Monday, April 21, 2014




            So there he was finally in the starting chute, his sled loaded for “Bear” with twelve dogs banging in their harnesses and jumping up and down trying to pull the dead weight forward. His countdown had come and gone and he had missed his 10:38 start time so to launch on this 250 mile adventure. However, it hadn`t been of his own doing. For some reason, this “Made in China Quick Release” marrying him to the escorting ATV had malfunctioned. While his powerful team was inching this entire odd looking caravan forward, he knew that his trail partners would not go too far down the trail attached to this 700 lbs anchor. The tying of a sled to an ATV to hold back excited dogs while they make their way to the “Start Line” was a commonly used method and one that promoted good control and safety. But in this instance, the chromed release mechanism would not disengage thus a snap decision would have to be made. The stare he gave the man fiddling with the contraption said it all so without saying anything further this gentleman backed away. The musher reached down his left “NEOS” overboot and pulled out his sharp twelve inch bladed “Bowie Knife”. With a flick of the wrist and faster than the eye could see, he sliced that blade through that snub line like he was a man on a mission. Similar to a “nitro fueled dragster” waiting for that “Green” light, the team took off, jolting him forward with plenty of “G Force” to be absorbed. White knuckled and holding on to dear life to the steering bow with his right hand, he threw the handy knife on top of his sled bag. In a single continuous motion, he then reached down with his left hand and recovered his sharply clawed twirly-bouncy out of control snowhook. He grabbed it off the ground, secured it on top of his sled and readjusted himself so to retake control of his over-enthusiastic “runaways”. “Easy Boyz! Easy!” he started commanding, “We`ve got a long way to go and this is not the way we`re going to get there. Let`s slow her down and set ourselves with an easy pace because we`ll need all the spare energy that we can muster at the end of this journey.” The dogs were too wound up and were not responding. They had seen the previous dog team take off and all they wanted to do was “chase the rabbit”. In a sterner voice, he belted out to his most dependable and veteran trail partners, “JR, Merlin, slow the pace down, Boyz! Slow the pace down!!! To this they responded and brought down the team`s speed to a still impressive 12.5 MPH. Now having their attention, he softly continued talking to them. “Easy Boyz,” he accentuated, “Easy!” Through all the commotion caused by the cheering and clapping of the thousands of people lined up along the exit trail on Main Street, the dogs finally recognized his voice and slowed down. “Good Job, you guys! Good Job!” They had now all settled to a trotting cadence, a cadence that they had practiced thoroughly all throughout the previous winter. The dogs were well prepared and here they were for a second year in a row running the 2014 edition of the world famous “CAN-AM Crown International Sled Dog” 250 mile race. He looked at his “12 dog” string and he could feel this huge lump coming up in his throat. He was so proud to see all these misfits work in such harmony that he was having a hard time holding the tears back. Somehow he had to shift his focus so not to start crying. And there they were, the two tiny inexperienced “cheerleaders” doing their thing. “Rah! Rah! Zimboomba!” and all the Bells and Whistles that go with it. Seeing their display of exuberance made him smile. Not really knowing what they had signed up for, “Barbie” in lead next to “JR” and “Lady” next to “Merlin” just behind in swing position, they were thrilled to be there and showing off for the crowd. Pulling like there was no tomorrow, here they were, making super efforts so to try to get the team to run faster. Ears flopping all over the place and pulling sideways “crabby” style, the two “two year olds” were out to prove that at a whopping 40 lbs, they had earned their spot on this world class racing team. They had worked extremely hard during their first full training season and although the musher agreed with them, he still had reservations about their capability of enduring the upcoming 400 kilometer stretch. Tackling the first not so easy “S” curve out of town, his faithful leader funneled the Canadian Snowhounds in the narrow passageway under the International Bridge connecting Fort-Kent, Maine to Clair, New-Brunswick. He did this like the true champion that he was and his “Daddy” complemented him for his effort. “Good Boy “JR”, Good Boy!”

This particular white dog was real special to the musher and there existed a super strong bond between the two of them. Together, over the last seven years, they had shared the trail for over 10,000 miles and had seen plenty of sunrises and just as many sundowns. From “Day One”, the ex-soldier knew that this dog would be quite special. First, the genetics were there. His father, “Piko”, a huge totally white “Seppala Husky” was a strong leader and a champion in his own rights. His mother, “Grizzy”, had been brought back East by a Quebec musher who wanted to bring into his kennel some of “Martin Buser`s” blood line. The mom was also a great lead dog with having as an added bonus, the heart of a lioness. As for the blue eyed terror, “JR” was the kind of puppy that would not sit still and would climb out over a six foot fence just to see what kind of trouble he could find around the corner. This game got pretty old pretty soon so its previous owner got totally discouraged trying to contain him. After throwing the towel into the ring, he had decided to allow the pup to wander off on his own like a homeless child in a village. He had tried his best but no matter what he had done to keep the young dog in check, this little “Houdini” would still manage to escape. This same rambunctious puppy had managed to bore a hole in the ground under a shed and this was to become his home and hiding place. From there he would sprint out and run loose unexpectedly amongst the adult dogs in the dog yard sending them into a frenzy of barking. “There`s nothing I can do about it.” the owner had confided to the ex-military man, “He just won`t let me catch him!” So consequently, this is how this little six week old pup found himself separated from the bitch and his littermates, left alone out there to fend for himself. The instinct to survive, this he had. Dirty from the spring mud, from his vantage point, he would check when it was to be feeding time. Then he would judge as to when it was safe to come out and would dash through the yard looking for leftovers. He would run a series of zig-zag patterns through the annoyed adults and this with sometimes drastic results. I guess you just don`t steal food from a hungry sleddog without subjecting yourself to some consequences. It didn`t matter to little “JR”. He was hungry and would dare challenge the “Big Guys”. After a while of showing so much tenacity, the adults eventually accepted him amongst them and some would leave him some food so he could eat. So anyway, when the then owner told our musher that if he could catch him, he could have him, our friend accepted the “challenge” as he really fancied this little “Tasmanian Devil”. The strategy would not be complicated. He would put food next to the hole under the shed and allow the dog to come out and investigate. Without saying a word, he would sit motionless next to the food and wait till the filthy puppy would poke his small shiny black nose out so to see what was going on. Every day the musher would drive thirty miles to feed his prospect and every day, his prospect would take greater risks at being in the presence of the human. This went on for three weeks then on one beautiful sunny morning, when the Army veteran showed up at the shed, here was his buddy sitting outside his hiding place, wagging his tail waiting for breakfast. “Hey there, little guy, how are you?” he had told the not so white canine, “Is it today that you`re coming home with me?” Like if he had understood, the little tyke answered back, “Ruff, Ruff!” then flopped on his back in a submissive position. For the first time in his young life, he was allowing himself the pleasure of a belly rub. It felt good and I guess he was to realize that some of the human race could be trusted. After eating his breakfast and coming back to see the man, this one picked him up in his arms and off they went to Baisley Lodges. However there was to be a stumbling block. The musher already had five dogs in his barn and his wife didn`t really understand this fascination that he had for this dog sledding. So, he would have to come out with a plan so to introduce the pup to the “Baisley Mob”. Considering that at the time he had just gotten from the same musher, “Mr. Tibbs”, also a good Siberian sleddog and brother to “Piko”, he lied and said that the puppy was “Mr. Tibbs” offspring. Looking at those cute ice-blue eyes and knowing that under all that stink and filth, there was a pure white and loveable little dog, the woman`s heart warmed up, she conceded and welcomed him home. “Well”, she said, “If he`s “Tibbs” son then he should be baptized as “JR”, short form for “Junior”. The name didn`t sound too macho or sleddog like but if this was what it would take to keep peace in the valley, so it would be. Raising the little “rascal” into the air over his head, he did a small personal ceremony and said, “From now on, you little man, you will go by the name of “JR”.

A very intelligent canine, that wager had paid off and the “Dogman” had hit the nail right on the head. His young trail companion soon became a most dependable “Gee-Haw” perfect lead dog. Learning the trade from “Oumak”, a strong huge gray wolf-like racing Siberian, at two years old, “JR” could outrun this co-leader to the point where the old gray boy would get dispirited. He really had the drive and it didn`t take long after that to become the musher`s “go to” man. Over the years, there had been many flair-ups by the “guy driving the sled” but through thick and thin, “JR” had stuck it out and his loyalty and determination had earned him total respect from the man.

And now here they were again, traveling West on the long straight ahead that used to be railroad tracks, heading out to their first Check Point (CP #1) in Portage, Maine. Here they were, again attempting the trip of a lifetime, a trip that had taken thirteen hard years to plan and put in motion. Reviewing in his mind the many events that had occurred during that period of time, he felt a sense of accomplishment, right there at the four (4) mile mark. Him and his “Fur Buddies” were actually back on this trail and this filled his entire body with pride. Of course, being somewhat of a sensitive type, this and the perfect execution of leaving Fort-Kent by the dogs filled him with emotions that he could no longer hold back. Tears of pride and joy started rolling down his cheeks only to freeze somewhere in his scraggly mustache and beard. Riding his drag mat and warming the dogs muscles up with a speed of 7.6 MPH, he was listening to the rhythm of the bootied paws hitting the ground. Just like that little train that thought it could, the musical resonance coming from his dogs feet sang, “We know we can. We know we can.” “Yeah Boyz” he said out loud so they could hear him, “I know you can but that`s not the problem! The problem is with the thirteenth dog, the guy on the runners. Can he tough it out?” And there it was the “Million Dollar Question”. These guys had launched out onto this expedition not really knowing where they were going but trusting that the musher would make the right judgement calls as well as good decisions.

This was not a given for this broken down soldier. Deep inside him, he knew quite well that he wasn`t a quarter of the man he used to be and that he had serious limitations when it came to stamina. He had scratched the previous year from the same event and this had not gone well with him. In his perspective, the “Evil Wolf” had been fed too much and he had visited the “Dark Side” of racing. He knew exactly what he had done wrong then and wasn`t very proud of himself. He had tried to intimidate the competition by playing mind games and then when this didn`t work out, he took it out on his dogs when they were totally exhausted after pulling that soak and wet sled for 127 miles. You know that something is wrong in this man`s head when after crossing a lake where the ice is submerged under one foot of water, he loses it. It wasn`t their fault that it had rained for those two straight days and that he was walking in knee deep slush. It wasn`t their fault that his sled was literally floating and the dogs were practically swimming to get to the other side. No it wasn`t! It had poured steady rain for two days and it had snowed the night in between and the trails were a mess. Mother Nature had dictated the course of action, “shit” would happen and you would have to deal with it with a clear mind set. In hind sight, what needed to be done then was once on the other shore, he should have praised his team for the tremendous effort they had just put forth. He should have stopped, re-evaluate the damages and come up with some sort of a plan so to dry his dogs, his equipment and himself. But “Noooo”, he was in this particular frame of mind where he had forgotten what this sport was all about for him and this ugly attitude of “Winning at all cost” was controlling his actions. He had been running the entire distance without ingesting food or liquids and was chancing that the “Adrenaline Rush” would carry him through to the “Finish Line”. This was not to happen and in a bout of fury, trying to get the dogs to continue pulling, he attempted to lift “Skout” back to his feet. Dead tired and shaking from hypothermia, the sweet harmless googly eyed mongrel just didn`t have in him to stand up. “Come on you fucken bastard, get the fuck up!” the semi-crazed individual, continuously repeated, “Get the fuck up!” But poor old “Skout” just could not stand and wanted to rest. “Get up, I said” now losing it and wanting to make an example of him to the other dogs, “Get up!” And with that statement, he lifted the dog by the harness, he cocked his fist, reeled it back as far as he could and drove it in the side of that poor helpless mutt. Down it went, knocked out cold. In an instant, something real strange happened at that moment. He had physically felt the pain inflicted to the animal all through his entire body and he was hurting. In repugnance, he backed off to cool down and sat on his sled glaring at the motionless body. The shock had now set in and his vision started to blur. When he finally did find some focus, here was his long lost friend, “Leonard Lanteigne”, his mentor and master dog heeler, coming out of the woods accompanied by his faithful white wolfdog, “Vince” Senior. He didn`t say anything but the glare he was giving his understudy truly stated how disgusted he was with our musher`s performance. The spiritual man walked over to and kneeled down to check if the animal was dead. He examined and caressed the dog`s head and in the Malecite language called upon the ancestors to forgive the ex-soldier and to please try to turn a blind eye on what had just happened. He then gave a dirty look at the “miniscule of a man” sitting on the sled and articulated in a commanding voice the following order, “Your dogs need to rest and so do you. When this is done and your mind is not so clouded, you will make the right decision.” Leonard stood back up, picked up his walking stick and faded out back into the bushes leaving the “Spirit Dog” behind. There in his head, the “Good Wolf took on the Evil one and after quite the encounter, this wicked creature limped away, looking for a place to lick his wounds. With the pounding of his heart beating like a fast ceremonial drum in his inner ears, our musher woke up from his nightmarish deep sleep, lying on his sled bag and this to the sound of snowmobile noises. Still not totally awake and alarmed, he thought that his team was going to get run over but this was not to be the case. It was the Search & Rescue (S&R) patrol that had been dispatched to come and look for him. “Are you all right?” one of the guys had asked him. “Yes” he replied, scratching his head. “What time is it?” he queried. “2:30 PM” the other individual answered. Still confused, the groggy man then asked, “What day is it?” The two S&R personnel looked at themselves a bit puzzled and replied “Well Gino, it`s still Sunday.” The nap that he had taken felt like he had slept for days and the backache further accentuated those facts. He stiffly got up and while stretching, he looked at his canines on the gangline and they were up and raring to go. “Skout” who was at the best of times reserved and timid was also ready to continue but the man could see that he had some apprehension. He was looking away, avoiding eye contact and trying to make himself invisible so not to be the recipient of another beating. This made it that the PTSD plagued veteran just couldn`t hold them back and right there in front of witnesses, he started balling his eyes out trying to ask for forgiveness from one of his best “four legged” friend, “Skout”. Rubbing his soft golden head and holding it tight to his chest, he kept on sobbing and repeating, “I`m truly sorry, Buddy! How can you ever forgive me?” The dog accepted this apology and didn`t seem to hold a grudge. However, our musher did live with a certain code of ethics and would stick by them. It was written in the general rules of the CAN-AM and they were quite clear when it came to the mistreatment of animals on the trail. Although his actions had not been found out, he took it upon himself to do the right thing and subsequently disqualified himself. There were no doubts in his military mind. He had done wrong and would suffer the consequences. “Listen Boys!” he said to the S&R patrol after standing up straight and dusting himself off, “This race is over for us so let`s find a way to get ourselves extracted out of here.” “Are you sure?” they had tried to persuade him, “Your dogs seem to have enough energy to continue on to Maibec.” He nodded in agreement with them but it was the principle behind this. He had victimized that poor loyal pooch and he would live with the shame of failing to finish the race but most importantly he would live with the shame of failing his dogs.

And with this episode and a few more personal let-downs, our musher`s frame of mind would nose dive into an uncontrollable “tail spin” only to crash and burn back into a serious chronic depressive state. It had been a few years since he had felt that bad but throughout the spring of 2013, there seemed to be nothing that would help him pick his socks up. He saw himself as a complete failure and this for a man that had always been an overachiever, was the ultimate bitter pill to swallow. No matter how he sliced and diced the pickle, he just couldn`t accept this personal defeat. The more he ran the scenario in his head, the more he got mad at himself. The more he got mad at himself, the more he could not sleep. The more he could not sleep, the more he became miserable. Feeling totally run down and lacking energy, this would once again trigger this ever present urge to end his life. Continuously fighting this impulse, he would try to get to the next day by adapting and repeating the Alcoholics Anonymous motto of “living sober for the next 24 hrs”. This seemed to help but what did keep him alive was the question as to what would happen to his dogs if he carried out the “deed”. These guys were more than sleddogs. They were a family who lived happy lives on the seven acre property. To these “Rescues” this was their forever home and everyday brought a new and fun adventure to them and our musher. Separating them or having them euthanized was something that he would not even come close to entertaining therefore he would find the courage in that thought to carry on. When the consideration of suicide would invade him, he would pick his sorry ass off the couch and walk to the barn. It didn`t matter what time of day it was, the lodgers of that building were always happy to see him and would demonstrate this by jumping up and down in their stalls and sporting big smiles on their faces. He would let them loose and walk the “Puppy Trail” and watch them play and frolic about. Spending some quality time with the pack, one would always get the privilege of witnessing one of the so many crazy antics that would take place. This for sure would guarantee to lift anyone`s spirit. It was in their nature to play amongst themselves and if one took the time to observe them interact, one might just end up enjoying an honest to goodness “belly laugh”.

This did help but he was in a deep rut mentally and just didn`t have it in him to go out there and put in a productive day. His psychologist was really concerned about this set-back and was to suggest that he visit his family physician so to start him back on the path of using sedatives so to help with this depression. This sent a flare-up of anger as the out of season musher had already been down that path twice and had not enjoyed the “out of body” experiences associated with tranquilisers. He also could recall the latter years of his military career where as a results of a back injury, he got hooked on pain killers and amphetamines. Yes, in the beginning, the doctor had done well fixing and easing the associated pain but the then Army Man, got hooked to the enjoyable euphoric feeling that accompanied the swallowing of prescribed medication. The procurement was really simple actually. One just needed to go to the local “MIR”  ( Military Emergency Clinic) when his favorite medic was in and one just had to say, “Hey Doc, I`m kind of feeling run down these days!” and with a quick unreadable signature, a free “30 to 60 day” supply of “Smarties” could be obtained. Then there was when he got out of the military and totally rebelled against the system. Yup, he really hated the Army and would not have anything to do with it. Yeah, he had been put through the meat grinder during his last years of service and it was their fault and he needed to forget. So after more than fifteen (15) years of sobriety, he changed his “crutch” from the prescribed pills back to the consumption of alcohol. This would not numb the “ghosts” in his fried brain nor did it satisfy the cravings. So to make things worse, he added to his repertoire the recreational usage of cocaine. This went on for a better part of five years and at the end of that period, he would drink like a fish at night and would straighten himself up in the morning by doing a couple of lines of coke. He didn`t need somebody to tell him that he had a problem. He still had enough smarts to realize that he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. At 280 lbs of whale blubber, every morning he would wake up and hate the person looking back at him in the mirror. Those were terrible years and he lived in the darkness of that tunnel, walking blindly forward, never thinking that he`d see a light at the end of it. Then one day, he was given a German Shepard puppy and this beautiful dog sledding world opened before his eyes. Hitching Mosqua in front of an old antique of a sled, they would go out there and play in the snow. The poor dog was all alone so our “wannabe musher” would have to run behind to keep moving. This jogging wouldn`t last too long simply because the guy was way too fat and extremely out of shape. Something needed to be done about this situation so he quit the booze and the drugs “Cold Turkey”. It wasn`t easy, let me tell you. When you get the “DTs” after leaving the bottle behind for thirty (30) some days and you`re all cramped up from the cravings for the drugs, you do visit the closest thing to hell. The mind plays serious games with you in an attempt to trick you into a relapse and it`s a lot easier to give in and play with the devils. That`s when his Malecite Indian friend, a Korean Veteran had come into the man`s life. Leonard Lanteigne had also experienced the horrors of war and had walked around with what they then called “Battle Fatigue”, a name then used and equivalent to the modern day “Post Traumatic Stress Injury”. He had taken our musher under his wing and had taught him some of the methods of the “shamans” so to help him deal the evil entities occupying the man`s head. It did not cure the problem but it did give him a sense of direction as to where the light in that dark tunnel might be. “Use the power of your imagination,” he would suggest to his pupil during “Sweat lodge” ceremonies. “There you will find strength and creativity to ward off those evil spirits.” Leonard Lanteigne had been a big help for the better part of five years but unfortunately, cancer had claimed his life. Our musher had never forgotten the teachings of the elder veteran and lots of times, when he would need some uplifting, he would retreat to a quiet place to meditate and would visit with his Malecite Indian friend.  He had adapted this simple evasion technique for when he would be out there alone driving dogs where the peace and quiet out there gave his brain the chance to rest. When sledding, as an additional benefit, every time he felt that a crisis was about to invade him, he would concentrate hard and would play happy silly games in his mind. At the best of times, some were foolish and even childish but they had the effect of short-circuiting what was bothering him. It wasn`t perfect by all means but it did provide him with some form of temporary relief. “Hey,” he had concluded, “the brain does it on its own. Whether you`re in control or not, it will play mind games with you. You might as well entertain it in a positive fashion. So there was a plausible solution to this brain injury - When facing certain adversities, “Gino, Go to your happy place!”

This seemed to work but it was not a cure. Living with PTSD was a daily struggle with many up and downs and all around. He would get some good days and during those he would try to capitalize and enjoy them. However and whatever the incident might be that would trigger the hyper-vigilance and a bout of anxiety, he could rest assured that the “Ghosts” would come and visit him at night. Faithful to their rendez-vous, they would. He would fight them off in his dreams and would wake up sweating bullets, needing to change his undershirt. On his bad days after not sleeping for a few nights, it would take a lot of energy just to walk to the “Bunkhouse” and make some coffee. Living in “Zombie” land, one would get discouraged and get totally depressed. Tired of living like this, it was easy to start thinking dark cynical thoughts. Like I said in a couple of paragraph earlier, the year 2013 was for a large part, another very gloomy period of our musher`s life. He got terribly depressed and nothing seemed to matter to him anymore. There he was once again with that “thought” and there he was trying real hard to convince himself to give it another “24 hours” to think about it.

Then on the 11 Aug 2013, while he was sitting there on the “needed” chair, all alone in the attic of his shop, looking at the “noose and rope” swinging in the wind, here again trying to muster enough courage to do the “deed”. While concentrating on this awful thought, this was unexpectedly interrupted by a small miracle. His mother was shouting his name outside and looking for him. All excited she wanted to tell him the news that his niece had given birth to a healthy daughter and that he was now the proud great uncle to this bundle of joy. This filled him with warmth and a new renewed desire to live. That evening, holding that new born baby in his arms, sort of made him realize that there were still some good things to look forward to in life and one of them was to give this little “angel” a dogsled ride when she was older. Walking out of that elevator that night after the visit, he had somehow managed to push the devils in his head out of the way to the side. That evening he had decided that he would meet them there and then on their own stomping ground out there in the backwoods of Allagash. Those little evil green elves with “camo” paint that he had messed with his brain back then during his first attempt at the CAN-AM 250, were a figment of his imagination. And if by any chance they did decide to come back for a second round, well let`s just say that they weren`t going to meet the same wimpy musher. Instead they would meet “What he truly was” and that would be the other side of him, the “Warrior”. “Gino,” speaking to himself while driving back to Baisley, “You`ve been through worse shit than this and came out of them alive and smarter! Now get your ass in gear and get her done!”

Bright and early the next morning, while it was still cool and fresh, the Canadian Snowhounds knew that something was up. He had backed up the trailer to its usual position and called out the orders. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it`s once again that time of the year. This year`s objective is to FINISH the 250!!!” It was as if they knew what he was talking about. They were barking and howling and banging at their doors to get out and get in on some of the action. “JR” he instructed his loyal leader, “get your troopies together and mount up.” They knew the drill and two at the time after being set loose, they ran to the trailer and without a single miss, all went to their respective “dog boxes”. “All right Boyz”, he thought to himself while driving to destination, “we are going to use a different strategy this year and it`s going to be somewhat heavy-going. Let me take this opportunity to apologize right here right now for the pain and suffering you are about to encounter. It is necessary and at the end, we will all benefit from the efforts. At the trailhead, the ramp was lowered, the ATV was pulled out and the serious training was started.

Through the autumn months, the mileage on the dogs started piling up, their feet were getting “leather tough” and surprisingly enough no one sustained any injuries. This was a good thing as he was of the “old school” and figured that booties were made to protect the dog`s feet if and when it had an injury there. In early December, by the time the ground had a good base of snow, it was time to up the distances way past twenty-five (25) miles. Now this is where the machine started to falter as most sleddogs can put in a twenty (20) run but it takes a special athlete to endure the longer thrity (30) to sixty (60) mile outings. The qualities needed by these dogs are that they can endure the pain and fatigue while continuing to run till they are asked to stop. To have all your twelve (12) dogs capable of doing this is possible but most of the time, those who get this type of performance are professionals that have larger kennels and have the luxury of choosing from a pool of 50 to 200 dogs. Our musher was in no way in that same category. Out of his twenty-four (24) dogs, some were semi-retired, some were permanently injured and some were just plain old couch potatoes. So when it came time, to put the racing team together the picking were slim and he was left with the possibility of sixteen (16) candidates to fill twelve (12) spots. The training had gotten harder and the miles were accumulating by the hundreds by the week. Day in and day out, the racing team was doing its thing and it was getting painfully exhausting. Warm spells or freezing weather, sunny days and blizzardy nights, they were to be given a taste of every aspect of what the harsh winters out there in Northern Maine could offer. The dogs had lost all enthusiasm and now were considering this pulling, hard work. During one blistering outing, the musher had managed to catch a severe case of frost bite. As a result, three fingers, two toes and yes the tip of his penis had turned black and the skin was peeling. Did he care? No he didn`t. He was driven and was driving his dogs hard. He had vowed that his team would be up to the task when they would show up in Fort-Kent and this would be achieved. The more they ran the more he ran. The entire thirteen (13) dogs traveling together were getting mighty powerful, well disciplined and in great shape. As an added benefit, our musher, with all that fresh air and physical activity, would get his “daily fix” of endorphin hormones and this “runner`s high” would carry him through to the next day. When he`d go to bed “real early”, other than getting leg cramps once  in a while, he would sleep like a baby all through the night. Life when he was in “training mode” was pretty decent.

