THE “TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT” EXPEDITION
When she looked up at me from her cozy but confined space in the basket, that wonderful cheery smile that she always sports had been replaced by a look of total despair. Those gorgeous but now sad brown eyes were gazing up at me as if to say, “I’m sorry Boss but I just couldn’t go any further.” “That’s OK Gidget,” I told her while patting that cute little white head that was sticking out of the sled bag, “you did your best.”
To say that she had done her best did not nearly qualify the efforts that my little “midget” had put out to be there that day. Just like the other eight “Canadian Snowhounds” that had launched down that starting chute that morning, she had earned the right to mix it up with what the entire Eastern Seashore had to offer. Let’s not kid ourselves, we had chosen to cross swords with the very best and the CAN-AM International Sled Dog Races was where it was at. The fact that we were now at 37 miles into this event and traveling down this 60 mile trail at an average of 3.8 MPH in near snowstorm conditions, strongly suggested that the competition aspect of this race had ended for us. Mother Nature had opted to remind us that she would always have the last word and the tons of white stuff that was dropping from the sky was a true testimony to the fact that she commanded respect. What had started off as an enjoyable trek through the Allagash backwoods was soon to turn into a test of skills and a battle for survival. Not to sound like an alarmist or nothing but when the “weak signal” on your GPS sounds off, this tends to get one’s attention. Now, when you determine that the source of the problem is that the cloud cover is too thick for reception, then you best start thinking about a plan “B”. That was why “Gidget” was hitching a ride in the sled. I had recently read a post “2011 Yukon Quest” journal entry written by Sebastian Schnuelle and had thought that his bagging of dogs to keep them fresh and enthused, was a great strategy. Besides, physically she could no longer contribute to the needed pulling. She stood at 19 inches at the shoulders and we were plowing through 8 inches of fresh thick snow covering a less than packed slushy trail. Now down to six dogs pulling and me running behind to lighten the load, we were crawling at a snail’s pace towards the finish line when near disaster struck.
Around the 42 mile mark, the entire team quit. In this instance, it was not just stopping for me to remove the accumulated ice and snow around their eye sockets. Rather, it was like they were sending me a message that said that they had had enough of this nonsense. When “Sky” and “Jacko” started to dig their own personal snow caves, I knew that it was going to be a long day. When both of them curled up in a ball to take shelter from the elements, I knew then that the sled dog’s survival instinct was kicking in. As for “Rhum”, this was a different story all together. Where the other team members had learned to trot and save some for the duration, my red dog was ignorant to this concept. He was the type of pup that would put it all out and this till he could no longer. In these miserable conditions, he had finally met his “Waterloo”. Here he was, lying down on his side in the snow bank, panting and shivering at the same time. The panting, I knew could be attributed to overexertion but the uncontrollable shaking was what got my attention. Although it looked like an epileptic fit, I knew better and gambled that it was a case of hypothermia. It had to be. The dog had very short fur and he had exhausted all his energy trying his best. While his body had overheated, he had been drenched by a mixture of pouring rain then snow.
After walking down the gangline and telling the other dogs to “park it” as we’d be here for a while, I rushed over and tended to his needs. I wasn’t too sure about the diagnosis but treated him for it anyway. I removed him from the string, lifted him in my arms and walked back where I sat on the sled. I unzipped my jacket, pulled him close to me and provided him with much needed body heat. This was the least I could do for him. After all, I was the one that had gotten us in this mess.
The only one still standing and raring to go, my main leader “JR” turned his head around as if to say, “Now what?” “What are we supposed to do way out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Now that, my dear friend is a good question” I answered, actually speaking to him. “Let me review my notes and I’ll get back to you. For now, we’re going to have to rest a little bit and then we’ll see.”
Looking at their almost snow covered silhouettes and seeing the sad shape that my team was in, for the first time in my mushing career, I was having serious doubts in my capabilities. How could I have let this happen? Surely, it couldn’t be the training. We had done everything right. We had over 1500 miles under our belt for this season and could go out there and average 9.8 MPH on a 30 mile run. The distance was neither a factor as we had put in similar 60 mile practice runs throughout the winter. Mind you that “Corona” virus that they had caught, sixteen days prior to the race, might have had something to do with this ill performance. It had left them somewhat weak and this had to be considered. So if that was the case, why did I not there and then, sway towards caution, swallow my pride and stay at home? I could have done that, I guess, but nooo… I was too stubborn and needed to prove to the world that we were on top of our game. During that first leg of this event, when passing the 23 mile mark and when I had to stop and snack the dogs because they were already slacking off their tug lines, wasn’t this another sign? Now here again, I’m sure that this would have been a good time to reconsider our options. Surely, this would have been the right time to take that decision and scratch. This is so true, especially when my favorite leader “Oumak” started limping to the point where I had to bag him to then drop him off at the checkpoint. Wasn’t this again another clear indication that we should maybe reconsider our position and drop out of the race? Yeah but would have been the challenge in that. The team had worked so hard to make it here that there was no way that I felt right about denying them the privilege of crossing that finish line. Was that the real reason or was it again because I was still too much entrenched with the competitive and “dark side” of racing? Had I forgotten as to why I was doing this sport? Regardless as to where the real answer lied, after weighing all the pertinent factors, when we left that checkpoint and headed out towards the town of Fort Kent in that white-out, I had complete trust in the competence of my remaining seven dogs. It would be a long wet miserable haul but I knew that we were up to the challenge and besides that’s what sleddog racing was all about – Going out there and testing yourself against the powers of nature.
