Friday, January 9, 2009

Kink 200 Part II: Midrace At Skwentna Checkpoint

So, when last we saw our heroines, they were watching the first team mush in to Skwentna....

Lance Mackey was the first musher in, at 5:38, about seven and a half hours after he left Knik, which makes him doing a bit better than 10 miles an hour. CS and I went down to see if he needed any attention for any of his dogs. (Here I will freely admit that despite my status as "head vet" - ie, the ONLY vet - on the race, I am less experienced in trail vetting than is my 'technician' CS, who managed the whole gig by herself last year, and I am watching closely to see what she says and does so I can at least LOOK like I have an effing clue what I am doing.) Fortunately it's not that complicated; you ask the musher if he has any dogs he wants looked at, and if you see something he (or she) has missed you point it out and go after it. On a short race with only one dog drop point, the mushers are usually inclined to drop the dog if in doubt, rather than take it along and have it slow them down. If the dog has trouble out on the trail, the only alternative is to either put the dog in the basket and carry it, or to call for outside help - which constitutes scratching from the race. On a longer race, there is the temptation to keep the dog in the team in the hopes that by babying it along for a day or two you can return it to working soundness and use it later on the trail. But the Knik is a two day race, so that's a lot less of an issue.

Lance is (justifiably) pretty happy with his team and gets immediately and cheerfully to the business of bedding and feeding his dogs. He sets his snow hook, trundles swiftly down the line pulling booties before the dogs are settled in to rest, then reverses his course, deftly passing out snacks (usually frozen salmon steaks or frozen meat). No one is allowed to help the musher in the checkpoint; he has to drag over his food bag and his bale of straw and haul his own water without assistance. Lean and whippy as he is, Lance is made of steel springs and high voltage batteries, and in truth any assitance would only slow him down, even if it were permitted within the race rules. Only the vets are allowed to handle his team unless he drops a dog; once the dog drop form is signed, anyone can handle it. But Lance isn't ready to drop anyone, and there's nothing for CS and I to do but watch him settling his dogs in and look for problems that might pop up. There are none, and before long Lance's brother Jason (another member of the Mackey mushing clan) is arriving, soon to be followed by Peter Bartlett, one of our clients. We leave Lance to his chores, heating water and mixing dog food, and go look over the other teams.

Some of the mushers will drop a dog that is young and just learning his job even if he's physically sound, to avoid burning them out mentally. Others have seasoned veterans who are starting to feel the miles and may just be a little off. Some dogs are sore in their wrists or their shoulders, some have pad abrasions, some have sore backs. All of them come into Skwentna a little tired (though nowhere near exhausted) and ready to lie down in their straw, snack, doze, drink their hot soup, stretch out, lick their feet, roll in the snow. None of them have the hunted look of a dog pushed past its internal limits. I start to relax; despite my unfamiliarity with the trail and the medical demands thereof, the tension of the unknown is quickly submerged by the accustomed rhythm of medicine. After the first few minutes I've forgotten that I'm vetting the race: I'm just vetting. I know what to ask, my hands know their job, my brain is collecting information from the musher and from my hands and eyes and nose and ears, weaving it together just like it always does. I know how to do this. This is just medicine, my intimate companion for more than a dozen years now, and whatever strangeness there is in the setting is quickly lost in the entirely familiar business of medicine.

We start to lose the diffuse silver-grey light of afternoon. Somewhere along the line MK comes in with the last load of personnel and supplies; this is a happy circumstance, since until the checker comes in CS and I are it for officials: we have to check the mushers in (the time is important since there is a mandatory 6 hour layover), handle the drop forms, do the medicine and generally appear calm and in charge (sometimes more of a stretch than others.) But it isn't long before the experienced and eminently capable T the checker is there. He takes over the checkpoint duties, and after that for CS and I it's just the medical part.

Because of the (relatively) long daylight and the good trail conditions, we have quite a few mushers coming in in the early pack. There is a lull around 7 or 8 p.m., at which time I wander into the Roadhouse, which is now noisily packed with mushers and volunteers, not to mention other guests. They are serving dinner - at which time I am unfortunately not hungry, so I settle for a glass of water and some conversation. Every so often I go have a look around to see if anyone is coming in, or else someone pops in to say a musher is arriving. It is amazingly warm; in fact, it feels warmer now, 90 miles inland, than it did at the start, which is quite near the maritime buffering of the Inlet. After a while I quit donning my coat every time I go out. I rapidly become too warm in it, and it's just annoying bulk. I'd guess the temperature to be in the mid 20's, maybe warmer. My beaver mitts are laying forlornly in my pack and my down coat is tossed carelessly on the floor by the medical kits. I will point out that I was wearing a turtleneck, a scrub top, a fleece anorak, a fleece headband and a good pair of boots with wool socks. But to be running around Skwentna at 10 at night on the first of February in that little gear - no coat, no hat, no gloves (no need) - that was a bit of a surprise to me.

