Copper Basin 2021 Race Recap

Somehow, Christmas passed, 2020 passed, and January was upon us.

I did not feel ready, but in this training season, I had come to accept that I would never actually feel ready for much of anything.

Shawn, Sam, and I finished packing the truck and car classically late into the night before we had to leave. I stayed up til 3 or 4 working on my sled, finishing last minute repairs. We drove south, pushing hard, and still made it to the vet checks slightly– and typically– late. I vowed to be on time next year and my executive dysfunction chuckled fondly.

We had taken our Covid tests well ahead of time at the pop up testing station that was supposed to have results to us within 72 hrs, but which told us it would be over a week. The race has informed us there were rapid tests available in Glennallen, but had also asked us not to use them if possible. It seems most mushers did rely on those, and in the end we had to as well. Since we didn’t have results by check in, we had to sign up for a rapid test. Race rules declared that a musher couldn’t take off without a negative test, and that handlers couldn’t follow without one either (which I definitely support). The only rapid test time available was 9:30 the next morning… 30 minutes before the first team would leave. I drew bib number 10, which would mean I’d be slated to leave at 10:20– awfully close to the testing time.

Will stands by the dog truck and his sled. Two dogs in harnesses look at him expenctanly.

In the morning we parked the truck at the starting spot, and then (with a neighboring truck watching over our dogs in their boxes), took the car to the clinic not far away. The clinic graciously made room to test us sooner than our appointment, but even with that, we didn’t get our results and get back to the truck til a bit after 9:30. We had to unload dogs, harness, bootie, and most of all, I had to finish a couple things on my sled. Sam and Shawn harnessed and bootied, and I finished my sled packing and securing one last part of my new sled bag. When the ATV came to escort us to the start, I knew we’d be deferring our time. We could have rushed and made it, but I didn’t want to create a starting atmosphere of anxiety for the dogs. Plus, leaving at the end– which is what happens when you defer your start– means you don’t have to be passed by the 20 other teams that would have been behind you.

So at 11:04, the team and I were trotted to the starting banner. The timer called out the countdown, and we were off.

All the day– heck the week– before, I’d been so anxious I couldn’t breathe right. The second I pulled the hook, I felt a huge grin spread across my face. It was the biggest relief. FINALLY. We’re off. Just me and the dogs and the trail.

Right away, I knew the first run would be a slog. The snow, after being churned through by 32 other teams, was like beach sand. The dogs worked hard right out of the gate to move through it. The benefit was that it helped me create a pace at the start. For the first run of any race, I want to set a slower pace, to help conserve energy for the miles ahead. The downside of sugar snow– or one of many– is that it can be harsh on feet. Of course all of the dogs were bootied, but sugar snow also sneaks into the slightest pinprick hole or not-perfectly-closed bootie top, and fills the bootie with heavy ice until it’s pulled right off the dog’s foot. There were booties everywhere along the trail. I lost more booties in a single run than I ever had, and it looked like I wasn’t the only one.

The sky was a little overcast, so we couldn’t see the mountains perfectly, but it was still a beautiful day. The dogs were excited, well out of the rut they’d been in a couple weeks before. They were thrilled to be on a new trail. The second they saw a team ahead of us, they were thrilled about that too.

A sled dog team travels down a snowy trail

We passed that team and a couple others on the first half of this run. I felt good about that, happy we were able to pass and not have to be passed. Being in the front of a race like this means getting passed over and over, and that can be disheartening for the dogs. I aim for a lower MPH than most mushers, so it’s only natural that we’ll be passed along the way. Except for the beat up snow, I was glad to be in last.

Halfway through the first run (the longest run, at 75 miles). we passed many more mushers and teams, camping along the trail. I had heard there were a lot of rookies in this race; it was interesting to see who was used to camping and who might not have been.

I sallied on, knowing that those well-rested teams might come zooming up behind us at any time to pass and start passing– But somehow we made it to Lake Louise Lodge, the first checkpoint, before that happened. The whole team really impressed me on that run. Even though the conditions of soft snow were not easy, they never lost enthusiasm or seemed to get overwhelmed. A major goal for the race was to create a positive and successful experience for the team. To see them start off, even in difficult terrain, on such happy footing made me really happy!

The dogs were over the moon to see straw, and to have me take their booties off. They hated those booties. But, later in the race, I’d be extremely grateful for them.

I did my chores: handed out snacks, took off booties, set down straw, cooked a meal or handed out a ready-soaked one to the dogs. Maybe cook my own food. Shawn and Sam had agreed to get me a burger from the lodge though, so my hunger pains were content to wait for extra reward.

While the dog food was soaking, I looked over each foot of each dog. I poked and prodded and massaged their shoulders and wrists. I wanted to do my best to get every dog to the finish line. The point of this race was to give the dogs valuable experience and confidence, so that they would understand the rhythms of running and resting. They were great at resting– and even better, they were fantastic already at eating.

We’d had a weird year with eating this season. The ATAO dogs are notorious chow hounds! But this year they were not eating up the way I was used to. We finally got them onto a regimen of pro- and pre-biotics that seemed to do the trick. Their stomaches finally got settled and their metabolism amped up. I also altered how we spent our night before the race. Instead of staying at the hotel that most mushers gather at, I (and Shawn and Sam) sacrificed some human comfort in order to provide the dogs extra dog comfort. I won’t go into a ton more detail but suffice it to say, the dogs were about a hundred times happier and more comfortable (and more interested in eating!) than the first time we did the Copper Basin. I was really happy with my decision on this front. I think this also contributed to the dogs being well hydrated, which the vets commented on several times.

