Rob's Blog Archive

March 11, 2012

Bruised, Battered, and Beyond










I was beginning to think that I would make it through an entire season without flipping my sled.  Last year, I only flipped once, so an eggshell this year wouldn’t have been far fetched.  In retrospect, however, that thought alone was probably too much of a challenge to the gods. 

Wednesday night, I decided to ride my sled directly from my house rather than dragging it behind the ATV until I got to the trailhead and switching the gangline to it there---the way I usually do my sled runs.  I’ve sledded my driveway and the roads a few times this year, and it’s been pretty easy.  However, I’ve run on weekday nights to avoid traffic, made sure there’s a good layer of snow everywhere including all of the roads I traverse, and waited until there were good sized berms from plowed snow.  Wednesday evening was a weekday night, but some roads I ran on were bare, the berms were small enough for the dogs to ignore, and a couple of inches of glare ice covered my driveway. 

My first run was with the “dogs of a certain age.”  Just as the lead dogs were about to hit the top of my driveway, I saw reflected light from the headlights of a car coming up Boy Scout road.  Another reason to run at night is the light from the headlights warns me about any traffic.   I broke hard and did stop the team, but it changed my line and had me running over the berm at the top of my driveway.  This tilted the sled out 45 degrees in the middle of the turn---it’s possible to maintain balance with this but particularly since the runners were also half on ice and half on bare pavement, I’d probably pull it off only one time in ten, and Wednesday night wasn’t that time.  After I had stopped the team to let the car pass, flipping the sled was at least partly expected and I didn’t hit the ground too hard.  Happily, the dogs stopped after a couple of yards.  Unfortunately, by that point the gravel on the road shredded the shoulder of my parka.  The dogs did good, though, they actually waited until I was ready before the pulled off. 

On the run back to the yard, turning onto the paved road, braking on the pavement using my brake pad, and then taking all the turns on my driveway were challenging, but I did them without too much trouble. Given that the only fall on the first run was because I stopped to let a car pass and the late hour meant that waiting for a car was less likely, I had great hopes as I started out with “the team of the little bitches.” 

There are three hard turns on my driveway.  My first steering challenge comes 400’ from when the dogs hit their harnesses.  It should have been a warning---my two wheel dogs, Lolo and Quid, cut the turn and took me over a small berm.  I managed to stay upright by running a few steps and then getting my feet on the runners and then on the brake pad, but it had been close.

Steering on snow is fundamentally much more forgiving than steering on ice. The sled slows in a steady controlled manner as I brake and it predictably skids just a little wide in a turn.  The sweet line on ice is a tight-rope.  At this point in my career, given no interference like an oncoming car, I can hit this every time.  That is except when I have wheel dogs that insist on taking the sled on a different line.  Snow forgives this variation.  Ice makes the musher pay.

Lolo and Quid cut the second turn, again taking my inside runner over a low berm.  The sled and I flipped hard.  I gripped my drivebow with both hands as my right side slammed into the ice.  “WHOA!” did get the dogs to stop.  The sled on its side, me still holding the drivebow hard in case the dogs decided they had waited long enough, I tallied what hurt and what didn’t.  Head and right knee hurt. 

I breathed. My dogs usually do stop nicely with my frantic screams----they even stay still until I start righting the sled.  Just as the second runner hits the trail, though, they normally start to pull.  If there were snow, I could have depressed the brake as I was righting the sled, a trick I learned while on the Iditarod.  However, that trick wasn’t going to work on hard ice.  Happily, the dogs did hang for a second after I righted the sled and I was able to step on the brake pad before we really got going.  We took the turn at the top of the driveway okay. 

Like most athletes, l live in fear of knee injuries.  My head cleared, but my right knee ached.  I could weight bare comfortably, but I was still scared.  As the run progressed, I tested my knee in any number of ways.  I even ran a few steps, albeit limping.   At least my first assessment was that the injury was minor.

The run itself was wonderful, fear, pain, and all.  The moon was full and it was clear.  Of the 12 miles on honest snow, I took six with my headlamp off.   The ghostlike lunar illumination of the Swan Range entranced me yet again.

By the time I was taking the team home, I realized my wheel dogs were a problem.  I thought about changing them, but decided not to.  I did start working out how I’d approach going down my driveway with Quid and Lolo still guiding the sled itself.  Mostly, I wanted to tire the dogs out as much as I could---my means was letting them run too fast.

We hit the turn coming onto the bare pavement of Boy Scout Road too sharp.  Lolo and Quid were holding their form.  The berm there, however, was too big for them to cross and with only level ground to traverse, I had no problem staying vertical.  On the street, I was able to use the brake pad to slow the team even though it was bare pavement. 

The whole team, including Lolo and Quid, cut the turn coming off of Boy Scout and onto my driveway too hard.  Still, I kept on the runners and weighted the pad hard as we came down the steep part of my driveway.  It was on turn two, in principle the easiest of the three on my driveway, that I again flipped the sled.  Just like on the way up, my boys had pulled the sled through the worst possible line.

This time, the flip didn’t surprise me and I hit the ice softly, to the extent that that’s possible. However, my “Whoa’s” were ignored.  Going downhill and on the way to what the dogs knew was home, I was only able to get them to stop after 150’ and then only for a second.  I bounced across nooks in the ice as the dogs continued to run.  There are snowhooks that are designed to grip glare ice.  I’m going to have to get one---during one of the times the dogs slowed but didn’t stop, I was able to catch one of the pair I own and try and set it, but it bounced off of the ice.

We came to the flat section leading home---I knew the dogs wouldn’t hurt themselves by overrunning and that they weren’t going anywhere other than the hook-up yard where they belonged.  Conversely, the banging on the ice was hurting my knee.  Realizing that letting go wasn’t going to hurt the dogs but holding on might well hurt me, I released the sled and it took off.

Walking through the final turn and into the yard felt okay.  Bouncing on the ice hadn’t exacerbated the knee injury.  Whereas my driveway was ice, my hookup yard was snow.  In it, one of the hooks had nicely caught and the team was happily lined out.  I closed the gate.

I quickly headed into the house and dropped four ibuprofen.  I then headed out and took care of the dogs.  Once I finished, it was off to ice my knee. 

It ended up that my assessment during the run was accurate---the knee injury was minor.  We all survived.  And I’m thinking that my using the ATV as often as I did may have been a bit wiser than I realized.

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