KattiJo’s 2020 Copper Basin 300
Nearly 50 teams signed up to run the 2020 Copper Basin 300. But by race start day, only 27 teams were in the chute to begin the 300 mile journey. And by the end of the race, three days later, only 14 teams crossed the finish line.
While every race sees last minute withdrawals for the standard reasons of minor kennel illnesses, a lack of proper training and broken down vehicles, the primary reason for teams pulling out of this particular race can be summed up in one word: COLD. In the days leading up the race, we scrolled weather apps like they were the new trends in social media. Accuweather, Wunderground, NOAA, Windy — they all said the same thing. This race weekend we’d see highs in the -30’s and lows near -50.
It was hard to digest this information each night as I laid in my warm, comfy bed, counting down the number of sleeps left until my next would be out on the trail. “It’s OK,” I thought. “There are nice checkpoints out there where I can warm up. I just need to stay warm on the trail in between the checkpoints…” In these moments I found myself being reluctantly grateful for the long, painful cold snap Fairbanks was having. Starting around the winter solstice of December 21, we’d been in a deep freeze, with nearly no days of relief, and I’d had the opportunity to train myself and my team for running in temperatures as low as -50. But those were individual runs that lasted for only a few hours (temps sat in the negative teens at our house in the hills). Could I do that same -40 and -50 running for multiple days in a row? I guess I was going to find out. Withdrawing from the race was not something I considered for more than a few seconds.
How to Dress for Mushing at -40: Video Part 1
Posted by Black Spruce Dog Sledding on Friday, December 20, 2019
How to Dress for Mushing at -40: Video Part 2
Posted by Black Spruce Dog Sledding on Friday, December 20, 2019
Fast forward to Friday, January 10th. The day before race start. We left Fairbanks early and enjoyed a beautiful drive down to Glennallen. The scenery was SO gorgeous. I told Jeff “I don’t care if I’m cold on this race if I can look at views like this.” And that is one nice thing about wintertime cold: When it’s cold, it’s also clear.
Upon arriving in Glennallen, we unloaded my drop bags with race officials (full of the dog food, dry socks, dry gloves, booties, etc) that I would get to access at each checkpoint while on the trail. Then the vets examined my dog team to make sure everyone was going to be healthy enough for travel. No major issues were reported, and nothing new that we didn’t already know about was discovered. Fierce, my main leader, likes to keep herself “super model thin,” and I had already mentally vowed to carefully monitor this and not let her lose too much weight while racing. I had a couple males – Braavos and Frito – with very minor frost nipped penis tips from one run in the cold at home in which I neglected to cover them with fox tails. I certainly would not be making that mistake again. And Maple, my very best swing dog, had cracked pads. But I was armed with “udder butter” and fleece booties for Maple’s feet. We were ready to rock and roll.
At the hotel and during the pre-race meal and meetings, all chatter was about the cold and which mushers decided not to show for the race. As a rookie, I tried hard to tune this out and not think to myself, “Geesh, if so-and-so doesn’t want to brave this cold, what am I doing here?” I comforted myself knowing that my training in the previous weeks had prepared me as well as possible for what I was about to face. And a lot of the mushers who had withdrawn or were complaining about the cold, were mostly saying things like, “I’ve run the Yukon Quest! I’ve done my dance with the cold. I don’t have anything I need to prove by going out there and dealing with that cold this weekend.” But that wasn’t me. I did have something to prove. To other mushers, sure, but also to myself. Could I really do this? “Shit,” I thought. “This is going to be Yukon Quest cold. That’s pretty damn cold…”
Despite all the chatter I was mostly just really excited to get going down the trail. On Saturday morning I even managed to eat most of my breakfast. I had been sure I would have bitten Jeff’s head off at least once by now, but I was mostly pleasant company (I think) and Jeff remarked many times as we pulled my sled out of the trailer, snapped a couple photos and started booting dogs that I seemed remarkably calm and happy. I thought so, too. What the hell was wrong with me? Where were my pre-race jitters? I was either completely prepared for what I was about to do, or completely ignorant of how bad this was actually going to be. But as the thermometer dipped below the -40 mark, I felt comfortable and really, really happy.
Temps below -40 at the start line in Glennallen, January 11th, 2020
Mushing up to the start line at 10:22 am I was sweating, straining from the effort to keep my eager dogs under control. I briefly wondered how long this nice warm feeling would stay with me as I took off on my 75 mile journey to the first checkpoint of The Point Lodge. If I did get cold, how long would it be before I was indoors again? I didn’t have long to dwell on that one. Suddenly Jeff was hugging me good-bye and I was seconds from taking off on my first 300 mile dog sled race. The Copper Basin — the toughest, coldest mid-distance race in Alaska. My eyes went misty and I was grinning from ear to ear. So much hard work with the dogs, and mental work on myself, and had gone into just getting to the start line. Just being there was really its own finish line, but as I nestled into my giant, cozy parka, I felt confident that the best part truly was about to begin.
