Sunday, April 12, 2009


Well, let’s just say that we needed to eventually push the envelope and today was as good of a day to do so as any. Of course, we had run thirty (30) miles distances in the past but for some reason, I had always held the dogs back. Call it being careful or just overly protective, whatever. I always considered that the welfare of the “Boyz” would come first and in as such had never tested their real limits.

So after choosing a route that would simulate what I would encounter later in the month of February, my old stop watch around my neck, I had taken off. This time, there was to be no holding back. The trails were hard packed, the temperature was at about -15 Celsius and the sun was just gorgeous in that clear blue sky. Needless to say, this was perfect mushing weather and would provide good testing grounds for my team. The run went without a hitch but most impressive was the way they seemed to work together. Just like rowers in a racing scull that keep matching each others stroke, my dogs were all running in the same type of stride for stride cadence. Calling the tempo, I would ask them to go from a trot to a gallop and vice versa and they would give it to me. Not necessarily being against “GPS” technology but rather because I had not found one to my liking, I had come up with a system where I could basically gauge our speed by observing my two wheel dogs. If they were both trotting, we traveled at approximately 10 mph. If “Irving” was at a trot and the “Kid” at a gallop, then we were traveling at 11 mph. And if they were both galloping then we’d be going over 12 mph. At that pace, my big bruiser did not feel comfortable as he was built for strength and endurance. Oh for sure, he could run way past that speed but not for extended periods. This put me in a somewhat disadvantageous position but I could live with this limiting factor because of that “extra” he brought to the negotiating table. Over the years, he had matured into a very dependable dog that listened extremely well and responded to my every demand spontaneously. This was a definite asset especially when we encountered the challenges of hilly segments of mountainous terrains. When required, I just needed to ask and he provided the assistance. “Hard, Kid, Harrrrd!” I would say. This was all that was needed for him to catch the message. Instantly, he would put it in “low gear” and help us get up that hill. Harness imbedded in his fur with his ears folded back, he would take on that task as if he was the only dog pulling. This is where he shined. You could actually feel his strength transfer from the “gang line” through the steering bow, right up your arms. Seeing him give me such devotion made it that I could live with all his other little downfalls. Besides, his reputation of being this oversized aggressive brawler was based on a whole bunch of gossip and had been somewhat over-exaggerated. This made me laugh therefore let it ride as it enticed fear and commanded respect from other teams. Come to think of it, for some strange reason, we had drawn a lot of unsolicited attention since we drew a spot for the CAN-AM. My “spies” were telling me that their “spies” had been asking a lot of questions about the “Baisley Mob”. I kind of found it curious that even though we were most of the time, way out here in the boonies minding our own business, someone somewhere felt the need to waste time and energy trying to figure out what kind of threat we might be. From what I had gathered, the rumors out there were well, almost unbelievable. There was the one where apparently I was a marathon runner, world class to boot that was capable of running the entire 30 miles. Yeah right! I was in fair shape but that was just to be able to keep up with the team. I definitely had my limitations and if one was to see me climb the stairs to my bedroom after a day of training, one would conclude that the “old man” should consider investing in an elevator or maybe quit thinking that he’s still eighteen (18).There was the one where the dogs could run at an average speed of 18 mph. Come on folks. Let’s be realistic a bit. We’re talking mid-distance racing here. If one was to check out the statistics, one would soon realize that it was ridiculous if not impossible to keep up such speeds for such distances. Those speeds can be attained but by the sprint racers. Then of course, the best one was that the “Kid” as for that the entire team was wild and unruly. I’ll be the first one to admit that I was a bit apprehensive as to how my big German Shepard/Husky mix would react in a racing scenario. Let’s face it, he’s unpredictable. However, we had worked extremely hard at curving that anti-social/alpha dominant attitude and I felt quite comfortable bringing him along amongst the general public. Hadn’t he just recently proved to me at the University Campus that he was a big cuddly “Teddy Bear” maybe suggesting that he might have mellowed out? Besides, his loyalty and work ethics made it that he had earned and deserved his spot on the team. This was a conviction that I felt really strong about and rather than leave him behind, I would choose to stay home. So for those out there that this was an issue, the message had been sent out loud and clear. The “Kid” would be coming to town so best be on your best behavior. As for the rest of the team, I would rather qualify their attitudes as being very colorful and besides you need “spunk”. Remember these guys are sleddogs, not “couch potatoes”.

That’s what I had decided when we returned to the trailhead after the test run. Looking at my stop watch, I was more than pleased with my timings. At 03:09:42, we had not set a record but were close to averaging 10 mph. Depending on what kind of snow conditions we’d see next weekend in St-Pamphile, I considered that we could be contenders. One thing was for sure, “We would not be late for supper”.

So it was official. The six month training program was formally over. Now we would take the next week to relax a bit and take it easy. This season’s schedule had been grueling and the down time would only help cure some of those aches and pains that most of the dogs were walking around with. Besides, we were expecting guests at the lodges and if the weather cooperated, they would be pulling in sometimes later that afternoon.

When you sit down and really think about it, racing is what I would consider maybe 1% of what dogsledding has to offer. The other side of the coin, the “going out there” and simply enjoy the great outdoors has a lot of merit and is the one aspect that really appeals to my adventurous nature. To be able to share these moments with decent folks, is something that I’ve truly cherished over the years. To share my trails with other mushers and really show them the true meaning of what “mushing heaven” could be is an exploit that only a rare few will ever experience but is one that they will remember for the rest of their lives. Without wanting to make it sound like I’m pulling my own suspenders, I do believe that I provide an excellent product thus will permit myself to make such a bold statement. It’s like they say, the proof is in the pudding. When people go out of their way and travel thousands of miles just to come up here to find quality snow, that’s one thing. But to be able to come to a place where you can actually put your feet up on the furniture and leave your worries behind is, as some would suggest, worth “its price in gold”. Now, as the case may be here, when you return for a second or third trip at “Baisley Lodges” then this tends to say a lot about the place, doesn’t it?

