THE FINE MADNESS OF THE JACKPINE 30
I had been running six dog races in Minnesota and Wisconsin for the past five winters and this was going to be my last year. There is a certain cycle to having a dog team. You start with a few dogs. Like a new relationship, it is fun and exciting. You like it so much that you want to get better, which requires you to get new, faster dogs and more of them. You start breeding or buying dogs. You also need a new truck, sled and home. Training and caring for your kennel takes more and more time. Meanwhile, maintaining the whole operation becomes expensive, so you try to make the mushing pay for itself. It doesn’t. You get sucked deeper and deeper until one day it is just too much. Your wife is serious this time that she will leave you. You quit cold turkey and sell out everything. I think Joe Garnie said that sled dogs are more addictive than heroin … and a lot more expensive. There is truth in those words. I had tried to take a more disciplined approach to mushing. I knew that I had to keep things small or I wouldn’t be able to keep going with the sport. So for five years, I never kept more than seven dogs at one time. At the end of each year, I would give away the two slowest dogs in my team and replace them with castoffs or misfits from other teams. Every year my team got a little bit better, but considering where we started from that was not a huge accomplishment. The problem with having a kennel of only six or seven dogs was that, inevitably, there was always a dog or two that just didn’t make it. By the time race season would come around, I was often down to four or five solid dogs and one or two that were marginal, at best. There are many ways to measure success in mushing. I have always tried to measure it not by wins but according to how I thought my team was capable of doing against other similarly talented teams. This kept me focused in spite of the fact that we were consistently beaten, soundly, by dog teams running at a much higher level, e.g., Joel Nelson, Tim White, etc. Over the years we had some decent showings in various races. There were a number of top ten finishes; the best being a third- and a second-place. One year in the Mid-Minnesota six-dog race we were hot on the trail of a first place finish. We were heading into Remer, Minnesota for the finish when my lead dog, Bean, went off the trail to chase a dog that a spectator had brought to the end of the race. The trail took a hard right into town. At the corner was this pretty, little toy poodle. It could not have weighed more than 6 pounds. The dog’s red leash was encrusted with fake jewels. It was wearing a cute, little sweater. The team we were chasing took the left. I gave Bean the command to also go left. As she started to make the turn, I felt her slight hesitation as she noticed that dog yipping off to our right. I could see the devious look in Bean’s eyes. She headed to the right after that diminutive mutt, pulling her five accomplices with her over a small snow bank. As I pulled my team back around, I took the opportunity to explain to the spectator, in slightly salty terms, just how I felt about people who bring small dogs to watch dog sled races. By the time I got the team back on the trail our momentum was gone, and we lumbered in for a second-place finish. My team this year was solid considering what I had to work with. The year before I had finally placed a brother/sister combination that I had been trying to work with for a couple of years. Those two dogs were a perfect combination of laziness and sluggishness except when they were fighting. I got them for free and came to know that I paid too much. Those two had been replaced with Coffee, a small, sprint dog from Steve Knight, and Eric, a loaner from Annie Mayhall. Coffee weighted only 30 pounds and was at least 10 years old. He was a typical sprint dog who bounced around with constant, kinetic energy. He wouldn’t lead, but was fleet-footed and pleasant to work with. Eric was one of those dogs who had been cast off from kennel after kennel. Annie bought him from a well-known Michigan musher. Eric had a perfect sled dog build. He was a little skittish, but ran fast and effortlessly. He was a wonderful leader who set a blistering pace for the rest of the team. After having Eric for a week or so, I told Annie how wonderful I thought he was. “Just wait, you’ll see,” she warned me. Along with Eric and Coffee, I had four other dogs: Bean was a female leader who had fallen into a strange depression that included a pathological licking of her right wrist which had developed a large, hairless sore. Sage was a solid twelve-year old leader I bought from Steve Knight for $150. She was now at least a year past what should have been the end of her racing career. Two brothers, Magic and Cedar, who I had bought two years earlier for $50 each, rounded out the six-dog team. They were super-sized sled dogs and now weighed about 75 pounds each. Both boys were full of crazy energy and got so excited I would literally wrestle them into their harnesses. If you looked closely at my team, it was a real freak show made up of big dogs, small dogs, old dogs and depressed dogs. My goal for this last race season was to win a race. Winning a dog sled race isn’t easy. I have known mushers that have run dogs for many years and who had good teams but never actually won a race. In order for me to win, I had to find a race where my team of misfit dogs would be competitive. I needed something in the “rec race” world where the dogs are a bit bigger and fluffier. Lo and behold, a new sportsman’s class race, the Jackpine 30, was starting in Michigan. It was run in conjunction with the Midnight Run and UP 200. This was exactly the race I had been looking for. At 30 miles it was not too long. The competition would be pretty soft because the serious racers would be running