SURVIVAL OF THE ROOKIE
Karen Land ran Maine's Can Am Crown 250 in March 2001 as one of her Iditarod qualifiers. She finished in 11th place. The 450-mile International Wyoming Stage Stop Race and Montana's 350-mile Race to the Sky were her other Iditarod qualifiers, all completed in 2001. Karen and her team finished 4th place in the Race to the Sky that year.
Written by Karen Land, March 2001.
Growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the word "rookie" immediately brought to mind images of fit men in their 20's wearing colorful fire proof racing suits and helmets with names like Marlboro, Firestone, and Quaker State plastered from head to toe. They were the future to the sport of Indy 500 auto racing and everything was possible for them. I always picked a rookie to win in my Catholic gradeschool's pool of Indy 500 drivers. My idealism never paid off.
Twenty years later on a dog sled in the frozen backcountry of northern Maine, I began to reconsider the implications of the word "rookie."
I quickly realized many times being a rookie has little to do with winning on your first try. Being a rookie is often more about survival, starting a race and somehow in some way finishing that race.
A veteran of a particular race has an advantage. Knowing every steep hill, sudden drop off, water crossing, or resting spot along the trail is always a plus, but the beauty and excitement of dog mushing is the unknown.
When covering hundreds of miles of wilderness, a musher never knows from year to year where there will be a raging blizzard, a stubborn moose on the trail, or a blown-over trail marker. As I mushed down the mainstreet of Fort Kent to the roaring cheers of the crowd, I knew one thing for certain. The unknown can quickly catch up with you on a dog sled.
I never believe it when a musher says he never gets scared. Doug Swingley, the four-time champion of the Iditarod, declared in an Outdoor Channel interview after the 2001 race, "I am never scared because I know I have the dogs with me."
Many times I am scared BECAUSE of the dogs I have with me. The unstoppable desire and sheer power of these animals can often be overwhelming, even frightening.
As a rookie dog musher, I had already made it through 12 months without the "musher's nightmare" occurring. The fear of losing a dog team remained heavy in the back of my mind.
The 64-mile run from the Can Am starting line in Fort Kent to the first checkpoint in Portage went smooth and fast. Other teams passed me as I rode my drag brake, slowing my team down to avoid injuries on the plowed, icy roads.
Dr. Terry Adkins, the owner of my team and my friend and mentor, volunteered to be a race veterinarian. He was stationed in Portage when I arrived just before dark.
Terry advised me to stick with our race plan, running through this checkpoint another 24 miles to Machias Lake and resting there. The dogs would never be able to rest here with the crowds of people talking and walking around my team. I packed up and we moved on down the trail into the bitter-cold, starry Maine night.
A few miles out of Portage I realized Boots, my main leader, needed a break from up front. Bandit, a young and overly-enthusiastic dog, was running up on Boots' heels. A few hours in swing might give Boots a breather, I figured, and Bandit could use the lead experience running beside Pig, my other trusty leader. So I made the switch, not realizing that Bandit's gun-ho attitude would quickly turn against me.
The Can Am Trail switched back and forth from plowed slick roads to beautifully groomed trails. The logging roads are inevitable in northern Maine and often provide wide, easy trails for a dog team to safely maneuver. When groomed and snow-packed, these roads are a musher's superhighway. When plowed and icy, hold on and beware.
I saw the trail markers reflect in the beam of my headlamp and knew the turn off of the icy road was approaching on the left. I stood on the brake with both feet and tried desperately to slow the charging team in time for the 90 degree turn up over a snow berm unto a narrow trail. Bandit and Pig had the entire open road in front of them. They were cruising, loping with ease in the -30 degree temperature.
"Haw, haw!" I yelled, telling the leaders to turn left. I bounced up and down with all of my weight on the brake trying to stop them in time for the turn. "Piggy, haw!"
I saw the trail directly in front of my leaders to the left. I reached for the snowhook and bent down on the runners, grinding the sharp points of the hook into the ice. The snowhook, usually used to restrain a team when already stopped, was my only hope. The metal squealed against the hard ice and gravel, sending a shower of crystal shavings into the air.
"Whoa, Piggy! Whoa! I mean it Pig..."
Pig didn't even turn an ear in my direction. Bandit did not yet know the commands for right and left, gee and haw. The entire team chose to ignore the "whoa" command. They were having way too much fun.
Then the snowhook caught on a rock. Slam! My team was thrown into an instant standstill. I flew forward, my face ricocheting off the sled, my body wracked against the stanchions. With my head throbbing and my heart racing, I jumped up and kicked at the hook, a futile attempt to set it further into the ground.
