Saturday, January 10, 2009

Knik 200 Part III: Endrace

When the call came in about the accident, I decided I'd better eat faster. I wasn't sure what kind of accident it might be, but I figured if they were tapping MK right off the bat, it had to be something where either a musher or a team was injured (or possibly both), and if so, I might be needed. I finished up about the time MK got back to the Roadhouse and was taking the call. He gave me the thumbs-up: dogs hurt, but no bleeding and no apparent broken bones. After he got off the phone he relayed the information he'd been given: a snow machiner had hit one of the teams on the Yentna river. Two dogs were not walking, and two others were pretty stiff. The snow machiner, we are told, disentangled himself from the team and took off. There is a description of the machine and the helmet.

"So do they need me to fly to them, or are they okay to go down to Knik and just meet me there?" I ask MK.

"I'm not sure, but if I were you I'd be ready to roll," he says. I trot upstairs and spend about 28 seconds cramming my gear into my backpack (as most of it was there already this is a simple task), and then trot downstairs again to re-assemble the medical kits, another 2 minutes' work. Since the medications for the dropped dogs have already been dispensed into individual ziplocs with a 3x5 card detailing the instructions, and the ziploc is taped to the drop form so it goes with the dog, I'm not worried that CS will need anything more than she has already. MK gets the follow-up call: they don't immediately need me, we can stick to our plan. I'll fly out on the second load to Knik and examine the dogs at the finish line.

CS and I go out to examine and medicate the dropped dogs. I'm out there no more than five minutes when MK tells us they want a vet after all. That'd be me. I go grab my medical kits and my gear.

We can't snow machine to the strip; the dropped dogs will be using the snow machines (a chain is strung between two machines, several dogs attached to it at intervals by their neck-lines, the short leads that would normally be attached to the gang line if they were pulling a sled. The machines are driven at walking pace to the strip so that the dogs, all of whom are ambulatory, merely walk with the chain down to the airstrip.)

At the plane, MK has us clip the dogs to the ski rigging (cables that run from the fuselage to the skis) so the dogs can get used to the plane and each other before we tie them down inside. There's not that much room in a 180, and the dogs will be cozy in there. It'll be better for everyone if they are Kosher with the idea. MK has a number of little rings bolted to the inside of the plane on the floor and the sides (not sure if you call it a bulkhead in a small aircraft) - I don't know if these are standard parts of the plane or additions MK has made to accommodate flying dogs, but they work just great. We lift the dogs in one by one and MK clips them to a tie down. One makes a bid for freedom, launching his wiry 50# athlete's body over the shoulder of the volunteer standing in the doorway of the plane. By some miracle the volunteer (B, who has worked like a dog himself all night bedding in and caring for the drop dogs, after having snow machined the 90 miles in to the Roadhouse) snags the dog with his right arm, even though he is holding another one in his left. I am up by the propeller and see only a furry lunge over his shoulder. Ducking around the wing strut, I make a grab for the dog. MK has some hold of him from the other side, but they are slippery as eels and wild as march hares, some of them, and wiry and strong from hundreds of miles of training, so this in no simple task. Added to that is the reality that a small percentage of sled dogs will readily bite you if panicked, so a certain amount of caution is in order. I shove hard against the straining chest of this dog, and MK gets a better hold and hauls him back. B meanwhile has dropped his other sled dog, but makes a rather athletic dive and tackles her before she takes off. This is something of a relief, because chasing a sled dog on foot is a losing proposition. No matter how tired they are they can easily outrun any human, particularly if you're burdened by cold weather gear and heavy boots, not to mention distinctly disadvantaged by the footing (which troubles the dog not at all).

We get all the dogs stashed and I clamber into the right seat - an operation considerably hindered by the bulk of my boots; there's not a lot of room up there to begin with, and I've worn my Sorrells, my second-warmest boot... warmer but less comfortable than my every-day LaCrosses, more comfortable than my bunny boots but not as warm. Thermally the perfect compromise for the weather, but they're as big as boats. The trick is that you typically end up with your torso curled up like Quasimodo as you try to tuck yourself in to the low cabin, your right foot balanced by the barest toe-hold on a step about the size of the palm of your hand, your right knee cocked as far to the side as you can get it, and yet you still have your left boot jammed between your right calf and the seat. Luckily for me the erstwhile B, expecting this, gives my left heel a helpful shove and it pops free into the plane before I actually fall off the step and crash face-first onto the hard-packed snow of the runway, no doubt clocking my head on the step (or something else) on my way down. Try explaining THAT black eye to your clients.
Them: "Jeez, Doc, what'd you do to your eye?"
Me: "Lost a fight with a Cessna."
Them: "Riiiiiiight. Uh-huh. Sure."

