However, the cancelation of this year's race was the absolute correct decision by the Race Marshal.
The first 75 miles of the race trail were exactly as I expected them - a slow, snow laden race trail. I then left the Meier's Lake Checkpoint and in the first 5 or 6 miles, I noticed many craters in the snow about the size of a snow machine. It was very obvious that the trail crew was struggling in all the deep snow and wind drifts.
I really began to have my doubts about the trail when I came head on with three of the lead trail breaking snow machines headed the wrong direction - one was being towed. After passing them, I came across a sled full of race markers parked along the side of the trail - obviously discarded as too much weight. Then I repeatedly saw areas where machines had struggled for hours in deep snow. I even saw where someone had used snow shoes to break out the trail in front of the machines. (Now, that's what you call "man power".) Then about a dozen miles from Meier's Lake Checkpoint, I came up on dog teams in the trail, stopped.
I knew the answer, before I even asked. "Are you guys moving ahead?" "Nope. All of the teams are stopped in front of us."
So, I parked my team in the line of dog teams and walked ahead. I asked the guys ahead of me what they knew. They knew nothing, except we were stopped. I was a lot more curious than that, so I walked ahead to find out more.
I could not walk on the side of the trail. The trail was only as wide as a snow machine track (about 15 inches). Luckily, my footstep would only sink 6 inches to 8 inches when I walked directly in the center of the trail, but if I stepped off to the side, I would sink up to my hips. So, in order to get in front of all these teams, I had to walk over the backs of resting dogs. Not something I would do normally.
I came up to a team with no musher and recognized John Shandelmeier's outfit. Another musher told me that John was up ahead with the trail breakers helping find the trail. These are John's backyard trails and he knows them better than anyone.
From this vantage, I could now see several people and two snow machines desperately trying to climb a snow ladden hill about 100 yards up the valley. They could not make it, even following a snow shoe trail. The machine would rev up, start the climb and over and over, fail to make it's goal.
I walked over several more dog teams and came upon Biscuit and Tafish with the rest of the Black Team. Allen and Brent Sass were standing there. They immediately asked me how many teams were behind us. I said about 7, but more were coming. They said that they had thought about turning around but it was becoming more of a difficult prospect as teams lined up. Up ahead of them were Gerry Willomitzer and Jake Berkowitz. So, there were at least a dozen dog teams now parked on a tiny trail with no shelter or communication, at 40 degrees below zero, just waiting. And the lead teams had been there almost 4 hours.
From what Brent and Allen knew, there had been a base trail for most of the course. But, on some of the ridges and valleys, there was absolutely no previous sign of it. The machines were bottoming out and had been since they had arrived. We would hear a machine rev up and quickly die ..... over and over and over. It was heart breaking. They said Jake, who was currently the lead musher, had already turned around to head back to Meiers Lake and then turned back around when John thought he might be able to help find the trail.
I stood there for a while, but it was very cold. I have a "survival instinct" that kicks in at these temperatures and so I needed to build a fire. I walked back to my sled sharing the news that the lead teams had been here 4 hours, the snow machines were trying, now with John's help, but from my vantage point, the race was looking grim. I spoke my mind and some mushers listened and to others, it was like talking to a brick wall. These guys were here to race and nothing was going to keep them from it. "Hummm," I thought to myself, "I bet no trail might hinder you a little."
From the outset, I acknowledged the obvious: we were going to have to turn around. The sooner the better. But, it is hard to convince a group of racers to look at the obvious situation. So, a few of us built a fire, I put on my snow shoes and went to get some bigger wood to burn. We might as well be warm! As this unfolded, more teams continued to file in one after another.
At one point I did hear the snow machines accomplish their goal and get over the small ridge. Then I heard no engines for a while - this was either good or bad. Eventually, we learned that it was bad. There was no Copper Basin 300 trail for us. John walked back from the trail breaking attempt to turn his dog team around.
Whether it was the right decision or not, I was going to start turning teams around. That means turning around all 12 dogs and a sled in a trail that is only 15 inches wide. The dogs, of course, can't leave before their musher is ready. But, a musher won't leave before their dogs are ready. Patience is key. Luckily, there were some helpful mushers out there.
I reached the end of the line of teams as the 19th team just pulled in - it was Ryne! I barely let her get off her sled when I told her that we were turning her team around. I asked her to return to Meier's Lake and tell every team that she encountered that they had to turn around as well. (I only thought about this huge responsibility later and I'm glad she knows when to take me seriously. Because as she ran into every musher head on, she relayed this news. None of them wanted to turn around just on her word, but they all did.)
After I turned Ryne around, we started in reverse order... team after team after team. I helped turn around 8 teams before it was my turn. After that, I had to go to.
The nine remaining teams were not too far behind us.
The Race organization somehow got word to our handlers to get our trucks ready. Every Copper Basin team was checked in and then loaded into its respective dog truck or camping spot. We then all amassed inside the lodge to wait of the news from the Race. Then, apparently after a long deliberation, the Copper Basin 300 was canceled.
I do want to say what a shame it is that so much effort went into a trail that Mother Nature demolished quite easily. Allen had run into Bruno, the head trail boss, in December and he was already laying in a base trail. We really would like to thank both Bruno and Darrin who we know did the absolute best that they could, as well, as the National Guard snow machiners. We also know that there were other snow machiners out whose names we do not know but helped all the same. It is sad to see your efforts vanish with the wind. And lastly, thanks to John, who put in a last ditch effort.
Now, I have heard some silly rumors that some folks believe that I should have "toughed it out" and put on my snow shoes for 30 miles at 40 below and put in my own race trail. But, you are simply wrong. I certainly have the ability to do that - and have done so on many camping trips, North Slope adventures or training events but this was a race. In saying that, please remember that I am mentally prepared for a race, my sled is packed for racing conditions, as is my personal gear. I was not carrying the extra 75 pounds of dog food, fuel, camping gear and personal equipment that I would want if I knew that I would be out breaking trail for 30 miles.
So, anyone who cares to take a hard core attempt at trail breaking or thinks that the Copper Basin Trailbreakers are "sissies", I welcome you to try your luck.
Here are some simple directions:
- Come to Alaska.
- Drive to Meier's Lake Lodge on the Richardson Highway
- Take the trail from the lodge off to the Southwest
- Follow this trail for 12 miles until you come to it's end
- Start snow shoeing
- Call us when you are done and we'll have a race!