Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mushing Home Over The Top Of The World

We have just returned home from running the first ever Top Of The World 350 sled dog race from Tok to Eagle and back again, and wow what an adventure! I first heard about this race back in August when I was still in Skagway running dog tours for AIE and the first thing that came to mind is “I have got to be apart of that, or I will regret it forever.” And what a special race it was, it was run in honor of the late Chief Isaac Juneby of Eagle village, and was put on largely by his family. I had the pleasure of traveling that road once with Isaac many years ago, and I often thought back on that trip during the race.

The whole race had a special and magical feel to it. Most of the race was run under a brilliant full moon, and the whole race ran through miles and miles of untouched wilderness full of incredible beauty with mountains as far as the eye could see. One couldn’t help but feel we were truly mushing over the top of the world. Growing up in Eagle made this race all the more special to me. The country the race travels through holds a special place in my heart, and I was honored to be a part of this special event. I hope this race is around for years to come.

The TOTW350 race was unique in the fact that the first 175 from Tok to Eagle was a memorial run, to be run at your own pace. As long as you were in Eagle by the restart on the 29th at 2pm time didn’t matter. That alone made it special because it made the event feel like more of a camping trip, where mushers would travel alone or in groups, but often ended up camping in groups on the side of the trail sharing a fire. It was like taking a step back in time to the way things used to be, and how traveling with dogs should be.

The first 75 miles of the race from Tok to Chicken were definitely the most trying for me, I ended up carrying one of my main dogs Pip in the sled for most of that run due to an injury to his Achilles tendon, it is something he should recover just fine from, but will keep him out of the team for a little while unfortunately. Riding in the sled did not sit well with Pip, he loves to run and was very upset he wasn’t able to do just that, so to the torture of all within ear shot Pip howled, barked, and whined all the way to chicken. Rogue also ended up with a minor wrist injury, which allowed her to run all but the last 20 miles into chicken. She rode very nicely in the sled next to Pip, but you could tell she was annoyed by his racket and squirming.

Even though the run into chicken was the most trying for me it is also the most memorable. It wasn’t all-bad, the run out of Tok was beautiful and one of the few sections of trail we got to cross in the daylight. We camped on top of a warm hill over looking the Alaska Range and a beautiful sunset. That’s where we got the pleasure of meeting Darren Lee and Heidi Sutter, I got to see them often throughout the race, especially Darren since we were both traveling in the back of the pack on the second half of the race.

The Chicken checkpoint was very nice, despite its small size. At one point there was about 30 people inside the tiny one room cabin, crammed in there shoulder to shoulder trying to sleep and dry out gear for the next section of trail. Nate graciously opened his home to all of us smelly mushers, he kept the fire going, melted snow for close to 300 sled dogs, and provided a friendly atmosphere. With little to no help, what a guy! Nate received the Sportsmanship award at the end of the race, it is the one award the mushers get to vote on and is intended for a musher, but we all agreed that Nate deserved this award more than any one else. Nate is a good friend of mine, I have known him for several years and originally met him while I lived in Eagle, I have gotten several dogs from him, Chupa, Gus, and Pip. I didn’t hesitate to leave Pip and Rogue in his care, I knew with out a doubt that they were in Good hands.

The run into Eagle was relatively non-eventful considering the fact that we had to cross two summits, both Poly and American Summit, both with reputations that will send chills down any mushers spine. Poly summit was a breeze weather wise both ways, it couldn’t have gone better. American summit was a little windy, but nothing like it could have been and nothing anyone couldn’t handle. All around it was fantastic training for my self and my young team. The last 30 miles into Eagle provided us with a few challenges, one being American summit, but the biggest being the “glaciers” that form over the road/trail in the wintertime. They are caused by ground water seeping out and across the trail and freezing in sloping formations that can make travel difficult and potentially very dangerous. Thanks to a dedicated hard working group of volunteers, all the mushers and teams were able to safely cross these glaciers with little to no trouble.

The Checkpoint in Eagle was very nice, full of lots of friendly faces and good food. I got to see and catch up with a lot of people I have known for many many years which was a lot of fun of course. I also got to visit with my parents and sister for a couple hours before the race restarted and we all headed back down the trail towards Tok. I had to leave one dog in Eagle, a young male named Drift. Drift is part of what I call my super 7, which are the seven yearlings I have out of my leader Adidas. He was a solid part of the team all the way into Eagle, and came in running great and happy, but when I was going over the dogs getting them ready to go I noticed his foot was swollen, I had Hayden one of the vets check him out and we decided it was best to have him flown back to Tok instead of run in the team. It was hard leaving him behind, I missed him in the team, but I knew he was in good hands and didn’t worry about him. Drift happily met us in Tok at the finish line, the swelling in his foot already gone.

