JUNIOR MUSHERS - CANINE CHAOS: MY FIRST RACE – ADVENTURE OR DISASTER?
Featured in the Nov/Dec issue 2005 Issue:February 2003 was a bad month for all dog mushers. The warm weather had melted trails all across the state, halting races, ruining trips and devastating dog mushers’ training plans. My family was one of the many affected by the unusual weather. My father and I had planned on running the Serum Run, but the trail had melted by the end of January. I decided to run the Junior Iditarod instead. It would be my first race.We had a small kennel that consisted of 19 2-year-old sled dogs. Sixteen of the dogs were related and it is difficult for people to tell them apart. We had three other dogs that we received from Jeff King. I loved all our dogs very much. I called them my “Mutt Butts”, but I just couldn’t believe they could compare to any other team running the Junior Iditarod that year. I panicked and decided to borrow six dogs from Ray Redington, a respectable Iditarod musher. By now two weeks before the start of the Junior Iditarod, I was running my team almost every day. My team consisted of the six borrowed dogs and four of my own. My own four were Ciani, my fastest swing dog, Newman, one of my Jeff King dogs, Silk, my novice leader, and Bilbo, my most dependable wheel dog. When I ran my new team I didn’t spend anytime getting to know the borrowed dogs and I didn’t get them used to my commands. This was my first mistake.Two weeks quickly passed by and I soon found myself trucking my team down to the start which had been moved to Lake Lucille by Glenallen because of the terribly warm weather. At the musher’s meeting held the night before the race, I pulled number one out of a hat, confirming my fate to leave first the next morning. I began to get nervous.By the next morning I was almost hysterical. I was running around trying to make sure everything was perfect. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this, running a race! It all seemed unreal. At 10 a.m. sharp I pulled up to the starting line. As the woman counted down, I clung to my sled praying that my dogs wouldn’t mess up in front of all the spectators. 5…4…3…2…1, and I was off. The dogs moved smoothly out of the chute and soon the starting line had disappeared in the distance.The first 10 miles of the race were on Lake Lucille. This was probably the only good running time I had. When I reached the point where the trail turned into the woods, I had trouble. My leaders wouldn’t turn. I yelled the command repeatedly but they wouldn’t obey. I had to go and pull them over to the trail myself and by that time a team had already passed me. I started up again and began to go up and down many steep hills. I was passed by two more teams, which really disappointed me. I had no idea if this was common so early into the race or if I should be worried. After 20 miles I was able to catch up with one of the teams that had passed me, and I made my move but my leaders wouldn’t pass. I shouted the command but nothing happened except my team became tangled. I stopped, the other team took off, I untangled my dogs, and started again, very disappointed. Just before the first checkpoint the trail went onto a large lake. My team decided to turn the wrong way, so I stopped and shouted, “Haw”, many times but nothing happened. I went up to my leaders and manually turned the team onto the right trail. I got back on my sled and they went right back over to the wrong trail. So I did the same thing again and this time they figured it out and took off; pulling the snow hook. I leapt onto the sled, which was now tipped over and pressed it down with my weight to stop it. When they had come to a halt I picked up the sled to continue and glanced back to see, to my utmost horror, that my thermos was lying 10 feet behind me on the trail. I weighed my options: leave it and not drink for 16 more hours or go back and risk losing the team. Just the thought of not having it in my sled made me thirsty. So I tipped the sled back on its side and secured the snow hook as best as I could and oh so carefully, tip toed back to my thermos. I had almost made it back to the sled when my dogs pulled the hook and were gone. That was one of the single worst moments of my life, watching that sled leave without me. I didn’t know what to do; I had never lost a team without someone around to help, and all I could do was follow. So there I was walking down the trail carrying my precious thermos and trying desperately not to cry. It seemed as if a million teams passed me; everyone offered to help but I didn’t want to slow anyone else down. I could see my team in the distance as they were stopped by several snowmachiners. It took me quite awhile to catch up to them and when I did I could only breathe an audible, “thanks” before I started again. As I looked up I realized the checkpoint was right in front of me, everyone there had seen what had happened. As I went through everyone clapped in encouragement, but I was devastated.I stopped afterwards because it was clear to me if I was going to complete this race; I needed a leader that was going to listen to me. The problem was that these borrowed dogs had no clue who I was. All of a sudden there was this squeaky-voiced girl giving them orders. I should have spent at least a month training with these dogs, but I hadn’t. Now I needed a miracle. I looked to Newman, my blonde baby. He was a 2-year-old I’d received from Jeff King. I had only used him in lead when he was chasing another team. When I put him up there, next to my other leader, Silk, he took charge and we sped away like a machine.This was not the last of my troubles. One of the borrowed dogs began to wane, slacking on his tug line. I ignored it. I had never had a dog drop before. But right after the halfway checkpoint, he dropped. I had to carry him all the way to the layover point. It turns out the poor guy was sick.When I finally made it to the layover, it was pitch black out and I was exhausted. I bedded down my dogs, who were very happy to have stopped. As I was feeding them I remember my wheel dog, Bilbo, looking me straight into the eye and telling me just how tired he was. He barely ate a thing, instead he fell into a deep sleep.During the night two of the borrowed dogs started fighting and one of them cut his wrist badly. He was holding it up, so I knew I had to drop him. I was really disappointed because he was a very strong puller. My layover was ending soon and I scurried about getting ready to leave. Once again I sat at the starting line hoping things would go well. Fate must have heard me because for the rest of that day things did go fine. I was really surprised, since yesterday had been so horrible. The day did seem to drag on forever. It probably would have helped if I had brought some music. Before the end I had to drop another one of dogs I had borrowed, because he was also sick. I was shocked at how well my own four dogs were doing. I found myself wishing now that I had used my own dogs and only my dogs.When I finally made it to the finish, I was so happy. I immediately went and sat down. I had been standing up for almost two days straight. I managed to finish at a respectable 14th place which I thought it was pretty good for my first race. I then began to make plans on how to do even better next year. My advice to all new junior mushers is to use your own dogs. If you absolutely must borrow dogs, start training them months before the race so they can learn to respect and listen to you. It may seem impossible to win a race with your own dogs, but it can happen. In 2005, I won the Junior Yukon Quest using all my own dogs and Newman was my main leader. Elizabeth Jayne is daughter to the “Bush Vet” Eric Jayne.