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Life at Six Miles Per Hour

May, 2014

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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Going the Distance

March, 2013

Tanner, Shoshone, and I rested.  We were eight miles out on a sixteen mile run.  I had hoped to do seven, total, but only if the skijoring went well.  The run hadn’t just gone well, it had been exceptional and at the point where I had planned to turn around, I gave my two dogs a gee command.   Trained leaders, they pulled me off to the right and onto the north side of Archibald Loop. We’d be back well after dark.

I had brought a headlamp and what little other gear I needed to continue the run.  The dogs and I were conditioned as well---I had done a lot of x-c skiing and the dogs had plenty of sled miles on them.  Still, the most I had ever skijored on a single run was eight miles, total.  Prior to that evening, Tanner and Shoshone hadn’t skijored at all.  And, I didn’t know anybody who had done a sixteen mile skijor run---nobody does sixteen miles. 

With all this, the fact that we were resting more miles from the trailhead than I had intended for the entire run wasn’t what concerned me.  We had stopped at the high point.  No matter which way we went, we’d be headed down several steep sections of trail.  With the temperature well on its way to a subzero low, the ruts from snowmobiles would be rock hard.  I had steel edged skis and knew how to use them, but if the dogs decided to really have fun with me, it could be a bruising three miles of downhill.  I had no idea what would happen next.

Skijoring, where the musher standing on a pair of skis replaces the sled, is mushing’s redheaded stepchild.  While skijoring has been around for a long time, the history of using sleds has made dogsledding much better known.  For moving things on set trails either between villages or along traplines, only modern snowmobiles replace a sled and a team of dogs.  And with the work, there were always races.  When snowmobiles took over the north, working dog teams vanished, but sledding races continued.  Skijor racing has only gotten any popularity during the last fifteen years.

Beyond the lack of notoriety, Skijoring has a high entry threshold:  You have to be good on boards before you strap yourself to a pair of hot racing dogs and step into a pair of skis. That said, if you can ski, skijoring offers things running a string of dogs off of a sled can’t. 

First, the musher is always a part of the team.  Dogsledders may claim that they work hard, and they can, but there is no choice while skijoring.  And the upper end for the physical work for a skijorer far exceeds the upper end for a musher.  Skijoring with two or three dogs really means you’re one of them. 

The second feature of skijoring is it doesn’t require a big kennel.  I raced and did backcountry trips while living in Silicon Valley and owning just two show-stock Siberian Huskies.  When I trained my sled team for the Iditarod, I had twenty-one dogs in my rotation.  The twenty-one dogs I trained for Iditarod will be replaced by six or eight for any skijoring expedition. 

The third feature of skijoring is it is much easier on the dogs.  I’ll be what limits our runs. 

Finally, skijoring with a pulk, a small utility sled hung between the musher and the dogs, provides a nearly perfect means to head into the backcountry.  It’s no different from a climber or arctic explorer pulling their sled, only now with the help of some very efficient and environmentally friendly companions. 

I started my mushing career by skijoring, both racing and doing backcountry trips.  The year before I moved to Montana, I switched to sledding.  The romance of running a big string of dogs and heading off on a grand adventure, either races like Race to the Sky and Iditarod or real expeditions, seduced me.  There is something very special about sledding with a string of ten or more dogs in front of you—that part of the dream was correct. 

Last winter, a decade after I had started sledding, it dawned on me that I had neglected a wonderful redheaded stepchild much more than I should have.  Since that time, I have been contemplating what I’d have to do to return to skijoring.  I’m sure I’ll continue sledding too, there really isn’t anything like taking a fifteen mile run with a big string pulling a sled, but just like having two different children, I can love both, and plan to. 

While I had neglected skijoring more than I should have, I had still gone out on a few skijor runs.  Most of these were with Dawn and Tenaya, the two show-stock Sibes I had started with.  The one time I had skijored with racing stock Sibes, Mitzi and her sister, Teslin, wanted nothing to do with the run and my skis and were continually trying to pull out of their harnesses.  I spent a large portion of the five miles on my butt either working to get the dogs to turn the direction I wanted to go or keep them from throwing their harnesses. 

I had no idea how my dogs would react to me on skis.  I’d have to hook them up to find out.

After the first week in February, it looked like that wouldn’t be a problem.  Then I caught the Lingering Virus of Seeley Lake, a bug that knocked me on my ass for two days and then lingered in a less but still noticeably debilitating form for about three weeks.  Following this, my dog, Ghost, started having back issues that required a lot of attention.  By the second week in March, the snowpack had decreased a lot and was continuing to disappear rapidly.  I had given up on the season.

