Monday, January 7, 2008

Adventure or Disaster - Defining the Difference

I've heard it said that the only difference between an adventure and a disaster is the consequences of the event. Today I would have to agree.

My friend and training partner, Lynn Orbison, wanted to explore a new trail that caught her eye, and my team has been training well so we figured that would be the way to do so. Therefore our training run today was an expedition of discovery. I discovered more than I bargained for and (hopefully) learned some important lessons.

Lesson #1: Always fasten your gangline to the sled.
Lesson #2: Always double check your equipment before hooking up your dogs.

Now, doesn't that seem rather obvious? Because it is obvious, then obviously I screwed up and it was only through the intervention of guardian angels or guardian spirits that no one human or canine was injured or killed. This was a BAD screw up.

To prepare for the run, I had to remove my snow hooks and snub line from one sled to attach to my training toboggan. I did that, and very carefully made sure all were properly positioned and threaded through the appropriate nooks and crannies. I even made sure both caribiners that fasten the shock cord to the bridle of the sled were locked closed. What I didn't do was hook fasten the gangline, shock cord, snowhooks and snub line to the bridle of the sled. That was a bad screw up.

Even worse, even though I know better I didn't come back later to double check everything. After all, I just hooked everything up, right? WRONG.

We had 8 dogs hooked up to the gangline, Lynn was settled into the basket, so I released the snub line and called the dogs up. The dogs surged forward, the gangline surged forward, the shock cord surged forward, both snow hooks surged forward, and the sled stayed in place for about half a second.

One hook was in it's plastic holder, which literally exploded as the heavy steel hook was driven forward. That hook lodged between the ribband the front of the sled (through spiritual intervention, I'm convinced). That hook missed Lynn's head by mere inches, and had it struck her it would certainly have hurt her badly, and might have killed her outright.

The other hook was in Lynn's hand, and she held onto it for dear life. We were able to get the team stopped and the hooks planted. Lynn went up to deal with the dogs while I put everything back together again properly.

With the sled fastened to the gangline this time, Lynn rearranged the team a bit, got back into the basket and we launched again. Young Nels got himself spun around in his harness, which is an ugly tangle, but there was nothing we could do about it until we got into some reasonably deep snow, so he had to run that way for about a 1/4 mile or so. I'm sure it wasn't much fun.

Lesson #3: Check out the hill before the dogs go over the top.
Lesson #4: A new skill - braking the sled with a snow hook.

So, we continued our run following a route we frequently take, and then reached the new trail that Lynn wanted to explore. Lynn said "Take it easy, I think there might be a really steep hill just a ways down."

So, I called easy and put more weight on the drag slowing the team, and sure enough, the trail dropped from sight just up ahead. As we neared it, the lead dogs dropped from sight. As I called whoa and stomped the bar brake the swing dogs dropped out of sight and as the sled finally stopped the team dogs teetered on the edge of a precipice. That damned hill wasn't quite vertical, but it was steep enough that the dogs are mostly hanging by their harnesses. I planted both hooks and contemplated the problem.

I wasn't sure I could lower the sled using just the bar brake without running over my team or sliding into the snow berm at the side of the trail and flipping musher, sled and all into the trees, which of course would be at least an adventure if not a disaster. Then I remembered an old dog driver's trick that I've read about but never before tried.

I asked Lynn to go down the line and release as many tug lines as she could. With most of the dogs attached by only their necklines, I knew they wouldn't be able to pull very hard. I put the left snow hook into the basket, made sure I had a good grip on the drive bow with my left hand, put my full weight on my knees on the drag mat, and then lifted the second hook just enough to allow the sled to move forward. By dragging the snow hook I was able to control our fall down the hill without anything worse than a scary moment or two. Most importantly, I felt as though if things got out of control I could plant the hook deeply and maybe prevent the aforementioned disaster. It probably wasn't pretty, but it worked.

Lesson #5: If you think everything is under control, think again.

