Sunday, December 9, 2012

Scary Run

With temperatures yesterday warming enough to run the four-wheeler without doing serious cold-weather damage to the machine, I decided yesterday would be a great day to take two teams out for training runs.  I ended up only running one of those teams, and that run had some moments that left me questioning my judgement, as well as the judgement of others.

We haven't seen any new snow in Two Rivers in a month or more, and are just now ending a three-week long cold snap.  There isn't enough snow on the trails to hook down a team, and on many trails there are more rocks and dirt than there is snow.  The snow remaining on the trails is very hard packed and icy.  Hence, many of us are relying on using wheels for training, rather than sleds.  Even at that there are a lot of trails that we would normally be using are virtually impassible for a four wheeler hooked to a team of dogs due to deep ruts left by summer traffic.

In the past, seldom used back roads have offered a safe alternative to hazardous trails, and motorists in our local area are usually very aware of dog teams and very courteous to those of us trying to train our dogs.  Yesterday I encountered an exception to that general trend.

My goal yesterday was just to get a few miles on some dogs, especially my yearlings who haven't yet had a lot of training opportunities.  I fired up the machine without any problem and once it was warmed I hooked up a team of 8.

Just, a venerable older and steady leader was hooked up next to Orion, who is a strong albeit inexperienced lead dog.  In swing I had Rose and Denali, both mature, steady animals who can run in any position, including lead.  In team I had Chetan, a yearling, harnessed beside Midnight's Son, brother to Orion.  In wheel I had good old Beau, a mature dog who works well in any position other than lead harnessed beside Aumaruq, a big, goofy young'un who always pulls hard and runs well.

We left the yard, traveled down the corrugated mess of the power-line right of way to the main trail, which we followed up to a trail-head parking area located on Two Rivers Road, just below the school.  From there the plan was to run up the wood cutting road to a turn-around loop I know of, about three miles up.  That gives us a total run of 7 miles which isn't a lot, but it's better than zero.

The first sign of trouble came just above the school, where we encountered an on-coming pickup truck.  This was an older vehicle I had never seen in the nieghborhood before.  Apparently it has an exhaust issue as the engine house was very loud.  Being on a long, fairly straight stretch of road I saw the rig from a good quarter mile away, and I have no doubt the driver must have seen the headlights on my four-wheeler. 

I was astonished that the son of a bitch behind the wheel never even slowed.  He just went blazing by us at easily 30 or 35 miles an hour, scaring hell out of yearlings Chetan and Aumaruq.  Had either panicked dog dodged into the path of that POS it would have been the ultimate disaster.  As it was they were obviously shaken and distracted for at least the next mile afterward, looking back instead of minding their work.  Even some of the older dogs were looking back and I could almost hear them asking "What the hell was THAT?"

My best guess is that "THAT" was some ignorant poor schmuck from North Pole or Fairbanks who recently installed a wood stove to try to supplement expensive heating oil with a readily available resource.  He has probably not encountered dog teams very often and doesn't have a clue how to behave when he does.  I prefer that explanation to the alternative - which is that he just doesn't give a damn whether he runs over a team of dogs or not. 

My faith in local drivers was restored about two miles further up.  We were in a section of the road that is very twisty, with a serious of tight curves necessary for the road to negotiate a relatively steep grade.  In one short straightaway we encountered a large truck heavily loaded with logs.  I recognized that rig as belonging to a logging operation that's been working in that area for the past two or three years.  As he always does, the driver stopped, smiled and waved as the team trotted past and as I always do, I shouted my thanks as we ran past him.

Only a couple hundred yards later we were climbing through some especially tight curves when I spotted headlights of a fast moving rig.  I knew exactly when the driver of this compact pickup truck spotted us, because he locked up his brakes and literally slid off the road, over the small snowberm, and nearly crashed down the embankment.  Had he been going any faster at all it would have been a bad wreck.  As it was, the truck was high centered on the berm at the edge of the road, only 1 rear wheel still on the drivable surface of the road.  It looked like he was hopelessly stuck. 

As I drew aside the truck I stopped the team.  The driver came bailing out the door like a hurricane and I braced myself for a potentially ugly confrontation.  I was totally taken off guard when the driver came dashing through the snow.  "I am SO sorry." he said.  "Are you guys OK?  I was going way faster than I should have been." 

Once assured that no harm had come to anyone on my team, he said "I didn't realize how fast I was going until I saw your dogs, and there was NO way I was going to risk hitting them."

Although neither of us thought it would work, I did convince him to  hook a tow strap between the four-wheeler and team and his pickup and tried to help pull him out.  We gave it a good effort and had the truck rocking pretty good, but he just couldn't get enough traction under the one wheel that was still on the road to back his rig out of his jamb. 

"Don't worry.  That logger will be returning in just a bit and he'll pull me out of here."  the driver said. 

It goes against my grain to leave someone who is stuck in the woods, even knowing that help will arrive shortly.  Anything can happen and although it was warmer than in the past couple of weeks, it was still cold enough to be dangerous.  "I'll tell you what." I said.  "We're just going up here to a little turnaround loop a couple of miles up, so we won't be long.  If you're still here when we get back I'll take you my place, fire up my dog truck and come help you out." 

He agreed to that plan, so I called up the team and we trotted on.  We didn't have any more encounters between him and our turn-around, but we hadn't been long on our return trip before we again met the logging truck, followed by two others.  Of course those experienced guys stopped so we could trot by.  Sure enough, they had pulled out the guy who had been stuck on the snow berm, so there was not problem there. 

As we neared the school we encountered another pickup truck.  This was a rig I've seen in the area from time to time, an older Chevrolet with a large water tank in the bed.  He stopped so we could go by, but his engine is pretty loud (another muffler problem), and Chetan and Aumaruq both panicked as we past, diving into the ditch and pulling some of their team-mates into the ditch with them.  Had I been on a sled rather than the heavier ATV it would have likely been a major problem.  As it is, I'll have to set up some training runs where the young'uns have to go past idling snow machines or ATVs to help them get over their apparent fear of machinery.

Once I got the team back home I was relieved.  Everyone got a really nice meat snack before I parked the four-wheeler back in the garage.  I decided there is just way too much traffic up on the wood cutting road for me to be trying to run dogs, and the risk just doesn't outweigh the benefit. 

This morning it is much warmer, and it's finally snowing.  I'm hopeful that we will get enough snow to at least make the trails safer for the four-wheeler or (fingers crossed) enough to safely run small teams on sleds.  If that's the case we won't have to worry about the damned wood cutting road at all, and that would be the best case for everyone involved.



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