So in the first checkpoint of Lake Louise, the dogs snuggled into their beds, chowed down on some good dinner, and promptly fell asleep.

Mushers were given the option to sleep in their vehicles. Sam and Shawn had set the Subaru up to be a comfy place to crash. (We didn’t bring Todd to every checkpoint to save on expensive fuel and to hopefully avoid breakdowns… A good plan, as it turned out, because in classic Copper Basin style, there were some Things Going Wrong With Todd just before the start. In fact, I passed Shawn and Sam about 20 miles from Lake Louise on the highway. They shouted excitedly at me: “We got pop sticks!” I said, “…What?” they said, “We got a mop mix!” I repeated this back to them dubiously. After I passed, churning these cryptic messages over in my head, I finally turned and shouted, “YOU GOT TODD FIXED???” they cheered and confirmed. GO HANDLER TEAM!)

I got my Lake Louise burger (it had a homemade bun and it was SO GOOD) and headed to the Subaru to sleep. I don’t think I even unrolled a sleeping bag, just took off my boots and wet snowpants, hung them outside the car to freeze, and laid down and slept for a dreamless hour.

My race plan had me taking my mandatory six hour rest plus my differential (which was still the same as if I had left at my designated start time of 10:20). That was a total of 6 hrs and 46 minutes. I ended up staying about 53 minutes longer than that. This was mainly because I’d made an error in my checkpoint routine– I didn’t pack my sled before heading up to eat and take a nap. It’s important to get your things in order before you rest, so that when you get up (when you’re probably feeling a bit out of it), you only have to bootie and do a few last checks and chores before you go. I was frustrated with myself to have made this rookie error, but resolved to do better at the next checkpoint.

Our second run, a 55 miler to Sourdough, was not as smooth. The last time we’d done this race (heading the other direction) this leg had been one of our best runs. This race, it was one of the toughest– almost purely mentally.

At a certain point along the trail, some previous mushers had left a slew of snacks. It’s common for mushers– especially those competing– to leave whatever the dogs don’t eat along the trail. My own hot take is that it’s incredibly discourteous. It’s pretty darn tempting for even the most well behaved team to try to snag an extra bite to eat if it’s just laying in their path. That can create some issues. In our case, Rogue managed to pick up a huge chunk of chicken. it was a leg and a thigh and maybe another part frozen together in what basically looked like half a frozen chicken. She was VERY proud of herself, but she also could not even begin to try to eat that and run at the same time.

When I was first mushing as a teenager, I thought stopping more was more helpful to the dogs. I like to take breaks, they probably do too right?? Once I started doing my own long distance running, though, I learned what this does to momentum. Stopping or slowing briefly, occasionally, can be revitalizing. Stopping repeatedly can halt a moving train. That’s what began to happen on this run.

First, Rogue and her chicken were a major distraction for the whole team. You could practically hear them as they all hopped and looked at her indignantly, mid stride: “What? Rogue got a chicken? I want a chicken! Is it snack time? Why didn’t I get one? Can I have one? Are we all having chickens now? I want a chicken!” They were also furiously looking EVERYWHERE for other chicken. The forward motion of the team was now going in 12 different, non-forward directions. I stopped, removed the chicken from Rogue’s possession (sorry Rogue), and brought a bag of our own snacks to the front of the team. While the dogs were distracted with snacks I dropped the half chicken off the trail into the deep snow. The dogs ate and seemed pleased– but from here out it would be a tough run.

In hindsight, I wonder if this is where Rebel’s tummy troubles began, and if this also affected the team. We were never fully able to gain the forward momentum we’d had so well in our first run on this leg of the journey. The dogs were like little kids who got an idea into their heads and kept coming back to it. I gave them chicken but it was not trail chicken.

I had put Nala up front with Aurora. I’d already been leaning on Emmy for lead, and I knew I’d need her in the next couple runs, so I wanted to give her a break. But whatever goofiness was going on with the team put Nala in an extra weird mood, and at one point she fully stopped, turned around, and ran through the middle of the team with glee– making a magnificent tangle in her wake. I fired her from lead for that run. At long last, I was able to get a combo of leaders who had more focus on getting us down the trail.

Part way through this run, Rebel started lagging. This is highly unusual. Rebel is a work horse who spends whatever extra energy she has yelling at the other dogs to work harder themselves. For her not to pull was a big red flag.

Rebel has been having some sore feet this season. I wondered if perhaps her booties were bothering her. I took them off and let her run again. She pulled for a few hundred feet and then started lagging again. She had no limp, and her legs moved normally. But when I felt her tummy it was pretty full. Not hard like you’d find with bloat (sled dogs don’t seem to have a high instance of bloat, at least according to my own experience and the observations of at least one Iditarod winner). Her belly was soft, but BIG.

I decided it would be better for the vets to look at her and not risk something dangerous. I put my strange sled bag to work. I pulled out the inner section and placed rebel in the newly opened “dog kennel” area. With the zipper that I’d hand-sewn in, the “kennel” worked amazingly. Rebel was not happy about it. She did not understand riding! No riding, only running!

The team continued to be a bit off. I maintained a super positive attitude. Letting my own worry show up wouldn’t help anyone. I reminded the dogs over and over that they were doing great, and that all the snacks lay ahead in the next checkpoint. They were not unhappy- just unfocused! They were almost exactly like that golden retriever who is supposed to walk by all the food and get to the end of a little obstacle course or trial, who just goes off the rails and eats ALL the food. Every time we stopped the dogs were bouncing, wagging tails, and having fun. I couldn’t recriminate them for that! Luckily I had Emmy to help me “mind” the classroom and ease us all towards our destination in order to get the team the calories and sleep they needed.