It’s a known fact that the first dozen or more miles of nearly every single dog sled race will have a sugary, soft trail. These conditions are created when mushers apply weight to their sled brakes and drag pads, keeping their fresh, hot teams nice and slow out of the gate. This should save gas in the tank for later on, and help cold muscles work into a warm rhythm. This was my strategy for the first run to The Point, and would remain so for the first few miles leaving every checkpoint. That being said, I was not trying to win this race, and so for teams who were (or for teams who just didn’t know better), being heavy on the drag/brake out of the start chute was not part of their plan. I was passed by several teams in the first 20 miles, and this was just fine by me. I’d rather be chasing than being chased anyway. I was grateful for my dogs’ maturity and trail manners in these situations, and most passes went just fine. Most.
The first 36 miles of trail was quite straight, wide and wooded, and so also fairly boring. But hey, temps got into -20s, and I even had some bright sun on my face at one point, so I was happy! I had made a mental note of whereabouts I thought the halfway mark of this run would be, and I dreamed of a peaceful wooden nook with a snowmachine track onto which I could call the team off the main trail and out of the way of other teams — most of whom it appeared were not going to stop on this 75 mile run. Unfortunately, my peaceful nook never materialized, and eventually the trail popped out of the woods and paralleled a busy highway. Not what I had in mind, and not ideal for the quality of the dogs’ rest with the passing cars. But, it would have to do, because it was time to stop. On the bright side, my team could use a little “traffic desensitization” and it’s not like they really needed the sleep. Their brains and bodies were just going to benefit from a little break in the action and a quick warm meal. This camp was only supposed to be 2 hours, but took me 2.5 by the time all was said and done. This “taking longer than expected” would become the trend on all of my camps/checkpoint layovers for the rest of the race…
Camping along the side of the road did provide a great opportunity for the talented Whitney McLaren to photograph my team!
Getting passed by another musher while camped. Not many mushers chose to break this first 75 mile run into two parts, but many probably should have…
Went through a small amount of slushy, creek ice a few miles out of the start chute. Was enough of a splash factor to coat my thermometer! Here I am cleaning off the ice using the heat of my bare skin and a knife.
By the time I started moving from my camp, temps were back down below -40, but the trail was also a bit more interesting for driving, and I didn’t start to feel cold until I hit Lake Louise. This is a BIG lake, and in Alaska, it’s always going to be coldest down low and near water. That can be a swamp, a lake, or a river. I could be wrong, but it was my impression at the time that I had to traverse the entirety of Lake Louise to get to the checkpoint on the other side. After 12 hours on the trail, and temps around -50, it felt like a very long traverse… Near the checkpoint I also got stalled up behind another team who was moving slower than me. I could have called out “Trail!” to let the other musher know I would like to pass. But I saw the checkpoint was just up ahead and I didn’t figure it would hurt my dogs to slow their pace and give their muscles a cool down coming into what would be a long stop over. The last minutes of a run are also a good time to give your dogs one final exam with the eye – looking for any changes in gait as typically indicated by a bob of the head or a droop in the hind end. My team looked flawless and more than happy to be chasing down the slowpokes in front of us. “Easy, easy…” I told them.
Checkpoint officials warm themselves in an “Arctic Oven” tent on the ice while they wait for teams to arrive under a full moon
At The Point, I bedded and fed the dogs, and was happy to report to Jeff that my run in was very smooth and I didn’t identify any health care issues that I thought needed to be addressed. We headed into the nice, big, cozy lodge and I felt pretty good as I happened to secure a small but warm spot near a propane heater on which I could dry out some of my gear. Jeff helped me order some food and I drank A LOT of water. I was just thinking about going to sleep for a little while when my ears perked at the nearby talk… “Wait, HOW cold is it in Sourdough!? You said SIXTY below!? How is that even possible?” Jeff could see my mood coming into the checkpoint had been good, so he didn’t attempt to cover my ears and rush me from the room. He told me later this would have been his action had I come in with a not-so-great attitude. Those scary feelings are contagious, and he didn’t want me catching them. At one point I did turn to him and say, “Should I scratch?” He nearly rolled his eyes. “Absolutely not. Why would you? You’re doing great, and the dogs are doing great. Yes, this next run to Sourdough is going to be cold, and a lot of teams are scratching, but they are just scared, and some of their dogs came in here with pretty good frostbite. But that’s not you. Your dogs are better coated. Our jackets are better. We have foxtails if we need them. And, you’re ready. You can do this.” Who is scratching I wanted to know. Jeff listed the names of some rookie mushers. Fine. But he also listed the names of some mushers I really admired, and I was shocked to hear they would drive all the way here (many, many hours for most of us) only to leave after one 75 mile run. In the end, seven mushers would scratch at The Point.