Do not ever think that the reason I`m peaceful is because I forgot how to be violent!”  That`s what was going through his mind after driving by the unconscious individual that was lying there in the snowbank. Yeah, he had asked real nice like but he had to eventually take a stance. You see, to run dogs, you need trails and for that reason, you have to go out there and pack some down with a snowmobile. It is tedious expensive work but somebody has to do it. Anyway, on a training run in mid-December, here we were at a point where the final selection for the racing team would have to be made. They were down to fifteen (15) contenders as young “Vince” had pulled a “ham string” and would have to be sidelined. So on this particular outing, the dogs were clipping along when suddenly, the white surface of the trail started to get real large red spots. Instantly, he recognised that one of the team members had injured himself so he stopped to investigate. It hadn`t taken long to find out, who it was. His newest adoptee and most hard working wheel dog was standing there and blood was oozing from under his right back foot. He deeply planted his two snowhooks and rushed to the injured animal. “What`s wrong there Jimbo?” he asked him almost in panic, “What happened?” He didn`t wait for an answer as there was no time to fiddle about. The red fluid was spreading pretty fast and we were now dealing with a one (1) foot diameter mess. He lifted the injured mongrel`s paw and noticed this huge deep transversal cut in its main pad. This was serious and there was no time to waste. He got to his knees and applied direct pressure. After doing this for about five minutes, the bleeding seemed to be slowing down. During that time, a few things ran through his mind. “OK, I guess his season just came to a stand still.” “OK, I`ve got the First-Aid kit in the sled. Now that`s a good thing!” And of course, what was it that caused this injury?” “Hold on tight there Big Guy”, he instructed the dog while he opened the satchel that was adorned with a Red Cross, “We`ve got what we need here to fix you up.” After bandaging him up most skillfully, he removed the tall lanky heavy hound from the gangline and put him in his sled bag. “Stay here and hold on tight.” As he had been walking towards the sled, he had noticed some brown things protruding through the snow so decided to check it out. Walking maybe twenty (20) feet back, he recognized that object as a piece of broken beer bottle. He picked it up and while doing so, he found a whole bunch of pieces of broken glass. This did not sit well with him at all. Who was the idiot that would do such a thing? After digging with his mittens and cleaning the mess, he went back to his sled and while looking at those sad disappointed doggy eyes of his patient, still very upset he called it out “JR, Barbie, uptrail!

It hadn`t been a week since the incident when after a big “snow dump” he would have to go and groom his trails. He was traveling in this particular area called the “Tadpole” trail and was riding his “Skandic” ski-doo side-saddle. There was a reason for that and it was simple. You had to travel under spruce trees and while you did this, the snow packed branches would be shaken and the snow would drop on the driver. He was tired of having his crotch wet and cold from straddling the seat so had adapted this side-saddle style so to reduce the amount of melting snow to the crotch area. It was a Saturday, it was sunny and warm and things were going fine till he met up with two snowmobilers blocking “his” trail. There they were lying on their machines, soaking in the rays and drinking beer. By pure coincidence, it was the same place where “Jimbo” had cut his foot and from what he was seeing, these two “gents” might be the ones that had caused the dog to get injured. The facts were there. They had been stopped at this location for a while from the amount of beer bottles that were spread all over the trail, right there. It  wasn`t bad enough that they were throwing them there, the game as it would seem was to see if they could break them while trying to hit them. His blood started to boil and he could feel himself fill with anger. He tried controlling his temper and really tried to ask them politely to move off the trail so he could pass… “Listen Boyz, what are the chances that you let me go by?” The one that seemed to be the “Ring Leader” piped up and said, “Hey, we`ll move when we`re good and ready!” This was not what our “Warrior” wanted to hear. “Listen Boyz, I`m just going to ask once again. Could you please move out of the way so I can pass!” That same arrogant little prick of a bastard, sat up straight on his “Arctic Cat”, finished the last gulp of his bottle and threw it on the pile where the other empties had ended. “Smash”, it sounded as it broke into tens of pieces. Real proud of this accomplishment, he looked back at our ex-soldier and with a shit eating grin, he boldly said, “We`ll move when we`re good and ready. Besides old man, what the fuck are you going to do about it? You ride your ski-doo like a girl!” Well I would suggest that this was to be a “Big Mistake”, I mean a really really “Big no brainer of a Mistake!” I guess he figured there were two of them and only one of him so they had control of the situation. But the musher had had just about enough of this bullshit. He walked over to his challenger and without the slightest of warnings, he delivered a one to remember blow to the “Kid`s Head”. “Wham!”, that`s all it took. Cold cocked, the now “rag doll” folded onto itself and fell in the snowbank. He put his hands back into his pockets, turned to the other and calmly said, “When your buddy wakes up, ask him if I hit like a girl? Now, move out of the way so I can pass.” All of a sudden there was a great sense of co-operation and this “road blocker” was scrambling to get his snowmobile started. “One last thing,” the satisfied man instructed, “I`ll be  back down this way in about an hour and if I see the slightest trace of broken beer bottles, you my young friend will be my next victim if I ever meet you again. Do I make myself perfectly clear?” To this the shaking young man answered “Yes Sir, it`s perfectly clear.” On that note, the “trail groomer” started his ski-doo and continued on his route.

Like I said, things would happen and you would have to deal with the shit. Of course, who could forget the infamous Christmas Eve Traditional night run. Now here was a dumb-ass stunt that turned out to be an interesting doozy of an evening. He was out there putting a second back to back forty-five (45) mile training run with a six hour layover in between and the conditions warranted that the dogs break trail in knee deep snow. Since it was in fact Christmas Eve, like every other years, he would take this occasion to stop at a certain spot where he knew that this family of coyotes hung out and called this their “turf”. He had been doing this for seven (7) years and it had become an annual practice. This was not known to many simply because coyotes had the reputation of killing deer and the local trappers had snares all over the place so to catch them in an attempt to eliminate the population. In his way of thinking, if he provided them with a meal then they would get a chance to eat one more day without venturing to find food at the “traps”. That was the theory but this time the practice would be totally different. That night he didn`t have any meat so he had decided that he would treat his “friends” with high quality Inukshuk dog food. He had stopped where he thought the canine cousins might be hanging out and had ripped the bag open only to spread the kibbles all over the trail behind him. Once done, he put the empty bag in his sled, put his arctic mittens back on, looked behind at all the pellets spread over the trail and virgin snow and said to the illusive animals “Merry Christmas and enjoy.” Standing on his runners, he turned around again facing his lead dogs, whistled and called on his trail partners to move out. “JR, Nikita, uptrail!” The team took off but understandably they were tired from the punchy trail and the two huge strenuous work-outs. Maybe five (5) miles further, the entire string of dogs stopped dead in their tracks and flopped down on the trail. “Come on you guys,” he told them, we`ve only got another eleven (11) miles to go before we get to the truck!” This fell into deaf ears. “OK” he thought to himself, trying to remain calm, “maybe they need a rest so best snack them now!” With this reflection, he pulled out the “goody bucket” and fed all his team. Without leaving one single trace, all of them gulped down the food presented in front of them. After waiting fifteen (15) minutes for them to rest, it was again time to proceed. “OK Boyz and Girls, let`s move out. JR, Nikita, uptrail!” Nothing! Nobody moved. “Listen guys we can`t stay here all night. Now, uptrail!!!” Again nothing happened. “OK,” he said to himself, “Now what?” A bit miffed, he walked to the front of line, grabbed the neckline uniting the two leaders and started dragging them so to motivate them. JR knew that this might be a prelude to a tongue lashing from the musher so started to move forward to follow. However, his co-leader would not go anywhere. She would walk two (2) or three (3) steps only to stall again. Our possibly stranded man tried a few more times but to no avail. They just wouldn`t continue on. Sitting in front of them, trying not to blow a gasket, he questioned if it was because they could not see the trail that they would not advance. “This might be the problem!” he thought as the dogs kept looking backwards. But then again, if they turned around, they would have to backtrack and travel at least twenty-two (22) miles so to get to their trailer and dog boxes. He knew quite well that it is never good practice to turn around in a trail as it promotes bad habits of not wanting to continue moving forward. But in this instance, he was desperately looking for a solution so to get back so against his better judgement, he decided to spin the team around. This worked and the convoy started moving. They were clipping right along but all of a sudden, they got nervous and were on full alert. A couple of them started growling while others were reluctant to advance. Then it happened. “Nikita” slammed on the brakes and cowered right there trying to make herself as small as possible. “JR” took a stance and from what the musher knew of him, it was to protect the bitch next to him. The rest of the gang were snapping their heads left, right and center and were barking softly, not too sure as to what was happening. “Humm!” the now fully alert ex-soldier pondered, “What the hell is that all about?” He shined his headlamp in front of the team and recognized that this was the area where he had fed that family of coyotes. “Yike, Yike,” their screechy vocal sounds echoed from both sides in the bushes.

When its pitch dark out there in the woods and you hear a pack of nasty hungry coyotes, growl and bark at you, you tend to take notice. When you shine your headlamp to see where they are and you see several pairs of beady little red eyes stare right back at you without blinking, you wish you were somewhere else. But when seven (7) or eight (8) of them start running circles around your team and some are brave enough to come within a foot of your dogs and snap their teeth at them, then it`s getting too close for comfort and it`s time to take action. The musher started screaming at the attackers, waving his hands in the air frantically and stomping his feet kicking snow in their direction. This did seem to get their attention and they backed off to plan their next move. They all retreated except for this huge grey one (and today, the woodsman still says that it was a coyote/wolf hybrid). He was standing his grounds in front of “JR” and “Nikita”, leaning forward and snarling at both of them, presenting them his nice shiny white fangs. There was no way he would back down and JR figured that he could take him on and was growling back and banging in his harness so to get a piece of this strong wild beast. “JR,” the man screamed from the top of his lungs, “STAY!” That`s all it took to take control over the situation. Both side of the confrontation line, stopped whatever they were doing and it was complete silence. Complete silence except for our grey friend in front. He hadn`t moved, was still spewing fire furiously and now he was dribbling white drool from the sides of its mouth where it froze under its throat before it could hit the ground. “Listen Pal!” the more than infuriated man explained to the leader of the opposing pack, “If you want to make it personal, here I come!” He unzipped his sled bag, grabbed the big “Pulaski” fire axe and by its handle, made it spin on its head in his right hand. “You want a showdown, let`s get at her!” He walked to the front putting himself between his white lead dogs and the “Alpha Dominant” grimacing male. He didn`t know if it was the bright beam from his “Lupine” headlamp that blinded him or the fact that this huge dark shadowy figure, wheeling a supersized tomahawk was intimidating it, but the coyote, quieted down and looked sideways. “Listen Big Fellow, I understand that you guys want to protect your food but if you give us half a chance we`ll be out of your hair in a matter of seconds.” The now calmer animal, put its ears down and hid its tail between its legs. The musher moved forward towards it and it backed off. He kept moving towards the cringing creature and it gave in and allowed them a free pathway. Turning to his dogs, he instructed his leaders to come. “OK “JR”, OK “Nikita”, let`s go. Uptrail!” This was not to happen. “Nikita” was still trembling from the experience and was scared shitless. “It`s OK little girl.” he reassured her as he bent over to unhook her from the line, “I think you`ve had enough for one night.” Not only had she had enough for one night, time would tell that she had been so traumatised by this experience that she would never again run lead in front of a team. It was to be a sad day for the Canadian Snowhounds. She had led them for two years and was the best hope for replacing the aging “JR”. However, the encounter had proved to be too much. So that Christmas Eve, here he was after walking the dogs way past the danger zone trying to figure out who might have the “balls” to take on a leadership role to replace her. In the past season, he had toyed with other prospects but he mostly depended on “Niki”. So that night trying to get back, he was substituting other dogs in lead but wasn`t having too much success. “Barbie” in a few more months, might mature enough to become a good little leader. She had the full potential but not that night. She was still a bubblehead of a teenager and after the incident, she was just too excited and just wanted to go back and play with her cousins. He tried “Miko”. That didn`t work. He exchanged him for “Keno” and that was even worse. He looked down the line and the only one that was looking up at him, wagging his tail, was “Schrek”. Here was this untested rescue that seemed to want to volunteer for the job. The man wasn`t too certain if it would work but “What the hell, he`d give him a shot. “Schrek” had come out of his shell since he had been adopted just ten (10) months ago. With a scratch behind the ear and some tender loving guidance, he had evolved from a scared fear bitter to a trusting and devoted sleddog. The patience and caring for the animal had paid off as without any doubt, he had carved himself a place in the racing team. “What do you think there young man, do you think you can “drive this boat?” The young dog didn`t have a clue as to what the man said but trusted him. After very little hesitation, he allowed himself to be guided to the front next to “JR”. When they were both hooked up, the dogman looked at the veteran leader and told him to behave. He knew quite well that his old trusted friend, “JR” had one terrible design flaw. He loved to intimidate other male dogs, especially if he thought that he`d be losing his job out front. All those that had tried out for the position had all backed off. The musher didn`t speak “doggy” but knew that something always went down out front as his buddy “JR” had a way about him that threatened all male prospects.  “Listen “JR,” as he squeezed their heads together, ”if we`re going to make it home for Midnight Mass, we`re going to need a bit of teamwork. On that note, he gave both a path on the head and went back to his sled. “JR, Schreky! Uptrail!” It took a couple of hundred feet for the trainee to find his footing but within half an hour, he was matching the veteran, stride for stride. “Well, I`ll be damned!” the happy man smiled to himself, “A Christmas Miracle! Somebody is looking after me up there! They`ve sent me a dog that can keep up the pace with “JR” and one that his main leader can tolerate.”

Anyway, not being a church going type of individual, his 78 year old mother was singing that night and he had promised her that he would attend mass so to hear her perform. She was a worrywart and not seeing him safe at home when she left, he knew she would not feel good till she heard from him. So after putting the tired team to bed, he was late and wouldn`t have time to change. Dirty Carhartt with all its smells, he went to church dressed like a slob. On his way there, he rewound this particular event in his head and admitted to himself that feeding wild animals like he had been doing over the years was a bone head of an idea but taking on that “Wolf” gave him quite the “Adrenaline Rush”. “God, I feel alive!” he deliberated while opening the huge door to this Holy house while he walked in, just in time. The local priest was just about to walk down the central aisle from the back to the “Altar” but stopped the procession. The two men were long time acquaintances so he delayed the opening ceremony by allowing our musher to proceed in front of him. “Go ahead Gino,” he spoke out with a big smile, “Your mother will be happy to see you!” And she was. When she saw him appear still dressed in his dirty overalls, she didn`t care as to what the rest of the snazzy dressed audience thought. He had kept his promise and you could hear how happy she was by the sound of her voice that overpowered the rest of the choir.  

Then who could forget the “Wilderness 100 Mile Race”, in Greenville, Maine. I`m sure, he didn`t! Yessssss, it was “Show Time” and the racing season was on. It was now the beginning of February 2014, the dogs had over 1000 training miles in their legs and our musher like them, was in tiptop shape. He had looked at the competition, had sized them up and had a pretty good idea as to where he would finish. A lot of the “Big Names” of the East Coast were there so he was pretty excited to cross swords with them. It had snowed a plenty in January but a mild spell with lots of rain had come along just to ruin everything. The organisers had been concerned about the lack of snow but a few days earlier, they did get about four (4) inches of the white stuff and the event would go on. Same procedure as at many other events, the determined sled driver with his eager team, left the starting chute and took off for this 160 kilometer trek.  By then, little “Barbie” had been co-leading with “JR” for a month now and while she wasn`t too sure about what her responsibilities were, she could keep up with the veteran and this without ever giving him an inch. He had been impressed with her drive and determination so was giving her a chance to experience her role in a racing scenario. As long as her sister “Lady” was right behind her, she would play “chase” and would have fun in front. “Crash, Bang, Get up!” this sliding sideways and ending with an upside down sled was to happen twice within the first couple of miles of this snaky forested trail. Under that thin layer of snow was pure glare ice. The trees were plenty and the rested dogs were eating up this stretch at “Mach” speed. “Slow down, you guys” he shouted after picking himself up for the second time. “This is not a sprint race!” He stomped on his “Claw” brakes and its carbide tips dug in somewhat and this managed to convince them to slow down. He had a planned strategy and this included not to burn them out in the first (50) miles. After all, this was the first event on the calendar. He had lots of new recruits on the gangline so he judged that it would be better to ease into the season so to check out what he had under the hood. He had allowed two teams to pass him and things were going smoothly, so he thought.

Disaster was lurking around the corner and he didn`t have the slightest clue what that next curve would bring. Some and I should qualify this by saying “most” that travelled down this windy icy segment that day called it anything but a safe trail. To this date, the best description to visualize what the competitors had to negotiate going down that steep hill would be to compare it to the “Bobsled” track at the Olympics. “What a crazy way to begin a race!” he said to himself braking with both feet on his brake. “Whoever designed this never ran dogs nor considered that the mushers were running twelve (12) fresh dogs and that at the best of times, it`s hard to control their speed when they launch out. This is what he was thinking but the main focus would have to be on controlling the team. They were still going a bit too fast for his liking but after that huge 180 degree left turn, things went from bad to worse. Little “Barbie” and her cheerleading friend, “Lady” heard something and got excited and totally out of control. They started pulling real hard and edged the rest of the team who joined in. A surge of power was felt under his vibrating feet and there was no way the brakes would hold them back. “What the Fuck?” our worried friend ruminated. “Slow down for Fuck`s sake!” he shouted. But this they did not hear. They were like a “Thirteen Man” bobsled team with him being the “brakeman”. Just past a treeline, he realized what the excitement was all about. Down below them, on this steep decline after a sharp right switchback turn, stood a cluster of entangled and barking dogs. They were all over the place but most notably, they were completely blocking the way. He didn`t want to hit through that mess like a bowling ball through bowling pins so evasive actions needed to be taken. Grabbing his “Critterwood” snowhook with his left hand and holding on tight to the steering bow with his right one, he threw his sled to its left side and himself on his belly on the ice so to try to slow the team down. “Crack” he heard on impact, while he was being dragged down the hill. Still holding on to the snowhook by its handle, he was pushing its sharp claws on the hard surface hoping that they would find something to grip.  This manoeuver had not really worked and they were still speeding down towards imminent disaster. Then “Bang”, everything came to a dead stop. The snowhook had caught something real solid, a tree stump to be more precise, and I`m sure if the dogs would have been wearing dentures, all of them would have popped out of their mouths. The shock was rough and the jolt propelled our “brakeman” still forward only to instantly stop over the embedded snowhook. “Crack!” he heard for a second time and from not being able to catch his breath, he knew that it wasn`t his sled that was broken. If this was not a good indication, the excruciating pain coming from his left side was a good clue that there was something wrong with his ribs. He managed to get up and went to see what this commotion was all about. The first thing he saw was Becki Tucker trying to climb out of this extremely steep embankment. She was having a rough time and kept sliding down because of the hard crystalized snow. Eight (8) of her dogs were over this somewhat “cliff” and the other four (4) were dangling over the edge trying to not slide further down. This was at about the same time, his runaway team had come to a dead stop. She  had met “JR” face to face and had yelled at him for him to “Stay”. The way they standing there, her on her “fours” and if this would have been under “normal” circumstances, they were so close nose to nose that you would have thought they wanted to kiss. Further looking down the embankment, here was another musher, Sally Manikian trying to free her sled from the bushes where it had landed. All her team was down there and there was only one way out and this was to climb out of there and bring the dogs with her. Then in all this mix, a third dog team was in the melee. Steve Crone had managed to not go over and was helping out the best he could to get the other mushers out of trouble. His dogs were tangled up with some of Becki`s team and with all the chaos that was going on, a huge gaggle-fuck of close to thrity-six dogs had to be dealt with.

It was like you see at a baseball game when the umpire calls a player “safe at home plate”. The “Warrior” turned around to look at his team, swung his arms in the same motions but instead of calling “safe”, he belted out “Stay!”. His twelve (12) companions knew he meant business so they all sat there in a bunch and waited for further instructions. With the assistance of three Forest Rangers who had showed up on their snowmobiles, the three stuck dog teams were eventually sorted out and sent on their way, leaving our musher on the side of that cliff to fend for himself. Holding his side, he managed to line his dogs back out and continue on. He looked at his “GPS” and saw that he had wasted close to an hour helping the stranded dog teams out. He was at the 4.7 mile mark of this event and if this was not an indication that his race was over for him, the pain coming from the left side of his rib cage would suggest it strongly. He would have to see what this throbbing was all about so when he found the first flat part on the trail, he anchored his team and felt the aching area. He could feel that something was out of “whack” but wasn`t too sure what it was. He knew that it had something to do with his ribs so he lifted both of his arms over his head and with his right hand, he clutched his left elbow and in a clock wise motion rotated his torso. While doing this he filled his lungs, expanding them to their fullest with air and made himself cough on the inside. This provided positive results and instant relief. “Crack” they again went and the misaligned parts of the ribs went back into their original places and the pain was somewhat reduced. “Note to self,” he deliberated, “I guess when we get back, I`ll have to pay a visit to our family doctor. One thing is for sure, I won`t be double poling (a ski pole method so to help the team to move forward) for a little while yet. That would be for sure. He had a hard time holding on to the steering bow with his left hand, never mind “poling”.

Hobbling down the trail, he wasn`t providing any form of assistance to his team and was just riding the runners. A bit discouraged as to how things had turned out, he was running the same questions over and over in his head. “Why do I do this?” he asked himself. “Why is it that I feel the need to stop every time and help people?” Why is it that you seem to be the only one that will go out of your way to lend a hand to a stranded person?” “Why, why, why?” Then this little sweet fairy like voice inside him, answered back, “It`s because you care about what happens to others. That`s it, that`s all”  “Yeah, OK,” he laughed to himself, “but good guys always finish last.”  And with that he continued on.  It was a most spectacular scenic journey with majestic mountains filling the backdrop with a very special attraction, the fantastic back side view of Mount Katahdin. “Wow, what a sight!” he said to himself while admiring the famous mountain`s snow covered summits. “Isn`t this the “what” you signed up for, doing this for the scenery and not the glory?” Yeah he had once again brought back into the forefront as to why he was running dogs. “For the enjoyment,” he reasserted himself, “For the enjoyment!” Unfortunately that`s not how he felt on his way back after resting his team for two (2) hours at the Check Point. They had predicted heavy snowfalls at night and they were right. To get back to the Finish Line, he had to cross two (2) mountain ranges and by the time he got to traverse the top of these highest peaks, he was faced with heavy winds and white-out conditions. “Jesus,” he started to swear, “when is it that I get to enjoy this shit?” Then this same little interior fairy voice answered, “God has got nothing to do with this. Now suck it up Princess. It teaches you tolerance!” He shook his head and snickered to himself and to the voice he told her . “Hey listen “Tinker Bell” if I didn`t know better, I`d think you`ve been hanging out with my old buddy “Leonard Lanteigne”. That`s what he used to tell me when he taught me how to drive dogs.” With that notion, he went back to the good times that him and his Malecite First Nation friend had had together when this Korean Veteran was alive and well. His teacher wasn`t a scholar by any means but he certainly was an old peaceful gentleman full of wisdom. Alone out there, he was reviewing the lessons taught and the lessons learnt so to kill time and next thing you knew he was across the Finish Line and “Safe at Home Plate”. Of course because of his lack of performance he would receive “The Red Lantern” award for coming in last place but that was OK with him. His dogs had proved to him that they were super athletes and that they could go anywhere, just about anytime. Of course, “Barbie” would need more practice and guidance so to bring her up to speed in a leadership role but that all right by him also. She had led the team with “JR” for close to eighty (80) miles and that for the “rookie” was a feat in itself.  All in all, the Greenville event would go down as a great experience.

There were to be a few more twists and turns for our musher and the closer it came to “Go Time”, the more he was stressing out over the upcoming 250 mile race. He wasn`t too happy about what the doctor had told him about his ribs as he had told him that he needed to take it easy if he wanted the broken bones to heal. This was to be a non-starter as he wasn`t alone in this adventure and the dogs had come too far just to give up now. So there they were in the boonies doing their thing under all sorts of adverse conditions. They were way past the 1400 mile mark in their training log. They had gone through “the runner`s wall” and at this stage, he was satisfied that “they” were ready and up to the upcoming challenge. The CAN-AM 250 was now only six (6) days away and this would be their last run before heading out to Fort-Kent. The plan was to put in one last thirty-five (35) outing before he allowed them to rest for a few days. “Not only do they deserve it,” he said to himself, “it will give them the occasion to mend from all those sores that they had accumulated over time since last August. There was nothing better than a week off to bring back a dog to speed.