Just before the checkpoint, the dogs must have heard the other teams. They perked up and all started barking– And Rebel, in the sled bag, was overcome. Let me ooooouuuuut she screamed. “Okay,” I told her. She’d been in the basked not more than 15 minutes but she was insisting she was ready. I put her back into the team. She pulled hard and barked her way into the checkpoint.

Nevertheless, I had the vets come look at her. Our own vet, Dr. Pinto, was on the vet team, and she felt Rebel up thoroughly. Rebel enjoyed the general contact, but wasn’t sure about the tummy pokes. Luckily Dr. Pinto made up for it with a lot of butt scratches.

I wanted to give Rebel the chance to digest and rest and see how she felt. I thoguht there was a good chance that I’d still dropher, but I’d rather see her eat and get to monitor her in general before she left the race.

About an hour before getting ready to leave, I walked Rebel around the camp, and she delivered a beautiful, enormous poop. The vets made fun of me for how closely I examined it, but it was an exam-worthy poop! It was a Mo level poop! That’s a big poop! Her tummy felt a lot less LORGE after that, and she was much more herself. She also was back to eating normally and happily. Dr. Pinto said it seemed like she should be good to run.

I wanted to see if Rebel would feel excited about running with the team. If so, then I’d take her with me. The next leg was only 35 miles, and carrying her through that wouldn’t be the worst thing (although it would have been tough, considering the conditions). When I started hooking up tuglines and necklines, Rebel began barking and howling like her normal self. I’d watch her close and make sure nothing larger was at play, of course.

We ended up staying longer than I originally planned at this checkpoint. After the goofery of the last run, I was feeling a lot of fear that the team might be too tired. In hindsight, I was definitely catastrophizing. That’s easy to do when you yourself are tired! When I thought about the performance of all of the dogs, their enthusiasm levels, and their general demeanors, the only “off” factor was Rebel and her tummy. My brain was turning one small thing into a Whole Thing. Whoops! To make sure everyone was good, I gave them extra time here. I watched and waited to see when they’d start moving around. While they were donuts, I let them be donuts.

A lot of teams at this point, it sounded like, had sore dogs. I was glad that our team looked really good on that front. Mungry and Annie did both have slightly sore wrists. This is probably the most common soreness. I did massage and compression wraps on both of their sore wrists, and after a few hours sleep and letting heat and compression do their work, they both looked great. Another soreness I was noticing in the entire team was in the hindquarters. Quads and groins were sore. No one was injured, but they were all feeling stiff in their back legs. I think this was in large part from negotiating the sand-snow: very different from our hard-packed trails in Two Rivers this year. I spent a lot of time with each dog doing gentle massage. I also made sure to get blankies on everyone (except Aurora, she was not into blankets!). Even a light fleece throw like what we had for the dogs helps encase warmth around each athlete, and helps prevent muscles from stiffening up. Keeping them warm and loose was key!

I was really happy that from the start the dogs were eating fantasticly. Sourdough was no exception. They scarfed down their meal, their snacks, and anything else edible I would give them (or that they could find!). At this point we’d traveled about 130 miles.

After they got their rest (and I went up to the car and took a glorious 20 minute nap myself), I walked each dog. This can help loosen them up a little, again, but it was also an important way for me to double check that no one felt too sore. The dogs were excited to sniff around the camp.

My 20 minute nap had helped me gain some perspective from my spiral-thinking. I also realized I needed to turn my own attitude around. I’d been having a slightly hard time for the first two legs of the race. I really dug my heels in mentally. I didn’t want to be cold! I didn’t want to be uncomfortable! My brain had a lot of complaints.

Just before my nap, I took a deep breath and thought about how silly the dogs are. And how well they were doing, in reality. And how proud of them I was. And, I thought about how they needed a happy coach, not a complainy coach. Even if I portrayed a happy exterior, the dogs know when you are feeling grumpy to yourself. It was time to turn that around for the team. I slept hard for 20 minutes and woke up and started saying only positive things. I thanked my awesome handlers. I told the dogs how great they were.

Part of my personal spiral was feeling like I was failing by staying longer than I planned to at the checkpoint. This was an ego check that endured through this whole race. My goal, aside from making sure those five dogs got through their first race successfully, was to strive for minimum rest. In the first checkpoint, I “failed” at this because of bad checkpoint efficiency. Here, I was electing to stay longer to let the dogs rest more– But I was also full of conviction that this was another way I was failing.

In order to find gratitude and positivity, I remembered that doing what the dogs need is not a failure. It helped a lot when Shawn told me that the vets seemed impressed with how happy the dogs looked. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was good to hear! I spent a lot of this race thinking about my identity as a musher, and how wrapped up in ego that can be for me. I struggled most of all with pride, during this race. It was definitely one of the major obstacles that I, personally, had to overcome.

Taking some steps towards being positive (even if they felt contrived) helped me move towards actual positivity, and that helped me move onward.

I finished my checks, bootied the dogs, and suited up myself. The exit for this checkpoint had tricked a few people, I guess, so I made sure to keep alert as we left. After their six hour rest, the dogs were ready to go! It was really good to see them barking and cheering to leave. That definitely helped me feel affirmed in letting them rest longer.

Will bends over to put a bootie onto the foot of a sled dog.