Whatever - Linda and Kevin as well as Ruth were more than return clients. Rather I considered them as friends and was looking forward to meeting up with them again. It was going to be nice to continue our visit from where we had left it the previous year. They all had great positive attitudes and were fun to be around with. Spending a week “schmoozing” with the girls and “bullshitting” with Kevin was for me very uplifting and like going on holidays. The advantage I had over them was that I didn’t have to go that far as the whole thing was happening in my own back yard. You got to love these arrangements. The principle of “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is often a good policy to live by and is one that applies here in this instance. It’s not that we were “hanging upside down from the chandelier” but the details of a mushing week spent with guests should remain private and is the same as previously described except there’s more dog teams involved. Besides, you’ve got to leave the curiosity card in place just to draw more attention. Safe to say that you’ve got to like the ladies as they advocate philosophies similar to mine when it comes to our canine companions. They run beautiful “Siberian Huskies”, dogs that they provide good homes to after being rescued from, in some cases, certain death. That alone, in my books, makes them special people. Anyway, before we knew it, it was again time to part company. While their destination would be to the warmer climates of Maryland and Delaware, I needed to pack my gear as I was headed to St-Pamphile, the very next day.

“Are you sure, you’re going to make it?” was the first question that popped out of Fran’s mouth when she walked in the “Bunkhouse” that particular morning, Saturday, 14 February 09. “Well,” I said trying to sound convincing, “if it’s too bad, I’ll just turn around and come back.” This was not something I was saying just to appease my wife’s concern. Instead, the reality of it all was that the winds had seriously picked up overnight and we were right smack in the middle of a blizzard. However, 75 miles away, in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, apparently and this according to the weather channel, although it was a bit on the cold side, it was nice and sunny and it would be safe to travel. So we considered the odds and they seemed to be in our favor and at 10:00 AM sharp, I marched to the barn and gave them their instructions. “Gentlemen, Orders…” They didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about but since learning it way back then in the military on a then called “Combat Leader Course”, I had caught on that the “SMEAC” method of preparing for any undertaking was an excellent way for me to review out loud if I had covered every aspects of this “mission”. I couldn’t think of anything that I might have forgotten so I let the dogs out for their morning constitutionals. That part of the business done, I whistled and told them to “mount up”. From wherever they were, they all regrouped at the dog trailer but today things would be different and the dogs were a bit confused as to what was happening. You see instead of being tied to the “Dog Buggy”, the trailer was hooked up to the Toyota “4 Runner” and this made it that this didn’t fit in their routine. After a bit of convincing, they all seemed to accept this way of traveling, all except for “Sox”. He kept going to the vehicle, trying to entice me to offer him the “shot gun” seat. “Not today, Buddy,” I told him, grabbing him by the collar and escorting him to the door of his dog box. “I’ll be the one driving in style. Now get in there.” Contrary to his normal self, he refused to jump in his box. “Come on Sox, a bit of cooperation would be nice just about now.” I said trying to persuade him. But there was no way he would jump in. He just sat there staring at me then looking at the opened door. He did this more than a few times before I realized that there was something was not normal. Without me noticing, “Mr Tibbs” had stolen that spot and was hiding in the trailer. “Oh, I see now what the problem is, “Sox”. The “old timer” figures he’s coming with us.” I laughed while reaching in to pull him out. He reluctantly came out and from the look on his face, I could tell that he was more than a bit disappointed. My old Seppala was not comfortable with the concept of retirement and although he was a “has been” racing champion, he still had it imprinted in his mind that he could still do the job. “Well “Old Boy”, the reality is that you’re almost completely blind, you’ve got diabetes and a bad case of arthritis. You’ve done your share of pulling the load but this one is not your fight, Buddy. Don’t you worry about a thing. The boys are well prepared for this challenge.” I told him while escorting the hesitant dog back to the barn. Before locking him in his pen, I fed him and gave him a treat. The feeding part was necessary but the treat was more out of guilt than anything else. I could really feel for the veteran. Here was all this action going on and here he was being sidelined and left behind to vegetate till the “grim reaper” came calling on him. Yeah, I could see the metaphor behind this. But, I guess that’s what life was all about. We eventually all have to accept that reality sooner or later and concede that we have to live with certain limitations.

Shaking my head, I fought hard to get that thought out of my mind. I needed to concentrate on positive things but that in itself would prove to be a test of will. My mood was a bit on the sour side so real efforts would be needed to get me through the weekend. We had a race to attend and I needed to focus on that. Walking to the dog trailer, I made sure that everybody was comfortable and secure. Today, moral was higher than normal. Since this was to be an eight (8) dog configuration, I was bringing “Vixen” and “Gidget” to fill the two extra spots of the line-up. They were not as fast as their male counterparts but they could keep up with the best of them when traveling at 10 mph. Also, “Vixen” was the type of dog that no matter what the distance was, she would never quit working. As for “Gidget”, well that was a different story. She was fun to have along and was always full of spirited energy. Although I always thought of her as my little friendly “fire cracker”, she had come to my kennel last year with a whole bunch of issues. She had been trained with a rubber hose and kicks in the ass. She had not responded to that type of treatment and had associated humans with pain. Subsequently, after being rescued from that situation and given to me, it had taken me over a month of sitting in her pen, hours at the time, just to earn back her confidence. She eventually responded to kindness and was now my faithful “little clown”. Only two problems – she was still scared of strangers so this made it that when we would meet up with a person, she would try to get away and avoid contact. Secondly, and this on most runs, for the first three or four miles, she would not put her mind to pulling but would rather play and bug the hell out of her running partner, by jumping and biting him. This was a very bad and annoying habit and I could see why someone would lose patience with her as she was constantly “pushing my buttons” and testing my level of tolerance. However, one thing these rejected dogs had taught me was that you don’t get nowhere by taking out your frustrations out on the animals. Not only is this not the right approach, they can actually feel what kind of mood you’re in. When sledding, one should try to be always calm, cool and collected. This and only this is the only productive way that you have to get their cooperation. Throw a temper tantrum and see how far you’ll get. Not only will they not work for you, they will literally have you on your knees apologizing and begging them to move out. Been there, done that and really trying hard not to go down that road again. Let’s just say that by screaming at and mistreating them, the musher will never gain their confidence and if this is the case, then that special bond will never establish itself and he will never be accepted as the “leader of the pack”.