the Midnight Run and only the real “sportsman” type teams would be left to race. I signed up immediately. My spirits were lifted when I saw that only five other teams had signed up for the race with less than two weeks before the race date. If even one team dropped out, I was assured of a top-five finish. I had raced in Michigan twice before. Each time had been an absolute mess. Both times I ran the Midnight Run with a poorly-trained team and no handler. The poorly trained team meant that the 80 mile race was an all night ordeal of driving a dog team in first gear with other teams flying past us on the narrow Ackerman Trail. Without a handler I had to give some trustworthy looking person at the race start my truck keys and hope he or she would deliver the truck to the next checkpoint. Then at the checkpoint, while all the other racers were relaxing and preparing for the final leg of the race, I was trying to round up another person to drive my truck to the finish line. One year I finished the race with my truck still at the last checkpoint -- with the keys still in the ignition. This time I figured I had found the right race and I had a solid dog team. I needed a handler, someone to drive the dog truck and shoulder some of the dog racing tasks. I enlisted Bill, a long-time friend. Bill didn’t know much about dogs, but he was an entertaining guy who could read a map. The day before the race we loaded up my dog truck, a red 1992 Ford Ranger Pickup, with all of the necessary - and unnecessary gear for an out-of-town dog race. The dogs were excited to get into their boxes and go for a little trip. Unlike northeastern Minnesota where snow had been lacking all winter, the snow banks in the little towns along the south shore of Lake Superior were as high as the top of the truck. We pulled into Marquette, Michigan around 6 p.m. I had made reservations at a cheap motel on the south side of town. With dogs, I always try to stay at someplace a little run down. The management of those places tend not to get upset when I am hauling five gallon buckets of hot water out of the bathroom or dropping my dogs in the parking lot. That night we went into Marquette and watched the start of the UP 200. There were big-time mushers in town from all over the lower 48, including Doug Swingley. The UP200 teams had the fancy trucks, beautiful dogs and state-of-the-art sleds. It was quite a sight to watch those teams take off down the main street in Marquette and head into the night toward Chatham. Tomorrow, we would be traveling along the same trail in the opposite direction. The next morning we pulled out the map and headed to Chatham. I’m kind of neurotic and hate arriving late to races. We were the second team in Chatham. The pre-race meeting and vet check were held in the big metal community center building on the edge of town. I signed in. I knew my luck had taken a turn for the worse when I found out that there were now eleven teams in the race. At the vet check I realized that I was missing the proof of rabies vaccination for Sage. I had assumed it was in my packet of vaccine receipts. I handed the person checking the paperwork a big stack of vaccination receipts, hoping she wouldn’t take the time to count them. She actually went through each sheet and cross checked it with the names of the dogs I had listed on my registration. I was in trouble. “You are short one rabies vaccination for Sage,” the race official said as she carefully checked off the fifth dog. I tried to act surprised and rifled through the stack of vaccinations in search of that errant sheet of paper. The woman checking the vaccination documentation then called over the race vet. The vet shook her head and said to call my vet clinic in Duluth for confirmation of the rabies vaccination. I found a phone and tried to call the clinic, but it wasn’t open. I then went back to the vet and she seemed to take the position that Sage was not going to run today unless I found my rabies certificate. I didn’t have the certificate and I didn’t want to run a six-dog race with five dogs. So I asked the vet if we could talk to another race official about the situation. We tracked down the race organizer, and I gave her my most heartfelt plea for leniency. I talked about how far we had driven, the low key nature of this race and everything else I could think of just short of God and apple pie. I could see she was really torn. She finally relented when she saw the tears start to well up in my eyes. Once I received the okay to race with all six-dogs, I picked up my bib and got as far away as possible from the registration area. I didn’t want anyone changing their mind about letting Sage run the race. I was a little over anxious and started to hook the dogs up too early. Magic was going nuts, banging on the gang line. I didn’t want to wear him out before we started the race, so I unhooked him and put him back in his box. Since he would only be in his box a few minutes, I didn’t take off his harness. It was quiet again. Then, with only about five minutes before our scheduled start time, I pulled Magic back out of his dog box. His harness hung in shreds around his neck. What a disaster. I had brought one extra harness, but it was for a 40 pound dog. At 75 pounds, Magic wore an extra large, extra-long harness. My mind began to race. Should I run him with that chewed up harness? No way. Should I put the small harness on him and see how it goes? No, it was way too small. Then it hit me. I put the extra harness on the smallest dog. I took his harness and put it on the next smallest dog. I worked my way all the way through the team up to Magic, who ended up with the second largest harness I had. Finally, every dog had a harness that was a little too tight, but would work. The moment I got the harness on Magic, we rushed up to the starting line with only seconds to spare. Before I