I laid down and tried not to think much about the next run. It didn’t work. Someone started snoring near me and I was ready to get going. At this point I had completely stopped looking at the clock. Jeff told me not to worry about sticking to my originally planned 6 hour rest, and I thought that the closer I could wait to day break, perhaps I could avoid the worst of what would surely be the coldest run of the entire race. I booted up and hit the trail at 5:15 am. Most of the 55 mile run hovered around the -50 mark, but I did not see -60, as some had reported. What I did see, and will always remember, was dropping onto yet another freezing cold lake, only to be greeted by the ink black silhouette of a nearby mountain ridge, back-lit by pre-dawn red-orange light. Sorry folks, no pictures at -50. But I won’t ever forget what that looked like, or ever forget that feeling of “right place, right time.” Yep, even at -50.
By the time I got to the Sourdough checkpoint around 12:45 pm I was COLD. But I was alive, and I was thrilled with my dogs. Everyone still looked to be 100% healthy and I could see they were ready and willing to move much faster than the 8.5 mph at which I had kept them running into this checkpoint. I chose this conservative speed based on the distance we still had yet to travel over the race course, the difficulty of the trail I anticipated might be ahead, and the still bitterly cold temperatures. Dogs can risk damage to their lungs if they’re exerted too much at cold temperatures. I thought, “not racing; not worth it.”
Katti pulled into Sourdough at about 12:45 this afternoon. They made the run over from Point in just over 7 hours, and the dogs were all wags and barks as she got checked in (they pulled through her break and wanted to blow right on through, actually!). Everyone was in high spirits, and when asked about the run, Katti responded with “cold, very cold.” Hoping to dry out and warm up, she declared her mandatory 6, which would include her time differential. However, with the mercury hanging at -60, and sleeping on the floor of a tent, she has opted to feed, boot up and get rolling. Probably a wise call. We will have more as we get into better service. Stay tuned.
Posted by Black Spruce Dog Sledding on Sunday, January 12, 2020
I took a 5.5 hour rest at Sourdough, and since this was basically the halfway point of the race, I realized the folks whom I happened to share the checkpoint with at the moment were the folks I might likely be traveling the rest of the trail with. I was happy to discover my traveling mates were Mille Porsild and Chad Stoddard. Both rookies, and both people I already knew. Like myself, Mille had been in love with an Iditarod musher, and the joys and woes of that particular fate bond women basically instantly. We’d been acquaintances for a couple years. Chad is a neighbor, working for Lance Mackey. I had seen Chad many times on the trail over the last couple seasons, and he was always a friendly face. The three of us chatted for a bit in a cozy wall tent, eating and loading up on caffeine. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think we talked at all about the temperature. At this point, what else was there to say? It had been -60 at the Sourdough checkpoint earlier that day, but it was back above -50 now. Things were obviously “warming up!” We all hit the trail around 8/8:15 pm, with Chad 15 minutes in front of Mille and me. And, without our notice, three more teams scratched at Sourdough.
The run between Sourdough and Meiers Lake was short – only 40 miles. But what a glorious 40 miles they were!! The trail was great fun, technical driving, with lots of significant downhills and a series of 180 degree switchbacks that took my breath away. And finally, some serious uphill climbs. Since we live and train in Fairbanks’ hill country, my team excels at hill-climbing and eventually Mille had to cede the trail to me, even though she was letting her team roll faster on the flats. It can be mentally exhausting for teams to play too much leap frog on the trail, so after Mille and I switched positions I vowed to stay in front of her and not make our teams pass again. I almost regretted this final positioning as the team summited a monstrous hill-top and we were treated to a beautiful, moonlit, high alpine view of a distant mountain range. It would have been nice to stop and enjoy the view for a minute, but I knew I had to keep moving with Mille on my tail. I clicked off my headlamp and let the team run by the light of the moon until we finally started our downhill descent, back below tree line and into the Meiers Lake checkpoint.