The trip through the “white out” was uneventful and when I pulled into the truck stop in St-Antonin, Que, I inquired as to how the weather ahead might be. Of particular concern, was this segment of road on Highway 20 that was notorious for being blocked every time you had a mixture of snow and wind and I didn’t want to get stuck there with a bunch of dogs, waiting for the snow plough. When asked, this old “newfie” of a trucker confirmed that it was clear sailing through “La Pocatière” and not worry “me son”. “Are you headed to St-Pamphile?” he asked. “Yeah,” I answered, wondering how he knew. “Well you should hitch up with that other fellow over there.” he continued, pointing to a white VW van, towing two dog sleds in a trailer. “He’s going there, too.” Climbing up to the cabin of his “18 wheeler”, he took his ball cap off and called out, “Good Luck out there, “me son”, Good Luck.”

Thinking that this might be a good suggestion, I looked up Rob Cooke. Although I had never met the individual before, I suspected that it had to be him. His diesel delivery van was something commonly seen on continental Europe but here in Canada, it stood out as a peculiar vehicle. Also the fact that the thing was right hand drive, was sort of a tattle tale that indicated that the driver might be British. You see, I also had gathered some intelligence (was there any doubts?) and had done my homework, thus knew that he was another person also competing in St-Pamphile. We sort of had a few things in common and other than the fact that we were both addicted to mushing, we were both retired servicemen. As it turns out, after being posted to Nova Scotia as an aircraft engineer with the UK Royal Navy, he had decided to retire in Canada and pursue his passion.

After introducing myself, I confirmed with him that he knew the way to the race so asked to tag along. He had no objection to my request so we took off. To tell you the truth, I was kind of surprised to see him leave me in his dust. I never thought that the huge VW van was so powerful. I was holding him back not because I couldn’t follow him but rather because I had never driven this particular trailer over 50 km/h and was a bit apprehensive as to how it would react at highway speeds. I considered that I had real precious cargo in there and dreaded the possibility of any mishaps. The place was not hard to find as it was well indicated. Also when we came in within twenty miles to destination, we started to see “flag like” banners posted on many telephone posts confirming that “L’Odyssée Appalachienne” was straight ahead. Those were to be a prelude of good things to come. The closer you got, the more you could feel that you were in mushing country. There were signs on front lawns, welcoming mushers while in others some were displaying sleds as ornaments. We came upon a place where the trail crossed the road and this really caught my attention and struck my fancy. Posted signs were placed way ahead of the crossing and very well indicated. The point was properly manned by volunteers so that the teams could cross the road without any concern of being struck by oncoming traffic. This to me was a good indicator that this event might be well organized and sent the statement that my dogs could run in a safe environment. That for me was priority “number one”. When we got to the small town, arrows pointed the way to the registration place and the local school was not hard to find. After finding a parking spot, I tended to my dogs. From the stench emitting from the trailer, it was not hard to conclude that the trip had been long for the dogs and some of them were not used to these long driving distances. Just as I thought my two rookies, “Jacko” and “Sox” had been sick. While my gray yearling had vomited all over his box, his counterpart had done the same but just to show how much better he was, had managed to crap in it and this big time. To see him stand there, his white fur covered in this slimy green diarrhea was kind of a drag but what the hell, it was part of the game. “Excuse me,” this female voice said from behind me, “I thought that you might need this.” I turned around and to my great surprise, this elderly woman was standing there with a rag and a bucket filled with lukewarm water. I couldn’t believe my eyes at this sight nor could I figure out where she had come from. Excitedly, I took the cleaning material and scrubbed away, first at the dogs then at their respective boxes. “When you’re finished,” she suggested, pointing to the door “just bring this stuff back to the kitchen.” Eventually done with the somewhat painful ablutions, I went to where the kitchen was, not to only bring the bucket back but to also thank my “lifesaver”. I washed all the items thoroughly and placed them on the floor by the sink. This done, I went looking for the lady so to properly thank her. I checked in the kitchen then throughout the entire school but could not find her. Till this day, I don’t have a clue who she was and never got a chance to express my gratitude. Isn’t funny how sometimes, such a simple gesture can actually make somebody’s day. In this instance, although she’ll never realize it, her small act of kindness made my day, lifted my spirits and would set the mood for the entire weekend.

This was more than really appreciated. You have to understand that the stress of running this event had made it that the previous night I had managed to get maybe a whole two hours of rest and the sleep that I did get was filled with the same old nightmares. This strange meeting with this woman was totally out of context but during the search for her and walking through this long dark hallway brought me back to a place that I had visited way back then in Bosnia in 1993. Then also, I had had another strange encounter, an encounter that till this day, still haunts me.

It all started one cold December morning, when after being locked up in my office under tons of paperwork, I decided to go to Gracac, for a visit with the Battalion MP Section. It wasn’t really busy and I needed a break from the “Boyz”. When you live in tight quarters like we did over there, you tend to get on each others nerves and any change of scenery can be welcomed sight. It would take at best, maybe an hour and a half but I was taking the day off and would take my time. Those windy mountain roads could be treacherous especially during this late time of the season where it rains during the day then freezes during the night. This causes the roads to be covered with black ice, a condition that made you wish you had studded tires. On this particular day, not only was it cold and dreary, it was raining thus causing a thick gray fog. I was more than halfway through the trip in the middle of nowhere when suddenly, this figure of a person appeared through the wall of fog, coming in the other direction. There was no danger of me hitting him but I found it strange to see this little old feeble of a man, knapsack on his back and walking with a cane, traveling on foot, tackling these ascending alpine peaks. Where he was going, I didn’t have a clue but he had taken on quite the endeavor for his age and I decided that if on my way back he was still around, I would pick him up.

I had a good visit with the “Vandoo” MP Sergeant, Jacques Blacquière but made it short because for some reason, I was feeling guilty about letting that old man walk all that way. I said my goodbyes and hastily headed back towards home at UNHQ in Knin. It didn’t surprise me to see him maybe two (2) miles up the road from where we had first met as like I said, he had taken on quite the chore. He was still at it and was oblivious to the noise of my vehicle till I honked my horn. This startled him and he looked in my direction. I stopped next to him and showed him the “need a lift sign” with my right thumb through the window. He first hesitated then seeing the Military Police sign on the roof of my jeep, felt safe enough to accept a ride. He entered the “Land Cruiser” and sat in the front passenger seat, with his knapsack on his knees, holding on to it as he was holding on to dear life. Oh of course, it was against the rules to pick up hitchhikers but sometimes, you got to bend the rules. Not only was this gentleman not a threat but it made me feel good to help him out.

