Thursday, March 21, 2019

NREMT-P (ret)

(ret) and What It Means

In parenthasis, (ret) refers to retired. This morning, it also refers to me. After 43 years of contiuous EMS practice, 40 of those years as an advanced practitioner (paramedic), I am no longer employed in the field, and in just 10 more days my professional certifications will expire at which point I'll no longer be qualified to do the job that has supported me all those many years. Consequently on those rare occaissions it is appropriate to include my professional qualification in my signature, the NREMT-P will include the parenthesized (ret).

This morning, (ret) can also refer to retrospective.


My retirement is the result of a bad case of 'dumbass disease' last September. Working at remote industrial sites on the North Slope, my work schedule was two-weeks on / two-weeks off. My crew-change day was Wednesday. On Monday evening, September 3rd, I was in my kennel, feeding the dogs, but my head was in Fairbanks, reviewing all the errands I would need to do to prepare for my next tour-of-duty on the job. I stepped into what appeared to be a water puddle, but turned out to be a very deep hole. As a result, I suffered major injuries to my left knee, including a complete rupture of the quadraceps tendon, a tear of the patellar tendon, spring of the later collateral tendon and a few meniscus tears.  On Thursday morning, even before my co-workers were beginning their daily duties I was on the surgeon's table for the time-sensitive surgery absolutely necessary for any sort of recovery.

Following the surgery my left leg was completely immobilized for 6 weeks. Then began a long, arduous process of physical therapy to regain the use of the knee. Under the provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) I had six-months (extended due to that 2-on / 2-off duty schedule) to return to the job. To do that required that I pass a PAT (physical abilities test) to demonstrate my physical ability to meet the requirements of the job description.

Although my life-style requires some other abilities, my physical therapist and I focused on the abilities I would need to recover in order to pass the PAT. We put a lot of work towards restoring balance (needed to control a dog sled) aside to focus on strength and endurance necessary to achieve the criteria of the PAT.

Working in a dual role, as a security officer and medic, the test was oriented to the demands of a high-performance armed security officer, an included a 3-minute step test, tromping up and down a 12-inch step at a pace of 90 steps per minute, as a test of aerobic fitness. On my first attempt to pass the PAT, my knee buckled about half-way through the step-test (fatigue), and the technician called a halt to the test. In less than two minutes I had failed the test and was facing termination.

The company was very gracious, and although my FMLA had expired they allowed me an additional month to retake the test and return to duty. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on my professional certifications as I had missed the refresher courses needed to maintain my State certification and national registration as an EMS provider. My therapist and I focused even more intently on the strength training needed to extend my leg from an angle slightly more than 90 degrees to fully extended, in order to overcome the obstacle of that damned step test, and it worked.

On my second attempt, I overcame the obstacle of the step-test. It wasn't pretty or eligant by any stretch, but I managed that 3 minutes of aerobic horror, and we continued on. Wearing a weight belt to simulate the weight of the duty-belt worn at work, I proved that I could carry a 50 pound box of weights the required distances, lift it to my waist, left it to my shoulder, and lift a lighter box higher than my head. I proved I could walk up and down the hallway with a steady pace and balanced gait. I proved I could kneel and return to standing on both knees repreatedly and assume all the positions needed to pass my firearms qualification requirement.

Then, along came the monkey wrench. During the month in which I was training to meet the requirements of that specific test, unbeknowst to me or (apparently) anyone else, the criteria of the test had been changed. The original test, for which I'd trained, required climbing up and down a ladder several times. I had trained and practiced that to the point where I can climb a ladder like a monkey. The new criteria, however, was one of those things my therapist and I had set-aside in order to focus on strength training. It was an endurance test requiring an uphill hike for 15 minutes at a rate of 3-plus miles per hour. That test proved I no longer have the endurance to pass 2 tests of aerobic capacity in the same session.

Decision Making

Was I pissed off? That's an understatment. I didn't mind that the company (and it might have been a contractor responsible for developing and managing the PAT testing process rather than my own) changed the test criteria. The new criteria is more in-line with the demands of the actual job than is clamboring up and down a ladder. What pissed me off (and still bothers me), is that I wasn't notified of the change in criteria. Even the director of human resources at my company (a relative new-hire) wasn't aware the criteria had been changed, though she was very quick to point out that "the company has no legal obligation to notifiy employees of changes in policy or procedures." Had we known about it, my therapist and I could have incorporated some endurance work into my therapy regime to prepare for the ordeal.

