Here are the things that are fun about being CTR ground crew:1. Horses.
2. Being outside in Alaska in the summertime.
3. Free food!
4. Riding around in the woods on ATVs driven
by cute, capable, amiable young men.
5. Did I mention Horses?
6. I DID mention the outdoors, right?
7. FREE FOOD!
8. Read # 4 three more times.
9. Repeat # 1 through 4.
10. Repeat # 1 through 4 again.
Now, I will grant you that it was a bit rainy on the first morning, but it stopped before we went up the trail to Checkpoint One. We found ourselves a nice spot amongst the fireweed, spangled with clinging drops of rain. While there, a plane flew by, low overhead; Oh, GREAT, I'm thinking, THAT'LL calm down the horses; but the pilot kept it steady above us, not buzzing us, not low enough to spook the horses. I glance up. Little red Cessna on floats. Has to be Dave, I think, cruising by to check out the ride from the aerial view; how many red Cessnas on float would be flying over lake-free Bald Mountain otherwise?I resolve to ask him when I get home if he was doing a fly-over [he was], and bend my head back to the task at hand. We check through all our riders (28 competitors and two sweep riders) and go back to the staging area for lunch.
By afternoon it has cleared up nicely. Checkpoint Two is in the Clover Field, which is really more of a meadow that used to have a little clover in it, but is pretty much just assorted wild Alaskan grasses now. It's a flat trail to get there, but it's still off-road, so we trundle out in the ATVs. To fit more people in per trip, three of us stand in the bed of the ATV and hold onto the roll-bar, knees slightly bent to absorb the motion (like you would on a dog sled), swaying with the bumps and feeling our hair streaming behind us like banners. We spend the afternoon sprawled in a meadow, basking in the sun, chit-chatting and waiting for riders to arrive, which they tend to do in groups; hence there are long stretches where we laze around being dive-bombed by enormous dragonflies (who were feasting on the late-summer insects that were attracted to our no-doubt tasty hides), admiring the clouds, getting tans and generally relaxing and enjoying ourselves.
Day two dawned raw and heavily overcast, though not actually raining. Our first checkpoint is mere yards from the staging point, in the driveway of one of the ride organizers. We sit and digest our breakfast whilst the riders ride the course and do their obstacles (certain areas where they have to trot, or side-pass their horse over a log on the ground, or retrieve a bucket from atop a hay bale while mounted, etc., all under the watchful eyes of trail judges.) The point riders from day one had reported a bear sighting, so one of the sweep riders was armed; while I take his mount's vitals he hitches his shoulder holster into better position, remarking that he wasn't quite sure why he was wearing it; if he met a bear, he says, and actually had to shoot at it, it would be less likely to run away than to laugh at him (right before it dragged him off his horse and ate him).
After we shut down our checkpoint we cram ten women sardine-style into a Suburban and drive up to the lunch area, where we mow down some calories and eye the top of Bald Mountain, shrouded in the low clouds. The point riders come in and report another bear sighting, as well as two moose. In view of this - and deciding that discretion is the better part of valor - we all elect to use the outhouse in hopes of avoiding any solitary treks into the brush which might involve unfortunate pants-around-ankles, face-to-face interviews with the local wildlife. After sorting through the available toilet paper ( a decent proportion of which had been confettied by squirrels), we all gird up our respective loins and load five at a time into the ATVs again for a little steep-and-rocky P&R team relay up to Checkpoint Two.
Now, if I haven't mentioned it, riding around in ATVs is fun. Really really fun. It is a bit bouncy and you do get thrashed across the face with various branches and leaves (all of which dash icy droplets of water over you), but without a horse, there'd be no way we'd get to our checkpoint before the riders do. This is really quite lucky, since it means we get to go up in the ATVs. Chad and Cole, our two drivers, are cheerful and competent, happily ferrying eight women up the trail and parking their vehicles off to the side, lounging comfortably on them whilst riders come in, wait, receive their P&Rs, and go on. There are two classes going through the checkpoint: Competitive Trail and Pleasure (18 riders in all, plus the sweep riders), and in the lull between the two groups a moose cow and calf come through the bush, see us, and bound away, long legs reaching elegantly over the thickety ground cover in a high, prancing trot. Not much later, more riders arrive, and we are back to handing out P&R cards, timing, slipping unobtrusively between the gently steaming flanks of one horse and the next, and I am nestling my stethoscope against warm damp hide, shutting out the outside world and listening to the secret world of a horse's heart, letting the steady rhythm of it thunder slow and powerful in my private ear.
In early afternoon we shut down Checkpoint Two, and down the mountain we go. Tabby and Jessica - co-workers who I have mercilessly roped into volunteering - have the bright idea of avoiding the Suburban-sardine routine and going all the way back down the mountain and to the staging area in the ATV. This seems like just a DANDY idea, because it is Just. So. Much. FUN to ride in the ATV, especially with a personable, funny, capable driver. So we rocket on down the road, the wind unfurling my hair behind me, tiny bugs occasionally impacting our faces, stinging like bits of flying sand.
As we descend the flank of the mountain, I can feel the air growing warmer with the loss of elevation. When we get back to camp, some of the riders, long checked in, rubbed down and packed up, are already gone. My hair is in a long, spiralled snarl from the ride, and I am hungry, but my feet have stayed dry and I'm not really cold despite a day spent tucked just under the belly of a cloud. I'm thinking: Maybe next year, if I can just get my hands on a horse.....