Let the Mushing Season Begin

We hit the reset button on Sept. 9, one of the first cool mornings of autumn and also my birthday—a perfect day to think about what lies ahead.

The mushing season—seven or eight months of good dog-running weather—begins again. We’ve taken stock over the spring and summer of everything we did right last year, everything we did wrong and what we want to change. We rested the dogs long enough to heal any nagging injuries from last season’s races and we’ve given ourselves a mental break.

We are excited to hook up the teams and the dogs are out of their minds to run.

A team of dogs get ready for their morning run.

A team of dogs get ready for their morning run.

Those first few hook-ups are a reminder of how crazy the dogs can be—how Punky likes to jump up and clock us in the face with her chin if we aren’t watching and Cha-Cha will chew at the gangline until go-time. But overall, the runs are smooth. We get up early, run before the sun warms the air too much and then go about the day.

The runs have been great, except that our ATV, the crucial piece of equipment to train a large team of dogs before the snow flies, has no brakes.

Well, it has one hand brake. The foot brake sticks down so hard, I can’t get it up and the left hand brake doesn’t work, so that leaves us with one. We start carrying pieces of firewood around with us to wedge in front of the tires in case we need to stop, but sometimes the trail is so rough the wood goes flying out the back of the ATV.

On the first morning of October, I take the team. The dogs are in a nice groove. We’ve run 6 out of 7 miles and I haven’t had to stop, which is great, because it’s hard to do without brakes. But then Jazz throws her sister Calypso, who is running right behind Jazz, a nasty look. Jazz isn’t wearing a neckline, which is how we often run her—it allows her a little more freedom of movement on the gangline. She is just attached by the back of her harness—the tugline. If a dog is able to run without a neckline and not get tangled, or dragged, I like to do it.

But today, Jazz is giving Calypso the, “I’m going to turn around and tell you what I think of you” kind-of-look—and her back hair is standing on end. I realize I am about to have a situation on my hands if I don’t do something about this.

Do I stop, get off the ATV, attach Jazz’s neckline, even though I don’t really have a good brake? Or do I continue and hope there is no fight.

I didn’t have a good feeling about Jazz, so I stopped. I tried to tie the hand brake tight to help the ATV stay put, but as soon as I was 10 feet up the dog team, the ATV started to move. As I ran toward it, yelling “WHOA, dogs,” it rolled forward, then off to the side of the trail and before I could do much at all, it flipped.

Now it’s lucky for me that I wasn’t on it. But believe me, having 12 lunging dogs in front of an overturned ATV is a bad turn of events. I did try uprighting it myself, but that was not happening. I was only a half-mile from home as the crow flies, so I tried giving a few hefty yells for Matt. I waited. I tried calming the dogs down. Finally, I unhooked Judy, knowing she would run straight home. I hoped Matt would see Judy and realize I had a problem and come help.

After some time, it was clear Judy had not relayed the message.

I tried releasing Ringo, but he ran ahead and came back. Now I had a situation for sure. Do I leave the team and get help? How long will I wait here before help actually comes? Could I actually leave the team and come back to find them all intact?

After listening to the dogs go out of their minds for 20 minutes, I finally tied off the front of the team and started huffing it down the trail toward home. Matt and I connected and we huffed it back to the team. They were fine. Matt heave-hoe’d the ATV and we ran the team home safely.

All in a day’s training run.

Sometimes in the early fall, when we’re running five, seven or 10 miles, it’s impossible to imagine how we will build up to 50-or 60-mile runs in just a couple months. But we will.

In January, we will run the Gunflint Mail Run, and at the end of January, one of us will drive the team in the Beargrease Marathon. Until we decide who, Matt and I will both fantasize and fear the Big Race.

For now, we take it one run at a time and try to keep the ATV on the road. We do have an appointment to get those breaks fixed real soon.

Editor’s Note: Erin Altemus and her husband Matt Schmidt are the owners of Mush Lake Racing on the Gunflint Trail.



By Erin Altemus