Archived Story

Dog sled race filled with excitement

Published 12:00am Sunday, April 1, 2012

The excitement is palpable. The dogs are on alert. The energy level is high.

The dogs know they get to do what they want to be doing. They get to run.

I am at the start of the Hudson Bay Quest in Manitoba, Canada. It has taken me four days to get to this point.

The first day started at 4 a.m. and a flight into Canada. It is the first time I have traveled to Canada that a passport has been required since 9/11. The prior head vet of The Quest, as it is called here, picked first me and later Dr. Drew Allen up from the airport.

We stay with his family overnight and rise early to go to the airport to meet the other two vets and travel farther north.

Dr. Drew Allen is the head vet for the race. Sonia Pensaert, Colleen Marion and I round out the team. Sonia and Colleen have never worked a race before, but have read and studied to prepare. Even though I have 13 years of race experience, I am a rookie vet on this race.

The dogs are in harness. The dog lot is loud. Dogs jump up and down in place.

They want to go. They want to go now. The people are also loud. School children have adopted mushers as a class and have arrived in buses to cheer on their musher. Then 28 minutes later all 14 teams are on the trail. The mushers and dogs will travel 100 miles to M’Clintock where I will see them next.

I get on a high rail truck. Bags and vet boxes are in the back and Drew and I are in the back seat. Doug is the race marshal and is riding shotgun.

Doug is retired from the military with Ranger experience and now works with the cadet program. He is well suited for his task. Dwight is the driver/engineer with a thick French accent. He uses the pickup with steel wheels to drive and fix the tracks. A deal has been worked out to allow him to take us to the checkpoint.

The snow plow is ahead so we drive 10 to 15 miles an hour at best. It is warm and sleepy in the truck for the long ride to the wilderness check point. The guys stop to dewater and smoke several times on the way. I stay put, wedged with my gear.

Then we are at M’Clintock. It is definitely one of the better organized wilderness checkpoints that I have seen. The Rangers are somewhat like our military reserves. They are using this as an exercise, but have gone above and beyond the requirements. The dog yard is set up as part of the loop toward the river portion of the trail. Mushers have trail marker stakes with a bale of straw beside each. To this point they have followed the power line to here. From the dog yard, they will turn onto the river and travel along the frozen river to the tundra and finish line. Claude takes me to the river on the snow machine.

We both stand on opposite sides and share steering. It is much like the motorcycle, but Claude still reminds me to turn a little more. The approach to the river is steep and I ask how much it is going to hurt when I fall off.

Claude tells me “not much” and we are on the river.

The river is like a new world. The banks cut some of the wind, but I know at other times they will funnel the wind right into the mushers. But here the sheer beauty is amazing. I understand a little of why the mushers mush.

We eat “rations” for supper that night. We compare MRE’s and I learn that the French have wine in theirs. The Canadian version has a lot more fluid than ours. And tea. The first mushers are due at midnight or one. I am to leave the checkpoint at 1:30 or 2 p.m. for the finish in Churchill. For the one to two hours of rest, I do not think it is worthwhile to unpack my sleeping bag. Rated for 45 below, my bag is warm, but a pain to repack. While the rangers stay in tents, we are in an old railroad house. It has walls, windows and a ceiling, but is not in good repair. Still it cuts the wind and I am grateful. The kerosene heater barely warms our room and I am cold under my parka.

We receive word that my departure will be delayed. A musher has activated his help GPS spot and then later his emergency beacon. Our thoughts are with him as we doze. Too soon we are awakened. A musher’s headlamp has been spotted on the trail. Or so it is thought. We wait in the cold and freezing rain for two hours. When we finally rest in the ranger’s tent, the musher calls out as he silently glides by.