The next section of trail is the most technical, and very hilly. It’s a tough climb when the race goes in this direction. I knew what to expect, which was a mixed blessing. Most of the run I spent trying to recall if this was the final tough climb or not– and of course thinking it was! But every time I was wrong, of course. We climbed hills and shuttled down hills. The team was getting very good at listening to me when I told them “nice and easy” as we headed down steep chutes cut into descents by 20 previous sled brakes. Keeping a controlled pace down a hill is really important in preventing injuries. Sometimes it’s not always possible to go slow, but when you can, it’s great. I was really proud of how the team came to grasp “nice and easy.” We walked down most of the hills in the race, which is exactly what you want. And, on the other side, the dogs were just rockstars climbing the sometimes almost vertical-seeming ascents. They never hesitated. I helped them a lot, running with the sled or pedaling my foot. Unfortunately for us all, my slowest speed of walking with the sled is waaaaay too slow for the dogs, and their slow speed is just a little fast for me to walk– but once I start running they amp up to their normal speed, and it’s pretty fast for me. In short, I don’t sync perfectly running wise with the group at this moment. I can at least help them in part though, even if only for sections at a time. In the past, I have set myself up with a kind of skijor belt that I can use for hills. This makes life easier for all of us, because I can run a lot faster when I’m not leaning forward hanging onto handlebars. I will definitely have this kind of setup for Iditarod, and probably the Summit Quest, which has some notorious hill sections.

The last time I did the Copper Basin, I was majorly harried by the ups and downs. I would tell myself: “what goes up, must go down,” and I said this with dread at the time. The downhills can be brutal and scary. Going in this direction, they are not as bad. Still, I told myself the saying because it is kind of ingrained in me now when I do a hill. Even if this way is easier for downhills than the other direction, the descents are still technical and require some good driving. I was able to avoid crashes and let the team do what they do best: go onward!

On this run, I was especially impressed by both Lincoln and Zenny. Both were of the group I wanted to focus on getting through the race. After 130+ miles already, both were digging in and working hard. Lincoln especially was tackling the hills full force. She may have been one of the hardest up-hill pullers on the team. I was very proud of her!

The dogs continued to eat snacks really well along the way. For this section I had Aurora and Emmy in lead. My intention had been to start off with those two and then switch to perhaps having Annie up front. Aurora was just coming back from a while off with some soreness, and I she is a bit slower than most of the team in her normal pace. However, she solidly rocked her co-leadership on these really tough hills. She was another of the group who I wanted to make sure to get through the whole race, and she also was a big stand out!

At one point when we were in a more level section of this leg, I turned my light off to see if the northern lights were out. As I was looking up, the sled came to an abrupt halt. I turned my light on and looked at the team. I guess with the light not pointing down the trail, Emmy and Aurora had dived off course and into the deep snow of a swamp and the whole team had dutifully followed behind. What! It was a silly thing to happen. Dogs have good night vision, and tend to smell and feel where the trail is normally. I don’t know why they went so wildly off course, but it made me laugh! I called them back over to the trail and we carried on. I chuckled wondering what mushers behind me would think about the sled tracks deviating so weirdly away from the trail for a moment.

I kept thinking we were on the final major hill, which is full of 90 degree turns and super steep climbs, but my GPS mileage tracker told me we had a ways to go. When we finally got to the start of the hill, though, I knew immediately. The way the trail ping-pongs through trees is hard to forget. It’s not a big deal going up, but when you are coming down (when the race goes the opposite direction), those trees emblazon themselves on your mind… And hopefully you don’t emblazon yourself on the trees! (A point of personal pride is that I’ve never crashed in this section, going up or down. It’s not the most technical trail I’ve done but it’s up there. Now I’ve probably cursed myself for the future…)

We scrambled around trees and up the roller coaster climb. When we did the Basin in 2019, we’d gone the opposite way, and the timing worked out that we saw the top of the climb we were working on in the daylight. It’s simply stunning. You can see mountains and hills for miles. You’re just a bit above the tree line. Or, maybe you’re in stubby trees? That’s wha I kept telling myself every time we leveled off. In the dark, I couldn’t tell how far our view was, and I could see that the foliage around us was pretty diminutive. This is it! This is the top! Famous last words of course. I dug out the gatorade I’d been keeping half-thawed in my jacket when we got to the first plateau, convinced this was it and we were about to descend down to Meier’s Lake. As soon as I downed the liquid part of the drink, we were climbing again. Oops! I ran and pedaled, and told the dogs how great they were doing. They seemed to sense that the checkpoint was close. The moment we really headed *down,* we were about to be done with the run. Maybe they remembered from last time, even if we did this backwards. Maybe it was Rebel, who loves going up hills, barking at the team to go faster go faster! Whatever the reason, they were charging up each climb like pros. I was incredibly proud.

At long last, we really WERE headed down, and this time I knew it was the actual descent, because we could see the bright lights of Meier’s Lake. I “nice and easy”d the team down the drops, looking forward to settling the dogs down for another well-earned rest. I wanted to fully charge their batteries before the next run– the longest and maybe toughest run of the race. Once we got onto level ground and the dogs saw the checkpoint, they shifted into highest gear. “Straw! Straw! Straw! Straw!” I chanted to them.

A sled dog sits in straw, wearing a dog coat, under green northern lights

I was still scheming about how to make minimum rest, but it would mean cutting this particular rest shorter than I had even originally planned, and that made me nervous about our upcoming tough 70-mile leg. Regardless, I wanted to get the team resting ASAP. I went through the beginning of the checkpoint routine quickly. I was happy with how well I was able to execute checkpoint initiation throughout the race. My current routine is to give the dogs dry kibble (it front loads some calories but also makes them thirsty so they eat their meal really well– it’s something I used to do with another kennel, and stopped, but was reminded of recently, and it’s really seemed to get the dogs enthused about dinner), take off booties, and lay down straw. If straw is available close by, I might sometimes lay straw down before taking off booties, but this year especially the booties were so iced over, and so annoying to the dogs, that I made sure to get them off right away. At Meier’s I got the dogs bedded down fast. It was windy at our lake parking spot, so I tucked them under their blankets and piled straw up around each dog. I fed the dogs and left them each snacks to enjoy between napping. The team was definitely tired. They were eating well and sleeping hard.

