Famous Feet: Maddie of Shaytaan Kennels
I have never had one of those dogs that has saved my life, knows instinctively where the ice on a lake is weakest and dragged the team away from it; the leader who has, when the team has plunged through rotten ice, single-pawedly, pulled the entire team to safety; a Gus of Iron Will, an Apache of The Last Trapper, a Maya of 8 Below. So this is obviously not going to be a story of one of those dogs. It is, however, going to be a story of my best leader, a dog more motivated, more focused, more intelligent and more in tune with my needs than any other dog I have lived with.
Maddie was born to two pretty exceptional parents, Penkhala’s Medea of Shaytaan, one of the puppies we brought with us when we moved from the UK in 2005 with the objective of running the Yukon Quest, and Kraken’s Kermit the Frog, a dog we travelled one third across Canada in 2006 just to have a quick look at. Maddie was the one female of our ‘Crazies’ litter, born on June 1, 2009.
With four brothers, Psycho, Nutter, Skits and Loonie, who are strong, independent, have ravenous appetites and have always been boisterous and opinionated in the extreme, and a mother whose parental ethos was tough love or no love, Maddie grew up as hard as nails.
Then, as well as now, her brothers were much more likely to be intimidated by Maddie than the other way around. Her brothers, bigger and stronger, were introduced to the race team slightly earlier than Maddie. She sat out the first of our races in the north, the 2011 Sheep Mountain 150, when her brothers all started their mid distance careers. It was not until the closing stages of the finish in the 2012 Yukon Quest 300 that I really started to see her potential. Trying to maintain the place that we had secured in and out of the final checkpoint of Circle, the team —running their longest race to date — started to flag with 60 miles to go to the finish. For some reason, and under the most incredible northern lights ever, I moved Maddie into lead and immediately she lifted the whole team. Any doubts I had that we would not only finish, but finish in second place, evaporated into the chill Birch Creek night. Six miles from the finish line, the dogs were getting battered by the willow whips that any Quest competitor knows plagues the run in the ditch to Central. Not wanting to sour this young girl, on one of her first runs in lead, I decided to replace Maddie in lead with one of the more experienced dogs. A rookie error to stop the team over 290 miles into a race, tired and so close to the finish, the team slowly started to shut down with the end in sight. Gripped by a certain amount of panic, I tried a number of leader combinations as more and more of the team lay down. Maddie stood in the middle of the team, giving me a questioning look —certainly not the last time that would occur. With nothing at all to lose, other than our place and potentially a finishers/qualifiers status, I put Maddie back into lead. She immediately hauled the team back to their feet and ignoring the willow whips like the veteran of many Quests that she was to become, she led the team to an almost unprecedented, for a pure-bred Siberian team, second place finish.
You would think such feats would cement Maddie firmly into the position of main kennel leader however stupidity and naivety are not alien traits to this particular musher. And so, despite Maddie finishing her first Yukon Quest, along with her four brothers in 2013, it was not until about 400 miles into the 2015 Yukon Quest that she had cause to remind me that when things get tough she is always the answer to my prayers.
A brutally cold start to the 2015 Quest, with -45°C on start morning after a relatively mild winter, and with the mercury continuing to drop and mushers scratch, stupidity and naivety returned with a vengeance. Having spent eight hours at the Stepping Stone Hospitality Stop waiting for the promised warm up to take temperatures back above -40° to -50°C I decided to do a single 70 mile run to the dog drop at Scroggie Creek. Not realising how the cold temperatures had impacted on the dogs, passed by a number of teams through Valhalla and not having trained for too many of these ‘longer’ runs’, five miles before reaching Scroggie, the leaders decided it was time to rest. Knowing how close we were, I tried leader after leader in desperation to keep the team moving, even deciding that maybe I should run in front of the team for a bit. As I was deciding that the dogs had won and we would have to await a tow from one of the few teams still behind us, I was again greeted by Maddie stood in the center of the team giving me a look – this time the look was something akin to ‘Oi, moron, how about putting me in lead???’ Not one to ignore the demands of Maddie I moved her into lead. The impact was immediate, the rest of the team immediately got to their feet and we ran, at some speed, those final few miles into Scroggie Creek, to straw, to food and to sleep.
Maddie’s heroics did not finish there. She remained in lead for the next 500 miles, by far the majority of which she was in single lead.
With even more scratches and withdrawals happening in front and behind us, we didn’t see another dog team from Scroggie all the way to the finish line 600 miles away. Whilst my mood fluctuated between mild depression, desperation, deep depression and a never- ending desire to quit, Maddie never looked likely to give up – she kept us going through thick, thin and Yukon Quest hell and onto the 2015 Yukon Quest Red Lantern award. For many dogs this would be enough but fast forward a few weeks, another brutally cold race, many more adventures and there was Maddie leading the team along Front Street, Nome and dragging the team into the history books as the first Siberian Husky team to finish both the Quest and Iditarod in the same winter.