At Meier’s Lake I was in extremely high spirits as I recounted to Jeff the glories of my last run. A veterinarian interrupted briefly to ask if I needed anything or had any concerns about my dogs. “No,” I said. “This is the most talented and flexible team of dogs I’ve ever run.” I was overflowing with pride, but also with sudden exhaustion. It was Sunday night around 11 pm. I had been on the trail for two days, and had slept a meager hour between the two checkpoints of The Point and Sourdough. Jeff and I scarfed burgers while Mille and I laughed about our passes on the run into Meier’s. Jeff suggested sleeping in the warm, quiet, dark cabin across the street that the lodge owners at Meier’s had set aside for mushers. I was hesitant, thinking that maybe if I got too comfortable I wouldn’t want to get up for several hours. But, what was wrong with that anyway? I wasn’t racing. Meanwhile, three more teams scratched at Meier’s Lake.
And they are off! After a much longer than planned for rest, Katti and the team have hit the trail, still 12 dogs strong.
With lingering cold temps (the wind chill at Meiers Lake is steady at about -45), our musher wanted to cook her team three meals over this rest (taking one large meal to-go). In addition, the cold is slowing down Katti’s checkpoint routine, and adding in extra steps as she bundles up her athletes to keep them cozy in these conditions. Attitudes are high, however, and the team was all jacked to run after taking a long rest.
Posted by Black Spruce Dog Sledding on Monday, January 13, 2020
I ended up staying for 9 hours in Meier’s Lake (sleeping for three of those hours). This was much more than my well-rested, well-trained team needed, but I guess it’s what I needed. Chad and Mille stayed for only 6 hours, choosing to break up the next 70 mile run into two runs with a camp in the middle. Since I had broken up the first run of the race, I knew my team had loads of gas in the tank and I planned to run the 70 miles straight through. I left the Meier’s Lake checkpoint at 7:45 am. The timing was absolutely perfect for another sunrise on the trail. Pink-orange light illuminated the Hoodoo Mountains dead ahead of me as I mushed for miles and miles along the famous Trans-Alaska pipeline. I thought about how neat it was that if I kept going on the pipeline it could take me all the way home to our familiar Fairbanks trail system, and then all the way up to the Arctic ocean north of the Brooks Range Mountains which I love so much. Damn, Alaska is special…
Mushing down the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Hoodoo Mountains out front.
Eventually the trail turned east off of the pipeline and traversed another high alpine plain, similar to
the one I had so loved in the moonlight the night before. The Hoodoos were now to my left, growing pinker and brighter with each passing minute. To my right, the sun was just about to show itself over the same mountains I had seen backlit by the sunrise on my way to Sourdough, the previous day. And if I turned my head just a bit further, there was Denali – the “Great One.” Later when I told Jeff I had seen Denali on this section of trail we argued about whether or not that was possible. He didn’t think the geography worked out that way, but I told him there was no way I was mistaken. And this argument is not unusual. In fact, there is an understanding among Alaskans that Denali “moves.” It has been seen from places that people cannot explain or anticipate, yet there it is. It seems that no matter where you are in this state, if the conditions are right, Denali will appear to you, a beacon to all arctic travelers.
In every race I’m sure there is a moment in which the musher breathes a deep sigh and thinks, “This is it. We’re all OK, and we’re gonna make it.” For me, this was that moment. Our race was comfortably beyond the halfway mark, and the sun was up. We’d be at the finish line in less than 24 hours. But as I was moving across that high alpine country, temperatures now rising to a balmy -20, surrounded by such indescribable beauty, I felt sorrow that this experience would ever come to an end. I took in my 12 canine companions, truly shocked at how lucky I was to be with this particular group for this particular race. I hadn’t done anything very exceptional to keep them healthy, other than keeping my speed slow and taking such long rests in the checkpoints. But only two teams left Meier’s Lake with all 12 dogs and I was one of them. To say I was grateful for their companionship and devotion to this mushing life is not adequate. My eyes welled with tears and I was annoyed for the blurry vision on such a lovely morning. My race could have ended right there – hell, my life could have ended right there – and I would have been a happy girl.