It had once again snowed bucket fulls and the trails were punchy and messy. Where his basic trails were, a lot of snowmobile traffic had gone through so it was easy going. However, he needed to go to the “Back Forties” if he wanted to put in the longer run so he headed out to “Lake Ritchie”. Because of the high volume of traffic that he had noticed in his sixty (60) mile circuit, surely he thought to himself those trails must be opened also. He hazarded that they were and when he got to the seven (7) mile incline, dubbed “Heartbreak Hill”, this was not the case. The long stretched out gradient had no signs of circulation whatsoever. “Well “JR”, he spoke to his most dependable dog, “what do you think? Do you figure we can make it to the “Teepee?” The Teepee was part of a series of hunting camps at Lake Ritchie that was owned by friends of his. They would often go there so to practice “sleeping on straw” something that they needed to learn and do at mid-distance races.  His lead dog knew the road by heart so on the “Gee, Uptrail!” command, without hesitation, he jumped from the plowed road over the three (3) foot snowbank with all the team in tow. They started drudging through the deep, close to over their head powdery snow. The going was tough but the tough kept going. The musher was trying to help them by pedalling behind the sled but without success. It was just too deep. His boot was not reaching anything that he could push off of. So, the more miles the poor dogs were putting in, the harder it got and the slower it got. When he looked at his GPS, it said that there was only two (2) miles left to destination. And once again for the second time this winter, the team stopped right there dead in their track. Steam coming out of their bodies that was filling the afternoon sky with a thick layer of fog, they had all laid down, trying to catch a second or third wind. This did not sit well with the man. After all this training, here they were on their last session, wimping out and calling it “Quits”. “Get up, you guys! Get Up!” he ordered in a louder than normal voice. “Get the Fuck up and let`s get going! But nothing happened. Instead, “Rhum”, “Keno”, “Miko” and “Sidney” sort of turned around, looked at him, as if to say, “Go Fuck yourself! We`re tired of your bullshit”. In hind sight, there is no way that this is what the stares meant. Let`s be serious here for a minute. There was no way in their minds that they knew that this was the last run before a break but one thing was for sure. There was no way they would go any further without taking a well-deserved rest. The “nut case” lost it. Screaming obscenities at them and walking up and down the line, lifting them by the harness and shaking “some sense” into them, not only had he lost control of his emotions, he was losing the long established trust that he had with his dogs. “Get a grip you moron! Get a grip!” This is what he was repeating to himself over and over. He eventually shut his mouth but the team could still sense the rage that he was carrying inside him.    “Calm Down, Buddy! Calm Down!” he told himself trying to bring his emotions under control. “This is certainly not the way you treat such a bunch of loyal and faithful friends. They are tired and will get up when they are good and ready. You do drive the team but when it runs out of gas, they will shut down and ignore you.” This statement once again resonated clear in his head as his mentor had told him this many times while he was learning dog mushing skills. This thought scared him and he started looking around him to see if “Leonard” might just pop out of the bush so to once again come and chew him out. Of course, this was not to happen but he needed to cool down so opted to go in front of them and break trail. He put on his “Bear Paws”, flopped the sled on its side and told his dogs, “You stay here! I`ll show you how it`s done. He didn`t show them “diddly squat”. Within 1000 feet, he was huffing and puffing and sweating like a pig. Because of the five layers he was wearing, he got soaked and wet from the strenuous workout from breaking trail and now completely exhausted, understood how his “Fur Buddies” were feeling. “Wow my friend,” he reminded himself, “if you can`t break trail for two miles with snowshoes, how can you expect the dogs to pull your sorry ass through this thick stuff?” This was to be a lesson from Leonard Lanteigne that needed to be brought back. With all this focus on getting them prepared for the “Big One”, he had forgotten one of the top golden rules of mushing, “These are living breathing animals and if you treat them right, they will go the distance for you. If you run into extreme conditions, run less, rest more and they will take you to destination.”  When he finally got to the Teepee he had calmed down but there was to be two more problems. His clothes were drenched so he would need to stay in place for a while so to dry them and the second one, he would have to endure the cold chills while he went back to retrieve his team. “First things first!” he evaluated. “Let`s go back and get the dogs.” With that said, he turned around on his way back when he came around a left corner only to see a sight that would make him teary eyed. Here were the “Boyz” silently creeping up the trail, as if not to be noticed but wanting to be with the “Boss”. The man`s heart filled with emotions and it was more than he handle. The tears were now flowing “full faucet” and there was nothing he could do. They saw him. He saw them. The dogs stopped as if they had done something wrong and now the once again gentle man just said “Oh you guys, come on over here and give us a hug!” They knew they were again dealing with the “good musher” and all of a sudden tails were wagging and smiles were on their face. They followed him to the bivouac area where he unhitched every one of them. They were rolling around making snow angels to cool down and still had enough energy to “horse around. The man hurried inside the canvas covered tent and made a fire in the centrally located stove. It didn`t take long to warm up the place so he undressed entirely right down to his “Long-Johns”. Before taking this last piece of clothing so to hang them also to dry, he went outside and called the dogs, “Come On Boyz and Girlz, come on in and warm up.” Yeah, he didn`t speak “doggy” language but one thing was for sure, they didn`t hesitate for one second to come and join him inside. Like a big happy family, they found spots all around the woodstove, curled up in balls on the floor and almost instantly all of them fell asleep. Other than the noise of the crackling of the wood burning and once in a while, the sound of a dog farting, it was pretty well silent in the woods that late afternoon. Looking at his trail partners that had worked so hard to get to where they were, he reaffirmed to himself satisfied that they were ready for the upcoming challenge. There and then he had realized that he had nothing to prove to anybody about his dog sledding skills. The only thing that needed to be done was show to his own person that although he was afflicted with this crazy crap called PTSD, this old broken down soldier could still function properly and make good decisions. Throughout his military career, he had done extremely well guiding them and bringing troops back home from harm`s way. His subordinates had survived grueling hard times in places like Somalia, Bosnia and Algeria. This vision now popping in his head was of when after that mission, him and his Valcartier soldiers were sitting in the “Boeing 707” on the flight back to Quebec City. He was walking down the middle aisle looking at the dead tired “Men” he was bringing back home safe. He was proud of them. They also had been put through extreme conditions in theater but the training that they had been put through before deployment had proved to be a huge help. Where he had brought boys to Ex-Yugoslavia, these were to emerge from there as true combat proven veterans. He viewed this race as another similar experience and he would address it with proper planning, caution and precise execution. It would not be any dissimilar except for one big difference. He would drive his trusting team all the way through the entire journey, sober and addiction free and this without ingesting any form of chemical stimulant whatsoever. This prospect scared him the most. He wasn`t too sure about his now physical or mental capabilities and was considering as a back-up, bringing along with him a few grams of cocaine just in case he needed to keep awake and focused. “No,” the tempted man was to bring himself to reality once again. “You, Gino Roussel are doing this to prove that one can still function while walking around with this “Operational Stress Injury” and that it can be done without the help of “Demons”!

So that was what he was thinking on that first day on that first six (6) mile straight section of the CAN-AM 250. It didn`t matter what the outcome might be, his “Canine Twelve” were here and with them he`d enjoy the adventure. When he got off the defunct railroad tracks and called “Haw” to climb up the first hill, after running a good portion of it, he knew the entire team was in great shape. All the dogs were trotting along and he could actually participate. His legs were functioning as if they had been liberated from a heavy “ball and chain” and if he could have sucked in air without having pain to his rib cage, life would have been wonderful. This would not be the case so he would have to live within these limitations.

There is a lake somewhere out there in that first twenty (20) mile portion of the racing circuit where all racers, regardless if they have entered the “30”, the “60” and “250”, must cross to continue on. On this frozen surface, there is always spectators that are on the iced over body of water, cheering the mushers on. That last year when he had initially attempted the “250”, contrary to what most participants would normally do, our musher stopped in the middle of the lake and started talking with the onlookers out for the day on their snowmobiles. The two male parents and especially their two very young sons were pleased that this man would take the time to stop and chat with them. The two boys would be even more delighted when he would reach in his inside pocket and give them a small souvenir, a “Baisley Run Survivor” patch, a small embroidered piece of blue cloth, a patch with the face of a white Siberian Husky on it. They were ecstatic about this gift and one would even be more in all of his glory after hearing the proposal. “Listen there little man, do you think your dad would let you go for a dogsled ride?” the musher asked him while looking at the father. “If you don`t mind driving out there at the end of the lake, I`ll give him a ride to that spot and you can come with your snow machine and pick him up. There was to be no question as to what the young boy wanted. “Pee-Wee” wanted to go for a ride, a short ride but still a ride. “Can I Dad? Can I?” the excited youngster pleaded. “Are you sure, it`s OK?” the baffled father asked. “Why not?” the convincing dog driver replied smiling, “there`s no rules against it!” And with that, the dad gave his approval and “Pee-Wee dashed over to and hopped on the sled. “Hold on tight, there Buddy! Here we go!” After a quick whistle, the dog team and its new passenger carried on to destination. Of course it was a very short ride but I guess when he came to that same lake this time around, the kids had not forgotten this small but good deed. The musher would again meet up with his little friends but this time they were at a spot right close to the access way to the lake. He didn`t really recognise the young boy he had given a ride to the previous year but the “Baisley Run Survivor” patch had been sewn to his winter jacket so it had to be “Pee-Wee”. “Gino, Gino,” he shouted while waving his hands so to be noticed, “how are you?” Seeing that pleasant sight filled our ex-soldier with a warm fuzzy feeling. It would be normal for officials along the trail to know his name as they had a list that identified the racers by their bib numbers. But for an unknown child to know who he was, this meant that someone had gone out of their way to find out who was the musher that had given the “kid” a ride and this really meant something special to our dogman. “Hey Pee-Wee! How are you?” the small talk started. “My, my, it`s amazing how much you`ve grown since last year. This wasn`t necessarily true but it made the boy feel good hearing this. “From what I can gather, with you standing here, you`re expecting a longer ride this year, aren`t you?” You knew that this was exactly what he had in mind so without much more to add, he looked at the smiling father and said, “Same drill as last year.” To the child who was running towards him, he said, “As for you, “Pee-Wee, hop on!” And away they went for a second year in a row. “Why not make this kid happy,” he said to himself, “maybe he`ll remember this when he`s older and return the favour in his own way. Spread some good around and good things will happen to you…”

That`s what he had been trying to promote for the last few years as our musher was and had  always been of the opinion that if you treat people right, they will and would carry this forward somewhere down the road. Yeah, he had been taken for more than a few “sucker rides” in his life but this didn`t matter. In general if you took time to interact with them, one would find out that they did exist. those “good persons”. He was convinced and had proof that not all men were created equal. In a modern world where it seemed that greed, corruption and violence were elements associated with ruling it, there were lots of caring people walking around and it was a matter of finding them and learn to trust them. To our ex-military man, this after spending an entire military career dealing with human crud at the best of times, this made it that the concept of “trust” was a hard one to recognise and accept.

This “trust” issue was one of those things that anybody plagued with the “Syndrome” had a hard time to deal with. One had to realize and appreciate the fact that not everybody was out to get him. This notion of “kill or be killed” needed to be eradicated from his memory bank if one wanted to live in tranquility in a civilian setting. Sometimes it was hard to fit in however it wasn`t necessarily the “civies” that needed to adjust but rather those who had signed the dotted line and volunteered to protect one`s country`s interest. This “fitting in” as many instances would still prove today would not be an easy task as a lot of folks still didn`t have the slightest clue as to what this injury is. Where they accepted that a concussion to the head was an injury, they attached a stigma to PTSD and thought it to be a mental illness. Our musher was convinced that only through talking openly about the “Syndrome”, people would be educated as to what it really was, a serious case of brain trauma. The saying that said, “PTSD is not what`s wrong with you. Rather, PTSD is what happened to you!” was probably the best way to explain this suffering.

Yeah, aligning himself with “good people” and trying to emulate their examples of “good living”, this did wonder for his self-preservation. The sincere expression of gratitude for things that one would receive when doing a kind act, this also worked wonders for someone`s self-esteem.  There were many moments in the man’s life where kind generous people had made a difference and these instances were numerous. So to kill time and to entertain himself during this sixty-seven (67) mile distance to the first Check Point (CP #1) in Portage, he allowed mind to visit some of those occurrences.

Let’s see now, events that came to mind were the time that he had ended up stranded in a small “Coby Hole” somewhere in a dangerous Middle-East country. Trying to escape the situation and trying to get back to where the friendly forces were, he had crawled into a six (6) foot x six (6) foot small basement where because of certain circumstances he would share the confined area with two “corpses”. These accommodation arrangements would last close to three weeks and those two “friends” that were sharing this confined area, after a while, started decomposing. When the smell gradually intensifies and you live through its growth, you don`t seem to notice the stench that much. But when the maggots get involved and this makes these “lifeless shapes” sort of move then this tends to play awful psychological games with a person`s head. When you start talking to these dead people and the corps answer back, then you know you`re way out there and in serious trouble.

That`s how disturbed our soldier was when “Samir” found him after nine (9) days or so. It turned out that this small crawlspace was one of the many hiding places that this homeless street smart fourteen (14) year old would hide and call “home”. When he had poked his head through that basement window and found our half-crazed soldier, he didn`t know what exactly had happened but knew that this man that was still alive needed help. Without the slightest of hesitation, he took off to “God knows where” and came back with a two liter bottle of water. Neither persons could speak the other one`s language but through some form of improvised sign language, both understood that this small gesture would be the first step to recovery.  After that initial meeting, a trust had established itself between the two of them and this “angel” continuously supplied him with food that he would squirrel out of garbage bins throughout that “City”. It wasn`t the most tasty of meals that were being served but it beat eating “raw rats”. The soldier did eventually get stronger and with the assistance of this young Muslim man, he managed to find safe passage. To this day, our musher knew that he owed this individual more than gratitude. He owed him his life but how could he ever repay him. He was a stranger in a faraway land, a good Samaritan that would never be relocated…

Another good deed that was done for him by someone who truly cared, was when that “chauffeur” of his, had changed his travel plans during that particular Christmas season in Algeria. Then, the Chief of Security at the Canadian Embassy, he had been conned into this position by his supposedly loyal superiors and had landed with quite the messy and dangerous situation to sort out. In that particular period of time, terrorism was at its highest point and they ruled the Capital, Algiers. The local employees that helped with the daily operations of the Embassy, had for the most part of them, been pegged by his predecessor as Islamist Extremists. This was the first thing that our “Chief of Security” was to look at. He found it curious for instance that the old cleaning lady pushing a broom could be finger pointed as being a belligerent. There were many of these abnormalities amongst the Algerian staff and after researching a lot of them, he had eventually come to the conclusion that because the population of that country was tired of being ruled by a dictatorship of “Generals” in business suits, they had been influenced to vote for democracy and this in the form of the Islamic Party called “Front Islamique du Salut (FIS)”. The FIS party won these elections but this did not sit well with the ousted former governing body. One thing led to another and before you know it, everybody that had voted for FIS and the possibility of democratic changes would be viewed as possible radicals. It didn`t make sense to our then military man so he tried to and managed to re-establish some sense of trust between all the occupants of that building. A strong friendly bond was to grow back between them and life was pretty good at this Canadian Mission.

His wife and himself would be traveling back to Canada for the Christmas holidays and as usual, travel arrangements would be done through his trustworthy chauffeur “Nouradine”. They were supposed to take an Air France flight to Paris on the 24th Dec 1994 and everything was set for that date. The week, prior to them flying out, “Nouradine” came to his office and after knocking, asked to talk to him. Finding that this was quite unusual for this shy man, the then “Warrant Officer” put his pen away and devoted his full attention to what this individual might have say. “Mr Roussel,” he sheepishly started to say in French, “I hope you don`t mind but I`ve made different travel plans for you. Instead of leaving on the 24th, you will leave on 23 Dec. It`s all arranged and you don`t have to worry about a thing. You will get to destination with no worries.” The strange tone of this conversation compelled the man to ask, “Why did you change our flight, “Nouradine”?” “Well let`s just say that the flight I chose for you is safer. You have been real good to us and for what you have done, let`s just say that we don`t want to lose you.” With that, he put his hand over his heart and expressed in Arabic the God loving words, “Insha`Allah”. At that moment he didn`t really understand what all this was all about but a few days later, while back at Baisley Lodges, it was on the International news. On the 24 Dec 1994, Air France Flight 8969 from Algiers to Paris had been high-jacked. After showing that they meant business, by killing three passengers before departing, they were allowed to take off. With plans of crashing it in the Eiffel Tower, this plane was diverted and forced to land in Marseilles, France by jets of the French Air Force. A Special Tactics Unit from the French military then stormed the aircraft and killed the terrorists and a few passengers. There and then, watching that newscast, our shocked friend knew the “what and why” of the “Change of Travel Plans”. He had been good to these people and this was their way to show their appreciation. They would protect him the best way they could and this would be done using the many “sidewalk communication networks” that operated in the secretive back alleys of the “Kasbah”. These two events and a couple in between notably in Bosnia, had marked this man for the rest of his life. They had a strong influence on him and accentuated the fact that “Good would always conquer Evil” and if he lived a good life and helped people out, this would always pay itself forward. Another thing that he had retained was the fact that religion had no bearing whatsoever on how people acted. There was to be no discrimination amongst the “Do Gooders” and good people came in all sizes, all genders and all colours. It was a matter of being kind and doing the right and good thing.

If we recall, although it is a given that our musher had a rough time during 2013, it is also true that throughout that year, there were some instances where people would reach down extending their hand and pull the drowning man out of the water so he could breathe. Part of Baisley Lodge`s vocation is to help needy veterans and the fact that we give free room and board to these individuals is not something that we go around bragging about. However, somehow the word is out there and sometimes, somebody shows up to our door steps and surprises us....

An ex-serviceman from Alberta, reserves a chalet and shows up during the summer to pay respect to his fallen comrades at "CIMENT HILL". He asks how much for the night and the owner answers "$60.00 for a veteran brother. The next morning him and his spouse were gone way before the crack of dawn. When the partner in the business, his wife Fran went to clean that cottage that day, she found a hand written note from “Marcel”, attached to a $100.00 bill which read “The extra $40.00 is to help you for when the “Boyz” do come thru and can`t afford to pay. Thanks for doing what you do for them.”

The amount of the donation, some might say, “It wasn`t much.” However, to the man, it meant that he was not alone thinking that our soldiers needed to be taken care of in trying times. Also after hearing “Marcel`s Story” where he related that he had raised a whole bunch of his own and adopted kids (something like twelve (12) of them), the gesture of giving this $40.00, would go a long way in giving our ex-soldier the courage to continue with this vocation. At the time, the dismantling of a group called “VETERANS UN/NATO CANADA” had been undertaken by its illustrious “Founder”. This had not been digested too well by our musher. Like too many who had worked hard over the previous five (5) years at building an infrastructure where “Veterans would take it upon themselves to help veterans”, this concept would be abolished. Where the “UN/NATO” had some credibility with the Government, the “Founder” had different visions and would attempt to turn this organization into a “Biker Gang”. This had not sat well with the majority of the members and as a result, the group had started to collapse. It would fold onto itself to the point where it was now divided into a whole bunch of splinter groups across Canada. That “$40.00” contribution to the veteran cause had made a huge difference and the tide would turn. He would again roll up his sleeves and continue helping his “Brothers-In-Arms”.

Another good person that had brought a positive spin on a most miserable period in the man`s life was a local artist named “Vicky Lenyz”. As a result of the “Newtown Elementary School Massacre” where twenty-six (26) people would be gunned down in December 2012, he had decided to chop up and destroy his extensive gun collection. The reasons were simple as to why he would do this and here was his way of rationalizing this. He thought that this was a dreadful tragedy, one that could happen in any other parts of the world including somewhere in his home province. He had a niece that would soon graduate and become a teacher and he sure as hell didn`t want to see her becoming a victim of a similar incident. His guns were not registered as he didn`t believe in the “Gun Registry”. So it wasn`t bad enough that by law he was considered a criminal, these weapons had the possibility of falling into the wrong hands through theft. This had the potential of an eventual sale of these weapons where they could be used in a criminal act. This he was not interested in having any part of so he had decided that he would take his twenty-six (26) guns and a few more given by friends, out of circulation and this on a permanent basis. Some of the pacifists thought it was a great idea while the extremists thought he was crazy as the money value of this collection exceeded well over “$10,000.00”. The “Gun Nuts” would insult him through social mediums really exposing their way “off the wall Red Neck” mentality. When reading some of the comments where they would never give up their guns because it was their “Rights to bear Arms”, this just further emphasized his convictions that peace would never be achieved as long as the “man carrying the gun” would dictate as to how people would act and live.

Somebody had gotten wind of the fact that he would destroy his guns and had asked him what he was going to do with the mangled pieces. Not really knowing what the answer was, he jokingly had replied, “I don`t know. Maybe give them to an artist like Vicky Lentz. Maybe she could do something with them.” It turns out that this information had reached this renowned sculptor and she thought that it might be a way to promote the ideology of a “Gun Free Society”. She thought hard at initially seeing the vision of it only to even work harder at creating the “Piece of Art”. Our ex-soldier hadn`t seen any of the work in progress but when he was invited to her studio to see the final product, he was left amazed at the results. When she told him that she wanted to give it to him so that it would send a message of “Peace” and permanently expose her “contribution” to his “CIMENT HILL”, he was flabbergasted. He just couldn`t comprehend that someone like her would actually go out of her way and do this most kind and generous gesture. When it was unveiled that warm summer day and he saw the huge metal sculpture called “Tears on the wings of an Angel” stand there so majestically, he just couldn`t find the words to express his gratitude. He just looked at it in admiration and said to himself. “It`s nice to know that there are other good people out there and that you`re not alone wanting to promote “Peace in the World.”

These good deeds would continue pouring in and they seemed to want to manifest themselves at most impromptu times. In November 2013 while going through another slump, another good person was to share another agreeable moment with our musher. “Stubby”, a combat veteran and a fully decorated hero of the Afghanistan conflict would again show up. This was not unusual as he had visited Baisley Lodges many times over many years. Whenever he felt the need to escape, he would jump on this “Harley” and at suicidal speeds he would head up to northern New-Brunswick and end up staying there for a few days. There he would “vege out” for extended periods of time. By doing this, he would sooner or later bring himself back to the “Land of the Livings”, either by just walking the “Puppy Trail” with the dogs or talking to our musher. He was an interesting character to listen to as this “Zipper Head” had quite the stories when it came to his tours in the “Sand Box”. Anyway, they became close friends and he trusted the man in the backwoods of Edmundston. Subsequently, he had opened up to him enough about his problem and would consider going and seeking treatment for his battle related PTSD. When he had shown up that last time, he seemed to be a changed man. He still had many issues to deal with but he had improved “ten folds”. He had brought his wife and two daughters so that they would know who this “Gino” was when he talked about him. This warmed the embarrassed man`s heart as he didn`t consider what he had done a big deal. “Thanks for helping my husband make it back home.” Stubby`s wife had told him while giving him a huge “Bear Hug.” “Listening to someone`s plea doesn`t cost anything.” he had confided to her before they parted company that day. “Mike is a good person and I`m sure that when things are better with him, he will go out of his way to return the favor and help someone else.” “That`s how we old soldiers will survive.  By lending a hand to one another so to get over the hump.” During that particular last visit, this Biker was to show how great of a heart he had. He would surprise   the “Inn Keeper” with a very special gift plus much more. “Stubby” knew that his friend needed a new woodstove for one of his cottages and was waiting for the money to be plenty enough so to replace it. Therefore, he had rented a “U-Haul” trailer on his “own dime”, had removed a practically brand new stove from his basement and had brought it up to Baisley. When our musher looked at this beautiful “piece of kit” he didn`t know if a thank you would be good enough for this kind act. So he said it many times so that the message would be received. Anyway, it was “Remembrance Day” and our veteran put on his charcoal grey suit and medals then went downtown to attend the Cenotaph and pay respect to the fallen. When he returned home, his friend and his family had left but before departing, they had left $500.00 and a simple note on the table that said, “Thanks for Everything!” He didn`t know what to make of this generous contribution to the cause but one thing would be left engraved in his mind. “Angels if they do indeed exist,” he thought, “sure come in strange looking forms. Come on, “A Biker?” Then “Tinker Bell`s” little fairy voice spoke out from inside him and while giggling, replied, “Now, now Gino! Discrimination will get you nowhere. When did you get the monopoly on being good? Open your heart and allow yourself to be convinced that they are out there, those “Good PeopIe”…”

That “Fairy” of his had a valid point and would continue trying to convince him to trust people and this was to become much clearer the week before the race. With all the stress associated with the training of the dogs and packing “Drop Bags” and making sure that he wasn`t forgetting anything for the race, he would have to deal with a new additional stressor. Here it would stack itself on top of the huge pile of everything else. He had been counting on the help of one of his fellow veterans to come out with him to Fort-Kent so to be his “Handler” during the four (4) day event. This job involved the following of a competitor while this one was out on the circuit and be available with a truck in the event that a dog would need to be dropped out of the race. The musher was counting on this individual but at the last minute, this person had backed out due to personal reasons. The rules reference a “Handler” were quite specific and nobody would be allowed to participate without having one. Scrambling to find an alternative prospect, he had asked all the members of his family and they all had declined. He had solicited the help from folks he knew in the area and still nobody could be found. He was getting pretty desperate and running out of options when he got some great news via E-Mail. “Ruth”, a dogsledding client of the lodges for the past seven (7) years was a person that had become more than a true and close friend. He felt totally comfortable around her as she could see way beyond what others would miss. She accepted that rough and tough image that he had for a personality but also could see way past that. She would accept that there was a kind person behind all that PTSD hullaballoo and would venture out to find some of these answers by letting the man speak about it. An atmosphere of trust had built between them over that time and it was natural for them to spend hours speaking, both confiding in each other about all sorts of subjects. But in this instance, she had come up in mid-January to “hit the trails” and had gone back to her home in Delaware. Through the “Grape Vines” she had heard that her “Guide” was in a bind and had insisted that she come up for the event so to help him out. He couldn`t believe that this very busy lady would volunteer to put her heavy schedule on hold, would pay for her own travels up north and would help him out so to finish this  lifelong project. For him, only a beautiful “Angel” with a kind heart would do such a thing. She had insisted that it wouldn`t cost that much as she had a whole bunch of “Air Miles” but still “How could he repay her for this?” Don`t worry about it!” she had answered back, “You`ve helped me in the past, now it`s my turn to return the kindness….”

So there it was. Everything seemed to fall into place and all things seemed to align themselves so that he would have a good race. He was a bit skeptical about all this because he was always the type to sit on the fence when it came to optimism. Hey, somehow he would have to believe. The signs sent from who knows where had been plentiful and were staring him in the face.

When he had loaded his dogs up on that Friday so to drive to the “Lonesome Pine” Ski Lodge to register for the race and go through the “Vet Checks”, he didn`t expect at all that was to happen at the US Border crossing, in Madawaska, Maine. He didn`t have too good of a track record with this agency and its Canadian counterpart as it seemed that they were to some degree, suspicious of him. A lot of times, they would tell him to proceed to a specific area where he would be put through a secondary thorough search. The last time that he had gone through this type of inspection, it had lasted over two hours and they had gone through his truck and trailer with a fine tooth comb. They had inspected everything, even the “shit bag”. “Don`t open that!” he had suggested to Customs Officer. Snapping his head back at him with more authority than the job prescribed, this agent had replied coldly, “Don`t tell me how to do my job!” With that, he ripped the bag open and stuck his head inside. Considering that the dogman had just dropped his dogs prior to crossing the border in Woodstock and that some of his dogs had bad cases of diarrhea, this was not to be a good idea. He had picked the slimy green liquidy crap off the parking lot of the Houlton “Truck Stop” and had brought it along with them. This was the normality of all good mushers traveling. However, somebody would have given him $1000.00 and he would not have enjoyed it more than this moment. The “Oh Shit, I fucked up big time!” look on the officer`s face when he came up for fresh air was priceless. When his stomach turned and he barfed up his lunch, this was the “icing on the cake.” Ill at ease, he wiped his mouth with his jacket sleeve, thinking of a way that he would clean the mess up. Our musher thought that he looked a bit pathetic so decided to end this charade. He went to the back of his trailer, retrieved his hoe and shovel and came back. “Hold the bag” he told the green faced individual. With that he scrapped the vomit off the surface of the snow and put it in the “shit bag”. The “done for the day” officer looked at him and after lowering his head, awkwardly said, “Thank You!” Still pissed about being treated like a second class citizen, he took the opportunity to tell him what he thought, “Listen young man, just because an individual wears dirty clothes and a long “pony tail” doesn`t mean that you have to stereotype him as a criminal. Some of us have earned the right to wear our hair the way we want. In your case, you look like you won`t get that chance anytime soon as you might maybe only see your pension in another thirty (30) years. Get rid of the “I wear the gun therefore I`m the man” attitude, show a little respect and things will go smoother for you in the future.”

