Mushing Bulletin # 105 – A Training Run on The Tadpole

You know what bugs the heck out of me? Reporters who use the word "surreal". It is one of the most used and least descriptive words on cable and network news.

Wolf Blitzer: "So, Fred, it really does look a like a surreal scene there in Cairo. Could you give us your impression of what exactly is going on?"

Fred: "Wolf, you’re exactly right. It is surreal. If you had asked me the same question this afternoon I would have said that the scene was unreal. But, now, I think I’m going to have to agree with you that we have moved from the unreal to the surreal."

Wolf Blitzer: "Stand by a minute Fred; I’ll get right back to you. I want to ask the Best Political Team on Television here in the studio what they think about the surreal developments in Cairo."

The Best Political Team on Television: (In unison) "Surreal, surreal, definitely surreal"

Wolf Blitzer: "Fred, did you hear that?"

Fred: "I certainly did, Wolf, and once again the Best Political Team on Television is spot on.”

So, following in this great reporting tradition and in response to several e-mails from readers for more information about the challenges involved in mushing, I thought I’d take a shot at describing, courtesy of the Head Musher, what it’s like to take a dogsled team out through the Canadian wilderness on a mushing trail called the "Tadpole". We’ll run the first three miles to a place appropriately named “Three Mile Junction”.

Here we go…

At the trail head, the sled is secured to the front of the Honda CRV by the snubline. The four dogs, each in their harness and attached to the gangline, are jerking forward straining to get started and the sled is bouncing off the ground with every tug.

Fenway and Aura are running in the lead position and Fenway is barking with every leap. If this were Cairo, Fenway would be the guy taunting the riot police. He would then run and hide behind his big brother Chinook, who has the size-18 paws and the cold stare, when the trouble starts.

Chinook and Kodiak are in the wheel position nearest the sled. Chinook is letting out one of his snoars with each tug. Kodiak is flat down on the ground because Chinook intimidates him. And, besides, it’s in his nature to be disgusted with a ruckus. (See photo #1) But when he hears the Head Musher yell "Ready!" he’ll be on his feet.

The Head Musher adjusts her goggles, puts on her heavy mittens, stands on the claw brake with her right foot and the drag brake with her left, pulls the release on the snubline with her left hand while holding on to the handle bar with her right, and yells "Ready!" The dogs feel the release and hear "Let’s go!" and head down the trail. Their ears are tucked down. Their heads are down. Their paws are spread wide and dig into the hard-packed snow. Four crazed running-machines. The sled makes an initial leap forward and then the ride smoothes out.

The dogs are at their strongest and fastest for the first hundred yards and the Head Musher stands on both brakes to slow them down. Even with the two brakes, the sled is traveling between 15 and 20 miles per hour at the start.

Having two brakes is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it slows the sled down. On the other, it causes the musher to have both feet off the sled runners and close together in the middle of the sled, not a great position for the best balance. (See photo #2) Within fifteen yards, the dogs have coordinated their strides, are all pulling in unison, but have not yet settled into a tempo. That might take several miles.

About forty yards from the start, the sled leaves the hard-packed snow on the road and enters the trail by going over a small snow-bank. Shortly after the bump, the trail splits. The Head Musher yells "Gee" and Fenway and Aura make a slight right-hand turn taking the rest of the team, the sled, and the Head Musher with them down the right-hand fork. The first voice command of the day has been delivered, understood, and executed. A good start.

So now we are on a slight uphill three-mile run to “Three Mile Junction”. The Head Musher’s right foot is off the claw brake and back on the runner. As her left foot comes off the drag brake, her right heel replaces it while her toe rests on the right runner. (See photo #3) This brake dance has ended for the time being but may resume if the need arises to slow the sled down quickly.

We’re on a relatively straight, wide trail with woods on both sides. Looks like a great time to enjoy the scenery. Hold on! Hold on! Do you want to end up on your head in a snow bank? We’re not on a sightseeing tour here. We’re driving a dogsled.

Instead of sightseeing, how about we act like a real musher and do a quick check of the trail, the lines, the dogs, and the sled.

What is it about the trail we need to worry about?

Personally, I put large, dangerous animals right up there at the top of the list. Animals like bears, mountain lions and moose. You want to keep an eye peeled for any signs that they are out and about. That means recognizing tracks and scat. Scat is a euphemism for droppings, which in turn is a euphemism for poop, which in turn is a euphemism for…well… you get the idea. In a nutshell, it pays to know some shit if you want to avoid danger.

A couple of years ago I said to Gino: “Don’t bears hibernate in the winter?” and he said: “Yes, but if you run into one that has just woken up, he’ll be hungry!” Jeez, I hadn’t thought about that! A bear staggers out of his den, hasn’t eaten is six weeks, and you’re the first thing he sees. You look like a Whopper with a parka on.