About 11:00 I go sit down for a bit; my lower back is tired from the uneven footing I've been schlepping over all day. In some places the snow is hard-packed by snow machine traffic, but in others it's less firmly packed. There you find yourself punching through the surface unexpectedly, lurching and catching yourself. After enough people do this, the snow takes on the granular consistency of sugar and walking through it is like walking through sand dunes. Except, of course, for the fact that the underlying footing is uneven, so you're perfectly likely to find yourself suddenly lurching about like a drunken sailor, pitching gracelessly into anyone unfortunate enough to be walking next to you. Additionally, the lack of resistance means you work twice as hard to go half as far (not to mention looking like an idiot doing it).

Inside, the Roadhouse is clearing out; mushers and volunteers are trickling away to their rest. CS is wired, she tells me, and can't sleep, so I should go rack out while she mans the trenches. This sounds good to me (although it sounds a bit less good when I get a load of all the snoring going on upstairs) and I make my way to my bunk and try to roll into it without waking anyone else up (a courtesy observed more in the breach than you might think, given the number of times someone popped in to loudly inquire as to whether or not so-and-so might be sleeping in there).

About 1:30 CS wakes me up; mushers are starting to leave and when they do, chaos may ensue. Some of them will decide to drop a dog at the last minute, which means that you have to scramble to get the forms filled out and signed, get the dog out of the team and onto the drop chain, and (with luck) get out of the way before the musher and his by-now rejuvenated team of leaping, straining, furry rockets have a chance to run you over on their way out of Skwentna. To their credit, not many mushers waited til the last minute; most made up their minds with time to spare. But in fairness, some dogs are teetering on the keep-or-drop decision point, and it might not be until all the rest of them are up and straining at their harnesses that you can know for sure that this one or that one just doesn't have its heart in the race anymore. Better to drop the dog at the last possible minute than to try to make it run the 90 miles back to Knik.

It's now cold enough to need my coat. The area around the roadhouse is waking up, headlamps bobbing all around, the dogs beginning to key up with excitement. Some are standing in harness, barking and howling to run, screaming and squealing and making abortive lunges into their harnesses, trying vainly to pull the snow hook so they can hare down the trail after dogs that are leaving now. HC, the race Marshall, is geared up to snow machine down the trail back to Knik. The first mushers in will be there hours before me, since I will fly back after daylight, but HC will pass racers already departed and be there to meet them at the finish line. He looks amazingly cheerful for someone who has just bounced his kidneys over 90 miles of trail and is contemplating doing it again in reverse order any minute now. He makes several gallant and apparently sincere remarks to me (evenly divided between my medical competence and my increasingly-ratty hair, which now resembles a fright wig from a low budget swamp monster film) and off he goes into the night.

CS sacks out and I run the show til about 3:30. I figure I'll go til I can't anymore, then wake her up again. Ravenous, I ask the inexplicably cheerful Roadhouse cook for something to eat. She seems all too happy to cook me up anything I might want (at 2 a.m., thank you very much, after having helped feed at least 45 people at dinner, not to mention having to help clean up afterwards). I have a burger, which seems just right despite the weirdly inappropriate timing. I am interrupted only twice while eating it to go take care of dropped dogs. There is a lull around 3:00 which has me working to stay awake. I tiptoe up to the room and try to silently sneak my paperback out of my backpack (I am foiled in this by the creaking of the door, which evidently has ambitions of starring as a creepy sound effect in a Hitchcock film, and is willing to make up in volume what it lacks in experience.) I stare dazedly at the pages of my book for a bit, when for unknown reasons CS wakes up and comes downstairs ready for more. I crash again a little after 4:00 and sleep soundly til 7:15.

All the mushers made it in to Skwentna by about midnight, and all of them made it out again by about 6:30, so all I have ahead of me at the moment is breakfast (which smells marvelous) and treatments for the 20 dropped dogs, until it is time to fly back to Knik. The plan is to send T (our checker), plus a load of dropped dogs, down first, to check the racers in at the finish; then me (with more dropped dogs), to handle the medical needs of any incoming dogs that might require it; then CS, who will stay til last to take care of the last batch of dropped dogs. This sounds like a dandy plan to me; it is just coming on light, and there will be no flying til MK says it's light enough, and I am happily contemplating a plateful of eggs. My arms and legs and shoulders and back are pleasantly sore from yesterday (my knees less pleasantly sore, but tolerable), and I am feeling a delicious lassitude that comes from not quite enough sleep after a good long effort in the cold. MK has gone out to his bird to do whatever it is he needs to do to get it limber for the day's flying. I am having a luxurious stretch and reflecting that so far it's all run like clockwork, and far better than I had expected. About that time the call comes in. Someone go to the airstrip and get MK. There's been an accident.

[Next time: Knik 200 Part III: Endrace.]


Della said...

Dang, woman, nothing like a cliff-hanger! LOL It all sounded like it was great.. busy, exciting enough to keep you going, and satisfyingly well ordered. Than you had to throw that word "accident" in there!

Gotta say a bit late that the camel post was fascinating! I was nearer than I've ever been to both camels and llamas a few weeks ago. I was all about getting up close to many of the other animals (bison, zebra, rare breed cattle and others) but I just didn't feel it with the camels, or llamas. Something about their eyes, especially the llamas, kept me at a distance. Now if there'd been someone to tell me more about them, I might have been more inclined, but not cold.

