Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Whole New World

                Now I've got you singing that Aladdin song, right?! Well, this weekend definitely had some similarities to the song, but it wasn't a Disney movie. Unless Disney princesses get peed on by a lead sled dog (yes, I am referring to myself and no, I am not a princess…but I did get marked at The Race to the Sky).
                Before I get into some of the amazing experiences this weekend had to offer, let me proclaim my utter frustration for technology.  As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the computer decided to run an update and completely closed my Word program and deleted everything I had written.  Well, now I have to hurry up and write it again before work at 11:30 (which was yesterday and I'm just now posting this). Gah!!! Live and learn I guess.  And the lesson yesterday was to save your work often no matter how excited you are to copy down your experience in a hard copy.
                Anyways, we (two friends, the hubby, and I) had a fabulous weekend over in the Rocky Mountains of Montana.  We spent Friday and Saturday in Helena (the capitol), MT and started off our volunteer work while mushers were doing their Vet checks.  This entails having at least 12 dogs (the most you can have on your sled dog team) and often a couple more back-ups out on a line and having the Veterinarians (volunteers also) check each individual dog.  They make sure the dogs are fit to race and that they don’t have any injuries or muscle pulls that will cause problems out in the wilderness. Most commonly cracking paws or stiff joints/muscles are what afflict the dogs (from what I could overhear anyways). 
                After the mushers for the 350 mile race (eight of them) were all checked in, most everyone headed over to the Spaghetti dinner fundraiser for war dogs.  Most people don’t know that there are dogs in Iraq that help save lives and that they need supplies for the extremely hot weather, etc.  There is more on The Race to the Sky website if you’re interested in donating and helping out an awesome organization! At this dinner, the committee also auctions off four, four-mile rides on each of the teams sleds. They go for around 300 dollars and also benefit war dogs along with the winning purse at the end of the race.  Finally, the mushers draw a number from a hat and that will be their number in the race.  

I learned that they don’t all start at the same time, but instead are let go in three minute intervals.  If you ever experience a race, you will understand why.  The dogs are absolutely pumped to get out there and pull a sled, so the beginning of a race is absolute chaos.  This is where we came in to help along with ATV’s. And to clarify, the winner is not necessarily who comes in first over the finish line, but the one with the shortest time from start to finish.
                Now, at the start of a race, the mushers have bag checks (which we performed) and these checks make sure they have all the necessary items for out in the wilderness (i.e. food for dogs and themselves, extra booties, parka, first aid kit, etc.). When those are all done, it’s time to start hooking the dogs up to their lines and getting ready to roll (or slide in this case).  At this point the dogs are beyond excited.  They’re howling, barking, jumping in circles and pulling at their chains like you can’t imagine! As they start getting hooked up to the sled, they have to be held in place, because even the most well behaved dogs will immediately start pulling.   

There's the hubby!

I'm the middle "holder."

Not only do volunteers need to hold the dogs back from taking off, but there are also four-wheelers that have a rope attached to the sled so the dogs can’t take off with the sled before the start time.  Utter madness is the only way to describe this, but I definitely was pumped up too!  And then you wait for their countdown, and let go on one and those babies take off like there’s no tomorrow.  Once that team has gone, you move to the next to help again until they are all on their way.
                After being attentive for the first seven teams I thought I had the knack down, until the eighth handler (these people are experts in the event/sport usually) gave me the lead dog to hold on to. Needless to say that I was paying attention to who knows what and not the dog who decided that my snow pants were a good place to mark his territory. Yes, I got peed on by a sled dog and I will tell this story for years, so get ready to hear it often!
                Anyways, they all got out on their way and all made it to the next checkpoint (Elk Park near Butte, MT) where we recorded times and counted the number of dogs that came in.  Now sadly, there must be a reason they count the dogs that come in, because they have to have the same amount of dogs as when they left.  We speculated it’s because some a**hole left a poor pup out in the wilderness when it got injured or something along those lines.  Whatever it may have been, someone did something stupid and inhumane and now there is a rule (but that’s how most random rules come in to play).  After that long day, we drove over to Lincoln, MT where the next leg of the race started.

Harnessing our inner child at Elk Park while we waited for the teams to come in.

That's me on the far right just flopping down in the snow.

Snow angels!

Volleyball with snowballs!

And this is the race mascot...Hula Harry.
Here is the first team to the Elk Park checkpoint: Brett the Dentist from Great Falls, MT.

And this is who we were rooting for: Laura from somewhere in Washington (my friend who has done this race for a bunch of years always roots for her, because she is super friendly and always wins the award for best cared for dogs).

Close up of Laura and her "wheeler" dogs (technical term for the closest dogs to the sled).

                Luckily we got to Lincoln around 11 pm and got a good amount of sleep as the next leg didn't start until 2 pm on Sunday.  When we arrived at the site it was as windy as I have ever experienced in Montana.  Kyle and I were in ski gear with face masks and goggles.  Sadly, we were one of the few prepared for the bitter cold that awaited and the gusts that blew right through you. 

Kyle and I at the start in Lincoln, MT.

My buddies and I.

                The hubby and I were assigned to be road guards which I thought would be lame, but it was absolutely amazing.  We got to stand about a quarter mile from where the race started, block the road from traffic and keep the dogs going on a straight path (remember they are super excited and don’t listen as well at the very beginning). There were no crowds in our area and you could see the dogs running the way they would with no one around and just a wide open area of white.   Needless to say it was a whole new world!

Where they were headed (over the hill and into a valley).

A team coming towards us from the start.

                After that, we had to come home since we both had work, but the race will continue until Wednesday morning and the awards ceremony will be Wednesday night. As for lessons learned, we now know that this race is an Iditarod qualifier, which means the teams have to make the journey in a certain amount of time and without any problems to be able to run in the Alaskan Iditarod. There were also teams that were only doing part of the race and they were the “100 milers.” These included one junior entry who is only 12 years old! And in case anyone else is curious, there are three women in the 350 mile race, one of which is only 18 years old!  Among hundreds of other questions we had answered, the most important one I asked was what the dogs do when they have to poop.  And the answer is: they poop while they’re running! 

                I hope you all learned something, and I am definitely making plans in my head to return next year as a volunteer and stay the entire race.  Hopefully you all will have the chance to experience something like this sometime in your lives.  It’s beyond worth it!

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