Saturday, January 23, 2010


Sometimes you pull a stunt that you simply know that was way out of line. Sometimes you do something that makes you feel like you’re three inches tall and that everybody is finger pointing you as the “very, little, little man”. For the dogs, Eagle Lake was a great training experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better performance. Well disciplined, they went out there and did the job I asked of them. As for the “boss” well, I guess you could say that I received a real dose of humility. It’s like they say, “One day, you always end up meeting your man”. And in this adventure, “Boy” did I ever…

To start off, when we got to the “Mushers Meeting” on Friday night, I felt confident or should I say a bit “cocky” about my running this event. The “Baisley Mob” had oodles of miles under their belt and on our last outing, the pure energy that was felt through my gangline strongly put the point across that we would not be coming home late for supper. Normally when I sit at these briefings, I usually scout the room to see who’s in attendance and try to establish where I rate against the other racers. This is part of my old competitive nature, a side of me that I must keep in check. I have to because in my younger days, I would participate in all sorts of sporting events and had this philosophy that winning was everything and if need be I would win and this at all costs. Five years ago, when I got sucked in and re-entered the sport of racing sleddogs, I brought that attitude with me. Unfortunately, that first season was a complete disaster, one that finished with a tragic conclusion. I remember waking up that next morning with a severe case of frost bite and a couple of dead dogs. No, this had not been one of my finest hours. As a matter of record, it was one of those experiences that you feel too embarrassed to talk about but one that keeps haunting you every time you get on the runners.

So, I had kind of forgotten that part where I should have been a bit more reserved thus wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on during the meeting. This was to be the first of a series of mistakes that I would do during the weekend. If only I would have done just a bit less socializing and paid a bit more attention, I might just have noticed the “rookie”. But nooo… My gums were flapping at about 100 MPH and I guess I was enjoying standing on that “soap box” showing off and pulling my own suspenders.

Anyway the next morning, at 0400 hrs sharp, I was out of bed and out that door within fifteen (15) minutes flat. I was a man on a mission and it was time to get the last minute things loaded up. I went through my check list and when I slapped my “Bowie” knife on my hip, I knew that if I wasn’t ready at least, I looked the part. I wasn’t nervous about running the event but Eagle Lake had something to do with these bad memories and I had these nauseating feelings churning in my stomach. To those who know me and my caffeine habit, no it had nothing to do with the pot of “Kick Ass” coffee I had just drunk and can vouch that it had to do with the name “Eagle Lake”.

For force of habit where the dogs always come first, I was kind of in a rush to get to the barn as I was worried about a couple of dogs. My little guy “Sox” had pulled something in his lower back during a deep snow run and would be sidelined for at least three (3) weeks. The way he had been walking around the previous days strongly suggested that he would need some serious down time to recover. Such a sad turn of events, I don’t know who was the most disappointed. He had worked so hard to earn his spot on the team and now when it was time to “rock and roll”, he wouldn’t be allowed to dance. When I got to his door, happy to see me, he was jumping around to greet me as if to say, “Please take me with you. I beg you. Please take me with you.” Knowing quite well that this was not going to happen, I grabbed that cute little head of his and just said, “Next time buddy, you got to rest up for Fort Kent.” To make things right with him, I opened that ice cream container and gave him his morning treat. Usually, before a race like this, I’ll go around and give the dogs maybe 1/3 of a pound of meatloaf. I usually serve this meal approximately four (4) hours before so to give them a chance to metabolize the meat. However that morning when I opened the lid, instead of containing hamburger, it was cooked liver. I guess I had picked the wrong one by mistake and being too lazy to go back to the “Bunkhouse” and exchange it, I decided that I would feed this “rubber like” delicacy. Oh for sure all the dogs went crazy over the stuff but later that day, I would be reminded of this second “rookie” mistake. To make matters worse, when I got to “Oumak”, I noticed that he had barely touched his supper making it two days in a row that he had not eaten. To try to compensate but against my better judgment, I gambled that he would have time to digest the food and gave him an exaggerated portion of liver. He loved the stuff and just gobbled it up whole. “Mak, my friend, take time to taste it. Come on.” I begged him almost disgusted seeing him smack his lips and slobber all over. But he didn’t listen. He was hungry and probably snickering inside as he had trained the “boss” into giving in to his spoiled eating habits. This was to even more complicate the outcomes of my day.