That`s what it was like wearing long hair and crossing borders. You were inviting discrimination and that Friday that`s what he was anticipating. Never in his life did he expect what would transpire. Passport in grasp, ready to hand it over, he drove to the customs booth well prepared to cooperate. This tall Customs Officer immediately came to and opened the passenger door and nicely said to him. “Good Day Gino, how are you today?” Without giving the musher a chance to answer, this same nice man said, “If you give me your passport, I`ll quickly scan it and you`ll be on your way.” What the hell is this all about?” our now suspicious friend said to himself, “What`s going on here?” He was starting to find this a bit weird but got really freaked out when after getting his passport from the same officer, this individual spoke out again. “There you go Gino and Good Luck! However, before you leave, let me take this opportunity and say that on behalf of the United States Customs and Border Services, I would like to thank you for your service. Let me take this opportunity to salute you for what you have done!” And with that he snapped sharply to attention and went through the motion with his right hand. Leaving that location and for the entire time he spent across the border, he could not understand what that was all about. When he returned home after the race and crossed in Clair, New-Brunswick, he was congratulated by those Canadian Customs officer for his performance but would be also told that the individual that had saluted him had lost his PTSD afflicted brother to suicide after he had survived and returned home from Afghanistan. “You dedicating this race to the awareness and prevention of this alarming phenomena has made it that you have not only earned respect from “Steve” but also from a whole bunch of us on both sides of the border. When he drove off that Tuesday afternoon, he was stunned to see that his actions had made some difference in somebody`s life, once again.

Good deeds and signs of success kept appearing before the race but he remained doubtful. It was now bright and early Saturday morning and “Ruth” and himself were leaving the lodges parking lot and going to the races. It was 0530 hrs sharp. The dogs were loaded and the coffee cups were in their trays in the cab of the truck. It was time to move out but before they did, his blond curly haired passenger would not allow him to drive off without filling her request. She was/is a God Loving Christian and as such she grabbed the musher`s hand, closed her eyes and said a prayer out loud so that God would protect the man and his team during his travels. From the sounds of it, she truly believed in her God and it gave him that warm fuzzy feeling that said that he had picked the right person for the handler`s job and that with her and God in his corner, he was in good hands.

How can one tell this story without speaking of the “Red Lantern” incident. Yes, while driving to Fort-Kent that same early morning, there it was hanging there, lit up on somebody`s porch. The tradition of the “Red Lantern” has thru the years changed tremendously. Today at events, they would give this trophy out to the competitor that would finish last and it is done in a fashion that somewhat humiliates the individual for his lack of performance. Our musher knew what the “Red Lantern” truly stood for and this one on this porch reflected that fact. It was lit just like in the original legend which said – “A lady whose husband was delivering mail by sleddogs way up northern Yukon, had placed a lit “Red Lantern” on her balcony so to serve as a beacon that would light the way for her husband that was lost out there because of a snowstorm. He had never returned but she had never given hope and that lantern would be lit every night and this till her dying days. Initially, to commemorate this tradition, “Red Lanterns” would be lit at the Finish Lines of races and would only be extinguished when the last musher would come home safely. That was the true meaning behind the “Red Lantern”. That morning, here stood this “symbol” on the side of the road, shining bright for him, telling him that it would be there for him to show him the way back to the Finish Line. Almost startled at the sight, he said to himself, “Listen Buds! I know you don`t believe in Hocus-Pocus magic bullshit but somewhere, somebody is sending you signs that the race is going to go alright!” And that`s when he started to believe that this would be a journey that would be magical. “Gino, if your brain plans on playing games with you, just say, Bring it on! We`re ready!”

“More than ready they are,” he came to realize, “They`re actually impressive.” He had been riding the drag mat for the better part of forty-four miles(42) and the dogs were working as one single unit. Things had gone very well so far so when he decided to pull over and snack his dogs for the second time, this was a good idea for this “longest” stretch between check points. He had scheduled a “one snack stop” at the thirty (30) mile mark but when Keith Aili, had passed him earlier only to stop a short distance ahead to snack his dogs, this he thought was a good tactic. This Minnesota musher had divided the segment into three twenty-two (22) mile portions so to keep the energy level of his team at its highest. This made sense to him so he would do the same.   

From what he could remember from the last time the ex-soldier had travelled through this portion, that last steep hill that they had just tackled thru the hardwood forest,  indicated that the terrain would change for the better and get flatter. The dogs had had no problems attacking this mountainous stretch and they seemed to be in great spirits and still full of energy. Going down the line, he was giving them their treats, “hamburger popsicles”. Mario Racine, one of the big Quebec names in mid-distance racing, had introduced this method of snacking dogs to him the previous year and not only did his team devourer this frozen meat, it was a quick and easy way to keep these athletes well hydrated. That would be the appetizer. Then came a cup full of kibbles thrown on the ground and that was also gobbled up almost instantly. He was to rest his dogs for fifteen minutes but another competitor, Sally Manikian would come along and ask for the “Trail”. “Go ahead, Girl,” he had answered, “My dogs won`t bother yours while you`re passing.” This would remain true but her team decided to visit the Snowhounds and there was to be a little bit of a tangle that both mushers would have to deal with. “Stay on your brakes,” the man said, “I`ll go in front and pull your team ahead for you.” And with that, he grabbed the necklines of the first two dogs and guided them till Sally`s sled was past his leaders. There was still a small tangle within her team, so they changed places and she straightened them out while he stood on the brakes of her sled. The situation was rectified and on her way she went. The “Boyz” on his team were quite happy of the short visit but the two young cheerleaders, “Barbie” and “Lady” wanted to further socialize so banging in the harnesses, they managed to pop both snowhooks and the team was off and running trying to catch up with Bib #18. Our musher managed to catch a ride as his sled went by him and off to Portage, they went. Sally Manikian had a fast team and they were clipping right along. Following her, he glanced at his “GPS” and he didn`t care about the numbers, it was displaying. “9.2 MPH” he said to himself, “is too fast for me. I need to control our speed better. He jumped again on the drag mat and slowed them down. “Come on Guys,” he spoke to them loudly, “Save plenty of energy so to get through the night. Portage is only the first stop to what is going to a long tiresome haul to Rocky Brook.” With that he let Sally disappear into the darkness in front of him.

It wouldn`t take long before he would see the “10 mile” marker to Portage. After a series of “S” curves through some frozen moose bog with an impressive good old-growth cedar tree stand, they were on Portage Lake. In the distance he could see way in the background, the streetlights of that small community. The trail was marked with red flashing lights and the last mile before entering the check point was really super lit up. The best description would be to compare it to an airport runway with its flashing lights on both sides showing a pilot where to land at night. Then again when you let your imagination run wild just a little bit, the entire scene looked more like you would landing in Santa Claus`s backyard at the North Pole. Whatever the analogy would be, this strobe light display made it that it was almost magical and a most inviting sight to see. The musher was amazed that someone would go to so much fuss and trouble to set up such a beautiful method to “Welcome to Portage”, all the participants.

“North Pole Ground Control!” he started playing a silly mind game with himself and pretending he was holding a radio mike and driving Santa`s sled, “This is Bravo India Bravo 10 (Bib #10). We are now on our final approach to runway 360! Permission to land, over?” Then this same quiet sweet little voice that he recognised replied from inside him, “Permission granted! We’ve been expecting you! Please use caution! Runway is icy, over!” “Roger that!” he responded, concluding the radio transmission. He laughed to himself at all this childish playing around then said, “Boy, that Tinker Bell sure gets around doesn`t she?” Then back to his real world, he dwelled on what he was fully witnessing. “I don`t know who had the initiative,” he considered, “but I have to say, I`m impressed with the hard work that went into making it as such that snowmobiles and dog sleds can travel across this area in complete darkness and in complete safety.”

 Just up ahead of him, he could recognize two sleds. One was obviously the one that he had been following for the last twenty some miles and the other well it wasn`t really hard to figure out. By the brightness of the beam that outshined most of the snowmobiles riding out there on the lake, it had to be the one and only “Becki Tucker”. That 3600 lumens “Lupine” headlamp of hers was the “Big Daddy” of all that was out there. Simply put, it would give you an instant suntan if you allowed her to shine it on your skin.

So there they were, them in front and our musher catching up to them. After a while, it seemed that the two front teams were having issues finding the proper trail so they were slowing down to a crawling pace so they could check things out. “JR, show us the way, Buddy! Show us the way!” the driver of the last sled said. And instantly, his trusted leader moved way over to the left side to an adjacent track and away they moved on. The team was excited to be traveling by and past the competition but more importantly, they were animated by the sound of barking dogs at the Check Point. There was no sense in trying to hold them back. He was just making them more tired by trying to slow them down. So he let his foot off the drag mat and let them enjoy this stretching full out of the muscles when they gallop at full speed. “Enjoy you Guys!” he told them seeing how comfortable and not tired they were running. “You guys are impressing the shit out me.” Yeah, he was more than satisfied as to what he was seeing. His partners in this race had put in a sixty-seven (67) mile run and they looked as fresh as when they had started, almost nine hours ago.

“Congratulations, you made it to Portage!” the person registering him at  Check Point #1 spoke out, “As soon as you sign in, we`ll let you go on your way to the resting area. “Resting area my ass,” the musher snickered to himself, “With over two hundred barking dogs lined up in their assigned area, some coming in and some leaving, how can anybody or for that matter how can any dog sleep with all that ruckus?” He would have to suck it up and endure. It was always like that at these “first” check points. Dogs would never be that tired when they`d get there and they`d relish at joining in the “Party” atmosphere. “I`ll guide your dogs to where you`re going to park Gino.” this young man holding a leash instructed him. “Just follow me and we`ll get you there.” That was the plan but “Miss Barbie” had a different agenda all together. She just wanted to join the fun at the resting area and I guess so did her sister “Lady”. They instigated another pulling session, the “Boyz” joined in and we were off and running again. The poor kid trying to lead the team couldn`t keep up so let go of his leash and let them take off. At the speed they entered the community hall parking lot, it was very impressive to see from a spectator point of view. However, the team was barreling towards a crowd of people and the guy driving the sled was not amused. “Barbie, JR, slow down!” he ordered forcefully and with the most authority. “Bang!!!” went the sled as it stopped dead in its “tracks”. The impact was wild and instant and it was like when one of those “F-18” Super Hornet catches the arresting cable with its tail hook when it lands on an aircraft carrier. It wasn`t that they had listened, no it wasn`t. The sudden halt was because his claw brake had caught on a railroad track of a hidden train track crossing. If you think the entry of the team at that location was a sight to be seen, you should have been there to witness the spectacle that was to be had when they came to a sudden stop. The musher went over the steering bow and while still holding on to it, performed this front summersault only to land flat on his back on his sled where those flesh eating snowhooks called home. It was executed to perfection but there was only one problem. The “Air Bag” had failed to deploy. “Bang, Flop, Crack”, those were the sounds that were heard in his mind during that athletic trapeze stunt move. This performance earned him to have the wind knocked out of him and he was hurting. While he had his eyes closed gasping for air and trying to catch his breath through this agonizing pain to again his left side, he said to himself, “Ah Fuck! I broke those damn ribs again.” He didn`t dare move, afraid that the pain would get worse so just laid there. Then “Out of the blue”, this heavy hoarse manly voice was heard over the rest of the crowd. “Get out of my way folks! Let me through! Gino, are you all right my boy?” Friends, I kid you not! When our traveler opened his eyes, here was this super-sized Bear of a man with long curly shoulder length black hair and a long beard to match. “Holy Shit on a Pogo Stick! It can`t be! It`s Rubeus Hagrid from the “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” he professed, “What the hell is he doing here?” “Are you OK, Gino?” the man kept asking while shaking him. “Yeah, I think so.” he replied while reaching for the man`s hand. “You guys should mark that crossing before somebody kills himself. With the same authority in his voice, “Guy” the huge man running the Check Point and who is a spitting image of that Harry Potter character, turned to the others and said, “Well you heard the man! Don`t just stand there! Get her done!” While they went on their way to put up a warning sign, “Guy” helped the man to his feet. The musher looked at his dogs, they were OK. He looked at his sled, it seemed to be alright. Next, he checked himself out and all the parts were there so everything was tick-a-dee-boo. “Hey,” he realised, “that acrobatic act did wonders for my ribs. I can`t feel a thing anymore. The pain is gone.” After being showed where he would park his team for the next few hours and after feeding them, he laid the straw so they could bed down and rest for a spell. He walked down the line, tucking his friends in and making sure that all the dogs were comfortable. From what he could see, just like our musher, they were at peace in this place and felt secure in this atmosphere. “I don`t know about this,” he wondered to himself in astonishment, “Is it possible that there`s something about this race that might make it that it`s magical? “Nah...”  he tried convincing himself, “There is no such thing as Magic.”  Then that sweet little fairy voice made herself heard again, “Gino, you just got to believe!”

“Hi!” his handler who was standing just outside the perimeter of the restricted staging area, said, “How was your run?”  “They did fantastic!” he simply replied. “Follow me and we`ll get you fed up!” Ruth instructed him as they walked towards the Community Center. So far, the reception and service they had received in this small village truthfully impressed him. However, when they walked in that building, he could actually feel the positive energy of that atmosphere. It was filled with an openhearted warm feeling of hospitality and it felt good to absorb it. Other mushers, volunteers, friends and family, perfect strangers, everywhere you looked, it seemed that all this gathering was enjoying the comradery that filled the air. He didn`t really know how the food got there but the “Shepard`s Pie” and the cupcakes that was sitting in front of him tasted delicious. “Eat it all!” his blond friend order him, “You need all the energy you can get!” she said in a convincing tone. To this vigorous request, he didn`t say much and ate everything even all his vegetables. He knew that she could be “Bossy” some times but also knew that she was the right person for the handler`s job. While the man took care of his dog, she would make sure that he would take care of himself and eat properly. Let`s face it. That was one of the reasons he had failed to finish the previous year. He had neglected his diet and had run out gas when he needed it.

“They`ve got this room in the back set up for the mushers,” Ruth informed the tired man, “You go and lie down and rest for a while. I`ll make sure that I keep an eye on the dogs and that they`re alright.” The tone used implied that it was best that he co-operated so just said “Thanks” and went to bed.

The homemade poster scotch taped to the door was clear and concise when it read “Musher Sleeping Area – Please Stay Quiet”. The concept was pretty clear and most traffic coming in and out seemed to understand the notion behind it. It was hard enough trying to get some shut-eye with this circulation but the racket outside our window of barking departing teams was overwhelming. The front runners had done their mandatory four (4) hour layovers and were waiting to be marshalled out of the resting area by the overly busy super wonderful volunteers. “Crash, Bang, Shuffle, Shuffle!” “Crash, Bang, Shuffle, Shuffle!” here was one noisy musher that hadn`t read the poster and was making quite the entrance. Trying to find a spot on the floor so to unzip her sleeping bag, here was “Marla BB” walking around in complete darkness waking everybody else by going to them and asking “Gino, is that you?” After she disturbed two or three persons with her inquiries and that everybody was wide awake, the musher whispered out to her, “I`m way over here. Now keep your voice down if you want to stay on the good side of people!” Hind sight now says that the last racer to attend the Check Point probably wanted to tell him that there were some issues with his team outside but she didn`t get a chance to do so. Someone else, would open the door and speak softly and say “Gino, are you awake?” “Well I guess I better get up and see what`s going on.” he sighed to himself, “And besides, I need a piss.”  He met the person at the door and it was David Barrett, “Becki Tucker`s handler. “Gino,” he said almost out of breath, “The staff is looking for you. Some of your dogs chewed their tug lines and are loose.” Unexpectedly, there seemed to be a sense of urgency brewing so he quickly gathered his stuff and went outside back to his team so to see what the stir was all about. When he got there, he was some relieved. After sorting out the tangled mess and seeing what the true nature of the problem was, it was really no big deal. Most of the dogs were still curled up comfortable in their straw bedding, snoring while others would open one eye as if to say, “Hey keep the noise down in front, it`s not time to move yet!” The dogman soon concluded as to what the problem was. “Listen you little shit disturber,” he jokingly said to Barbie while dealing with mess of rope, “you`re going to have to learn that when we`re at Check Points, it`s time to sleep.” She just wagged her tail while the man cut the “bailing twine” that someone had used to “hog tie” her to the post holding the line of dogs in their staging area. She looked at him, was happy to see him but knew she had done something wrong. “It`s OK little Girl,” he comforted her still wondering as to what else she had done wrong. It didn`t take long to find out. There was a loose tug line under the straw next to her and when he retrieved it, he understood where it belonged. “JR” with the look he gave him back, confirmed what he suspected. “Yeah,” the nauseated look suggested, “she chewed up my harness.” The man examined the damages and resolved that with a piece of that bailing twine, he could fix the problem easily. With his trusty Gerber pocket knife he cut a good length of rope and made a “tug loop” so to reattach the dog to his tugline. After dealing with this little setback and making sure that his young leader was comfortable and might get some sleep, he walked out of the restricted area where Ruth was waiting with two cups of steaming hot coffee. “How`s it going?” she asked. “Good,” he smiled “putting one of the hot beverages to his mouth. “It wasn`t a big deal.” On that note, he went and got something to sit on. Retrieving his cooler that had been delivered at this location earlier on so he could feed his dogs, he offered it to his handler while he sat on a bucket. It wasn`t the coziest of situation but both friends seemed to enjoy the cold almost quiet night.

When he looked at his watch, his traveling companions and himself had been stopped and resting for four (4) hours. Most of the dogs were standing up and were just shivering in the cold. One of the things he had done before venturing on this adventure was to come up with a well thought out strategy for a traveling plan. Based on a speed of 5 MPH, he had scheduled extended rest stops at the Check Points so to maximize resting time while still working within the guidelines of the race timings. In the Portage “pit stop”, he was supposed to stay for eight (8) hours but from what he was seeing, his dogs were all up and ready to hit the trail. He wasn`t too sure if it was a good idea to leave prematurely but would mull this idea while he fed and hydrated his dogs for a second time. They all swallowed the food provided and he was happy about that. It was a good indication that they were not too tired after the first leg of the trip. That was comforting because the next stretch of trail to “Rocky Brook” was not to be an easy one not only because of its forty-nine (49) mile distance but also because of what had happened the previous year.  This is where, between here and there, he had met up with those awful evil little green elves. He knew quite well that this was a mind game that his brain was playing with him and that they didn`t exist but he was still worried. We were now close to 0100 hrs, on Sunday morning and he had caught maybe five (5) hours of sleep since the Thursday before. This meant that he would have to deal with the onset of sleep deprivation in the next stretch. “Now that could cause a problem.” he said to himself as he signed the checkout sheet before heading out alone in the middle of that dark night.

He hadn’t started down the trail for more than 500 feet when he noticed that something was not right. His sled was pulling to the left every time he touched the brake. “Humm,” he thought, “I wonder if it`s what I think it is?”. He looked down and confirmed his concerns. “Oh crap! I busted my right claw on that railroad track.” Sure as hell, the thing was completely gone and the brake bar attachment was bent out of whack. “This is not good,” he said to himself. “We still have a very long way to go and proper working brakes would be nice,” In a situation where one is missing a claw to his brake, this makes it that when you apply them, it pulls to the side where you still have a claw thus making it hard to steer. Of course he still had his drag mat but that was just to slow him down and besides he was of the “old school” and liked to do what they called, “brake steering”. This was a method of going around sharp corners in bush country where one would get tired of being dragged in the inside of the curve just to be slapped in the face by branches. Therefore, one would brake hard before the curve, take his foot off when half the team has gone around it and let the sled slide outwards with the speed and momentum. It was a good technique once you mastered it but to do this you needed two claws. Also, there was this concern about the “ravine”. They had moved the trail off its original course a bit and according to the “officials” at the Mushers` Briefing on Friday, the participants could expect to go down a steep canyon type decline so to cross a river and that they needed to use extreme caution. As one of the trail designer had mentioned, “Just think of the “Wall” and how abrupt it is and multiply it by two.” He was a bit alarmed by this statement as he remembered the “Bobsled Ride” in Greenville and was wondering how bad this hill would be. “Oh well,” he tried to persuade himself, “At least, they`ll have caution signs. Trying to look at the bright of things, he reviewed his stay at Check Point #1 and he liked what he saw, “We travelled at an average of 8.1 MPH, stayed at the Check Point for five (5) hours versus eight (8) so we`re in pretty good shape right now.

Yes, the dogs were in good shape but the driver of the team was starting to feel the strain in his body. The “Adrenaline Fix” from when they had taken off at the Starting Line had left his body and he was starting to doze off right there on his runners. “Stay with us, Gino!” he kept on saying to himself, loud enough so that the dogs could hear, “Stay with us!” He was fighting it, that desperate desire to fall asleep by running through his mind the tackling of that ravine as a focal point. He was soon enough at that location and he knew for sure that this was the place. The volunteer that was monitoring that spot was out of his truck and instructing him to be cautious because she was a humdinger of a hill. When he called “Gee” (that`s right for you non-mushers), they left the logging road and entered a small trail that would lead to the “precipice”. There was no question about it, this was it. The hand painted signs and there were more than one, did tell it the way it was. “Caution, steep hill!” “Be prepared to brake!” “Well, I guess they`re trying to give us a hint. Better go to plan “B”. “Stay, you guys, Stay!” The dogs, even “Miss Barberella were more than co-operative and didn`t mind stopping. He planted his snowhooks, retrieved two “drop chains” and wrapped one around the front of each sled runners so that it would slide to hit the first stansion only to be dragged under the “QCR” plastics.  There they would cause friction between the runners and the surface of the snow. He had seen this system permanently installed as a fancy option on young “Bailey Vitello`s” $4500.00 Danler mid-distance sled at the staging area before hitting the trail, Saturday. However, this wasn`t a cat`s ass discovery as, he knew of this method of braking as he had been told of it by his friend “Sebastian Schnuelle”, a charismatic personality in the world of “long distance mushing” and champion of the famous 1000 mile “Yukon Quest” race. At one point, they had been talking about mushing in the “Bunkhouse” and the question had been brought up and explored as to how one negotiates the legendary “Eagle Summit Pass”. “That`s easy, “Sab” had replied in a nonchalant way as if it was normal to throw yourself down a thousand foot drop with a 60 degree pitch, on ice and at break neck speed, “You undo some tuglines and tie “drop chains” under the runners. This is guaranteed to give you some good control over your speed.”

 “Well Boyz and Girlz, let`s do this. Let`s see how we make out with these chains. “Uptrail and Easy!” The dogs moved out and two by two, disappeared over the ridge. When his sled went past its point of balance, it tipped over frontward and dropped down. Momentarily it felt like he was in a zero gravity environment. It felt weird but when the runners hit the snow once again, the drop chains did their thing and a controlled descent was obtained. “Wow, it really works! I almost didn`t have to use my brakes.” he said impressed with this method of slowing down. He stopped on the frozen river, went down the line and petted his dogs and commended them for their great performance. He removed the chains as you guessed it, they would have to climb the other side and it was just as sharp of an uphill. The team put it in low gear and “Jacko” and “Skout”, his two wheel dogs showed the rest of the dogs why they were there. Because of their huge size, it was true that they could not contribute too much at pulling at speeds in the range of 12 MPH but here was a situation that would show why the musher had brought them along. “Jacko, Skout, I need you now, Boyz! Let`s go! Let`s see what you got!” The two older trail veterans knew what their job was and they leaned forward hard in their harnesses and pulled like a couple of “Clydesdale” horses. When they did put their shoulders into it, it was amazing the power these two “superdogs” could generate. “Good Boyz!” he praised his two closest dogs as they reached the top of that levee. “Now that`s the reason I bring guys like you along. Because sometimes you need brute force to get the job done.”

With the worries of the ravine behind him, so far he had done a bang-up job at staying awake but the fatigue was setting in and winning. In and out of that so not wanted sleep, his head was bobbing up and down going from reality to “LALA Land”. Then unexpectedly, he fell off his runners only to wake up abruptly. He looked at his “GPS” and noticed that he had been sleeping standing up for the last 3.5 miles. “Ouff,” he thought shaking his head, “this stretch is murder on the old man!” He had to do something about this so called his team to stop. “Stay,” he asked them, “Time for a snack!” Time for a snack maybe but what he really wanted to do was to walk it out while getting some fresh air so to try ward off the tiredness. They once again ate well and while he was putting stuff away to continue on, he pulled a piece of thick rope, a contraption of “Navy Knots” that he had fabricated for such an occasion where he could not stay awake. He put this “lasso affair” around his waist and over his shoulder in a diagonal fashion and tied the running end of the line to his snowhook. “At least this way,” he thought, “if I fall asleep and fall off, I won`t get stranded out here. Tied and secured to his sled he called for them to move out. He was hoping that his little break would have done the job at waking him up but this was not to happen. Within maybe two (2) miles down the trail, he started nodding off again and was visiting that halfway world where you know that you`re not sleeping but you can`t do anything about what`s happening.

Somewhere out in that eerie “Black Forest”, is situated an archway where a snowmobile club has erected an overhead placard. On it is written that this part of the trail is dedicated to some individual who worked hard at making this trail possible. The musher couldn`t say what the name was as on both occasions he had travelled thru the “Gateway to the land of Ghosts and Goblins”, he was half asleep and just couldn`t catch the name in time. He couldn`t exactly read what was written but in the night, this grayish wooden structure had this creepy cemetery feeling attached to it that wanted to invited sightseers to the “Twilight Zone”. If that was not enough, it was to be a case of “déjà vu”. Same place, same spooky night and to boot, it was snowing just like the previous year. He took in more than a few good deep breaths and talked himself down. “It`s going to be alright, Gino! It`s going to be alright.” On those words, he again nodded off, his chin hit his chest and the dogs were running without a driver…

“Gino, Gino,” Tinker Bell`s voice echoed through the night, “don`t be afraid. We`ll take care of you.” He somehow knew that this was not reality but here she was, his little fairy in her pink “ballerina tutu”, batting her tiny angel wings a thousand RPM a second and fluttering around over his team. She had an important canvas to paint and had no time to chat. She was swiftly flying from one tree to another and with the stroke of her brush, was lighting little flickers of vivid flames all along the way while leaving gold dust in her vortex. She was way faster than the team and outdistanced them only to eventually station herself way out front of our traveling gypsies. From his vantage point, his now not so imaginary friend appeared to be a shiny bright star dancing in the night sky. It was an amazing and euphoric spectacle and our musher was appreciating this magical moment. Because of her spent energies, here he was in a well-lit pathway. This was a real contrast to the previous year. Where instead of those snowflakes turning into “tracer rounds” being shot in his direction, the snow sparkling in his headlamp appeared to be tiny gold dust colored stars that were welcoming him to a special presentation.