Then, out of nowhere, a series of Alaskan storms moved through.  We got more than a foot of good snow.  And, for the first time since I’ve lived in Seeley Lake, we had sub-zero nights after the spring equinox. 

Decent snow and running conditions gave me a chance to skijor.  However, with the limited time I couldn’t check out several individuals to see who could do what, something I had planned to do.  I’d have to pick two dogs and hope I made a good choice.

Early in the summer of 2006, Bob Chlupach and Rick Outwin sent two two year olds down from Alaska.  Since that time, I’ve pointed out to Rick that summer addition of Tanner and Shoshone to my kennel upped the total strength of my team more than any other summer additions, including the two summers during which I added five dogs.  Shoshone went on to share leads with Jake his first season here.  This included Race to the Sky.  That same year, Tanner raced with Quid during quite a few runs and those two were clearly the two fastest dogs in my kennel. 

At eight and a half, they are one and two on the team.  Shoshone is now a little faster than Tanner, but has the downside of being vulnerable to websplits---broken calluses on the skin between the footpads.  Knock on wood, Tanner remains indestructible.  I chose these two for my hit or miss trials.

There are now three very active mushers who live in Seeley Lake, Martin Koenig, Roy Etnire, and me.  I drove into the parking lot at the north end of West Side Bypass and found the other two there.  Martin had finished his run.  Roy had taken one team out and was getting ready to take out a second. 

I told them that they might be in for a bit of comedy.  I was about to embark on a skijor run with Shone and Tanner and neither had ever skijored before.  Always ready to enjoy a good show, Roy and Martin dallied a bit as I got ready.

One other nicety of skijoring is the prep is fast.  Lay out the skis.  Plant poles next to them.  Put on my harness--I use an old climbing harness. Harness two dogs.  Connect the skijoring lines to my harness and then to my dogs. Walk the dogs over to the skis.  Line them out.  Put on the skis.  “Hike!” 

Everything worked perfectly until we got to “line them out.”  Tanner and Shone know to do this, but not by command.  They understand that if they’re in lead, to hold their position and the gangline extended.  Unfortunately, they didn’t understand that the skijoring line with me at the other end was the same as a gangline attached to a sled.  

After watching me flounder while I tried to get them to stay, Martin suggested that he could hold them in the correct position while I got my skis on and that with these on and them in a good line-out, I could give them a hike command and they’d get it.  Which was exactly how it played out.  We didn’t stop for more than five miles. 

By that point, we had taken the turn onto Archbald Loop and had started climbing some of its steep sections.  Along the way up, we took five quick stops, all between twenty seconds and two minutes.  During these, I kept a slight tension in the line and the dogs stayed lined out.  With the tension in the line, they knew exactly what to do when I said “Hike.”  Just a bit past the top, at the eight mile point, we took our long break. 

Here, I bootied Shone.  The icy downhill section was going to be particularly hard if he were developing websplits, and booties would minimize these as well as help him cope with whatever had happened. 

I had to slack the line to bootie Shone and he and Tanner were no longer lined out.   After I finished, I put my pack on, grabbed my poles, and gave the “Hike!” command.  With the line slacked, the dogs didn’t know what to do.  Shone figured it out quickly, but Tanner wanted to head back the way we came.  This led to a minor amount of tangling, though far short of what Dawn, Tenaya, and I had dealt with when we were first learning to skijor.   It took a few minutes, but eventually Tanner got it and he and Shone started pulling me down South Archibald.

The day had been warm, well above freezing, and snowmobiles had made deep ruts in the soft snow.  That night was the first of two that it dropped below 0 F.  We were skijoring just after sunset.  By the time we started down, the temperature had fallen into the teens and we were on ice.  I had metal edged skis and almost thirty years of experience, but if the dogs had decided to run at full speed, the snowplow I held the skis in wouldn’t have mattered. 

Even with the dogs pulling tamely down the trail, holding the snowplow on ice for three bumpy miles strained my thighs.  Completing the turn onto West Side Bypass, the last hard turn of the run, meant my thighs, not to mention the rest of me, had survived.  The four and a half miles back to the truck were easy.  

Roy came back from his run just before I drove off.  Sixteen miles impressed him.  Me too.  Nobody skijors sixteen miles.  That said, I still had another tour in mind.  Since I started thinking about returning to skijoring, I had had a goal of knocking off a twenty-three mile route that combined the prettiest parts of two of my three favorite dogsled runs, Archibald Loop and Short Fawn Peak Loop.  The combination of a great run on Saturday and clear skies forecast for Monday set the day.

