This past weekend Dan and I both participated in the inaugural running of the Top of the World 350, (TOTW) a wonderful event that had teams traveling from Tok to Eagle and then racing back. This event was important in many ways. To our kennel as the first opportunity this season that allowed us to get our young dogs out and give them a great experience and also take seasoned race dog and let them see new trail; all the while letting Dan and I get a good look at this year’s race team while practicing important race skills like checkpoint routines and race management. It was a very well thought out race, and the efforts paid off for mushers and their teams. This event saw every single team that started finish! (read about the final standings here) It is not often that you will see such success in an event that travels over 350 miles of summits, ridge lines, and windblown arctic wilderness. (you can see the race course map here)
But more importantly was what this race meant to the Juneby family, and the community of Eagle. This race was a tribute to Chief Isaac Juneby (please read more about this great man here), and as we learned at the events leading up to the start, a way for the family and community to honor his memory. Mushers heard from family members and elders about the positive impact Chief Juneby had in the region, of his work to help strengthen his community, of his gentle humor, and his love & respect for the land we were traveling through on this race. The family members had all worked very hard to organize this event, and it really was an honor to be a part of something so special. (an article from our local paper with more info on the founding of this event, and the wonderful reaction from the mushing community)
Dan and I both want to thank the wonderful race organizers and amazing volunteers who made this special event possible!!!
Now some tales from the trail, as we ran it.
Going into the TOTW one of the first big decisions we needed to make was who would be running which dogs. With 2 mushers we could choose to divide up our race dogs in any number of ways. But as we got closer to race day we had some help making the choices. A few of our girls were going into heat, a condition that does not effect their ability to run. But it can have a pretty strong effect on team dynamics. So we decided to split the dogs up mostly by sex, just easier that way. It was decided Dan would be taking a team of mostly females and I was going to have a mostly male team. As luck would have it, that choice also meant I would be running a team of the youngest race dogs with the least experience. A great opportunity for me to work with these dogs. This also meant Dan would have more of the seasoned race dogs, which would give him a chance to get a really good look at them as he prepares to pick his team for the upcoming Yukon Quest.
Final Teams (*indicates this was a rookie race dog, never having raced before)
You can see by the large number of *’s in my team that I really did have a rookie team. And for me this would be a new challenge. In the past I had always had the luxury of running a team of dogs that was well seasoned having run races with Dan before. This time I would be the one responsible for making sure that these young dogs had a positive experience while learning what racing was all about. It was a different kind of pressure then I had felt in the past. There is so much more to being a great race dog then just pulling. A great race dog will handle new situations in stride, camp and rest well in new places, deal well with other teams and crowds, eat well under any conditions, and do what you ask of them becuase they trust that you, as the musher, are making the best choices. In the past my teams had these skills, but now I was charged with making sure my team acquired them. With all that in mind I think you can understand why I was obviously taking this responsibly very seriously. I have yet to run a race where my goal has not been “to run the team in front of me to the best of my ability”. But with this team of new race dogs, I was very nervous. Wanting so much to make sure on this race I would be giving them a solid foundation to build on for the years ahead.
The format of the TOTW actually helped me achieve my goals. Because the trip out to Eagle was not timed Dan and I could travel together and make shorter runs with short camping breaks on our way out. Most mushers traveled this way in small groups that allowed people to enjoy each others company and at a slower pace that really gave you the time to soak up the beauty of the country we were traveling through. This gave our young dogs a chance to travel new trails with less stress then you might have in an all out race situation. Camping trail-side in groups was good practice as well, letting the kids get used to having new dogs around.
And there was ample opportunity to pass and be passed by teams; while camping and while moving down the trail. Which it turns out is something our younger dogs really needed. You see we live in an area without a lot of people, and our trails do not see a lot of traffic. As we were passing some of the first teams we saw camping I have to say it was less them smooth. But then it dawned on me, many of my dogs have not seen many other dogs, let alone passed another team! The young dogs born at Dew Claw have been running on our local trails, we have a few friends who come and ski-jor so our dogs have run into them on the trail, and Dan and I pass each other. But with so little traffic on the trails this winter (due to low snow conditions and super cold temps) they had not really been in a situation with other dog teams. I am sure that running and camping with 21 other dog teams was a real eye opener for a group of dogs who, up till then, thought they were the biggest pack of dogs in the world. It would be a far cry from the truth to say that they became perfect passers by the end of the race, but I can in honesty say I was very impressed to see real progress as we traveled the 350 miles from Tok to Eagle and back. And I know now that they know now what other dog teams are all about.