Without a warning, he heard some barking but it wasn`t coming from his team. He turned around and he could see way behind him, the shiny eyes of an approaching team. At the speed they were clipping along, there is no way in this military man`s mind that it could be the competition. There was no way a team could travel that fast after such a distance. Then who was it, he asked himself. And that mystery would soon resolve itself when he saw the two white “Spirit Dogs” leading and running full strides towards him. Here they were coming out for some overdue action, the “Ghost Rider” team, a string of dogs composed of all those friends that he had said “Good-Bye” to, over the last eight years. In lead, those two magnificent animals, “Vince” Senior and “Alaska” were charging forward at full speed, followed at point by “Sox” and “Kanuk”. Behind them, “Canine Leonard”, “Flash”, “Lightning”, “Taffy”, “Duchess” and “Blitz” formed the core of the team. And bringing up the rear in wheel, “Mr Tibbs” and his most recent loss, “The Kid”, his good old loveable clown faced trail mate. When it came time for that team to pass them, the driver instructed his dogs to slow down. Our musher instantly recognised the voice of his mentor way before he appeared out of the still of the night. Happy to see him again, he shouted out at him “Leonard Lanteigne, what are you doing here, my friend?” As if he should have known the answer, the Korean War veteran again typically dressed in his traditional Inuit seal skin anorak, looked at him and jokingly replied “Well did you not want help to get thru the night? Did you expect us to miss out on all this fun? Now quit yapping and follow us!” “By the way,” the old Malecite native continued before blowing the doors off him, “You should be proud of yourself, my son! You`ve done extremely well on both fronts.” He didn`t know what the second thing might be but assumed that with the initial compliment, had something to do with how well his dog team looked after more than one hundred (100) miles under their belts. With a quick series of whistles, he directed his two leaders and they bolted forward and put some lightning fast distance between them. They were on an important tasking and would guide our musher and his team through this stretch of trail. The “Ghost Rider” team was literally flying down that corridor and the man could not follow. “Oh well, if I can`t catch up with him, at least I know that I`m headed in the right direction.”

He continued on and way out front, stood a dark silhouette. The closer he got, the more he could make out that it was a person. More precisely it was a square shouldered soldier in full battle dress uniform, wearing white gloves and holding a ceremonial sword. “Standing at Attention”, this figure dominated the foreground and just by standing there commanded the upmost authority. Our musher stopped his team in front of this imposing personality as he felt that this was the only “one” thing to do. “Warrant Officer Roussel. my name is LCol Dodd Tweedy of the Carleton & York Regiment.” (a New-Brunswick unit that had fought and earned battle honours during WWII in Sicily, against NAZI Germany). “We are here tonight to escort you and guarantee you safe passage.” Our ex-soldier knew the name but not in this fashion. He could remember meeting him as a child, this Mr. Tweedy. From what he knew of him, this nice crippled old gentleman in a wheelchair was an individual who after coming back wounded from overseas in 1945, had taken it upon himself to support needy veterans. With his kind heart, not only would he cater to these ex-servicemen but would also help other members of the Edmundston community by lending them money at interest rates way lower than any banks could at the time. In as such, he had helped Leonard Lanteigne when he had come out of Korea in 1953 and this is why this last one was doing the same thing, helping veterans. “You Sir,” have been chosen to carry on in our footsteps. We think that it will take the efforts of a few good men to fix the problem and count you amongst those who can make a difference in the lives of those distressed by the Afghanistan campaign. Now if you will follow me, the Honour Guard is expecting you.” With that, the Commanding Officer made an “About Turn” and belted out the orders. “Honour Guard, Present Arms!” Instantly and in one single synchronised movement, two hundred (200) individuals sharply dressed in different Canadian military uniforms that covered the entire spectrum of the better part of two centuries, snapped into position. “Troops are ready for inspection, Sir”, LCol Tweedy said, “Please follow me!” The two men, tailed by the musher`s dog team walked down the middle of the rows, reviewing the troops. Eye levelled weapons with fixed bayonet shining in that now super illuminated forum, this formation that had gathered for this occasion and that were on both sides of the trail, was a sight to be seen.” Our musher couldn`t really understand what this was all about and I guess the bewildered look that he had on his face spoke volume. Speaking of the many soldiers that had committed suicide because of the horrors of war, LCol Tweedy spoke out so to explain. “You walk around with a bunch of ghosts that cohabitate your head and have asked the friendly ones to help you find courage and strength. Your appeal has been heard and your wish has been granted. All these soldiers on parade today from past to present volunteered to help you out by absorbing your pain and suffering. You have it in you the power to solve what haunts you and the solution is quite simple actually. Resolve to surround yourself with compassion and love, gravitate towards good people and a beautiful new world might just appear in front of you like magic.” Looking around to see if he could detect any “camo” painted faces out beyond the treeline, the “Colonel” added, “As for tonight, I do believe that your evil little friends will not be coming out to play and the rest of your travels will be innocuous.” After reaching the end of the lined up protection party, this same military man stopped and finished with the escort by saying, “You take care of yourself Gino and remember, the mind is a powerful tool and it`s a matter of looking at life with an optimistic approach …”

When our musher came back out of this deep curious sleep, he was slouched over his steering bow and his dogs were stopped at a “Y” junction in the trail, waiting to be told in which direction they should go. Trying to re-orient himself, he looked at his watch and GPS and came to the conclusion that his loyal trail companions had continued on with this voyage on their own and this in a very well behaved manner. However, they didn`t know which way to go and were there standing, waiting for further instructions. They weren`t that far from Check Point #2 in Rocky Brook and he was encouraged by the fact that it was now 0415 hrs in the morning and that they were more than half way there. “Good Morning Guys” he told them loud enough to re-assure them that he was still alive. “You guys did real good!” he continued. “I`m real proud of you!” This was well received by the tired canines, especially by “Barbie”. She was jumping up and down, trying to come to the back of the team and join, her boss. “JR” knew that this was not what was to happen and held the team lined out properly. The musher needed to reassure his blondish young leader that she had done a good job so again visited with each and every one of them. While petting them and giving them a small treat, a “Milk-Bone” dog biscuit, he remained astonished by the fact that these animals would allow themselves to be put through such hardship for such a puny reward. “It`s because they love you, Gino!” this same little voice said from inside him. When he got to his enthusiastic sweetheart of a “Barbie”, she was all in her glories because he was paying special attention to her. Rolling on her back and enjoying a scratch under her armpits, she was looking at the other dogs as if to say, “See, I told you I was his favorite!” Amused, the musher looked at this display of affection but knew quite well what the purpose of this extra consideration was all about. She was starting to develop a bad case of harness burn and he wanted to make sure that the “Bag Balm” he had applied to that affected area in Portage was doing what it was supposed to do which was to prevent it from getting worse. It seemed to be contained but he would have to monitor this closely from now till they finished the race. “Isn`t this interesting!” he realised suddenly, “This is the first time that I actually believe that we might finish this race.” With that bit of optimism, he went back to his sled and called his dogs to move out, “Uptrail, you guys! Next stop, Rocky Brook! Oh yeah by the way! “JR”, “Barbie”, we got to go “Haw” at these forks!”  The team turned left at the juncture and started to trot at a respectable 6.6 MPH speed. He knew the dogs were starting to feel the burns in their legs because of the distance traveled so far so would let them decide at what speed they should move at. He was at ease with this so settled in for the remainder of the ride, assessing the dream he had just had. “Wow,” he concluded after analysing it for a while, “This is the first dream that`s in a military context that I`ve had in close to twenty (20) years where it`s not all about death and violence. This power of suggestion when used in a positive way might just have some attached benefits to all this.”

This deduction had quite the relieving effect to our veteran. You see, part of this living with PTSD makes it that the hellish events that one has lived through do come back to occupy a large portion of one`s mind in the form of wicked lifelike nightmares. In our “Warrior`s” bad dreams, he would constantly revisit three specific incidents, this on a most regular basis and for sure every time he was put under a large amount of stress. How many times in the past would he fight these ghosts in his sleep only to wake up in a complete state of panic? The numbers of nights I assure you, were not in the hundreds but rather in the thousands. How many night had he abstained from going back to sleep after such episodes simply because he was afraid to go back and fight these demons? Again, the numbers were in the multitudes. Yes, he could understand why such a large percentage of military personnel would decide to be the master of their own destiny and choose to end the suffering by taking their own lives, yes he could. To any combat proven veteran, dying in any form it present itself in front of him is something that he has had to deal with and is part of the “Standard Operating Procedures” when waging war. This as morbid as it may sound makes it that death by choice so to end the misery is an attractive alternative. He had fiddled about with those dark chapters since his retirement and this had driven him to total physical and mental exhaustion. He would have given anything for the prospect of living a normal life and would have traded places with anybody that would have volunteered to take on this encumbrance. However, this could not be done so he would have to accept living with memories of the dismembered body parts of a good friend looking for justice, hundreds of decomposing bodies trying to crawl on top of each other out from a river bank somewhere in Bosnia or for that matter the playing of cards in that basement with those two belligerent corps that would constantly cheat. For sure, dreaming of soldiers on parade in spiffy uniforms, was quite the well-received improvement and this would have never happened if he hadn`t challenged himself by putting himself through the torture of this race.

So they had been on the road for just about five (5) hours and everybody on the team was due for a break including the musher. The two (2) young cheerleaders had lost their sense for adventure and were constantly looking for excuses to stop. “Merlin”, at point was no better. He would view this occurrence as a good to reason to sniff “Lady`s” butt, cock his leg and piss on her so to claim her as his. Those three were mostly the reason why the team was doing the stop and go accordion style of travel down the trail and the driver`s temper was starting to percolate inside him. Dawn had broken that early Sunday morning, the sun was rising and its redness was filling the Eastern sky. They had successfully made it through the night, had traveled through it without really taking a proper rest period so when he looked at his watch, it was 0605 hrs. Figuring that at these speeds, he would get to destination by 0900 hrs, he was happy with these numbers. He was ahead of his estimated time of arrival so opted to pull over and rest for a spell. “If we stop here and everybody has a catnap, we`ll be back in business.” he anticipated. Estimating the time period, he calculated that if he could doze off for something like twenty (20) minutes or so, he would feel refreshed. Again gazing at the dial of his watch, he declared to himself, “If we can have a snooze till 0630 hrs, I think this might be what we all need right now.” With that decision, he called out to the team to “Stay!” “Smoke`em if you got them.” he joked with his trail companions. He hadn`t realised what he had just said but it was the same words he would repeat to his troops when he would take them out on “Forced Marches” with a sixty (60) lbs rucksack on their backs. The dogs all looked at him awaiting the next command. “Park it!” he ordered, “Take a load off your feet.” These words were music to their ears and everybody flopped down, Making sure that his two snowhooks were well planted and that the dogs would not take off while he was sleeping in the basket, he laid down on top of his sled bag and within seconds he had zonked out…

“Moooo! Mooooo”, this animal kept verbalizing, “Moooo! Mooooo!” In his dream, this woolly Mammoth was standing in front of him and was slowly shaking his head side to side, calmly swinging its trunk. It was coming too close to him and he was not comfortable sharing this tight space with it…. “Woof, Woof!” he then heard. “Woof, Woof!” It was not an alarming bark but one that said “You should wake up, there Boss Man!” And he did but not before hearing this quiet, “Moooo! Moooooo!” again.

When he came back to reality, all his dogs were still lying down but had all their heads turned, looking at him as if to say, “So now what there “Oh Great One? What are we supposed to do about this?” Folks, this was a “I shit you not” moment, one of those experiences that you would never imagine it would happen unless it happened to you. As fictitious as some of the stuff that was written above might have sounded, this really took place. Yup, it was something that you would see in an episode of the “Twilight Zone”. But honest to goodness there it was, standing splendidly, three feet in front of his two leaders, the king of the North American Animal Kingdom, this magnificent full grown and huge Bull Moose. Standing real proud right there, dressed in his long brown winter coat with white vapours coming out of his nostrils, he again called out with this soft and calm guttural throat noise of “Moooo! Moooooooo!! “OK,” said the man to himself, echoing his dogs concerns, “Now what the fuck do we do now?” Although faced with a very unusual situation, he remained calm and collected. The woods were crawling with these beautiful mammals in this part of the country and he had met hundreds of them traveling the woods with his dogs throughout the years. Contrary to what is reported about their kin folks in Alaska and the Yukon, where they are described as aggressive, mean “attackers”, he knew better. The moose had a bad reputation because of the “Tales of the Trail” and its stretching of the truth when the stories were told. Of course, they could charge at anyone and do severe damage but they would do this when they perceived what was in front of them as a threat and imminent danger. During mating season, they did go a bit crazy but that was natural for them to fight amongst themselves for the female as it was the “Law of the Land” where the strongest of the fittest would survive. So in the real world where all animals live to survive and survive to live, the moose was known by those who knew something about the fauna, as a very docile and unassuming creature. “What`s up there, Big Fella?”, the now fully conscious individual asked. “What can we do for you this morning?” Cool as a cucumber, this mastodon just looked down at “JR” and “Barbie” and started sniffing at them as if to identify what this weird looking, well-disciplined, lined out pack of coyotes could be. This provoked a stir amongst the dogs and they started to growl and get agitated. “OK Boyz,” he told them quietly, “take it easy and everything will be just fine!” Isn`t that right, Mr. Moose?” he put the question to the big quadruped after quietly and slowly getting back to his feet and walking towards it, “Everything is going to be all right.” He was now within two feet from the sightseer and put out his right arm out so that it could sniff his hand. “That`s it Big Fella! As you can see we mean you no harm. Now be a nice big boy and let us by, will you?” Either it was scared or it understood, who knows? However, within a few seconds, it looked at the man straight in the eyes, lifted its head possibly looking around checking for escape routes, turned itself around 180 degrees and started trotting slowly down the trail. “Wasn`t that a curious meeting.” the relieved musher said to himself while letting out a sigh of liberation. “Too bad I didn`t have a camera.” he laughed out loud, “I could have taken a “selfie” of myself and my new friend.”

Watching it go down the same trail that they would be following, he summoned his dogs to move out, “Ready!” he instructed them, “Uptrail!” They bounced right up at the first part of the orders then moved out swiftly, trailing their new acquaintance. The moose kept on clopping along off the snowmobile trail and onto another logging road. For such a big animal, it was moving right along and at 8.2 MPH, the dog team could not follow it. After maybe three (3) miles they could not see it in front of them anymore. The musher kept looking for tracks of it and in the end saw that it had jumped the snowbank and had plowed through the thick white stuff going uphill towards a deforested area. When the man scanned the horizon, there it was standing tall at the highpoint looking down at them as if it was saying, “Have a safe trip!” If this chance meeting was not construed by our friend as a magical moment then what would he make of the fact that when he was awaken by the moose back there, he had looked at his watch and it said 0630 hrs on the dot… Believe it or Not…

The rest of the trip to Check Point #2 was to be uneventful and the dogs were looking solid after one hundred (100) plus miles. As for him, the trail was grinding him down pretty steadily but just in the mental state department. Physically, his body could take the punishment of what the journey had offered so far and there had been a few “dings”. The frontrunners had dug up the trail pretty good especially where they`d jump from snowmobile trails back onto plowed logging roads. By them cutting on the inside at the intersections, it made that the teams in the back of the pack, needed to jump three (3) foot snowbanks at a 45 degree angle. The musher had tried his best to safely navigate through four (4) of these dug up trenches but it took him three (3) times of crashing the sled on its side before he changed his approach. Every time he`d flip the sled, he`d absorb the shock with his shoulders. To this, he`d yell, “Stay!” Subsequently the dogs would stop, look at him lying down on the job, look at each other as if to laugh at him and say, “Rookie! Rookie Mistake!” and wait till he`d get up. That`s what was nice about his team. They knew when things weren`t right in the “back seat” and they would stop when there was trouble. “If we can`t take these “T” intersections at a “right angle”, we`ll turn just before and ride the snowbank length wise and gradually merge onto the logging roads.” This seemed to work and he was glad. His left shoulder was hurting from the poundings. As for getting there, in the twisty narrow trail just six (6) miles before Rocky Brook, his “Maine Made CAN-AM racer” would also be subjected to some severe beatings. The dogs were hearing unusual noises out front and they wanted to go and check what it was all about. They would accelerate and our musher would try to keep the speed under control. Remember that famed broken claw from Portage, well it had caused him headaches all throughout the night but here is where it could have been more than useful to have the two claws. While using the brake, constantly it would pull to the left, steering the sled towards bush and trees that would rattle off the side of it. Let go of the brakes and the dogs would pull it hard to the right and again, he`d bounce off something solid. “Jezz!” he spoke to himself almost losing patience, “I`m going to have to fix this soon!”  In the last straight away, there it was the “One mile to Rocky Brook” sign. Out front was Check Point #2, a cluster of white “ATCO” like trailers with a large maintenance garage that could easily accommodate the biggest of forestry harvesters.

After checking in at 0905 hrs, his team was guided to the perfect and best spot in the entire parking lot. The volunteers had placed him in an isolated corner away from the camp traffic where because of a huge eight (8) foot wall of snow, it would be sheltering them from the testy North Winds that were rising. “Excellent!” he told the people assisting him, “Couldn`t have asked for anything better.” The wind patterns, these he recognised. They would always blow through before announcing these new phenomena that scientists were now calling the “Polar Vortex”. He didn`t know too much about the studies of these phenomena but one thing was for sure within twenty-four (24) hours, a severe cold weather system would settle in and this now would have to be taken into consideration.

Within less than fifteen (15) minutes, the dogs were fed and laying down sponging up the rays of that brilliant morning sun. While watching them settle down for a hard-earned rest, he reached in the inside pockets of his parka and pulled out a bottle of “Gatorade” and a vacuum sealed submarine sandwich. Keeping such precious supplies on the inside like that where body heat was found, was the only sure method of ensuring that food and beverages would not freeze and be immediately available in sub-zero temperatures. Reviewing what he would have to do to again leave in the afternoon, the first priority right now would be to fix his brake. He had already figured out how he`d do that so he rummaged in his “goody box”, found that third knife and a roll of electrical tape and went to work. This particular pocket knife was an Army issue “Gerber”, supplied to all good soldiers in Afghanistan. It was a multiple function tool with a “pull out and lock into position” pair of needle nose pliers. To turn the extended pliers with its tips pointing towards the ground into a claw brake, he used almost half a roll of that tape to secure them into place. It didn`t look too fancy but as long as it served the purpose, our “McGyver”, was happy with this. He wasn`t even finished with this contract, when he would have to deal with another immediate problem. He looked at his dogs and while most of them were sound asleep on their straw, here was and you guessed it, the one and only, “Miss Barbie, Queen of the Shit Disturbers” standing there in front with “JR`s” half chewed harness in her mouth. He didn`t know if he should scold her or laugh it off. The scene was kind of funny in a way as while she was sitting wagging her tail to show the musher what she had “found”, here was “JR” with his front paws over his eyes as if to say, “What next?” The almost discouraged man scratched then shook his head. “Barbie, Barbie, Barbie!” he said while approaching her. “I hope that one of these days you`ll show me that it was all worth it, being patient with you.” She didn`t know what he was saying. She was just happy to again get some special attention. “Oh well, we got a spare one, there Buddy!” Yes they did, but “JR” had been wearing this same old blue harness for the last seven (7) racing seasons. Over time, it had molded quite comfortably to his body and he was happy with it. “I hope you don`t have trouble breaking in the new one. We`ve still got a long way to go.” the man thought to himself a bit concerned, “I just hope that this doesn`t turn into another case of severe “armpit burn”. This was something that would need to be really monitored. Sidelining his “Main Man” would have catastrophic consequences. He didn`t have another dog that could lead the team without the guidance of his white dependable dog “JR”. Now that was not a “Good Thing”.

It was now 1030 hrs, Sunday morning and after again crunching some numbers and checking his “Travel Itinerary”, he soon realised that they had made significant progress. They had made it to Rocky Brook seven hours ahead of “his” schedule. If they respected the prescribed five hour layover, not only would  they have the luxury of traveling to the next Check Point during daylight but just maybe they might be able to capitalize on those rest hours he was accumulating. “This might just work,” he convinced himself while settling in for a few hours of down time. Getting ready for this, he had brought “Barbie” back to the sled with him, figuring out that if he provided her with close adult supervision, the rest of the team might just be able to get some decent sleep. He again laid down on his sled bag, once again enjoying the comfort it did provide for his tired bones. He placed his little blond leader on top of his stomach and draped both her and himself with his huge “XXXL” Canada Goose parka. Now, this was why he had ordered this oversized garment a few years back. He knew what he was looking for and why he wanted such a big coat. It was simple. Every time he`d wear it, he was assured that if he was to be left stranded in the woods, he was guaranteed that the parka with its ample space could be used as a makeshift shelter. One just had to find a spot at the base of a tree, sit there with your knees up to your chest and zip yourself up like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Lying there, his protégé cuddled right up and both of them were snug as a bug in a rug, under that toasty warm down filled “blanket”. “What do you think there, Miss Barbie? Do you think that we might be able to get some sleep?” Poking her shiny little black nose towards the top of his chest, she didn`t care what was being said. She merely let out a big sigh as if to say, “Good Night, Boss Man! Thanks for sharing this moment with me.”

From the sounds of her snoring, she was out like a light and this for the next little while. If only, that crying dog would have shut up, it would have been a real peaceful setting for a good rest. However, this poor thing was crying, howling and barking like there was no tomorrow. One of the mushers that had left just before his arrival, had dropped this dog so to continue on “racing for glory”. From the lamentation of it, it was as if it was saying, “Why did you guys leave me behind? I worked hard for you, why did you abandon me? ” This weeping went on for over an hour ad after listening to this for the better part of that time, our musher took pity on the ditched dog so decided to go and visit with it. “Barbie,” he told her when placing her back on the sled bag, “you hold the fort and relax while I check on this poor soul!” He went to the garage and saw who was causing all the commotion. Here was this one single “Alaskan”, segregated from the rest of the dogs, sitting there in his lonely corner of the building, shaking like a leaf. “Are you alright, there, little buddy?” the man said as he approached and sat with the frightened dog. “Everything is going to be just fine. She didn`t abandon you and these good people will eventually bring you back to join your friends. Now be a dear of a pup and pipe down. Some of us might want to get some sleep around here.” Scratching it behind the ears, while it had its head on his lap, soon enough not only the dog but the musher was also dead to the world. The noise of the loud exhausts of the generator had a relaxing effect on him. It was something that he was used to listening to as it was commonly heard in military camps in any operational theaters. He felt at home with this diesel powered “music” and had no problem whatsoever, falling asleep.  When he was awakened by a couple of volunteers who had attended the garage so to retrieve the dogs and bring them back to Fort-Kent, he felt as fresh as a daisy. Yes, he did have a severe case of “stiff neck” but for the first time in four (4) days, he had managed to catch almost three (3) hours of undisturbed sleep. “Unbelievable how that felt good!” he said to one of the volunteers, “I think we`ll be alright for a while.” “As for you little guy, don`t worry, they`ll take good care of you.” The dog, the way he was acting seemed to be pleased with these reassuring words so the musher left him in very capable hands and went back to his own team. “I guess in the real racing world it`s common to run dogs into the ground and leave them behind. I wonder where all this fits when we talk about responsible racing. One thing was for sure, it didn`t fit in his books. The dogs and himself had started this adventure together and he would do everything in his power so that they would finish it together. This consideration seemed to put some spring in his legs and a second wind in his sails.

He checked on his dogs and they were still quite comfortable baking in the sun. As for his little “Barbie”, well that was another story. She had heard him walking back and she had sprung out from under the parka and had this grin on her face that said, “OK, are we leaving yet?” “Not yet there little one!” he told her while she was licking his face, “But soon.” Glancing at his watch, they had been in Check Point #2 for four (4) so it was time to wake up the troops. It would take just about an hour for him to make them eat and rehydrate and pack everything up so he got to his chores. While they were snacking, he went to the kitchen so to thank the good folks of Rocky Brook for their warm hospitality. “That`s OK, Gino!” Norma, the woman in charge, said “We`ll see you at the Finish Line! “Hey Norma,” he replied, “Right now, all I want is to make it past where I scratched last year.  Everything after the 127 mile mark, I will consider a bonus.”  “No, no, no, no!” she interjected poking her right index finger in his chest, “What`s this defeatism attitude? We will not have any of this here!” she joked. “Besides,” she added, “What are you, a musher or somebody on a Caribbean Cruise?” “Humm,” the proud man who just had his pride stepped on, responded, “You do have a point!” He gave her a huge thank you hug, winked at her and said, “We`ll see you at the Banquet!”

When he checked out at 1408 hrs, on that beautiful Sunday afternoon, Maibec was in his sights and his dogs were willing to push forward. He recognised the early parts of the trail but things were to get a bit confusing. They would have to go through areas where serious logging operations were currently going on. He was trying to re-orient himself but the landscape had totally changed. Where the previous year, he would have passed through a beautiful scenic forest, here he was now in deserted mudflats caused by clear-cutting, bouncing around in the more than too many ruts left by the big “porters” now used by the industry. He understood that the harvesting of timber was a necessary evil and a way of life in these necks of the woods but still he was amazed to see the amount of devastation and waste these “huge” harvesters could do. “Hey,” he consoled himself, “at least these are Irving Woodlands and they`ve got the reputation of replanting trees.” 

He was soon out of that area and was glad that he had temporarily fixed his claw brake. The “Gerber” had done a not so bad job on the icy road surface and he had a sense of good control over his steering. When they traversed from one side to the other, he recognised this river crossing as being a spot close to a cluster of log cabins where while enjoying a week-end with some friends, these guys were volunteers of a Safety Station crew. The musher knew they were close. He could smell the smoke of the barbecued steaks that somebody was cooking at that location. “How`s it going, Gino?” somebody asked when he got to the quaint little cottages, a typical postcard scene you would associate with the great outdoors of Northern Maine. “You know,” said the encouraged musher, “I think we`re in pretty good shape compared to last year.” “I`m glad to hear that.” the man continued, “Last year you looked miserable!” Obviously, this was one of the S&R members that had extracted him from his predicament that fatal afternoon. He didn`t remember him but clearly this volunteer did. “Anyway,” our musher replied smiling and full of confidence, “things are looking up.”