Saturday’s run was almost a whim---at least going that distance was.  The ease with which we did it made it clear that beyond being a lot of work, there wasn’t much that would keep us from completing twenty-three miles.  With this, I realized that I could savor the run.

Screwing around Monday morning delayed my leaving the house until after one in the afternoon.  Given times for Saturday’s run, I expected to take about three and a half to four hours.  Sunrise and sunset were both at eight---it was just a few days past the equinox---so the late start didn’t concern me.

Part of what makes even small adventures adventures at all is dealing with questions that always come up.  I started this tour with two questions.  The first was which pair of skis should I use.  The pairs of skis I was considering were quite similar, waxable double camber backcountry skis, but they were waxed very differently.  My Rossingol Chamois’ were waxed hard, would have almost no grip, but I could skate well in them.  I had used these for the 16 miler.  My Epoke 1000’s were a little lighter, but had a sticky klister wax on them.  With the klister, I could do slow sections with a traditional diagonal stride.  I skied out a couple hundred yards on the Epokes.  Even with the klister, I could skate, but it didn’t feel as clean as the Rossi’s.  The better skating swayed me and I decided on the Chamois’. 

The remaining mystery was what Shone and Tanner would do at the start of the run.  We got into a small tangle as I walked them from my truck to my skis, but I cleared this by unclipping the line from my harness, passing it around me, and then reattaching it.  They did fidget a bit as I put on my skis, but not much, and with my “Hike” command we took off.  They got it---the skijor line had become the same as a gangline in their minds. 

The first three and a half miles followed trail groomed within the last day.  The corduroy pattern left by the groomer still looked fresh.  At that point we turned right onto the north side of Archibald loop, just like we had done two days earlier. 

North Archibald consists of a series of climbs alternating with relatively flat sections.  Just like on Saturday, the dogs pulled hard and never hesitated.  On steep sections, I’d work too, using my skis as skates while poling in time with skate strokes. 

After one particularly sharp turn, the trail leaves the lodgepole and enters the ghost forest left behind by the fire of 2007.  We entered this and started the last climb before turning onto “Fiat,” the trail snowmobilers know as “Fawn Creek-Archibald.”

The story I heard was that a Fiat had gotten stuck and been abandoned for a season along the trail.  Mushers referred to the trail by the car that year.  After the snow melted away, the car was removed.  However, the name mushers used stuck.

We turned right on this.  Fiat is nearly level and connects with Fawn Creek right below its longest climb.  That climb is worth the work, however, as one of the best views of the Swan Range is near its top.  I found a shady spot with a clear view and gave the whoa command. While the dogs rested, I pulled my pack off and camera out.  As I did this, the dogs munched on snow.  I think soft dense snow like we were running in hydrates the dogs better than anything else.  And they love it. 

After a few pics, I stowed the camera, put on my pack, and gave the hike command.  A mile and a half later, we turned onto the trail mushers call Short Fawn Peak.  This trail winds through forest and meadows then climbs a small pass with open snow slopes on the hills on both sides.  From the pass, it drops into more meadows which have views of the lakes in the valleys below. At its end, the trail turns onto the Fawn Peak trail, climbs a bit, then drops back to Archibald loop. 

Fawn Peak hits Archibald Loop right before the point at which we took our long rest on Saturday----eight miles left.  The boys and I followed the trail until we got to the best view and we stopped for our last long break.  Once again, I got my camera out and took some shots.  It was 4:30 in the afternoon, too early for alpenglow on the Swans, but they were still the Swan Range. 

As much as it’s bad discipline, it’s also a good sign when dogs start moving before you give a command.  That’s what happened on top of Archibald and it nearly resulted in my leaving my poles behind.  Screams of “No!” and “Whoa!” got some disgruntled looks, but Shone and Tanner obeyed in time for me to reach back and grab my poles.  And then, finally, “Hike!”

The only imperfection of the day was that it was a little warm for running dogs.  I knew they’d munch on snow and keep themselves cool and hydrated.  They’d be a bit slow, but they’d be fine. 

The upside was that the warm snow would be easy on Shone’s feet.  And along with this, my skis’ tracks were not dictated by ice.  The ruts were still there, but with only a little force, I could turn the skis and glide them out.   Parallel skis replaced the drag of a snowplow as we schussed through the turns to the final left onto West Side Bypass. 

By this time in the run, I could skate as fast as the dogs were moving.  The fact was that they had done almost all of the work during the day and I was much fresher.  I’ve had Tanner and Shone for almost seven years and I’m sure they cued on my body language---a smile up and down---for what they had done. 