There were several teams around me. I talked to a few mushers. Some were dealing with sore dogs. Others with young teams felt that after the sand-like snow and hard climbs they should give their teams more rest. The consensus at the back of the pack was to stay longer. That made me feel a lot better about letting my own dogs rest more. They weren’t yet perking up and looking ready to run. With a really tough leg in front of us, I wanted to bank as much rest as I felt comfortable doing. I accepted the truth that we weren’t going to make the goal of “minimum rest” this year. It was a hard pill to swallow but it was most important to me that the dogs come out of this experience feeling positive and successful. An arbitrary goal set by me wasn’t useful in the long run. The minimum rest would only be a useful tool when the dogs were ready to rest LESS, not when they needed more.

I also needed some sleep, apparently, because when I went to the vehicle to snooze, I crashed hard for longer than I meant to. The one downside of being on testosterone is that it seems to have a real affect on my ability to manage sleep deprivation. Pre-t, I could function extremely well on little to no sleep. Now, I definitely struggle, particularly to wake up. But, with the team also resting extra, the longer snooze on my part wasn’t the end of the world.

I got back to the team and started working: handing out snacks, walking dogs who had shown some soreness to see where they were at after rest, and doing more massage. The team was at the point where they basically continued sleeping while I worked on them. That’s good– they were learning to maximize their rest!

Since I wasn’t worrying about minimum time any more, I didn’t try to rush my routine. I made sure I had everything in order for our big run ahead. I made sure I felt confident about all of the dogs. I was really pleased with how everyone looked. Keeping our pace slow was, at least in part, paying off. “Nice and easy” was doing good work.

With the wind still blowing, I dressed the team up in their coats as soon as blankets came off. I got bootied and hit the trail. The team looked good leaving Meier’s. They had almost nine hours of rest, so it makes sense! Ironically, that’s almost how much rest I took in Meier’s last time we did this too. I guess it’s my “long rest” place.

Ahead of us was a 68 mile run that would take us over the “Hump,” a small summit of 4,000 feet. I had never done this run in the daylight and I was excited to see the view. The first surprise of the run was that the pipeline section– a straight and unremarkable access road alongside part of the Alaska Pipeline– had the most phenomenal view. Since I’d run that part of the race in the dark all three previous times, I considered it one of the most boring sections of the trail. Turns out it was awesome! Dawn revealed a panorama of snowy peaks, all pink and blue in the growing light. I was delighted. The dogs seemed delighted too, charging along and up more hills with studious ease. They were gaining confidence with every run.

We dropped off the pipeline trail and wound through swamps and small wooded areas. I filmed a lot in this section, just wowed by the beauty I was getting to mush through. We traded spots back and forth with Katijo Deeter from Black Spruce Kennel and her mostly-young team. Her husband Jeff had the “A” team, and based on how good Katijo’s dogs looked, I bet Jeff’s was awesome. The Black Spruce dogs had loooooong legs, and trotted in a lovely unison. The ATAO variety of sizes looked especially various as we passed! (I definitely still thought my dogs were the best, of course.)

We circled around and came to the Upper Gulkana river. Braided rivers are a classic Alaskan feature. If you haven’t seen one, they are wide beds of gravel– sometimes so wide you almost can’t see across– traced with many winding, “braided” channels of water. Depending on the precipitation and time of year, rivers like this can fill entirely up so that you can’t see any gravel, or they can dry to the point where you can walk across and hop over the small rivulets. In the winter, they become wide fields of ice and snow. If you didn’t know braided rivers you might think you were on a small plain or field– but you would notice the occasional open leads of water. On sections like this, these leads become little rivers in their own right. In previous years, I’ve been lucky to not have to negotiate too much open water on the Copper Basin. This year would change things up.

When we got onto the wide snowy flatness of the Gulkana, Katijo and her team were a ways ahead of me. The river is so big and so far across that it has its own hills and dips, and as I came over one of these, I saw Katijo ahead, doing something with her team. I knew right away that there must be a water crossing. She waved to me with both arms, to give a warning. I stopped my team and set the hooks. Aurora and Emmy were in lead. I trusted Emmy to take us across, but Aurora is a little sketchy about water. I decided to put the big guns up front, and moved Annie to co lead with Emmy.

Once Katijo was on the move, I started towards the obstacle. I could see trailer marker X’s that indicated a dangerous section. As we turned the corner of the trail, the water opened up in front of us.

Based on my very loose calculations, I think it was at least 40 feet across. Another musher put it closer to 80 feet or so. I could see the gravel at the bottom, so it didn’t look deep. In the fall, I do a lot of work with the team to get them used to water crossings, but this was the first time we’d crossed water in the winter, especially on a new trail. You could see as we came up to the edge that teams ahead of us had veered to the right. Sometimes dogs will try to go along the river to avoid going in. That creates a “trail” that following teams want to opt for instead of going through water. It can help a lot if the trail markers of the other side are in good sight, to give the dogs something to aim for. They were, but it was a pretty long shot. Emmy and Annie looked at the crossing and gave the right handed “trail” a shot, almost looking back like “Is this right? Can we do this one?” I called them “Haw” though, and like the excellent leaders they both are, they turned sharply into the water. Annie took the turn so purposefully that she leaped– and she went totally underwater.

