Learning to Mush Means Learning to Crash
Sled dogs know who they’ve got standing on the runners.
They know if said person has any inkling of what they are doing perched there.
Such was the case for me and the three Iditarod-finishing canine athletes assigned help their master – Robert Bundtzen, a multiple-time Iditarod finisher – teach me as much about mushing as possible within a two-hour window before the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association’s annual local business person’s fundraising race held Sat., March 18.
Dart, Venus, and Wrath – the three canines with lengthy mushing resumes that have successfully taken Bundtzen from Anchorage to Nome several times that were given the task of working with me on Saturday – sized this novice up pretty quickly.
And I thank those pups for doing so. They humbled me by giving me a “real” experience – a little something involving them going “Gee” or toward the right, when I was calling for “Haw” or to the left. More on that later in this article, but stay tuned because it involves the best crash I had all day long.
Frankly, I just adored those dogs – especially Wrath.
If she ever retires and needs a new home, I’ve got the doggie welcome mat out for her.
New Canine Friends
Venus and Wrath were the two lead dogs for the three-dog team allowed in this fundraising race. I wondered why only three dogs, but realized after my first training run that perhaps the folks running the race realized that if novices such as myself had more dog power, we might get going way too fast for our ability. Dart was the third dog in the team – she ran in the harness without a partner next to her but she did her job.
Anyway, I immediately fell in love with Venus’ sparkly eyes, was enamored with Wrath’s sweet personality and appreciated Dart’s sturdy approach to being the dog in the back. In the process, they not only accurately provided some perspective on how important the relationship between human musher and canine athlete is, but they also gave me one of those lifetime experiences one never forgets.
Even as I write this on Monday morning, I am still on Cloud Nine reliving that first training run in which I felt the wind in my face, heard the serenity of the woods and felt that exhilarating rush one hears mushers who are the real deal describe to television news reporters on the evening news. I can still hear the sound the sled runners created while sliding across packed snow and ice on the trail. I can still see the dog’s feet barely touching the ice and snow as they eagerly leaped forward.
So romantic, huh?
Somebody Has To Scoop
I also picked up dog poop.
I decided to have the full experience and that includes being quick with a shovel to scoop up the poop as the dogs wait alongside the musher’s truck before getting their running harnesses on and getting hooked up to the sled.
Poop that is.
These dogs burn a lot of calories. They eat a lot of protein dense food. Nature dictates they are going to need to relieve themselves a lot.
I am told it is common for them to poop as they are running on the trail. I am also told that when this occurs, poop sometimes gets inadvertently flung up at the musher.
Fortunately, I did not have that experience occur. But I was ready for it.
Musher Bob Arrives
It was well below zero when Robert Bundtzen, owner of Bundtzen Burner Kennels in Anchorage, arrived at the dog musher’s parking lot on the left side of the Beach Lake Road right on the dot of 10 a.m. as we had arranged.
I eagerly jumped out of my vehicle and grabbed my “mushing gear” – snow pants and heavy jacket that has the faux fur around the hood – hey gotta look the part, right, even if you aren’t – and began getting them on over my civilian clothes. With no gloves on at that point, my hands were already cold. Good job, Amy, I thought … you are already freezing.
Lucky for my hands, those heavy gloves that Susan Cantor, my mushing friend, told me to get from the Alaska Industrial Hardware store, took care of that within minutes of being back on my hands.
I thought about mushers out on the Iditarod feeding their dogs in the frigid temperatures and how I noticed on television that they weren’t wearing gloves while doing so. Brr.
Bundtzen had a big, infectious smile – figures, he is a doctor specializing in those sorts of diseases – and I knew I was going to have a fantastic day.
I watched as he unloaded. Figured I should stay out of the way for the first bit.
But then somebody pooped.
And I asked him if I could pick it up.
Being a farm girl, I am not afraid of poop. But I also knew from reading about mushing that when one becomes an apprentice under a musher, the first assignment given to master is the picking up of the poop.
I wanted Bundtzen to know I was serious about learning.
Introduction, Puppy Selfies, and Harnesses
He introduced me to the eight dogs he had brought along. I gave each of them a pat and a couple of them a snuggle during the process. Even laid down on the ground to get a couple of selfies with them. They probably thought I was nuts.
It was time to get the team ready for the reason we were there: getting out on the trail.
Bundtzen is a patient man. It took three times of him showing me how to grab the dog’s harness so the part that goes around the neck and their legs matches up before I was able to do this correctly. As he was going out with me for training runs, we had two teams of three dogs each to prep. I managed with annoying enough struggle to get two dogs in the harnesses to the four he did with no effort at all.
