John, Joanna and I really enjoy our peaceful hideaway out here at Agimac River Outfitters during the winter months. But after awhile, it helps to go to dog sled races down in the states to interact with people again. Joanna’s races provide the opportunity to make that happen. In preparation for the races, she puts on about 1000 training miles, first using a quad and then switching to a sled when snow comes. John follows her with either a truck or a snowmobile on most all those miles to provide something heavy to anchor the sled to in case she needs to get off her sled to untangle dogs or attend to another problem, as she is usually running large teams of 12 to 16 dogs. He’s also nearby to provide protection from moose or wolves they might encounter on the trails.
The third week of January, Joanna raced the mid distance 106 mile Beargrease Dog Sled Race in Duluth, MN. It is considered a challenging race with three legs of about 35 miles each that take musher and dogs up and down the steep Sawtooth Mountains. This year she was thrilled to place third in this event.
I go to the races with Joanna to help her care for the dogs and as the driver to get the dog trailer from checkpoint to checkpoint. John stays home to take care of the home front.
Recently, we just returned from Marquette, MI where Joanna raced the 90 mile Midnight Run and was it ever memorable! Marquette also hosts the UP 200, a 240 mile race and the Jackpine 30 mile race at the same time. It is an exciting event for the city, bringing mushers from the U.S. and Canada and spectators from surrounding states. In a newspaper article about the races, it was stated that the city receives a 1.8 million dollar boost from these races economically. Amazingly, there are at least five hundred people who volunteer to help bring dogs up to the starting line and stay all night at different strategic places along the trail to make sure the teams take the right turns and cross roads safely. We are very grateful for them.
Friday night, racers for the UP 200 and Midnight Run were parked downtown near the race start which featured a log arch straddling the hauled in snow packed trail running down main street, lined with thousands of spectators. It feels like a mini Iditarod. The weather was a perfect 20 degrees Farenheit with a gentle snowfall. However, the forecast was calling for a blizzard to hit the area about one o’clock in the morning. Thankfully, most of the Midnight Run mushers would be able to reach the checkpoint 45 miles away before it moved in.
Over the loud speakers we heard some familiar tunes. It was the Canadian national anthem being sung live by a small group of singers, followed by the US national anthem. Both flags were flown from the log archway since there were a good handful of Canadian mushers in the races.
The excitement in the air was electric as each eight dog team was helped to the starting line with a group of young volunteers. The mushers zoomed into the night with well wishers slapping their hands along the way, ringing cowbells and even shooting fireworks.
Meanwhile I drove our rig to the checkpoint at Chatham where the teams would be coming in. In this race, they require the dogs to be fastened to a picket line outside, connected to the vehicle for the five and 1/2 hour mandatory rest period. As I waited for Joanna to come in, I acquired hot water for their supper meal, and prepared a nest for them to sleep with straw and windbreaks of piled up snow to keep them as warm and comfortable as possible.
About midnight, the teams starting coming into the checkpoint and after they were all in, we found out Joanna was in fourth place. We fed the dogs, put on their jackets, and had the vets check them over to make sure they were in good shape to finish the race. The most important thing for both musher and dogs is hydration because of all the energy they expend. Joanna and I settled in the front seat of the car with the heater on to try to get her warmed up, dry her gear and get some rest ourselves. By this time the blizzard was in full force with winds from 45 mph to 72 mph.
It was still dark at 6:47 a.m. when Joanna left the checkpoint. We hadn’t planned enough time for her to put on her goggles and mitts before she left, so as she pressed forward into the blustery white void attempting to find them in her sled bag, she didn’t notice that her lead dogs had suddenly stopped on the trail. This caused her point dogs to overtake them and get tangled. There was actually no trail to be seen in the wind blown field. The dogs were just trying to find something solid that would indicate they were on the trail. Joanna put her snow hook down to hold the team and ran up to untangle them but her snowhook wasn’t holding good in the soft snow so the team surged forward again before she could get the leaders straightened out. Then along came Joann, who was in fifth place and only one minute behind Joanna. Her team stopped beside Joanna’s unable to get by. So she put down her snow hook and went up to the front to straighten out her team when her snow hook came loose and as the team moved forward, it hooked the ski of Joanna’s sled pulling it over and down the trail aways. Joann managed to free her snow hook and move on down the trail, leaving Joanna behind who was now in fifth place.
A little while later Joanna had another tangle to take care of which cost some precious time. But her dogs put on the afterburners once they reached the woods and the curvy trails that they love to run. Joanna does all she can to help the dogs out by using a ski pole to push and her leg to kick the sled along faster. Soon they overtook the musher that left the checkpoint in third place. Then just ahead she saw Joann. She caught up to her and passed her. They ran together for about 20 miles, taking turns in the lead and then Joann was able to pull away from Joanna as her dogs settled into more of a trot.
It was a very discouraging moment for Joanna after working so hard to catch up to Joann and try to place better. But she knew she needed to stay positive because the dogs would pick up on her attitude, so she just kept working hard to help them out and do her best.
Soon the team reached the final 17 mile stretch of the trail that ran right along Lake Superior and into the full force of the storm. Several times the hurricane winds almost blew Joanna’s sled over and off the trail. But for her it was exhilarating and as the storm grew fiercer, it seemed to enliven the dogs more. They began loping again as Joanna simply hunkered down behind her sled in a crouched position, unable to see anything in the white out conditions and trusted her dogs to get her to the finish line. With faces covered with snow and ice, those amazing dogs pressed on. Suddenly, Joanna realized they had caught up to a musher. It was Joann. They were within three miles of the finish line.
Joanna’s team passed Joann and she was stunned to see that the musher in second place was also just in front of her. So they passed him too and Joanna came into the finish line in second place. What a race!!
While Joanna was racing back to the finish line from the Chatham checkpoint, I was trying to drive in those blizzard conditions to the finish line. I have never driven in white out conditions and it was a helpless feeling. I was praying the whole way for Jesus to keep me on the road and keep me from having an accident. At one point I had to literally come to a complete stop because I couldn’t see anything past the front of my car. I crept along at an average speed of 10 mph and finally got to my destination safely. I heard that soon after I arrived, they closed that road due to a seven car pileup. In talking with folks who live there, they said they had never seen anything like it in their life.
We are very thankful to be back home safely and are preparing to leave soon for our last race of the season in Calumet, MI for the Copper Dog 150 race. Hopefully, the weather will be a bit nicer to us. J