Annie jumped out of the water like a cat in a bath, regarding it with the same exact offended look. I foolishly had left coats on the dogs, thinking the water wasn’t too deep, but seeing that was obviously not so, I realized I needed to re-calibrate. I had the dogs line out along the water, and began taking coats off. Emmy, who lines out like it’s her calling in life, surprised me by shuffling over to some deeper snow as I was disrobing the dogs. Rolling in snow helps to dry the dogs off, and she wanted to lick her wet legs. She also started cleaning Annie like a puppy, which was adorable. But, them not staying tight meant the whole team got into a goofy tangle. I untangled them, walked into the water, and and then called Emmy and Annie to me. They looked at me and almost literally shook their heads. “Nuh uh, Dad, we tried that, it was scary!” “It’s okay!” I assured them. They took a tentative start towards the water but balked… And the team, with lines loosened up, tangled again. “Oh my goodness,” I told them. I knew it was key in this moment to stay super positive and make this a successful experience, even if we didn’t get it right on the first shot.

I needed to show them each that water wasn’t too scary. I looked around to make sure no one was within sight, and then I unhooked the first dog who volunteered. in this case it was Rogue (not because she volunteered but because she needed to be untangled most). I unclipped her neckline and tugline, and then walking her by the back of the harness line, like we do to bring them to hook up, we went across the river together. Initially she hid behind my leg, but as soon as she realized that the water was relatively shallow and that we weren’t going to die, she started prancing like a show pony. I brought her almost to the opposite edge and then let her go. She jumped out of the water on her own. Because there were no trees, rocks, or any other features at all, I couldn’t tie the dogs down. I had to trust our freeplay work to make sure they’d stick around. I walked back to the team, leaving Rogue alone on the far shore, looking very concerned to be so parted from her pack. I took Annie next. She, too, was able to cross with hops and bounds once we made it in together. Next I brought Link, who had no trouble at all. One by one, I brought about half of the dogs over. With each dog I brought, the team with the sled looked more and more curious and also eager to rejoin their group. At one point I looked up to the far shore where the free dogs were, and realized Link was AWOL. “Shoot,” I thought. “She followed Katijo down the trail!” But then I head a noise and turned to my left, where Link was running back and forth through the river with pure joy. It made me laugh out loud. Another loose friend who soon followed Link’s lead was Mungry. I guess if you have long legs a little water doesn’t mean much!

Meanwhile, I’d crossed the lead at this point over a dozen times, and my boots, which can handle a small amount of water, were beginning to fill up. Luckily it was warm out, but I knew it would be an uncomfortable day.

When there were only five dogs left connected to the sled, I gathered the line over my shoulder and began pulling the sled / walking the dogs across. Just like with the other dogs, I talked to the small group and encouraged them as we went. Just like the other dogs, they realized that the water was okay and they were gonna make it. The runners of the sled scraped against the rocks on the bottom. At one point we hit a bump, and it seemed like the sled was going to tip. Much of my stuff is in water proof bags, but my parka was fastened on top, and getting that wet would make the rest of the race pretty uncomfortable. I dove towards the sled to catch it, and instead slipped on the icy gravel and fell onto my knees. Well, so much for keeping dry. Nothing to do about that though, and at least the sled didn’t tip (no thanks to me). We got to the other side, and I lined out the team. The dogs were wet but also excited to be back together… Except Belle, who had followed Link back to the first shore and then got stuck there. I called to her as I hooked up the team and praised the dogs. She had to talk herself into it, but she finally made it back across and joined her teammates. In not much time at all, we were re-connected and ready to go. I took a quick picture of the water and we went onward again.

a dog sled sits near open water

We made it to the other side of the braided river and immediately began to climb. We could see our goal– the Hump– up ahead of us. The climb going this way is much faster and steeper. We only had a few more miles to reach the top. But, we had 50 more miles to the next checkpoint. The dogs’ booties would shed the ice on them, and so would their fur. My silly human boots were just going to carry around the water inside til we got to where we were going. I could already feel my toes raisoning up.

Lucky for me, the view as we climbed was a great distraction from uncomfortable feet. Mountains spread in every direction. The sun backlit the team as they climbed. I kept filming as we went. After the steep climbs to Meier’s Lake, the ascent here seemed easy. I peddled and ran here and there, but hte dogs didnt’ really need me. They were getting stronger as we went!

The view at the top was just stunning. I had to stop and take it in. The dogs looked around too, but dogs aren’t much for scenery, so soon they started barking and yowling again. LET’S GO! Okay, okay!

We began the long descent towards Chistochina.

The rest of the run was beautiful as well, but mostly unremarkable. The dogs were in a good rhythm now. We went up and down more hills, but nothing like what we’d already done. They seemed to finally know that we were heading to another resting spot. I had brought straw to camp, but I wanted to push on if we could. The dogs never gave me a sign that they needed anything else– Except about 20 miles from the checkpoint, when Rebel began to lag again. I had been watching her bathroom activities carefully, and it had been a while since she’d pooped, again. I felt her tummy, and it was full. I loaded her up onto the sled for a ride. Giving her a rest on the second run of the race had seemed to help a lot. Maybe if she could relax for a bit, her stomach would feel good enough to get us into the checkpoint. However, Rebel was not interested in relaxing. Instead, she spent the next hour barking at the top of her lungs and giving me stink eye. I tired once to put her back in the team, but she clearly didn’t feel good still. But she also didn’t care how she felt, she wanted to RUN. After letting her ride (and bark!) for an hour, I put her back into the team but kept her tugline unhooked. She could run along but didn’t have to pull. This compromise seemed to work for her. I later wondered if the sides of the harness pressed into her full, full belly when she pulled. The compromise of letting her run but not letting her pull seemed to do the trick.