Done with their morning business and with more than a few hours to spare, Fran and I decided to head out. I had to as I was anticipating getting a hard time crossing at the US Border. I’m not one to travel back and forth to the states but it seems to me that they sure love pulling me over for secondary inspections. Out of seven times in last two years, I was brought in the office six times. The only time that I wasn’t checked is when I pulled to the post and literally had to knock on the window to wake the guard up. This “old timer” was quite a nice guy and you could tell he was from way before the pre-terrorist era and just couldn’t wait for retirement. Fortunately, this particular morning, the young lady was quite pleasant and allowed us through with minimum delay.

Almost amazed by this turn of events, we carried on to Eagle Lake. After having a quick breakfast which was by the way, paid for by another kind couple of New Brunswick mushers, Shannon Herbert and Jeff Butler (thanks for the hand-out guys and welcome aboard), we continued on our way to the marshalling area at the public beach area. With plenty of time on my hands, I decided to go and “hob-knob” with the distance racers of the 100 mile event. In my case, hob-knobbing was just my way of spying on the eventual competition as the plan was to return here next year and run this longer event. Here again, too busy fraternizing, I hadn’t taken the time to size up the competition in my own race. If I would have done so, I would have surely noticed the “rookie”. Let’s face it. He wasn’t hard to spot.

Time went by and the organizers sorted out some last minute hiccups that had to do with where the trail would travel through. This year, instead of the traditional turning left after leaving the starting chute, the participants were allowed to proceed down “Old Main” Street. I had no problems with this change of plan and welcomed this modification. That immediate “Haw” turn was a bitch to negotiate and in the past too many drivers had had bad experiences in that corner. So when they called my bib number, I let go of my snub line and got escorted to the starting line. First race of the season and six “in great shape” dogs made it that the team was a bit too strong for the handlers to manage. Yeah, I could see that the “Boyz” were raring to go but we had a few minutes to spare and I needed them to conserve energy. To get their attention and over the loud speakers, I whistled then commanded them to stay. I did not get an immediate reaction and thus had to emphasize my last order. “Stay” I shouted, “Stay”. Waiting to launch, I could see that the “Kid” was in that zone where he gets overly excited. After telling the folks holding the sled back in the chute to grab it tight, I went to my big bruiser and got close and personal with him. “Kid, behave.” I commanded, “Be a nice guy.” He calmed down and looked at me with that great “Colgate smile” as if to say, “What’s wrong? Am I putting on too much of a show?” I walked back and listened for my countdown. Eight, seven, six…. At five, just like that quarterback on the line of scrimmage, I belted “Ready?” And at zero, I called the play with the “Uptrail” command.

For the better part of the first mile, both sides of the street were lined with people. Thanking the ones wishing us “Good Luck”, we struggled along on the unexpected pavement road. The dogs were clawing their way forward while I was trying to keep the sled to the right side where some brownish slushy snow could be found. Try all you want, we were destined to ruin the “hot wax” job I had just spent hours applying to my skis the night before. If there was to be a consoling side to this, it was the fact that all competitors would be subjected to the same “sanding job” so nobody would end up with an advantage.

I could see the trail just ahead and when we went by the volunteers directing traffic at that “Y” junction we were on our way for an enjoyable ride. All jitters gone, I took time to congratulate the team on their excellent performance leaving town, adjusted some gear and put on my mittens. The trail was hard packed with a layer of maybe two (2) inches of fresh snow on top. “Finally,” I said to myself, “we’re going to run a trail that favors my type of dogs.” With that in mind, I started planning my strategy. I had come to this event with the intention of using it as a training run for future races. Instead of running it effectively, I would tackle it efficiently. For those who care to know what the differences in the two methods are, well let’s just say that; You run effectively when you go all out, hoping that the dogs will last the entire distance. You run efficiently when you hold them back, keeping something in reserve for those last few miles. When you run effectively, the welfare of the dogs is thrown by the way side and you really don’t care about injuries. When you run efficiently, a healthy team at the finish line is much more important than the standings in the race. When mid-distance racing, the efficient method should be the one most solicitated. You know you ran an efficient race when the next day you hitch happy dogs that are willing and can go out for a run with good energy to spare.

