Thursday, November 16, 2006

First Long Run

Sorry I have no delightful photos to accompany this post; read on to hear the story of how I lost my camera.

Henry and I took a dog team out yesterday for our first long run of the season. Andrea and Trevor (his niece and her husband) have been doing bare-ground training with the top 14 dogs in the yard since August (more to come on this), so the dogs are in good shape for this early in the season. Henry and I, on the other hand, were something of a different matter.

It was a gorgeous day to be out. It was cold; zero degrees with a brisk wind that probably put the chill factor about -20. But the sun was bright, the sky was blue, and the snow was sparkling. Now if only there had been a little more of it…snow, that is.

Early in the season, the trail is hard, rough, and bumpy. I mean teeth rattling, bone jarring, thigh straining bumpy. Tundra only looks flat from above; down at ground level, it is full of dips and rises, ottoman-sized mounds of frozen dirt and tough ground-cover plants, three-foot banks at the edges of the jillion tundra ponds, and sudden drop-offs when the trail crosses a small river or slough. Once we get a foot or so of packed snow, the trail will be smoothed out, kinder and gentler. Yesterday we had a body-pounding experience.

Since we didn’t know what conditions we might encounter, Henry wanted to take one dog team and one snowmachine. I will clarify a bit of history here that I have been vague about until now. I no longer have my own dog team. In 2005 I gave my sled dogs to a young village musher who was just starting out. It was an agonizing decision to make, but after a second back surgery—for an injury sustained while mushing—my surgeon said “no more.” It would have been hard not to see the wisdom of his dictate.

So now my love of sled dogs and the sport of mushing is fueled by my participation with Henry in the care and training of his dog team. He and I usually run dogs together twice a week through the winter. We take one large team of ten to twelve dogs; he usually drives and I ride in the sled, though when the terrain is easy I drive some too. It is nowhere near the same as driving my own team of dogs, a team that I raised and trained and care for, but at least it gives me some connection to the sport that I love, and I cherish it.

Henry wanted to pull the hook (musher talk for “leave”) at 11 am. I had my snowmachine out and idling smoothly by quarter till, so no problem. I thought. People are just beginning to travel around on snowmachines, and the trails around town are not well hammered in yet. Trying to get over a very rough patch on my way to the river, I rolled the snowmachine. Totally. Skis to the sky. I wasn’t going fast, and wasn’t hurt, just banged a little and shaken up. I got it rolled back upright and tried again. Before making it over the hump, I almost rolled a second time and just watched from the ground as the snowmachine teetered on its side and then went back down. Third time’s the charm and the only damage is a bruise on my thigh.

Henry had the dogs hooked up and was ready to go when I got there, so we took off. The trail out from his house is about two miles of wrinkled, rutted land before it gets to Hangar Lake. Really harsh going on a snowmachine. Once we got to Hangar Lake it was smooth traveling for several miles, and then we hit a lot more rough tundra.

Our destination was the Gweek River, about 8 miles from Bethel. Just before we got there, Henry headed off the main trail and started breaking trail through some willows. We made it almost to the river ice before we had to stop and clear some small saplings to open the trail; fortunately, he brought his chain saw, which made quick work of it. We were quite pleased with our new side trail; Henry had been warned that the main trail dropped off steeply from the tundra to the river’s surface—a four foot drop, straight down onto hard ice.

Another mile up the Gweek we pulled over alongside some willow trees and took a long break. It had been about a 45-minute run for the team. We snacked the dogs on frozen fish chunks and shared coffee and sandwiches. Being out of the wind and facing the sun, we were in a (relatively) warm spot. It was so beautiful out there.

I reached for my camera to take a picture and discovered to my horror that it was gone. The pocket I always keep it in was unzipped. The most likely spot to have lost it was back where we cleared trail, so I left Henry and the dogs to cut some small wood for the woodstove in the steambath and headed back to the new trail.

I spent an hour searching, but the camera was not to be found. Henry and the team showed up and helped me look some more, but still no camera. We watched the trail closely, all the way back, but there was no sign of it.

The trip home held yet another moment of anxiety. Henry and the team easily crested a five-foot frozen bank, and I watched them continue on, giving them time to get ahead of me. To make the bank on the snowmachine, I had to get a running start at it and power over. I almost made it when the track started slipping sideways, lost traction and slid back. I dragged the machine into position as well as I could, but there was no way to get a running start from where I was, and no way to get further back. Second try, no success. I was stuck.

Just as I was wondering how far away Henry would get before he came back to find me, a big snowmachine with two young Yupik men came up the trail behind me. They sussed it out in a glance, jumped off their machine, grabbed mine and simply hauled it up the bank for me. What a relief! I thanked them both appreciatively, and they just smiled. Henry and I had not seen any other travelers out on the land all day, so I felt incredibly lucky that these guys came by when they did.

I caught up with Henry not too far ahead, and he was wondering what had happened to me. He was just about to turn the team around. We made it the rest of the way without problems. I was so tired by the time we got to Henry’s that I left my snowmachine at his house and took a cab home. I just couldn’t face that roll-over spot again.

After an hour on the sofa it was clear that the piper would have to be paid for the day’s fun. I was already stiff and sore, despite ibuprofen and three glasses of water. I was in bed before 10 pm and awoke even more stiff and sore. I gave a moment’s wistful thought to calling in sick today, but I would have to be nearly dead before I could do that to my colleagues. So I hobbled off to work and have spent the day moving like a really old lady.

It is hard work having this much fun…



Blogger Dreaming again said...

owie ... I hope you feel better fast

Friday, November 17, 2006 12:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Ruth said...

Your word pictures are superb and I had no trouble visualizing your story. Hope you get to replace your camera soon though!

Friday, November 17, 2006 4:14:00 PM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

Ouch that sounds painful... but fun;)

Monday, November 20, 2006 5:16:00 PM  

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