Dog mushing, really is just a set of self-adopted rules that govern your reality. I’ll give you an example. During the sixties and seventies it was popular among certain sets to get back to the land, and, of course, many of these proponents lived in Alaska. When I landed on the Yukon it was still possible to homestead on federal lands, up until 1976. Basically, you could set up a camp with virtual impunity and call it yours, even though you may not actually own the “paper.” Villagers, the long established residents of the area, of course, had their camps, and fishing spots, and trap lines, and cabins, but there was enough room for everybody to spread out. Once you established that you were going back to the land, the game, the reality, was to decide how far you were going to push the rules to make it interesting. Most of the people I knew gambled that they could survive through the winter by trapping—a little income, whacking a moose, catching fish, living cheap, camping out, using a dog team, and working for money in the summer. Others, and I knew a few of them, took it to an even deeper level, and tried to survive through the summer by gardening, fishing, and survival ingenuity. They were the ultimate gamers. It was all a game of defining reality.The idea of going back to the land is very glamorous, very attractive to think about, but the actual reality of the experience has a lot to do with how real your situation really is. I mean, if you inherited some money or had a wad of money stashed in a bank account, then the chore of catching some fish to feed your starving dogs is somewhat diluted by the fall back plan of just buying some friskies if the situation got perilously out of hand. Or, put another way, a moose hunt is a lot more interesting and memorable if you are actually hungry, as opposed to a moose hunt in a jet boat, with a hired Alaska guide, and a charter airplane to fly you off a sand bar. Or, it might work another way. You may be just plain broke and don’t have a choice. Or life directs you on trails imponderable. The reward, fortunately for the impecunious or the severely tested, is a genuine adventure.I must say, thinking about Lance Mackey and his Iditarod and Yukon Quest win, that the best experiences are accomplished under duress. It is precisely why it is so difficult to explain to those outside the competitive world of mushing why the experience, done correctly, transcends taking the house pooch for a walk in the park.In 1982, my wife and I decided to spend the winter out halfway between Tanana and Birches. Late in September we broke down our fish camp at the Rapids and loaded split salmon, thirty sled dogs, and gear on a raft made of huge spruce drift logs. We tied a boat in the back – which is common on the Yukon – so we could push the raft to shore at the village of Tanana. The water on the Yukon, as is commonly understood, is dropping rapidly in the fall so that in a few days the raft is left high and dry on the beach. The split fish are still on the drying poles. They can be hung on temporary racks on the beach, and the raft is a good part of the winters firewood supply.Our plan was to load the boat up with fish, dogs, traps, and gear and move another fifty miles down river to a camp at the Birches, a remote spot and quite unpopulated, where we expected to freeze in and trap marten until Christmas. Since the fur would stop moving during the darkest days of winter, this is a logical time to retreat back to our place in Tanana. Later, we could go back down river to the camp for the rest of the spring, pick up sets, and maybe do a little beaver trapping.Now, the secret to this logistical effort is two flawless performances by the boat and motor. The first trip delivers dogs, gear, humans (my wife and two kids), and a few split salmon to the camp. The second trip, with everything deposited on the beach for basic survival, is the final load of split salmon, our fuel for the insatiable sled dogs, which will propel us through the winter in peaceful harmony with the snow bound north. The second trip, the final trip, was shrouded in a mournful fog, a low lit and subdued overcast pall, and the overnight appearance of thin skims of ice. The empty boat leaped on step for a magnificent two miles, then the motor faltered, made its last warble of the season, allowing me the ignoble experience of paddling to shore. The pans of ice would thicken and strengthen in the coming days. There would be no more boat traffic on the Yukon River and it would be another month, at least, before a dog team could travel upriver. The boat rested, lifeless, on the beach.Now committed to our location at the Birches, one critical item limited our winter experience – dog food. But, there was a silver salmon net in a heap on the beach. Those who have fished with nets on a river understand that the trick is to set a net in an eddy in such a way that the net moves listlessly back and forth like a curtain in a gentle breeze, moved upriver by the eddy current and occasionally swinging back down river by a little surge of the main current to envelope an unsuspecting fish. Placement of the net at the battle line of the two currents is key to success, and the only way to do that is to sit on the beach and study the eddy. Therefore, the art of catching fish under the ice really depends on imagining the eddy just before freeze-up, so that the net can be set under the ice more or less