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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Points Unknown's Advanced Women's Winter Adventure 2011

Illy and Aise were on the drop chains with the big dogs for the first time. Juicy bones enticed them to believe that this is a good thing and is not scary at all.

Installing the chains on the dog truck

We arrive back to an ice covered lake

By the morning...

By later in the afternoon...

Cheryl digs out her sled and prepares it for departure

The other two sleds rest under the snow drifts

Sandy brings the dogs out to the ready line

Jenn pulls the quick release and off they go!

Jenn and Cheryl with their team in the distance

Cheryl and Sandy return. The dogs break trail back to the kennel

Sandy hooks up her team

Neil runs the first leg of the trip.

Sandy with an empty sled and seven dogs!

Last weekend we had a very event filled and changing-by-the-moment women's adventure that began up off the Arrowhead Trail and ended back here at our Watertown location; the unpredictability of working with sled dogs and working around the weather and trail conditions!

The plan was to spend the weekend in the northwoods cutting dog sled trails on our remote parcel and running the sled dogs. The weekend did involve both items in the plan but not in the manner they were planned!

Neil and I arrived up north with the dogs last Wednesday evening so that we could spend Thursday making certain the trails we needed cleared were well marked before our guests arrived and we headed out to clear on Friday. Temps were in the 40s and the air was so thick with fog that my glasses would mist up every few seconds as we trudged along in the moisture filled snow that was up to Neil's waist without snow shoes. (Neil is 6'3") It was a hard-going day but very fulfilling as we literally "soaked up" the beautiful northwoods air that day.

The dogs were living out of the truck with us at a friend's hotel just waiting for their chance to run which was planned to be Saturday. Our guests arrived on Thursday night. These guests have become family as they have all joined us on at least one previous adventure. For three of them, it was their fourth! We planned a weekend of potluck with one person providing a different meal throughout the day.

Friday morning was spent under beautiful blue skies clearing a portion of our new dog sled trail. We broke for lunch with the sled dogs and waited for Jenn's tasty Indian dish to heat on the coleman two burner. After lunch we set out to try to connect two trails, taking us across a scenic drained moose pond. Having not been here from the beginning of the season, keeping this route clear, it was tough-going for the snowmobile. Albeit, a Scandic workhorse machine can do almost anything but the running water at the opposite end of the drained pond made us wonder whether it could float. The determination was that it wasn't likely so we set out on snowshoes to continue the connection but turned around within a few steps after deciding to investigate another route back where we began.

The snowshoeing experience on this day was far more pleasant that mine and Neil's the day before. With every step, we sank. But today, if stepping lightly, we remained on top of the hard crust, as after the high temperatures from the day before, those temps plummeted, allowing for a hard icy crust to form on top that kept us afloat, for the most part. I say, for the most part because while in the woods, it did seem that some snowshoes were working for their wearers much better than others. The longer the snow shoe, the more "flotation" one has.

After a full day of trail work, we began to pack up to head back into Grand Marais for the night. Jenn and Cheryl left before us and agreed to let little Copper and Blueberry out upon their arrival as they had been hanging out watching cable TV in the room while we were away. Neil and Sandy took the snomachine down the trail we planned to travel by dog team the following day to check out the conditions while Jenny and I stayed behind and packed the remainder of the items up and began to puzzle over how the cube van filled with dogs would make it out of the driveway with the sheer icy conditions and the downward slope that was present. We broke open one of the sandbags that was in the back of the cube van(dog truck) for weight and with an ax, began scoring the road in front of the driveway to create traction. After some intense work, it still appeared that we were in for some challenges.

Neil and Sandy returned to inform us of the icy conditions of the dog sled trail and also showed their concern about our driveway situation. It is not easy to maneuver a 24' cube van through a narrow, snow banked driveway exit on to a narrow extremely icy downward sloping forest road. Then Neil remembered that I had purchased chains for the dog truck years ago but had never used them. The question was; were they still in the truck? Yes! Thank goodness. Neither one of us had ever had to put them on before and didn't know the first thing about them, knowing that someday we could very well have to figure it out. Today was the day but thankfully, Jenny knew exactly what she was doing and had them on in no time so we both got a lesson we won't soon forget.

Jenny and Neil headed out in their vehicles first and would wait for us once up the hill. We slowly managed to ease our way out of the driveway and on to the ice rink of a road. So far, no problem! Chains! How wonderful! The we got to the hill that leads up to the gravel pit and we stalled half way up and had to back all the way down and try again. It must have been pretty awful for the chains to have been no help up the hill. Second try and we punched it up the hill. Now all we had to do was maneuver around a windy corner and down a steep hill to the Arrowhead Trail. The steep hill began extremely icy but half way down we would be down to dirt so traction shouldn't be an issue. At the bottom and before the stop sign, we're back to ice. Alright, deep breath. Neil would be down on the Arrowhead Trail watching for oncoming traffic in case we couldn't stop for the stop sign and careened into the middle of the road. If the truck weren't filled with our precious dogs, I would have been less on edge about the driving task before me.