The dogs will probably pick up the scent of one of these large animals long before you see the tracks, but this is another one of those mixed blessings. Dogs are a great early warning system. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they tend to accelerate and run in the direction of what they consider to be prey. Siberian Huskies running in a pack, would consider a T-Rex to be just about the right size prey.

So it’s good to be able to recognize the tracks and scat of these larger animals. You’ll want to buy and study a handy little book called Scat and Tracks of the Northeast, A Field Guide to the Signs of Seventy Wildlife Species. Skip the section entitled “Weasels and their Relatives” and head for the section called “Bears, Cats and Hoofed Animals.” After mushing season is over, you can go back and read the section on “How to Recognize a Weasel” as you prepare for the 2012 congressional elections.

Ok, so you want to keep an eye peeled for tracks and scat along the trail. You also want to note the trail conditions, anything that might cause handling problems with the sled e.g., ruts, chunks of ice, tree limbs, dead animals.

As a matter of fact, up ahead on the left side of the trail are the remnants of a small animal and Fenway and Kodiak have already picked up the scent and are drifting to the left. The Head Musher yells “On by!” but the attraction is virtually irresistible and we’re heading for the carcass.

Now is the time to stop the sled and set the snow hooks to reinforce the fact that temptation needs to be resisted. By the time the sled is stopped the snow hooks are set and the Head Musher is up to the front of the line Fenway and Kodiak have inspected the remains of what may have been a rabbit and decided that they are not interested. They have moved back to the center of the trail. So it’s back on the sled, pull the snow hooks, and head down the trail.

We’re cruising toward Three Mile Junction and the dogs are running well. You look at the tug lines (the lines that connect the back of the dogs’ harnesses to the gangline which in turn connects to the sled) to see if they are taut. If a dog’s tug line is slack it means he’s not pulling and if he’s not pulling then something is amiss. All the lines look fine.

What about the dogs? All their gaits seem fine. Aura’s booties are still on her feet.

Gotta keep an eye on Fenway in case he decides to stop and pee. Nothing worse than one of the lead dogs deciding to stop and pee. If you’re not alert, you, the other dogs and the sled pile up on top of him. You end up with a gigantic tangle or, worse, an injured dog. Veteran sled dogs pee (and poop) on the fly, another reason you want to stay alert on the back of the sled!

The sled begins to drift over toward the middle of the trail. You hear the phrase “Over Gee” as the head Musher tells the dogs to hug the right side of the trail. You need to leave room on the left for sleds (and snowmobiles) going in the other direction or for sleds passing your sled. Mushers who hog the center of the trail are as popular as that local geezer in his 1968 Cadillac who straddles the center line on his way to McDonald’s for an afternoon quarter-pounder. So you want to stay on the right-hand side of the trail but not so far right that you hit soft snow and tip over. There’s a mushing, as well as a political, moral here.

At this juncture, you might want to take a quick glance at the GPS on the handlebar to check your speed (probably around 7 mph) and distance covered (around 1.5 miles).

We next encounter a series of uphill and downhill sections of the trail. Because we are only running four dogs, we’re going to have to “pedal” on the uphill sections. If we had six dogs (as the Head Musher reminds me hourly) we wouldn’t have to pedal. The six dogs would just pull us right up the hill.

“Pedaling” simply means that you stand on one runner and push with the other foot. If you stand on the right runner with your left foot and use your right foot to push on the right side of the sled, you can get great leverage. You can also tip over very easily so, unless you’re Lance Mackey, it’s probably best to pedal the non-risky way i.e., left foot on the left runner; right foot pushing between the runners.

Downhills present a different and more subtle problem. You don’t want to go downhill faster than your slowest dog can run. If you do, the faster dogs behind him (or, worse, the sled) will run into him. So it’s up to the musher to apply the drag brake, or the claw brake if necessary to slow the sled down. The key is to keep the lines taut so that the dogs and the sled stay evenly spaced.

And what is that just up ahead? Why it’s the Three Mile Junction! This is where I get off. You can stay on if you like, but I wouldn’t. The Head Musher is heading for a section of the Tadpole Trail that is about six inches wider than the sled, trees on both sides, and lots of low branches. I made it through there once on a sled Gino was towing behind a snowmobile. I figure that I’ve exhausted all my luck having survived that experience. The Tadpole is probably the most technically challenging, and most beautiful, trail in the area.

So, just jump right off and walk back to the trail head. It’s a beautiful walk and I’d like to have as much company as possible. I figure that I’ve only got to outrun one of you if we encounter one of those hungry bears.

The last thing you’ll hear as you walk away is the Head Musher yelling “Gee!” and you’ll see the team make a right turn at the junction. It really is a thing of beauty when they do that.

The One-Man Pit Crew

P.S. Minus 17 degrees this morning. Snow predicted for later today and into tomorrow. Gino and I are going on a snowmobile excursion in about an hour. I figure if I can drive a golf cart, I can drive a snowmobile, a dangerous assumption. A couple of days ago he saw three moose on one of the trails and is determined that I should get a picture of these beauties.

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