They crossed that same lake where the previous year, they had “waterskied” in knee deep slush. This time around, other than blowing snow caused by a cold crosswind, the traversing went without a hitch or without even the single batting of an eyelid. He was coming up to his notorious 127 mile marker as he recognised that small camp on the other shore of the lake. Just around the corner was the exact location where the ill-fated incident with Skout had happened. He was still very ashamed as to how he had acted towards his old faithful trail buddy and deep in his heart, it was imperative that he make things right with him. “It`s a bit early to stop and snack but after pushing these guys for more than half the way, it`s time to go to contingency plan “C” and drive them using some common sense.” Yes, the dogs had worked extremely well so far but now a different approach would be needed to carry on. From what he was seeing from the very soft stools, they were rapidly adapting to sustained strenuous exercise. Considering that these endurance athletes burn an average of 10,000 calories per 100 miles, it had been impossible to keep up with the replacement of these calories through the ingestion of larger meals. They couldn`t keep them down while trotting and most would “upchuck their lunch” while traveling, thus no getting any valuable nutrition from them.  Consequently, during their first hard day of running, these well-conditioned sleddogs were demonstrating quick metabolic changes. Where at the “Vet Check” that previous Friday, where he had been told by the doctors that his dogs were a bit on the “chunky” side, here they were with their amazing digestive system now starting to feed on those extra fat reserves found in their muscle masses. Here they were thus processing this source of energy and expulsing a by-product called “Lactic Acid”, a big contributor of the observed diarrhea. How all this breakdown of fat, protein and carbohydrates worked was a true science in the real sense of the word and it was complicated. All he knew for sure was that the dogs were melting and it was critical that they take it easy for the next little stretch so that they could replenish while he kept “stoking the boiler”. “Stay, you guys! Stay!” he told them. Without the slightest of hesitation, the entire line of dogs stopped and within half a minute, most of them were laying down without having to be told to “Park It!” “You see what I mean,” he told himself, “this is where it is critical to pump some great quantities of calories in them but in small but multiple portions. So down the line he went, feeding them “popsicles” and kibbles. The hungry canines syphoned everything that was put in front of them and this even after a second round, ten minutes later. They all ate, except for his little “Barbie”. She was just too tired from over-exertion and would not touch her food. “JR” looked at the man, looked at the food, then the man and again at the food till the musher said, “All right “J”, go ahead, eat it!” Make no mistake! He did not leave one single trace of dog food. The man still needed to make amends with someone so went to his wheel dog, kneeled down and grabbed “Skout`s” head. “Listen you gorgeous creature, sorry for what happened last year and thanks for being there for me! It really means a lot to me!” It is most likely that his floppy eared friend didn`t remember the incident but by seeing the smile he had on his face, our musher was managing to convince himself that the gold coloured dog  had forgotten about the matter. It got closer to him with his sniffer working overtime and the man realised that it wasn`t necessarily affection he was looking for but the rest of his submarine sandwich that he had inside his parka. “OK,” he giggled at the opportunistic animal, “If this is what it takes to be forgiven, so be it. I can do without food till we get to Maibec. As soon as it was out of his pocket, all the dogs were gawking at him for a third round of snack. “Sorry Boyz but there isn`t enough for everybody.” he told them but how could he give some to “Skout” without giving some to his partner. “All right!” he said to “Jacko” who was surely using his ice blue eyes to put on a good showing of begging, “you can have some too.” He again pulled out his boot knife and split the sandwich into two even parts. “Subway” makes good submarines but he was sure that his two wheel dogs had never had the chance to taste any of the flavour at the speed they had swallowed them. “Wow, can these dogs pack the food away!” he said impressed with the quantities they were consuming. So there it was, one of the secrets to have a chance at a successful race, “As long as you`ve got trail and they`ve got food, they can go on indefinitely. With a sufficient replenishment of fuel, they might get tired physically but they won`t fatigue in the biochemical sense.” “And that my friend, is how you will complete this CAN-AM 250,” he proclaimed to himself with a sense of conviction, “by keeping their stomach full at all time.” On that note and a good fifteen (15) minutes later, he called “Ready?” then whistled. They did take off but the musher could tell that most of his dogs were starting to visit the “hurt locker”. While on the move, further signs of fatigue were being observed. They were dipping for snow and looking for all sorts of justifications to stop and piss. From the looks of it, these excuses were coming most often and on a regular basis and the source of most of the problems was his little “Barbie”. She had had enough leading the parade and was being less than effective in front.

It was to be an unusual approach to mid-distance racing and a lot of people would question the reasoning of “pit stopping” twice in a distance as short as thirty-one (31) miles. However, another difficult ten (10) miles had just been travelled and it was again time to stop for a couple more small meals and a rest. He was still way ahead of his “ personal travel schedule” so didn`t see any problems taking a few extra minutes petting his deserving team.   There had been a complete lack of co-operation from the two year old leader, so it was time to bring in the “relief pitcher”. “Well my young friend “Schrek”, it`s your turn to go in front!” he told him while he escorted to where “JR” was standing. “As for you Miss “Barbie”, come with me. You can ride in the sled bag for a while. His sweetheart, comfy in the sled bag, he again whistled and the team took off on that final stretch to Check Point #3. The convoy was advancing right along and the speed had augmented to a respectable speed of 8.3 MPH. “Schrek” was a good dog with all the potential to lead but “JR” had returned to his old habits during his apprenticeship during the previous month try-outs. Every time the young trainee would be put in front so to learn the ropes, “JR” would try to intimidate him by snarling at him or pushing him sideways so he would back off.  Today would not be any different and it was happening right then and now. “JR”, the man articulated a bit strongly, “leave “Schrek” alone! Your job is to teach him not intimidate him!” This type of ongoing struggle had been the subject of many discussions between “JR” and the musher over the years and the results always seemed to be the same.  It gave the impression that the man would never be able to find another male lead dog that would be able to work with our “Main Man”, “JR”.  This is what it looked like till “Schrek” had come along. Here was a very persistent individual who knew what leading was all about and would try to do the job even within the constraints imposed by the older “Alpha Dominant” dog. Looking at what was going on in front, the driver could not but have some appreciation for his tenacious understudy. “Good Boy “Schreky Baby”, Good Boy!” he re-assured him while they were getting closer and closer to Maibec, “you`re doing a fine job!”

As for Miss “Barbie”, he was having a hard time controlling her. There was no way that she was going to miss on any of the action. She had been squirming in the sled bag from the instant they had left and was constantly trying to get out. “Come on Girl! What is your problem? Aren`t you enjoying the ride?” he said to her trying to restrain her. “Come on, Stay!” She wouldn`t have anything to do with this “tagging along” and managed to wiggle her way out and jump out of the sled. The now dispirited man didn`t get a chance to call on the team to stop when unexpectedly he saw her running to the front and join her sister “Lady”. There, she started matching her littermate`s pace, stride for stride, horse playing with her and this as if there was no tomorrow. This went on for a fair distance and the man ultimately came to conclude that the reason she didn`t want to run was not because she was exhausted. Rather she had missed being with her sister. “Well, I`ll be a monkey`s uncle!” he chuckled. “If these dogs could talk, us humans might not look so stupid.” So they stopped once more. He reshuffled the order in which the team would be continuing on and away they went smooth sailing the rest of the way.

By the time they rolled into Check Point #3, dusk had rolled in and it was 1830 hrs, Sunday night. The dogs had put in two long days of voyaging and had close to 150 miles under their belts and this within the span of thirty-two hours. They had performed way past his expectations and considering that they had earned another four (4) hours bonus time to their “rest period”, they now had the luxury of extending their stay to twelve (12) hours versus the timetabled eight (8) hours. This made him smile because, the dogs needed a serious “pause for the cause”and here he was with the opportunity of giving it to them. Things, it seemed, were looking up. The dogs would get to rest and recuperate and they could again leave in the morning at daybreak so to confront those so dreaded Maibec Mountains. According to what had been said about them, this is where the true worth of a dog team was established. This is where if you were not well prepared, this race would kick your ass into conceding and calling it “Quits”. During his first attempt at completing the circuit that previous year, the musher had had a stern warning about this in the form of a privileged conversation with another very experienced Quebec dogman. This very helpful “Denis Tremblay” had warned him about these never ending hills between Maibec and Allagash. “Gino,” he had told him, “If there`s one piece of advice that you need to retain, it is that this part of the trail is probably the hardest section of it all. When you move out, make damn sure that your dogs are well rested and ready before you take on this challenge. If this is not the case, your team will flop on the trail and you won`t have any other choice but to turn back and scratch.” This had not fallen into deaf ears and he would rest his dogs for the entire twelve (12) hours.

“Well Gino,” this alarming sounding man said, “you best get ready for a cold one tonight! It`s supposed to go down to -33 degrees Fahrenheit!” This was the initial conversation that he heard when he was being escorted to his parking spot in Maibec. “She`s supposed to be the coldest night we`ve had so far this winter. I hope your dogs are up to it.” There was a definite sense of panic in his voice and it wasn`t hard for our musher to start freaking out.  If this was to be true, how could he gamble with the lives of his “Fur Buddies” and take the chance that they would freeze to death in this bitter cold. This was not an option that he would entertain. While feeding them, he was trying to think of a possible solution but being sleep deprived, this was not computing. Try as much as he could, it was just not happening. The only thing he could come up with was to ask for extra straw for cover. However, when the volunteer came back and told him that they didn`t have any, this was like a punch to the stomach that would totally knock the wind out of him. It had for effect that it was such a mental blow that he couldn`t focus on any other alternative other than “Abandoning the Journey”. Sitting there by his “cooker” absorbing some heat from the wood alcohol and sawdust concoction, he was trying to figure out how he would protect his dogs from the upcoming “hell freezing weather”. He wasn`t coming up with anything that he considered acceptable so he had just about convinced himself in again to “Not Finish” this race. Then his little fairy came to the rescue and with her sweet voice that came from inside him said, “Give it twenty-four (24) hours, Gino. Give it 24 hours!” “Hummm!” he started to re-evaluate, “Right now, it`s not near that cold so that gives me some time to really think this over. Let`s see if I can`t come up with some workable plan.” With that he made sure that his dogs were all well covered with their fancy “Baisley” coats and that they were all tucked in. While they all had feasted on an extra portion of kibbles and meat and would be digesting and resting, he would check out a few things before making a final decision. Also, he was “recceing” his surroundings and came up with an assessment that because of its impressive dimensions, this campsite might have possible resources that would be useful so to assist him in dealing with this glacial sub-zero situation. Check Point #3, set up in “Maibec” was similar to the one in “Rocky Brook” when it came to its structures but a bit more elaborate and modern. There had to be a solution somewhere in there and he would find it.

Like I said, it was a more “High Tech” installation and one of the things that caught his eyes was a communication tower standing there in the dark with a bunch of antennas and some weather signalling instruments. The option of scratching was very tempting at this point as if he did so, his dog team would be housed in that large heated garage and they would be safe. He played with this idea for a while but couldn`t see this in a favorable alternative. Looking at his tired dogs, he just couldn`t see himself do this to them. They had worked extremely hard just to get here and it had been a tremendous team effort. He knew that they wouldn`t care either way the decision would fall but still, this team of rescued misfits, the Canadian Snowhounds, these loveable mutts, never at no time whatsoever had they ever given up on him. That in his books spoke volumes of their devotion and loyalty. They did deserve to cross that finish line with their heads held high and come hell or high water, he would try to find the answer to these precarious circumstances. Staring at that spinning “wind speed” indicator he decided to investigate further what was the deal with these severe weather conditions. “Excuse me,” he called out to one of the volunteers walking close by, “that tower over there, what`s that building?” “That`s the kitchen.” the young man replied, “You can go in there and warm up. Also they`ve got plenty of food if you`re hungry.” The dogs were quite happy to be resting, even his little “Barbie”. Her and her sister “Lady” were cuddled real tight together as if to say “God I missed you!” This made him smile. Finally, his spoiled little blondish girl had learned what had to be done when you stopped at a check point. Finally, after all this time, she had earned her “mid-distance sleddog” badge. “OK, let`s go and see what this place has to offer!” he said to himself picking up his spirits off the floor and deciding that he wasn`t defeated. “Let`s adapt and overcome!”

When he walked into this building, this place was more than a kitchen. It was a very well organised Command Center. It had a well-equipped kitchen where ample food could be found. Right in there where everybody could look at, was a briefing room where a “Power Point” display was keeping everybody up to date as to the progress status of the race. At the other end of a long hallway, here was housed the communications room and finally of course something that all mushers appreciated after being on the trail for a couple of days, toilet facilities with “thrones equipped with warm seats”. “Yes!!” he didn`t hesitate making this his first choice, “Let`s go to the thinking room and see what we can hatch there!” I guess one doesn`t need to go into details as to how things went in there but  anyway when he came out, he had decided to check out what the weather situation would really be. His logic was if these guys have got radio comms then maybe they had “Internet” and if this was the case, maybe he could get accurate data on the weather system that they were facing. Knocking on the door, he waited to be asked to come in. “Listen guys,” he inquired, “From what I`ve been told, it`s going to be super cold throughout the night. If this is true then I`d like to know! I don`t plan on having my dogs suffer through all that and I`m considering “Scratching”. My real question to you is if I do scratch how long would it take before my dogs are taken care of?” This wonderful optimistic lady by the name of “Tonya” piped up and encouraged him,” Gino, please have a seat and consider what you`re saying. Give yourself some time then make a proper decision. By the way, if we could find you some extra straw, would that help?” “Extra straw, giving himself some time to think things over, these were things that might help in this situation. So he took her advice and just sat there on the sofa looking at the activities that were going on in the “Radio Room”. While Tonya was researching weather news on the “web”, there was chatter on the radio net about a missing musher who had failed to check in at the first Safety Station between Maibec and Allagash. According to what was being broadcasted, Sally Manikian was way overdue at that S&R position and they had decided to go look for her. It was now 0045 hrs, Monday morning and the mercury according to Tonya who was basing her information from the weather station in Fort-Kent, had gone down to – 23 degrees (F), dropping fast from -17 (F) and this in the last three (3) hours. This, the ex-soldier was a bit more than concerned about. These developments needed some serious consideration as he didn`t care too much to see a fellow musher stuck in the boondocks in that polar frigid climate. Alone by itself, driving dogs was serious business, never mind being all by your lonesome out there in the middle of the woods in complete darkness.  These coldest of cold temperatures added to the difficulties of enduring these predicaments. Not only would one have to take care of one`s self but one had to look after a dog team. This would and did complicate matters even worse.  This “all-points bulletin missing person” news had spread not only throughout the building like wildfire but throughout every check points of the entire race circuit. To add fuel to the fire, it hadn`t taken long for the doomsday crowd to put out their own theories as to what had happened. The stories were unbelievable and went from “she had lost her team” to “the dogs weren`t in shape enough to take on this race”. When one mentioned that she might have met up with one of these dreaded “Alaskan People Eating Moose”, this one chaotic rumour was one that our musher couldn`t stomach. He was going to say, “Give the girl some credit. If you would have checked her credentials, you would know that she is extremely skilled in bushcrafts and can take care of herself!” However, he bit his tongue and kept his opinion to himself. Instead, frustrated he got off the couch and decided to go and explore so to see if this weather station was installed somewhere within these four walls. He talked to one of the patrons and this kind gentleman directed him to where the data was being collected. He didn`t have his glasses and wished that he had brought them along because he could have used them. However, managing to read from afar, he came to figure out what the temperature readings were at this exact precise location. Contrary to the - 23 (F) temperature indicated in Fort-Kent, Maibec was further North-West and the cold front was making itself feel even worse. It was an unpleasant – 27 (F) and still falling. “Well,” he said approaching the entire situation logically, “Let the people doing the Search & Rescue work do their own thing. I`m sure that they`ve got everything under control and that Sally will be safe and sound. Your priority right now is to take care of your own dogs.” With that, he asked another lady who had offered him a place to sleep for a while as to where it was and asked for a wake-up call at 0330 hrs. “At 0330 hrs in the morning, surely I`ll know how cold the night has gotten and from there, I`ll make the decision. Right now, go back to your team and make things happen. If what you think what you`re thinking might just work, then go for it.”

The accommodations that had been offered were way beyond his expectations. It was in an adjacent building, in a private and quiet room that had of all things, heat. This was more than adequate and was something that he would use and something that would play in his favour. He returned to his team and got to work. First thing was to feed them again. His hamburger soup was still simmering on the “cooker” and steam was still rising from the pot. This would do wonders to warm up the insides of his the dogs. Although most of them did get up voluntarily for this midnight “snack”, he would have to physically lift “Miko” to convince him to eat. He wouldn`t budge from his spot as he was burrowed right into his partner`s body and sharing that heat. The musher knew quite well that this dog was comfortable but of all his team, “Miko” was the one to worry about. He had started the race on the skinny side and right now, he had no fat left whatsoever on his bones. While the other team members were feeling the penetrating cold, he was shivering like there was no tomorrow. It was not his fault. This particular team member looked like a Dalmatian but with the black spots missing. Although he was a true team player that would never slack off his tug line, he was kind of missing plenitude in the fur department. A lot of times when people would ask, “Is that a sleddog?”, the musher would answer, “Well he`s the kind of sleddog that when he sees a Christmas Card, he tends to put a sweater on. No but seriously, he was bred to race when the Global Warming takes effect!”  What astounded the man was if he didn`t tell the inquirers the truth, they would leave, believing this ambiguity. “Oh well,” he`d laugh to himself, “It`s all in fun.”  But right now, this was nothing to laugh at. This dog was feeling it and things were pressing. “Come on “Miko”,” the worried man said, trying to sway his faithful mutt to eat, “this is not the time to go into hypothermia! Do you hear me?” The dog did and after acknowledging the request, he bent over and lapped up his soup. The musher could see that the meal was doing what it was supposed to do. The dog stopped trembling and shook it off as if to say, “Boy I needed that!”

With the meal done, they again decided to lay down. Tonya had been true to her word and they had brought a bale of hay. With this, and the remnants of used straw that had been left behind by the other mushers, he gathered all that he could and put a thick cover of this plant life on top of his “four legged” friends. Also, this year around, he had brought extra everything and this at every check points. In as such, he had extra clothing in his check point “Barrack Box”. He rifled thru it and everything that would provide some degree of heat would be used to protect the dogs from the cold. Extra parka, Used! Extra Long-Johns, Used! His space-age white camouflaged blanket, also Used! Nothing would be spared so his own sleeping bag, that would also be Used! When it came to the skinniest of his crew, “Miko”, him and his sidekick “Keno” would be in for a treat. He unzipped his Canada Goose parka, took it off and shielded them with it. Patting his skinny boy on the head so to say “Good Night, Sleep tight!” he added, “And remember. It`s a $1200.00 jacket and I need it tomorrow to continue on. So you take care of it!” He wasn`t worried about them damaging it. They were good boys. To look at the line of scattered clothing articles all over the ground, one would never have thought that there would be dogs under there. Yeah, it was a very unconventional way to deal with this situation but our musher didn`t care. As long as it did the job, that`s all that was important to him. The team was now very well protected from the elements except for his two leaders. They had been witnesses to all this hustle and bustle and were just sitting there still left out in the cold. Looking at each other, it seemed they were saying, “Hey pal, what`s wrong with this picture? Don`t we rate some attention?” The man had run out of stuff to use to cover them with but not ideas that might be regarded as way out there in left field. While weighing this shortcoming, he had considered something else. He walked to them, unhooked them from the rest of the team and said, “Now you guys, if you learn how to get along, you can share my bed tonight.” It`s as if they knew exactly what he was talking about. He didn`t have to say another word and they followed him to the trailer on their tiptoes so to sneak in like thieves in the night. Quietly, they slipped into the room and crawled onto the bed. He knew that if some people would find out about this sleeping arrangement, they would object to his inventiveness but what the hell, “It was right now a matter of survival and besides there were no rules about such an initiative. “There isn`t now,” he reminded himself, “but as sure as God made little green apples, someone will strongly frown to such a scheme.” “Oh well!” We`ll live with the consequences!” That was the bad side to this story but there was to be a good side to it also. A funny thing happened that night in that room. “JR” and “Schrek” put their differences aside, would become best of friends and as team leaders, would work tremendously well together for the rest of the voyage. Also, during that time that these three amigos were resting there, Remy Leduc would bunk in the extra bed in the same room and would never notice that the two dogs were there. Later on, when our musher would ask him if he had noticed anything strange when he had gone to bed, this tired and confused individual had simply replied, “You`ve been hanging around your dogs for too long. Not only have you got fleas but you`re at the point where even in your dreams, you act like them. I`m sure I heard you barking while you were sleeping.” To this, he simply giggled and said to himself. “And yeah! If I wasn`t such an “old fox”, I would still be able to scratch behind my ears with my hind legs.”

The time to get up did come along and he hadn`t needed the assistance of the woman to wake him up. He felt refreshed but this ever looming worry was hanging over his head. How were his dogs making out? Tailed by his two rejuvenated sidekicks, they trotted out of the “ATCO” and walked towards the team. They seemed fine but the weather had dropped some more and he could have used his parka right now. He refrained from taking it back and put “JR” in his sled bag and brought “Schrek” to where “Barbie” and “Lady” were hiding under that thick sleeping bag. “Hey Girls! Might you be interested in some company?” he asked. They didn`t even budge so he moved them a bit and placed “Schrek” in between them like “Jelly between two slices of bread”. Everybody seemed to be satisfied with their sleeping arrangements so he rushed back to the kitchen. He was having some hunger pains but what he really needed right now was to warm up. This bone chilling temperature was going thru his five layers of clothing and he was starting to get the shivers. “Damn, it`s cold!” he said to someone who was walking out as he was walking in. “It is that!” this man said as they were criss-crossing in the doorway. “The worst part is that tomorrow night, it`s supposed to get even worse.!!!” this person said while exiting the premises. “Holy Shit! You`ve got to be kidding me!” The musher exclaimed, talking to himself, “What`s next?”

Joining the people at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in hand, he decided to kill some time by hanging out with them. From where he was sitting, he could glance at the statistic board and see how the other mushers were making out. Time passed and it was now 0530 hrs, Monday morning and according to his trusted Maibec weather station, the temperature had steadied itself at – 28 degrees (F). When it came to the mushers, Martin Massicotte had just crossed the Finish Line, immediately followed by André Longchamps, who had come in an unbelievable one single minute later. He was amazed at the performances that these guys had put out. Here he was, one hundred miles away and they were done back in Fort-Kent, looking forward to a hot shower. He was happy for Massicotte as this was his fifth winning of this event and there were not too many mushers that could boast winning the same race so many times. Actually anybody could challenge this statement but they would not find any other records reflecting such an achievement. It just did not exist nowhere. There was no doubt in his mind, these two Quebec gladiators were as tough as anybody with the big names and it was too bad that those “pros” on the West Coast wouldn`t come down East and try their luck at competing against these two “Ironmen”. Maybe then, they would have a higher opinion for what the East Coast mushing circuit was all about. It was tough and the CAN-AM 250 did merit that it be treated just like any of the other races with big “titles” and this with the utmost respect. The “stats” were there right in front of everybody`s eyes. Two more competitors had called it “Quits” during the night. It was now official. The Maibec Mountains had just claimed two more victims. With that said, there would be still no words as to the whereabouts of Sally Manikian. However, that was soon to change. Two brave souls had just walked in from completing their search, their snowmobile suits and helmets covered with frost. These two odd looking men in their “spacesuits” were to be the S&R patrol. They had found the missing musher and had escorted her back safely to Check Point #3. “Good Stuff!” our relieved worrier caught himself saying out loud, “Now let`s go and get “our show” ready to hit the road!”.

It was again daybreak and as usual this time of the year, Jupiter was there next to the south facing moon, in its reddish splendor watching over his every move. This planet had special meaning to him so he greeted her in an affectionate way, “Good Morning Gorgeous. Glad you could join us on this beautiful crispy morning.” “As for you guys, it`s rise and shine time. We`re headed to Allagash.” Hearing his voice, heads started popping out from under the coverings. They were cute to see as it was as if some of them were wearing straw hats while others were chewing on toothpicks. Everybody seemed to have spent a good comfortable night. A lot of the dogs were now standing up and shaking themselves off. There wasn`t too much movement from the Canada Goose department, so he went to check what was going on. “Good Morning you sleepy heads, how did you make out?” When he lifted the garment, he could feel the heat rising from under there. It was most obvious that they had done all right by the greeting they were giving him. “Keno” was flopping his tail and looking at him, bright eyed and bushy tail. As for his scrawny friend, “Miko” was lying on his back, doing the “worm” and stretching in his entire length. The man had started cooking breakfast for them and it would take another ten minutes so decided to lay down with them under the parka. Nestling with them with his right hand to support his head, he used his left one to show some affection towards these two athletic canines. “You know Boyz,” he said while having a conversation with both of them, “we`ve only got one hundred (100) miles to go and we`ve done plenty of these types of stretches before. If all goes well between here and Allagash, I can guarantee you that you won`t be sleeping in a “freezer” tomorrow night. Yes, Boyz and Girlz,” he said loud enough so that everybody could hear, “if we play our cards right, we`ll be home by this time tomorrow morning or at least you`ll be enjoying the warmth of your dog boxes. Is everybody ready to some damage today?” he proclaimed. “Yes we are!” he continued, “Yes we are!” The dogs reacted impulsively. They were standing and being very agitated. It was a bright sunny morning, they were well rested, their tanks were full and it was time to show the rest of the world who they really were. Breakfast was served and once again it disappeared as soon as it hit the bowls. All the clothing was picked up and put away and they were just about ready to marshall out.

