Late fall is a difficult time for the stinkypups. Everyone wants the cold weather to stay, and the snows to arrive, but it seems to take forever. After some September snow that melted, followed by record warm temps in early October, cold weather finally started to arrive by mid-October. Finally, daytime temps stayed below or about freezing, so the puddles and ponds could start to freeze. Starting in early October, we started doing short loops with the four-wheeler, getting the dogs back into shape.We got about 3 inches of snow on Saturday October 21, and temps had stayed cold enough that the big puddles on our access trail finally froze. Greg decided to take a longer run with the dogs and the four-wheeler Sunday night October 22. 8 dogs: Frankie & Decker, Rattles & Simba, Monkey & Pumpkin, Nicki & Roo.
Ilana was busy with something else, so we didn’t have a detailed discussion about the plans. Greg headed out to the winter trail, went east (towards the Pleasant Valley store), and kept going. Other than a bit puddle, the trail was in good shape, and there were four-wheeler tracks and a few sled tracks everywhere. Lots of other mushers had decided to hit the trails that day.
Greg decided to do a 12-mile loop. It’s a little long for early training, but everyone except Rattles was pulling fine and full of energy. This loop heads straight east for about 6 miles, then goes southward for a few miles, then heads back west down some nice loop-de-loo hills on a trail between two lakes.
About 10.5 miles along the loop, headed toward the home stretch, the dogs led Greg across some ice between the two lakes. About 3/4 miles before, the last pre-existing tracks ended — Greg was the first one through. The reason became obvious when all 8 dogs and the four-wheeler, with Greg on it, fell through some ice into the water.
It turns out the area between the lakes, which was basically a pond, hadn’t really frozen, and in addition to thin ice there was open water. The four-wheeler fell in quite close to the shore, in nearly four feet of water (up to Greg’s hips). The ice was over three inches thick where the four-wheeler fell through, but thinner where the dogs fell through (further out in to the pond).
All the dogs were over their heads and swimming (still attached to their tug lines), and the four-wheeler was nearly entirely underwater, and quickly stalled.
Peril was imminent! After just a few seconds of trying to run the four-wheeler, Greg unhitched all of the dogs, throwing them up on the bank, out of the water. He then tried to pull the four-wheeler out (while up to his waist in icy water), but after a few minutes pulled himself out of the water to assess the situation.
The situation was not good. Six out of eight dogs were running around, wet and happy (they thought this little bath was all part of the plan). Air temperature was about 30 degrees (F), so there was not serious danger of immediate icing over for Greg or the dogs, but it was still wet and uncomfortable. Also very, very heavy — Sorel “Glacier” boots and insulated Carharts, our typical early-season winter-wear, can absorb many pounds of cold water.
For over an hour, Greg alternated between going back into the water to try to get the four-wheeler out, and exploring possible forward trails to get the dogs home by going 1.5 miles forward, rather than 10.5 miles backward.
Neither quest was successful.
Forward, the trail went to an even larger expanse of open water. Funny how, during the winter, it’s not even obvious that the trail goes across so much water. After exploring some alternate paths, doing some bushwacking, Greg found some stream crossings of only a few feet of open water. But the six remaining dogs weren’t falling for that trick again — they didn’t want to cross. Nicki and Rattles had already left, either to go home or to find a quiet place to curl up and nap.
The four-wheeler had fallen down a short bank, and Greg couldn’t pull it back up onto shore. He got it into “only” 2.5 feet of water, but that was all.
The only thing left was to take the six dogs home, the way they had come in: 10.5 miles back along the loop. Greg squeegeed his pants and boots as best he was able, and began the long trudge home. Eating snow constantly to stay hydrated, he trotted part of the time, and managed to keep quite warm.
Meanwhile, back at Stinkypup Kennel, Ilana had raised the neighbors to look for Greg. Greg left at 5:30 pm, and Rattles and Nicki came back alone at 8:30 pm, soaking wet. Clearly not a good sign. Ilana went out for a ski, but didn’t really know which way to go, and didn’t suspect that Greg had taken such a long mush. The turn to the end of the loop, which was less than one mile from the main trail, had unbroken snow. Ilana didn’t go that way, and didn’t go the extra miles around the long way.
The neighbors helped in the search with their four-wheeler, but also never quite went far enough. Finally, Greg arrived home, exhausted, at 1:30 am. Bad timing had him crossing paths with Ilana and the neighbors just 1/2 mile from home, but when they were looking up a side trail.
Simba and Decker, meanwhile, gave up on Greg’s slow trudging home, and ran on ahead. He arrived with Frankie, Roo, Monkey and Pumpkin. Everyone had a good dinner, tried to warm up, and went to bed.
The next day, Greg went back with the neighbor to pull out the four-wheeler, using a winch. It didn’t start, probably due to a wet starter. We’ll go back and rescue it another time, once the ice freezes sufficiently to tow it home the short way.