The nighttime excitement has started. All dogs on all teams will get a full vet check as they come in. Drew and I start to work. We are well matched. He starts at the front, I at the back and we meet in the middle. It is still a light freezing rain, but the dogs are warm and it is not bad working in the snow, in the dark, in the rain. But in between mushers, it is cold and the rain is sharp and painful. I sway back and forth to stay warm and rest, but not fall asleep. At one point, I fall asleep and almost fall over. I tell everyone there was an earthquake. They laugh and agree.

While checking Charlie’s dogs, I punch through the snow. My foot is two feet below me and the snow crumbles as I try to get up. My stethoscope is broken again, but I do not realize until later. Some duct tape and plastic later and I am good to go.

Then word of the train is coming. I am to be on it. I was to have checked in two or three teams, but by 5 a.m., we have checked in ten of the now twelve teams. Two have scratched and called it quits for this year. They or their dogs or their gear are not up to it. Or it ceases to be fun. The missing musher is one of those. A drunken cat (think big yellow machine) driver has ran into his sled and trashed the $4,000 sled. The driver didn’t stop and the musher was stranded.

Turns out the train can be seen and heard for a long way away. As I wait in the sleet with my gear, I am amazed as a huge, full sized train comes out of the night. Sonia and Colleen’s gear is offloaded and mine onloaded onto the freight car. I step high onto the ladder and between climbing, pushing and pulling, I am deposited into the freight car. Sonia and Colleen appear and are helped down the same way. I hear only that I will love the sleeper car as I pass info about the teams. Drew will stay with them and even after they are gone.

I mean to watch some of the moonlit scenery, but my eyes are heavy. The sleeper car is wonderful. The bathroom is private, heated and without 20 mph winds.

The bed was horizontal and the sheets clean. I am rapidly rocked to sleep. I awake a few hours later. We are in Churchill. I am to be met. I gather my gear, the vet boxes, a chainsaw and a hitch. Christine starts laughing when she sees me with the chainsaw. Yes, Sheldon and Claude have talked me into bringing their gear with me. I load it into the truck with everything else.

I hang around the headquarters for a while, stimulate the local economy, but I am dosing in the chair. I head to the room to nap. Many people have donated time and services to The Quest. Our room is one of those. The rooms at the Aurora Inn are amazing. Loft bedrooms with efficiency apartments below. I climb the steps and change and crash. A couple of hours later, I am awakened.

Christine is here to take me to the other vets. They have traveled by high rail out of M’Clintock. Most of the dogs go to the handlers of the mushers, but they want me to look at one. A frostbite/injury to a sensitive place and a quick surgery to allow it to heal.

We transfer the dogs to headquarters where food is waiting for us. Our bellies

full, we head to sleep until the dogs and mushers come off the trail about 2 a.m. The call comes too early, but we rush to dress for the cold. We scouted the finish line earlier that night and watched the northern lights for a bit.

But someone has barricaded the way and we head on the musher’s trail. Within minutes, the truck is stuck. Not surprising since it is in 8 feet of snow. We abandon the truck and walk to the finish. Two teams are in. Another one is quickly there. I hop a ride with Claude and his snow machine to the dog lot to check the winner’s team.

Two dogs of the top four finishers has ridden in the sled basket. The mushers were worried about sled dog myopathy and we run IV fluids into each dog. An hour later, both dogs are very alert and much improved. This race has had less injuries than most I am used to. The dogs are more conditioned and since the race is more primitive, the mushers are more prepared. Indeed, for this race, they have had to carry all of their food and supplies for the whole two-hundred miles. More dogs have been on fluids this year because of the warmer temperatures.

There are four mushers still on the trail. Four have now scratched. More people will meet these four, because it will be in the sunny afternoon.

Normally only volunteers, handlers and family will be up in the middle of the night. Churchill will sound the emergency siren about an hour before they are due in. Lots of the community will follow the race on the Internet. Still the excitement is muted now. Sleep deprivation has done that. The banquet will be tomorrow night and then I will travel for two days to make it back home. I am tired, but grateful to have helped these supreme athletes and experienced new things.

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