Where to start… seems we are in it for the long run now………..
It is the middle of November and we are currently still dryland training, the dogs and the winter seem to keep teasing us this season. It is a great time to reflect back on last season, especially competing in the Beaver Trap Trail. We are in the middle of a big move deeper north into Swedish Lapland, to chase the winter & our crazy dreams!
In the beginning of March we went to help Thomas Wærner and Guro Wærner on the Finnmarksløpet, (a 1200 kilometer race in the very north of Norway) we travelled to Alta, and spent several days with the dogs, Thomas and Guro. We helped prepare for their races and kept our ears open at all times to learn all we could from one of the successful mushers of our era. Multiple Finnmark, Femund and of course Iditarod champion.
It was great to experience the race and checkpoints from a handler’s point of view and observe all the different teams, mushers, checkpoint techniques and race strategies. We trained on sleep deprivation; the life of a handler is no joke. The feeling of ecstasy when Guro got over the finish line was amazing! With our heads in overload with new techniques and in full race mode, we drove back to Oatfield Huskies basecamp where our handler Jack had the team ready to rock and roll for the last week of training before our race.
Finally, the first day of the Beaver Trap Trail had arrived, check-in and veterinarian checkup, we took 9 dogs to the checkup and made our final cut of the 8-dog team. All 9 dogs passed the checkup and we was more than ready for the next day!
Day 1, the stakeout area is absolutely bouncing with enthusiastic dogs and excited mushers. We set up our equipment and put the dogs on the stakeout, nervously watching the time go by so slowly. It was like we were totally lost in a time lapse, rearing to get started!
At last it is time to put the boys in their harnesses and hook them up on the lines, we had an amazing team around us to help us to the start-line. I have to admit that I did not see or hear anything at that time, only the countdown clock, the dogs and the trail ahead of us was in my vision. 3.. 2.. 1… GO!
So we set off! The first 30km team after team passed us; our race strategy was to keep the dogs in a slow and steady pace of around 13km per hour, which of course we had trained for to preserve their energy on the somewhat warm and soft trail. Then the hills started to set in, here we saw the advantage we have with running tourists on our somewhat tougher trails with many hills. The dogs went with the same ease up the hills as they ran on the flat trails, passing most of the teams that passed us previously on the flats.
The whole team was thriving and everyone happily ate their snacks except for one, one very happy and overly enthusiastic boy Rask! Who only had eyes for the trail. After 80km we arrived to the first checkpoint and we decided together that it was the best to leave him with the Oatfield and Snowpaw team at the checkpoint, as clearly although he had run thousands of kilometers in training, the race environment just had this superstar in overdrive & we knew that it was impossible for even Rask to keep up such effort for the remainder of the race. It is a very difficult decision to take, one of your absolute best athletes out of your team, but these decisions to us are vital for the health & wellbeing of our dogs. The veterinary on checkpoint Borgafjäll 1 checked Rask thoroughly & were very surprised that we were taking him out of the team, as he was given a 100% bill of health, but we feel we know our dogs very well & didn’t want to risk him burning himself out with how hard he was pulling.
The other 7 guys ate everything that was offered (warm beef stew & chicken skins) and bedded nicely in their Nonstop jackets in the straw to rest before the second part of the race. I got in my sleeping bag and wind sack to try to get some sleep myself; it did not take long before I was fast asleep until I got a wakeup call.. Ben heard from very experienced mushers that a big storm was rolling into the mountains, even though we had planned for another hour of rest. We thought it was the best thing to get the dogs ready to try to stay ahead of the storm.
Before we knew it, we was sledding up into the mountains, right into the eye of the storm. Earlier I spoke about hills, but we never experienced climbing like this before to say the very least! The storm was getting stronger literally by the minute and the trail was being blown over by snow, the lead dogs started to struggle keeping in a straight line and was getting frustrated with each other to keep us heading in the right direction. I was able to send them left and right towards the trail for a few kilometers, the dogs was snaking on my commands: GEE, HAW, GEE, HAW! They listened to my every command and desperately tried to find the hard trail under their feet. This carried on for what felt like hours until they turned around and for a moment the whole team cuddled up around me.