Checkpoints was another area where I saw real progress with the younger dogs. They learned to relax, eat, and rest well in spite of the huge number of other dogs all doing the same thing near-by. I should also note that I needed to test my own checkpoint and trail camping skills as well. No matter how many times you have done something you still get out of practice after a long break, plus there is always room for improvement. So this early season race was my chance to get my routine worked out and see what I could be doing better.
Pre-Race photos taken by Scott Chesney show the pre-race vet check and opening activities. The TOTW had 2 excellent vets volunteer to come work with the mushers. Vets preform a pre-race check on all dogs, and this helps assure everyone is in the best possible health to run. But probably more importantly, they are at the checkpoints to work with mushers on any issues they might be having, providing support and professional insights. They are also there to care for any dropped dogs; dogs that might be tired of injured or for any number of reasons the musher feels should not be running any further. Between Dan and I we only dropped one dog, Neptune a young male from my team was dropped in Eagle after he showed some odd behaviors running at night on the way out. It appears he actually had a condition with one of his eyes that was effecting his depth perception. It was in no way an injury caused on the trail. With the help of race vets we were able to determine it is most likely a non-injury condition, possibly hereditary, that had progressed to the point where it was possible for us to observe it. He will be seeing out local very for further diagnosis. This condition was making it difficult for him to travel at night on strange trails, and both the Vet and I felt it was in his best interest not to travel any further with the team. He could get care and be safely transported back to Tok with the Vet who would monitor and care for him. Having dedicated volunteer race vets is such an asset to any event. Thank you to the organizers and Vets for making sure all the dogs on the TOTW got first class care.
Dan and I broke the trip to Eagle up into 5 fairly even runs, with short rests on the trail and a longer rest at the checkpoint of Chicken. This worked out into 2 runs with one trail camp to get to Chicken, and then 3 runs with 2 trail camps to Eagle. It was a nice plan, and the weather cooperated by being pleasant and warm, making the trail camps comfortable for both dogs and mushers. On the way out we built small fires for our enjoyment, while using our alcohol cookers to make water from snow. The first pot of water is always for the dogs food, and the second is used to defrost our human meals (in sealed bags so we can drop them into the pot to cook) and bottles of chocolate protein shakes or juice (frozen solid in the sleds from the trip) and refill our thermos bottles with coffee and/or drinks.
Photos from the trip out taken by Scott Chesney show not only teams leaving but scenes from the Chicken checkpoint as well. He also has some nice photos of the glacier we encountered on the way into Eagle. I must say the photos do not do the actually situation justice, as it was one of the most “interesting” parts of the trail. It is much steeper then it looks in these photos, and although trail crews had put in heroic efforts ice glaciers like that actually grow and evolve constantly. By the time teams reached this obstacle it had morphed into something steeper, sending most teams sliding down off the side and into the ditch below, where you can to navigate around brush and a steam pipe, break trail, and convince your teams to keep moving forward till you reached an area past the worst of the glacier, then get you and your team back up onto the icy trail to keep going.
In Eagle the teams all got a good rest before the real race back began. We took off at 2 minute intervals and were times the entire way home. Scott Chesney took some great photos of teams leaving Eagle as well as airial shots of the amazing trail we traveled. The dogs and mushers had the advantage of having seen the trail, which makes the run home much less stressful. And the weather cooperated staying warm enough to be comfortable but not to hot for dogs. American Summit, well know for being a major obstacle in the Yukon Quest was mild in comparison to what it can often be, and I for one was thankful for that.
American Summit deserves a special note here. It was the only place on the entire Quest trail that scared me, I mean really really scared me! Going over it my rookie year I was overwhelmed with the feeling that here was a place you could get swept away or fall over the steep sidehill cliff and disappear from the face of the earth never to return again. Made my stomach turn to knots just to think about it. So why would someone who lived in fear of that very spot sign up for a race that had you traveling over it not once, but twice? Well here I get to expose some of my personal stupidity with geography. When I signed up for the TOTW I really had not put it together that we would be traveling over American Summit… We were coming from Tok… this was not the Quest trail… never really looked at the map to check… You can only imagine the look on my face when later as Dan and I were sitting in the living room having coffee with our friend Jay and talking about race plans and we pulled out a map. Yup I was going to be tackling my fear not once but TWICE on this race.
Now as I mentioned Mother Nature was kind, the winds were not brutal, the drifts manageable, and I had not one but two very good trips over American Summit. The fear I had of it has slightly subsided, but I still have a very healthy respect for that section of trail and the great possibility for disaster that lives there.
On the trip home Dan and I had separate plans, each based on what we hoped would be best for the team we were running.