When the “Kid” is loping and the rest of the team is trotting, that’s when I know that we’re moving along at the desired clip. It had taken the better part of this year to teach them how to trot in cadence for long distances but the patience had paid off. They could move along with this type of stride at approximately 9.5 MPH and for extended periods. For a “30 mile sprint” as the Quebecers would call it, this was a bit slow. But for the longer outings it was a most respectable speed. We were “on-bying” some of the competition and were gaining some serious grounds. Getting close to the turnaround loop and nearing the fourteen (14) mile mark, I met up with Rico Portolatin (the eventual winner) and could establish that I was running fifth if not close to fourth. The dogs were looking good and once we completed the turn and got off that awful gravel portion of the trail, the temptation was just too strong and just like a “junkie” I needed that “fix”. Too strong of a seduction, I gave in and let that “dark side” of my character take over. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to push the envelope and take up the chase. There was prize money for the first five places and I would be going home with some of the loot. “JR, Oumak, let’s go. Let’s blow this pop stand.” And on that note, I whistled and they picked up the speed.

During all this time, I had been helping the team climb the mountainous segments of the course and for some reason, the whole frigging thing seemed to go in that upward direction. Having done all the leg work last summer to keep the weight down, I was in fair shape but this amount of running was taking its toll on the “old frame” and I was having a hard time keeping up with the faster pace. For some reason, there was something in front that was attracting the dogs’ attention and the team was really picking up some serious speed. We were coming up to a sharp uphill right curve when I heard this awful shrieky sound. I couldn’t make out what it was but from the fresh tracks along the trail, I suspected that it might be a moose or two. It was too late for “rutting” season, so thought that it might be a mother calling her calf. The sound definitely got the attention of the “Boyz” and they were lunging forward to get to the prey. For me, I knew what trouble one could get into when encountering the “King” of the forest so got ready for a possible showdown. The closer we got, the more the sound changed. Suddenly, I could distinguish words instead of noise only to recognize that it was the voice of a young musher. When I finally met with this person, she was running besides her sled. Knowing that the first “Golden Rule” of mushing it that “You never let go of your sled!” I thought this was a bit unusual and figured that she might have lost her team and was trying to catch up with them. Getting nearer for a closer inspection, I came to realize that she was helping her team get up that hill and was encouraging or should I say, pestering them to move forward. The dogs were doing just fine and other than annoying the animals, I couldn’t see the real purpose behind her method. As, my old friend and mentor, Leonard Lanteigne would have said, “Leave the dogs alone. They know what has to be done. When your leaders flop down on the trail and put their front paws over their ears then you know that they’ve had enough of your nagging.” I kept observing her and could not but be impressed as to how she could run. This hill was a “doozy” and when I started negotiating it behind her, I could feel the severe burn in my legs and the temperature rise in my body. This kid, whoever he was, had come to this event well prepared physically and if he had made it this far, well he was a serious contender if not a threat. I stayed behind because he was helping my dogs get up the hill but somewhere halfway, his team really slowed down and this almost to a crawl. Seeing this as the opportunity to blow the doors off him, I got just behind him, whistled to him and called for the “Trail”. Normally, the rules are quite clear when passing another driver. The overtaken musher must relinquish the trail and stop to let you go by. Also, he must not attempt to pass you for at least ten (10) minutes or one (1) mile. In this instance, this did not happen. I don’t know if he had forgotten that rule or if he didn’t know about it but instead of allowing me by, he jumped off the runners of his sled and started running and yelling at his dogs to push on. His dogs and for that matter my team, couldn’t make heads or tail of all this commotion and panic. It wasn’t the right approach in this situation but this “rookie” was adamant that I would not pass him. We went up side by side, both of us trying to pass the other. He was like the “Energizer” bunny rabbit. He just kept on going, going and going. I didn’t have a clue who this young person was but “Boy” did he drive a hard bargain. Wondering if I was going to be able to outlast him, I closed my eyes and had a visit with my friend “Bill” Kerr. Visualizing him in that wheelchair helping me sweat this one out, made me forget the pain. Unwillingly, I entered that “tunnel vision” zone and pushed through. The trail ahead transformed itself and appeared as if you were using a camera with a “fish eye” lenses and a red filter. Without knowing it, I had reverted to “combat mode” and this would translate into serious business with whoever crossed our path. For the young “rookie”, he had put up quite the fight but I managed to pass him