In a moment of desperation I called Ben to talk about the situation and look for some guidance or inspiration, it felt for a moment that we was stuck and I had no idea how to get us out of this situation or off of this mountain! Our GPS broke one day before the race and we was one of the only, if not the only team without a GPS on the trail. Normally the trail is well marked and easy to follow even with snowfall, but with the power of the storm it was a complete whiteout and even our well-weathered lead dogs struggled to find the right way. I did not know if we was close to the edge of a cliff, going into complete wilderness or was heading in the right direction..
I straightened the team out when another team reached us, it turned out to be a young but experienced musher, Rasmus. And the moment I saw the antenna from his GPS sticking out of his pocket I knew that I had to stick with this guy! We talked about challenging the storm together and after some encouraging words and hugs with my dogs, we went off. For a while his team was leading us down the trail until his lead dogs didn’t know how to continue and then we would take the lead, we continued this way switching lead until the storm started to settle a bit when we reached the bottom of the first mountain.
Rasmus was currently in lead and stopped the dogs, he told me that he was planning to take a rest and snack his dogs and asked me if I wanted to pass him and continue. But I decided to do the same after this intense part of the race and charge our batteries a bit for the second mountain. I saw that Rasmus was struggling to snack his dogs and offered some of my snacks which they did accept, I was happy to repay my help to him after our encounter in the storm.
When we set off towards the second mountain, my team was picking up a faster pace and was filled with enthusiasm and confidence. I realized this still was a race and we headed on in front ready to take on the storm again! The confidence that the dogs gave me was incredible, we did not know what was in front of us, but after that first storm we all was a big experience richer and felt invincible at that time. Then hello! The climbing increased and the wind picked up again, we traveled up on what felt like an edge and I hung with all my strength on the sled, trying to keep it on the trail. The dogs did not seem to be bothered at all by these strong winds and went head down with full force up this mountain; we crossed what was like a lake on one of the tops of the mountain where several warning signs was placed about the danger of the water beneath us. I can only say that I luckily didn’t have to change my pants, but saying that I was impressed and respected my surroundings is an understatement.
We got close to the last climb of the mountaintop before heading down again when we ran into the steepest hill I have ever seen. After the race, I talked to mushers who have ran this race before and it got to my knowledge that people call this part “the wall”. And I am not surprised by this name; it literally looks like running into a wall! I stopped the team at its foot and walked in front of the team to make sure this is the right trail, it can’t be! The wind is still strong gushing over us and one of our lead dogs La Grange his ears are straight up in the air, he normally has very floppy ears and this is the first time ever that I saw him with standing ears! But look at his face! He is so happy!! The energy of these guys really keeps you going no matter what. There are trail markers going over this wall, I better believe it’s true and after a quick rest, some cuddles and snacks we start our climb.
It was a vertical pushing exercise, stamping my heels deep into the snow and pushing the sled above me. The climb is so steep that the sled will just slide back down towards me and drag the dogs with it if I let go and then we will have to start all over again. Step by step we get closer to the top and once we reach it I let out a scream of victory! A scream like you’ll only see in a movie scene after winning a war, something that comes naturally from deep down inside you that you don’t know exists until you reach that summit! I quickly looked around to try and spot any other teams but no teams was in sight, pfewh! At this point, I am so proud and impressed by these 7 guys. Especially Miles only 22 months old at the time. He is cool as a cucumber and just never ceases to amaze me; he never put a paw wrong, has amazing appetite and works exactly how you would want a long distance dog to work! (This will not be the last time you hear the name of this pup!) Not too hard not too slack, always quiet and motivated to go on. We are sure that he will be a very important dog for our kennel, with all he already is and does at this age.