Being very careful allowed us to make it safely on to the Arrowhead Trail. This road was not nearly as treacherous so the chains would come off so we would not do any more damage to our tires. Oh, no wonder we had troubles going up the hill out of the driveway. At this point, I discovered that there was a chain missing! Neil found it right in the driveway so it was of absolutely no use to us whatsoever. I do still think that one chain was better than none under the circumstances that presented themselves.

As we drove down the Arrowhead Trail we discussed whether conditions were safe for the dogs on our available trails and if we wanted to go through the experience we just did again the next day. The determination for both was a big "No!" There was a snowmobile trail off of the main road, however with it being a holiday weekend, those trails would be unsafe, as well, as a lot of snow had melted to the south and it was likely that many people and their snowmachines would drive north to find snow. Idea after idea was tossed around and the new plan was hatched. We would travel back down south to our Watertown location to run the dogs. There was a blizzard on the way that would bring measurable snow which would allow for safe running on the lake. So we packed up and headed south the next morning. Sadly, one in our party was not feeling particularly well and opted to head back to Wisconsin instead and would join us on another adventure in the future.

We arrived in Watertown on Saturday evening. The storm was supposed to begin that night and there was "supposed" to be measurable snow on the ground in the morning. You never can count on the weather. Our Sunday ended up being a restful day with lots of food and relaxation. This was indeed a mini vacation for me and Neil as we just don't have restful days! We watched the winds pick up and the snow come down but it wasn't adhering to the ice and therefore conditions were not yet suitable for running the dogs on Sunday.

Monday morning came and there was enough snow on the ice to provide traction in most places. It was still snowing and blowing but we were determined to get our dogs and our guests out on the lake before they left that afternoon! Two guest would take one team out first with Neil as support on the snowmobile then upon their return, they would swap over and take out another team so each person got to run a team. Did I mention how unpredictable machines are, as well?

I stayed behind to rest a shoulder injury that had occurred up north when reaching for the handle on the back of the cube van and missing a step, sending me to the ground with my hand still gripping the handle. A nice twist to the wrist and all the way up to the shoulder and neck will be a reminder of just how vulnerable to trauma a body is. It is also a reminder of how often you need to use all of those parts of your body and what a bummer it is when you can't!

So, back to unpredictable machines. Well, I guess it is pretty predictable that if they don't have any gas in them, they won't run. And the adventure begins. Jenn and Cheryl are out with a six dog team in the blizzard with Neil and Sandy as snowmobile assist in the event they were needed. Over half way around the lake the snowmobile stalls out. Neil and Jenn decide to walk back, leaving Cheryl and Sandy to run the team back home solo. The dogs know where home is, they consider. Yes, they do but they also know that there are two greenhorns in and on the sled so they did what dogs will do and they took advantage of the exposed vulnerabilities of our friends and began to take them on the adventure that they wanted to have which luckily for our guests, did eventually include home. Instead of heading around the perimeter of the lake, under the bridge and back home, they took them around some islands and up the other shore and then under the bridge. They then decided to abandon the original trail and break trail along the shore to get back home. I waited for them out in the blizzard on the lake and could finally see them coming. They all had smiles on their faces, even our disoriented mushers!

As we begin taking the dogs off the lines we discuss whether or not we should run a team out to pick up Neil or bring some fuel back just in case. While discussing, we see two figures in the distance, walking along the trail. Neil and Jenn were walking back, having abandoned the broken down snowmachine.

Sandy still needed her turn running the sled. This was her fourth adventure out with our teams so with a refresher, we were confident that she could be the one to run Neil out with a filled gas container and a seven dog team. This would then mean that she would be running an empty sled back with seven dogs. Seven of our dogs is a pretty strong team and the equivalent to twice that in comparison with today's typical racing sled dog. The conditions, however, would make it easy for her to stop the team if she needed to and the dogs would be breaking trail, thus going more slowly than they would otherwise. In addition, Neil would hopefully have the snowmobile up and running and then could be her escort.

Less than an hour went by and we see Neil and Sandy coming from the distance. Sandy looked very natural running that seven dog team and seemed to be having no trouble whatsoever! Excellent! And the snowmobile and Neil were back safely as well.

While recounting the events of the weekend I find myself feeling the exhaustion that one feels when pushing oneself to the limit as Neil and I have been doing all winter. It was certainly an action packed weekend. Our guests continued to have challenges that they could learn from all the way home and to their own front doors as they drove back in the midst of the blizzard. Sandy flew back to Colorado that night with only a short weather delay.

Well, it wasn't the adventure planned but it certainly lived up to the word. Adventure!

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