The trail to the left was about 12 feet behind us now. I ran to the front of the team and grabbed my leaders' neckline, turning the entire team back the opposite direction. I jogged with the leaders, escourting them up over the snow berm onto the correct trail.
When I turned the team, the snowhook backed out of its precarious grip against the rock. Anticipating this, I kept a tight hold on the leaders, fearing that I could lose the team. The sled never turned around but backed up the wrong direction, planting the runners several feet into the berm. Now Pig and Bandit finally faced down the snow-packed race trail but the sled remained on the icy road planted backwards into the snow drift.
Bandit was possessed with the need to run, NOW. He screamed a shrill, pleading cry and sprung three feet into the air, slamming into the restrained weight of the sled. The older, more rational dogs caught the crazed sled dog fever. Thrashing, barking, and leaping, they joined Bandit in the wild effort to move forward.
The power of the team pounded the runners into the berm like tent stakes being sledged into hard ground. I feared the unusual torque on the sled would snap the runners off and leave me with a useless sled. My only choice was to bring the team back onto the icy road and run back to my sled, pulling it forward out of the drift.
I had to do it.
I turned the snowhook over and kicked it until one edge chipped a V into the ice and took hold. I pulled the team back down on the slick logging road. The sled easily slid forward out of the snow berm's death grip.
My dogs were a time bomb waiting to explode. I had to work fast. I led them back up over the berm onto the race trail for a second time. Once again, the snowhook did not hold. The team bolted forward as I picked up the snubline and reached for the handlebar.
My right hand opened and closed around a puff of air. My left hand still gripped the snubline. The sled lunged forward and the snubline yanked taut, jerking me off my feet and face down into the snow. The team was free now. They roared down the trail with me dragging behind clutching the rope.
I bounced off trees. I stretched my right arm and reached for the runners, brake, or anything I could get a hold of.
"Whoa!" I screamed. I could feel the rope slipping through my fingers. "Whoa! Whoa!" The rope snapped out of my hand and slithered off behind the run-away team.
They were gone.
"No!" I yelled into the silent night. "Pig, come back!"
They were out of my sight within seconds, heading down an unkown trail to an unknown destination.
"Eventually it happens to every musher," Terry warned me the first time I stood on a dog sled. "Worrying about it won't do you any good. Just do everything within your power not to lose a team, but when you do, deal with it."
So I dealt with it the way every dog musher deals with it. I jumped to my feet and ran after my team.
Sweat rolled down my arms, back, and legs, saturating my fleece long johns. I opened my parka and oversuit to dry out. The heat from my body rose and fogged my glasses; a problem that plagued me the entire race. I walked and ran and walked. I called all twelve dogs' names. I cursed and I prayed that I would find them safe.
My headlamp had been causing me problems all night. The batteries were weak from the bitter cold. I tucked the battery pack hanging around my neck one layer deeper and warmed it between my sticky skin and undershirt. Suddenly, a beam of light illuminated the entire trail with a white glow. My batteries must be thawing, I thought.
"Trail!" a voice yelled behind me. I jumped and turned around, startled by the voice in the dark. "Trail!"
The bright light wasn't mine at all, but a fellow musher's.
"Hop on," a female voice sounded from underneath a giant pink parka and fur ruff. I grabbed the handlebar and stepped onto the right runner as she passed.
Out of 27 mushers in the 2001 race, 3 of us were women. The Can Am 250 had yet to have a female finisher. I was lucky enough to have one of my female competitors, Rita Lensing, only 20 minutes behind me on the trail. She informed me that the next checkpoint was only 3 miles away. Good news for my runaway team.
There is an unwritten rule in dog mushing; always pick up a musher who has lost a team.
Rita offered me a ride just as several other mushers had done for her in the past. We both kicked to help her team pull my extra weight while Rita shared her own "lost team" horror stories. Her words were both comforting and terrifying. I tried to imagine only positive results to my miserable situation. I could not bear to think of my dogs, my best friends, lost or injured.
The race trail once again turned off onto a plowed logging road. An idling truck was parked at the intersection. A teenage boy radioed into the checkpoint the arrival of in-coming teams. He motioned for us to keep going, yelling that a musher-less team had passed this way.
"I'm glad he's parked there," I told Rita. "If he wasn't they might have turned the wrong way."
I could smell the wood smoke; a sure sign that a backcountry checkpoint was near. Rita's team picked up the pace, anticipating a rest break, warm straw bedding, and a hot dinner.
I prayed the officials would see my team and be able to safely stop them before Rita and I arrived.
DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO PIG, BANDIT, AND THE REST OF THE TEAM?AND I'LL POST THE REST OF THE STORY...
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