blindly. Thinking ahead, we walked the beach and found a languid eddy behind a gravel bar formed by a small creek about a mile and a half from camp. Not so many years ago, trappers moved their camp along the Yukon in the fall time with dog teams and a boat. The water is dropping fast, and long convenient sand and gravel bars unobstructed by driftwood, root wads, and willow thickets, emerge unblemished. At creeks the dogs would simply wade and swim across to the next gravel bar and continue. Shortcuts to an island or across a slough were more complicated but essentially involved loading the dogs in the boat, rowing to the other side, and keep on traveling like an Erie Canal barge drawn by draft horses.Surprisingly, it works better than you think. The trick is a long line from the boat to the towline of the dogs, and finding the best place to tie off on the boat -usually about a quarter boat length back of the bow balances the direction of travel with a little help from an oar. The hard part is training the dogs, but with persistence they soon understand their job, and a good leader will even learn to go in the water to go around a drift log on the beach. In the seventies there were plenty of old timers who could personally recount using this freighting method. After a few days, a boat trip from our camp to the eddy to check the net became routine. I could see the possibilities as the dogs quickly pulled the boat down stream to camp. Fishing is good in the late fall on the Yukon, especially for humpy whitefish, heavy with oil, the occasional late run silver, shee fish, a few pike, and the lucky burbot big enough to catch in a salmon net, always saved for human consumption. The only precaution in the late fall, is of course to avoid the ignominiously stupid and embarrassing mistake of losing your net to the ice. As the skims of ice increase, only your instincts can tell you when to pull the net for good. Sled dogs, the aroma of rich fresh fish issuing from the dog pot on the beach, resting on their spruce bough beds, appreciate the catch.The next interlude is to wait for the ice on the eddy to form, and in the meantime do something else, like cut a straight birch tree for a freight sled. Usually, the listless waters of the eddy freeze smooth and solid in another week, while the main current runs with rumbling pans of colliding ice. Having watched the eddy, the next job is to chop a series of ice holes, eight or ten feet apart, more or less as you think the net will hang. Of course, drag along a long spruce pole, a rope, and an old empty fuel can or a life preserver out of the boat – in case you fall through the ice. Since I had done this before with my old trapping partner, Freddie Jordan, the second time is much easier. Find a long willow pole, stuff it down the first hole, and thread it like a needle to the second hole. If you have a good natured partner, have her or him stick their arm down the hole and send it in the direction of the next hole in line, until the line under the ice matches the net strung on top of the ice.The perspicacious reader will have already guessed to tie one end of the pole to a rope – connected to the net – and already know how much sense it makes to take off all but a few floats. Next, of course, pull the net with the rope down the first hole and stretch it to the last pole. Secure the ends of the net to spruce poles, stretch the net so the float line won’t freeze into the ice (really easy and stupid mistake, especially if you depend on it.) The next day, the dogs ridiculous with the excitement of the first outing with a sled, was full of heightened anticipation. The two end holes are chopped loose, and the net, alive with humpies and the occasional red hued salmon, pulled up on the ice. In a day or two the dogs are trained to wait on the ice of the eddy while we load the sled with glazed fresh fish. On the outside edge of the eddy, ice continues to run in the main current, pans of jagged ice bobbing, colliding, up-ending, amidst a constant background static of ice upon ice—a reminder that the Yukon is still boss and always wins.The second interlude of ice fishing. The idea is to catch as many humpies and salmon as possible for dog food and yet save the net before the Yukon actually stops running and the pans of ice moving downstream suddenly congeal. As long as the ice runs, the net will probably be there in the morning. But, if the ice stops, that moment when the noise of ice is replaced by an uncomfortable silence, the momentum of that train of ice is destructive. Blocks of ice collide and the river surface becomes a crumpled white paper. The quiet little eddie with a net is likely to be remodified into a basket of ice rubble, and the net, well, it’s going in pieces to the Bering Sea in May.This is a test of nerves. You have to have the fish to feed the dogs—at the same time judging the flow of ice and then decide when to fold and pull the net. The dogs are consuming quite happily twenty big fish, and the surplus goes into a pile for later. Eyeing the pile of accumulated fish and the strength of the river’s ice flow is a daily preoccupation. A certain point arrives—the river must be imminently ready to freeze. You pull the net.Freeze-up initiates a chain of predictable events. The river stops, the flat surface of flowing ice collides like a traffic jam into a war zone of upended slabs of concrete, the river backs up and actually rises for a few