We head down the mountain which was a breeze after the past hours of challenges, the wind was not too bad at this side of the mountain and we shifted nicely towards the second checkpoint. (Borgafjäll 2) On the open parts the wind started to pick up again and brought hail with it, at this point I realized that Ben still had my goggles in his pocket from the first checkpoint so my vision was minimal. (Another amateur mistake that I will try to work on) Luckily the dogs sensed the way and soon I saw the checkpoint in front of us, it was so nice seeing Jo and Rachel from Snowpawstore and Ben and Jack’s happy faces at the line of the checkpoint!
The dogs and I was very tired after this intense run, the dogs got their well-deserved food, Mammut recovery drink, nonstop jackets and straw to sleep on, they was very content and so was I seeing them this way. A quick chat with the human team and off into my sleeping and wind sack I immersed to try and get some rest myself, I was so tired that my brain did not work 100% of this I’m sure!
A few hours later it was time, the last leg.. Trail committee said that they had changed the course home to Norråker because of the aggressive storm still taunting the mountains, we would have an easy track back to the finish line.. In hindsight, I don’t really agree with this statement I’m afraid haha.
The trail started very nice and easy, I thought this is going to be doddle! The sun set and soon it would be pitch-dark, we crossed several lakes with a lot of overflow (water that lays on top of the ice) at certain points the dogs was almost swimming! We crossed a lot of open land until we got to a massive lake, all the other lakes was a straight cross to the other side. However, this one went angled to the left with real bad overflow, I was so scared the whole time that we would find a hole in the ice which we couldn’t see because of all the water. Then the lead dogs saw the forest edge and picked up speed, at the corner there was a man standing “you need to go to the right” he said. Again, a long stretch over to the other part of the lake.. the dogs didn’t feel for this and stopped, I walked up to the lead dogs who was by then half emerged in water of course along with me, my boots and all of equipment in the sled. I hugged them and begged them to continue to do the most amazing job that they had for the last day and a half!
Just this last part guys! I saw on the tracker of my phone that this was the last lake “please Imse and La Grange! I need you guys! Please get me home!” (They both looked at me as if I was making a big deal about nothing! No sweat mum don’t panic we got this you know!) I walked back to the sled, gave them the command “OK” and they went! & went! I tell you that the bond that you get with these dogs during a race is out of this world, of course we bond a lot at home and we have the best relationships to them in daily life. But this is different, it is as if they know and feel the same as me. We are here to help each other, to get each other through weather and wind.. It is very special and I don’t think I can put it in words.
Not long now, soon we have to be at the finish line, we passed several teams on the last leg and meet up with other teams as we was moving pretty well. Imse wasn’t too keen on passing the teams in front so I just followed in behind. We’ve been through so much together, I am already so proud of the dogs that they got me this far! One last steep hill and then I saw lights, it was the town where we started from. Surely soon we will be there? Before the race I always said that I would probably cry when or if I would cross the finish line, but I felt drained, I’m not going to cry was all that was going through my mind. I am too tired and just feel happy and relieved, but there it was.. A big banner with the word FINISH full of fairy lights around it!!!!
Here we go! “GOOD BOYSSS! WE MADE IT, WE ACTUALY DID IT! YOU GUYS ARE AWESOME!” I said to encourage the dogs while sobbing. We got over the finish line in 8th place, (totally irrelevant to me) then I cried! I was not the only one crying though. I soon discovered the whole team applauding with smiles from ear to ear, such a delight to see. The team from Snowpawstore, the Oatfield Huskies guys & all the event workers who stayed up late! There was so many hugs for both humans and dogs, and Miles got the biggest tears going, our youngest superstar “you did it Smiley! I’m so so proud of you!”
(Lead dogs) Imse & La Grange (team dogs) Miles, Rusty, Rask, Nix (wheel dogs) Morris & Ice
The hours, days, weeks & months of almost nothing but dogs…………….. Eat sleep dogs repeat……. Are we normal? Probably not! Are our dogs awesome? Most definitely!
See you on the next one!? Watch this space!
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