after a long session of leap-frogs. I was putting some distance between us when the coffee in my stomach started percolating. Bent over my steering bow, I let it boil over. While I was doing some really needed up-chucking, I managed to look up only to see that the “Kid” was joining me. I couldn’t tell if I had grossed him out but here he was spewing out a jet of brownish water accompanied by, you guessed it, undigested chunks of liver. He shook it off, trying to dip for snow and I guess I followed suit. I grabbed a handful of the white stuff, melted it in my mouth just to get rid of that acidy aftertaste. The tempo of the team had really slowed down and found it curious as we were now traveling along on flat terrain. By the way his ears were drooping, I could tell that the “Kid” hadn’t recovered. I wasn’t finished uttering the words, “Are you all right there buddy?” when I noticed that Oumak had slacked off on his tug line. I was just about to ask what was wrong when he started throwing up. Where the “Kid” had spewed the meat out, my gray leader propulsed those too many pieces of liver as if he was a volcano blowing its top. What a sight. I never thought that there could be so much liquid in one animal. It just kept on coming. Obviously, this would be a setback in my pursuit of the prize money but I would push the dogs anyway. Trying to motivate them, I was losing my patience with them as they had tuned me out and were just coasting along. Then the “rookie” appeared out of nowhere and the chase was again on. After a series of more leap-frogs, he was now in front of us but was not putting any distance between us. I was getting so fed up with the non performance of my dogs and his blocking the way that I decided to stop and let him take some lead time. Standing there in the trail, I could see that his dogs weren’t going anywhere as they were just crawling along. As soon as I would move forward, they would do the same. I was getting really pissed at this cat and mouse game and was voicing my displeasure in my “better Catholic French”. I was angry at my dogs but mostly I was angry at myself for feeding them liver that morning. Unfortunately, this young individual wasn’t helping the situation and I guess, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Listen you little shit,” I screamed out at him as out of control as I could have been. “As I told you before, when somebody asks you for the trail, you have to give it to them. Check your bib number, now check mine. It’s quite obvious that I’m going to have a better time than you, so park the god dammed sled. You’re ruining my race and I guarantee you that I’ll ruin yours. When we get to the finish line I’m going to make sure that you’re disqualified. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” From the look on his face, the message had registered loud and clear. That look on his face, I had seen many times before and could probably describe it one hundred and fifty ways. However, what brought me back to reality was the fact that I had just scared this child so much that he might be marked from the event for the rest of his life. I could associate with that look as I had worn it on too many occasions during my elementary school days as I was always the “punching bag” to a bunch of bullies. Now here I was at the age of 52, bullying a kid that wasn’t even old enough to shave. Did I feel cheap? Cheap wouldn’t describe at all how I felt. Disgusted with myself would be more appropriate. Not knowing what this crackpot might do, I guess the “rookie” opted to put the chances on his side and stopped dead in his tracks. I coasted along and just glared at him. He didn’t know what else to do so just looked down at the ground.

I continued on but was no longer in the racing frame of mind. The dogs were almost out of fuel and were running on fumes while I was carrying a metric ton of guilt on my shoulders. I had cooled off by now and that “mad man” episode had passed. I just couldn’t comprehend as to how low I had gone and just wanted to end the day with some dignity left. To do something like this was one of those things that I most detested. I hated those bullies with a passion and had devoted my adulthood defending the “underdog”. To get ahead by taking it out on this young person like I had, was unacceptable. He had given me a run for my money and that made him a real warrior in my books. He had the heart of a lion and was as far as I was concerned a true contender in the making. He did not deserve to have his spirits broken if not destroyed by an old fool like myself. He was too good of a person for that. I had to make amends and felt the need to apologize to him for my bad behavior. I looked back only to see that he had not given up the “fight” and was still on my heels. I smiled within and just said, “God, this kid is persistent!” He didn’t know what to do exactly or if he should attempt another pass so I signaled him to come on by. His leaders trotted along so I released some pressure off my brake so to adjust my speed to his. I was going to take this occasion to talk civil to him but he beat me to the punch. “Excuse me, Sir.” he said sheepishly. “I’m sorry about what happened. This is my first race but I can guarantee you that it won’t happen again.” I could tell that he was being sincere and had learned that “relinquishing the trail” lesson well. I was intrigued by this young hard working musher so out of curiosity, I asked, “Listen son, how old are you?” “Twelve (12), Sir, twelve (12).”