I can’t really talk about the Eagle Check point with out mentioning my Friend Matt Hall who was the only other musher in the race originally from Eagle. We are only a few months a part and grew up together, kind of like siblings, we have been close friends as long as I can remember. It was really special to share both of our first big races together and also to have it include Eagle. He was the first musher to make it into Eagle, while I was the last; we were kind of like the bookends of the group. I have to say that I am just one of the few people incredibly proud of Matt and his team during this race. This was his first big race and he did an excellent job, finishing the race in 9th place, with a happy healthy team. Good Job Matt!

My run from Eagle to Tok was slow but good; I enjoyed my place at the back of the pack with my yearling team. Jodi Bailey was another one of the back of the pack mushers with a young team as well. While in Eagle Jodi invited me to share her campsites along the trail on our way back to Tok. In Eagle she told me where she planned to stop and that she hoped to see me out there. It sure was nice knowing Jodi wasn’t far up ahead and expecting me while I was out there. I greatly enjoyed her company and stories while we let our young teams sleep, and knowing I wasn’t the only one out there running such young dogs was really nice. We got to share some of our challenges and a laugh or two at how silly we felt at times. Jodi was great about offering me advice and helping to ease my nerves, and for that I will be forever grateful.

I have to admit I was happiest to see Jodi on top of poly summit on the way back into chicken. While the weather was very pleasant and not as windy as on American summit the terrain proved to be more challenging. Poly summit started with an eight mile climb out of the 40-mile river valley and then an incredibly long ridgeline run that seemed to go on forever, not only was Jodi at our predetermined campsite resting her team, but she had Cheese cake which she shared, and totally made my night!

We had a nice run off of Poly summit and down to Chicken, followed by another nice visit with Nate and every one else who was in Chicken at the time. My husband Robert was trail sweep for the race, for those of you who don’t know what a trail sweep is they follow behind the mushers on a snow machine making sure if any one falls behind and or gets hurt and needs help that they get it. He also spent a lot of time picking up dog booties that had fallen off and gotten left behind. It was nice to see him in Chicken as well as other places along the trail. We spent a few minutes chatting before I was off down the trail again towards Tok. Mushers were required to spend at least 4 hours in chicken on the way back through towards Tok, I spent 6 hours there. My team was resting nicely and I wanted them to get a good rest before having to tackle all the big hills between chicken and Tok, including Fairplay summit.

I left Chicken about an hour forty behind the last group of teams out, and spent most of my run to Tok on my own. I saw one other team driven by Darren Lee on top of Fairplay and shared a campsite for a few hours before parting ways. My run to Tok from chicken was uneventful, and slow. I was also exhausted after only getting a few hours of sleep over the last few days. My exhaustion was the biggest challenge of this part of the trail. I had also made the decision to leave Gus behind in Chicken, he is young and was tired and had stopped pulling. Physically he could have continued but I thought it would be better for him in the long run if his race ended there. So Gus joined Pip and Rogue for the flight back to Tok.

We ended up in Tok early in the afternoon, and were greeted by a sizable crowd at the finish line including Robert, Alyssa (matt’s Girlfriend), Matt, and Jodi and Lots of other people. It was really great to see every one there and I found my self a little torn as we mushed into Tok. I was happy to be back in Tok with a hot meal, a warm bed and shower calling to me. But I was also sad to be off the trail, the trip was an amazing journey one I am proud to have been a part of and look forward to repeating in the future.

I would like to take a minute to thank the amazing Vets who volunteered on this race, Nina and Hayden you guys were awesome, and so were your assistants. I would also like to Thank Hugh for coming up with the idea and getting the ball rolling. A huge Thank you to Jody Potts and her family for putting the race on. Thank you to Scott for the awesome pictures of the racers and our dogs.  And Thank you to Nate in chicken and to all the volunteers in Eagle you guys were awesome and I can not thank every one enough not only for what you guys did for this race, but for all the encouragement and advice you’ve given me over the years. I would also like to congratulate all the mushers and their dogs out there on the trail, it isn’t often every one who starts a race this size also finishes it, and we did it!

I am so very proud of my team and their performance on this race. I started the race with a young team and the goal to finish with a happy healthy dog team who was better for the experience. My young team finished happy and healthy, they also seem older and more mature now, and not so much like puppies any more. It was a pleasure traveling with them over 350 miles of wilderness and I couldn’t think of any one I would have rather shared the experience with. I have raised and trained most of that team since they were born, and they will always have a special place in my heart as the dogs that ran home to Eagle with me over the Top of the world.

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