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March 31, 2013

The Last Day of Winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was looking like my season would end ignobly.  Maybe I’d get some runs in on mediocre conditions.  Maybe not.  The snow was vanishing quickly.  Additionally, like every year, tasks that I had put off were starting to pile up.  Crummy sled runs easily beat out spring cleaning, but guilt eventually enters the picture and trumps the sled runs, at least the crummy ones.

All in all, it was an okay season, but nothing more.  Last year, I had more sledding, four moonlight runs, and the dogs moved well throughout the year.  I had no moonlight runs this year and, for various reasons, we never developed a good rhythm during sled season.  The dogs moved okay but not as well as in the past.  I did do my first sunrise run in several years and remembered how special that is.  Still, the end to a mediocre season appeared to be coming sooner rather than later. 

Then, out of nowhere, a series of Alaskan storms moved through.  For the first time since I’ve lived at Silly Lake, my driveway had to be plowed after mid March.  Cold weather followed the storms and the temperature dropped below 0 F on a pair of nights.  That, too, had never happened this late in the season.  

The storms themselves let up by the morning of March 19, the last day of winter.  The forecast was for clear cool weather.  A foot of new snow meant the trees were draped by it and, even with the sun, they’d keep that throughout the day. 

I decided to run two teams, one during the day and one at night.  For these runs, I divided the dogs into a fast team and a slow team.  I’d take the A team out and do the sixteen miles of sledding on Archibald loop.  I’d take the B team on a shorter out and back. 

Running an A-Team and B-Team rather than two equal teams meant I could watch the fastest of the little bitches: Gaiya, Sybil, and Daisy, run with the best of the big boys: Jake, Tanner, Shoshone, Prudhoe, Lolo, Zappa and Quid.  We weren’t going to come close to any records, but I didn’t have to have a foot on the brake to keep the speed low enough for slower dogs to keep up, either.  Starting with pulling the ATV and the sled from the yard, we moved easily.

Turning onto the trailhead at the north end of West Side Bypass, I realized I hadn’t checked whether or not that trail had been run or groomed.  During the past few seasons, I haven’t worried about grooming.  While training for Iditarod, we did a 45 mile run with this much fresh snow and, because the season had just started, no real base underneath.  Pulling through difficult conditions was part of my dogs’ conditioning regimen.  Even last year, we had gotten enough sled runs in where, by this time in the season, slow conditions were still fun for me and the dogs.

I’m sure my A-team could have pulled through this, but particularly given that sledding season was going to end soon, if not with this run, I wanted to enjoy the run, not just do it for training. 

I decided to turn the team around---a neat trick with them hooked to the ATV and the sled being towed behind it---and head to the other trailhead I use.  I knew snowmobiles had been there and packed the trails.  I had disconnect the sled, turned the wheels of the ATV in the appropriate direction and was grabbing my lead dogs to reverse their direction when I heard snowmobiles coming down the trail I had initially hoped to run.  In fact there were six of them.  We had our trail.

Even with the snowmobile tracks, the run was slow, but the large dump of fresh snow and the clear blue skies more than made up for this.  And while the fresh snow made it look like deep winter and moderate temperature—it was 42 with a clear sky---made it feel like late winter, it sounded like spring.  The late storms hadn’t make a dent in spring’s drive to melt the snow off and the sound of moving water from feeder streams and overflowing creeks dominated my senses.  No matter what, there weren’t going to be many more sled runs. 

The snowmobiles had turned off the trail right before we took a right onto North Archibald.  However, unlike at the trailhead, this had only four to six inches of powder on top of a solid base.  Snowmobiles had clearly run this during the storms and even the B-Team could handle these conditions. 

I almost always take Archibald Loop counter clockwise, climbing on the north side and descending on the south.  The trail crests between these and the views of the Swan Range through the 2007 fire remnants are just past this.  Snow covered trees blanketed the bases of the mountains.  Their tops are above timberline and, with the fresh snow, they looked as much like the Himalayas as the Montana Rockies.

South Archibald had been groomed, but it was still a little punchy—paws and sled runners left prints an inch or two into a semi-solid surface.  I didn’t have to worry about injuries, but the downhill wasn’t going to be that fast either.  We turned onto West Side bypass and had an easy trot home. 

I ran the B-Team that night.  Conditions were faster---the snow had hardened a little and it was cooler.  With this, they were moving almost as fast as the A-teamers and I extended the run for a few extra miles.  It was midnight when we got back to the yard, I stopped the team, and closed the gate behind us. 

Spring equinox came only a few hours after I closed the gate behind the second team.  I may yet get a sled run or two in---there is still snow out there---but I don’t know. I do have a ton of work to do.   Whatever happens, I celebrated the last day of winter in style, sledding on fresh snow. 

   
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