Last night Michele and Robert raced in a brand new event at the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association, the Race Under the Stars.
The race format was 25 miles on the trails at Chugiak. We had not been on most of those trails, only racing a few times at the Eagle River Classic and the Dryland Races and the South Central Challenge. The trails were awesome! We ran up and down rolling hills, through tunnels around lakes and even on the Cook Inlet with the sparkling lights of Anchorage and the Valley in the background.
We had been planning on entering a team in this race since the schedule came out last fall and way back then we thought there would be feet of snow to run teams on. Not the case. South Central, Alaska has been plagued by low snow all season and just this week we had a big warm up and rain. When we loaded up the dogs for the race it was 35 degrees in Willow and lots of slick ice.
We decided to take two teams to the race. I (Robert) would be racing with eight and Michele would bring eight along too but that would change as we arrived at the trail.
I had: Shock-Frosty, Bodhi-Raegan, Dandy-Lock, Aussie-Gabby.
Michele had: TyTy-Cession, Sidney-Spencer, Valdez-Shifter. Trapper and Barrel would not race.
We loaded up the teams slipping and sliding around the kennel and hit the road. Not 1/2 mile into our journey we started slipping really bad on the sheet ice on Allen Road and I had to correct hard to the right with the dog truck and ended up with two wheels deep in a snow bank. If I would have corrected to the left we might have rolled the truck, loaded with 16 dogs, two sleds, three people and all our gear down the hill.
We commenced to digging out the wheels with the little poop shovel while Nicole braking off branches and twigs to place under the wheels. After about thirty minutes we were back on the road, albeit very cautiously, heading toward Chugiak.
We arrived just in time for signups.
While waiting for the musher’s meeting we decided that Michele would only run a six dog team and leave Trapper and Barrel behind. They would stay in their comfy straw-lined boxes while the others braved the elements.
I drew bib 3 and Michele drew bib 5. We would be leaving four minutes apart. As we started hooking up its always chaotic especially when the parking lot is a sheet of ice. Nicole and our friend Dale got my team hooked up in quick order and I was on the trail. I started off slow and on the drag and brake for the first few miles. The trail was pretty good up to the tunnels and I felt good at how the dogs were responding to the icy conditions.
As we approached Clunie Lake I could see Kim, bib 2 just ahead and James, bib 1 at least a mile or so out front. I didn’t have to turn on my headlamp until right before I approached Kim to pass her. She pulled off her team and I passed her with a bit of confusion on the part of Shock and Frosty.
As we came off the lake we had to make a hard 90 degree turn and a guy was there with a snow machine to get us in the right direction. The next couple miles were hard packed snow and dirt and the occasional rut. The sled was bouncing and the dogs were cruising fast. Kim was not too far behind and I could see her headlamp and her lights shining brightly as she raced behind me.
At almost exactly the halfway point Dandy decided he had enough. I quickly set my snow hook and zipped him up in the bag. Just then Kim came up and passed me again. Dandy would ride as a passenger for the rest of the race and I now had seven dogs with Lock running on the line without a partner.
The next few miles Kim and I hopscotched up and down the hills and through the swampy, slushy trails. As we approached the Inlet and what felt like a two lane highway of a trail the dogs kicked it into gear again.
We made it around to Beach Lake and finally to Heartbreak Hill. Kim was stopped just a little way up it and remarked that she was “getting a little too old for this crap,” and I said we are almost done, just a couple miles to go. We both laughed as I ran by and I jumped off the sled and ran up to the front of the team. I ran in front of Shock and Frosty up the long incline. As we headed down the other side of the hill I jumped on the sled as it rolled past.
We were just a couple miles from the finish. We crossed the line with Kim’s team just seconds behind. Nicole and Dale were there to guide us to the truck. A nice second place finish and a great run for us!
At the musher’s meeting reality began to set in! What was I thinking? I haven’t ran a race in over a year and not only that I’ve never ran a 25-30 mile race nor have I raced in the dark! Training runs this year have been done by our daughter Nicole. I had been on the sled just once, Valentine’s Day for a quick fun-run with Robert for approximately 12 miles with my old buddy Ringo in single lead. I don’t mind just trotting along the trail taking in the sights. This Race Under the Stars would be a challenge, for me! Moments before the musher’s meeting I decided to drop two dogs and only run six, considering the speed of an icy trail. This later proved a wise decision, for the most part.
I drew bib #2 after Robert drew #3, immediately I told the marshall that I needed to draw again as this would place our handler in a bad mood. I ended up with bib #5, usually a lucky number in the Forto household being that every sport any of the kids or Robert has participated in it’s usually that number.
