Northern Wilds Magazine
Chicken cleans out multiple bowls at the Trail Center checkpoint. She is happy and hungry. | ERIN ALTEMUS
Dog Blog

A Handler’s Tale

As the forecast firmed up to be solidly cold and blustery, I felt no lesser for being chief handler of Matt’s Beargrease marathon team. Matt appeared unprovoked by the impending cold he would face, stating “it really doesn’t look that bad.”

Our Beargrease team consisted of eight Beargrease veterans and four 2-year-olds. Coming off our Mail Run wins a few weeks previous, I knew Matt felt ambitious, yet in every Beargrease we have run, something has gone awry–one year Matt had to turn back to the last checkpoint and drop two dogs, dropping him a few places in the rankings; one year I lost my team; one year I finished with two dogs in my sled bag. It’s a very long race with seven legs. We tried to hold our ambitions in check.

The handling team has several jobs: be at the checkpoint to lead the team to the truck when they arrive (a seemingly easy job, but I can remember getting to Finland with no handler in sight one year); feed the dogs; bed them on straw; keep the musher hydrated and encourage them to eat; walk dogs after a rest to make sure they are limber and then get them to eat again; hitch up the team and run them to the start line of the next leg. In certain races that are “unassisted,” all these jobs fall to the musher, leading the musher to become more and more sleep deprived.

The race start was smooth and soon the teams were flying down the trail towards Two Harbors. The handling crew and family entourage stopped to eat lunch and by the time we arrived at the Two Harbors checkpoint, we had to take the only parking spot available. The water we hauled to the checkpoint had leaked on the floor, so I sent Erick back to town for more. In minutes, Matt arrived with the team.

We towed the camper again this year and with the help of our mechanically-inclined handler Zeus, the camper was soon warm and toasty for our musher. Erick arrived with water and the dogs ate and mostly rested. The 2-year-olds did not yet understand the importance of rest.

Two hours later, Matt and the team resumed running. The handling crew jumped ahead and waited in Finland. Matt soon passed the only team ahead of him on the trail and we anticipated him first into Finland. However, another team arrived. I looked at the GPS tracker and saw his icon veering north, well off the trail. It almost looked like he was heading up Highway 1. I pointed this out to one of the judges, but no one seemed too concerned. Finally, Matt’s icon was back on the trail. When he arrived, he confirmed he had taken a wrong turn. His spirits were low, but the dogs knew no different.

Usually super-shy Keith comes out of his shell at the race, even hugging strangers. | ERIN ALTEMUS

After four hours of rest, they were back on the trail to Sawbill, an unassisted checkpoint. All appeared well, and since the handlers were in separate vehicles, and it was after midnight, I sent them on their way. It was probably 15 below at this time and the truck wouldn’t start. I frantically called Erick and had him come back to help me. Three battery packs later, we started the truck. I drove the hour home and then couldn’t make it up my driveway. After several tries, I was stuck forward and back. I loaded up the sled with things that would freeze, leashed our 13th dog Ginger who didn’t get to race, and walked up the hill. Just after 2 a.m., I was in bed and three hours later I was wide awake.

At one point before the race started, I had mistakenly thought it was fortuitous to be so close to home during the race. As I attempted in vain to get Sylvia to school and did the dog chores at home, I soon realized being close to home was not helping me. By the time I dropped off Sylvia at school, purchased a new battery for the camper, and gassed up the truck, we realized we needed to beeline to Trail Center. Arriving 15 minutes before Matt, we had just enough time to grab a bail of straw and set out the lines before he arrived.

The next few checkpoints were a blur—we sent Matt off from Trail Center with 12 dogs. I continued to overestimate the time it would take Matt to complete the legs. We took a nap before his arrival at Skyport and awoke to a “get up, he’s on the lake!” We sent him off from Skyport minus Chicken, as she had a sore wrist. I took another nap and I turned off my alarm. When I awoke and looked at my watch, I realized he might beat us to Mineral Center. “Everybody up,” I chortled, stumbling out of my room.

At Mineral Center we had to drop four dogs, which left Matt with only seven to get to the finish. He passed one team having leader problems and came in fourth place. Marathon is an accurate description of the race. There is nothing better than seeing a dog that we raised rise to the challenge and exceed our expectations. Temper led the whole race from start to finish, for the third time. Pinto, a dog Matt questioned taking at all, left every checkpoint screaming to go: his third finish. Itsy, Temper’s sister, led from Trail Center to her second finish. Two-year-old Lorna, one of the last to make the team at all, finished strong. “She is a little monster,” Matt says. Taco and Georgia finished their second marathon and Bruce for the first time.

From here, we go to races in the UP and Maine. I will jump on the runners behind one heck of a race team, hanging on for the ride.

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