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Monday, April 9, 2012

Seasons change and so must mushing

A disappointing 2011-2012 race season has come to an end for Team Tsuga Racing Siberians. Thankfully Sue had a couple very good, if very short for how we’ve trained, races right here in our back yard at the Solstice 100 and the Two Rivers 200, finishing in 4th and 3rd place, respectively. But, our main event, the Yukon Quest, was a complete bust this year. We still feel a sting from that moment of Mike falling and injuring himself, knocking our team out of the race we’d spent the whole year, in fact years, preparing for. We had a truly peaked team this year that was well trained, well conditioned, and with years of experience, right on the cusp of starting to slow down with the march of age. We were only getting started with the race when it ended. We never got to see if the changes we’d made in training would have paid off. We never got the reward of coming together as a team to offset all the struggle and strife of another year of trying to stay afloat in the sinking boat of distance mushing. It’s going to be a long summer trying to avoid the ‘what-if’s??’ and focus on the ‘what now’s??’

Mike should have been on his way to Kotzebue for the start of the Kobuk 440 this week, but after having signed up following some great post-Two Rivers 200 training runs and deciding the shoulder was doing better, the dogs were ready, and we should go ahead and do a race we’ve dreamed of for many years, the wheels fell off that plan as well and we withdrew our entry. Costs continued to add up, Mike’s shoulder had been pushed a bit too much, several key dogs had various reasons for not going, and then the morning before we were going to be loading the truck, we found Hood and Merlin would join key leaders Eliza and Stinson in having to sit out the race. Not lasting problems, we hope, but things that were going to keep them from leaving for a big trip. With minimal money spent already but thousands to go in the next week, we decided to cut our losses and save the trip for another year. ‘Kobuk’ was our dear boy from our first litter born in 1998, named for a place we’d been dreaming of for a long time, even back then. ‘Ambler’ was later named because he was similar to Kobuk, but very different, too. Writing those names on checkpoint bags meant something to us, and we’re saving them for future use…

Mike had a very interesting last couple of months watching both the second half of the Quest as well as the start and finish of Iditarod from an inside perspective of handling for another team and seeing the front ends of the biggest distance sled dog races in the world. After his injury, Mike went on to Dawson in the truck and joined the Wild and Free team of Brent Sass at the 36-hour, handler assisted half-way break in Quest. Our friend Christine, who had come up to handle with Sue, came along. With great help surrounding us doing the chores of winter campground life, and Brent’s dogs that accepted us quickly, Christine and I were able to focus on dogcare in a way that made a serious difference, even more than we expected. Mushers, the more you do for your dogs, the more they can do for you. Don’t ever doubt it. Coming off the heels of the feel-good vibe of Dawson was Pelly Crossing. We watched the front runners come through after having pushed hard on the 200 long, hilly miles from Dawson. Some of the dogs looked like they had been pushed past ‘should’ and into ‘could.’ Yes, they were still going and left after short rests with generally very minimal dog care given, but we need to do better as a sport. Vets swarmed the teams, but pulled none of the limpers or asked mushers to stay longer to get a better feeding in to dogs on the edge of ‘too’ skinny. More needs to be done. Pelly also revealed an extreme range of treatment given to teams by different race judges. By example, some mushers were allowed to have handlers chatting away in the dogyard, strategizing with those less sleep deprived than themselves, getting information, and having handlers verbally interacting with dogs that were obviously responding to them. In the same place, just a couple hours later, a handler from another team was prevented from approaching the sled or even talking to their musher to give public information that would have been time saving, at the least. Some teams were brought their drop bags. Others were told to go get their own bags, taking valuable minutes and effort in a race that was decided by seconds. Fairness isn’t too much to ask for. Not asking back some race judges is a pretty simple fix. Fixing the front end of distance mushing racing isn’t as easy, but there are some simple steps for improvement. More mandatory rest, although the obvious answer to some, is my least favorite idea. It takes choices out of the mushers’ hands and makes teams race hard from rest to rest, defining a race and making it more like stage racing. This is not a good idea when trying to improve dogcare over long distance. Time for care needs to be given out on the trail and poor work on the trail can not be made up for in checkpoints. Less mandatory rest might be better than more. We feel the 36-hour rest in the Quest is too long and those hours would be better spread out so teams wouldn’t push so hard coming in to, and leaving, the big rest. Mid-distance races would be better with little or no mandatory rest. This is easily done if races go back more to the old-school concept of not allowing so many dropped dogs. Perhaps a four drop-dog maximum should become standard for the1000 milers. If you start with 16, you must finish with at least 12. If you start with 14, you must finish with no less than 10. Perhaps for mid-distance racing, the standard should become two dropped dogs as a maximum. This, accompanied by plain, experienced Veterinarian enforced guidelines for which dogs can leave checkpoints based on body weight and condition would improve dog care throughout the field. Mushers need to bring dogs that can finish the race and then give them the care and rest they need to finish or go home and try again another time. Accidents happen and mushers make mistakes but the mushers need to accept all of the responsibility, every time. It is never the dogs’ fault. Fairness and responsibility seem simple enough, don’t they?

Hopefully, change will come to distance racing in some good ways, but we know change will come. Change is coming around here with melting snow and impending breakup. Eliza is pregnant with a repeat of last summer’s litter with Stump. It will be her 3rd and last litter. We found such great homes for the few pups we sold last summer that we felt the litter was simply too good not to repeat. We won’t count puppies before they’re born, but we may have a couple of excellent pups available to the right homes later this year.

Not sure where we’re going, but we’re certainly going to try to get there... Onward-