As we passed one of the turn-arounds we use during fall training, they realized we were headed home, had only two miles to go, and they sped up.  The last climb, always one I use to gauge my dogs’ heads, went fast and the subsequent downhills went even faster. 

Three smiling boys, Tanner, Shoshone, and I, got to the truck three hours and forty minutes after we started.  With all their dipping and eating snow, I didn’t worry about water for my boys.  I did, however, have a stash of milk bones.  Along with good boys, scratches, hugs, and kisses, they got treats---something they definitely approved. I put them in the truck, stowed my gear, and we headed home. 

 

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Chapter Two

July, 2003

It was toward the end of my time as an undergraduate, maybe when I started graduate school, that I started talking about finishing my graduate degree and then telling the rest of the world good-bye and moving to a cabin in the middle of Alaska. I didn’t use those exact words though. I think the way I phrased telling the world good-bye referred to placing “it” and a lack of sunshine.

A lot of time has passed since I finished my degree. I’m telecommuting to a real job and Montana isn’t quite the same as Alaska, but here I am in Missoula. I am here to be in the mountains and to hike and to climb and to ski and to mush. Occasionally, I’ll probably do some science as well.

Missoula is near both Seeley Lake and Lincoln. These two towns comprise one of the biggest mushing centers in the contiguous United States. This center includes the likes of Doug Swingley, Doug Willet, Melanie Sherilla, and John Barron just to drop a few names that you might know. The big emphasis here is on distance mushing, and that too is my goal.

I’ve believed for some time that if you want to really learn something, you go somewhere where there are a lot of people who do it well. I have been in my new house one month as I write this. Already there has been one mushing clinic, and there will be two more before the end of summer.

I haven’t met or seen many mushers yet, but I did visit with Doug Willet for an afternoon and met his dogs. At least I met all those that weren’t shy, which were most. That includes a three-month old litter of pups and they certainly weren’t shy. They weren’t shy about biting my shorts, biting my shoelaces, and biting my shoes. Actually, I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have long hair. It was also fun wandering around Doug’s house seeing all the racing trophies he has. None were before I was born, but Doug has been doing this for a very long time.

As for other niceties of the area, my two dogs and I have gone hiking a few times. Each of the hikes has been within an hour of home and has ended either at or above timberline. Seeley Lake itself is near both the Mission Peaks Wilderness and the Bob Marshal Wilderness, and both have spectacular hiking and mountaineering.

And as for anticipation, what I’ve heard since I’ve arrived, particularly from people living in California, is “…wait ‘til winter.” Let the record show, I am looking forward to the winter. As a kid, I was the weirdo that would read the Fairbanks weather report every winter morning just to try and get a taste of the cold. Los Angeles just didn’t hack it. Now, I won’t have to go that far either in my mind or in my car. It was nice to watch it snow while visiting the Sierras, but to me there’s always something special about watching it snow from your home.

I was seventeen when I left my childhood home and headed off to college. It was then that I really started learning about being an adult. I think that’s the age when most of us really start to grow up. Anyway, it was for me. I learned everything from my profession to how I deal with people (at least I learned my science well…. <g>). It was also as an undergraduate at Caltech that I found my first husky, Sapura. So I guess I started learning about Siberian Huskies then too.

Since that time, my life has been on a pretty linear path; grad school, a couple of post-docs, a job in industry. The sad thing is that last sentence did include a summary of my romantic life. Sup saw me through all of this and even the beginning of the job I now have. Moving to Montana to changes that nice standard progression.

On the trip from San Jose to Missoula, I visited with a close friend, Albert. Dinner with Albert and his family was great. Sandro, Albert’s oldest son, was getting ready to head off to college. The rest of the kids were great as well, though Margaret no longer seemed to have the crush on me that she did when she was six or so. I resisted the temptation to tease her about this (she’s now about 13). I got a lot of questions about mushing, and I answered them as best as I could. Most were pretty basic and pretty easy to answer.

My friend Albert works at Caltech, and his house is quite close to campus. After I left his house, I headed over to Tech to show Dawn and Tenaya my old stomping grounds. It was a summer night a lot like when I would walk Sapura. I told this to the girls as we walked around campus. They’re huskies; they didn’t listen. I was happy to see that there were still lots of people up and around at midnight, even though the final quarter had long since ended. Just as I was about to head back to the car, I visited my old student house. The painting a former girlfriend had painted, the Page House White Horse, still adorned the living room wall.

If I were to call the part of my life that stretched from college to moving out of San Jose Chapter 1, then I am about to begin Chapter 2. And perhaps for me there was no better place to begin Chapter 2 than where Chapter 1 began. I’m stoked.

 

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