We’ve been ramping up for Ilana’s Serum Run, and also thinking of running the TRDMA Solstice 100. Because we had some decent early season snow (though not enough), we’ve been training on our sleds. Other folks are still on their four-wheelers, which give better control but aren’t as fun.
Today was the first run with 12 dogs (versus 10) and on the RatStack/Mullen’s Slough route. We’ve been doing a 12 mile loop for two weeks. Sunday afternoon is a popular time to mush in our area, with lots of folks who don’t get out regularly during the week. It’s great to see the neighborhood, though not everyone knows some of the basic trail rules.
A case in point was that I came upon two people with an ATV and 6 or so dogs. They had driven their truck to the winter trail intersection from an access trail. It’s not my access trail, so I don’t know how far it is or over what conditions, but it was a surprising sight to see a truck there. I’ve never seen anything motorized on the winter trail except for snowmachines and ATVs.
My team was going fairly quickly (this is nearly 3 miles from our house, so they still had plenty of ya-yas at that point), and I needed to slow down to avoid overrunning the ATV team. They must have seen me when they started (when I was 50 yards from their truck), but went ahead. I called for trail, to pass them, but they didn’t hear or ignored me.
Neighbor and uber-musher Mike King pulled up behind me with his team. We were all waiting to pass. It was about 20 minutes — really — before they finally got a clue and pulled over. I asked them to hold their leaders, but instead they drove for another few minutes and tried again. This time, holding their leaders.
Trail passing etiquette for passing from behind is, essentially, that the team in front should pull over at first opportunity, set a brake, and hold their lead dogs to the side of the trail so the trailing team can pass. Then, to not pass again immediately, since being passed tends to energize dogs. Those folks didn’t seem to know about such things, and clearly weren’t keeping much of an eye on the trail behind them.
Anyway, I called out my thanks, and a warning that another team was behind me, and continued on. Another few miles and after crossing Pheasant Farm Road, my mush was going well. The team knows that section of trail, but hadn’t been there all season. After a steep downhill, we dropped onto the slough. This is a cross between a marsh and a river and a pond. Not a good place to try to get through in the summer, but during the winter there is a trail that drops on and off the ice, and crosses through some woods. Some TRDMA races go through there. Maybe the Yukon Quest does, too.
The trail was in, though not very well used. I followed it, and in an open field area Chester (my trusty loose leader) spun off and headed towards a cow & adolescent moose. Moose! No, it wasn’t too perilous. The team saw the moose, but they saw us and wandered off into the woods before we got there. We were within 200 feet or so, and Chester got close enough to say “hi,” but then we were past.
Another mile or so along the slough, towards the end where we get back onto Pheasant Farm Road (which at that point is more of a logging road), there was a tight right turn up a hill, and a small fallen tree across the trail. Suddenly, after following a trail all that way, there wasn’t any more trail. Maybe the main trail veered off without me noticing.
More importantly, the dogs went under the branch, down the other side, and immediately fell through the ice over the slough. Yep, the stinkypups got another bath!! It was surprising to me to find this thin ice, since everything so far had been solid. (For those who remember my bath from 2006: I’ve crossed that section many times, and the ice is totally solid and well used.)
I was wrestling with the branch, the dogs were swimming and trying to get through. It was an opening about the size of a kitchen table, or a bit bigger. I was thinking of trying to drag everyone up and back the way we came, but as I wrestled with the branch they kept pulling me forward, and eventually I got free of the branch, they leapt forward out of the water, and I was pulled in. My sled got a little sideways, and I was up to my waist in very cold, muddy, stinky water. I got the dogs to keep going, although they fell through the ice again, in a smaller hole, 15 yards ahead.
I told them “lets go” and held onto the sled, getting it right side up, to let them drag me through. Rather than trying to stand on the thin ice, or get up on my runners, I let them drag me along the ice (spreading out my weight). This worked, and we made it through the other side. I needed to untangle a few dogs once we were on a small bit of land (just a 15 foot section between parts of the slough), but otherwise nobody seemed any worse for wear.
Ahead, I could see a much wider part of the slough with a trail on it, which we joined. The rest of the mush was without incident. I’m sure there are some locals who can tell me about a current, or hot spring, or something similar that keeps that small section from freezing as early as the rest, but it was a surprise to me and the stinkypups. I’ve been through there this time of year before, without any problem. It might be that we would have made it through, if we didn’t have the additional downward momentum created by stopping on the tree branch. Or maybe my sled would have broken through, but not the dogs.
We passed Mike again on the way home (he had taken a different route). While the dogs do OK after getting wet, especially in the balmy 10 degrees Fahrenheit, when this all happened, I was soaked completely in both boots/socks, all of my right side to my waist, and most of my left side. Also both hands/arms.
The cool part is that once I was out of the cold water, I did not get cold for quite some time. My Apocalypse Design snow suit, heavy weight Apocalypse fleece pants, Patagonia expedition weight mountaineering socks, Baffin Design boots all did a great job.
Special thanks to my mittens, made by our neighbor Maureen. These are fleece outside and in, and either fleece or foam interior. These were totally soaked. I squeezed them out, and put them on. And they kept me warm, the whole way home! Amazing stuff…completely wet, and literally freezing solid on the outside, and my fingers were reasonably toasty for 45 minutes or so.
Back home, my pants and boots had started to freeze solid, and were quite heavy. My frozen mitts, coupled with the frozen clips and harnesses on the dogs, meant I needed to use my bare hands to unclip the dogs. (A technique for a frozen brass clip is to hold them in your bare hand for a few seconds, to thaw them.) Since it was 10 degrees above zero, this wasn’t as bad as it might seem….below-zero temps would have made this whole exercise much more perilous.
Ilana came out and finished up the dog care, and I squeegeed myself and my gear off, to get ready for another day.
For the record, my team was: Chester as loose leader, leaders were Chevy & Decker, Nicki & Roo, Storm & Rocket, Luke & Spike, Ahab & Higgs, with Simba and Rattles in wheel.