Over the last twelve days, I’ve been panic-building a sled. Why now? You may ask. Well, better now than never!
The sled I’ve been driving for the past four years and literal thousands of miles is at the end of its long lifespan. It was built by Devan Currier, husband of one of the mushers I handled for along my handling journey. It came to me well used and well worn already. It was built tall and square. I did a lot of work on that sled. I took the handlebars down to a Will-height and made them round. I had to replace the bed, which was basically a whole-sled teardown. I added stanchions to improve overall structure.
The whole time, I knew my sled was in its old age. The main stanchions were slowly cracking. The plastic that forms the bowsprint and the brake support were showing wear. The runners themselves, thin aluminum with a non-infinite lifespan, had seen a lot of trail. I knew I could not bank on this sled getting me across 800+ miles of Alaska.
Building a sled can be more cost effective than buying one, but it is still expensive! When I had the funds in place to purchase parts, something or other was always coming up. Vet costs would spring up, or Todd would need another repair. I kept putting off the build.
ATAO all-star friend Heather made it possible for me to build the sled of my dreams! I was finally able to order runners in January. It took quite a while for the runners to get up here! With Covid and The World, mail has gotten quite wild. I was able to work with Prairie Bilt Sleds to get the parts to me at long last. I had already gathered some pieces— Devan and Judy bequeathed a lot of great sled hardware upon me when they moved from Alaska. I also purchased new brakes and a new drag. I decided I’d build my bowsprint from scratch, modeled after the one on the Devan sled. My gameplan, in fact, was to make a 1:1 copy of my good and trusty sled. It would give me something to work off of, and be a great learning experience along the way.
By the time my runners got to Alaska, I had no possible bandwidth to start building. I was right in the midst of hectic drop bag packing, one of the most important elements of Iditarod. There was no space to build a sled, much less time!
The moment dropbags were off, I dove into building. I knew the build would not be quick, but I also knew the clock was ticking. I spent countless hours cutting, sanding, bolting, and most of all, measuring. So much measuring! I am not good at measuring. Measuring + ADHD are not a great mix in my brain. I get very impatient and want to declare things “Good enough!” But I knew that “Good enough” would not be good enough in this case. Even the smallest mis-measurements would equate to a poorly steering transport, or one that wouldn’t hold together over 800 miles. I had to go carefully.
When I wasn’t meticulously squaring, over and over, I was going to the hardware store. No matter how many bolts I bought, I always ended up needing a different size or type. My bolt collection by this point ought to support a few sleds… But of course I’ll still be running to the hardware store every day on my next build too, I’m sure.
Meanwhile, Sam was working hard to keep the dogs in shape and happy. We did EKG’s, vet checks, and many other final steps in this time. As days and then over a week passed, my anxiety to get this sled on the trail grew more and more. I needed to test it BEFORE March 7th!
At long last, yesterday morning I put the final touches on the sled (to the point where it was ready to test), hooked 14 dogs to it, and said “All right!” The team and I hit the trail— and it was amazing.
But this story isn’t actually about my sled.
This story is about five minutes after I left.
The ATAO yard is fully fenced. This is mostly because of all of our moose-adventures, but it is also good to help keep wandering doggos near home.
However, when we take off on a run, we leave gates open to exit and enter the yard.
A few minutes after I departed, Shawn let Mo and Oli out to go to the bathroom. Huck was also out but attached to a dog run, because sometimes he is not interested in coming inside when asked. Mo and Oli, though, are great at coming right back, especially when their favorite person Shawn calls.
Unfortunately, it seems there may have been a moose who appeared on the trail shortly after I departed, and just before Mo and Oli went outside.
I was mushing along, cautiously testing out my brake and drag, and watching the team. The team was very amped up! They had had some slower days between their various checks and my delay in sled building, and they were ready to GO. And go they did! My run plan was to do a short loop and then pass back by home. That way, if things were falling apart, I could swing right back into the yard. I had just turned around on the loop and was heading back towards home when I got a call.
One of the worst sounds you can hear is your spouse desperately crying on the other end of the line. “Have you seen my dogs???” Shawn asked in utter dismay.
“No… Did they leave the yard?”
Shawn, breathing heavily, said that they had left the yard and gone down our outbound trail. While they were on the phone with me, they reached the intersection to the Yukon Quest trail. We always turn left at this intersection— that’s the way I had gone. Shawn cursed. It was clear to see in the fresh snow that the dynamic duo Mo and Oli had turned right.
Mo, particularly, has never gone this far away from home. Our theory later is that the boys chased a moose and then kept going. For whatever reason, it was obvious that they had embarked upon an Adventure and that they were probably going on as we spoke.
We were lucky. We had two good things going for us. One, I was heading back and would easily be able to meet up with where they had turned, and followed their tracks down the trail with the team. Two, it has been snowing like the dickens, and the tracks of the two of them were as clear as day on the untrampled trail in the direction they’d gone.