I was trying to make conversation with him but he could not speak English, French or German. He was attempting to explain in either Serbian or Croatian or maybe for all I know they speak the same language, something that had to do with the war. There was no way I could make heads or tail of what he was saying and when we got to the turnoff to where I was headed, he was pointing in the other direction, saying “Tuchman, Tuchman”. “Sorry my friend but I’m headed to Knin.” I tried telling him through slow English/German/sign language. “If you want to come, come but if you want to go that way, you’re on your own.” I think he caught the drift at to what I was saying and after a long moment of silence, tears started filling his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. In a moment of desperation, he gently grabbed my jacket sleeve and tugged on it, trying to persuade me. “Tuchman,” he repeated, “Tuchman”. Well, I didn’t know where we were headed but obviously he had something important to show me so I decided to follow him. “Tuchman?” I gestured pointing in the direction he wanted me to go. “Let’s go.” I didn’t have a clue as to where we were headed but knew that this area was considered “no man’s” land where the line of confrontation kept moving back and forth. We traveled through shelled out areas, filled with total destruction. As a point of reference, I picked up on a yellow road sign riddled with bullet holes, indicating that the town of Kistaje was just ahead but we didn’t enter it. Instead, we veered down a right roadway leading to a burnt out cluster of farm buildings. Pulling into its courtyard, my escort indicated with his hand to stop there. I did and with his insistence, I got out of the jeep and followed him. Obviously, he knew the place quite well and when he reached under an empty pot full of dried-up geraniums for a key to the barn door, I realized that I had brought him back home. Quite upset and determined to show me something, he entered the building with me in tow. I could tell that it was a barn by the hay in the stalls but was not sure what kind of animals they kept in there. In the long dark “hallway” like structure, this really eerie feeling came over me. The place reeked with the smell of death. Add to that the fact that when we reached the back of the building, its wall was covered with “star” shaped blood splatters all over it and you know what? That’s all I needed to recognize that something atrocious had happened there. I could hear my heartbeat through my eardrums but for now, I could not exactly comprehend what I was seeing. We continued on, sort of following this dried blood trail on the floor. From it, I could only deduct that somebody had dragged more than one body across the floor towards this huge oversized door. Glad to see that it was opened but more glad to see the daylight, I rushed through it trying to catch my breath. Having just about enough excitement for one day, I was ready to go back but this was not to happen. According to my guide, the tour was just beginning. He showed me a huge trailer, the type European farmers tow behind their tractors and this also still had traces of blood. I say traces simply because the thing had been sitting in the elements for who knows how long. It had rained a lot since then and washed most of the evidence away but from the flies hovering over the festering water, you could still tell that the crusty red sludge at the bottom, was blood. Since the beginning of the conflict in the Balkans in 1991, UNPROFOR had investigated incidents of ethnic cleansing and unearthed mass graves. I had only heard about such horrors but was playing a pretty graphic scenario in my mind as to what had transpired here some time ago and was preparing myself to see the end results. You see, the elderly gentleman had a lot to say and was making sure that I was getting the full briefing. We continued on down this little dirt road alongside this steep embankment where laid a small but noisy brook. If this scene would have been in the backwoods of Canada, I would have said that this would be a romantic place for a stroll. However, this was in the middle of a war torn country and I knew that what lay ahead was not going to be a pretty sight. The closer we got, the more this suspicion was materializing itself. Remember, that stink associated with “Jacko’s” mess in the dog box, well that’s what it smells like when a body decomposes. “Tuchman,” the poor man yelled, spitting in hate at the ground, “Tuchman”. There it was, in plain site, a whole bunch of skeletal corpses all dumped in the river bank, in one place and all piled on one another. The sight was surreal and if hell did exist, it had to be prettier than this. I wasn’t going to go down there and do a head count but a realistic estimate would suggest that there was between fifty and seventy-five bodies lying there at the bottom of that ravine. Women and children, old and young men, you name it. Here they all were, left there for the crows and maggots to feast on. Some unknown group of bastards had committed mass murder and had never even had the decency to bury these poor innocent folks. To say that I was outraged by the sight would not paint the true picture. Scared would also not qualify my feelings. However, to say that I was totally discouraged in the human race, now this was more in the ball park. I just couldn’t believe that in this day and age of these so called modern times, citizens of this planet could actually go around and brutally slaughter people like this. To do this on such a monumental scale simply boggled the mind. After witnessing the barbaric acts committed by the Nazis towards the Jews, had we not made a global promise not to let it happen again? Then where were we when all this “shit” was happening. I guess it’s like what’s going on at the present time. We’re just too busy with our own mundane lives to get involved. It doesn’t affect us directly so why “rock the boat”. Till this thing bites us in the “ass”, we’ll never do anything to work towards peace. Like those political ads would say, “That’s my statement and I approve of this message.” Anyway, meanwhile back at the farm, the old man’s sentiments had gone from rage to sadness and I guess I had the shoulder that he would cry on. I wrapped my arms around him, slapped his back in comfort and let him ball his eyes out. It seemed that it would never end but where was I going in a hurry. Nowhere, I guess. Besides, had I not taken the day off? The irony of it all was that even though there was a language barrier, he had still managed to tell me that this had happened and contrary to the popular belief where we’re writing history and tagging the Serbs as the “bad guys”, this one had been done by the Croatians. This was to be confirmed at a later date but that’s a totally different story altogether. As for the old man, when we got back to the jeep, he shook my hand and walked to the house and stood on the front steps. Meanwhile, I jumped behind the wheel, backed up and aimed the nose of my vehicle towards camp. When leaving, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see what he was doing but just like the old lady with the bucket, the old man had also disappeared.

