The Spring Equinox has snuck past us and the light in our days is slowly getting longer. With temperatures climbing into the 30s and the snow beginning to transform into rain – we take the opportunity to squeeze in the last of our winter activities. Birds are migrating back to their summer homes and the time to reflect on the past season is upon us.
I think about different aspects of the winter season from my perspective as a musher; from training to racing, chores to handling, what could be improved upon and what went well. The UP200 deserved a lot of reflection - I didn’t know what to expect during this race, but I grew as a musher during the struggles and accomplishments of each race section. There’s only so much that you can prepare from stories and tips from fellow mushers. Especially when you’re someone like me who learns by doing. “The team is only as strong as the weakest link and the weakest link is often the musher – the human at the back of the sled.” This is something I’ve heard a few times over from various mushers as I continue along my dog driving journey. We have to be expected to make mistakes. After all, how will we learn? But I try to learn from these mistakes and become a better person and musher along the way. The athletic potential of the dogs is amazing. I want to become the strongest link that I can for them, so I can hold them back as little as possible.
A scene from the trail in the first 50 miles of the race.
During UP200, the team and I spent just over 30 hours on the 240-mile long trail plus almost 17 hours of rest time in checkpoints for the dogs. During checkpoints, the musher and handlers give the dogs a few big meals, check for any soreness, give massages, feed the musher, and allow the dogs (and hopefully musher and handlers) to get some much needed rest before the next leg. The race had its ups and downs for me, as it did for all mushers. When I think about some of the most notable moments that I can remember from my sleep-deprived haze during the race, some of the ones that bring a smile to my face have to do with an oddly matched pair of sled dogs leading my team.
In this race, I had a very experienced team of dogs. Many of them had run the UP200 before, and most of them were experienced leaders. But when we crossed the finish line, our team was being led by the most unlikely duo of dogs.
Coming into the second checkpoint with Frosty (left) and Saga (right) in lead.
In the second half of the race, one of my strongest leaders developed a slightly sore muscle, and although she was pulling and having fun, I ended up leaving her with the handlers at the last checkpoint rather than risking any injury to her.
When I left this leader, Saga, behind is when the trouble really started. Frosty, the other leader, wasn’t interested in leading without her daughter Saga beside her. Frosty had been a solid, go-to leader for me all season, so I hesitated slightly to put her farther back in the team, but she had also just lead more than half the race for me and deserved a mental break. I had so many experienced leaders on the team, surely one of them would step up. Things didn’t work out the way I had expected and I became stuck in a cycle of switching leaders. Although my dogs were willing to pull, each dog I tried to put in lead indicated that they didn’t want to be at the front of the team this time.
Soon, I had tried every combination of dogs I could think of except for one: Grizz and Todd. Grizz is an older pro, but a bit tricky to pair with another dog. Due to some anxiety and general grumpiness, he usually runs at the back of the team in wheel where he’s most comfortable. However, he had run this race many times and was going to keep his tug tight, this I knew. My next challenge was to find someone to run lead with him, he wasn’t confident enough in his ability to run lead alone. He wanted a partner to run alongside him.
However, nobody else would run with him. I looked my team over and my eyes came upon Todd. A young, goof of a dog who often tries to turn around to see what I’m doing on the sled. I would be asking a lot of him to lead a team with Grizz at the end of a 240-mile race. But Todd is a cheerleader and has a very bright personality. I brought him to the front and hooked him in next to Grizz. I petted and played with my two unexpected leaders for a few minutes on the side of the trail. I felt like they were my last option. I needed them to believe in themselves. “Okay boys, you two are the best! Let’s finish this thing!” I stood up and started walking back to my sled and stopped when I saw Todd’s head, pointing the wrong direction, at my knee. It took me some time to keep Todd at the front of the team. Eventually, I was able to sprint back to my sled yelling “ready!” to get the team going, grabbed the sled and off we went.
Once we were moving forward, Grizz was straight and true. He knew the trail and his experience over his 8 or so years of racing gave him solid knowledge of directional commands; “gee” (right) and “haw” (left). Todd ended up being the perfect match to Grizz’s Eeyore-esque attitude, a jovial young sidekick who gave Grizz the confidence to move forward. I felt like it was only a matter of time before these two decided that the stress of leading was enough for them. But instead of giving up, this unlikely pair ended up bringing us across the finish line strong. We had our moments of struggle, but I couldn’t have been more proud of those boys and the rest of my team. If I learned anything from running this race, it’s that any dog has the potential to lead, old or young. The musher has to be keep their eyes open for opportunities of growth and give the right amount of encouragement to help the dogs succeed.
Across the finish line at dusk with Todd (left) and Grizz (middle).
As the summer months draw near, I will look back on the lessons Grizz, Todd, and the rest of the team taught me while I drive onward into new adventures.
Kalyn is an integral member of our crew at Wintergreen Northern Wear, and has been splitting her time between Wintergreen and Manitou Crossing Kennels all winter. Here at the store, she works in production, cutting fabric and overseeing the beginning phases of every Wintergreen garment that passes under the sewing needle. At home, she cares for 62 sled dogs and trains for races, like the upcoming The UP200. Be sure to wish her and the dogs happy trails and all the luck in the world!