Recently, while dogsled training, we have been on what my favorite forecaster from Minnesota Public Radio, Paul Huttner, calls a “weather rollercoaster.”
I am admittedly obsessed with the weather. This time of year my most-frequented websites include weather.com, the Updraft Blog from MPR and NOAA. If there is a blizzard imminent, I update the weather forecast every 15 minutes. Snow is everything to us this time of year. We’ve run 600 miles with the dogs on the ATV—the loud hum of the engine and numb and sore thumb from pressing the gas throttle are old news, and getting on sleds is all we can think about.
In mid-November we went from an abnormally warm fall, with hardly a sub-freezing temperature, straight into winter with an 8-inch snowfall. Matt and I hooked up sleds and took two small teams on a 14-mile run. Admittedly, this was rough going, especially on the plowed driveway—bouncing up and down on the gravel for a while before hitting the unplowed road made us think twice about that idea. We hitched back up to the ATV for a few more runs.
A few days later, another good snow gave us all we needed to go back to sleds. Matt hooked up 10 dogs and I had eight. We didn’t plow our road this time, choosing instead to pack a base with our cars so that we’d have a good surface for the sleds. It was dark by the time we left the dog yard, and I should have put a few more seconds into tidying up my sled, but I pulled the rope, mittens and ropes flying everywhere and the power of eight strong dogs flew out into the dark. I could barely hang on much less pick up my snow hook that was bouncing alongside the sled and tuck in the mittens that were hanging from the handle bar. I concentrated so hard on trying to keep myself on the sled and all the pieces of my gear together that we were well down the road before I looked up.
Something about the dark and the snow flying up from the road and just how strong the dogs were (I put all my attention into braking), disoriented me. I kept thinking the big hill was still ahead (which I dreaded) and then suddenly we hit Pine Mountain Road, and I realized we had gone down the big hill and survived.
We had several beautiful dogsled training runs before it rained for two days, sending rivers of water across our trails, melting most of our snow and sending us back to the ATV. There is little that will dampen a musher’s spirit more than rain when we should be getting snow.
But, right during the rain storm, we did have a fortunate thing happen; Mush Lake Racing welcomed its first live-in handler. Andrew came to us from his last gig in Utah, having never spent a winter in Minnesota before. On one of our first runs, he asked when we might see the sun.
Andrew will help train, feed and care for the dogs, help handle for the races, and maybe even run a race himself. For us, the extra hands are a relief. He’s also taken to bringing a dog into the handler’s quarters with him every night, which is a great way to get to know the dogs and give them extra attention. But after the second night, I happened to stop by and there was a large chunk of his bedspread missing—some sled dogs have better house manners than others.
After several dogsled training runs on the ATV with us, we set Andrew up with his own team and both of us set off on a 20-mile run down a new trail, each with our own 10-dog team. Matt was to meet us part way to snack the dogs and then again to bed the dogs down on straw for a few hours before we would run them home again. This kind of “mock checkpoint” is good training for what the dogs will experience at the races.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t vetted the trail well enough, and when I hit a stretch of muddy looking puddles, all I could do was keep running the dogs forward. Pretty soon I had my ATV stuck in the mud, the back end sinking to above the tires.
“I think I need some help back here,” I called to Andrew. He came running up, his team screaming and my team hollering, and the both of us could not budge that ATV. I finally looked at the water and went in, pushing the ATV from behind as the ice cold water seeped into my boots. Andrew nudged the gas and it surged ahead, dragging me through the mud as it went. Five feet later was another pool and it was stuck again.
Fortunately, Matt found us and he went in to his waist, pushing the ATV and got it out. One more “stuck” and we were on solid ground. The dogs had swum through and were covered to their ears in thick mud.
We found a different route around the mess for Andrew’s team, and he emerged dry and unscathed. Heck of an indoctrination to mushing.
This morning I woke to a new winter weather advisory posted by NOAA—a possible three to five inches of snow tonight and maybe a few more tomorrow. This would be enough to get us back on sleds for dogsled training.
So bring on the snow, we’re ready.
By Erin Altemus