So the next decision I faced was to allow the company to terminate my employment, or just suck-it-up and retire. Obviously, I chose the latter.

(End of RETrospective)


Although a career in emergency services offers many rewards, wealth is not among the list. I'm not a rich man by anyone's measure, but neither am I impoverished. Throughout my career I've been diligent about contributing to my retirement fund and my financial advisor assures me that I have adequate funds to maintain my life-style well into the future.

I also have a team of very strong and attractive sled dogs. I've worked part-time as a sled dog tour guide in the past and earned enough to pay for the maintenance of my kennel. So long as I can keep my body together I can do such work on a full-time basis during winter and earn enough to support my kennel. That's important to me because if I can't keep and run my dogs I have no reason to retire.

I had already been taking some courses in genetics, particularly canine genetics, prior to my injury. With much more 'free' time on my hands than is typical for me, I realized early on I needed to do things to keep my brain active or I'd likely go either bug-eyed stir crazy. Albeit no tee-totaller by any means, I'm only a casual drinker preferring quality over quantity so spending the time in an alcoholic stupor simply wasn't on the list of things to do. So, I've spent a lot of that down-time and a not insignificant amount of money on on-line courses in genetics, population genetics and canine genetics. It's turned out that a subject that I intially struggled with (harder for me than organic chemistry) actually is understandable and is down-right fascinating.

I believe I can generate enough interest among other dog mushers to help them make better breeding decisions based on scientific evidence that will ultimate result in stronger, faster and much more genetically diverse kennels and the sled dog population in general. Most dog mushers just don't have the free time necessary to study anything not directly related to the immediate care and training of their dogs so I'm hopeful I can help them out, and maybe earn a bit of money to help pay for my own continuing education and maybe even some highly specialized (and very expensive) comuter software in the process.

Meanwhile, I love and live in Alaska. There are lots of fish that need to be caught. Caribou and moose that need to be harvested and sled dogs that need to be raised, trained and run on the back-country trails. I believe I have more than enough interests to keep me plenty busy both physically and mentally during my retirement.

Meanwhile, when old men gather around a table or campfire to boast of their past I can join the conversation and while others boast of their past accomplishments I can fit right in by explaining that for over 40 years I earned a living protecting others from the ravages of crime, terrorism and disease. It might be a bit of an overstatment, but then again I'm a fisherman and hunter and overstatement is expected, accepted and generally approved in a well-told story.

Monday, February 11, 2019

YQ - The Home Stretch

Last night I was all but glued to the Yukon Quest Live Tracker, enjoying som exciting racing out on the Yukon Quest. As you'll recall, Brent Sass had left the Mile 101 checkpoint after four-hours rest just as Allen Moore was arriving. Allen had decided to blow through the checkpoint to give chase.

Allen was able to give Brent a good run for his money, but by the time they had topped Rosebud Summit it was clear that Moore's team didn't have the juice he, or I, thought they had. They slowed considerably after the work of climbing two major mountains back to back. Ultimately, Brent arrived in the Two Rivers checkpoint shortly before 7:00 PM, a solid hour and 20 minutes ahead of Allen.

After an 8 hour mandatory layover, Brent headed toward the finish line at Fairbanks at 2:53 this morning and Allen left as scheduled at 4:32. They are currently mushing their way on trails parallel to the Chena Hot Springs Road through Chena River State Park with just shy of 12 miles between them.

Things were equally exciting for the race for third and fourth place, between Michelle Phillips and Hans Gatt, where Michelle passed Hans at the top of the summit to take the 3rd place position just prior to arriving at Mile 101. Gatt, a four-time champion cleared the summit before walking up to his leaders and lying down beside them for a quick breather.

Gatt got up to give his dogs a snack and started working on his gear. While he was making some adjustments, Phillips passed him. After the two exchanged pleasantries, Gatt hopped back on his sled and started his descent toward Mile 101. After the exchange, journalists at the summit overheard Gatt mumbling, “Worst ever,” as his team pulled away. 

Yesterday evening Hans and Michelle were racing head-to-head over Rosebud Summit and were both gaining ground on Moore when they reached the Two Rivers checkpoint, with Gatt arriving less than an hour before Phillips.

As I write (5:45 AM), Sass, Moore and Gatt are en route to the finish line, and Michelle will be leaving the final checkpoint in about 20 minutes. Matt Hall and Paige Drobny are resting at Mile 101 and I expect they will be leaving shortly. The remaining competitors are literally spread out between Central and Eagle as they continue to march toward the Golden Heart City of Fairbanks.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

YQ report - It's a Nail Biter, for sure.