Shawn was understandably distraught. They said, “I can’t keep going like this!” They had power walked down a snowy trail for almost a mile in jeans and a jacket. It was around 0 and Shawn has some of the worst circulation of any human I’ve met.
“You head home,” I told them. “I’ll follow their tracks. We’ll find them!” We made a plan that Shawn would contact neighbors and get the car going to head down a road / trail they might end up on, if we were lucky.
While Shawn was calling all of our neighbors and friends, my team and I plowed on with intention. The dogs were settled into their thousand mile pace. Two loose non-sled dogs couldn’t beat that forever, especially not a 190lb mastiff.
We crossed the turn towards home and I could see Oli and Mo’s clear tracks going up the untraveled part of the Yukon Quest trail. I called the dogs Haw to follow their route. The trail was broken in but hadn’t been used in the past inch or so of snow. It was the ideal time to follow two adventurous goobers.
As we wound our way through the swamps and woods, I could see the Disney-style animal-duo-adventure the two were having. Here big Mo tracks traipsed to investigate a log. Here someone went under a sheltering tree for a while. Mostly the two stuck to the trail, which was good. One thing I worried about was traps alongside the trail. Luckily we didn’t have to deal with that particular horror yesterday.
Every corner I rounded I was more impressed with how far the two ding-dongs had gone. They had neither ever gone on such a walk, but they seemed to be on a mission together. There was lots of peeing along the way, and one fresh Oli poop. I knew they couldn’t be far, because the tracks were really clear and sharp, even as snow continued to pour down around us.
I talked to Shawn and kept them updated about the tracks. Mentally I checked off the miles from home. One mile. Two miles. Three. Four. What a journey! Mo must be tired. Every so often I’d stop the team and walk ahead of them to confirm what I was looking at. I occasionally became convinced I was just following Oli, because the tracks were very neat and narrow— But when I’d go up to look, you could see unmistakeable giant Mo-prints along the way.
I came to an area where we’d lose service. I told Shawn I’d touch base when I got a signal again, and kept following the trail.
The tracks finally left unmarked trail and joined up with a section that had been recently used by a sled or sleds. I’d have to watch carefully. I could see some places where Oli tracks veered off the trampled trail to sniff or pee. I would follow this trail until I saw their tracks go fully elsewhere.
We came to an intersection. To the right was the sled tracks, heading up Jenny M Hill. To the left was a trail that was covered with recent snow again. There were no tracks taking the left hand turn, but I decided to stop and make sure. I put my hooks in and walked up to the Y. Once I got closer, I could see a story: the two had started going up the hill, and then Oli had crossed to the snow-covered trail, and then Mo had followed him at a fast pace (to catch up I assume). The tracks started a bit further up the snow covered trail but it was definitely Thing 1 and Thing 2. I didn’t know why they went that way— maybe the barking of my team every time we stopped was alarming them— but I was glad they did so that I could easily follow their journey.
The trail this way happens to be the trail where the team ran into a porcupine last fall. Don’t worry, no pokey-ness involved in this story! But, from that experience, I was well acquainted with the non-amount of service I had available. So, unfortunately, I couldn’t update Shawn that I was still hot on in pursuit. I knew they would be worrying quite a bit.
We started up a little hill, and the dogs all perked their ears forward. They had done this a few times on our tracking endeavor, and each time I’d called out “Mo, Oli!” hoping the team was spying our friends.
This time, at the top of the hill appeared a large tan block, ears-a-perk. “There you are,” I said to Mr. Mo. He crested the hill, looking suspiciously at the team. Behind him skulked Oli, even more suspicious. “Hi boys!” I said. When they heard my voice they started wiggling and wagging. “Look what we did! Also where are we???” The team barked but continued forward because sled dogs have very singular focus when they are running. Mo started bouncing (which is somewhat terrifying). When Belle and Rey (the leaders) reached him, he bounced up and down and ran and also tried to sniff / gum them with excitement. Despite the extreme inconvenience of 190lbs of goober trying very hard to play, Belle and Rey sallied forward like pros (albeit confused pros). I got to the point where I could stop the team and put the hooks in. Oli ran up and down the line, overcome. Mo got a bit over-stimulated and tried to wrestle with poor Sundance (she’s fine, ya know, just someone 5x your weight trying to “play”). I brought Mo back by the sled and connected Oli to a spot on the gangline. I’d hold Mo’s “leash” so he could run behind me. All set! Only 4.5 miles to home! But, we needed to turn around. We couldn’t turn the team in place (we COULD but it’s very bad to teach the dogs that, and it would also be a real hot mess with Oli and Mo involved). We had to go to the turnaround (the same one of Porcugate!) and make the loop to head back home. The downside is that this would add a good mile to our trip. I hoped Mo could do it. He’d made it this far!