However, I get settled without incident, buckling in and donning my head set, and Mike taxis us out. In my head I'm running scenarios, trying to ready myself for what I might find, reviewing emergency procedures and where I've stashed the drugs I might need. I'm mentally geared up for an emergency, complete with a small adrenaline squeeze, but even so, as soon as we start that run down the airstrip I am a happy girl. No matter what might await me at the other end, in the air I feel just fine.

The reality of it is that there's nothing I can do until I get to the dogs, so I relax and enjoy the flight. The dogs are settled in quietly (rather remarkably, since you have eight dogs who do not know each other and may not like each other snuggled cheek by jowl in the narrow V of the tail section of the plane). When I look back at them, they are mainly sitting or lying down, some of them having a look around, some of them dozing, some sitting with eyes half-shut and the occasional yawn.

Like most pilots, MK has some interesting stories about flying. Unlike some, he's a good storyteller, drawing your interest, laying out the details so you can picture how it might have been, making you wait for the upshot so that you have time to savor the tale as you go along. As much as I'm a cut-to-the-chase sort of girl, I have to say I love a good story, and except when taking a medical history, I'd just as soon let it unfold leisurely. Typically it's the details that make it interesting. Anyone can lay out the facts. It's the rest of it that makes it a story. My friend YT is so good at that part of it that I dread meeting people she's told stories about me... I'm certain she makes me sound about 50x as interesting as I am, and I hate to disappoint them when they meet me in person.

At any rate, I was entertained while we made our way back to Kink. We set down smoothly on the ice (me wondering if there was any legit excuse to get back in the plane to go pick up the injured dogs on the Yentna... Hmm, nope. Oh well.) I no sooner step onto the ice than at least 3 volunteers are there, asking if I need anything - a cup of coffee, something to eat, help with dog treatments. The dropped dogs were transferred onto the ground (a delicate operation, as they are inclined to make a break for it the minute the door opens, and there is a tendency for them to hang themselves by the collar). All the dogs make it to the drop chain without incident (although two of them manage to free themselves before very long and go loping away into the woods... not to worry, one is quickly recaptured and the other is flirting around the margins of a nearby dog lot, eating the bait thoughtfully provided by the musher, and no doubt laughing at us all from the edge of the woods. She'll be rounded up in the next day or so, and since it's now running around an unseasonable 35 at night and 45 in the daytime in the vicinity of Knik Lake, I know she isn't suffering from the cold.)

I check whatever dogs need my attention while MK flies off to pick up the injured team. The wife of the musher in question is on the ice, worried about the team and her husband (evidently in that order, bless her heart). They're back before long, the throaty roar of the Cessna bringing me out of the Knik Bar to see what's up. One of the leaders has sore wrists, and several of them are walking like they hurt, but I can find no broken bones and only one small pad laceration, and as an added bonus all the dogs are now up and moving under their own power. One of the dogs is reported to be urinating blood, but no one knows for sure which one. I palpate abdomens but can find nothing alarming. We load the dogs into their boxes and wait for the musher, who is snow machining in with one of the ham radio operators who line the trail (evidently the one who radioed in for help when the accident came to light.) They'll drag his sled behind the machine so that MK is free to go back to Skwentna to pick up and transport more dropped dogs (not to mention T and CS). Daylight's a-wasting, and we've just heard that another musher has three dogs in the basket and a fourth that needs to be. He wants help (which means he is scratching from the race), so MK has at least 3 more trips to make.

When the musher from the hit-by-snow-machine team comes in, he tells me that he was mushing along not paying that much attention, hearing the snow machine (which you commonly do out and about) but paying it no heed. When he realises that something isn't right, he turns to look, but the snow machiner is already on top of his team and hits the gang line just in front of the wheel dogs, wrapping them and the next two dogs around the machine and slamming them against its sides. He tells me he was thrown to the ice, rapping his head a good one and stunning him, and that by the time he gained his feet to run to his team, which had been dragged about 50 feet, the snow machiner had disentangled his machine and was taking off. Looking at the musher, I see that his left eye is bloodshot and he looks like he's been dragged through a hedge backwards, but he's basically okay. We re-examine the dogs he felt were the worst injured, and I advise him to get the one that is urinating blood in to be X-rayed that day.

[There was some significant controversy about this story; at least one person questioned the account given by the musher, on the grounds that they could not see how a snow machine could fit in the gap between one pair of dogs and the next. As race vet, when this story was disputed, I was obliged to bring it to the race officials. In the end, no one who was not there to witness it in person can be certain what happened, and the race marshalls decided to leave the account as given in the records.]