In theory, all this makes for excellent ingredients to a good adventure novel. However, the reality of it all is that when you’re soaked to the bones and you’re literally stranded way out there in the wilderness, one tends to question the reasoning as to why one wanted to continue with this crazy if not mad excursion. As prepared as one might think he is, one really feels small when he looks around and there is nothing out there other than a “wall of snow ” and total quietness. Oh well, I consoled myself, “Mother Nature” had invited a whole bunch of mushers to tango and we had accepted the date. While I was sitting there, waiting to present her with my “dance card”, I would have plenty of time to reassess what was important to me.
Those faithful dogs that were resting in front of me were kind of special. Let’s face it, out of the eight that started this journey that morning, six of them were actual rescues/rejects. Each of these animals had been discarded by their previous owners for whatever reason and had landed on my doorsteps. Although they all had flaws, each one of them brought me a ray of sunshine every morning when I walked in that barn. Over time, they had learned to trust me wholeheartedly and that in my books made it that they were lifelong companions that deserved my respect.
Back at the lodges, although it was quite the simple life, I was happy with the status quo. I had a great wife and a few good friends and you know what? Sharing a moment on the trail or a good conversation over a strong cup of coffee at the “Bunkhouse” was now more my speed and something that I cherished immensely. This evil side of me where I allowed myself to be invaded by that “winning at all cost” attitude was not only ugly but also not the way I had chosen to live when I embarked on this mushing passion a few years ago. Sitting there, watching “Rhum” sound asleep in my arms, pounded that point in my head, loud and clear. Although the weather was awful, I was savoring the moment as this downtime experience was wonderful. It had been a long time since I had the chance to re-acquaint myself with that special feeling that I call “Inner Peace”. That was the bottom line and that in itself, made it worthwhile to have gone through the gauntlet.
I don’t know how long I had been at that location but when the individual from the “Search and Rescue” team showed up on his snowmobile, I had come up with a plan. “Gidget” was now back with her friends and bouncing around, teasing and bugging her teammates. Now rested, they had responded by shaking the snow off their back and were now tugging at the gangline. They allowed me to snack them and although they all ate, most of them would not hydrate. This was to be a push comes to shove moment so I had to take drastic measures for their own good. I straddled the stubborn dogs, shoved their heads backwards and poured bottled water down their throat. Choke, cough, spit it out, it did not matter. Somehow, they would get that much need water. I then opened my sled bag, pulled out my spare and dry wool sweater and made room to eventually bag a still very tired “Rhum”.
“Are you all right? Do you need assistance?” were the words that came out of this person’s mouth when he stopped his machine. “People are getting worried.”
I examined my “rescuer” from head to toe, noticed by his jacket that he was a “Vietnam Veteran” and said in term that he would understand, “We have assessed the situation and have come up with an exit strategy.”
That concerned look changed and this was replaced with an acknowledging smile. “Are you Ex-Army, by any chance?”
“Yeah,” I winked back at him, “something like that. Just radio ahead and advise them that everything is under control but to tell my wife that we’re going to be late for supper. She’ll know what it means.”
Looking at this figure that he could only compare to the “Abominable
Snowman”, he did not pursue the matter. “Be careful out there.” he finished, “And Good Luck.”
“Thanks!” I replied and on that note, I whistled and we “uptrailed”.
The remainder of the trip was still not a cake walk but the team had found their “second wind” and we were again clipping right along. We eventually got to the last “Search and Rescue” station where these individuals suggested that I could stay there if I wanted as they would call for someone to pick me up. It was dark then so they could not necessarily see the displeasure that my face was expressing by that statement. So just to make it perfectly clear, I emphasized the message. “Tell your Command Center that yes we are low on fuel but that we are not declaring an emergency. I repeat, we are not declaring an emergency.”
What these “SAR” people did not know, was that “Rhum” had been wiggling to get out of the bag for a while now and he was ready to go back in the line-up. I re-introduced him to his swing position next to “Gidget”, squeezed his loving head and told him, “It’s been along time coming. Make us proud, Buddy. Take us home.”
It was as if he knew what I was talking about and away he went, putting his shoulder into it. The rest of the team responded positively and welcomed that extra forward momentum.
Tired but most satisfied of the achievement, we eventually crossed the Finish Line with a time that would earn us the not so coveted and somewhat dreaded “Red Lantern”. This did not matter to me nor did I give a “rat’s ass” as to what other mushers would think or say. I was instead like a most proud father that had taken his children to the other side of the extreme, on a most amazing journey. Not only did my adopted kids prove to one and all that they were super athletes, the experience would serve as a reminder to me, myself and I that when I chose to venture in the direction that I did, I had made the right decision. Simply put, of all the crazy escapades this musher had lived through, this one would be archived as the “Triumph of the Human Spirit” expedition. ; -)
Peace on Earth to One and All and remember –
Together, we can make a difference.