaders. Zulu would take commands from anywhere in the team to support the new leaders and they were apparently using him as a crutch as was I. Lesson learned but not until after we took the time to turn the teams around. Helen, a Points Unknown musher, was behind me with her team and they wanted to follow us so we both ended up heading in the wrong direction. It took nearly a half an hour to untangle, detach and then attach dogs before we were on our way again. At this time, I am making a mental note to remember to take deep breaths and act calmly around the dogs in these types of situations so as not to make it worse for myself and the dogs.

The ski trail portion of the run lasts only about a quarter of a mile then we glide over a short berm and on to a plowed boat landing road for a short period before entering the lake. On this road are high rocky cliffs that dwarfed us.

Lake conditions are not ideal. The ice is plenty safe, however there is spotty packed snow meaning there may not be an ability to hook down should the need arise. The dogs also were exposed to slush and rough bare ice where the slush had frozen solid. These are all good things to which young sled dogs should become accustomed. It was at this point of the run I reflected upon my decision to leave Zulu behind. Even though we had just gotten through the challenge of new lead dogs not understanding a command and creating an unexpected “situation” and I was sad to have left Zulu behind, I was glad for that training moment and the opportunity to have that challenge with the dogs.

The lake portion of the Bridle Falls run is approximately 4-5 miles in length, from which we hop on to a rarely used snowmobile trail that is wider than any portion of our route thus far. Up a small hill and we take a right. Or is it a left at the intersection? The trail to the right says “Border Route Trail”. I don’t quite remember from our snowmobile scouting adventure. I know that the Border Route Trail is a hiking trail and I know that it is mostly unrunnable by dog team so even though the dogs want to take the right I utter a quick “Haw” which means left. Well, just having a “haw” training moment a ways back, my dogs immediately obeyed and took the left turn. About 10 feet up the trail and….oops. Private property. Musher error. Wrong turn. Oh crap(or some other comparable word). Now what? Thankfully Helen’s team took the correct turn after she heard my response. Klaus and Tuloon were not responding to my “Gee Come” command, which means they would just gracefully turn to the right and the whole team and sled would follow and we would make our way back the way we came to catch the correct trail. They had executed this command many times in fall training. Oh well, I guess they didn’t understand and I need to do more leader training…..another moment of reflection.

So there we sit. On an incline with the trail we want to take, down the hill and around a quick corner to the left, at this point. I have no place to hook my quick release, no trees within reach and no trees within a reasonable walking distance away from the sled on which to tie out dogs to make the turn around less dicey. I sat for quite a while just thinking. Alright, we just have to do this. I sunk my snow hook in the snow, walked up and unclipped the tug lines of everyone but my leaders. I walked the leaders in the deep snow in a wide arch so as not to tangle them with the wheel dogs. My wheel dogs are Inuit Dogs and although very well behaved, they still lack impulse control and in a stressful situation are more likely to take their frustrations out on another dog so keeping them away from the rest of the dogs was my goal. As I launched the leaders from the deep snow onto the now descending trail, they took off and I was able to catch the sled as it did a “crack the whip” and whizzed by. Down the hill we went, passing the left turn that would have been way to treacherous to take from this angle, and making a quick right that would head us back onto the lake. Even though my leaders were the only dogs with their tug lines attached, my other four seemed to be pulling from their necklines and we were going fairly fast. Once on the trail to the lake, I was able to stop and go through the same motion; walk lead dogs in a wide arch to the right and back the way we came as Icoa attempted to tell Tuloon a few choice words for which she got a stiff scolding, then another crack the whip motion of the sled as the dogs launched themselves forward and I caught the sled. At least we were on level ground and I could easily hold the dogs with the snow hook while I reattached the tug lines. Yet another good challenge to have gone through with the dogs. Lesson learned. The musher needs to think a bit longer before proceeding down a new trail.

This portion of the trail is relatively hilly and takes us through an area with rocky outcroppings and an area with charred remains of trees that remain after the Ham Lake wildfire of last summer. This trail joins Loon and Crab Lake. Once across the very small Crab Lake, the trail takes on a “bush” feel due to its very narrow, windy and ungroomed appearance. I was thankful the dogs were a bit more settled in to the run at this point because I wouldn’t want to take a fresh team down this particular trail.

The roar of the rushing water under the ice along side the trail took the dogs by surprise as we rounded a bend and all heads turned to the sound. We ran along this creek and it formed a small open pond. The trail abutted the shore of the pond and I was later thankful my leaders stayed focused and didn’t become mesmerized by the open water as I did. The pond emptied into a narrows and became a creek again, before it pummeled down the rocks to its outlet on Gunflint Lake. The top of these falls was the end of our trail. We took the turn-around loop that Erik and I had made a couple days previous, took a short break and then back on the trail we went.

The trip back was not as challenging as the trip out which makes sense. The dogs knew where they were going at this point and the mushers knew all of the challenges of running the trail by dog team. Exhausted from the adventure, I found myself daydreaming of napping in my sled as the dogs just took me home then reality in the form of a low hanging branch we mushers call a “sweeper”, slapped me in the face and I returned to my senses and enjoyed the relaxing run back…......standing on the runners.

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