knew it we were heading out of the chute.We started in the sixth position. There was a two minute interval between each team. The narrow trail ran into the tall maple forest. The snow was deep and the trail punchy from the fresh snow that had fallen the night before. The dogs were jazzed up after sitting in the dog truck for almost 24 hours. I pressed down hard on the drag brake to slow the team to a fast trot, which was about 12 miles an hour. I couldn’t see any teams ahead or behind me. Every so often we passed spectators who had come out to watch the dog teams pass by. We seemed to be all alone in the woods. One of my dogs slowed to defecate and got compromised in a tug line. I stopped the team and quickly untangled the line. In those few moments, another team came up behind me to a position about 300 yards behind us. I pulled the hook and off we went. I stayed on the drag brake, slowing the team down. We had a long way to go and my strategy was to try to maintain my speed over the entire race course rather than roaring out at the start and straggling in to the finish. I knew my team pretty well and “steady does it” was the way we were going to have our best race. The constant speed strategy makes some sense. If, for example, in a 20 mile race if Team A goes 20 miles an hour for the first 10 miles and 10 miles an hour for the second ten miles while Team B goes 15 miles an hour over the entire race course, which team wins? Well, Team A runs the course in 1.5 hours (1/2 hour the first 10 miles and 1 hour the second 10 miles) while Team B runs the course in 1.33 hours (.66 hours for each 10 mile segment). You cannot be too slow, but it helps to be steady. I saw another team up ahead. I could tell that the team had roared out of the chute, but was now settling into a slow pace as its initial head of steam wore off. I called “trail” and we breezed past the team. The same thing happened three more times in the next 30 minutes. Soon there were only two teams ahead of us. I started to let my team move a little bit faster. We were in a light lope, my preferred race speed. I was starting to relax, look at the scenery and daydream a bit. I began to think this would be easy. I knew we were moving well and I believed we could eventually run down the remaining two teams ahead of us. My bliss was suddenly shattered when I heard a person yelling “on bye” and felt something bump into the back of my legs. I looked behind me and saw a dog team balled up behind me and a musher urging them to pass. Unlike a lot of the teams in this race, these dogs were little, “sprinty” looking, and seemed very fast. I had not noticed the team coming up behind at a fast clip. They must have been moving down the trail pretty quickly. The musher, a woman, was wearing the number 11 bib, which meant the team had started a full 10 minutes behind us. The reality of the situation quickly hit me. I instantly realized that I was probably not going to win this race. I pulled my team ahead a few feet so the Team 11 dogs were not piled up behind my sled. The musher then ran up to the front of her team and untangled her leaders. I stopped, hooked down and pulled my team off into the soft snow on the side of the trail. Then Team 11 passed us. The pass was fairly clean, but for a split second my eyes met the glance of one of the Team 11 lead dogs, and I saw fear. They roared off like we were standing still. There was no way we could match Team 11’s raw speed. Resigned, we continued on at our loping pace, and Team 11 quickly disappeared around a corner. On the next straight-a-way, I could no longer see them. Wow, they had a commanding lead on us. I knew that the next time I saw Team 11 would probably be at the finish line. “Oh well,” I consoled myself, “we can still get second place.” On we rolled through a beautiful maple forest. At the top of a big hill I saw another team coming into view. I had worked all season on making it a game for my team to catch and blow past other teams. The team perked up when they sensed the team ahead. The chase was on. The pursued musher saw us and he didn’t want to be passed. He took his foot off the brake and let his team run down the big hill wide open. I rode the brake, but was still trucking down the hill in hot pursuit. For a little while the team started to pull away from us. When the trail leveled out, we began to eat up some of the distance between the two teams. The team ahead was fighting, but we finally caught and passed them, on the fly, on a wide plowed gravel road. They hung behind us for about a half mile, but then fell away and eventually disappeared. Now it was midmorning and the snowmobiles were out in full force. They roared by from all directions. Although my team was used to sharing the trail with snowmobiles, it still stressed them out. And there is only so much stress a team can take before it slowly crumbles. The sun was shining brightly, and it was getting warm. We were still moving along well, but I could tell we were traveling just a little slower than the speed I wanted to maintain. My old leader, Sage, looked back as if to say “I’m too old to kill myself doing this.” My other leader, Eric, the barfer, was digging in and pulling with all of his might. The good news was that Eric wasn’t puking. I stopped and quickly gave each dog a frozen hotdog as a snack. The team’s attitude seemed to improve after that and we moved just a hair faster. I sensed that it was just a matter of time before I caught that last team standing between us and Team 11. On a long, straight stretch, I saw them. My dogs saw them too. We ran them down and passed them on the fly. As we slipped by I looked at the other team and could see that they had already given all they had and were rapidly starting to fade. That team didn’t even attempt to chase us. We had passed or were ahead of all the teams except one, Team 11. I