You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.
I’m a scaredy cat. No really. I don’t really enjoy roller coasters and I don’t like going fast in a car. Unless I’m driving. I have always had, since I was a young child, a very acute awareness of the big picture and can often see the worst case scenario before I’ll try something.
But at the same time – I’ll try it anyway. When we moved here (to Alaska), I was scared. I’m not going to lie or gloss it over. It has always been my dream to move here but I was very fearful of things I had heard about – or read about or saw on “Wild Alaska Frontiers” or National Geographic Explorer.
I used to tell people I was going to move here and they would say, “but what about the bears?” Or “what about the aggressive moose?”
Having read more mushing and adventure stories than I care to count, I’ve heard all of the stories too. I know all about Susan Butcher’s encounter on the 1985 Iditarod. I know all about the musher in Fairbanks who had his team practically obliterated by a grizzly. I was very aware that the Kenai Peninsula, where we found our homestead, has a high concentration of both bears and moose. And, I was afraid.
I also was afraid of doing steep downhills on a dog team, icy trails, bare ground trails – really anything “unsafe.” OK – maybe not afraid. Maybe woefully apprehensive is a better term.
This winter has been a winter all about facing fears.
There is something about standing on the back of a dogsled, dogs yanking and pulling to go, and facing a 50 or 100 foot drop-off in front of you, knowing that the only way to go is to go down. My stomach churns at the thought. Feeling the brake clatter on ice under your boot, your leg vibrating completely and your grip deathly tight as you watch the dogs take off in front of you. While I have trained my dogs to go, “easy down,” and they do – sometimes it’s difficult. Especially on an icy trail when the sled must feel like nothing behind them…
While I wish this season could have been about racing (this is the second racing season I’ve missed out on in a row!), it was definitely about something more important. And still is. The trails in this area were badly decimated by rain and then freezing temperatures in January. This weather cancelled the only race I was entered in. The trails were bad. Very bad. Glare ice is always icky, but the trails here run in a systemic up and down pattern. The Caribou Hills (where we live) are really hilly! You really do look straight down and then head straight back up – with your handlebar over your head in some cases. Doing this trail on glare ice is not good for dogs, so I was not surprised the race was cancelled. It really did look like a Zamboni had gone over our trails.
Fortunately, we have a bit of trail out our backdoor (it’s a secret trail – that’s all I’m saying). Because it had never been groomed, there was still snow – snow! – on it – and about a foot of base. Unfortunately, it’s not very long…so we have to do it 3 or 4 times to get any significant mileage.
It snowed last week. Just a little. A few inches. But it covered all of the ice and then over the weekend there was a charity ride in the Hills and they packed a bunch of the snow down over the ice. They also revealed a lot of bare ground. But, if we want to learn how to be real Iditarod mushers, we need to learn how to cope with such conditions! So, today, we didn’t take the safe route. I did hitch up a smaller team. We went ahead and tried out the “bad” trail. And it wasn’t so bad. It was fast. And fun. And I’m glad I have a drag mat (a piece of snowmachine track that drags between my runners to step on and create “drag”) as my regular metal brake certainly would not work.
But Iditarod mushers – real mushers – don’t always get perfect amounts of snow and groomed trails. So while we spent a lot of time this season breaking trail through deep snow, we didn’t have a lot of experience with the flip side.
The Iditarod through the years has often looked like this:
They don’t call it an adventure race because it’s supposed to be easy.
And truthfully, until you do it, I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared. With the conditions expected along the Iditarod this year, I’m glad it’s not my rookie year.
But this was my rookie Alaskan year, races or not, and I think considering how many preconceived notions I had and fears, we’ve come out on top. The dogs and I have not had more than two or three runs in “ideal” conditions, but we’ve had lots and lots of runs and I know each one of those has made us a better team. The experience I gained this year both in patience (I really, really, really wanted to race) and in tackling fears gives me confidence for next season. In a way, I feel like me and my young dogs got an extra fall training season, which I hope only benefits us later on.
So – for now – we are training (if we don’t get more rain this week) – for our own Hogan’s Heroes Fun Run – (hopefully) a run from here to Clam Gulch and back at the end of March. Maybe we’ll race Liam on his snowmachine!
We are also working on building as a team and including some of our pups in the mix…and getting to our first Alaskan races next winter – the Copper Basin 300, the Northern Lights 300 and maybe the Yukon Quest 300. And Liam is preparing for Junior Iditarod. Lots of great mushing left this season – and lots more to look forward to! Ready or not, here I come…