A year ‘off’ in 2016 to look after her first litter of puppies, Maddie was back performing heroics for the team again on the 2017 Quest. Against some pretty good advice, the stupid and naïve one was still making the decisions that were not always the best for the team, this time deciding to start the Quest with a female coming into heat. As we crested King Solomon’s Dome, five days into the race, to begin the long descent into Dawson and the very much anticipated 36-hour layover, a few of the males appeared to collaborate in ‘wooing’ Lady, the female in heat, the males were trying to get at her from all directions. Even moving Lady into wheel and surrounding her by other females seemed to have little effect as the males kept trying to turn around to say ‘Hi‘. The only solution appeared to be that she had to go in lead with the hope the males would follow the scent, so to speak. Unfortunately Lady was not too keen on the idea of leading and once again I was greeted by the Maddie ‘look’ – so in the lead she went and off we went. Maddie’s heroics were still needed and she remained in lead pretty much for the remainder of the race, another 500+ miles; once again, as in 2015, our Yukon Quest Finisher’s Patch really belonged to Maddie because without her we would never have made the finish line of either race.
So two Yukon Quests where the finish is directly attributable to one dog should be more than enough. Maddie was not however finished there. It would be nice to say that the 2018 Yukon Quest was pretty uneventful however that is rarely the case. After another warm winter the race began super cold with temperatures consistently down in the -40°sC and -50°sC for days at a time, even coming into the second week of the race the temperatures remained unbelievably cold. Having acclimatised to these conditions it would have been nice if these temperatures would have prevailed to the end. A pretty significant snowstorm was followed by a rapid warming and this, in turn, led to the appearance of some pretty significant overflow. Around the final checkpoint of Braeburn, that was completely missed by the front and middle of the pack but was definitely a factor for the back of the pack. We had been warned, leaving Carmacks, that there were reports of new overflow forming before Braeburn but having been focused on deep, soft, fresh snow and very warm temperatures for the majority of the run across the lakes towards Braeburn, it seemed that a bit of overflow was the last thing we needed to worry about – how wrong was I. I am sure many at the front of the pack, and some of the officials, doubted what we were reporting but the overflow was maybe 100 to 150 metres long, in places three to four feet deep and confined by willows and pines that forced the teams into the worst of it. There was no way round and only one way through. Like many of the other teams I struggled for over an hour to help get the team through this, often slipping on the ground ice that the overflow had formed on and finding myself, more than once, completely submerged under frigid water. With a balance of experienced and inexperienced dogs on the team, still none of us had encountered such long, deep and confined overflow before. Dogs scrabbled to try and stay out of the deepest water, often taking refuge in the trees and tangling in the process. The only way I could see to get through this was to move the team slowly forward. As I would wade through the water, often up to my thighs, moving dogs round trees, untangling ganglines and tuglines, hauling forward a packed sled that was either submerged upright or lying on its side as the terrain and water dictated, the dogs kept trying to get to the relatively dry sections in the trees. Even my toughest, most experienced dogs with seven thousand-mile races under their belts were doing their best to get out of the overflow. All that was except Maddie, once again leading on her own as her partner, Psycho, sought sanctuary, Maddie stood in the middle of the overflow, often chest but occasionally neck deep, keeping tug and gangline tight, completely unperturbed by what was going on behind, but working completely synchronised with me – she would hold the lines, and hence the team tight, I would work to move the other dogs and the sled forward and as I would make progress she would ease forward to hold the team in the new position as I continued to work to free dogs and sled. Not once did she shy away from her duties. My endearing memory of that afternoon is that every time I looked up there she was, looking forward, body rigid holding the team tight, completely focused on working together with me to get us through this mess and after an hour of total focus she did just that. It would have been nice if that was the end of it however due to low snow levels on the Dawson Trail out of Braeburn, the decision had been made by the race marshal and Canadian rangers that we were going to double back out of Braeburn and then drop onto Lake Labarge for the final 100 miles to the finish line; this of course would mean passing back through the overflow. The officials had listened to a few of the safety concerns raised by the mushers about the overflow and had sent out Didier Moggia to carry out some repairs, still, it was with a huge sense of trepidation that I approached the overflow again 10 hours later. No such signs from Maddie though as she led the team into and through the overflow without missing a beat and, thanks to the trail repairs, we were back on solid ground within five minutes and on our way to our fifth Yukon Quest finish with Maddie leading us home. Leaders like Maddie do not come along every day and so it is important to make the most of them. As we were approaching our sixth Quest, and Maddie and her brothers were approaching ten years of age, I was desperate to run one more thousand-mile race with all five of them. As last winter pushed on it seemed more and more obvious that Maddie was not entirely happy and so may not make the Quest team. I left her at home when the rest of us went to Copper Basin 300, knowing that she didn’t need the race experience or the miles and figured she may benefit from a few more days off. Between Copper Basin and the Quest I ran her a few more times but it was obvious she was not 100 percent and even though she would have happily run if I had asked her, I wasn’t going to put her through a potentially unpleasant experience. As we approached the line for our sixth Quest finish I reflected on the fact that Maddie would likely never race with me again and so not having her on the team as we approached Fairbanks took the edge off the occasion. The handlers, however, knew how much this was hurting and had brought her from Whitehorse to the finish line to be part of the celebrations – considering how much she has done in the past to get us to where we are today is it any wonder I burst into tears when I saw her there?
As we train for our seventh Quest I am happy to say that Maddie and all of her brothers are back in training with the race team. At the start of training they are all looking good despite now being ten-and-a-half years old but I am under no illusions that as training get longer and tougher then they are less and less likely to keep up with the rest of the dogs in training. Still I hold out that very small hope that Maddie may just be there one more time to save the day, again.