But you know what? It’s really not a Copper Basin 300 without some open water… So, right about the time I was drying my eyes and putting my phone away from shooting the one video I took on the whole entire race, we finally got to get our feet wet! I can’t say the water surprised me. We knew there would likely be a shallow but wide creek crossing on the way to the final checkpoint of Chistochina, because we were told so at the pre-race musher meeting. I had even packed trash bags for my feet for such an occasion, which are necessary when mushing in those foam boots I love so much (see the first videos in this post.) The idea with the trash bags is you can pull out the foam liners, wrap trash bags around them, and then stick them back into the canvas boot shells. Your shell will get wet (and subsequently frozen) during a creek crossing, but your feet will stay dry in the trash bagged liners. All very well and good. Now, to execute this plan you must either apply the trash bags before you leave the previous checkpoint, or before you cross the water. Being the ever-prepared student, I had actually applied trash bags to my feet before I left the start line on Saturday morning! (Hey, this race is famous for open water and you never know.) But water did not arise on that first run to The Point, and my foam liners had gotten pretty wet with sweat since my feet weren’t able to breath while encased by plastic. This, in turn, had also made my feet pretty chilly on that first run, despite the heat packs in my boots. So, I had gotten frustrated with the pre-preemptive trash bag system early on and told myself I would just stop short of water – if I saw any – and apply my trash bags then. Now here we are, and there was the water! Unfortunately, my leaders saw the water at the exact same time I did, and instead of just stopping short, which would have been OK in this instance, my young 2 year old leader, Marten, grabbed his more experienced but much, much smaller partner, Fierce, by the neck line and turned her right around, as if to say “Water!? This can’t be right!” So now, we’re stalled up at this water crossing and my leaders are pointed backwards, starting to come towards me. “No, no, no, no, no!” I ran up to stop them and said, “Alright, guys! Let’s get wet!” I turned the leaders back around and splashed down into the creek. Now, dear reader, before you panic, you ought to know that I did have an extra set of foam liners for my boots in my sled. So as I grabbed my leaders and jumped into the water, and immediately felt my boots soaking up the creek like a sponge, I knew all would be well and dry – eventually. Just got to get through the water first! The creek wasn’t deep – only a few inches – but it was wide. Maybe 7 or 8 feet across. The biggest problem with leaders who turn around like these two did, is that it can cause a big tangle of dogs all wrapped up in lines, and in each other. Fortunately, Marten and Fierce got the message when I told them I wanted them to line out across the creek and stay there. They stood obediently but didn’t pull forward until I told them to. This gave me enough time, and just enough tension (not too much!!), to get everyone else straightened out. Standing in the water, getting soaked through to the skin at -20 degrees, I thought how nice it was that nearly everyone in the team was getting a chance to get their feet wet here. It was actually really good training. They were learning in this moment that it’s OK to be in water, and that when we see it, we cross it. (You’d think their summer time splash sessions in our kiddie pools and giant puddles would teach this lesson, but obviously not entirely.)
So we made the first creek crossing (that’s right, the first) and then it was onto the next a few minutes later! You can bet I had a big ol’ grin on my face when we got to that one. Hey, I was already wet!! What’s better practice for dogs crossing water than going through one creek? Two creeks! This time Marten was eager to jump into the water, but couldn’t quite remember what he was supposed to do when he got there. Instead of bounding straight to the other side, he turned the team and started to head upstream. I slammed on the brake and laughed, “No! Marten, gee! Gee!” The entire team strained to the right, trying to pull the leaders over from behind. But, Marten is big and didn’t budge. He looked back to me and wagged his tail, but couldn’t process the ‘gee’ command. Really chuckling now, I hopped off my sled and again ran down into the water. I crossed the creek and onto the other side of the trail where I wanted him to be. He came to me, and then flew past me, dragging team and sled behind. I grabbed the sled as it went sailing past and in my mind’s eye I could see myself raising my fist overhead and yelling “Copper Basin!!!!” Laughing hysterically at the sky.
I could tell I was now mushing through the giant footprint of the Gakona River. In Alaska, rivers tend to braid out and form many small channels within one much larger bed. That’s why there were two small “creek” crossings together. These were actually small braids of the Gakona River. Even though my feet were soaked and I wanted to get my dogs’ wet booties off, I decided to keep mushing until I got to the edge of the bed. Once I saw the trail wasn’t going to cross anymore water, I’d stop and adjust. This plan worked great! It also happened that my dogs needed a snack about that time, too. I found a good place to pull off to the side of the trail. I undid everyone’s tug lines, gave a snack, changed my socks and boot liners and changed all my dogs booties. A process, but one I was happy to undertake. What a fun adventure that all was!