When I wrote this morning, I was firmly convinced that Brent Sass had the race well in hand. He marched right into the Mile 101 checkpoint and settled in to rest, and to wait. Sure enough as Allen Moore topped Eagle Summit Brent apparently bootied up, called 'em up and hit the trail.

I was surprised that Allen Moore didn't stop at the checkpoint long at all. He saw an opportunity to close the gap, and took it. He is currently chasing Brent toward the Two Rivers checkpoint, on the other side of Rosebud Summit. Thus far in the race, Brent's team has avereageda route speed of 4.1 mph, compared to Allen's at 4.0 mph.

With that mandatory 8-hour layover coming up in Two Rivers, Allen may be counting on the long break to rest his team enough for a sprint to the finish line. Brent will certainly be doing the same.

The last time these two mushers were this close so near the finish of the race, Brent edged out Allen in the last stretch, between Two Rivers and the finish line in Fairbanks. That year, Allen's team simply ran out of energy and couldn't keep up. This year Brent is running an entirely different team of dogs - but so is Allen. I suspect I'll be glued to the ol' computer until these two teams check in just up the road a bit from my place.

Yukon Quest - A Trail to Redemption?

Having camped on the trail somewhere outside Central (possibly Medicine Lake), Brent Sass blew through the checkpoint and mushed onward, apparently marching straight over the notorious Eagle Summit to Mile-101. Brent still has all 14 dogs on his gangline. Allen Moore, in second place, is just now (10:30 AM) 6 miles out of Central, where Hans Gatt and Michelle Phillips are still resting their teams.

I believe this move has placed Brent Sass firmly in the cat-bird seat. He can care for his dogs and perhaps get some much-needed sleep and simply take off when Allen arrives. Another option is to mush on toward Rosebud Summit and the Two Rivers checkpoint where he is required to take a mandatory 8-hour layover. Either way, I don't see any way that Allen can pass him short of a major miship out on the trail.

Brent's last few races can best be described as disastrous. In the 2016 Iditarod his overly tired team refused to leave the White Mountain checkpoint, forcing him to drop from 2nd to 20th place. In the 2017 Yukon Quest, Brent punched the "help" button on his Spot Tracker when two of his dogs collapsed en route to the Central checkpoint. As a result of those, and perhaps other less well-known events, Brent has a reputation for working his dogs beyond their natural capacity. Winning this year's Quest with a full team of 14 dogs would go far toward restoring his good name and reputation on the trails.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

YQ This Morning - February 9th.

I'm apparently not the only one who is curious about standings in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race this morning. When trying to bring up the Live Tracker I've gotten "time out" errors using two different browsers. I suspect too many of us are trying to view the GPS trackers at the same time, thus overloading the sytem.

When I last looked, at about 5:30 AST this morning Allen Moore and Brent Sass had gained about 10 miles over Hans Gatt and Michelle Phillips. The two leaders were inbetween Slaven's Cabin and Circle and both traveling at just under 8 MPH. Hans and Michelle were both at Slaven's at that time.

About half an hour ago or so, the Yukon Quest Official Site FaceBook crew posted the following information:

"As Allen Moore, Brent Sass and Hans Gatt make their way closer to Circle, Michelle Phillips, Paige Drobny and Matt Hall continue to rest at Slaven's Dog Drop. Denis Tremblay and Ryne Olson are enroute to Slaven's while Nathaniel Hamlyn, Jessie Royer and Torsten Kohnert rest up at Trout Creek Hospitality Stop. Cody Strathe, Brian Wilmshurst and Curt Perano are out of Eagle while Jason Biasette, Andy Pace, Dave Dalton, Deke Naaktgeboren, Misha Wiljes and Rob Cooke continue to rest in Eagle for their mandatory four hours, or longer, as some have chosen to do."

AHA - it's finally my turn to take a look at the Tracker.

Here we see Allen Moore racing less than 3 miles ahead of Bren Sass. In terms of long-distance sled dog racing there are practically neck to neck. Hans Gatt and Michelle Phillips truly are neck to neck with less than a mile between their teams.

I would expect Allen and Brent to be checking into the Circle checkpoint in about two hours.

Take a look at that really squiggly section of trail coming up to the southwest of Circle. That's Birch Creek.  If you were to stretch that section of the Quest Trail out you'd see that it's MUCH longer than it seems. I've floated it by canoe in summer and I can assure you that after a few hours on the water it seems to go on to infinity. The Quest trail follows 30 miles of those meanderings, so about four or 5 hours for a fast team.