There was a lot of activity in parking lot that Monday morning. The participants, who had forfeited during the previous night, were in the process of making arrangements so to load their dogs and equipment so to get rides back to Fort-Kent. While this was going on, Julie Albert had just left, Becki Tucker and Remy Leduc, were in the process of getting ready to leave Check Point #3 and from the  looks of it, all three still had that racing “flame” in them and it was very well lit. Anyway, the humans did but as for their dogs, they seemed to be a bit “not so Gung-Ho!” This entire scene did not seem to distract the Canadian Snowhounds as they had opted to again curl up and wait for further instructions. Our musher really felt alive especially with that jolt of “Adrenaline”. All this action had pumped up the addictive juice through his veins and it was a welcomed feeling as he knew, it would carry him for the better part of the next twenty-four (24). “Might as well ride the wave,” he said while doing final preparations. He was just about to take off also when he pressed that notorious brake only to realize that something was again not “kosher”. He looked down and saw that the points of the needle nose pliers had broken off somewhere in that last stretch and this was something that was again going to “piss on his parade”. “Ah Fuck!” he muttered under his breath, “I got to fix that before I take off. He was setting himself up to have a bad day but “Tinker Bell” came to the rescue. “Now, now, Mr Roussel,” she said from inside him but with most authority, “What’s with the attitude? Did we maybe forget what this journey is all about? If so let me remind you. It`s not about racing at the detriment of hurting your dogs. No it isn`t! It`s about enjoying the scenery and bringing them home safely.” He chewed on those words and readjusted his approach as to how he would continue this trip. “OK then, first things first! Let`s get this brake situation resolved. “OK guys, you rest for a little longer while I check and see what that maintenance garage might have to offer.” With that said, he marched over and scoured inside the building. He found what he needed and this in a piece of discarded flat bar and a couple of “7/16 wrenches”. These would do the trick for a “quick fix”. For some reason though he didn`t feel right about taking this stuff without permission simply because people trusted that things wouldn`t go missing during these races and also because he was not a thief.  When he walked out the door, he saw a man that was discussing transport arrangements with one of the volunteers for Don Hibbs` dogs. By what he was wearing, the “Irving” ball cap and the “Irving” Maine Woodlands jacket, he appeared to be the “Man in Charge” in Maibec. It turns out and this our musher would find out later at the Banquet, that his hunch had been right. Not only did he run the operations at this Check Point, he was a high executive for the “Irving” company therefore what he had judge to be one, was in fact a good call. Anyway, outside that garage that morning, the musher had approached him only to ask if it was all right to use the tools and take the piece of metal. “If need be,” our McGyver said to him, “I`ll even pay for this piece of scrap.” The man listened as to the reason he needed this for and I guess he was being well convinced that it would appropriate. During all this time, this other well-known musher from Maine, Don Hibbs, had been standing there in hearing distance and would suggest a better alternative. “Hey listen Gino,” he interrupted while pointing to the dog truck, “If you can use one of the claws off my sled, you can borrow it. I won`t be using it for a while and if you promise to get it back to me, it`s yours to have. “A bit taken by surprise, our musher looked at him and said, “You`d do that, really?” “Why not? Isn`t this what this world is all about, helping your fellow man?” This revelation made the ex-soldier smile on the outside and made him feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. Here was a person who had the reputation of being as “hard core” as they came and here he was being a nice guy. The gesture was really heart felt but what really made his day was when he noticed that the item being offered was identical to the Maine Made brake claw that he had broken. In a snap, it was unfastened from that sled and put on his within ten (10) minutes. When he brought back the tools where he had found them, both individuals were gone and he hadn`t had the chance to thank them. “Oh well, next time.” he said to himself while walking back to his team.

On his way there, he would come across Sally Manikien who was busy tending to her dogs. From the looks of her, she had had a really rough night and seemed to want to avoid talking about her misadventure of the previous evening. That was fine by him as he suspected that she felt the same way as he had when they had extracted him that preceding year. But he also knew that she could use one so offered it. “Hey Sally,” he volunteered, “you look like you could use a hug just about now!” This she did and approached him. He opened his arms wide and gave her the notorious “Huge Bear Hug”. “Hey,” he consoled her, “I`m just glad that you and your dogs are all right. And remember, there will always be next year!”

Leaving it at that, he left and when he came in within fifty (50) feet from his team, he whistled and immediately got their attention. “OK Boyz! Lock and load! We`re out of here!” And this they soon would be. He would be the last participant out of Maibec but knew that this is where the rubber would hit the road. The dogs were impatient and he was having a hard time holding them back when he signed out. They were overly excited and acting the same way as when they had left the “Starting Chute” back there in Fort-Kent. “What did you feed these guys?” the guy holding the check-out clipboard said just before allowing them to go. “That my friend, is an ancient Chinese Secret”, the satisfied tactician rebutted as he winked at him. “Sometimes you just got to think outside the box.” His strategy was coming in to play quite masterfully and he was most confident that this 56 mile “Leg” would be no match for his revitalized dogs.

When he left Maibec, snow clouds billowing, he had no doubt that they would complete their mission. “If one thing,” he reminded himself, “you best hold them back for a while. Remember, the Finish Line is in Fort-Kent, not in Allagash.” The trail was like a concrete sidewalk and in perfect condition. Whoever had groomed it had done an incredible job and one could easily see that the individual (s) took real pride in his or their work. The team was capitalizing on these circumstances. They had settled in a fast trotting rhythmic cadence and he liked what he was seeing. That twelve (12) hours rest had done miracles and it was like if they were back in Baisley on “home turf”, leaving the trailhead after a week-end off. They were smoking down that trail. Impressed and at the same time amused by their resurgence of enthusiasm, he tried to talk them into slowing down. This was not to be the case for a little while. The two cheerleaders were back in full form and were edging the team on to a set and comfortable pace of 8.6 MPH. “Easy Guys!” he had commanded them, trying to bring their speed down a notch. “You`re going to burn out!” This went on for a good fourteen (14) miles till finally he told them who was in charge. “Listen Boys and Girls!” he belted out, “Slow it down!” “JR, Schrek, make it happen!” It was as if they now understood that the hills in front of them would be serious business. They slowed down the pace to a 7.8 MPH average and blew right through the first series of rises and valleys. His “machine” was firing on all twelve (12) cylinders and they were looking super good after twenty (20) miles.  They had caught up with Remy Leduc`s team and he was proud of them. Just to make sure he wouldn`t become the rabbit in the chase, once he was around a corner and still going uphill, he whistled and the dogs banged forward and took off running. While he was sprinting behind, his team picked up some speed and left that bunch back there wondering where the “Snowhounds” had gotten that burst of energy. Our warrior was in his “zone”, the dogs were performing flawlessly and by now he was looking for it. She had to be there just in front of him, she had to be. According to the ridge lines on the map that he had studied and where the first Safety Station was supposed to be situated on this section of trail, he had to be close to it. Denis Tremblay had been very specific with its description when they had had their chat that last year. Then he had said, “You`ll know that it`s the one that cripples and discourages the teams. She`s one hell of an incline and you climb that stupid hill for seven (7) miles. When you see a 90 degree right-hand bend in the trail while observing the rest of the trail way up there in a clearing on your left side then you`ll know you`re at the right place. Best be ready for it because she`s a long “son of a bitch” of a haul!” The driver recognised the exact spot and Tremblay had been right. The pain and suffering had started and it could be felt. According to his GPS, they had been climbing this “Monster” for 4.5 miles and it seemed that when one thought that they were done, one would go around another bend only to face another steep gradient. “Holy Shit!” the musher exclaimed out loud and almost desperate, “Is this ever going to end?” Sweating like a pig, he continued running. The dogs were putting everything they had to get themselves to the top and this was no time to slack off. “Jacko, Skout, how are you making out there Boyz?” They didn`t even flinch at the question. His two strong wheel dogs were concentrated and were there for the rest of the team. You could feel their workhorse strength every step of the way and their contribution was phenomenal. Huffing and puffing, the man kept on going. Putting one foot in front of the other, he pushed on with his rushing efforts. His feet by now, he could feel it, were again bleeding. Those blisters that he had collected from frost bite two months prior weren`t necessarily healed and he could feel this warm runny fluid oozing from under the toe area only to be absorbed by the felt of his boots. “This is no time to be a quitter.” he convinced himself focusing on something else, “We will succeed!” Closing his eyes, the nucleus of his attentiveness returned back to the consideration of “Giving it twenty-four (24) hours”, “Sleeping on It”, “Not making a snap decision” or another very similar substitute “Giving it some time to reflect about it”. This way of dealing with any situations was another most powerful tool and a most useful one. It didn`t matter in what context it was used in, those who “sat down” and went through a mental process of evaluating thoroughly their difficulty, could most likely come up with a viable and positive answer.

Then that event flashed back right before his eyes. If you recall the “coyote” incident that we talked about way before in this long winded story, our musher had had quite the excitement that evening and for this reason, there was no way that he could fall asleep. In as such and due to the fact that it was Christmas Eve, he had attended the “Bunkhouse” where he would spend the night writing personal “Season`s Greetings” notes to his close friends around the world. That`s what was nice about being “connected” through the Internet. You could stay in touch with everyone that you cared for all the time and at a fraction of the cost. At any rate, he was getting things done when unexpectedly, the phone rang. Surprised, he asked himself, “Who can that be at 0230 hrs, in the morning?”  Curious to find out, he picked up the receiver and said “Hello!” There was dead silence at the other end so again he spoke out, “Hello! Is somebody there?” The fact that there was somebody there, this he had established. Nobody was speaking but there were background noises that sounded like cars rolling by. “Hey, is somebody there?” he asked for a second time in a most inquisitive way. Then “out of the blue” a male voice was heard at the other end. “Give me a reason why I shouldn`t jump!” it said. “Pardon Me?” our veteran replied more than a bit mystified by the statement. “Give me a reason as to why I shouldn`t fucking jump off this bridge right now!” “OK!!!!” our ex-Military Policeman quickly assessed. “Time to put our thinking cap on! Obviously, we`re dealing with a troubled person here and we need to do something quick and right now.” “Well, “he continued, “First of all it`s Christmas Eve… Secondly, do you realize that all the people that are working tonight are probably all hoping that it`s a quiet shift. Do you also realize that if you jump, this means that the Fire Department, the Police, the Emergency Room staff, all these good folks will have to put the pedal to the metal and go into overdrive because you`re selfish and you`re stupid. Do you think that it`s fair for you to wreck their Christmas?” “Hey, don`t talk to me like that,” the “wannabe jumper” said defending his position, “Don`t call me stupid!” “Listen Pal,” our musher responded, knowing quite well that he had struck a sensitive chord and on an intimate level with the desperate man. “You should think about this a bit more. Seriously, why don`t you give it twenty-four (24) hours before doing the deed. What have you got to lose?” There was silence… “Anyway, while I`ve got your attention, who are you and where exactly are you calling from right now?” he inquired. After another moment of hesitation, the sailor identified himself and told him that he was on the “MacDonald Bridge” in Halifax, Nova-Scotia. He had lots to say so the musher let him continue to tell his story and vent his frustrations. This went on for a long interval but it was worthwhile listening to. Like the too many others out there, he felt that he had been abandoned by the “System” and that nobody cared. His account of what happened to him was different in some aspects but the pattern and nature of the complaint was the same. The bureaucracy involved in getting help to these servicemen was a terribly long drawn out process. Patience to the “afflicted” was something that they didn`t have too much of and a lot of times, these Soldiers, Airmen and Sailors just didn`t have the courage to fill out the heavy pile of paperwork. What could our musher do right now other than provide a sympathetic ear to this individual? Not much. They were separated by seven hundred (700) kilometers and it was in the middle of the night. “Hold on,” he thought, looking at his Facebook “Chat Box”. One of his good friends that also took care of veterans in that neck of the woods had his “Green Dot” lit up. Instantly, he got a hold of him. He was available and could meet our sailor at the “Van Houte`s” next to the base within fifteen (15) minutes. This was relayed to our now calmer Navy man and he opted to choose this less drastic alternative. What was to transpire between those two after that meeting is to remain confidential but it is safe to say even today that it ended on a happy note.

That`s what he was ruminating in his head so to kill time and most important so to try to forget about the agonizing pain in his legs. He was having limited attainment. They were burning real bad and for the first time since the beginning of this 250 mile marathon, he felt like he could not continue physically. “Come on, you Old Fuck! This is not the time to be wimping out! Do not allow yourself to slack off and stand there on your runners only to be pulled by your dogs. Your contribution is needed so this is not going to happen! Do you hear me?” Those last words hadn`t had a chance to come out of his mouth when he heard somebody else curse this “monster” of a climb. Just around another discouraging uphill bend, here was Becki Tucker, stopped there and blocking the trail. After calling his team to stay, he yelled out at her, “Hey Becki, how`s it going?” The look on her face said plenty as to how she felt about the “Monster”. It hadn`t been an easy ascent so far and she would be snacking and resting her dogs for a bit. “I`m having some issues here,” she replied, “and I`m going to be here for a while so if you want to get by, go for it!” The way she sounded, it wasn`t necessarily a suggestion but rather a statement that she wanted to be left alone. Our musher could take the hint. He flopped his sled on its left side, walked to the front of his leaders and guided them past that team. “OK then, we`ll see you later!” he finished before carrying on. “Hey,” she teasingly shouted out as he was putting some distance between them, “We`ll see you at the finish line!” Still climbing and running behind his team, he could not help but have a high opinion of this “lady musher”. For the longest of times, he had thought that this “tough cookie” image was all an act. However, he had been totally wrong about this since racing against her during the last two winters.  Like the many other women participating, she was a fine example of the fact that this sleddog racing was an equal opportunity sport. In it, both men and women participated on the same playing field and there was no question about it, everybody had earned and deserved respect.  During this CAN-AM 250, he had appreciated the care and love she had demonstrated towards her “Siberians”. He had noticed that while at the checkpoints she would spend tremendous amount of time examining each and every dog of hers then tend to their every needs. This was a quality that her male counterparts did not necessarily excel at and in his books, this with her spirited attitude warranted that she be nominated “Rookie of the Year”. The last 150 miles had been more than taxing on our musher and he had no scruples in saying that she was a genuine “morale booster” if he ever knew one. She was the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” of the sleddog world and at no time would she ever give a hint at packing it in. It just seemed that it wasn`t in her vocabulary. Even in Maibec while enduring that polar frigid weather, she would not give a clue that she would concede. And believe me, the man had tested her doggedness. While he had sat in that “Radio Room”, she had walked in while the “Scratching” conversation had gone on. He had suggested that they both call it a day. This, she would not hear and had put up a real good argument so to try to convince our musher to continue on. Maybe she hadn`t realized what she had done then or the impact of her words had on him at that moment but rest assured, she had influenced his decision to carry on and this “Big Time”. “One of these days, I`ll have to mention this to her,” he said while suffering but smiling, “but right now, we`ve got to conquer the “Monster”. 

This they did and once he had managed to catch his breath, he was soon to realize that once you got to know who the “Monster” was, it wasn`t really that scary. He wasn`t as frightful as people had made him out to be. It was just a question of having an open mind, removing all the allusions made about his subject and allowing one`s self to see what really stood behind that façade.  Once one could do this, well one could judge for himself what he was dealing with. In this illustration, our wiser man comprehended  that he wasn`t dealing with a “Freak of Nature” but rather a kind and approachable “Gentle Giant” that had lots to offer. There were philosophical parallels attached to this deliberation. In its own twisted way, it was exposing some of the stigma associated with Post Traumatic Stress.  He was astonished that in today`s modern society with it`s easy access to the “World Wide Web”, that there was still this ignorant and certainly ill-informed layer of the masses that would still stand around with their heads stuck in the sand. He just couldn`t accept with objectivity the actuality that people would categorize those suffering to the point of discrimination. It wasn`t the soldiers` fault that they would come back from a foreign land distressed and injured mentally. For the majority of them, they truly believed in a righteous cause and did this in the service of their country and its “politics of the day”. Was he the only one that could appreciate the paradox behind what had transpired after that dreadful morning on 11 Sep 2001?  How ironic was this that when “they” crashed those two planes in the “Twin Towers”, everybody jumped on the “Bandwagon” and told the “Boyz”, “Now you go over there and show them what we`re made of!  We`re behind you, 110%!” In those days, you could see a lot of patriotism and a lot of wrapping one`s self with the flag. This, believe it or not actually had a lot of influence on young men and women to walk down to the Recruiting Centers and enlist. That was then.  Now and after a drawn out twelve (12) year long “War on Terrorism”, where was this support?  I would suggest highly diminished. Sure our “Boyz” do receive help and support from their close immediate families and certain Government agencies but what about the rest of us?  Are we personally doing enough to show some gratitude? I`m not too sure about this part of the story.  When you take the time to look at how the general population reacts when looking at veterans walking around with either physical or mental injuries, it is most obvious that not everybody is at ease with these meetings. Physically, veterans with disfigured faces and/or with prosthetic arms and legs do bring some levels of discomfort to a lot of us but most of the time we manage to hide these displeasures. However, when it comes to the psychological injuries, because it is still not too well-defined yet as to what one is dealing with, people tend to accept as the “Gospel Truth” all sorts of gibberish. These innuendos and unfounded diagnostics tend to feed on themselves to the point of paranoia thus portraying these veterans as crazy lunatic “Monsters”. Now here`s a “News Flash” Folks! That`s not what these soldiers are all about, This person who you point your finger at and call a “Beast” behind his back, is simply an individual who is a victim of adverse consequences of when one wages war. This PTSD spinoff that you hear, see and read about is something that might sound like a new subject to our generation but is something that in fact has been around ever since mankind decided to pick up weapons and fight amongst each other. The problem is that the “Disorder” in one way or the other does affect most of us directly or indirectly. It is here to stay and will be around for a very long while. It is part of the price to pay for freedom and security, a cost that has to be absorbed by not only these soldiers but also by all levels of the social order. So if we are going to live side by side and in harmony with these “Servants of the People”,  the best thing to do under these conditions is get better educated about it so that everybody is on the same sheet of music and marches to the beat of the same drum.

That “bitch of a climb” which by the way was 6.7 rather than seven (7) miles, once chewed and spitted out, opened up a whole new horizon and wasn`t that dreadful after all. Finally up there in a small clearing on those high plateaux, he stalled them and gave his meritorious team their “hamburger popsicles”, a good cup full of kibbles and to each and every one of them, a huge well deserved hug.  Standing with that big yellow ball of fire radiating on his face, looking back from where they had arrived from, way down at that speck of a gorge, he could see the Maibec campsite. In that same general proximity but further west, was situated the small town of St-Pamphile, a community across the border, in Quebec, Canada. “Wow,” while he admired this picturesque portrait, “It just doesn`t get any better than this. From way up here you can see what the Appalachian Mountain range is all about. Out there, where that thin white ribbon of fog seems to be just hanging, that would be where they end at the more than majestic St-Lawrence River. On the other side, way past that, my guess would be that those are the sharper peaks of the Quebec North Shore. These contrasts and decor are breathtaking but there`s only one problem.” he smiled, “You`ve got to be able to climb and tame this “Gentle Giant” and really take time to appreciate the scenery!” He returned to his sled and while he was putting his “Arctic Mitts” back on, he instructed the dogs to get ready. Taking in a deep and revitalizing breath of fresh air and with that sharp spearhead of the team pointing towards east, he called it out, “JR, Schecky Baby! Move Em Out!” With the greatest of ease, they carried out the orders and back on the trail they cruised.


He knew he was getting close to Check Point #4 without having to depend on the trail marker that was now indicating “7 miles to Allagash”. That snow covered flat and treeless area that he was seeing, north from his position was one of the last non polluted crystal clear body of water in these parts. Called “Glazier Lake”, both the state of Maine and the province of New-Brunswick could claim it as their own because it was part of the border between the United States and Canada. That particular region, our explorer knew quite well because it was part of his two hundred (200) mile trail system where he would guide winter sleddog expeditions. Technically, he was in his oversized backyard and right now it felt like he was coming home. It felt good to have less than fifty (50) miles to go especially on this beautiful Monday with these great conditions. Although he was enjoying a cloudless blue sky with a brilliant sun shining, the atmosphere was a bit on the frosty side at about – 6 degrees (F). The dogs loved this type of climate and they were performing in the great to excellent range. By now, it was getting close to mid-afternoon and our musher had evaluated that this was going to be as warm as it would get that day. He was running two possible scenarios as to how he`d tackle the final stretch from Allagash to “Home Base” in Fort-Kent. These “Polar Vortex” would and did usually sit for three days and if he had heard right in Maibec, it was supposed to get colder during the upcoming night. The first scenario of spending the night in Allagash then proceed on the next morning had some merit but it meant that the dogs would have to spend another night battling the elements. The second option was to rest them for a short five (5) hours and run the gauntlet through the night. If they had enough energy to travel the distance, at least they could stay warm through physical exercise. Did they have in them to pull off such a feat? He wasn`t too sure about this gamble. It meant throwing caution to the wind and this up to this stage, he hadn`t done. “What to do? What to do?” was the question that kept repeating itself in his head for the last two miles. “Should I stay or should I go? He was really stuck on making a choice but again like magic something would again show him a sign and light up the way for him.

“What the Hell?” he exclaimed when the dogs lurched forward unexpectedly almost ripping the steering bow out of his hands. They had alerted to something on the trail in front of them and their carnivorous hunting instinct had kicked in and a fast chase would ensue. He had seen this behaviour many of times so started to gaze ahead through the twisty over-forested snowmobile trail to see what they might be tracking. He could distinguish shapes lined up and running in front of them but could not for sure identify what or who it was. The most logical possibility was that he had caught up with Julie Albert. If that was the case, he thought, he had done a tremendous job running this stretch of trail. Then the realities set in and he started questioning as to how this could be. She had left an hour and a half before him. She had way faster dogs than him and he doubted very much that she had run out of steam. So the question remained. What could this be then?  Travelling at a surprising 10.4 MPH, there was no sense in trying to brake the team. The trees were coming at him too fast and too furious. “The best thing to do,” he suggested to himself, “is to hold on and drive it like there`s no tomorrow.” Out of all those twists and turns, there was to be an eventual straightaway and behold there they were, seven beautiful (7) white-tailed deers. They were casually bopping up and down the trail undisturbed by the dogs and as if they were providing them with an escort. This went on for the longest distance and just about maybe 1000 feet to the Allagash Check Point where they disappeared into the bushes on a path that was familiar to them. Once again this journey would bring some incredible experience but that was not the best of it. This dash to Check Point #4 would eventually earn the man the fifth fastest time for that segment, thus some prize money. As an added bonus, it would provide an answer to one of those bothering questions. It just now had been resolved. They would take a five hour break in Allagash and would carry on to the Finish Line. From what he had just observed, his dog team still had lots of “Get-up and Go” to push through the anticipated “coldest night of the year” and this was the better of the two alternatives. “This way,” he logically calculated, “once I get the team moving again to generate heat through muscular activity, this might just be sufficient enough to maintain a close to normal body temperature of 101 degrees (F). With that decision made and that last left-hand downhill curve, he ended up on Highway 161, on the asphalt surface maybe 500 feet west of Check Point #4. They were expecting him but I guess they weren’t expecting him to come in flying low and so recklessly. The lady volunteer that was supposed to escort him to the resting area started running but just couldn’t keep up. She was on the side of the road between the highway and where the trail was. This made it that “JR” couldn`t get to the snow packed area and was leading the team real close to the center line of the road. “Gee “JR”, Gee!” the man kept repeating but it was no use. “JR” not but young “Schrek” was startled by this jogging woman and would not cooperate and go on the trail. Carbide tips on the claw brakes were digging in the black tar surface and the UHMW plastic was curling from under the runners.  After quite the spectacle of an approach, the musher finally got to stop right at the entrance to the resting area. The question that would remain a mystery to this date was, “Had they stopped there because he had asked them to or was it because there was a line of people across the roadway blocking the way?” Both possibilities were imaginable but at the time he didn`t think of them. He was just happy that they had made it to Allagash in one piece.

The two nicest persons you`d ever want to meet after driving dogs for two hundred (200) miles were there to escort the team to their resting spot. Another lady by the same name of “Ruth” and a nice gentleman by the name of “Vern” made sure that they would get there fast and with most efficiency. The Check Point box, the food cooler, a bucket of hot water and the straw, all were sitting there already to be used immediately upon their arrival. The resting areas had been located in deep snow in a field where they had used a snowblower to make long four (4) feet wide straight trenches.  It was a great arrangement as with the tall snow banks on each side of them, the dog team would be able to rest properly, secluded from unnecessary noise and protected from the prevailing blowing north winds. There was to be a mandatory “Vet Check” at Check Point #4 and “Dr Nick” and his crew examined every dog thoroughly. Although the doctors had detected small injuries and stiffness, they advised the musher that all his twelve dogs were in great shape and could continue on to Fort-Kent. This was music to the man`s ears as he had promised his “Fur Buddies” that they would finish this adventure together and this news took some of those uncertainties off his mind. In spite of this, he still had some concern about his skinny friend “Miko”. “Listen Doc,” he insisted with the head veterinarian, “what do you think about this character, weight wise?” Dr Nick took a second look and re-examined the white “Dalmatian”. Satisfied, he reassured the dogman, “Yes he`s a bit on the slim side but that`s normal after so much time on the trail. He seems to be well hydrated and in good spirit so he should be OK to continue on.” “Thanks Doc!” the man simply responded.  Soon after, the feeding and bedding down was completed and the dogs immediately laid there for the next few hours. “Have a good one!” the old soldier said after walking to each and every one of them to make sure that all would have a comfortable sleep. “You most deserve it!” When he reached his last two trail partners, he kneeled down in front of his wheel dogs and gave them a bit more attention. “Jacko” and “Skout” had put it all out in that last 56 mile stretch and they looked the part. They were exhausted. “How are my “Big Guys” making out?” he asked with some apprehension. “That pace was a bit fast, wasn`t it?” The two stronger but slower team members didn`t need to voice their opinion, their facial expression said it all. “You know Boyz! I have to agree. It`s really time that we put an end to this wonderful adventure. I`ll tell you what. You hang in there for the final push and I promise you that I`ll make it up to you guys. Guaranteed!” He continued scratching them behind the ears but they had a long time ago quit appreciating it. Like the rest of the team, they were snoring.   