hours, maybe a day, and inundates the shoreline with flood water. The floodwater freezes into a perfectly smooth margi-n between the shore and the ice.This is a memorable window of opportunity in November. Life could not be more perfect for a musher in early fall. Faced with the prospect of no dog food, I hooked up 18 dogs, including Spot, part sheep dog and the most pathetic sled dog in Alaskan mushing history, to a tandem train of two birch freight sleds. The best way to organize a train of freight sleds is to ride the first one, and bring the second in line with a gee pole, a spruce pole lashed on one side of the sled just long enough so you can reach behind and keep it in line with your front sled. It works good, and you can really haul the freight if you have the dog power.The team was six months to a year old, except Spot, who had rationalized his position with me as personal pet and specialist. His skills included unwilling acts of daredevilry and an unerring ability to understand commands. In his seventeen years, he never worked. Occasionally he faked it, but he never honestly worked.With Spot in the lead beside a yearling named Firlen, who would later lead in a winning Quest and Iditarod team, we made great time up river on a highway of smooth ice just a couple of feet off shore. At slough crossings, or wherever the ice was doubtful, I would unsnap Spot and tell him to get across the ice. Move right, move left, stay and “you better not move, Spot,” he was the perfect sheepdog on ice and willing to accept that singular job. Spot had a very well refined sense of judgment. When he was back on good ice, I told him to stay. He was the light beacon in the storm. At one time we were stuck on a peninsula of ice which almost bridged across the mouth of a slough, save for a channel of open water. Against his better judgement he jumped in and swam to shore in three feet of water, the rest of the pack following the leader.Firlen would follow Spot’s good advice and follow his tracks across the unproven ice, and in this way we made it to Tanana and our racks of split salmon, stopping to chop ice to make several key crossings, in three days. The return trip, the sleds monstrously loaded with split salmon, took only two days. In another month, the Yukon water under the ice always dropping, would leave the shelf ice unsupported, and section by section the perfect highway would collapse, the window of opportunity for easy freighting gone.By March, successive snowfalls have modified the rough surface of the river into a basin of wind driven shifting snow. Pulling is hard, the trail rarely stays from one winter blow to the next, and the dogs learn the rhythm of a long day’s work.That spring we broke trail from our camp to Ruby. The kids stayed buried in sleeping bags in a freight sled while we watched the annual migration of Iditarod mushers check in at the octagonal log community hall and descend the long slope of the village to the bed of the Yukon in the direction of Nome. Among them, Dean Osmar, Joe May, Jerry Austin, Rick Mackey, the legendary champ Ric Swenson, Susan Butcher, et al. who deciphered the Iditarod trail in its early years.In a week we returned to the Birches and a weather fluke. Temperatures rose, melting the top layer of snow, and then freezing hard again. Dogs and the sled could travel anywhere on top, but man and moose broke through the crust. The wolves had a field day running down moose, and we enjoyed the novelty of travelling with impunity through the woods on a virtual ice skating rink the size of Rhode Island—and an opportunity to really train leaders.A year later, I took these dogs and some very experienced dogs belonging to my good friend Stan Zuray, and entered the Iditarod as a rookie. The team included Firlen as a leader, as well as Spot, the most pathetic sled dog in Alaskan mushing history. It wasn’t surprising that Spot finished, since he never worked, but it was memorable that all fifteen dogs that started the race made it to Nome—somewhat of a record in my racing experience. Of course, in hindsight, I had not willingly changed the rules of mushing. Because the boat motor went bust, the rules of life changed, and the dog team became better trained and prepared than I could have expected. Post Note:Dredging these memories out of the past sometimes takes some effort. But it was made easier by a chance meeting with Joe May, the Iditarod champ, a great friend, a wonderful conversationalist, philosopher, and inveterate student of the musher mindset. Joe was traveling by snowmachine along the trail and stopped to make camp in the old mining Iditarod checkpoint and wait for the lead pack of the 2007 Iditarod to arrive. That evening I diverted to his oven tent for a cup of coffee and a reflective conversation about what it really takes to put together a winning team. Joe May, as fascinated as I was by Lance Mackey, was quite convinced that the rules, at some time, have to stack against you. Thinking of the Incredible Lance Mackey, winner of the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, and we both wondered how his rulebook reads.Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe, S. and N. America. Winner of Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod. He now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997)is available from the author. Contact Joe at email@example.com.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,