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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dog Dreams

Watching ChaCha yesterday I could tell that she was in the middle of a great doggie dream. I started to wonder what it was as she quietly barked, then moving her feet in a running matter she whined a little and ended the session with a quick tail wag. Of course, I'll never know exactly what she was dreaming, but I started to speculate, even to dream myself...... I think she was dreaming about Iditarod:

We left Rohn Checkpoint on this year's Iditarod feeling pretty perky. The dog team had rested below the tall tree canopy of a White Spruce forest surrounding the old trapper's cabin. Their straw beds had comforted them from the the cold wind, so they had slept soundly for nearly 6 hours. They were now moving down the trail with full bellies.
Aliy, Cha Cha and Allen before the race.

Cha Cha was in front of the team. I had decided that Cha Cha was the "main man" of the kennel so she deserved to lead the team this race. I was calling her my "Brett Favre": she was a bit older then many of her team mates but, much of the time, she far surpassed their skill level and determination.

A few miles past Rohn, the trail began traveling through a freshly burned section of forest - the smell was strong and Cha Cha lifted her head periodically to sniff. I think the dark burned trees and dead slash that lay everywhere made the team nervous. A nervous team is a fast team, so we motored through the miles.

We came upon an abrupt uphill grind that signals to veteran mushers that the Post River Glacier is getting close. The dogs and I both ran up the long, steep climb. Cha Cha and I knew it was coming.

The trail up and over the Glacier has changed very little over the years. Considering this was Cha Cha's seventh trip on the Iditarod, she knew where to go. Or so she thought. But, the trail breakers tried to make the Glacier "easier" this year, so they changed the route a little.

Traditionally, the trail encounters the Glacier about halfway up the ice sheet on its right edge. A dog team gets on the ice and naturally climbs the right edge of the ice, barely skirting a huge boulder. On the uphill side of the boulder a dog can see bare ground and so continues up the ice with the end in sight.

This year, the trail still encounters the Glacier at the same spot on the right edge. Now the trail crosses the ice sheet - perpendicular to the flow. The crossing is about 50 yards wide. Then the trail goes into the trees on the left edge of the ice and it makes a sharp 90 degree turn. Here there is bare ground and a dog can get traction. This new route then parallels the Glacier to the top.

The traditional route makes sense to a dog. The team approaches the Glacier on the right perimeter and they see the ice laid out ahead of them. They are a little intimidated, but they continue on, hugging the right bank, heading towards the boulder. The boulder looks like a safe haven for a dog (because it's not ice), but really is more of a blockade that keeps the team on the Glacier. Once the team passes the boulder, they see the top with bare ground showing and the obstacle is soon behind them. The biggest problem with this traditional route is the sled or the dogs riding up on the side of the boulder.

The new route is quite challenging and doesn't consider a dog's point of view. First of all, when the dogs first see the Glacier they are immediately asked to trot across. Ice often makes dogs nervous - they have little traction, no control and the weight of the sled often directs where the team winds up. What happens when you try to cross an icy downhill slope? You slide downhill. A dog might only slide a little because they can use their toe nails to hang on and lean uphill. But, a heavily weighted sled with no steering capability, slippery plastic runners and a musher on the back will immediately go downhill... fast! This, in turn, pulls the dogs downhill as well. There is NOTHING a musher can do but try to get to the other side as quickly as possible. The team overcompensates and tries to pull hard uphill. If they don't the whole squad will plummet uncontrollably down several hundred yards to the bottom. So, all this time you are telling your team "Haw" (go left across the Glacier).

So, we made it across the Glacier and into some willow bushes on the edge of the ice. Neither the dogs, nor I, had traction. We were uphill from where the trail enters the trees, so I continued to tell them "Haw". A few dogs got their tug lines tangled in the willow bushes, so we stopped abruptly on the ice. I was able to crawl on the ice half way up my team and cut the limbs loose. Cha Cha was constantly looking for somewhere to go, standing still or sliding down the slope didn't make sense to her. So, as soon as I cut the limbs the team started to move. I kept my footing on the ice and waited for the sled to reach me.

The leaders reached the far side of the Glacier and immediately they saw the trail. I was still standing on the ice, watching my sled approach and commanding them to stay "Haw". I didn't see that Cha Cha was on the trail, so she immediately turned left (as I had been asking them) and started following the trail DOWNHILL! The sled hadn't reached me yet, so I had no way to physically stop the team. I must have sounded desperate when I asked the team to "Whoa", because the entire team stopped and looked at me. I gave Cha Cha a "Gee" and she immediately understood. She turned around, trotted past the 4 other dogs that stood on the trail in her way and started uphill instead of down. Everyone cooperated! I watched in awe, as the team lined out. The sled soon reached me and I climbed on board. We trotted up the remaining left side of the Glacier and over the top.

Whew!

All of this happened in very few minutes. But, here's another part to the story. Another dog team, that of Ray Reddington, was right behind me during this ordeal. I heard him about 1/4 mile behind me in the beginning. But when my team got snagged in the willow bushes he was still moving. He had no way to stop his dogs on the ice sheet, so they followed my misdirected squad into the bushes. When I untangled my team and they turned left, Ray's team saw this move and turned left as well. The only problem was his leaders were still on the ice. The never saw the trail. So, their turn positioned them in a heading straight down the Glacier. There was no way out. Ray and his team went plummeting all the way to the bottom. I heard him shouting all the whole way. I felt awful, to say the least.

Needless to say, all of this leads me to believe that Cha Cha might be having some pretty good Doggie Dreams!


11 comments:

Linda said...

Fascinating trail story!

james said...

This is what makes this site so great....getting all the nitty-gritty details of mushing that we can get no-where else.Thanks,Aliy.
Keep up the good work.

Dustyllr said...

What a leader! I am coming to the Iditarod Summer Camp for teachers in 2 weeks!! Are you and Allen going to be at the musher signups?

KB said...

Hi Aliy,
Thanks for this story. It gave me a deeper appreciation of what mushers can go through on the trail. It also gave me a better understanding of why you value Cha Cha so much as a lead dog.
Again, thanks for sharing,
Karen B

Mel Bowman said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! Cha Cha is really an amazing dog :).

Sue said...

I love reading the trail stories and this one about ChaCha was particularly fun. How old is she and do you have plans to retire her?

Anonymous said...

That was an amazing story of the team effort. Any chance we'll get the entire notes like last year?
LouiseR

Tom said...

I often watch Hoss dreaming, barking, running in his sleep. I wonder also where he is at in his dreams. I agree, he is running the Trail again or taunting his old buddies.

NCL said...

Absolutely love these stories!

Loon said...

Love Cha Cha! Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful insight into ChaCha's dreams and the story of how magnificent a leader she is (was) - and thanks for the search box instructions! It is two years since you wrote these notes - but I just found them!!!

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with all of us who visit, most sincerely,

Margaret
www.aboutweston.com