“Well, let`s go inside and get you fueled up!” the tired driver said to himself while walking to the restaurant that acted as the Check Point area. “Let`s get you ready for those last 43 miles.” When he entered it, the place was jammed packed with people and while the atmosphere was filled with excitement and the smell of fried food, it felt welcoming and comfortable. Allagash was the last town in northern Maine where civilization stopped and bush country started. The small community of 247 residents that lived in the area mostly earned a living through either the forest industry or the tourist trade. This region was well known for its beautiful unspoiled rivers and lakes and the best way to describe the area and its sportsmanship activities would be that "If you wanted good hunting and good fishing, Allagash was the place to go!"  He scouted his surroundings and this smile came on his face. The four walls were a true testimony to the statement that this was “Big Buck Country”. With very limited room for another one, they were plastered with stuffed deer heads, prizes that had been harvested from the local region. He examined all these award-winning trophies and noticed that although there was an entire assortment of displayed animal species, they didn`t have the “one” hanging in the attic of his shop. Considering that the animal had once called this sector “home” and that the last sighting of one in Maine was in 1908, this was something that he would give them to commemorate their passage during the “2014 CAN-AM 250”. “Yup, somehow, I`ll have to get that “Caribou Head” up here. This is where it belongs.”  

He had found it curious that his handler “Ruth” was not in location and was wondering what that was all about. This question would soon be answered by “Tucker`s handler”, David Barrett, who approached him and delivered the news. “Gino,” he started, “Ruth told me to tell you that she had an accident with your trailer and that`s why she`s not here!” “OK!” interrupted the musher taking all this in with some real anxious concern, “Never mind the trailer, how`s Ruth? Is she all right?” “Yeah she is.” he continued, “She told me when I spoke to her at the “Ski Hill” to tell you that she broke an axle but not to worry. It`s in the process of getting fixed and it should be waiting for you at the Finish Line.” This last bit of information defused the situation. Knowing that his best friend was not injured made the entire difference. The trailer was of second importance. It could probably be repaired and he knew that if things needed to be done efficiently, Ruth was more than capable and the right person for the right job.

After ordering something that he normally wouldn`t eat, he joined the joyous French Canadian crowd at their table. Other than for Julie Albert, the rest of the mushers sitting there had already finished their race. They had their own stories as to how things had gone and were full of great information as to how the trail would be for the upcoming run. “You know Gino,” Denis Tremblay advised him, “your miseries are just about over. The hard hills are done and over with and it`s now a matter of driving your dogs “home”. At about seventeen (17) miles out of Fort-Kent, you will recognise the trail. It`s the same one that everybody of the 30, 60 and 250 travel on, on their way there. The only thing that I would consider for tonight is the cold and staying awake. Other than that, it should be an easy run...” “An easy run, heh?” our dogman thought to himself, “and those two things that you just mentioned are exactly the two things that I`m worried about. I`m worn-out and it`s supposed to get real cold throughout the night. Great stuff!” On that note, he went to one of the volunteers who was monitoring the race with a radio and a “lap top” computer. “Listen my friend, have you got access to some weather forecasts. They say it`s going to be a chilly one out there tonight. How cold can we expect it to be?” The volunteer didn`t need to look for it. He already had it at the disposition of the mushers. “Let`s see here.” he started to then continue,  “With the wind chill factors, right now we are looking at  –26 degrees (F). Throughout the night, it should continue dropping and hit –37 degrees (F), considering the winds. Sounds like a cold one to me.” he ended showing some sincere uneasiness. “Thanks!” the musher replied, “That`s real good to know.” When he came back to his same table, he wasn`t listening to the conversations anymore. His French Fries with gravy and two Hot Dogs had showed up and while he was devouring this cholesterol packed food, he was in his own little world, running in his head the “game plan” that he would use in the final section of the trail. It was simple. He would divide the trail into four equal distances and stop to rest for ten (10) to fifteen (15) minutes so that the dogs wouldn`t get tired. This way, he would decide when they would stop and not the other way around. Right now, it was a simple question of putting the time on the “runners” at an easy pace and finishing. It was a straightforward approach, one that at least he thought, might work. After his meal, he returned to his dogs and they were still in the prone position and dead to the world. “Keep dreaming Boyz! This thing will soon be over.” he directed this to them but was saying it to himself.”

He had found a warm couch to lie on in an adjoining apartment but there was no way that he would manage to get some sleep. The hamster in his head was spinning on that wheel of his as if there was no tomorrow. Physically drained, he was still functioning but on the remainder of the Adrenaline that was in limited quantity in his system. Gazing at the ceiling, he had but one urge. He wanted to blow this pop stand and attack this last task with extreme prejudice. If it would have been up to him, he would have signed in and signed out immediately out of the check point so to take advantage of the daylight and warmer conditions. But there was a mandatory four (4) hour layover at this location and besides it was much better for the dogs to rest as the journey had taken its toll on all of them. The entire team, the musher included, needed to put all the chances on their side. “Play it safe, Old Man! Play it safe!” was the sentence he was repeating to himself so to shift his attention from the temptation of leaving early. Remember that principle, “Run less, Rest more…” His watch was indicating that they had been in Allagash for close to four (4) hours. It was again time to tend to the dogs and leave for that final leg of the travels.  He went back to the restaurant where he found “Ruth” the volunteer and advised her that there was no immediate rush but he wanted to leave soon so whenever they could, if they could join him, he would be on his way. “That`s good!” she said cheerfully, “we`ll be there in a few minutes to escort you out. Besides, I have to check your mandatory equipment.”

“Come On there you Sleepy Heads, it`s Rise and Shine time!” he told the drowsy dogs as he arrived, “Hope you had a good rest!” They weren`t too excited about being disturbed and it showed. Most of them had probably figured that they would be here for another extended period and had settled in for the night. Just his two cheerleaders were showing some sort of eagerness if stretching and rolling on their backs was what you called it. “There`s no rush Guys!” he told them, not seeing any urgency in scheduling his departure, “I`ve got to re-inspect all of you especially when it comes to your feet.” “Keno” and “Skout” were the only two that had issues in that department so booties would be put on. “Rhum”, “Barbie” and “JR” had mild harness burns in the armpit areas but nothing that a good coating of “Bag Balm” couldn`t fix. “Nikita`s” right front leg stiffness seemed to have disappeared and he was relieved that it was muscular rather than skeletal related. After convincing them to stand up and giving them a second serving of warm soupy food, he paid attention to the gear he had brought along this far in his sled bag. A lot of it was extra and extra weight. After consideration, if he didn`t foresee needing it for that last stretch, he would leave it behind. “Other   than the mandatory equipment, all the other stuff is staying here.” he said to himself, “From here to Fort-Kent, we`ll be traveling light, Indian Style.” Bouncing a vacuumed sealed bag of cooked hamburger up and down in his left hand, he debated for a few seconds if he should bring it along. “Hey, it`s not an extra five (5) lbs in your sled that`s going to make a difference at this point. Best be safe and bring it with us, just in case…”  

By now, they knew quite well the routines at the Check Points so after eating, most of the team had once again curled up in balls and took advantage of all possible minutes to rest. “All right, Boyz and Girlz! he told them when it came time to give them  their marching orders. “Are you guys, Ready?”  Except for two (2), all responded to the command and sprung back up awaiting to go. Although they were shaking it off and showing some restored liveliness, this would not be the case for his two old veterans at the back. They still wanted to get some more sleep. “Come on you guys, time to go!” he said laughingly at the wheel dogs. You can sleep when we get to Fort-Kent.” This seemed to convince “Jacko” who slowly came to his feet just to sit down but for “Skout”, this was another story. He just lied there as if he was discouraged and wanted to be left behind. “What`s the problem, Buddy?” the man said as he approached him, “Don`t you want to finish what we started?” While petting his raised head, the musher could feel the dead weight of it in his hand. The sad look that his old friend was giving him was also starting to put doubts in his mind as to if it was a good idea to carry on with the entire team. “Hey Old Buddy, I`ll tell you what. If at any point you feel like it`s too much for you, you let me know and I`ll give you a ride in the sled. What do you think about that?” It was as if two business associates had struck a million dollar deal. The old beige dog got up, overextended and started tugging at his line so to get the other ones motivated. He continued by emitting his very distinctive “yapping” and this was something more than a positive sign. This was his normal way and the signal that he would always give to all the other dogs when it was time to “boogie”. “Glad to see that you`re back in the game, there old “Skout Master”!  Actually, I`m pretty damn proud of all of you guys.” he commented to them after signing out of Allagash.” “Uptrail!” he told them when the unpaid assistants had deemed it safe to cross the road so to descend the steep bank onto the Allagash River. “Next stop, the Finish Line!” he shouted before traversing the frozen watercourse only to disappear for one last time in the still of the night. This felt good, settling back on the runners and seeing that the enthusiasm of all his trail partners had picked up ten folds. They were motivated and not the only ones where things had picked up mentally. Maybe she hadn`t grasped the importance of her words but that little acknowledgement by the volunteer at the “check out” would go a long way in the self-esteem department. “You should be proud of yourself!” she had noticed only to speak out, “The fact that you will be finishing with a full compliment of twelve (12) dogs is quite the accomplishment!” Those were kind words she had spoken, words that he treasured and words that would do wonders to boost his morale.

Clocking the miles one after the other, he thought of himself as the “Kid in the backseat always asking, “Are we there yet?” It seemed that every time he would drop his eyes on his GPS, it should have indicated a greater distance than they had actually travelled. They had by now come out of the harboured valley below them and had connected to a snowmobile trail that joined the last two points of the race. They had steadily climbed in altitude and make no mistake about it. The heavy Nordic gales had not missed to be at their “Rendez-vous”. Snow dust devils were swirling everywhere around them, syphoning the white crystallized powder only to spit it back out and sandblast everybody in the face with it. If this was not bad enough, up there in the exposed fields, the temperatures had plummeted drastically fast and the entire team could feel the sting of the blistering cold. Although a good one, the hood of his parka was offering little protection but the musher was still in a better situation than his dogs. They were being hammered constantly by the howling windy snow.  Shaking their heads feverishly to constantly get rid of the accumulated ice in their facial area, this also seemed to help in eliminating some of the sting to their freezing ears. This was no longer an enjoyable trek and the entire team was feeling the brutal force of the “year`s coldest night”. As planned, they had hit the “10 mile” mark so he decided to stop in the middle of nowhere and this at the mercy of an aggravated “Mother Nature”. This was not to prove to be one of his better ideas. Actually, not only would it not qualify as a “brain fart”, it was one that could effortlessly meet the criteria as being a complete dud. Here they were, standing there in “Siberia”, trying to get some rest. Dancing there, the frostiness penetrating all the way through booties on their feet, the dogs looked like they were walking on hot coals. “Don`t I wish that this would be the case,” the almost desperate man thought, “At least it would be warm!” But this wasn`t the case and the dogs couldn`t have cared less about the labour and pain that he had put towards providing them with their “popsicles”, using a knife to cut the bags open with his bare hands.  They just wanted to get the “Hell” out of there. While looking at the frozen treats, most of them lying on the ground, untouched, he determined that this way of snacking had its place but this wasn`t it. Rushing back to his sled, it didn`t take too much coaxing to get the team going. “Ouch!” he exclaimed after recovering the snowhook off the ground with his bare left hand. “Now that`s going to leave a mark!” Once again, he had done another “Rookie Mistake”. The unpleasantly cold handle of the metal “anchor” although leaving a sensation of burning, had instantly froze and stuck to the inside of his humid fingers. “OK, dumbass, that`ll teach you!” he mumbled to himself knowing quite well that he should have known better, “Now put your mitts on and let`s get out of here.

The further they pushed through the night, the more the bitter nippiness could be felt. Once again, he needed to stop, this time short of the second ten (10) miles. The dogs had accumulated frost all over their bodies but the most vulnerable part was where the fur at the bridge of their noses meets the skin. A combination of steamy breath meeting with frosty cold windblown snow made it that ice was forming there and frostbite was setting in. He attended this urgent situation and provided heat by placing his once again naked fingers over the affected area. One by one, he squeezed their noses giving them some limited reprieve. “There`s got to be a better way to deal with this!” he said to himself, putting his mitts back on to try and warm his hands again. “There`s got to be!” “Let`s go Guys! Let`s keep moving.” This would not be the end of his agonies as they would continue accumulating. His GPS suddenly quit working. All the LED display area had frozen solid and not a number could be seen. “OK,” he reflected sarcastically, “this is a sure sign that it`s colder than – 27 (F) because it usually works at that “high temperature”. Attempting to somehow scratch a solution out of his head, he noticed that the vinyl portion of his fake fur hat was no longer supple as it was supposed to be. Instead, it was a hard shell and if it would have been mounted with a grill in front of it, one would have thought that he would have been wearing a football helmet. Trying to think while trying to drive, his drowsy brain was not coming up with anything logical that would provide a possible solution to this precarious situation. “Drive them to safety, Old Man! Drive them to safety!” That`s all he could come up with at this moment. After whistling so that they would pick up the pace, he got off his runners and started running. “Maybe what I needed is some fresh air!” he joked still having some somewhat morbid sense of humour. Holding on to the steering bow and to kill some time, he allowed his mind to drift to his childhood and to when he used to go hunting with his grandfather. Now there was a man who knew a lot about wildlife and how to survive with what the land could provide. “I wonder what he would have said seeing those seven (7) deers that we chased this afternoon. I wonder if we would have continued racing or we would have followed them in that small coulee so to put meat in the freezer…?” “Hey wait a minute!” he declared to himself when this thought popped clearly in his head. “Isn`t that what deer herds do when they see a cold front coming?  Don`t they become super active and feed aggressively before it hits. Don`t they seek refuge, only to bunch together in a pocket of warm air found in a gulley? That`s it, I think! If I can find some sort of low point, now that`s where our next stop should be.

Now only relying on his watch so to calculate his distance, at an approximate running pace of maybe 6.5 MPH, a pace that he was providing to help the team along, he had figured that they were maybe twenty (20) miles out of Fort-Kent when once again he would be sitting with the “winning hand”. Going down a twisty narrow trail that somebody had recently swamped, this led to a deep hollow in the terrain. Upon descending this declination for about thirty (30) feet, he could actually feel that the air was way warmer than on top of the ridges. It wasn`t Florida by any standards but it would do under these circumstances.  Almost ecstatic, was he even more surprised when he saw that there was still water that was running at the bottom of this gorge, a left-over stream of a busted beaver dam. “Now this Boyz and Girlz is what I call a camping spot!” he voiced out loud to his team. “Stayyyyyy! Now park it! We`re going to be here for a spell.” Looking around him to see what his environments were offering, he made his Number One priority, the starting of his “cooker” and making some hamburger soup for his dogs. Rushing to the brook, he half-filled his pot and threw it on the fire of the “cooker”. He was impressed as to how a simple five (5) gallon metal pail could be so easily converted into a very functional stove so that it would boil water in less than fifteen (15) minutes. Whoever had thought of this invention was somewhat of a genius. This protected haven they had found was also nothing to sneeze at. It didn`t look like no “Hilton” and was on the very primitive side but it sure was just what they needed to warm up their bones. He put the lid on the pot and allowed the rising heat to come and warm up his green square box of “Magic Cream”. This was soon ready, so while the frozen meat was thawing out in the lukewarm water, he again went over his dogs especially checking them for frostbite. All those who were tough enough to still run bare feet or simply refused to wear booties, a thick coating of the honey bees wax mixture would be of the norm. As for the nose areas, everybody would get an abundance of the same stuff. “Bag Balm” not only acted as a lubricant that would protect from scrapes and irritations of any sorts, it was an excellent product that presented itself with good insulating values. This remedy was as old as the hills and Leonard Lanteigne used to swear by it. He used to say, “If you`ve got Bag Balm with you on the trail, you`ll never stay stuck. If all fails, you can heat with it or even eat it.” “Yeah right Leonard!” the other veteran would say to him with great scepticism. “Heating with it, OK but really, eating it???” “Don`t knock it till you`ve tried it!” he`d laugh while offering the can and a tea spoon to him. “Yup”, that little green metal box did bring some good old memories. With that, the time had gently slipped by and the dogs had been fed a good warmed up meal. According to the hands on his watch, it was now 0010 hrs, Tuesday morning and it was time to “PUFO” (that`s pack up and fuck off in military slang). The dogs seemed to be in a better frame of mind so he would see how far he could get. The balmy weather in their “hideout” had done wonders for one and all. Even the GPS had come back to life. It was exposing a bunch of flashing “888888”, signifying that it had warmed itself enough so that the numbers would re-appear but that was it. It was still too cold to be of any use.

Gambling that the next stop would be in Fort-Kent, the traveling companions got back on the trail with some new found determination that said that they would finish the job at hand. No direction had been given to them by our musher but it seemed that the dogs had taken it upon themselves to march on at a faster clip. The man was agreeably surprised by these developments as they were now moving along at a tempo that he could not follow if he was running behind the sled.  He allowed them to choose their own speed and was happy with the accentuated rhythm. Let`s be honest. Even if he would have wanted to, his legs would not collaborate as they were burning with aches and felt like “Jell-O”. He had put in a good sweat so far during the excursion so didn`t mind to just tag along. “Best relax for a while and see what happens.” he thought to himself but yelled to the dogs, “We`re almost done, Boyz!”

This was soon to be confirmed as once again, Denis Tremblay`s information would be of some great usefulness. They had linked up to that part of the trail where everything became very familiar. The man was not the only one to notice this. His faithful “JR” had also recognised where he was and got some renewed energy in those old legs of his. They had covered this segment of the trail five (5) times in the last five (5) years and could distinguish prominent landmarks even in the obscurity. This could only mean that they were less than seventeen (17) miles to destination. He couldn`t believe that finally after all those years, he could actually see not the dim but the very bright shiny light at the end of “his” tunnel. Reflecting on what all this meant, he was proud to say that he viewed this magical journey not only as a personal victory but also as the final pages of several very sombre chapters of his life. It had taken close to a decade to crawl and inch his way forward towards its exit and it had been a very long and agonizing experience. While finding his way and dealing with all those hardship he had come across, he had managed to put together this picture puzzle together, one small painful piece at the time. Here he was, carrying within his person, some important knowledge that would help him fight off his own desire to “not live”. Somehow, he had discovered that it wasn`t necessarily the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that fed this awful urge. Rather, the syndrome was just one of the too many stepping stones that led to the essence of the problem which was clinically diagnosed as “Depression”. Now this was what would most likely be one of the major motivating factors that would drive a person to suicide. Now I wouldn`t want to burst anybody`s bubble but it is a documented fact that this dreadful depressive state is something that nobody is impervious to. It is something that even the strongest of strong can end up with. Many well-known depression triggers have been identified and while we spoke here throughout this story on the subject of trauma, numerous other avenues can lead to this condition. Grief, financial troubles, unemployment or for that matter, professional exhaustion are just a few more aspects that need serious consideration. How one gets to that state is not what is important to recognize. Rather it is crucial to understand that depression is not something that will go away on its own and that it is not the result of personal weakness or an inability to cope with a situation. There are many ways to counter the effects of depression and while some would choose medication and/or professional counselling, others would choose a lifestyle that would not promote behaviours that would push them towards that “deep hole”. Watching his dogs trot down the trail as one single well gelled unit, steam filling the frozen night air, he was completely satisfied to have chosen a simple way of living. True, a lot of the times he found himself in situations where he would have wanted a few more luxuries but the freedom that he had shared with his sleddogs over the last many years was something that you could not put a monetary value to. It was impossible. The inner peace that could be found out there in the wilderness, living amicably with the land was something that could not be replicated even with today`s sophisticated technology. Nothing could match the experience of when you heard the wind sing through the trees or smell that black humus soil where you laid your head to sleep the night away. That to our musher was therapy. He was having a moment and tears were freezing on his cheeks. Going down the gangline with his eyes, he felt that it was most important that he acknowledge the dedication and hard work that his loyal canines had put out through those many years. Of all the original “six” that he had started this dream with, only two of them were still here today to participate in this 250 mile race. “To you two old-timers, JR and Jacko” he told them on a very personal note, “I salute you for your time and patience. God only knows that I wasn`t a very nice man to deal with when we started this madness. “Thank You” for never giving up on me.” “As for the rest of you guys, Schrek, Merlin, Rhum, Barbie, Lady, Keno, Miko, Nikita, Sidney and of course my Skout, “Thank You” for putting up with all the pain and suffering throughout those many years. Except for me, nobody will ever truly clutch the true extent of your endeavours so that we could complete this marathon together today. I have to admit, for a bunch of misfits, you did extremely well and I`m proud to be part of your team.”

When those words were coming out of his mouth they had just crossed from one side to the other of a bowl shaped open field maybe twelve (12) miles out. He was climbing the other side when he decided to try his luck at running to help. Unexpectedly, the entire mountain facade in front of him was illuminated and this to the point where he could see his own shadow towering ten (10) feet tall over his dogs. “What the fuck is that?” he said not too sure of what he was witnessing. Then he heard dogs barking and a person`s voice. This got his attention real quick. He snapped his head around to see what was happening only to take in the full impact of the entire scene. “Holly sheep shit” he said now recognizing the powerful beam of Becki Tucker`s headlamp. “Look at her move!!!” In his own little world, he had trekked during the course of the night all by his lonesome not being bothered by outside dynamics. Somewhere in there, he had forgotten that this was a race to the end and that she might catch up at one point or another. She had and from how fast she was approaching, obviously she still wanted to “Tango”. The entire panorama prompted him to imagine that this was a hunt where he was the prey and they were a hungry pack of wolves.  They were out for blood and coming in for the kill. So if they were to survive the attack, they needed to scramble and give it all they had. The climb he was confronting was a long one and every time he turned around, the Siberian Husky team had gained significant grounds. He had reached the top and when he last checked on them, panic almost set in. They were in striking distance and maybe two minutes behind at the most. This did not sit well at all with the once very competitive man and without warning this surge of extreme heat gushed through his veins. She didn`t want to give up consequently neither would he. If she wanted to race, she would have to fight to the bitter end so to pass them. Shouting at them by now, he commanded them, “Come on, you “Snowhounds”, this is where we prove our worth. Come on, let`s put this thing to rest once and for all.” He then whistled a few more times only to pull one last trick out of his hat. He had kept this option as a last course of action but this was where it could be most effective. “JR,” he asked his lead dog in the loudest of tones, “Where`s that fucking truck?” “Come on Buddy, take us to the truck! As for the rest of you guys, let`s go! Let`s go and get a treat!”  This was something he would always say to the team during long training runs back home. As such, they did associate those words with the fact that they were done for the day and that there was food waiting for them at the trailer. They would subsequently shift into that fastest gear called “overdrive”, accelerate to speeds of over 14 MPH and could zoom at this pace for distances greater than fifteen (15) miles. If this was to be the showdown between the two teams, he would risk that they still had it in them to run like the wind. They did not disappoint and the response was immediate. The “Navigator” had said so and away they took off at breakneck speed, looking for their promised reward.

Situated at St-Antoine Road, he recognised that this was the last Safety Station and that there were only seven (7) mile left to the entire 250 mile race. He had decided that if his twelve dogs could put in the extra determination, so could he. Where normally, he would stop and chat with the occupants at these S&R locations, this was not to happen here. So when “Larry Murphy” got out of his vehicle to ask the musher how things were going and if he needed some water, this individual was quite surprised of the response. “Sorry Larry can`t stop! I`ve got Becki Tucker right up my ass and there`s no way that she`s going to pass me!” With that statement, they flew across the road, had jumped the snowbank and had kept on going blasting down the trail. This his eyes could almost not believe and it would make Murphy laugh. This was quite the different person that he had talked to in Rocky Brook. Out at that site, he had met a guy that was just about to give up and here he was now full of fire and actually racing. “There`s something about this event that makes all this magical. For some reason old men become young again!” Larry Murphy continued chuckling to himself before getting on the radio and telling Central Control that they had two mad sledders coming in real fast and that they were less than a minute apart. 

Taxing every single little bit that they had in the “reserve tank”, the “Canadian Snowhounds” were delivering the merchandise. There was no doubt in anybody`s mind. They were in the home stretch and were galloping full bore, finding enough strength to fully extend those worn-out frames of theirs. There was no turning back now. They still had plenty of dog in this “dog fight” so he lifted his foot off his drag mat and pulled it up. This was a time to forget about braking and concentrate on steering the sled with skill and finesse. At these speeds, it was a risky proposition but he had to bet that the gamble would pay off. Down that steep windy trail before the “Golf Course” they sheared sideways brushing a few times against the base of several spruce trees. Up the other side they ran, everybody participating. Through the “Junk Yard”, they blew through and by the “Sewage Treatment Plant”, they swooshed by. “The only thing left,” the driver thought to himself, “is the “Wall”. The dogs hadn`t quit sprinting and for some strange reason that almost vertical gradient wasn`t there to be even talked about. The next thing you knew, they were at the top of “Lonesome Pine” ski hills and could see the archway that indicated the conclusion of this “Magical Journey”.  Of all the times he had tucked and nose-dived to the bottom of this mountain, this was the fastest he had ever gone. If there would have been more than five (5) persons in the crowd at the reception line, he was sure that somebody would have remarked, “Look at that crazy Canuck! He`s out of control!” This sure sounded like a comment that would be made, especially when he had realized that he could no longer see that chasing headlamp. He just couldn`t hold his excitement back and was screaming with joy on his way down. But this was not to happen as they were pulling in at about 0240 hrs, way before daybreak where as a matter of fact and records, it would be registered and go down as the coldest night of the year. While “JR” was proudly piloting the string of twelve (12) dogs, the man`s attention was drawn to some ultra-reflective tape on somebody`s red parka. There she was, his “Best Friend”, patiently waiting for the team to show up. She had kept her promise and “Ruth” was there to greet them. On his side, knowing that she had to leave by noon that same day to catch a plane, he had made a pledge to himself that she would witness the fact that she hadn`t bet on a “dead horse”. The team had pulled it off and had made good on their promise. Pulling to a full stop across the “Finish Line”, he wasn`t really paying attention to the congratulatory words that the Race Marshall, Georges Theriault was expressing to him. The dogs body temperatures were in the vicinity of 104 degrees (F) and they were cooling down really too fast, standing there in the cold – 30 degrees (F) climate. This no doubt was a shock to their system and he was more bothered about them possibly catching Pneumonia than anything else. Therefore as always, his dogs came first so he voiced his concern “Listen guys! If you really want to check my equipment, follow me to the trailer. We`re out of here!” With that, he whistled and called the order one last time, “JR, take us to the truck!” And just like when General Douglas McArthur while delivering his retirement speech to Congress in 1951, after years of fighting the good fights had said, quote, “Old soldiers never die, they simply just fade away.” Unquote, our musher would do the same. However, instead of fading away into that cold dark night, he would continue his journey through life taking advantage of that good karma that he was now carrying in his heart after exiting the end of “his tunnel”.  


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