Rob's Blog Archive

February 19, 2012

Getting It Right










Part of the joy of winter is the satisfaction that comes from going outside and getting it right.  It’s cold and dark and beautiful all at the same time.  One has to get past the challenges to appreciate the winter.  Knowing that most people would fail doesn’t hurt.  And, of course, knowing how many failures preceded my successes doesn’t hurt either. 

Running dogs on stormy nights epitomizes this.  During these runs, I’m using everything---lots of clothing, headlamp, and ski goggles particularly.  Heavy snow usually means relatively mild temperatures, teens to twenties, but there’s often some wind to deal with.

The big challenge of a storm is making the world visible.  In principle, ski goggles should work fine.  In practice, they are meant to be worn on the outside of lighter headwear than mushers don, so like most mushers, I wear them inside my parka.  This obstructs the air flow modern goggles use to stay clear.  Even while skiing with my goggles hung out in fresh air, they would still sometimes fog up.  What cleared them was moving at 20+ mph down a ski slope.  That ain’t happening with any dog team in a snowstorm. 

Running at night multiplies the difficulty with visibility many fold.  In the day, I can see some of what the fog on the goggles tries to hide.  At night, with only the headlamp to light the trail, any fog on the goggles hides everything along the line of sight with which it interferes.     

Up until last year, I’d fiddle with the goggles, wiping them as best I could with whatever defogger I had.  Eventually, I just gave up and viewed the world through the fraction of ski goggle that stayed clear.  Then, relatively late last season, I discovered a defogger that really works.  With it, my ability to see the dogs is now limited by the snow itself. 

Last night was the first time this year I ran in moderate to heavy snow at night.  The snow was heavy enough that I just barely made out my leaders, Jake and Tempest.  With 50’-100’ of visibility, I was navigating by memory and sledding by feel.  But with a clear set of goggles, I could also enjoy watching the snow flakes as they floated down and into and out of the beam of light from my headlamp.  Of all the night runs in snow I’ve done, the one last night was the most fun. 

With the fresh snow, the conditions were a little slow, but not at all tedious.  The temperature was in the low twenties, the snow was dry and light, and with less than two inches of new over a good base, the sled glided easily.  The shallow fresh snow was a fun condition for the dogs too. 

The only glitch was mine.  The dogs had correctly turned haw, left, onto a trail we call Fiat.  Somehow, I thought we had passed that point and we were at the turn off of Fiat onto Fawn Creek--- a very soft gee rather than the hard haw the dogs took.  Staying on Archibald at that point was also a soft gee and in the storm I thought the correct way to go.  So I reversed the team and took them down the trail I thought was Fawn Creek.  About a quarter of a mile later, a very sharp switchback came out of nowhere.  The surprise turn was fun, but with it I realized I had blown it.  Fawn Creek has no sharp turns.  Archibald does.  So, I stopped the team and once again turned them around. 

Happily, I run with two snowhooks, so it’s a pretty safe operation to do a 180.  If a team knows commands to reverse, “come gee” or “come haw,” the snowhooks aren’t necessary.  But getting everybody to do this well in a ten dog string is very difficult---the dogs often anticipate the reversal and decide to move in the right direction before they should and tangles are the result.  In any case, none of my dogs know how to reverse the string on their own, so I have to hook down and lead them through it.

The trick is to put both snowhooks on the side of the sled on which the dogs pass, one planted by your side like it would normally be and one planted out front.  That second snowhook becomes the main anchor once the string and sled are reversed.  The reason the hooks are on the same side as the dogs is this allows the sled to pivot naturally without running into the lines from the snowhooks. 

With the hooks in the correct places, there’s still ample opportunity for a tangle when the string is reversed.  Typically, I reverse the team using another trick, one that doesn’t lend itself to verbal description, then undo the one to three resulting tangles.  We must have learned something over the n years of sledding.  For the first time, we made it through two consecutive 180’s absolutely tangle free.  Not bad for a 10 dog string! 

With the second about face and the dogs doubling back to get to the trail they had originally turned onto, I did apologize to Temp and Jake and told them they were right, I was wrong.  We also stopped for a few seconds after we had gotten onto Fiat and the leaders got a couple of extra pets, further acknowledgment of my error.

At that point, I was quite sure I had gotten onto the correct path, but it was still reassuring when we did get to the turn from Fiat onto Fawn Creek.  As we glided down the final hills, we came up on the groomer running the trail in the opposite direction.  Happily, that pass went quite smoothly.  A few minutes later, we were back by the ATV and I was switching the gangline from the sled to it for our final mile and a half home.

With well over 6,000 miles on runners, there’s no question I’ve learned a lot.  Still, with every season, I pick up a few new tricks.  Last year, the perfect defogger hit my radar.  It may not seem like much, but a few little things are often what make the big difference.  That’s true for both working my gear and running my dogs.  The run in the storm was as good as we’ve had, but I’m sure that as time passes, it will just get better. 

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