After that there's not much to do til the next load of dogs comes in or the next musher crosses the finish line with dogs he or she wants examined. I go sit in the warm bar, chatting with volunteers. Lance Mackey is our race winner, followed by John Little and a Norwegian racer whose name I can neither spell nor pronounce. Peter Bartlett has run 4th, and I believe Jason Mackey 5th. After that I kept track of the order no longer, just going out to check teams as needed. The warmth of the bar was a major soporific and I was having trouble staying alert. Every time I went out, the cold had the opposite effect, but after you stand around on the ice for a while with nothing to do, you start drifting away mentally again. I solved this problem for a while by talking with MK's wife JK (who I swear has been using the interval since our last meeting to get younger, although she informed me her birthday happened to be that exact day). JK and Ruby (their dog, a sweet and lively Golden) kept my flagging wits perked up for a good bit (although suddenly I remembered JK's excellent cooking and I started to get hungry).

The next load of dropped dogs came in with T the checker and a little bad news: one of the dropped dogs backed out of its collar while clipped to the plane and was running loose in Skwentna. This is most likely not a disaster; generally the dog is readily lured to the roadhouse, where food and straw and the presence of other dogs goes a long way to tempt them in. In addition, Skwentna is a small community (maybe 200 souls) and everyone knows what's going on and pitches in to help. I asked which dog was loose so we could tell the musher, but the collar (with name tag attached) was left in Skwentna in anticipation of catching the dog.

The last load of dropped dogs (and CS, who I was glad to see, since I was tiring badly on the mental front by then) came in and we split up to do our dog exams. There was a bit of a tantrum by the musher whose dog had gotten loose in Skwentna, accusing everyone of incompetence and disinterest; no doubt he was tired and worried for his dog, and later at the musher's banquet he apologised to everyone publicly. CS had gone so far as to tighten all the collars on the dropped dogs (I will point out that this is NOT her responsibility, but the musher's, and goes to being above and beyond the call) but this collar was a padded type and she was unable to tighten it any more. The musher's wife (who I know and like) is a tenderhearted sort and was nearly in tears at the thought of her dog running loose in the wilds of Skwentna. MK (bless him) agreed to take her back to Skwentna to look for the dog. He told her he could give her a half hour on the ground before he had to leave to pick up the 4 dogs in Yentna, but he ended up leaving her there; daylight was fading, and the dog wasn't ready to come in from the woods yet. It's a good thing he did leave her, since he had trouble with fog at the Yentna, and thought it unlikely that he'd have been able to pick up those four dogs (which turned out to be eleven, the entire team) if he'd been even five minutes later. (The loose dog came to the owner about 40 minutes after she got there, and MK flew in and picked them up the next day.)

About 6:00 I had to pack it in. Besides needing to do laundry and having my own dogs to care for, I was scheduled to be on call Monday night. This could mean no sleep at all between Monday morning at six and Tuesday night at 7 p.m., so I needed to get home and make sure I got at least one night of uninterrupted sleep that weekend. CS had had the opportunity to nap in Skwentna while I was doing dog checks on the ice in Knik, so I turned the reins over to her at that point. I wanted to wait til MK got back with the dogs from the Yentna, but I was already an hour past the time I'd promised myself I would leave, so I consigned their well being to the powers of providence and CS's capable hands and home I went, with a detour to pick up my dogs (who were overjoyed to see me, and really rather muddy from racing around in the yard at the clinic all weekend, since the yard was swimming in water. In February. In Alaska. I ask you).

For my inaugural sled dog race (particularly given that I jumped right in as head vet with no prior race experience) I think it went pretty well. Skwentna checkpoint ran like clockwork the whole time I was there, and the volunteers did an outstanding job. Without them it could have been one disaster after another, but they know their business and they made it easy for me. The weather was perfect (from my point of view, anyway) and held just long enough to finish the race. Monday morning it shot up to 38 degrees at my house, and by Monday night it was raining. BB, the race coordinator, told me that the last of the volunteers were snow machining off the Yentna as it was breaking up around them.

To tell you the truth, we all wondered what they were going to do for Iditarod that year... there was no snow at all at the designated race re-start, and it was kinda questionable that it would be much better in a month, even though February/March is the snowiest time of the year. Maybe, we all figured, if they start it in McGrath...


Anonymous said...

I'm glad the accident wasn't a huge deal! I could not imagine dog vs snowmachine and having the dog win. Glad that it turned out ok...I was imagining the worst when you said what happened.