Once everyone’s clothing was back in order we began our long uphill climb over what is affectionately known as “The Hump” – a famously difficult section of the Copper Basin trail. I know The Hump is over 4,000 feet tall, but I don’t know at what elevation we begin the climb. Anyway, it’s a haul to get up and over, but if you’re looking for a harrowing description of this phenomenal feat, I don’t have one. You’ll have to check out someone else’s blog for that 🙂 The Hump is famous for being a real challenge to mushers and their teams, but my hill-climbing team made it look pretty easy. Although there was one point at which I finally had to hop off my sled and give it a push. And at the same time thought, “Oh my, am I going to have to get on all fours for this bit?” But no. What’s a little 6 foot vertical wall climb? We got this. The top of The Hump was of course another feast for my scenery-loving eyes, and the temperature was a blessed 0 degrees with no wind!!! Who knew the nicest weather on the whole trail would be at the top of this monster mountain? I pulled out my phone for another video, but apparently it had gotten cold in my pocket when I yanked off my parka during the climb, and the battery finally gave up the ghost when it hit the 0 degree air. Oh well. I parked my sled and walked up to my leaders. No tears now. Just a big smile and pat on the shoulder for everyone. “This is really awesome, thanks guys.” We might have to do this race again just to see this scene once more.
As I mushed down from The Hump (still beautiful, by the way) it occurred to me that even though I hadn’t planned it, my schedule on the first two days of the race had set me up perfectly for enjoying that breathtaking third day on the run between Meier’s Lake and the final checkpoint of Chistochina. This was obviously the most beautiful part of the entire Copper Basin trail, and I was so thankful that things worked out like they did. Soon after these thoughts of gratitude, I also started contemplating what I wanted my final run to the finish line to be like. Were Chad and Mille still close to me? Could I catch them? I was driving a hot team with plenty of gas in the tank. If I did catch them, I’d be Rookie of the Year in what was likely one of the coldest, toughest Copper Basins anyone could remember. Rookie of the Year was not on my radar at all when the race started two days ago, but so many rookies had dropped out. Things were looking pretty good for the Black Spruce crew…
The run into Chistochina, coming off The Hump, is easy and mostly downhill. We sped into the checkpoint at just over 9 mph, with my foot still on the drag to slow the team down. (Temps had settled back down around the -30 mark here out of the hills, but hey, we’re on Day 3 now, so are we really even looking at the thermometer anymore?) I planned to make my checkpoint routine as fast and efficient as possible, and spend only three or four hours in this checkpoint before heading to the finish. The problem: I had to convince Jeff of my plan. When I arrived I told him how great the team looked on the run, and he could see for himself upon arrival that their tails were wagging and their appetites were good. Additionally, all dogs seemed to come in healthy, as neither of us noted any unusual gaits. Jeff could also see on the tracker that my speed was good on the second half of the run coming down from The Hump. Unfortunately, Jeff had to break it to me that the run to the finish was 50 miles, instead of 35 as we had originally thought. (The checkpoints of this race change slightly from year to year, and I was working with bad intel from a different year.) “That’s OK,” I told him. “I think I could still take four [hours] and they’d be ready to go.” Jeff agreed that the team looked great, but the risk wasn’t worth it. We should take at least five. Eventually, I relented, and resigned myself to thinking that since ROTY wasn’t my goal when I started the race, that it wasn’t fair to myself or my team to put such a priority on it now. Plus, I thought, maybe with a five hour rest and a few hills up ahead I can still catch Mille or Chad, or both…
After three hours of sitting around eating, drinking coffee and chatting (I refused to sleep, remembering how painful it was to wake from my slumber in Meier’s Lake, and also high on adrenaline from the nearness of the finish line), I told Jeff I wanted to get outside and start getting ready to leave. Since only three hours had passed, Jeff told me I needed to wait. He didn’t believe it would take me two hours to get everyone ready to go, and didn’t want me leaving any earlier than the five hour mark. I thought I knew myself better, and was sure it would take me at least two hours from walking out the door of the lodge to pulling the hook and sending my team down the trail. But again, I relented, and let Jeff convince me it would only take me an hour to get myself and dogs ready to go. After four hours passed I went outside to finally prep my sled and the team. As I moved gear into and out of my sled, some dogs began to stand and stretch, readying themselves for the last leg of our journey. Jeff asked me to walk some dogs around on a leash so he could see them move – a final double-check on any potential injuries. I immediately felt exasperated. I hadn’t built this double-check into my one hour prep time. Everyone came in looking great. What could be wrong? But I grabbed the leash and took Kelly, Maple and Owl each on a little jog around. All seemed fine to me, but Jeff thought he saw a hitch in Owl’s gait, and predicted there might be a problem with her shoulder. I mostly ignored his comments as I hadn’t seen anything on our way running in, and didn’t see anything on the leash walk either. Looking back I’m sure I just didn’t want to see anything on the leash walk. I was ecstatic to be on my way to finishing with a full team of 12 dogs, and I was also in a hurry to just be on my way, period.