It was getting dark by the end of the run, and the temperature was dropping. My on-sled thermometer read below zero when we parked, and my water-logged feet told me the same. After standing in water for hours (it was about 8 hours of wet feet I think??), and after Rebel being “off” again, my mental state was shot. Despite the actual facts (that the dogs had slayed and that everyone was looking great), my sleep deprived mind came to the conclusion that the team was falling apart, I was a failure, and I should probably give up mushing forever. Some part of me recognized that I was catastrophizing again, and that I should probably eat and sleep. After I got the team settled, fed, massaged, and checked (and after I had the vets look at Rebel again)(they prodded her belly and she delivered an astounding poop), I went to the car, took off my boots, and ate some food. Then I passed out for an hour. When I woke up, I felt much more reasonable, but still worried. Could the dogs do it? If the dogs couldn’t complete this final run, what did that mean about our ability to do Iditarod?? Everything still seemed very high stakes to me. I put on dry socks and my replacement boots that I had wisely sent in a dropbag for this checkpoint.

It was like the world turned into a musical. It was like walking on clouds. I immediately felt a million percent better about life. I realized that only rebel was having an issue, and that once she was able to rest up with the handlers (I was dropping her), the rest of the team would be set to jet. Having to stop and start a lot for her had slowed down the general momentum, which was part of what had me so anxious. But I reminded myself that that was one dog, and outside of that situation, the team had been doing awesome moving forward.

I got my stuff together, chit chatted with the dogs, and finalized dropping Rebel. Since no one can pet racing dogs, Sm and Shawn were elated to get to finally pet Rebel. They cuddled with her and hugged her. She didn’t mind the attention! It’s likely that she would be okay for this final run, but I didn’t want to affect momentum more by carrying and not carrying her, and most of all, iI didn’t want to possibly acerbate an underlying issue.

Sam cuddles with Rebel

Only one more run to go! After just five hours, the dogs were more tired here than they had been at any checkpoint. They were like teens who just wanted “five more minutes.” This was an important milestone for them and for me. Knowing that they would be good once they got up and got moving, and helping them know that. Knowing the right amount of rest for the team. Once the dogs saw me getting to my sled, they started picking up the cues. Because they had been resting hard, I would take the first mile or so really really easy to let them warm up. They were happy to move slowly and to POOP! To instill some happy feelings in us all, i praised the dogs OVER THE TOP every time they pooped. I started calling it a pooping party. If Zenny pooped I’d start calling out, “Whooooooeeee! What a pooper! Zenny pooped! Great job Zenny! Wooooooooo hoo!!!” You may already know that the team tends to poop a lot right after they leave a checkpoint and get moving. So there was a lot of whooping and hollering for that first mile. I continued excessively cheering every time someone pooped for the whole rest of the run. You could feel the dogs’ communal pride and joy at their accomplishments thrumming through the line. After every poop they’d all proudly pick up their pace, heads held high. “I POOPED,” the celebrated canine seemed to say.

It was late Monday when we took off on the final run. Through some math I don’t quite understand, we would be finishing later than we had for our previous Basin, even though we took significantly less rest. I tried not to let this chafe. I had cockily predicted we’d finish Monday, but that’s what I get I guess!

With Rebel happily with Shawn and Sam (filling the car with farts, it turns out), the team was able to slip into a fantastic rhythm. This run was one of our most steady, with stops only for snacks. Everyone looked super. Annie and Emmy were still in lead. I had considered moving someone else up front, but they were both doing running hard and joyfully, and I thought they deserved the honor of the finish line.

I was pretty tired by this point. Hallucinations crept in, to a level I hadn’t yet experienced. I began to try to interact with what I thought I saw. The weirdest moment was when I became convinced that my sled was a treadmill. I was driving with one hand on the handle bar, and I lifted that hand away to push some of the “buttons” on the treadmill. Luckily my balance was steady because I had no hands on the wheels at that moment and was interacting with nothing. At other times my hallucinations became physical. Occasionally I couldn’t tell what my handlebar WAS. It felt like I was holding onto something ephemeral. Or that my hands were not hands. Luckily, again, none of this translated into me falling off the sled.

The only thing that did a very good job of keeping me awake was to sing to the dogs. I blasted my headphones and tried to sing along. Sorry, dogs! They either liked it, or were trying to escape my torturous vocals. As we kept going, singing couldn’t even keep the hallucinations at bay.

My brain began manufacturing “signs” like it did on my last Copper Basin. Road signs, store signs, house signs. This year the signs were much harder to resolve into what they actually were– brambles of trees. I’d squint and blink at a large white sign with black lettering, knowing it couldn’t be real, but unable to see what it really was.By the time we got to town, I couldn’t quite trust whether or not the signs I saw pointing towards the end were real.

The dogs knew, though, and when they saw the lights of the “Buh,” a gas station next to our finishing spot, they sped up. Not only was there straw ahead, there was a big full meal and cozy dog boxes to snooze in. I sang and cheered them on. This was a very different finish from our first ATAO Copper Basin. The dogs all looked really good, ready for more after a snooze. Annie was there at the helm, but she had Emmy by her side, and together they passed steadfast momentum to the team. I was so proud of the whole group. I hugged the leaders and got a few pictues with them. They were their shy reserved selves, but I think they knew that I was sure proud of them.

