At the end of March sprint teams from all over the world converge in the village of Tok for the grand finale in sprint mushing. This Gala affair is looked forward to with much anticipation throughout the year. This year we were privileged to have our daughter and grandson travel with us. The Tok experience begins weeks before the actual race by reserving lodging accommodations. Those who don’t reserve early will find themselves without a place to sleep, or relegated to a tiny room that was added on as an after thought. The end rooms are the most sought after and are often reserved months in advance.The first leg of our trip was over the Seward Highway, one of the nation’s designated Scenic Highways. All highways in Alaska are scenic, however, this one is especially so. It is also treacherous to drive in the winter. We drove through snow, blowing snow, and fog. Visibility was limited. After passing through Anchorage we connected with the Glenn Highway. This highway has about sixty miles of sheer terror, especially on a snowy day. The road is cut out of the side of a mountain that rises hundreds of feet above and drops hundreds of feet below. It is very windy and much of the road lacks guard rails. We passed Egil Ellis and Helen as they were dropping dogs. We honked and waveed. Later as we were dropping dogs, they passed us with a honk and a wave. It was like that much of the way as there were many teams coming from the south central area. We met up with six or seven of them in Glennallen. From Glennallen we turned at the Tok Cut Off. At five in the evening we arrived in Tok with just enough time to settle in our room before heading to the Mushers Hall for the sign up and drawing. This also included a wondrous meal, turkey, ham and all the fixings, provided by the people of Tok and the surrounding villages. There was also a dessert table that was sagging under some amazing creations. After the meal was the drawing and drivers meeting. This was all done in a timely manner as we all needed to drop dogs at around 8 p.m. There were 30 teams in the 6-dog class, 27 teams in the 8-dog class and a whopping 21 teams in the Open class. We headed back to the motel for a few hours of relaxation before the final drop.Since the 6-dog class started at 9 a.m. many people were up by 6 a.m. for their morning watering and to prepare for the day. Teams started to arrive at the track around 8 a.m. With one minute intervals the frenzy in the holding area had reached a feverish pitch by race time.We were not running in the 6-dog class, therefore we were shanghaied into helping four teams get out. It was a good thing we brought our daughter this year. Fortunately, the teams we were helping are spread out so that we could make it from one to the other. It was hectic, but we managed to get all four teams out without too much difficulty. Jennifer Probert amazed everyone by shaving 22 seconds off the track record on a soft trail.I ran the 8-dog class and I had plenty of help. I had drawn next to last which is not to my liking, or the dogs, as it had snowed in Tok for several days and the trail was churned up by the time we went out. We had a nice clean run with no stops, and without seeing any one. One of my main leaders was on maternity leave, so the run was not as fast as I had hoped. I finished in 11th place. The 8-dog class is getting as tight as the 6-dog has always been. There were a lot of very good teams and Helen Lundberg is leading the pack.Next we helped the Open teams get out of the chute. They needed a lot of help. There was a lot of dog power in there. Once the open teams were launched there was a mad exodus of vehicles as people headed for the highway, as it was the best place to watch the teams in action. The Troopers kindly looked the other way as the highway filled with spectators cheering for their favorite teams. One favorite spot was the Tok Bridge, where the teams came down a winding trail and then head under the bridge for the run to the finish line. It was a hotly contested race between Blayne Streeper and Egil Ellis. Blayne won the day, but Egil was hot on his tail and hadn’t left Blayne any leeway going into the final day.After the dogs had been fed and dropped we headed off to Fast Eddy’s for dinner and conversation with friends. It was one of my favorite parts of the weekend. There was a lot of laughter, and fishing tales pale in comparison to the mushing stories told around the table. The night was of course cut short as we all needed to drop dogs. I’m sure the wait staff was glad to see us leave as we were a noisy lot. Sunday morning was very chilly. Although it was the end of March the thermometer read minus 20°F. We got the morning watering done as quickly as possible. Getting the teams out proved to be a bit more challenging as they were all going out close together, and only minutes apart. I was helping #6, Kim Wells, to the line when I noticed that team #5 had no help at all and the dogs were attempting to go out the in chute. I left my station to help. I got #5 into line behind #4, but when it was time to pull into the chute one of the leaders decided to go around the sled holders. This was a disaster. The poor man was flipped off his feet and fell with a thud. The swing dogs next wrap around the other sled holder and knocked him off his feet as well. We were trying to untangle man and beast and had less than a minute to do it. We got the team off and running and my respect for sled handlers went up another notch. Kim made it out just fine, but I saw # 7, Kris Racey, coming up and she was not in a straight line to the chute. She took out the outgoing chute sign with her sled. Boards were flying everywhere and people were scrambling to pick up the pieces. Kris insisted that she had only had two beers before the race and she shouldn’t be cited for DWI. The excitement is definitely mounting on this second day. We were very relieved to get all the people we had promised to help off the line.Jennifer managed to hold off a hard charging Trisha Seibold-Sonnichsen to set a new standard in the 6-dog. Her two day time of 32:24 was almost a minute faster than the old record of 33:28. Trisha posted the fastest time for the day despite a mishap on the final corner. One of her leaders stepped off the trail and tripped. The rest of the team piled up on top of it and Trisha crossed the line in a huge ball of moving fur. I asked Trisha what happened and she explains that she has young leaders that like to play when the get close to the finish. They simply got so involved in playing they forgot to look where they were going.The trail was much better Sunday and I had an enjoyable run in the 8-dog class. I was trying a different leader in front, and although it felt like we were moving faster, our time was the same, so it’s back to the drawing board for next year. I did have a little excitement on the trail that day. I was flying down the trail and came around a corner just in time to see the team in front shut down and the driver jump off the sled. We made the pass fine, but it sure got the adrenaline pumping. I am disappointed that I didn’t get to chase down the team first. My team finished strong, but there was a bit of a let down as I realized this is most likely the last run of the year, and for sure the last race. My husband, Daryl, is a master at waxing sled runners and we almost always have the fastest sliding sled in the race. Still we were a bit surprised and amused when Blayne Streeper asked to lease our plastics for the open race. I suggested that a good price for the use of the runners would be one of his dogs, but he didn’t go for that. We were happy to loan Blayne the runners, for if he won the race it would give us bragging rights. The race was on between Egil and Blayne. Egil ended up winning by a mere 5 seconds. Those two are putting the excitement back into sprint racing and bringing back memories of Doc Lombard and George Attla. Egil was very happy to end his season with a win and Blayne was very gracious about his only loss this winter. Both were winners in my eyes. After the final race there were many dog dealings going on around the holding area. People were trying to find that magical link that will make their team a winner next year. Then it was off to the meeting hall for the award presentation. This race is nice to do well in as the awards are spectacular. The top three positions in each class are awarded a beautiful piece of hand crafted bead work done by the local native women of the area. To own one of these is a prize in itself.We decided to stay over one more night and make a leisurely trip home the next day. This turned out to be one of the best evenings yet as quite a few people stayed and we all convene at Fast Eddy’s at the same time to eat. The entire restaurant was filled with dog mushers, and with the race over, we were all very relaxed. It was hard to say who was eating with whom as people moved from table to table throughout the evening. There was much laughter, sharing, and strengthening of friendships. For many of us, we will not meet again until next year. The next day we all headed for home and began thinking of all those projects that we have gotten behind on while in the depths of training and racing dogs.
I am a lover of all seasons, except for spring breakup in Alaska. This year