On January 21st and 22nd the 2006 Eagle River Classic Sled Dog Race in Chugiak, Alaska was held and I was really looking forward to this event. We hadn’t had very good training conditions in Seward this winter and leading up to the race we were still using the ATV on frozen gravel, but the dogs were looking good. I had raced two of the preliminary races in Chugiak earlier in the season and won both, so we are not hurting too badly as far as the dogs went. The Eagle River Classic proved to be more challenging, though, because the big guns had come out for this one. I was hoping to be in the top three or four, with a worst-case scenario putting me at least in the money. There were seventeen teams entered and it paid to tenth place. Little did I know how bad a worst-case scenario could be.This first day of the two fourteen-mile heats promised good racing. There were several inches of fresh snow and the trail was in nice shape. The race had started and my twelve dogs were running fast and strong. Things were going as planned, although I had a couple of concerns. The two previous races were eight miles, on this same trail. This race would take us past two intersections where we’d have to go in a direction different from that in the earlier races. My leaders know “gee” and “haw,” but sometimes they get a certain trail in their heads and that’s where they want to go. I was only a little worried because fences were put up for the race to block those trails. A few years ago, though, a driver’s dogs busted through a fence, knocking it down. Several teams took the wrong trail and were disqualified from the race. If a musher goes off the race trail, they have to go back to that trail the way they came in to continue racing.Well, we were coming around the corner to the eight-mile turn and I was ready with my snow hook in hand just in case of trouble. Wouldn’t you know, the fence was knocked down. “Gee! Gee! Gee!” Uh oh! The dogs went haw and we were going into the eight-mile turn. I slammed on the brake, and rammed the hook into the snow, but we kept going. It took about a hundred feet to stop and by then the damage was done. We were way into the turn. I set the two snow hooks in opposite directions and got the dogs turned around with no apparent problems. I didn’t immediately notice a tangle with one of the snow hook lines. Things happened pretty fast then. The dogs jerked forward and we were off. Unfortunately, though we were back on the race trail, we were going in the wrong direction. We were heading back toward the starting line! I was able to stop the team with the brake but had only one usable snow hook now. I set the hook around a tree, which seemed to work well, and got the dogs lined out in the right direction.As I was untangling a few dogs, the hook popped loose and they were off again! As I grabbed the gang line and started working my way back to the sled, I lost a glove. Still, I made it to the rear of the sled and hung on. Things looked rather strange. The sled was on its side, both snow hook lines wrapped around the plastic brush bow. The brush bow itself, was pulled into the front cross bar. The sled was bent into an odd shape that had the runners sticking out at strange angles. I later found out that parts were broken. The immediate job at hand was to get the sled upright while being dragged down the trail. I’ve been tipped over on a sled before and it’s no big deal to get it upright or at least get a snow hook set so I can get back on the runners. However, something was wrong with this sled and it refused to be righted. The snow hooks were out of reach because of being wrapped around the brush bow. This whole time, in fact, one of the hooks was pinned under the sled and shooting a rooster tail of snow into my face. Every once in awhile, I would have to spit out a wad of snow so I could breathe.I had wrestled with the situation for a mile and a half when I noticed the hand without the glove was turning waxy white. Frostbite! It was time to let go. A musher never wants to let go of the sled, but I needed to protect my hand from further injury. My heart sank when I let the dogs go down the trail without me. It was also a relief, however, to no longer be dragged along with snow spraying in my face. Just then, as I was lying face down in the snow, I heard and felt several dog feet cross my back, then the bump of a sled. I’d just been run over by a dog team! I rolled over just in time to see another team charging by.I got to my feet, stuck my frozen hand in my pocket, and started running. I somehow needed to catch up with my dogs. Shortly thereafter, a musher came by and offered me a ride. It wasn’t but half-a-mile before we came upon my team. Two trail guards had wrestled them to a stop, got the hooks set and the brake on. One of them gave me a warm glove, and helped me untangle the hooks. Then I was on my way again. The sled was really wobbly, but workable, and before long we were passing teams. I was even starting to get feeling in my hand. Ouch!In the meantime, the musher who had followed me during the dragging experience had thought I was unconscious. When he got to the tunnels at the road crossing, where the spectators hang out during the race, he told the trail guard, “There is someone lying unconscious on the trail.” They all figured it was me because I should have been through that check point long ago. Well, this sent everyone into a panic. All mayhem broke loose. One fellow jumped into his truck to get help and promptly buried it in the snow bank. Someone dialed 911 on their cell phone and had the paramedics and rescue teams on the way. Some people started running down the trail to look for me. Others ran back to the clubhouse to radio the trail guards on snow machines.Just about then I came through the road crossing and told them, “I’m OK, I’m OK!” Then I went on to pass a couple more teams and came in to the finish with all the dogs looking good. Eventually my hand thawed out. It was kind of numb but usable. The next day I ran the second fourteen-mile heat on the newly repaired sled. The team made it past the now upright fence at the eight-mile turn and finished the race in fine form that day. Unfortunately, we didn’t place well for the weekend because we had lost too much time on the trail the first day. Oh well, anything can happen when you are dog racing! Daryl has lived in Seward, Alaska since 1976. He is married and has two girls and two grandsons. He started running dogs in 1989 when his wife asked him to make a sled for the girls. He made the sled and then started taking out the family dog which was a golden retriever. Soon the number started growing and the move was made to the country. Daryl now has a kennel of 20 dogs and runs sprint races all over Alaska. He chose sprint racing over distance because he works full time and was also raising a family. Now he likes it just because he likes to go fast.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,