With the dogs hooked up to the line again, we headed off across the muskeg. In a normal year I think it would be a wonderfully fun, smooth trail. This year, with so little snow, we basically bounced our way along over the tops of myriad tussocks. It took a lot of work on my part to control the sled. At one point we took a tight turn to the left. I planted my foot on the right runner and left foot on the drag mat to steer the sled wide when my right foot slipped off the runner, my left foot skidded off the mat, and I found myself being dragged by my arms by 8 very powerful dogs.

As calmly as I could, I asked Lynn to please plant a hook to stop the team. She was successful, so I was able to climb back aboard my slide with nothing more than my pride injured. Had she not been able to plant that hook I would have lost my team.

The rest of the run was uneventful, though we cut it a bit short as one of the dogs, a yearling named Polar, was growing tired and we wanted to make especially sure he had a fun time today. Lynn was a very good sport about the whole thing (thank Providence).

Toward the end of the run I remembered I had my camera tucked into a shirt pocket. I dug it out and handed it to Lynn, who turned around in the basket of the moving sled to take this photo of me.

Lesson #6: The next time you run that trail, do it in the opposite direction.

Here's how I recorded the adventure in my training journal:

12/7/08 (Monday): 9.5 miles. Max speed 14.8 mph, moving average 9.0. Overall average – no clue. Too many hook downs to guess. Temperature 0 degrees. Training toboggan with passenger.

Route: Lynn’s yard to Swenson’s Field to Baseline to “haw” just beyond Allen and Aliy’s, past airfield to “new” trail that caught Lynn’s eye. Down a dangerously steep hill into the flats, return via side trails to baseline, to potato field and back to Lynn’s yard.

Initial configuration:

Dutchess & Grace

Polar & Seamus

Gump & Nels

Sheenjek & Rose

Tough hook up. Nels kept turning around, and Dutchess would back out of her “line out” pulling Grace with her, which Grace took as a cue to swap sides or look back or whatever. Finally got them lined out, when I realized my first and second mess-ups of this run.

First mess up: When setting up the sled I first forgot to hook the gangline to the sled.

Second mess up: I forgot to double-check my equipment.

When I called up the team Lynn had one hook in hand. The other blew out of the holder, missed her head by inches, and lodged between the ribband and front of the sled. I was able to get them stopped. Dutchess and Grace were having not getting along well. Grace was still cowed after an encounter with Minnie two days ago so was becoming very stressed.

Fortunately, I was able to get the sled hooked up to the mainline (NOT the other way around). Lynn swapped Grace for Polar and we tried again.

New Configuration:

Dutchess & Polar

Grace & Seamus

Gump & Nels

Sheenjek & Rose

Nels was standing sideways looking back when I called them up. Instead of turning to his left to run he spun around, creating a harness tangle. No way to hook down, so he ran in that tangled harness down Pleasant Valley Road until we were able to find enough snow to hook ‘em down. Lynn fixed his problem and we called them up again.

Polar ran very well in lead today and Dutchess did a nice job of directing him. We took the quartering trail across Swenson’s trail, up onto baseline, and enjoyed a fast run down the trail.

Grace scotched at Seamus from time to time, earning a reprimand from Lynn, me or both of us on frequent occasions.

We turned onto the new trail and just a little way down I had to learn how to do something new. The trail drops down a STEEP (read VERY steep) hill, much too steep for me to control the sled behind a team of 8 strong dogs. We hooked down and I asked Lynn to work her way down the team and remove tug lines from as many dogs as she could. Once that was done I planted one knee firmly on the drag pad, one hand on the drive bow, and dragged my hook in the snow to control our decent. There were some scary moments, but we pulled it off with no mishap.

We then headed down a trail over muskegs that in any decent snow year is probably a real delight, but this year it is as rough as anything. Keeping the sled under control was a real challenge. At one point, in a tight curve in the trail, my right foot slipped off the runner, causing me to trip and fall. I held onto the sled while the dogs dragged me along and as calmly as I could asked Lynn to please plant a hook. I was very relieved that it caught and held the team long enough for me to regain my feet.

The rest of the run went along without major incident. Polar got very tired prompting us to turn toward home at the potato field rather than extending our journey of exploration a few more miles. Training dogs was truly an adventure today.

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