Rob's Blog Archive

January 8, 2012

Backyard Laboratory










I moved to Silly Lake, five miles north of Seeley Lake, in 2004.  Everything I had seen and heard told me this spot would be perfect for mushing.  Trails, snow, and mountains were my backyard.  The seven and a half years since then have been like a good marriage---it started well and got better.

I am convinced that for mid-distance and distance racing, there is no better place for fall ATV-training than Montana.  I’m in the mountains, but the high peaks are surrounded by rolling terrain and these are laced with forest service and logging roads.  I have runs with good turn-arounds with lengths of 3 mi., 4 mi., 6.7 mi., 9.4 mi., 10.8 mi, 15.1 mi, and 17.6 mi.  But, it’s better than that.  The 4, 9.4 and 15.1 go up one set of trails, the 6.7, 10.8, and 17.6 go up another.  And for distances over 20 miles, the labyrinth of trails behind my house has multiple options for any length I could want.  And all these are over hills that train the dogs without overwhelming them. 

Then comes winter and the same set of trails is groomed.  I pay my taxes and my local snowmobile club membership and that takes care of that.  The snowmobile club now even has a GPS internet link on the groomer and I can tell where it’s been. 

As I’ve grown older and maybe even wiser as a musher, I’ve learned how rare it is in the lower 48 to be able to dogsled from home.  I’ve done eighty-mile runs as out and backs with no repeated loops starting and ending in my hook-up yard.

But the trails are only a part of what makes this spot great.  We don’t get real cold often, but we do.  I was able to go out for runs at true -20 F temperatures when checking out my gear for Iditarod.  It wasn’t the -50 F I was prepared for, but it was close enough, particularly since I had also spent hours outside taking care of dogs on a trip down the Alcan in temperatures that were colder than -50F. 

For some gear checks, I haven’t even had to venture to roads and trails behind my house.  I tried out a nominal -15F sleeping bag on my driveway and decided it wasn’t warm enough.  During that same experiment, I figured out how I would stake out my tent on ice. 

And for backcountry/expedition mushing, this is continuing.  A week ago, I tried my Northern Lite snowshoes with my current faves for my boots, Northern Outfitters Mountain Boots (NO boots).  It was just short of a disaster.   The snowshoe lacing was too small to accommodate the boots and the movement of my foot in the boot itself meant I was doing work that didn’t get me anywhere.  Before the night was over, I tried my Cabela’s TA III’s and they did work much better.  Still, for both sledding and traipsing back and forth in camp, I prefer the NO boots.  So I put some longer binding straps on the snowshoes and started practicing with them.  The combination of the longer straps and practice seems to be letting me use the NO boots after all.  My foot movement in the boot is a little reduced and I’m learning how to adjust my gait so that even with the loose fit of the boot, I’m not losing a lot of energy.  And all of this is starting at my house and snowshoeing on unpacked snow along adjacent streets.  After another week or two, I will try breaking trail for the dogs and heading up Fawn Peak—a moderate climb in the middle of my trail labyrinth.   

And yes, we have snow.  It’s thinner than I’d like, but it’s enough to run the dogs (knock on wood).  Since I moved to Silly Lake, the only thing that has kept me off of my sled between December 20 and March 15 has been rain slushing up the trail---and all I had to do was wait for it to freeze up again which always happened.

Finally, and I know this is probably getting a bit repetitive, it is beautiful here.  There are equally stunning places in mountains in the lower 48 or Alaska, but I don’t think they’re any better.  Even while watching the team to make sure my dogs don’t get tangled, I always take a moment to look out across the Seeley-Swan valley at the length of the Swan Range.  And I am always in awe. 

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