could tell that we were getting close to Marquette. The race trail now ran through subdivisions and over major roads. Neighborhood dogs were barking at us as we passed by and there were roads and trails going in every direction. Because we were the second team we had a scented trail, so my dogs had no trouble finding the correct trail. Still, I was disappointed that we had come all this way only to place second. My initial elation had turned to melancholy and then a reluctant acceptance of our inevitable fate, second place. My mind wandered as we zipped along. I thought about all the races I had run over the years. Today had been very pleasant and we had already used up all of our luck. Just then, I thought I saw something up ahead. What was it I wondered as I squinted to try to make out the little black object. To my surprise, it was a dog team. Slowly we started to reel them in. They were still moving well with a very smooth, loping gait, but the team was veering off on every side trail, snaking back and forth. It had to be Team 11. We were on a ridge that rose up from Lake Superior. The city of Marquette stretched out ahead of us at the bottom of this large bowl. It was clear to me that we were getting close to the end of the race. The Team 11 musher looked back at me. I could see exasperation in her eyes. Her dogs also looked back, questioning what was going on. I called for trail, she stopped, and we passed on the wide snowmobile trail. As I came along side the Team 11 sled, the musher asked, with a note of defeat, “How much further is it?” Since that day I’ve thought a lot about that question. I honestly did not know exactly how much further it was to the finish line. However, I could kind of see that all we had to do was head down toward Lake Superior and then run into Marquette. It was probably only about 5 miles to go. At this point, I was about to become the lead team, but I was still 10 minutes behind Team 11. For a split second I pondered my ethical quandary: Should I be honest, say 5 miles and breathe hope into Team 11 or should I break her spirit? Harmless deception and game playing have long been as part of dog racing. My competitive sprit won out. I slowed down, looked her in the eyes and said, “Gee, I don’t know but it looks like a long way. I’d guess at least 10 more miles.” I could sense her spirits fall like a lead balloon. She sighed and slumped over the handlebar of her sled and her dogs had a skeptical look in their eyes. “I don’t know if we can make it that far,” she replied. “My team keeps turning off on every side trail.” “Oh, you’ll make it” I replied. “You have a nice team and you guys are moving along well. You’re doing great. Keep going.” I let up on the brake and pulled away from her. Team 11 faded into the distance. My spirits soared. Was it possible for us to make up 10 minutes in five miles? The trail was now an urban route over curbs, bridges, roads and along housing developments. Catching Team 11 broke the monotony of the trail and the dogs picked up the pace. Because the trip into Marquette is on a trail better suited for a taxi cab than for a dog team, the race organizers had arranged for the lead team to be escorted into town by a pair of snowmobiles. The idea was to have the lead team set down a little scent on the trail to make it easy for the rest of the teams to find the otherwise indiscernible trail. The snowmobiles appeared ahead of us and escorted us down the trail, always staying about 150 yards ahead. My team chased them. The dogs ran faster so the snowmobiles went faster. Off we went, safely on the right trail. Cars whizzed by and people waved as we zipped along. A glistening, ice-filled Lake Superior was off to our right. It wasn’t long before we came into the heart of Marquette toward the finish line. We ran under the makeshift banner marking the end of the race. People cheered and everyone congratulated me for winning the race. “Oh, I haven’t won yet,” I said. The finish line was on a sidewalk off a busy road. I wanted to get the dogs to the truck for a drink and a little snack. I scanned the crowd for my handler. He was nowhere to be seen, so I commandeered a few people from the crowd to lead us into the parking lot to look for my dog truck. After bumbling around for a bit we arrived at the truck. I knew we had run as good of a race as the team was capable of. I was tired and glad to be finished. As I hooked up the dogs to the stake out chains on the truck I kept my eyes on the finish. I gave each dog a big pan of broth and a nice rubdown. I took off all their harnesses. A newspaper reporter asked me a few questions and took a few pictures of the dogs. I let the children milling around pet the dogs and answered questions for the spectators. Then I saw a team coming up the trail. I knew it was Team 11. They were still moving well and loped into the finish. I was not sure how long it had been since I finished, but I felt it was going to be close. The race officials huddled, got out their notebooks, calculators and pens. After all the start differentials were factored in, we won by a mere one minute and 23 seconds. I finally located my handler. The other teams trailed in over the next two and a half hours. All the teams eventually finished the race. We then proceeded to the local Bonanza restaurant for a post race banquet and awards ceremony. I was given a wonderful plaque and got to be the champion for a day. As we drove back to Duluth, my handler and I talked a lot about the race. Was it wrong to harmlessly deceive Team 11 about how far it was to the finish line? I don’t really have a definitive answer to that question. Did that make a difference? Yes, deep down I think it made a real difference in the race. Gunnar Johnson is an accomplished musher and outdoor writer who, although he no longer owns sled dogs, continues to be involved in the sport.