I left the Chistochina checkpoint at 10:20 – about 15 minutes later than I had wanted. Oh well. What I had really wanted was to stay for four hours, and that didn’t happen, so whatever. I was on my way to the finish line of the 2020 Copper Basin 300 with a full 12 dog team! Or was I? I kept my speed nice and slow leaving the checkpoint, with my foot heavy on the drag. This gives all dogs a chance to wake and warm their muscles, pee, poop, etc. Within a mile or so, all dogs should be moving fluidly and a musher can start getting the dogs up to whatever speed seems appropriate for the run at hand. But after the first mile on the trail I had one dog who wasn’t movingly fluidly — Owl. The hitch in her gait was ever-so-slight but it was there. Not a consistent head bob, but more of an intermittent dip, almost like she was punching down into soft snow in the trail. I watched the other dogs to see if their gaits reflected random soft spots in the trail, too, but no, it was only Owl doing this. I stopped the sled and walked up to Owl. I slid my hands down around her shoulders and gave them a squeeze. I immediately felt the muscles tighten and twitch under my left hand. Damn it! I massaged and stretched the muscle for several minutes until the twitching mostly subsided. I hopped back on the sled and continued down the trail. Still head bobbing. Shit! Two options now: 1) Keep running with her. Maybe she’ll warm out of it, maybe she won’t. But I’d be watching her like a hawk; distracted from paying attention to anyone else. If she didn’t warm out of it, I could just load her in my sled, right? For 50 miles? She would hate that, and it would slow down the rest of the team. And what if the trail is hard driving? I don’t want her banging around in there on a rough trail. Or worse, what if I tipped the sled with her in it? She’d be traumatized for life. Option 2) Turn the team around and bring Owl back to Chistochina to leave her with Jeff. I don’t love the idea of turning my team in place (mostly for the tangling issues described previously), but it’s something that all mushers have to do with injured dogs from time to time while racing. Guess there is no time to practice like the present. So, I stopped the team again and went up to grab my leaders, Fierce and Braavos. They easily came back to my sled and the flip was no big deal. We jetted back towards Chistochina, making a smooth head on pass with Susannah Tuminelli on the way. Shit, again. Now not only were Mille and Chad in front of me, but so was Susannah. I knew when I turned around to return Owl that catching Mille and Chad would now be out of the question, but I didn’t want to give up 10th place to Susannah, who had been trailing me for most of the race. Back in Chistochina, I tried to wait patiently while the vet team was roused from their sleep. Dropping off a dog with a simple shoulder strain still involves talking to a vet and filling out some paperwork. While I waited, I took Braavos out of lead and put Marten up there instead. I would need his hard-driving, fast pace if I was going to catch Susannah.
Owl on our first camp along the highway. Photo credit Whitney McLaren
Back on the trail, I was relieved to have dropped Owl, even if it cost me an hour. My original check out time from Chistochina was 10:20. Now it was closer to 11:30 when I left for the second time. I was immediately anxious to catch Susannah, but I was also limited by trail conditions. Uneven, extremely brushy ditch-trail plagued us for the first many miles. (Too many to count, especially at that late hour.) Eventually the trail hit a straight, wide, well-groomed power line and we could pick our speed up to 10+ mph. The dogs moved easily and seemed to be anxious to get to the finish line as well. I was moving into pretty serious exhaustion at this point, and while the “thrill of the chase” was not nearly as fun for me as the scenery from earlier in the day, I admit it was really nice to have something to pursue to help keep myself alert. It was easier to keep my eyelids open when I kept waiting to spot a headlamp up in front of me on the trail. And eventually, I saw it. We had moved into some hillier terrain and Susannah’s Willow-trained team just didn’t have the hill-climbing abilities of my crew. We easily caught her on a massive uphill. She stopped at the top to let me pass. I thanked her, and didn’t see her again until the finish line, when she came in 30 minutes behind me.
This run from Chistochina to the finish was my least favorite of the entire race, which I guess was actually perfect. By the time I arrived back in Glennallen at 5 am, I was ready to be done. Not only was I exhausted from three days with very little sleep, and this now all-night run, but I had decided in Chistochina to empty my sled of all non-essential content. Extra thermoses, batteries, head lamp, jackets, heat packs, socks, gloves, ski poles, moose bells, my gun, runner plastic, etc. all got dropped in a giant bag and left behind with Jeff. As a result, my sled was extraordinarily light and driving it became a whole new challenge. It felt off-balance and tippy. My long, motivated string of dogs easily whipped me around tight corners and smashed me into trees. I rolled the sled more than once, dragging out behind it like a rag doll.