I didn’t want to put Mo into my sled because he weighs, as mentioned a few times, quite a lot, and I had zero confidence my sled could handle that weight concentrated in one animal. I would *never* put that size of a creature in the racing sled I’d built. Many other sleds could handle it with ease— Touring sleds are designed to hold three people at once in the basket! But my sled was made to be light and agile, not a Mo holder. So, we’d try to run / walk it.
Mo did great the first mile. He was VERY excited to run with the team.
But while the Alaskan Huskies were efficiently trotting along, Mo was running in a full out lope, like a lion across the serengetti. A lope, though, takes a lot of energy, especially if you are a Mo sized dog. Soon he had to slow his lope down— but he didn’t know how to go into a distance style trot. That pace often has to be learned.
By a half mile, we were taking breaks every few hundred feet. The sled dogs were confused and barked with annoyance. Let’s GOOOO already!
Every time we’d stop, poor Mo would slam into the back of my knees. I’m not sure whether he just couldn’t halt his momentum, or if his skills of observation were just classically lacking.
After 3/4 of a mile, I decided to try to let him run loose. I figured he could make his own pace and not have to try to match the team (who I was slowing down to a crawl by this point, but who were still too fast for him). I let him loose and he followed behind, but fell back more and more, until we went around one corner and he was gone. I stopped the team again and waited for him to catch up. He came lumbering up and on we went. But soon it was clear this was going to take forever— and we were also coming up on the trail where more traffic had gone, and I didn’t want him running into another team and deciding to “wrestle” strange dogs. I reconnected his “leash” and we carried on, going now literally 2 mph (I looked) and stopping every few hundred feet. Finally as we were about 4 miles from home, Mo sat fully down. The team came to an abrupt halt. Uh oh. Mo flopped into the snow breathing hard. Okay, this just wasn’t going to work. He really wanted to go but he just couldn’t.
I looked at my brand new sled, with so much time and love poured into it. “Well, what’s the worst that can happen?” I asked myself. “I’ll have to rebuild it again. Mo is more important than a sled.”
So with that I got to work.
This year I designed a sled bag that can operate to quickly make space for a dog to load. I designed it for 40lb dogs, NOT 190lb dogs, but I’d have to make it work. I flipped the mid section of the sled out and fastened it down. Some adjustments I made allowed me to tighten the bag down a bit for stability. Next, I convinced Mo to get up and amble over to the sled. I led him alongside it. I looked at the space for a dog, and I looked at him. They were NOT the same size. Okay… Butts first I guess? I wrapped my arms around his hind end and lifted his feet into the dog-holding section. He accepted this change. I told him to sit. He wasn’t so sure. I pushed his butt down into the sled and he sat, clearly super tired. Next I had to get his front end in. I lifted his chest (this is where all of the weight was— OOF), up and across the front of the sled. His butt slid down so that his lower half was all tucked in and he was sitting with his front paws resting in front of him. He could rest his head on the gear tied down before him.
Even though he was tired, he was not convinced about staying in the sled. I had to wrestle some “seat belts” around him to keep him in place. When I finally felt things were secure and Mo had accepted this configuration, I called the dogs to go. They leapt down the trail, immediately going worlds faster than when we were trying to stay at Mo pace.
To my disbelief— and relief- my sled was not collapsing! It was not shedding bolts! It didn’t even look like it was straining. In fact, with Mo strapped in, the sled was driving amazingly well. We glided around corners. The team was psyched to be running at last, whatever the weight load.
I checked my phone obsessively. Did I have service yet? It had been a while, and I knew Shawn was in full dismay.
Finally, a single bar of service cropped up. I called. Shawn, sobbing, said hi— I said, “I have them!” I knew I wouldn’t have service long, so I added quick, “Meet me at the peony fields!” That’s the next place the trail would cross where a car could go, and where I could hand Mo and Oli off.
The trail was snowy and the run was slow, but soon enough we were turning a corner, to see Shawn and a neighbor waiting. We trotted up, me wrestling Mo to stay put (he had decided right at the end of a well-behaved 4 miles to try to bail), and Oli barking excitedly in the team. Mo and Oli were loaded into the car and headed home. I looked over my sled. Not a dent or a bend. It was solid. I was shocked and proud of myself. The team looked back at me and seemed to say, “Well, that looks good, so can we run now?” Okay, team, I told them. Let’s do it. We said good bye to our temporary passengers and headed out on a “real” run.
The team did great with yet another strange adventure. The new sled held up. The sled bag I’d made up worked exactly as I’d hoped. Even though I’d never in a million years intentionally put a mastiff in a new racing sled to try it out, this was a perfect test of my systems. With a boost of confidence and adrenaline, we carried on down the trail, thinking about the other 800 miles coming up.
Meanwhile, Mo and Oli probably won’t make the Iditarod team this year. After their 10 mile adventure, they’re pretty pooped. In fact, I can hear Mo snoring right now— dreaming of other trails to explore and sleds to ride.
Onward, boys! Just not for a bit, please.