The very next day, I attended Headquarters and immediately reported my findings to the proper authorities. However, since it was getting close to Christmas, the camp was in “party mode” while the Intelligence Section was closed for the holidays. Thinking that this individual wanted immediate results otherwise he would not have shown me the site, I decided, “To hell with protocol” and reported the incident through connections I still had back in Ottawa. I was promised immediate action but till this day have never heard of any outcomes. In January 94, the war once again got in the way and that area was once more closed to UN. I suspect that while somebody somewhere wanted to do the right thing, they made some discreet inquiries and phone calls subsequently alerting the Croats of these findings. They in turn, probably went back to the scene and cleaned their mess. You got to love these good folks that run a war by phone from 8 to 4. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

So after that flashback while walking towards the lights at the end of the hallway in that school in St-Pamphile, I was glad to eventually find the place to register so took the occasion to do so. The process went without a snag and I was impressed with the courteous and prompt service. It didn’t take too long and I was confirmed on the list, I had my room booked and I was out the door. I could feel this sense of confinement creeping all over me and although there was no panic to be had, I needed to get back to fresh air and this in the next few minutes. I walked back to my vehicle and dog team to assess the situation. It was a bit windy where I was parked so I moved closer to the gymnasium wall where the team and I would be better sheltered. Ensuring that all my passengers were comfortable in the trailer, I told them to hold tight as I was going to check out the site before it got dark. I walked around, found the starting chute and all its fanfares. The way they had set things up was impressive and said a lot about the organizing committee. This race was showing further promises of being a classy act. When the competitors finishing the sixty (60) miler, started pulling in, the timings were posted within seconds and announced soon after to the crowd’s cheering. One woman was having trouble going through the parking lot and back to her truck, so I asked her if I could help her. She said yes and I escorted her leaders. She said thank you but of course you know there was to be a price to pay, so I asked her a whole bunch of questions reference the circuit. She gladly provided the information but eventually got wise to my game. “What’s the story here?” she asked. “Are you racing the thirty (30) miler, or what.” “As a matter of fact, I am.” I replied. “Gino Roussel’s the name.” I continued, extending my hand. “Oh, you’re that guy who protects sleddogs, aren’t you?” she inquired. “Yeah, something like that.” I concluded just before leaving, not really in the mood for some idle chit-chat.

Walking aimlessly amongst the parked trucks, I really felt out of place and was starting to regret coming here. You have to understand that the “Baisley” scene is where I find my comfort zone and I don’t usually stray too far away from the place. Oh for sure, I go to the Annual Hockey Tournament, held every year in BFC Valcartier but that’s in a totally different context. It’s military and is structured in a fashion that I’m used to and feel comfortable with. However and other than that, I’m more of a “stay at home” type of guy. Nonetheless, we had come more than 200 kms to race and that’s what we aimed to do. So I gave myself “the speech” and moved on from there. With the blowing snow, it was freezing cold and the prospect of finding out more information about the trails was non-existent. Nobody else was hanging around so I decided to go and visit with my dogs. I had more than four hours to kill, so might as well set up and have a picnic with them.

Out of curiosity, I had made some inquiries about possibly running the CAN-AM 250 in Fort-Kent. I wanted to know amongst other things what was the best “cooker” to use on the trail. I knew about the “five gallon” metal pail but someone had suggested taking the guts out of an old Coleman camp stove and using the box to carry and burn wood in it. Since I had one readily available hiding in the garage attic, I had decided to try this method out. For the record, I can start a fire just as good as the best scout out there. In addition, I had taken the time to bring with me the best dry cedar kindling that I could find. And as a final touch, I chose the best hardwood - well-seasoned maple, to use to feed the fire. However, this coffee making experience, proved to be a fiasco. Picture this. I’m sitting there on my cooler, waiting for the water to boil but I don’t know if it’s because of the cold or the small fire but nothing is happening. I decide to eat my “ski sandwich” while waiting but I can’t because I’ve got eight (8) pairs of eyes staring me down and smacking their lips. By this time, each dog is tied to a two (2) foot chain attached to the trailer so figuring that they might be hungry, I set their bowls on the ground and fed them. Not one of them touches his food. “Come on guys, eat. You’ve got to keep your strength up.” Try as much as you want, they just weren’t going to cooperate. “Piss on that,” I said “you’re not going to get my sandwich.” And with that I turned my back on them. Still feeling the stare down, I would casually turn my head and check if they were eating. No, nothing. This lasted maybe ten (10) minutes and by then their soupy meal had frozen in the bowls. “Great,” I thought, “more mess to deal with.” As if to say, “you don’t want to share? Well we’ll just have to make sure that you don’t enjoy your meal.” one by one, they started to do some business. To a musher that deals with, in my case fourteen (14) dogs, picking up after the pooches is no big deal. But in this case, it was different. Not one single solid stool could be found. They all had a bad case of diarrhea and this was a sign of trouble as it might translate in dehydration and bad news. I couldn’t establish if it was a case where they were nervous and stressed out or it had to do with eating too much of this “high octane dynamite soup”. Whatever it was, it had become a concern and a priority that needed to be immediately rectified. Thinking that I was doing them a favor, I cut the huge block of cheese that Fran had put in the cooler and gave one piece to each one of them. This they gobbled down without tasting. Hind sight says that this was a “Rookie” mistake. Like Leonard Lanteigne would have said, “These dogs are smart animals and once you give in, it doesn’t take long for them to have the musher trained.” “Yeah, they’ve got me trained all right.” I snickered to myself while scooping the excrement, melted in the snow. “Right down to me, wiping their ass.”

These tedious chores completed, I took off my gloves and continued chowing down on my sandwich (You didn’t really expect for me to keep them on, did you?) Now if you recall, when I first sat down over one hour ago, I was trying to make some coffee. Well, guess what? The fire had flamed out and the water was still cold. Like the character “Yosemite Sam” (that’s the cowboy in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) would have said, “I paid to see the high diving act and I’m gonna see the high diving act.” I was determined that I was going to make a cup of coffee from this contraption and “Lord Thundering Jesus” I was going to drink one. I restarted the whole fire making process and this time did not spare on the wood. I piled it up almost past the opened lid and got a can of 10W-40 oil from the back of the jeep and poured it all over my “pyramid”. Piss on the “traditional” matches. I took my trusty “Bernz-O-Matic” automatic blow torch out and put it on “turbo” power. Within a few seconds, the fire re-ignited and this time, it seemed to catch my drift that I was a man on a mission. I must have overdone it with the accelerant as flames were shooting three (3) feet in the air. As darkness had set in by now, the glow of it put on quite the show behind the silhouette of the Toyota. It didn’t take more than one minute for Rob Cooke and a friend to run up to my location, huffing and puffing. “Are you all right?” they both asked when coming around the corner and looking at my Coleman. “From over there, we thought your truck was on fire.” Mike, the friend continued. “No, just making a pot of coffee.” I replied, trying hard not to burst out laughing. “Now, if you stick around for a few minutes, you’re more than welcomed to join me.” I had this thing roaring and knew that it had conceded and that I had won the battle over the stove. “Adapt and overcome.” I thought to myself while later sipping that strong cup of java, “Adapt and overcome.”