Will kneels next to his lead dogs Emmy and Annie

Since there was no banquet, we headed home as soon as the team was packed up. It was early Tuesday morning. With not much sleep between any of us, we took a break partway there to nap on the side of the road, and made it to ATAO around 2. We let the dogs out to free play, stretch their legs, and enjoy their good work. They were ready for more napping. First, we served them up yet another good meal, which they gobbled down. Then they tucked themselves into their houses and settled in for a deserved sleep. By the day after we got back, the whole team looked ready to go again. They had confidence and pride under their belts now. I can’t wait to see how this will affect the next races down the line. It’s amazing to watch them grow over the course of only a few days.

One thing I realized during this race was that, with the exception of ATAO’s own first Copper Basin and my very first race in 2001 (the Jr. Iditarod), I’d never run a “puppy” team. A “puppy” team doesn’t necessarily mean young dogs. It mostly means inexperienced dogs. Even though this team has some experienced teammates (like Emmy and Annie), most of the dogs are newbs to racing. The 3 year olds got to run the Copper Basin in 2019, but we ran it very slow and easy, and regardless, one race does not a full-fledged veteran make. So I guess I really realized two things: even though the team is mostly 3ish, they are really still a “puppy” team experience-wise. And, I am not sued to running “puppy” teams! I have mainly raced with veteran racers. Veteran racers have a lot of confidence and know the routine of a race. My “puppies” are still learning. A big part of their learning experience and confidence building has to do with rest and tiredness.

Running 300 miles (or more!) will getcha tired. Veteran dogs, though, know the routine of a race, and once they get a couple hours rest, they start to get amped up again and want to carry on with the next part of the pattern. My group definitely got amped up, but they also weren’t as confident in dealing with their tiredness… And I wasn’t as confident in when they would be ready to go! As long as they were snoozing, I let them snooze. Based on how excited they got and how well they continued to do on the runs, I could have woken them up earlier and they probably would have been good to go. There’s a bit of a balance at play! If I wanted to achieve my minimum rest goal, I would have had to wake them up earlier. And it is good to practice some shorter rests. It’s a chicken-or-egg thing. If you get up and go earlier, it can teach the dogs that they can get up and go earlier! Or, once they build their own confidence, they may themselves start getting up earlier. This season will be instructive to see how that changes over the next races we do. It’s a huge part of why we are doing mid distance races before Iditarod. Our original plan was to do what we’re doing this year with mid distance races, last year. Of course that got a bit sidelined by our wildlife encounter. So, we don’t have that experience under our collective belts. That means the dogs don’t quite yet have that confidence to be fully ready to rock and roll after just a few hours– and I, not experienced with younger teams, don’t know the very best place to encourage them vs letting them take extra rest. It’s a bit like how when I was younger I thought more stops on the trail was good, but later learned how much that stymies momentum. Things that seem good to humans aren’t always the best for the team.

Overall, I think I was able to find a decent balance, even if I didn’t think so during the race itself. I was able to see that I had to dial back my goals a little, and let that be okay. That will definitely affect my race plans going forward, but it’s good to see where you are and practice going onward from there.

I was also proud of my vet care. I gave a lot of time and attention to each dog and was able to get them through the race with massage and other work. Not only did they all make it (sans tummy-ache-Rebel), but they looked fantastic by the day after the race. That’s great on a few levels, not least of which is that it means we gained miles without putting anyone on the bench.

Huge thank you’s to some of the (many) folks who made the Basin a possibility this year. First and foremost, thank you to Shawn, who supports me through this whole wild journey, and also did their first gig as a handler! They rocked it. Thank you to Sam who is definitely an ATAO pillar by now. Thank you to the ATAO Away Crew for making live awesome updates a thing- especially thank you to Samson and Lisa for the immense amount of work they have both done. Thanks to Sarah for watching over the house, and to Padee for watching over us (and checking in on the house too!). Thank you to my parents who continue to cheer me on and continually “sponsor” their grandpuppies. Thanks to Julie and Tim Goggins who give in spades, and whose Christmas present is my new favorite base layer. Thanks to the dog sponsors, who I know are wildly cheering on their athlete (or couch potato). Thank you to the Buddy Brigade, who truly make ATAO a possibility. And finally, thank you to you for reading through this long winded update, for cheering us on, and for being ready for more. We can feel the love and care for our team across the world. It’s amazing.

There’s a lot of work to do going forward! In only a few weeks, Sam will run the Willow 300. This will be her first big race, and will be good practice for both her and the dogs. She’ll take it fairly easy, camping during the longest runs, and resting plenty. The week after that is the Summit Quest for me and the team… And then just days later is the Iditarod.

We have some work to do to be ready for Iditarod. The racing and running part is kind of a rolling stone now. We keep doing what we’re doing on that front and the dogs will be in a great position. But, we have to do a lot of logistical work in the meanwhile. One huge hurdle is drop bags. That’s the bags you fill with supplies and then mail out to checkpoints along the Iditarod route. We have meat, kibble, and other supplies to purchase. We have things to cut, sort, and bag. And we’ll then mail the drop bags themselves, at a cost of $1500+. Once the bags are in the bag, the stone rolls and we go onward or get rolled over. But now, this is the big push to get us to the starting line.

If you’re in a position to do so, and would like to pitch in towards this final push, you can do so hbelow. Meanhile, thank you for following, reading, and loving the journey and especially the dogs. We couldn’t do any of this without you– Thank you.

“The woods are lovely,

dark and deep,

but I have promises to keep,

and miles to go before I sleep,

and miles to go before I sleep”

Robert Frost

You know what we like to say.

Onward.

ATAO 2020/2021 Iditarod Prep

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Follow Will Troshynski:
Will loves dog mushing, boxing, writing, and hiking. He spends his off time reading as much as possible and going to the movies.
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