Is Lance Mackey the one that breeds his own hybrid sled dogs? I was watching a bit of the Iditorod on DC when I was working overnights...I liked the lady in pink.

on an off husband and i still need a honeymoon..he wanted someplace i'm thinking of alaska!

SweetMotherOfMars said...

I must have picked the right time to catch up on your blog!

Starting with the dromedary, I made my way through your entries, pausing at the end of Knik part 2 to bemoan the fact that I'd have to wait at the cliffhanger.

Refreshing the page, I saw the fresh link beckoning. Thanks, what perfect timing!

You really have met some incredible people! (And despite what you think, I bet you are every bit as great in real life as your friend claims.)

Thanks again for writing!

AKDD said...

Lance is ONE (of the many) who breed their own sled dogs. The Alaskan husky is typically a hybrid of (or descended from hybrids of) other breeds or types of dogs, including the Siberian, but also including a lot of other admixtures - hound, pointer, etc. It is a breed defined by performance, much the way Border collies are: Any dog that does the work of a working BC can be registered on merit, regardless of its parentage and ancestry. Likewise, any dog that runs like an Alaskan husky IS an Alaskan husky, regardless of its parentage or pedigree.

Lance's best-known claim to fame is that he is an absolutely outstanding musher. Two years ago he did what everyone acquainted with mushing - including me - thought was impossible, and ran back-to-back with nearly all THE SAME DOGS in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod - and won them both. These are 1,000+ mile races in some of the harshest terrain and weather imaginable, and they are only about 2 weeks (give or take) apart, depending on the finishing time. Everyone thought he'd burn his team out or that he had too much early speed and would fade. I saw his dogs coming into Nome, though, that first time; they were bouncing in the harness, yipping and wailing, rolling in the snow, lunging experimentally at the gang line, and generally giving the impression that they were fit, happy, rested, full of energy, and ready to go another 1,000 miles.

I've seen dogs come in happy and ready to keep going, and I've seen them come in tired and ready to lie down. But I've never seen anything like that, after more than 2,000 miles of hard racing - and neither had anyone else. That was a first for the Quest, for the Iditarod, and for mushing in general.

Lance proved it was no fluke by turning around and doing it again the next year. A harder-won battle that year, but he yanked it out from under the boots of Jeff King, one of the most successful and experienced mushers in the history of the sport. Jeff and his dogs are world-class. Lance has proven that he has the right to stand with them, and that his race strategy, training regimens and dog care are spectacularly good.

At any rate, I do encourage people to follow MM's Iditarod coverage any time they have the chance - it's top notch, IMO.

MaskedMan said...

@AKDD; Post a link, when I start my commentary thread on the Iditarod. Also, the Norwegian musher you can't recall is Jon Tonsberg.

A brief note on Lance - He will NOT be three-peating his increadible Yukon Quest/Iditarod feat this year. Instead, he's taking the time he'd normally be owning the 'Quest yet again (four-time winner, in a row - he's the Master of the 'Quest!) to train up a rookie I-rod musher, instead. It's a paying proposition, and Lance can use the money - His primary income is race purses, and the training deal is more money than he could win from competing in the 'Quest yet again. OTOH, he's got nothing left to prove IRT the 'Quest, as he's the winningest musher ever in that race, and holds an unprecidented streak of wins there, so there's no real history being lost. And Lance doesn't really need to prove that his back-to-back wins aren't flukes, either; Two years running is enough.

Last year, Jeff King was talking a lot of smack about Lance and his dogs - And ended up eating a heaping plate of crow at the Mushers' Banquet at the end of the race. Yes, Jeff's dogs are faster, and Jeff is more expereinced, and more generally successful in financial terms and somewhat) in popularity and fame, but Lance has the ability to read and understand his team as well or better than perhaps anyone else on the planet. Combine that with a fisherman's cunning (he's a commercial fisherman, too), and incredible endurance (Lance has no salivary glands - Lost them to cancer - and yet mushes in horrible conditions anyway, despite the surprisingly serious handicap of their lack), and you've got a man (and team) you dare not turn your back upon. Jeff got suckered by Lance this last year - turned his back at the wrong moment. Oops! You can bet Jeff's going to be a lot more careful about what he says this year!

@Beth; Mushers in Alaska define their dogs in terms of performance, not in terms of purity of cancestry or conformation. Well, conformation of a sort *does* enter into things, but it's an issue of functional conformation, not beauty or breed appearance. Alaskan Huskies have got to be sound; they have to be strong and fast; they've got to be big enough to pull, but not so big that they wear out hauling their own weight around. They need sound, tough paws; and a 'northern-type' double coat; they must have a burning desire to run and pull; and the ability to run all day. And after a day of hard running, and a short rest, they've got to be ready, able, and eager to do it all again the next day, and the day after that. If they meet those standards, then they can be called Alaskans, no matter what else they might be.