Left alone after sharing that warm beverage with my guests, I had ample time to contemplate my next strategic move. I was a newcomer to this so-called Quebec Professional Racing Circuit, so I decided that I would do what I do best. Keep a low profile, observe and take notes. So when I attended the musher’s briefing, I counted how many would be competing and the posted list of eighteen (18) had dwindled to, as it stood as of now, fourteen (14) participants. “Humm!” I thought, “If they’re giving cash awards to the first twelve (12) positions, I might just be able to squeeze in and get some gas money.” The directives were clear and concise and most of the questions that I might have had, were answered, all except for one. I had been looking at the topographic map while they explained the variants of the trail and had noticed the steep ridge line in the vicinity of a transmission line. Nobody seemed too concern about it so nobody asked. However, to me it looked like a long steep incline so I raised my hand and asked the question. “Excuse me, that hilly section in the transmission line, how long is it?” “That my son, is where we separate the men from the boys.” this old musher replied. “This is what makes racing St-Pamphile so special.”

This guy, who I was to later meet, was Paul Boudreau, a 65 year old veteran with 35 years of mushing. A tall skinny, leather faced man, he was as tough as nails and had the portfolio to back it up. He no longer had anything to prove and if you didn’t know of his reputation, you only had to look at what he was wearing to keep his pants up. He proudly wore that silver “Iditarod Finisher” belt buckle. You had to earn one of those so considering that it’s supposed to be the toughest sleddog race in the world, I guess when he spoke, people listened. So here he was, on a roll, everybody hanging on to his every word. The jokes or rather the sly remarks just kept pouring out of his mouth. They weren’t directed towards me but rather to all the six rookies in the auditorium. I was getting a bit perturbed at being laughed at so I interjected and said and this would be a loose slang version of this French translation, “I don’t give a shit about that. Now if you’d just keep your fucken mouth shut for a few seconds maybe this guy can provide us “green nose” with an intelligent answer!” There was dead silence for a little while, then the trail boss broke the ice and said, “Well, it’s about five (5) miles all together.” “Thanks,” I finished, “that’s all I wanted to know.” After the meeting was adjourned, I walked out still a bit pissed off. For one, I didn’t appreciate being put down in front of people and secondly, for not keeping my promise. “Way to go Gino!” I said to myself, not to pleased with my performance. “You once more missed out on the perfect occasion to keep your mouth shut.”

I guess I was tired and it didn’t take much to “light my fuse”. So before going down to the motel, I dropped the dogs (lingo for letting them out) and let them roam around in an adjacent field. There was all sort of activity going on around us but I still felt all alone. I could hear a few coyotes howling out there and felt homesick. I had been gone for less than twelve (12) hours and already I missed “Baisley Lodges”. For most of the dogs, this was to be the first time they experienced sleeping in dog boxes and I guess they weren’t too sure of what was going on. When it was “Sox’s” turn to stretch his legs, he did his thing but would not go back in his box. I just couldn’t stand looking at his sad brown saggy eyes so I played favoritism. “OK! You win!” you ride shot gun.” He knew what I was talking about and rushed to the driver’s door. “Be careful. Don’t scratch the paint.” I told him but it was too late, he had jumped all over it already. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, “Isn’t it just great to live with sleddogs?” So away we went looking for that place to sleep, me driving with “Sox’ on my laps, hanging his head out the window. Just seeing him sitting there with his ears flopping in the wind, made me smile and changed my mood. I patted him on the head and simply said, “Thanks Buddy. Thanks for being in my corner.”

I checked into the “Motel Le Boisé” into a more than acceptable and very clean room. I was beat and after saying good night to the “Mob”, I curled into a ball under the blankets and tried to go to sleep. The pressure of racing was disturbing me so I tossed and turned for a long while. If that wasn’t enough, it was dogs barking outside every time some other mushers pulled in for the night. As an added distraction, the couple next door was playing “hide the pickle” on a squeaky bed and this it seems for hours. She was some vocal that one and if you didn’t know his name, she was making sure that it was well known. Oh the racing circuit, isn’t it just honky-dory? So, when the alarm rang at 0500 AM, I had again managed to maybe get three hours of off and on sleep but it was time to get up and I couldn’t wait to get dressed and check out on the dogs. Hopefully, they had gotten more rest than I but I doubted it. From all that barking, I’m sure that the “Kid” and “Irving” had said their pieces more than once during the night. They always did.

We went back to the same spot from the day before and retrieved that stupid Coleman stove. It’s not that I had forgotten it there but rather because when we left the area, it was still full of lingering ambers. I had thrown some snow on it but didn’t want to throw the ashes in the dumpster, afraid that it might cause and get this, “an accidental fire”. Looking at this black charcoal chunk of ice sitting there, I cursed the individual that suggested that this was a good concept. Either he wanted to string me along or he didn’t know what he was talking about. I doubted that the latter could be true. This individual had run the 250 in Fort-Kent many of times so… The thing was frozen to the ground and would not budge. “How the Fuck do you expect to melt snow for your dogs when you can’t even boil one simple cup of water?” I kept on going while throwing a hissy-fit and pounding the shit out of it with an axe. “This stove idea is ridiculous, a dud, a non-starter, a useless piece of kit.” With that said, I swung downwards and gave it that merciful blow. Not only did I get the ice out but I made sure that the experiment was permanently over with. To look at that bent out of shape piece of metal, you would have never thought that this thing was at one time a Coleman stove. Making sure that nobody was looking at me (wouldn’t want anybody to think that I’m crazy), I opened the lid to the dumpster and threw it in. There was to be no caffeine fix for me this morning. Meanwhile after I’ve tied them up to their two (2) foot chains, the dogs are staring at me and themselves as to say, “OK, I guess it’s going to be one of those days. The boss shit the bed, this morning.”

