It was my first winter in Alaska and my first year as an Alaskan musher. I had no idea what to expect and I went into the winter full of optimism and eager to learn.
It had been quite a while since I was behind a set of runners and I knew I needed several miles before I got my “snow legs” back.
I arrived in Alaska on August 4, 2011 and within a couple weeks I had my first taste of Alaskan mushing and boy was it an experience. They do things a lot differently up here in Alaska.[Rewind: Willow, Alaska: The Mushing Capital of the World]
Learning to drive a dog team in northern Minnesota and later in the mountains of Colorado with a rag-tag team of Siberians, years ago, this was my first time working with a team of Alaskan Huskies.
I had always been a bit biased towards the Alaskan Huskies, wanting to keep the romanticism and the roots of the Siberians firmly in my sights for my future teams. While I’ll always be partial towards this magnificent breed, I know that if I ever want to be competitive it will most likely be with a team on Alaskans.
Within a month of my arrival to this great State I began working with a couple whom quickly became friends and mentors. I learned so much from these guys over the past eight months and so thankful for the opportunity to run their dogs.
It is now the stuff of legend in the family how we bought a home in Alaska, pretty much sight unseen. We knew if we were ever going to attempt this crazy Iditarod thing that we had to come up to Alaska.
I have written extensively about my trials and tribulations here at the future home of Team Ineka and what is now known as Forto’s Fort.
I do know that the reason we are here is literally out my back door. Miles and miles of trails. You could literally run to Nome from here.
I spent a lot of time on these trails: Railroad, Stevens Lake, Lost Lady, Frying Pan Lake, The Swamp, The Powerline, and on, and on…
What an experience!
The infamous night run
My mushing season was almost over before it even began. It was the first weekend of December and we went on our first night run with the dogs. I was following the first team out and within a mile of the dog yard I slammed shoulder first into a tree and (I think) cracked my collar bone.
The next two hours was a one nightmare after another– a huge tangle, my useless right arm and my dog team wanting to chase their “friends” in front of them.
I took a couple days off and was determined to get back on the sled. It was probably a little premature but I did it anyway.
On New Years Day we hit the Big Su River for the first time. I can honestly say that was one of the best times I have ever been on the runners of a dog sled. I learned so much on that 90 mile run to Yentna Station and back. I learned how to camp–the right way–how to run in the middle of the night with little to no sleep. I learned the power of a little bottle of 5-hour energy drink and just how awesome the stars look at 4 AM in the middle of nowhere.
Ipods at 30 below
It was 30 below zero and a week before my first race, the Don Bowers 200. We headed out to run 60 miles or so upRabbideaux Pass and back. It was the coldest weather I had been in Alaska and wanted not only to test myself and run the dogs but also test the 1000 bucks of clothing gear that I had to buy to do this crazy sport.
It all worked out great, except my iPod that froze up at -30 degrees within a couple miles from the truck. I ended up with a little bit of frost bite on my wedding ring finger, but other than that it was a great run.
On the last weekend of January the plan was to compete in the Don Bowers Memorial Race. It was supposed to be a 200 mile race but was cut down to 125 for poor trail conditions.
I started the race hell-bent on finishing and the next 20 hours or so would change my outlook on mushing 180 degrees. I honestly can say, I became a musher on that run for many reasons. As they say, you have to cut your teeth at some point…
Our first handler taught me a lesson really quickly. Well, not really. I have had employees for years at my dog training school. But this guy was not cut from the same cloth as you and me I guess you could say…
Most handlers that come to work for a dog sledding kennel will do it for little or no pay at all. Usually for room and board. Most of them are college kids coming up for a sense of adventure and to get involved in this crazy lifestyle. Many of these guys and gals work for a year or two with a kennel before venturing out on their own. Some of the great Iditarod mushers of today started just this way.
Anyway, the first guy that we brought on board was a guy that came up with a back-pack, a pocket knife and not much else.
All seemed like it was going well until one Saturday when all of us where out in the yard hooking up the teams. Our handler disappeared into the house to make a phone call. We didn’t pay much attention and after our run I looked around and mentioned that I think our handler split. The little apartment was tidy and all his gear was gone.
Within 24 hours this guy had hitch hiked to Anchorage, caught a plane to Oregon and was gone without so much as a good bye!
About three weeks later another guy came along. His name was Austin. A young guy from Indiana wanting to learn how to run sled dogs and had hopes of getting a job this summer in state parks near Denali.
Austin worked out great and he and I shared a lot of experiences on runs together. He is a great guy and I wish him well in his new job.
Austin, you rock, man!
The Serum Run
Our primary goal this season was to prepare the team for the Serum Run. The Serum Run is an 800 mile trek across the state of Alaska from Nenana to Nome. Our A-team of 12 dogs made the quest and did very well. While I wasn’t the musher behind the team, I am glad I was able to be a part of it all.
The spring runs
Austin and I ran until we the last date we possibly could. Our last run was a memorable one. It was the second Monday in April.The highlights included a train and getting stuck waist deep in snow where it took almost two hours to get the dogs turned around (we forgot our snowshoes).
He and I hooked up my 10 month old pup, Reagan for the first time and she ran her first mile.
I kept meticulous track of my mileage of my training runs with the dogs using an app on my iPhone called Map My Ride. I did this for a couple reasons: First, to make sure I learned the trails and had a back up plan if I got lost and second, to make sure that the dogs and I reached our training goals.
As of the end of April, when our training season effectively ended: I ran 1489.02 miles in training and spent 107 hours, 29 minutes and 20 seconds on the runners of a dog sled. Think about that. That is quite a long time.
While I still have my sights set on the Iditarod in the near future, I honestly am not in a hurry anymore. I have found extreme pleasure in just hooking up the dogs several times a week and taking them on a 25-50 mile run.
Next season I will run at least two qualifying races for the Iditarod and try to get in three. If I can run all of those races and not scratch (anything can happen), I will still enter the Iditarod and keep my goal. If not I will do it the following year.
For right now, I know I still have a lot to learn and I am still relatively young in this sport. There are many mushers that don’t run after this dream until they are firmly entrenched in middle age.
This summer my son, Tyler is coming up to work in the dog yard and have his first real job. I am sure that we will run a team or two on the summer trials before school starts and the first snow hits in October.
I will become a better musher, my son will become a man and we will test our limits in the last frontier.
All I know is that,
I will never forget my dreams…