The start. My dogs were ready to go well before our turn to hook-up. The excitement of Robert’s team going out really set the mood for a fantastic start. With my leaders; Ty-Ty & Cession we headed out from the post and into the start chute at a pretty good clip. I knew immediately that we were going to fast and needed to slow down or we’d experience burn-out.
It is a beautiful trail. The fastest I’ve ever been on in all my years of mushing. Ty-Ty was leading beautifully and I was filled with pride knowing that my little girl had done a great job training up this rag-tag leader. Then the race really began, I caught up to #4 (and I hadn’t expected too, he had 8 huge dogs), I get nervous passing. “On-by” I hailed, and like a well-oiled machine on-by we went without a hitch! This continued up a hill 4 or 5 more times, it was exhausting! Then a third musher #6 joined the melee of passes. With 4 dogs he wasn’t faster than us but more skilled on the sled than I was. Eventually #6 and I pulled away from #4 and then all of a sudden #6 bailed out on the side of the trail, later I would understand why! Around the corner lurking in the haze of dog breath was what I referred to as “Silent Hill”. We were clipping along at probably 9 or 10 miles an hour when we began the climb, the wheel dogs Valdez and Shifter, big boys had no trouble getting me up the hill until just before we reached the top, or what I thought was the top, it leveled out for a few feet and went up again! Jesus! I said to the team, Momma’s getting off to help so take it easy!” The team and I drudged up this hill and then gently coasted down. Did I mention, #6 blew by us! Nice break before the hill.
Finally, reached Clunie Lake, if it hadn’t been cloudy, I surely would’ve stopped and taken in the stars. It was peaceful. But alas, this is where my leader Cession was experiencing heat exhaustion. She had stopped along the trail before hitting the lake a couple of times to dip snow, but on the lake she completely laid out. There is no safe place to set a hook to get a dog off the line that needs to be in the bag with 5 other dogs raring to go. So we’d run a little ways and stop to break for Cession. We reached the other side where the big trail boss guy was waiting, thankfully, it was good to see him. But this proved to be a challenge for my team. Cession wanted to rest next to his snow machine instead of heading down the trail. He held my sled, after falling in a hole himself, and I got them turned around and switched Cession with Sidney in swing. Big trail boss guy says, “hang on tight this turn is gonna be a hairpin for you” he wasn’t KIDDING! I apologize for this but I did yell out, “Holy Sh*t thanks for the help! After I successfully leaped over a burm and hay bale and retained my balance only because of the years of dry land cart training we used to do. I hate it when the sled is on one runner and at that on the left side which for me is weak, but that’s another story.
On into the swamp near what I believe was the inlet, dirt, dirt, bumps and ice. This part of the trail was highly challenging for me. Cession was pulled and placed in the bag, she didn’t like that one bit. Zipped in and tethered with three necklines little Houdini still managed to escape. See she was hot but still wanted to run. She surfed on the sled for quite a few miles before I broke a rule. I put her back on the line for the safety of the team and myself. I couldn’t drive the sled and hold on to her on this type of trail.
Hills and more hills. This is where I began to feel defeated. Cession had me very worried. I pulled her again and this time she didn’t fight as much. While zipping her into the bag. I was passed by TWO Siberian husky teams. Really! That meant I was at least 30 minutes off the pace! I’m not competitive but that pissed me off. Here I am out on a trail I don’t know, in the dark, (thank god for Nicole loaning me the Lupine) and I’m passed by Siberians!
We continue, back through the tunnel. Okay I felt like I had my bearings back a bit. Cession once again has her head popped out and is attempting to escape. More hills, and the final Siberian team catches me. We pass each other a few times, and settle in on Beach Lake. He has a bad headlamp and mine is so bright I’m able to light the trail for us both. We have a conversation on the lake and I let him know that I’m pacing my team with his Sibes in order to finish strong. All the while Cession is now leaping up and out of the zipped bag so I’m hunched over the drive bar holding her with my right hand by her harness, right foot on the drag, trying to drive this sled on bumpy icy trail. Heartbreak Hill, the one everyone said would kick my butt, didn’t. In fact, my dogs took to it like Chariots of Fire! At Sibe pace but nonetheless we finished strong.
After the race and the dogs fed and loaded back into the truck we headed to the club house for some yummy pizza and conversation with the other mushers. I (Robert), came in second and found out early the next morning we left before we were able to collect our prize!
We made it home by 11:30 and had the dogs back at their houses and us inside before midnight.
All in all it was a great night of racing. There was a great turnout of mushers, many of them who we had raced with before. It was a low key, fun event which memories we will share for a long time. Being Michele’s first night race I think she had a good time.
Thank you Chugiak Dog Mushers Association you are a class act and a great club. We always admire your attention to detail and putting the safety of the mushers and the teams as priority. I hope you have this event every year. It is a nice way to get out and enjoy everything that South Central, Alaska has to offer even if it does mean low snow!
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