Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quest complete — Peninsula mushers face trials of the trail

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Jason Mackey faced a perfect storm in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race starting Feb. 14, although weather was one of the few things that didn’t go wrong for him.

“It was just a chain reaction of crazy events that I’ve never seen in training,” Mackey said. “The trail was as good as it’s ever been, it was like a superhighway the whole way. But overall I had many, many issues, right from the beginning.”

Coming out of Braeburn, the first checkpoint, his 14-dog team started getting sick with vomiting and diarrhea. He dropped one dog in Carmacks and another in Pelly, but just two hours after leaving Pelly on a 200-mile run to Scroggie, he already had one sick dog and another injured one in the sled, along with hundreds of pounds of food and gear.

“I worked my butt off. Man, I never worked so hard in my life,” Mackey said.
Those two were dropped in Scroggie, and another in Dawson, leaving Mackey’s team at nine dogs, with still over half of the 1,000-mile race to go.

“It wasn’t through the whole team at one time, just here and there throughout the team, so it was pretty disheartening,” Mackey said of the illness. “I had full faith in those dogs. I thought that I had everybody weeded out.”

A new form of disaster stuck as he was leaving Dawson — three of his females went into heat.

“By the end of 850 miles I had dealt with a little bit of everything. It got to the point where they wanted to give up, they wanted to breed and fight amongst each other, but I didn’t want to give up,” Mackey said. “We’ll walk over the (Eagle) Summit together, even if I had to take them over one at a time. I didn’t care, but they had something else in mind.”

Mackey has always told his family that if they get a call from him during a 1,000-mile race, something’s wrong.

“I called three times in that race,” he said.

One call was to his brother, Lance Mackey, who has won the Quest four times and also won the last two Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races.

“He’d been there before and he knew what I was going through. ‘You need to do what you need to do. Either they’ll go down the trail or they won’t,’” he said.
Mackey scratched in Central the morning of Feb. 25.

“After day 11 or day 12 of dealing with those situations a guy gets pretty burned out. As bad as I want to get to the finish line, it’s kind of one of those things where s--- happens and everybody’s been through it. My brothers, my dad, the best mushers in the world,” Mackey said. “I felt like I let everybody down, including myself and the dogs. They didn’t learn anything by turning around and getting in the truck, except they think they can do that now.”

To say Mackey is disappointed is an understatement; especially considering the investment of time, money and effort it took to get him to the start line. But he sees a silver lining. For one, he learned more about his dogs, including one of his leaders, Banger.

“She was absolutely incredible the whole way. She’s 48 pounds and she’s pulling 400 pounds of gear down the trail basically by herself. Everybody else is screwing around and she’s all business and she didn’t ever want to quit,” Mackey said.

Brutal though the lessons may have been, Mackey said the Quest was a learning experience for him and he’s shooting to reapply his knowledge within the next three years.

“I was bummed but I think it made me a better musher in the long run. How do I fix the things I saw fall apart in front of me? And I do have answers for that now, so my goal is to be back in the Quest with a whole different outlook on the race,” Mackey said. “I also have unfinished business there in the Quest. That’s what I have in mind — to race and win. That might sound confident from a guy who just scratched, but I’m not going there to come in second place.”

Third place, second to none
Jon Little’s team put forth a winning effort in the 2009 Yukon Quest. Even though they finished two spots and 58 minutes behind the leader, he said the race was a victory for him.

“In lot of ways (the race went) as good as can be expected, and I expect a lot, so I’m very happy with the dogs. My mission is always for the dogs to do their best, and I feel they did,” Little said. “… I left nothing on the trail. I tried everything I could and just two teams had a little more conditioning there at the end.”

Little said he tried a new approach this race of running his dogs longer but at a little slower pace, at times tackling eight-hour runs and resting for about four and a half.

“My attempt was to hustle things up a little bit. I wanted to set a pace where people could either stay with me or give up. But you run the risk of hurting your own chances because you’re kind of in the red zone of resting the dogs,” he said.

Little was in the lead coming out of McCabe Creek, Stepping Stone, Scroggie and Dawson, but slipped to third and couldn’t make up the difference.

“Eagle Summit always affects the race somehow,” Little said.

He and the two other frontrunners, Sebastian Schnuelle and Hugh Neff, reached the formidable ascent at night. Blowing snow had obscured the trail and created drifts.

“There were no discernible trail markers at night, no reflectors. It was only my second time up. I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to go up the hill. As it turns out, you go up anywhere. I couldn’t convince my dogs to go up in a headwind with such steep drifts on a hill,” Little said.

He found Neff camped out in his sled bag, waiting for morning to try the climb.
“At the time it seemed like a good idea to me, too,” Little said.

At dawn, Neff and Little took turns helping each other get their teams to the top, with one pulling the gang line in front and one pushing the sled from behind. As they were getting Little’s team to the top he spotted Schnuelle and William Kleedehn doing the same thing.

“At that point the first three were in the same spot. Sebastian basically said, ‘See you later Will,’ and he went for the win. His dogs had just incredible conditioning and good training. He was able to maintain good, steady speed. And Hugh has an amazing ability to go fast even late in the race,” Little said. “My guys coming off Eagle Summit slowed down to an easy trot, which ordinarily wouldn’t have been bad if I had a little lead. It was a fine speed for finishing the race but I couldn’t gain on anybody.”