I had taken more than my fair share of punches to the stomach in my life but this knock out blow, sent my knees buckling. This was to be a remake of “David and Goliath” and in this modern version, I was to be the slain giant. I looked away because I didn’t want him to see a grown man cry only to notice that the neck line between his two lead dogs was tangled and this, big time. Somehow, it got twisted around one’s neck and choking the animal while the other end was stuck in its harness dragging his partner. By the purple tongue, I could tell that the initial dog was gasping for air while the other one couldn’t pull because its head was stuck. I didn’t know how long they had been running in this peculiar position but knew that this dangerous situation needed to be addressed and this without delay. “Listen, my young friend.” I said calmly not wanting to alarm him. “You should stop and fix the neckline on your leaders. One isn’t pulling.” To this he pulled over, planted his snow hook and untangled the mess. Within a minute, he was back in the game and just flew by me, running on all “six cylinders”. I watched him go through the finish line in front of me, wondering if I would ever have the honor of sharing the trail with him again. Yup, I had met my match that day and had been reminded of a valuable lesson. You’ve always got to respect your opponent because there is truth to the saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts but rather the size of fight in the dog.”

Between then and the “Award Banquet”, everybody seemed to think that I had run a good race and there was a lot “back slapping” going on. Although true, I just couldn’t enjoy the moment or myself, knowing that I still hadn’t apologized to the “rookie”. So that Sunday morning, I “put my pants on straight” and proceeded to that particular breakfast with the intentions of looking him up. Simply put, I needed to try to make things right with the young fellow. I couldn’t recognize him amongst the crowd till the race organizer, Tenley Bennett started handing out the prize money. Introduced as Sullivan Abbott, this young individual with nerdy looking glasses, walked up to collect his check. Without that bulky winter gear, he even looked smaller, thus making me feel even worse. I might be mistaken about this but he sure looked like one of those guys that would be picked on in school. To add insult to injury, when asked if he had something to say, he started talking and blurred out “ I’d like to give this money to Mr. Murphy because without his help, I would not have been able to run this race.” This kind gesture was, shall we say, just too much for me to handle. He had worked so hard for it. He deserved to at least keep the reward. But no, he had chosen to surrender it to his “mentor” as a sign of appreciation. Well, you know how the story goes. I had this huge lump in my throat and was holding back the tears. If he was man enough to part with his check, I was man enough to part with mine. So, when they gave me my $125.00 prize, I took the time to publicly apologize to young Sullivan, grabbed a nearby pen and signed my “bootee” over to him. “Here my friend,” I told him in all honesty, “you deserve this more than I do. Take it and buy yourself some good mushing gear.” With that I gave him a hug and thought to myself, “Someday my young man, you might just become that true champion this sport needs. You are one of those gems that are “rarely found so consider this an investment in the future.” Somehow, I think he got the message that he had been chosen so to carry on with the great tradition of dog sledding. Trust me folks. I assure you that this is a sure bet. This kid sure has the “shoulders” to take on the world.

Peace on earth to one and all. And remember, collectively we can make a difference.


P.S. Don’t worry about it Fran, somehow we’ll get the money to pay for the property taxes. Something good always comes our way. = -)


Unknown said...

Thanks for the wonderful account of your race. Murf (Larry) and I hope to see you again....we have TONS of questions.

Unknown said...

No problems Irene, I'll be running the CAN-AM 60 this year so we'll get together then. Do you have pictures of Eagle Lake and young Sullivan. I might have another surprise for him in a not so distant future. = -)

Anyway, if pictures are available, let me know.

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