Technically, a cross-breed dog or mutt is NOT a hybrid. A wolf-dog or coy-dog is a hybrid. Mutts are still dogs, they're just dogs of mixed breed parentage. But don't let "mixed parentage" fool you - Serious mushers know their dogs' lineage further back than most show breeders do, and with greater attention to detail. Jeff, for instance, can recite parentage on most of his dogs going back five and six generations, off the top of his head - And he's got around a hundred dogs in his doglot! Serious mushers are very careful in developing dogs that meet that musher's individual concept of what makes an ideal racing sled dog. Indeed, some mushers' dogs are becoming type-fixed - A 'Martin dog' can often be recognized by a knowledgeable stranger just by glancing at it, for instance.

Karl Katzke said...

Another wonderful story. :) Thanks for sharing it!

BTW, South Texas is getting some of your weather next week. Apparently you've already had some of ours. We're supposed to have a low of 23 on Friday night -- for here, that's COLD! Went up into the attic of the house I rent a room in and found that the entire plumbing system is made of PEX - plastic tubing. 'Cept for dripping everything, I have no way to warm or winterize anything.

Wow, MM, thanks for commenting. Let me know when you start your commentary and I'll link to it too. I think I'd like to follow the races this year.

Dragon43 said...

A great story and I am glad you are getting to be an actual part of the sled dog racing.

I would type more but I'm working one handed tonight and I will be doing so for a while.

Did you get ant pictures?

Be well & warm.


Holly said...

Wow, after the cliff hanging end to the last post, it was a relief to find out the dogs were not dead. All in all, a fascinating look at a sport I will never do even as recreation.

MM, I follow your blog and will keep a very close eye for the race updates and coverage. I will also turn several of my horse and dog friends to your blog as they find this sport fascinating too. Your commentary on the two mushers and their dogs is way interesting to me as a trainer.

MaskedMan said...

Damn, Dragon! Do be more careful, eh? - Lady Dragon will not thank you for being short too many parts to do work around the mountain fortress!

AKDD said...

Well, stay warm down there, Karl! I'm a big believer in space heaters for pipe warming; I open the cupboard doors where the pipes are and put a little space heater in front (being sure you're being fire-safe, of course) to blow warm air on the pipes. I've also been told you can use the "safe"(er) RV antifreeze in the drains to keep the outflow from freezing, but I'd consult a plumber on that. (OTOH, I'd practically KILL for 23 degreees right now, since I'm on day 13 of 25 to 35 below zero at night.)

Holly, I'd never want to run the big races... but you see people mushing along the roads up here sometimes, with a little 6-dog team, and that DOES look like fun, I have to admit.

Dragon - OUCH!!!! What MM said: BE CAREFUL! It looks like they did a nice job fixing you up, but you want to preserve these body parts for future use. (Trust me, I'm a doctor.) :D

Martin Buser did something similar a few years ago - right before Iditarod, which he ran anyway - but he didn't get his thumb; he cut the ends off of two middle fingers. That thumb is miiiiighty important. If he'd done his thumb like that, he WOULDN'T have been running Iditarod that year, and maybe for a few years to come. Gotta have that thumb. I think you should sit with a good book (or similar diversion) and a hot cup of something and some kitties draped over you. Up here it'd be something hot buttered, and Border collies, and a down comforter, and a good book, but feel free to modify the prescription as needed.

Holly said...

oooo, speaking of hot beverages, my good friend Paige Strawn has a recipe from her mother for hot buttered rum.....

sounds delish

1 quart vanilla ice cream softened, 2 cup brown sugar, I c. butter. Blend well and refreeze. Boil water. Pour 1 c. boiling water in mug with heaping ice cream scoop of the mixture, stir and add 1-2 oz. of rum. Serve with fresh nutmeg on top. You can keep it in the freezer like you do ice cream.

AKDD said...

Okay, that's it. I'm making some RIGHT NOW.


Thx for the recipe - I really AM going to make some.

MaskedMan said...

Wow, thanks!

I normally run my commentary thread on the UnaBoard, but it's in a public forum, so should be visible to all. I'll run companion posts in Suka's blog, but the race updates are so frequent that it really does need a thread to keep the flow from becoming confusing.

Bev & Bailey said...

Wow! Great story! Better than a movie! BTW—we had some snow fall down here in Ohio last night, I’d be happy to ship it up to you guys!