I had seen that look before and knew that if I didn’t calm myself, the dogs would not cooperate. I sat there on the trailer pole, not pouting but rather trying to go to my “happy place”. “Think positive, Gino. Think positive.” I took in that crisp fresh air through the nose and exhaled it through the mouth. I repeated this at least one hundred times while seeking spiritual guidance. In my mind, I was looking for and needed to talk to my mentor. I could not concentrate on a vision of his face but decided to call on him anyway. “Listen Leonard,” I asked, “I know I only speak to you when I’m in a shit load of trouble but I sure could use a sign just about now.” Nothing, we weren’t connecting. Then I remembered one thing he had once told me in his cabin in St-Basile so thought that I might just give this a shot. “Close your eyes.” he had calmly guided me through the process. “Now think of a flag blowing in the wind.” “What color is it? he had continued. “Red,” I had answered, “I see red.” “That’s good, now concentrate on that flag and its movement.” I had done as instructed and the strangest thing that happened then, was again occurring. The quick flicker of that flag had slowed right down to a point where it wasn’t even moving. Even more remarkable was that it had changed from this bright blood red color to this pacific baby blue. When I opened my eyes, the bright sun was making its appearance over the distant mountain range and was telling me that today was a great day to be alive and a great day to be sharing this moment with eight (8) faithful mutts. I had gain gained control over my emotions and was back into that “ZEN” like state. Whatever was to happen, I was going to see the glass “half full, today. Somehow, I had managed to get lured to the “dark side” of racing and was letting this thing control me. Enough was enough. The dogs didn’t care nor did they know where they finished so why should I? We had started this adventure to relax and enjoy nature so as far as I was concerned, I would accompany my trail companions and would go out there and take in the scenery. Everything else, would be a bonus. Looking at them standing there, not having touched their breakfast made me realize that they also didn’t know what was going on and what was happening around them. All this was a bit confusing. Right now, more than anything else, they needed some leadership and were looking for me to provide it. Me, myself and I were the only persons that could lead this parade and I was going to put those boots on and on the right feet. As for the non-hydration part, I would gamble that they had enough water in their system to carry them on to the finish line. If worse came to worst, I would stop along the trail and let them dip for snow.

Preparations went well and the next thing you know, “Oumak” and “JR” got us out that starting chute and this like real champions. Waving at the friendly crowd and as far as I was concerned, we were gone to discover a new trail and meet new people. The pressures had stayed behind at the truck and I was settling comfortably on the runners when all of a sudden, the ride got a bit fast.

The dogs had put in three (3) whole miles during the previous week and they were well rested and raring to go. We had drawn Bib #7 and they knew that there were victims ahead, team that needed to be overtaken. Try to brake them as much as you want, they just wouldn’t slow them. They had been cooped up all this time and now they were out to prove that you could laugh all you want at their non existent pedigree, they could run with the best of them. My foot was getting sore from trying to brake them and all this effort made it that they were meeting extra resistance and would get tired faster. So, I whistled and let them run to their hearts content. What a rush going around those tight corners on my Lanteigne sled. Sure, it was a lot heavier than those sprinters and would later prove to be a setback, but for now, I was totally enjoying the ride. We eventually caught up to the sledder that had left two (2) minutes prior to us and I called for the trail more than once. He didn’t react nor did he give way. “JR”, “Oumak” ‘Haw, Haw trail.” My gray wolf shoulder checked his white partner and we went by these guys as if they were standing still. I was impressed that we gone by without incident but knew quite well that there was no way they could keep up that speed. Putting a fair distance between myself and that first victim, I talked my “Boyz” down from that high. “Easy guys, easy…” I told them. “It’s a long way to the finish line.” My two leaders slowed down a bit but it was still way too fast. My two big Shepard/Husky mix, “Vixen” and the “Kid” were necklining and by the sounds of it, my big bruiser did not approve of them not listening. “Kid”, I re-assured him, “Let me handle it.” He grumbled a few more times then barked. I didn’t understand dog language but he had definitely passed on my message. They all slowed down to where he could run and pull. “Humm!” I thought to myself, “eleven (11) mph. I wonder if we can keep up this clip.”

We managed to pass the other teams and sit in third place. I couldn’t believe all the positive vibes, I was getting out here. The people were right involved with this event. In the first village called St-Omer, we had to make a large curve like left turn that ran along a “snow fence”. People were clapping and encouraging the mushers and one person had a barbecue grill going. “You want a hot dog?” he yelled at me. “Sure!” I replied, thinking that it was kind of weird to be treated with white kid gloves. On that note, he started running along side me and reached over to give me not one but two of them. “Here,” he said, “You’re a big guy. I’m sure you can handle both of them.” Then there was this place where after blowing the doors off “Oh David, Oh David’s” sled (remember that guy from the night before in the motel room next to mine) through this “tadpole” like trail, we came upon a “sugar shack” where Quebec folklore music was blaring and people were dancing on the porch while cheering us on. Then another “Kodak” moment was when we crossed one particular intersection, people had joined hands to form a human chain, blocking both sides of the road, allowing the mushers to go by. This and many other little tidbits made it that this event, although only running for the past three years, would live on to grow and become the race to attend in Eastern Canada.

It was a great ride but it wasn’t over. The notorious transmission line was still up ahead and when Boudreau called for trail, I immediately gave way. “You got enough juice left to climb the hill?” he asked while whizzing by me. She’s a tough one.” With that he was off. I was impressed to see how fast his team was but then again, he had invested over $25,000.00 in the ten dogs he was racing this season. He had spent the last two years criss-crossing the entire country buying the fastest dogs he could put his hands on and still, he wasn’t satisfied. Then one of the Ontario lads, from “Chocpaw” Kennel, asked to pass in this really narrow segment of trail. I didn’t want to cause any ruckus so I called to my team to stop. “Stay” I shouted, “Stay.” Without hesitation they did what they were told. “Thank You,” the young fellow said, turning backwards on his runners, “I wish I had the same rapport with my dogs. Later that night at the award ceremony, I was to sit down with this driver, Kris Sampson who explained to me that where he worked at Chocpaw, an extremely large tourist outfit, they had anywhere from 370 to 400 dogs at any given time. They had the luxury of picking and choosing fast dogs to use in racing events. Unfortunately, none of these animals received the tender loving care that they deserved. The handlers wanted to spend more time with them but there were just not enough love to go around. I got the feeling that this could become a touchy subject around the table so simply didn’t want to pry.

