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May 11, 2014

Life at Six Miles Per Hour

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first real hike was to Hidden Lake Pass.  That’s when I learned that uphill hikes are harder than downhill hikes, particularly with 50 lb packs.  Hiking to Iceberg Lake and back a couple of days later---we dropped the weight we carried down to 20 lb, or so--I learned that everybody on the trail said hi to everybody else.  That was the summer of 1970.

While my brother, Rick, and I hiked, the rest of my family rode in the family station wagon and, like most tourists, got out only at viewpoints to take pictures or for an occasional short hike.  To the best of my knowledge, the ten mile hike to and from Iceberg Lake was longer than any hike anybody in my family had done. 

With the effort involved in hiking, my father assumed that the scenery we were seeing was even more spectacular than he could get to by car.  In fact, it’s hard to find a trail that’s more breathtaking than the Going to the Sun Highway, the road we left behind as we hiked to Hidden Lake Pass.  When he asked me, all I could do was hem and haw a bit.  It would take me a couple of years before I could explain that it wasn’t what we were seeing, it was how we were seeing it.  And hearing it and feeling it and smelling it. 

In time I added backpacking, mountaineering, rock-climbing, backcountry skiing, skijoring, and mushing to my outdoor pursuits.  With each of these, I got a different perspective of the wilderness.  From the summits of mountains, the world expanded out in every direction.  While rock-climbing I got to look across at swallows rather than up at them.  The Blue Angels have nothing on swallows as they perform their acrobatics while diving after insects.  Backcountry skiing opened up the mountains to me during the winter, my favorite season.  I couldn’t traverse the same terrain skijoring that I could skiing, but I could cover a lot more of it easily and I had the dogs.  Sledding took me even further---on good trail covering tens of miles in a day was easy and there were even more dogs.

Starting with my first skijor races, however, I realized that races were different.  Sledding races merely confirmed this. While racing, I am focused on the track and my team.  My eyes generally move from seven feet in front of me where the first two dogs are to 50 feet in front of me where the lead dogs in a 12 dog string are.  Then I look ahead as far in front of them as I can see, determining when I’m going to need to hit the brake or shift my weight.  Dogsledding at ten mph is a lot like driving on the highway at 65 mph.  There’s no more than a second or two to react.

With this, while I saw the scenery I passed through, it was as if I had been driving a car.  The scenery was there, but stopping was the only real way to see it, and I stopped about once every two hours for the dogs to rest, not so I could look around.  When I wrote my article on my run of Race to the Sky, I had a lot of difficulty describing the scenery I had gone through, much to my editor’s chagrin.  By comparison, I could have said who was where on the team throughout any mile of the race. 

With this, I always knew that I’d end up doing backcountry and expedition mushing.  I’m not certain, but it seems likely that my last race was the 2011 8-dog race at Flathead.  Since then, expeditions in Alaska and Montana have been on my agenda.   

Along with focusing on expedition and backcountry sledding, I’ve started skijoring again, both on overnight and day trips.  The ability to get onto untracked snow, particularly by myself, has brought me back to this. 

With my cessation of racing, people ask if I miss it.  My answer is not a bit.  It does irk me that so many people ask how many races I did this last season rather than how many miles I was on runners or skis.  With a little luck, I’ll help that change. 

It is said that life is about the journey, not the destination.  Races and backcountry trips are both journeys, but they’re different.  The journey during a race is about the dogs and the endpoint.  The journey during a backcountry trip is about the dogs and the trail. 

One of the last skijor runs I did this past season took me along the base of the Swan Range.  Though packed, the trail was rough enough that I had to keep my eyes on it to keep from falling.  We weren’t racing, though, and I could stop just to look at the mountains.  I was looking up at peaks that I normally see across the valley, ten or more miles away.  This time, I was on their slopes, looking up more than half a mile to their summits.  Perspective is everything.  Life is good at six miles per hour.

 

 

 

 

   
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