Monday, December 10, 2007

-The Eighth Dog -

In his book Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod author Gary Paulson wrote of a phenomenon that occurs when you put the eighth dog on the gangline. Something surreal happens to the team. The don't just get a little stronger, a little more coordinated, a little faster - they get a LOT stronger, a LOT more coordinated and though they they may not get any faster, the become a power unto themselves.

I know this. I've known it for a long time. I've felt the exponential magic when I've run large strings on the four-wheeler in training. Somehow knowing isn't enough - one has to FEEL it to understand it.

Today was my day - and all I can say is 'DAMN- What a ride."

Saturday I ran a team of 7 and had no problems at all with them. Today is my last day off before returning to work for two weeks, so I figured I'd run the whole gang (including Amazing Grace) in one long run, and get them good and tired before taking them to their boarding yards. My training partner had to be at work at noon so couldn't go along, but I figured "What the heck - it's only 8 dogs, and most of them are freight dogs so they aren't that fast, and there is almost enough snow on the ground to hook down if I really have to, and I'm a big guy, it takes a lot of dogs to haul my arse about and when I plant my foot on the brake something has got to either stop or break, s0 I figured I'd give it a go. So, being a rough-tough old school Alaskan, I decided I'd run 8 dogs hooked to my training toboggan and see what happens.

I put Dutchess and Daisy up in lead, young Nels next to young Seamus in swing, older Gump next to yearling Rose in team, and Sheenjek next to the snotty albeit incredibly talented Amazing Grace in wheel. Lynn came out to help me get going, though I suspect she was mostly interested in hearing my screams of terror.

We've all done things where the moment we are fully committed our first thought is, unprintable - but essentially "Oops, maybe I shouldn't have done that." With my team hooked to the sled I planted the bar brake, calmly unhooked the snub line and got it sorted out in the basket of the sled, took one last look up the gangline to make sure no one was tangled, and said "Ready? Let's go." THAT was the moment.

The first obstacle to overcome was The Root of All Evil. There is a big ol' white spruce tree at the start of Lynn's out run trail that has a big ol' root sticking well out into the trail. That big ol' root has a big ol' lump in it. Well, in about two jumps the entire team hit their max speed of nearly 15 mph, the sled hit the big lump in The Root of All Evil squarely down the middle. All thoughts of riding the drag evaporated simply because we were airborne, and the drag won't work unless it is actually in the snow.

Back on the ground we were in a mad dash toward Pleasant Valley Road. I was able to grab enough bar brake to slow the team enough to be certain no traffic was coming though I won't try to swear that I could have stopped them even if there had been. We hit the packed snow on the road at full speed, the sled skittered sideways with both wheel dogs digging hard for purchase, and I was finally able to get it straighted by planting both heels squarely over the two studs I had the foresight to mount at the rear of my drag mat when I built it last year.

With my full 235 lb resting on those two studs I was able to keep the sled in proper alignment, but just barely. "Control" was strictly an imaginary concept until we got off the end of P.V. Road and onto the softer albeit still well packed trail at the end. We made the "gee" toward Swenson's field in perfect fashion, did a hard "haw" onto the side trail, and in record time another "gee" onto a cross trail. Finally I felt I was on enough snow to stop this train wreck if I really, really had to. I think that's about the time my brain finally caught up to my team.

A "haw" and a quick "gee" only minutes later had us on the baseline trail, a straight shot all the way out to Grange Hall road. Finally, three miles into the run, the team settled down into their "traveling trot" and I had a chance to marvel at the experience. The little hill just beyond Aliy's place where I normally have to help the team went past like nothing, the dogs pulling like furry bulldozers to drag us up and over. The loop around the field was awesome. I was able to stop the team long enough to light up a smoke though they liked to snap my head off my shoulders when I started 'em up again. The serpentine at the end of the trail was challenging, but in a fun sort of way. Up another hill with no help needed, and we were heading back toward Lynn's.

We passed one other team on that stretch of trail. I think the blur of blue going by on my left was Abby West, and her smile and wave was appreciated even while I encouraged the dogs to continue on instead of visiting. Fortunately her team was moving along like an express train, and were by before Sheenjek could drag the whole team to a stop.

We did an extra loop around Swenson's field to add some miles to our run, and finally a couple of my dogs were showing signs of tiring. Not a lot, but enough. When we arrived back at Lynn's Darling Daisy was tired enough to lie down and rest. Dutchess acted like she'd have enjoyed doing it all over again. The twins and Amazing Grace were even ready to settle down for a little while.

So, we all survived the run to tell the tale, but the main point of the tale is that "the myth of the eighth dog" is no myth at all. It's a solid fact. I can hardly wait to get off work on Christmas Day and do it all over again.

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