I train in a transmission line in Baisley but when I got to this one, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. This hill just kept going straight up and this for as far as you could see. At least five times as long as the one back home, this thing was like a huge set of stairs that went on for (and yeah, they were right) at least five (5) miles, minimum. “Well, boys, this is it. Across that ridge, is the finish line. So, let’s get at her.” We took on the challenge and it didn’t take long for me to see that we were in trouble. The temperature had risen drastically and the dogs were dipping like crazy. If we were to make it up there, I was going to have to get off and run. “So be it,” I concluded, “March or Die.” I use this analogy simply because that’s what it felt like. The dogs were still capable of trotting faster than I could keep up and I was running holding them back. Because of the cold that morning, I was wearing six layers of clothes and this proved to be another mistake. After tackling one quarter of this monster, the dogs and I were all in the same boat. We had run out of fuel and were ready to stop any time soon. The 55 lbs Lanteigne sled felt like it weighed 550 lbs and I didn’t have anything left in me, to assist with the pushing.

I could see a dark spot higher up and could see but could not understand what the commotion was all about. When we got closer, I could see that the “Chocpaw” lad had managed to untangle from another team and was on his way. As for the other guy, he was having trouble controlling his dogs. The barking had drawn some attention and had given my bunch that extra boost. “Are you OK?” I asked this unknown musher. “Well my dogs won’t let anybody else pass.” he shouted, annoyed by their behavior. “That’s nice but do you plan on camping out in the middle of the trail?” I queried. “Not really.” he replied, sensing that this was more of an order to move than a question. “I’ll try to hold them.” he shouted while grabbing to his leaders. Chancing it, I called for an “on by” and “Haw” command. It worked and we were just about clear when his dogs managed to get loose and charge my team. They didn’t go around them, they went through the gangline just in front of “Vixen” and “Jacko”. Like alligators they were snapping at my dogs like it was going out of style. Seeing that his sister was in trouble, the “Kid” was going to her rescue when I screamed from the top of my lungs, “Kid, Stay. As a matter of fact, ALL you fucken clowns, Stay.” There, some order had been restored and with that I attended this tangle of a mess and started to help this stranger. We were making progress till one of his mutts lunged at me to take a bite out of my right arm. Big mistake. I mean a really, really big mistake. I wasn’t in the mood to take any crap and this from nobody. His challenge was met with a left hook to the side of the head and it only took one. For some reason, his dog team got the message and we were permitted to casually motor on, tiptoeing through the tulips. Feeling a bit bad about what I had done, I turned around and yelled out, “Is he all right?” “Yeah, no problem, he’ll live.” While we managed to make it all the way to the top, after vomiting my two hot dogs, I had convinced myself that more running would be needed, if I was to carry on with this craziness. I guess this impromptu stop, made it that we had lost a lot of time and soon two female mushers passed us. While the first one came out of nowhere and passed on the down swing of the hill, the other one went by us maybe two (2) miles to the finish line.

The first one, with her fancy aluminum sprinter sled was all business. She literally bumped into me almost as if she wanted to knock me over on purpose. What I noticed more than the bump was her total lack of politeness let alone her mushing etiquette. Seeing that she was having some trouble controlling her flimsy sled down this “mogul” filled downhill, I decided to let the dogs chase her and eased off the brakes. This type of terrain we were used to. This type of terrain was the kind of place where I enjoyed pushing the envelope just to see what kind of “Adrenaline” rush I could get. “Kid?” I shouted, “You ready?” With that it was a double whistle and sooner than she expected, “JR” and “OumaK” were right up there, sniffing and rubbing their nose against her butt. “Hey,” she warned me, “they’re kind of close, aren’t they?” “Sorry,” I said, “but they’re suckers for a cute ass.” It wasn’t the smartest thing to say, female discrimination and all but it suited the moment quite well as she needed to learn some manners. This game which was being played at break neck speed, went on all the way to the bottom. Although it was fun while it lasted, I knew I couldn’t keep up so eased off to conserve some energy.

The second one, a lot more mature and much more courteous, asked if she could pass on the right side. Right side, left side we didn’t care. We were done and running on empty. She went by us with her racing Siberian Huskies (by the way, I’ve developed a new respect for the breed) while singing and ski polling along. “Your gray leader is quite the looker” she went on, “he’s got quite the smile.” “That he does.” I replied but thought to myself, “But right now the poor bastard just wants to stop and call it a day.” “Come on boys, only two (2) miles to go. Come on “Oumak”, you’re not going to let a bunch of females beat you?” There was to be no response. Neither from him or the rest of the team. They had given it their all and there was no sense in asking for more. To see the “Kid” stagger from side to side said it all. That hill had been their “Waterloo” and best start thinking of cooling them down. I was going to concede and pull over but they would not have anything to do with this. All of them had their ears folded back and were concentrating on the job and eliminating that painful threshold. I followed their example, got off the runners and ran with them for that last mile or so. Hearing the loud speaker in the distance, I was evaluating this event for what it was worth. I knew now why they called it the toughest race in Eastern Canada. But most importantly, would I be coming back? And that was immediately answered with a categorical yes. “Why?” some of you might ask. Well it’s quite simple. It beautiful country, the people are great and it’s an event that is put on by professionals. That, in my book, is all the incentive that I need to make the return trip. As for that old lady with that bucket, well what can I say. It was a short meeting but one that will remain engraved in my mind for the rest of my life. During that never ending climb over that monster of a hill, instead of revisiting with the ghosts of a bunch of dead soldiers, you were my source of inspiration. You might not have known this but you came to the rescue of a person that really needed an act of kindness and this was done at the most appropriate time. You see, when one has lived through a whole bunch of drudgery throughout the better part of his adult life, one tends to forget that there are still good people out there. And you my “Guardian Angel” showed me that it was time for me to climb out of that “ravine”, move on and try to return the favor. Let’s just say that if more acts of kindness were done in this world, we would have a lot less problems? Just a thought…

Peace on Earth to One and All. And remember, together we can make a difference.


P.S. Oh by the way, we came in sixth place and it paid for the gas. = -)
P.S.S. It was brought to my attention that you couldn't post comments on this "Blog". To those who care to do so, I changed the settings so this now available.


Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed the event.

Anonymous said...

Love the dog stories. As for Kistaje, the truth sits in Ottawa. Maybe one day, I'll have the "balls" to share. Keep at it young man...