Friday, January 18, 2008

Out of the Zone and Mushing in an Exciting New Direction.

Wouldn't you know it! The day after I threw caution to the wind and tried out my new freight train toboggan on hard, fast and sketchy trails we got a good old fashioned dumping of snow. According to the folks at it was the largest single fall of snow we've seen in a number of years up here, and I for one am grateful to the spirits for providing it.

I had to spend much of the day running errands in town yesterday, but today was reserved for giving my team a good run with the new toboggan. In fact, several "new" things happened todaoy. I put a new leader up front (Torus from the Rogue Summit kennel), I ran the new toboggan, and I ran over trails I've not been on before.

Let's take a look at each in order of priority. As much fun as new "stuff" may be, nothing takes a higher priority than the dogs. I'm really excited to have Torus on my team. I've run him before and fell in love with him then. He's a great match for my team and an awesome gee/haw leader with years of long-distance racing experience. Frankly, he is much better dog that I am musher.

Wednesday he ran back in the team to help him become acquainted with his new companions and to take a look at his level of conditioning. He easily managed the 7 mile run. Today, when Lynn asked how far I planned to go I told her I'd do at least 10 miles and if Torus seemed up to it I'd stretch it a bit. In my reply I was taking into account the new snow which I felt would increase the friction under the sled considerably. I'm sure the sled probably was a tougher load to pull on today's trail, but Torus nonetheless had no problem at all guiding us a bit more than 5 miles further. Although the route we took was new to me, he's run it many times before. Heck, he's RACED over it many times before. He honestly "knows the drill" better than I and he was a true delight up front.

My first impressions of the new toboggan were reinforced today. It really is a very fun sled to drive. It does require some "old school" skills that aren't often needed with modern dog sleds, but it's neither brain science nor rocket surgery to figure them out and put them into practice. To stop a powerful team with this sled one has to drag the snow hook, but with the wide driver's platform rather than balancing precariously on narrow runners it's not hard to do so with a high degree of control and precision. For the team, that means the hook can be used to jerking the dogs around.

At about 80 lb, this sled is a heavy sucker compared to modern gear, but even loaded with extra cargo the team had no problem hauling it over unbroken trails, and on the groomed trails it they drew it as easily as they draw my training toboggan sled.

The trail was awesome. The route I took is described in detail in my formal training report, below.

I took a rather roundabout way to get down to the Baseline Trail, which was groomed just yesterday for the upcoming Two Rivers Dog Musher's Association Hamburger Run tomorrow. The route we took required us to break out new trail in all that fresh snow for a little ways, but the sled tracked true, the dogs worked well, and in short order we were on the very best trails I have ever mushed dogs over.

That is no exaggeration, either. I took up dog mushing after my wife's death in 2005, and the past two winters have been marked by a tremendous lack of snow. Our big dump the other night truly is the most snow that's fallen at once in a number of years. With the trail freshly groomed and having seen very little traffic, it was picture perfect.

One of my reasons for taking this trail was to cross a little wooden bridge that crosses a creek. I've recently been reading of mushers having a brutal time trying to convince their dogs to run across similar bridges, so i wanted to see if my team would find it difficult. Heck, they didn't even slow down, and I'm not sure they even noticed the structure.

I took the race trail out to the Chena River State Recreation Area, crossed the highway and ran a couple of miles in before finding a large meadow in which to turn the team around. On the way back as we approached the highway a car was coming along, so I used the brake and hook together to stop the team. The car stopped and the driver signaled me to pass on, so I pulled the hook and called 'em up. They launched with as much enthusiasm as at the start of the race, and as we literally flashed by I saw the passenger in the car furiously shooting photographs. I'm sure seeing a middle-aged musher running an historical toboggan was pretty unique for them.

As we ran the section parallel to the highway a second rig came by. That car paced us for a good 1/4 mile or so while the passenger was shooting photos. All I can say is we may not be fast, but we certainly must be pretty.

As the race trail neared the baseline trail again I saw Nels limping a little bit in his right front, so I called a stop thinking he might have collected an ice ball between the pads of his paw. I was correct, but he chewed it free in very short order. I checked the rest of the dogs and didn't find any problems, so pulled the hook and we continued our journey. I must say it is VERY nice to be able to plant a snow hook and feel confident that it will hold. Nonetheless I made it a point to plant both hooks each and every time. It's been necessary to do that up until now, but I think it is just a smart habit to continue.

By now the team had slowed, but they were a long way from wanting to stop. As we returned up Pleasant Valley Road and into Lynn's yard they gave me a "let's go home" sprint that was a perfect ending to a perfect dog mushing run.

Here is how I recorded the day's event in my formal training journal:

1-18-08 Friday: “A” Team. Wooden toboggan + 120 lb of weight + gear bag (~40 lb). Temperature range 8 to 14 degrees (F) above zero. Trail conditions lightly packed powder with some untracked powder 6” to 8” deep.

Lynn’s place to PV Rd to Paw Print Patch to Powalski’s field to Keizo’s field to Quest race trail to Rec Area, across highway to large meadow. Turn around and return, turning off race trail (Baseline) to cross Swenson’s little pond and back to Lynn’s.

12 ¼ miles, Max speed 14.5 (at launch), Moving average 7.1 mph. Two brief stops, 1 to let Nels clear an ice ball from a foot and one to drag leaders onto proper trail.


Dutchess Torus

Gump Grace

Semaus Rose

Sheenjek Nels

On hookup I had Nels next to Sheenjek by the tug line but no neckline. He spun around tangling his harness, so I reharnessed and then hooked him by the neckline but no tug. After hooking up leaders my last step was to hook his tug. That seems to be a short term solution to the immediate problem. Very fast launch with little control out the feeder trail. I need to run that stretch with hook in hand, as it’s the only way I might stop them if there are cars coming on P.V. Road.

Dutchess and Torus were awesome running lead together. Almost like having power steering up front. The new toboggan proved again to be very controllable for the most part, but I am going to have to do something about it’s tendency to fall off downhill side of trails. Especially if I’m to safely cross side-hill overflow with it.

The trail at the bottom of Keizo’s field wasn’t yet broken out. Doing so took some of the steam out of the team and they settled into a very nice trot. The groomed race trail is very nice to run on – can be described at packed powder. It is very well marked and easy to follow.

Convincing the leaders I really wanted to turn around to the “haw” at a large open meadow in the park was difficult, but they finally got it. This led to a good long stretch of trail breaking before we regained the race trail. Lots of little hills to practice controlling the sled on.

Oncoming vehicle at highway crossing required a hook-down stop, but it worked just fine. The team maintained an easy, steady trot on the back trail – nothing fast but a nice pace. Nels developed a limp and I hooked down to check him out. He had a lot of ice packed into his right front, but he was able to chew it out himself. I need to goop his feet before running on warm, soft trails. I also need to train the twins to run in booties. That should be a real hoot.

The leaders tried to go “gee” at the P.V. Road extension, but corrected. When we hit the other end of the “Y” they tried to take it and got well into the trees before I could stop them. I hooked down and dragged them back to the main trail and they got the message. We did the dip into the pond at the east edge of Swenson’s field instead, to I could get some more experience managing the toboggan on steeper slopes.

They picked up the pace very nicely on P.V. Road and into the yard, and Torus and Dutchess took the team right up to the truck.


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