Dan with more experienced race dogs was wanting to push them a bit more, taking a few short breaks on the way to Chicken and then tackling the long run back to Tok in one shot. His plan worked beautifully, his teams stayed strong due to the extra rest he had invested in them earlier. And in the last run he was able to overtake teams and move from 10th to 6th place. He said his team of girls stayed happy and were working well together giving him a strong finish. He was very happy with the stamina and attitude they showed. He finished with all 14 of the dogs he started with.
I went into the race with a different goal. I wanted a strong team at the finish, and wanted them to learn to trust in me and themselves. This was a long race and I felt pushing them too much would cause them to get bummed out and doubt my choices. I was watching our traveling times, always looking to make sure they were moving along at a good clip; a sign that they are strong and rested enough to run well. I made the choice not to attempt a long run to Tok from Chicken. But in an effort to push them a little and see how they would respond I cut down on the amount of time I allowed them to rest at our half way trail camp. This balance of run to rest time is one of the critical questions all mushers ask themselves as they execute a race plan. It is both a skill and art form, and one that I am still very much learning. In this instance I made the best decision I could based on my experience and looking at my teams preformance. I will never know if it was too much rest, but had it been too little I would have seen a marked decline in the speed and performance of the dogs I was driving. Happily I did not. We finished strong and happy, and that was excatly what I had wanted.
Two things really stick out for me this race:
How much I have yet to learn
How beautiful it was out there
I have a new found respect for parents after this race, who face the fears of not doing good enough or making the best/right choices all the while wanting so badly to ‘get it right’. Because that is how I felt this race. These are my kids, and my responsibility to them at this important developmental time in their lives is HUGE. And like so much of life, you do not get to go back and try again to see if the results would be better if. You must do the best you can and live with the results. At times taking this rookie team 350 miles was frustrating, at others exhilarating. More then once I had to laugh and remind myself that I was “taking a kindergarten class on a field trip to a candy factory” my analogy for a young teams first race. Others I was happily surprised at how well they handled new situations (they are way less freaked out by American Summit then I am). In some ways this trip was not just about their confidence, but mine as well. I know with more time and experience the confidence level of both me and my team will grow. I also know that the more I learn the more I realize I still have a lot to learn, that is the nature of improvement.
I want to finish this post with my thoughts on how insanely beautiful it was to be on the TOTW trail. The trail is actually the Taylor Highway in summer months, but is not maintained for travel in the winter. Although it is not plowed or maintained it is used by the hearty and brave 4WD truck owners up to the town of Chicken for part of the winter. Trucks were able to bring supplies in for the race, but by the end were unable to make the trip as conditions had deteriorated beyond the limits of truck travel. Dogs had to be flown out. Snowmachines and dog teams brave the highway all winter, making it more of a trail then a road. And to be fair for huge sections of it you would never even guess you were traveling a highway; were it not for the occasional mile markers or signs.
It takes you through some of the most amazing country. I think some might find it desolate, as you run along ridge lines and look around at 360 degrees of undeveloped wilderness. It is hard to put into words what the world looks like from that vantage point, peaks covered in white, rolling as far as the eye can see, bathed in the moonlight with an occasional cloud or aurora dancing in the sky. A trail that leads on for what seems like forever ahead of you. As we traveled over peaks in the light of the full moon I was overwhelmed with the sense that this land looked just like this for generations. You can get the feeling that you are the only person on earth in a wilderness that vast. For some that might be a scary prospect. For me it came with a real sense of being at ease and at peace, just me and the dogs running over the Top of the World. And if I ever even started to feel cold or tired or in any way sorry for myself; all I had to do is think of the people who traveled this country long before we do now. They did not have fancy LED lights, or aluminum sleds with special runner plastic, yet they traveled the country and carved out a life here. I have had the pleasure of speaking with many Native elders about life in Alaska when dog teams were the main mode of transportation, and I have the greatest respect for the people who literally ‘broke trail’ long before the snowmachine came to the state. As I traveled the TOTW trail I could not help but think of those people and that time, and all of a sudden it was pretty hard to feel sorry for myself out there. I have it pretty good, and I am blessed to travel this country and be a part of the long proud tradition of mushing in Alaska.
It is such a striking trail: Poly Summit in the full moonlight heading back to Tok was breathtaking. Mount Fairplay as we took off the first day leading us up into the high country. Camping on the side of the trail looking out over vast valleys to far off untouched places. Rolling downhill from American Summit to see the mighty Yukon River frozen. The Alaskan sky alight with the vivid colors of sunset or a vast darkness speckled with stars. I have some many images in my mind and I know my words will never do them justice. So I will close by saying that, this was one of the most beautiful trail I have ever run.
Dan and I want to say THANK YOU to all the race organizers, volunteers, and sponsors who came together to make this such a wonderful, fun, & memorable event.