Mushing Bulletin # 103 – Synapses and Checklists

There are some sentences that you never think you’ll hear yourself utter e.g., “I think that we’ve seen the last of the sex scandals involving members of congress” or “It wouldn’t surprise me if Hosni Mubarak fell victim to a Facebook-induced revolution”.

I uttered another one myself this morning. At six-thirty, I looked at the thermometer and said: “It has warmed up to 19 degrees.”

Warmed up!?! Warmed up!?! I have been in Canada for a little over two weeks and have already lost the ability to reason. There are synapses that are misfiring. I’ve lost the electrical connections between numerical temperature and the meaning of the word “warmth”.

The next thing you know I’ll be reading the headlines in the tabloids in the super-market. Wait a minute, I already do that. How else would I know that Liz Taylor is on her last leg? That Brad and Angelina are not quite as jolie as one might think. And that Sandra Bullock is on the road to recovery, after dumping her cheating husband. This synapse deterioration is more advanced than I thought.

The good news, this also according to the tabloids, is that synapses can be regenerated. Three beers a day, scattered evenly throughout the day, and you’re good to go. This has the additional advantage of warming the body and you save on firewood.

Back to the mushing business…

By 9:15, the dogs are fed and hydrated and we are heading to the trail head.

I’m always worried that we’ve forgotten something crucial, like harnesses. Last night I had a dream that we forgot the dogs!

We need a NASA-like checklist for the Can-Am to make sure that all the right stuff is in the car. If we forget something crucial we’re dead because the race is across the border in Fort Kent one hour away. And, of course, our friends at U.S. Customs and Border Protection are between us and the race. There’s no way we could turn around to pick up a forgotten harness and make it through customs twice in the same day. We’d be on a “person of interest” list in a heartbeat, if we aren’t already.

In addition to the normal mushing gear we carry in the car e.g., dogs, harnesses, necklines, gangline, goggles etc., the Can-Am requires the following:

– A sled capable of carrying injured or fatigued dogs and required equipment. There’s no getting away with a two-foot long sled with one runner to increase your speed.

– Six one-quart capacity steel dishes, one for each dog. These are for watering and emergency feeding. It’s not smart to water two dogs out of the same bowl. There will be a lot of pushing and shoving until one pokes the other with a paw, they both drop their booties on the ice, and a hockey game breaks out.

– A flashing light for each lead dog, in case you are out after dusk. If you are running the Can-Am 30 and you are out after dusk you are seriously lost.

– Four booties per dog i.e., a total of 24 booties. Some dogs tend to get snowballs between their paw pads. The booties solve this problem. Mushers spend large amounts of time, when their dogs are pups, getting them accustomed to having their paws touched. You don’t want to be wasting time out on the trail wrestling with a dog who doesn’t want booties put on his feet. I have included two pictures, below, one of Aura and her booties and one of Chinook having his paw prepped for a training run.

– A snubline that’s at least eight feet long. A subline is used to secure the sled to something solid, like a tree, so that the musher can get off the sled and deal with a problem. It has a gizmo that allows the musher to release it with one hand while hanging onto the sled with the other. There seem to be as many different snublines as there are mushers. It has to be easily releasable by the musher but not susceptible to early release caused by the jerking of the line by six dogs that are anxious to run. The Head Musher has been experimenting with various configurations none of which seem particularly reliable. Yesterday, Gino’s snubline released prematurely at the trail head and he lost his team. A snowmobiler picked him up and they caught up with the team five miles down the trail. Generally speaking a musher would prefer to be with his team when it departs the trail head.

– A sled bag capable of carrying and safely restraining a struggling dog, and if necessary covering a severely injured dog. You ever seen a Siberian Husky riding in a sled bag with his head sticking out the top of the bag and being particularly happy about it? Me neither. But, in theory, it’s possible.

– Fire-starting material and a two-quart pot to heat water. If you get lost, this allows you to start a small forest fire to signal your position and then douse it with water when help arrives.

– A cold-weather sleeping bag in case you become enraptured by the beauty of the scenery and decide to spend the night out on the trail. The problem with cold weather sleeping bags is that, in the morning, you have to get out of them.

– A pair of snowshoes with each snowshoe covering at least 250 square inches. Unless you have a death wish, it’s not a good idea to step into the soft snow on the side of the trail without snowshoes. The good news, if you do, is they’ll probably see the top of your head sticking out of the melting snow in the Spring.

– A knife that must be “at hand and available for emergency use”. This is to ward off bears, moose, and the occasional mugger who has lost his bearings.

– A hand-axe at least 22 inches long. Doesn’t everyone carry an axe? Gino’s mother does!

– An adequate first aid kit. The word “adequate” is not further defined but, presumably, you would want to have at least the tools necessary to perform an autobiographical appendectomy.

– A headlamp. I’ve come to appreciate headlamps. With one of these on your forehead, you can do the Sunday New York Times crossword anywhere, anytime. In my view, this is an invention right up there with the printing press.

– A pocket mirror. This will allow you to check the status of your frost-bitten nose at various times during the race.

– A whistle. At 15 below zero, once you put a metal whistle to your moist lips you never have to worry about locating it for the rest of the race.

– And additionally, a one-day supply of food for the driver (this raises the problem of how to keep a couple of Big-Macs and a large order of fries warm in the sled bag) and one pound of emergency dog food for each dog. You might remember that, last year, there was a big hassle concerning emergency dog food. Some mushers were a half-pound short at the post race weigh-in and got penalized. This year a dog food company is donating sealed bags of emergency food to every musher.

Jeez, while I’ve been sitting here pondering mushing’s great equipment mysteries, the Head Musher has run ten miles and returned to the spot from which she departed. That’s always a good sign.

The six dogs aren’t even panting. The Head Musher has shed her parka in favor of a multi-colored winter sweater that any moose would give his right antler for.

So, I’ll sign off and assume my pit-crew duties. But consider this a formal warning – the Head Musher will be armed with a knife and hatchet on the 5th of March. She is supposed to remain on a thirty-mile trail in the Fort Kent area but, no matter where you live, I’d stay indoors on the 5th just to be safe. And if you do go outdoors, under no circumstances should you test out that moose-calling horn that you got in your Christmas stocking.

The One-Man Pit Crew

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Mushing in Ocean City MD