I ended my last blog on a rather upbeat note in a year when I should have known better. At the end of our first month of fall training, I felt we were focused on a solid race team. Our training miles were accruing nicely. The weather had been cooperative. The dogs were healthy. All of this fell apart after my husband Matt suffered a major health event. Many say he is “lucky to be alive.” Lucky or unlucky, his story is his own and I can only tell you mine.
I spent a week at my husband’s bedside at a hospital in Duluth in mid-October. Friends and family jumped in to help take care of the dogs at home. Halfway through this week, I went home for a night, taking our daughter Sylvia with me and meeting up with my parents at Mush Lake. That evening, I made a grave mistake, running a dog team instead of tending to my daughter. I thought she would enjoy the time with grandma and grandpa. I thought she would adjust to me being gone for a few hours. Mostly though, I didn’t really think. According to my parents, the tantrum was long and intense and finally ended with her falling asleep on the stairwell up to her bed.
That night it snowed five inches. I took pride in starting up the skid steer, putting on the tire chains and changing out the bucket for the snowblower, thanks to some helpful YouTube videos. But my father and I couldn’t quite figure the snowblower out. The stress of needing to return to Duluth while worrying that my parents wouldn’t be able to forge through the unplowed driveway weighed heavily on me. In the end, I lent them my car with the snow tires in place.
Sylvia and I went back to Duluth and she went on to stay with her cousins. A week after Matt’s trip down to Duluth in a helicopter, Sylvia and I drove him home.
Over the past three weeks, I have continued training dogs. What once felt like a difficult task to hook up and run a 16-dog team, is now feeling easy compared to mothering a three-year-old. Harness 16 dogs, run each one to the line, duck the biters, avoid tripping, and stay calm amidst the chaos. The crescendo of frothing, biting and screaming dogs heightens until finally the last dog is hooked up and I run to the ATV, release the parking brake and catapult out of the yard. Then, each dog runs. It’s quiet except for the low hum of the ATV. I gradually get colder and colder sitting there in the windchill and while it’s uncomfortable I persevere because hey, this is easy.
One day my mother helped me hook up the team. She managed to harness a few dogs and let them drag her over to the gangline without falling over. I watched her struggle with the clips while they jumped and lunged. Finally, I sent her for Ringo and soon he flew by the parked team and up the driveway ahead. I found Ringo a mile later where he let me hook him up.
We don’t know yet if Matt can run or race dogs this year. He gradually recuperates strength each day. Our friend Anna returned to the area after a brief trip to Alaska. She helped us a lot with the dogs last year and has volunteered to help until Matt gets back on his feet. The two of us have done a few runs together.
Yesterday, we hooked up the 16-dog main team and took the trail north where we had yet to go this year. The trail veers down an incredibly steep, but short hill toward the Gunflint. On the ATV, this means gearing down to avoid careening out of control. At the bottom we could see a large tree across the trail and as the ATV bumped down the hill, I tried everything in my power to stop before hitting the tree. The dogs all jumped over the tree and though I slowed the machine, we still hit the tree with a thunk, cracking the tree in the middle but not enough to move it. The dogs lunged ahead energized by this new and exciting trail that proffered up an obstacle for the mushers to contend with. I tried pushing the tree with the ATV to no avail. We tried putting the weight of the team on the tree itself so that the dogs would pull it ahead. This worked to move half of the tree forward, but still we were stuck on the trunk. Finally, I unhooked a bunch of tug lines which took some of the power out of the team, allowing us to reverse the ATV and finally get unstuck from the trunk and free.
We all know 2020 has been a terrible year. Which brings me to hindsight. If we had known about the tree across the trail, we would have brought the chainsaw, or scouted the trail before running. If I had known that running dogs when Sylvia needed me most, while she tried to make sense of the chaos surrounding her, I would have stayed home. If I had realized Matt was having a bad, bad heart issue, I would have brought him in sooner. That’s the nature of looking to the past. But who’s looking behind them now? Let’s ring in a new year.