Well, the 2017 Copper Basin 300 has finally wrapped up. This was the first race for all but one of the athletes on the team which is made up of 9 yearlings, 2 two year olds, and one true adul;, and I couldn’t be happier with their performances. The goal of this race was to give these puppies a positive race experience with no pressure or expectations, just building towards success in future years when they are adults. In a lot of ways the Copper Basin is a bold undertaking for a yearling team, it is known as one of the toughest mid distance races in mushing due to its challenging and diverse terrain and is advertised as “The toughest 300 miles in mushing.” This year’s trail lived up to that advertisement, 12 of the 38 teams who started the race scratched/ did not reach the finish line. The trail totaled 305 miles and every leg of it was powdery sugar snow. I realized within the first five miles that this was going to be a longgggg 300 miles, and it was. Before I go into my recount of the different checkpoints and trail sections I just want to give a quick insight into the style of Alaskan Husky I use and the training program I use for them.
Living high in the hills above Fairbanks at our home for the winter, Blackspruce Dogsledding, we have in my opinion tougher terrain than the Copper Basin so hills and tough pulling are really all my dogs have ever known. Size wise I have a small team, a tiny team really, six of the twelve dogs on the A-team weigh in at less than 50 pounds and two of those are less than 40 pounds. However, I’m a big believer in small dogs for two major reasons; they don’t get hurt and they don’t get tired. Although my dogs lack power compared to bigger dog teams they make up for it with their speed and stamina. Every training run from September until Basin start we recorded faster run times on the second half of the run, finishing strong is the main focus of my training program. Despite their pint size my dogs move pretty quick up hills and I’ve been lucky enough to end up with a lot of leaders in my team, some are better for setting a steady pace and others are driving leaders whose only goal is to go as fast as possible and with them up front the team is fast, real fast. So most training runs I put those driving leaders up front half way through and we come home moving faster than we left. This has worked to build a team who only gets stronger as we go, or at the very least doesn’t lose speed and power.
Let me give you a route recap and go over how this training translated to the race route. I can’t say enough times how soft this trail was, my friend Ryne Olson won the race with a finishing time 10 hours slower than last year’s winner against a field of highly competitve mushers.
Race Start to Sourdough Checkpoint: This leg ended up being about 75 miles, the snow was either pure sugar or slightly packed and extremely punchy. I kept the dogs slowed down as much as possible to avoid injury to any of them early on in the race. We moved nicely despite the soft trail and posted the 13th fastest run time, the dogs loped the last half mile into the checkpoint after 9 hours and 15 minutes of running. Everyone looked strong and we departed after 6 hours of rest.
Sourdough to Meier’s Lake: This leg is only 33 miles but extremely hilly, we were really looking good and the dogs were loving the hills, half way through I stopped to snack and luckily noticed one of every mushers worst fears, Charge had urinated and it was a dark brown color. This is a major sign of Myopathy, a rare disorder that in a very simplified synopsis basically causes the body to start breaking down the dogs muscular tissue. This disorder occurs seemingly at random in both horses and dogs and very little is really known about why it happens. There are a lot of veterinarians in both the dog and horse world working to research it, however, there have been very few breakthroughs on prevention. If not caught early Myopathy can cause severe kidney damage, which is why I said it was lucky when I spotted Charge’s brown urine, he was still performing 100% and screaming to go. Had I not noticed it and he continued running it would have been a very dangerous situation. I loaded him inside the sled and his brothers and sisters pulled us the remaining 16 miles to the checkpoint. Charge is one of my biggest dogs and hauling him took a lot of work from the team and myself on the hills, it slowed us down but we made it into Meier’s Lake Checkpoint after 5 hours and 2 minutes. Upon checkpoint arrival I immediately called for head vet Nina Hansen who took Charge inside and treated him. We stayed for six hours at Meier’s Lake and left with eleven strong dogs, Charge stayed behind with my handler for the race Tyler Rode and got to enjoy the rest of the race riding along in the truck.
Meier’s Lake to Tolsona: This leg ended up being another long 74 miles. The trail was soft as always but the dogs looked great, 18 month old Fuse led the final 50 miles of this leg in single lead, a huge task for any dog and I couldn’t have been more proud of him. He loped into Tolsona with a smile on his snout and his chest puffed out with pride. I received compliment after compliment from both mushers and vets on how good they looked arriving. The run took us just about 9 and a half hours and we posted the 14th fast runtime, right where I wanted to be with the puppies. We stayed for 7 hours and 15 minutes then departed for Mendeltna.
Tolsona to Mendeltna: This run sucked. It really really sucked. It was 55 miles in warm temps and on soft snow. The dogs rocked it though, rallied on by the phenomenal leadership of Yam, and posted the 8th fastest run time with a time of 8.5 hours. Mendeltna was my favorite checkpoint by far with great food and a nice warm sleeping area with real beds for mushers and handlers. We stayed for 7 hours and 15 minutes before departing for the finish with 11 strong dogs.
Mendeltna to the Finish: The dogs looked better than ever on this leg, it was 65 miles and the dogs were moving like they were on fire, they honestly looked as good as they did on this final leg as they did on the first. 20 miles in Vedder, my strongest dog and power in the team had a cramped shoulder. It wasn’t severe, just a cramp, but rather than risk actual injury I loaded him in the sled and he hitched a ride for the final 45 miles. The team rolled like crazy regardless and posted the sixth fast run time out of the field with a 10 hour run, hauling our biggest team member this group of yearlings posted a competitive speed and looked incredible at the finish with wagging tails and high spirits. We finished with Yam in single lead.
I have no doubt that this team will be competing to win this and other races in coming years. They’re a group of yearlings who move and behave like adult dogs on the trail. The fact that we never lost speed and were becoming more and more competitve throughout the race is a testament to the mental toughness of these young pups and the effectiveness of our training program. Not everything was perfect and I definitely noticed flaws in our training throughout the race as well, but that was the point of this event, to give the team a positive first race experience with no expectations and finally see what is and isn’t working in our training and nutrition program in a race environment. All the members of the team looked great but Yam, who is two years old and a true superstar, led all but fifty miles of the race and was barking and harness banging 10 miles from the finish. Then Fuse, coming into the race he has been one of my best yearlings in lead, he showed just how good he is throughout the race. He led about 200 miles of the trail and was happy the entire time. I can’t say enough about these two and every other dog on the team.
Enjoy these shots from the race captured by Julien Schroder at Arctic Mood Photography and some videos from my awesome handler Tyler Rode. A huge thank you to Alaska Icefield Expeditions, Inc. for your continuing support and sponsorship on the trail, Tyler Rode for all his help during the race, Black Spruce Dog Sledding, and everyone else who helped and supported the team and I to get to the race start.