During winter Birch Creek is notorious for overflow and most years it's one of the coldest sections of trail in the entire race. This year is probably as exception. The temperature right now in Circle is 18 degrees F (-4 C) and in the next checkpoint, Central, it is 24 above F (-4 C).

Friday, February 8, 2019

February 8 - Drama on the YQ Trail.

I'm beginning to believe that it simply isn't possible to have a complete long-distance sled dog race without some degree of drama, and this year's Yukon Quest is no exception.

I reported this morning that Olivia (Neff) Webster had scratched from the race in Dawson. Hugh Neff 'shared' the Yukon Quest official report in a public FaceBook post, along with the following comment:

"This is TOTAL BS. Olivia Shank Neff was forced to drop 8 time YQ finisher Mojito due to a minor frostbit flank. A recurring issue that he's had for years. (Golden Harness winner.)
She was then forced to scratch after returning to doglot to drop Emily,leader in heat.
The dogs are fine. Mojito and c0. Will be mushing back to Tok in 2 hours. We'll be running 2 small teams. My wife and our dogs didn't deserve this. The vets have been harassing us all yearand need to be investigated! LeRoy Shank's Dream has been destroyed by greed, power hungry people and overall corruption."
Earlier, Hugh had shared a post from Tammi Dunlap Skaleski (who I am not acquainted with), who had written, "Just got off the phone with Olivia Shank Neff and Hugh Neff. Here is the scoop from them as to what happen.. Emily ,lead dog is in heat. Several dogs fights happened . As race officials stood by and watched and did nothing as olivia fought for over 2 hours to break up fights due to Emily being in heat, a guy on snowmobile stopped ASKED if she needed help. They forced her to scratch saying she had too much outside assistance. Which she had none. They also forced her to drop her main lead dog Mojito even though he is fine passing all vet checks. This is pure bullshit and the Quest officials should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. Olivia and dogs were rested doing great except for Emily in heat. She doesnt deserve this nor do these amazing dogs that worked hard to get here and were doing great. Please show your support and love for them. They will be continuing to run dogs back to tok on their own. We are so so proud of you both and support you all the way. Be proud of pushing through everything they have thrown at you. Hold heads high . We love you"

This afternoon veteran musher Sebastian Schnuelle, who is very highly respected by most who know him as a great dog man and long distance musher, also commented on the situation. Some may recognize Seb as the Original Armchair Musher.

"There is drama at the tail end of the Quest about Olivia Webster ( Neff ) scratching. Last year the race officials and Vets were critizesed for not pulling a dog out of Hugh's team in Eagle, who later died. This year they are pulling a questionable dog out of Olivias team in Dawson and yet again they are blamed. This time for pulling " a key lead dog ". This shows the difficulty of the decisions the officials and vets are facing.

Giving a musher the choice of being withdrawn or allowing them to scratch is very common practice. Ultimately the outcome is the same. The mushers race is ending, for the wellbeing of the dogs and Musher. I was given the same choice by Joe May in my 1999 Yukon Quest attempt. I was in complete disagreement at the time, just to realize years later, with more experience, how much of a favor Joe May had actually done me. Being a race official is an incredible difficult position, more so in the day and age of social media. Decisions are done as a group and nobody is out to ruin somebodies dream. The dream can turn into a nightmare, or it can stay alive and well, for later years. Mine did, as exactly 10 years after being told to go home, my race had a much different outcome."

So, as expected, there is drama on the Yukon Quest trail. The only real question worth asking is "Why does the drama so frequently involve the Laughing Eyes Kennel?

Update - February 9th.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has published a story about the brouhaha. You can read it under the headline "Shank-Neff scratches, says Quest forced her out". Personally, I think the most pertinent part of the article reads, "“Hugh came up and started yelling at everybody, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’

Morning report - Friday, Feb 8

The race is definitely on, with four mushers having passed through the Eagle checkpoint overnight. As I write, Allen Moore has a slim lead over Brent Sass for first and second place. Michelle Phillips is traveling in 3th place with Hans Gatt in fourth. Matt Hall arrived in Eagle about 10 minutes ago (05:45 AST) and is resting his team at his home-town checkpoint.

Jimmy Lebling finally made his way to Dawson City yesterday, and immediately scratched "for the well being of his team." Having completed her 36 hour layover, Olivia Webster (Hugh Neff's wife) turned around, returned to town and also scratched. Lisbet Norris finally made her way into town at about 10:40 last night.

As of this morning there are still 28 teams competing.