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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Run Your Own Iditarod...Quite the Adventure!

Iditarod Adventure on Gunflint Lake

Written by Liz Parrish, Instructor, Musher, Chief Pooper Scooper

Two spirited souls, Meredith and Lee Ann, met myself, my dogs and each other on Feb. 19 for an adventure quite unlike any other. We had planned a very full 3 days with learning to drive a sled and small teams, education about dog care, travelling by dog team, personal care in the winter wilderness, planning and preparing for and running a 24 hour “mini-Iditarod” consisting of three 4 hour runs broken up by 2 “checkpoints”. The participants were responsible for everything having to do with their teams…feeding, harnessing, hooking up, driving, dog care, booties, etc.

As usual when running dogs, plans are made in order to be changed, so here’s a recap of what really happened.

Lee Ann and Meredith arrived Thursday afternoon and after introducing them to their teams, we immediately went out for a short run with each of them driving 4 of their 5 assigned dogs on their own team. Nothing like jumping right in – no experience required, we provided that! Our first run was the Highland Trail, which is a steep climb, a beautiful small turning trail running through the woods, and then a fast descent back to the dog yard. They both did great, and started getting their “sled legs” immediately. They jumped into dog chores as soon as we returned, putting the dogs away, feeding, scooping and getting used to the entire dog care routine.

Next morning, an early run before breakfast set the tone for the jam packed day, and helped them work the kinks out of their new-found sled muscles. We did an extension of the Highland Trail which added another mile through a swamp and a tiny wooded trail that the dogs love as it twists and turns. It was spectacular in the early morning cold, and breakfast never tasted so good for dogs or mushers. Friday quickly flew by while learning how to prepare checkpoint drop bags, basics of people and dog care, and a small rest break thrown in for good measure. Friday evening we planned an introductory night run over to Loon Lake, and a showing of the Iditarod 2008 video “De Ja Vu”.

Everything went fine, with even a crash by Lee Ann’s sled going over to Loon Lake being taken in stride. She lost her sled after rounding a curve and dropping onto a plowed road, and it hit my sled as I was stopped ahead of her – knocked me off my sled but I managed to grab the front of her sled and got dragged down the road to the lake. Both teams stopped at the bottom of the road once we hit snow, I got both sleds hooked down and waited for everyone else to catch up! Lee Ann was a trooper and got back on the runners and we continued our trip and finished it without further incident. All’s well that ends well!

Almost, anyway…ending well that is. Turns out one of the dogs (Utah) who was leading Lee Ann’s team was injured in the crash. It seems as my sled tipped over when Lee Ann’s sled hit it, the snowhook on my sled came down and sliced open his side just behind his right shoulder. Stoic and black dog that he is, he didn’t say anything and there was no blood, so nobody found it until the next morning. I took him to a nearby local vet for stitches, putting the proverbial change of plans in motion. Utah is just fine, and as of this writing just got his stitches out and is a much happier camper and no worse for the wear (other than doing some time as a house dog).

Taking a 7 hour “vet trip timeout” into consideration, Meredith and Lee Ann decided they would like to do another night run Saturday night (NOT on the gravel road!) and then do a checkpoint in the dog yard, and Sunday AM doing a long run out on Gunflint Lake as their finale. It was a great plan and worked out fabulously! The night run was flawless, and with a new moon the stars were incredible. The dogs loved it as it was cold and invigorating for them, and not too bone chilling for the people, although it did get down to a brisk -30 or so windchill by morning.

Meredith and Lee Ann bedded the dogs down as they would on the trail upon returning to the dog yard checkpoint, putting straw down and feeding the dogs while harnessed in their teams and then heading in for a quick bite to eat. It was after midnight when they went out to sleep with the dogs, while I stayed inside to sleep with the patient who wasn’t too patient being a conehead. They all piled back into the checkpoint building (musher apartment) about 5 am, with the need to pee and warm up from the cold having become paramount.

We got everyone fed, watered, and set out for Gunflint Lake on a gorgeous sunny day. Everyone did really well getting down the hill to the Lake with the snowmobile assist courtesy of Linda, and then heading out up the lake and taking turns leading. About 2/3 of the way up the lake we ran out of snowmachine trails, and so started breaking trails of our own, got to the far shore and played around the islands, snacked dogs and mushers, and headed back. The participants ended up with a 4+ hour run which included training, frustrations, successes and being “in the zone”…Meredith started trucking on the way back and ran away from Lee Ann and I without realizing it, getting back almost to Gunflint Lodge before figuring out maybe she should wait for us.

Both Lee Ann and Meredith wanted to “do it all”…and they certainly did!! We finished the weekend with nearly 40 miles by dog team, 16 happy hungry and satisfied dogs, and 3 tired, chilly, hungry and exhilarated mushers…mission accomplished! It was thrilling, exhausting, a tremendous learning experience and a great time was had by mushers and dogs alike. When we got back to the dog yard, everybody was quite contented with a very full weekend!

Many thanks to Liz for creating this adventure for Points Unknown, for providing such excellent instruction and for sharing her story in this post.

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