Claire said...

ACK! You left off at the critical point! It's like a "to be continued" episode on television (which I rarely watch). I am a lurker on your blog, avidly reading every new post, but I'm always speechless by the end of the post so I never comment. Now, for once, I'm commenting! BRING ON PART III, ASAP!!!!

Holly said...

Aaack, part III please :>

Anonymous said...

that's so unfair!!!!

Anonymous said...

okay that's it, i'm running away from New Hampshire and coming to visit you! Especially during mushing season - is that even correct?

My border collie Bula and I will be right up!!

Anonymous said...

Always leave them wanting more!

Dragon43 said...

Bawahahahaa, I love it. You are getting to be really good at this...

Getting that not so cold feeling and dumping the coat and stuff & such. Many people never find out about that and it is sorta like a runner high, sort of surprising but really enjoyable about yourself in a funny way. Humans are way more adaptable than they usually realize....

I would love to have the $$ to be able to help with the flying. I have over 3000 hours in Cessna 180's...

Holly said...

"I know what to ask, my hands know their job, my brain is collecting information from the musher and from my hands and eyes and nose and ears, weaving it together just like it always does."

there is a certain comfort in know the job. I often reflect on the difference between how comfortable I am compared to the first year of some fresh-out-of-the-academy officers.

oh to leave us hanging.....this is a delish story.

lagniappekennel said...

I was there at the start for the race also -- I can't believe you weren't freezing to death!

Post part III so I can see what happened! There is nothing nice about the cliff-hanger you left us with ;)

Anonymous said...

Holly - I understand that now too when a hot domestic call comes in - or assualt - i'm a dispatcher - i know the questions to ask and how to get my officers out there. It doesn't take away the adrenaline or the anxiety - but its comforting to know that I can switch that part of my brain on auto pilot and make sure everything else gets done!

It also sounds like you need Mini-snowshoes that will help you in the snow but won't make you clumsy and step on dogs!

MaskedMan said...

@Dragon; you'd love it up that way. You and Lady Dragon'd drop right into place without so much as a ripple. But it DOES get rather cold up there.

@Beth; 'mushing season' is correct. It's not so much a defined date range, but more rather a weather condition range - Weather cool enough that the dogs can run hard without overheating, snow on the ground if at all possible.

If there's no snow, the mushers will hook up to an ATV and let the dogs pull that, instead. A large, fresh team can actually drag a large ATV with its brakes locked and rider mounted - And will happily do so, if that means getting underway. Using ATVs as exercise vehicles is common practice, and works very well - so long as your dogs are willing to listen to "whoa." ;-)

AKDD said...

Lagniappe (isn't that a Cajun word?), this story is from the Knik 200 several years ago (2003 or 2004, IIRC) when they ran the race late in the season due to lack of snow. I was at work (so not at the start) the day it ran this year, and it WAS cold that weekend (still is, IMO), so I don't wonder if you were freezing. There's not as much activity to keep you warm at the start as there is in the checkpoint, either.

Della, I think the thing with the camelids is that they tend to a head-high attitude from which they look down their noses at you. They don't mean this to be snooty (probably), but sometimes people don't click with them because they don't look approachable.

Dragon, if you're ever so inclined, I'm sure they could use you on the Iditarod Airforce (the group of pilots who volunteer their time, their birds and their expertise to keep things moving up and down the trail, and of which my BF is a former member).

Beth and Holly, I think your jobs taught you what medicine taught me: You don't always have to know what to do. You just have to know what to do NEXT.

And everyone else... sorry about the cliff-hanger, stand by for the (hopefully satisfying)conclusion....

(P.S. MM, thx for making exlanations about mushing when I wasn't there to do it - saves me time and typing!) :)

Anonymous said...

MM - There is a large group of mushers here in New Hampshire. I live right across from the USACE flood plain which is designated recreation area. We have a 12mile stretch with lots of side trails..mushers are on it all the time. They use atv's in the summer, or buggys with wheels.

I have almost been run over by a sled team twice!! I know to get way off the trail with my dog or horse - but i've seen a team drag an atv all the way off the trail at me!!

There was one woman who was attached by a team! So i love seeing them but vary weary of staying in striking distance. I know they are working dogs and not like pets!

MaskedMan said...

@AKDD; No problem - I've got a somewhat different perspective, and am just filling in information people may find helpful. Or maybe not. ;-)

@Beth; We've got a few dry-land mushers over the river in Jersey. Carts are used there, too. I *have* seen a (small) dog team here in Delaware hooked to a sled, but it's an unusually optimistic musher that keeps a sled around here - Adequate snowpack is a rare thing.

The dogs themselves can range from semi-feral to housepets, depending on dogs' personalities, musher's personality, and numbers of dogs in the doglot. Working dogs *are* socialized, but most often not to the levels of your typical companion dog. In all likelihood, the teams dragging the mushers and their ATVs off the trail were merely enthusiastic and curious. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't be cautious. Caution is always a well-advised consideration around a strange dog team.