Little wonders what might have been had his team not been involved in a vehicle collision on the Sterling Highway in October. Four dogs died from the crash and two others were injured.

“My lack of leaders was directly a result of that accident. Probably three dogs were in the rotation to run lead, and who knows which one of them would have done well,” he said.

Eagle Summit also looms as a “What if?” but Little isn’t spending much time looking back.

“It’s pretty hard to convince a dog team who doesn’t want to go a certain direction to go that way,” he said. “They didn’t want to go until morning. It boils down to better training in the preseason, a little longer runs and working on leaders.”

Finishing with a healthy team, gaining confidence with a more aggressive run schedule and being within striking distance of the lead were victories for Little.

“I’ve never been in position at that point in a race where I’m in the hunt to win. That’s a plateau I’ve never been on before,” he said.

“I thank everybody who helped me out. There’s been some local support and several people chipping in to help,” especially with veterinary bills and surgery following the accident, Little said. “It’s a community effort to get any one musher up the trail, so I’m really grateful.”

Challenged to succeed
An American musher from Kasilof traveled through Canada and Alaska with an Englishman, a Jamaican and a French Canadian.

Colleen Robertia was looking for a unique experience in her rookie run of the Yukon Quest, and she definitely found it.

“Overall, it went well. It was quite the adventure,” she said.

Robertia’s main goal was to maintain a healthy team while finishing the race. She and her husband, Joseph, maintain a small kennel with several rescues. One of her late-addition Quest team dogs, Arrow, came from the Kenai Animal Shelter.

“I’m really proud of my guys, especially because my philosophy is a very humane approach. We have a small kennel and they have a lifelong home here. It’s really hard to finish well and finish in the money, so to do that successfully and still have all the same guys here, it’s really rewarding because you know, even though I haven’t turned heads, you can do this humanely if you choose to,” she said.

The race was a series of firsts for Robertia — her and her dogs’ first 1,000-mile race, Robertia’s first tangle with massive expanses of jumble ice and her first experience with the isolation of multiday runs between checkpoints.

She led in some respects, too, maintaining the biggest team for most of the race, and finishing the last leg in the fastest time. She ended up placing 12th in her rookie run, sandwiched between Mark Sleightholme, of England, and Newton Marshall, of Jamaica, and ahead of Luc Tweddell, of Yukon Territory.

Sleightholme, Robertia and Marshall were been dubbed “the triplets,” since their teams were well-matched and ended up running more or less with each other for the second half of the race.

“The team did very well. I’m really happy with how they looked. I guess I’m proud of how I did with the dog team I had. … I got a lot of compliments just of how great they looked and how great their attitudes were,” she said.

Robertia said she started out slow and conservative, and made it a point to rest her team longer than she ran them.

“The only time I cut rest was to move with (Sleightholme and Marshall) over Eagle Summit, because I knew that was going to be the biggest challenge, likely of my mushing career. I wanted to be able to move with them for the benefit of the team. If they can see other teams around them, if nothing else they can chase them. Dogs just have a different attitude when other dog teams are around,” she said.

Long runs on the Yukon River posed a new challenge for Robertia.

“Jumble ice. Not just jumble ice, we’re talking about 100 miles of jumble ice. Three days at a time on it,” Robertia said. “The trail markers did a good job kind of weaving a path through it. There were times when I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine. I really felt like I got to be a better sled driver from this race, as well.”

She got to be a better pilot during her descent from Rosebud Summit when her brake broke.

“It’s 100 yards long but basically beyond vertical, so you’re dropping but you’re basically not even in contact with the ground,” Robertia said. “It goes by so fast you don’t have time to panic, but I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I think I’m flying right now.’ I think the dogs were even like, ‘Oh my goodness, I think she’s flying right now.’”

The distance between checkpoints was both a hardship and one of the things Robertia enjoyed about the Quest. It was difficult having to haul enough gear and being on her own for days at a time between official checkpoints, but it also meant taking advantage of the unofficial checkpoints along the way — remote cabins where people share a fire, dish up some moose or bear stew and swap stories.

“For them, it’s their television. That’s really exciting to hear all about the trail and what we’ve encountered. It’s almost like a symbiotic relationship because they get something out of it, but it’s really nice for you, too,” Robertia said.

Putting her dogs to the test and watching them succeed was another reward of the challenge.

“Seeing my dogs go through something that they’d never gone through before, something so challenging for them and just hoping they’ll still trust me and hoping I’m not breaking that bond I have with them. Wanting to explain to them, ‘There’s 200 miles, guys, hang in there.’ They’d keep their tails wagging. That was definitely the biggest challenge for me to see them go through something and not be able to explain to them what the end goal was, just hoping that they sensed it through me,” she said.

In the end, it was the most difficult parts that will make the fondest memories.

“The hardest things to overcome are things I’ll keep with me forever. As hard as it was when I’m out there, I wouldn’t trade it now that it’s over and I’ve gone through my first 1,000-mile race. I wouldn’t change it,” Robertia said.

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