By the time I got to the finish line I was completely wiped; mentally and physically exhausted. I was happy yes, but I felt nothing like I had earlier in the day with my 12 dogs in the sunshine, surrounded by mountains. I made a mental note again of the gratitude I felt in that moment, and was so happy I had taken the time to get off my sled and spend some time with each dog up there on top of The Hump. Now I had finished in the Top 10 of my first ever 300 mile sled dog race, and a famously difficult race at that. In fact, this would likely go down in Copper Basin history as one of the coldest, with the smallest group of finishers ever. On my way to the finish line I had chased down and caught a competitor with my team of 11 dogs, moving easily at a fast pace. This was a tribute to my solid team management and conservative race strategy. These were major accomplishments, but they weren’t the best parts. I was exhausted at the finish line, but I was smiling, too, and I knew I hadn’t really stopped smiling for the last three days. My most proud accomplishment from the race was that I had loved every minute of it.
At the finish line with leaders, Marten and Fierce. Photo credit Whitney McLaren
Fierce – My littlest Fiercesome, Alien girl. I love you so much. Thank you for being such a driven and dependable leader. I don’t know how you do it, and I don’t know why you keep yourself so damn thin! But you ate for me pretty well on this race once I figured out what you wanted (wet snacks and meals only), and I will try my hardest to make sure there is plenty of that in the future.
Marten – You sure did a great job on this race, buddy! You are growing up to be one hell of a leader. I sure wish you’d chill out and go back to trotting instead of loping. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but you have a nice trot and loping is not sustainable for 1,000 miles…
Braavos – You know you’re my main man. You’re not as driven as Marten, but you’re better in tricky intersections and I love that I can always count on you to move forward in that lead position. You set a perfect, chill pace for most of the race and I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know.
Maple – You have been such a wonderful addition to our kennel, and I was so lucky to have you on my team. I’m really sorry I messed up with your booties by bringing along the wrong size. I realize now they were too small for you, and I understand why that made you grumpy. It won’t happen again.
Moose – You, sir, are a rock star. You may not ever be the leader that your brother is, but you eat EVERYTHING, you have the perfect coat, the perfect gait, and the PERFECT attitude. You bark to eat, you bark to run, and you wag your tail like the race is just beginning. Please let all of our puppies in the future be just like you.
Forty – Another dog near perfection. You’ve always been one of my favorite team members, and you showed me why on this race. Your gait is gorgeous, you hold your weight nicely, you don’t need a penis-protector even at -50, and your drive is consistent from start to finish. I love you.
Frito – A harder nut to crack, but we did it, bud! You may sometimes be like Eyore from Winnie-the-Pooh, but hell, you’re like that even at home sleeping in your house. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll turn on the juice and be the world’s happiest dog. I will continue to work at finding out what you like. And I vow to always keep your penis tip covered up at -30 and colder. Thank you for running in wheel on that last run. I know it wasn’t easy with my crazy sled driving, but you handled it like an absolute pro.
Lynx – Nice work, girl! You had such a great attitude and work ethic during this race. I’m so proud of you. I do wish you’d go back to trotting instead of pacing because it’s much nicer to look at, but I guess just do whatever makes you happy, keeps you healthy and keeps the sled moving forward.
Spears – You made it! This was your second Copper Basin, and you made it look easy. You didn’t always eat, and you didn’t always work super hard, but you went along with an ease and an attitude that was contagious. Thank you for your classic high jumps when we would take off from a camp! Those sure made me smile. Also thank you so much for your wonderful pups: Marten, Moose, Lynx and Owl. They are something special.
Kelly – Oh Kelly… Like Spears, you’re getting to be an old lady. Not the hardest worker, but you kept your feet under you and your enthusiasm was a wonderful contribution. Thank you for barking and wagging your tail as we were getting ready to leave from our camps. I was so happy to cross the finish line with you.
Jane – You did it, little one! You were a real asset to the team, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching your performance. You have grown into such a valued contributor. Thank you for sticking it out in wheel for most of the race. You did so good back there with your small, light, flexible frame on that sometimes-wild trail. Keep up the focus and I hope to give you a promotion in the next race.
Owl – My sweet baby Owl. You did SO good in this race, and it doesn’t matter to me at all that you didn’t get all the way to the finish line. That was totally my fault for keeping you in wheel for so long. You and Jane were just rocking it back there and I didn’t want to ruin a good thing, but I know that position contributed to your sore shoulder. I’m so relieved you’re feeling better now, and I promise I’ll do better next time.