“You’re getting it,” he said to me as he watched me finish up with dog number two.
It was time to get down to business: The real reason we were here was in the woods; it was out on the trail. To get there, the dogs had to be hooked up to the sled.
I watched Bundtzen’s nimble fingers connect the various lines necessary to put a dog team together in front a sled.
He was so quick; he was so competent were my thoughts as I tried to mentally absorb the maneuvers his hands made. Successful following of spatial design has never been my forte. I wanted to master what he was doing but thought that for time’s sake, perhaps that could be later.
The dogs gave out a few barks and yipes as he began releasing them from the waiting area alongside his truck and walking them to the front of the sleds.
I thought, sure, I can do that. I unhooked one of the dogs and nearly lost the sweet canine critter because my fingers had not fully grasped her collar. She was ready to go. She knew we were headed to the sled and fun on the trail.
Mechanics of Mushing
Soon enough we were hooked up and Bundtzen reviewed the use of the brake system.
You move your foot off the super skinny sled runners and put it down on the mat between the runners when you want the dogs to slow down. Try not to use the other brake – the one that puts ruts in the trail – unless you have to it. That one is mostly for trying to stop completely.
Alrighty then, I thought. Here goes nothing.
I put my big feet – size ladies 10 – and my “rocking awesome” black lace-up boots with the fur around the top as I like to call them – on those not-so-wide runners, took a hold of the sled’s stanchion wearing the “gorilla” gloves recommended by Cantor and gave Bundtzen a “let’s do it” when he asked if I was ready to go.
He told me to bounce with the runners as we go. I thought, okay, be a Tigger because bouncin’ is what Tigger’s do best. Yep, I have grandchildren. Here’s the deal: the bouncing that Tigger from Winnie the Pooh does is not at all like the bouncing Bundtzen referenced.
The Thrill Begins
Nothing – and I do mean, nothing – could have prepped me for the thrill of that first take-off moment.
It was amazing.
Simply amazing. I have no other words to describe what it felt like to take off with three intensely motivated canines whom were ready to run.
Little did I know, those three were also ready to teach me some valuable lessons.
The first run went flawlessly. Lol. Or at least so I thought.
There were no crashes.
Bundtzen and his team of three were ahead of me. At the time, I did not realize that the three dogs on my team were simply following him. I figured that out in the “real race” later on.
Bundtzen kept looking back at me. I was nearly giggling with the rush of it all. Okay, yes, I was giggling … and hooting … and thrilled out of my mind.
“This is so great,” I kept chanting.
We were on that one-mile loop that starts from the parking lot on the left side of the Beach Lake Trail – the one that travels near the location where the Cessna carrying Christian Bohrer, George Kobenlyk and two aerial mapping contractors crashed nearly a year ago. It crossed my mind as the dogs and I glided along the trail. I felt blessed to have created a better memory of the area.
Rather quickly we were back to the parking lot.
It was exhilarating.
Bundtzen asked if I was ready to go again.
“Oh, yes. I am,” I replied with glee.
So, off we went for run number two.
Crash and Learn: Don’t Let Go
As we approached a hill, I noted that Bundtzen easily performed some of those mushing gymnastics: He moved his left foot from its runner and placed it on the right runner. His right foot was pushing alongside the right runner giving the dogs some extra help.
I thought, hum, I can do that.
I want to help my dogs too.
Yeah, right. So wrong was I.
Turns out I could not do that. Not at all.
Silly Amy, mushing tricks are for people with experience.
My bumbling attempt put the sled out of balance. It toppled over sending me crashing to the icy trail.
And I committed the number one no-no in mushing: I let go of the sled.
Major faux pas.
Perhaps not as big a deal out on the Beach Lake Trail system with Bundtzen in the lead to stop the team of dogs I lost.
This, however, could be a major deal out in the middle of Interior Alaska. Lose your dog team and you could end up walking a long ways. Lose your dog team in the wilderness and you could lose your life.
“You have to hang on to the sled,” Bundtzen told me. “Those dogs will just keep on running.”
Two more crashes – one as we approached the parking lot and I was trying to stop the team – highlighted what was my second trip down that one-mile trail.
That’s three crashes, I told Dan Shepard, the ECHO News photographer, who was along to document this experience.
I was elated.
And ready to give it a third run.
That wasn’t exactly a charm as the saying goes, but the third run only included two crashes.
Rock on, I thought.
This might sound completely nuts, but crashing, getting bruises on my knees and getting back up to do it again made me feel alive. Getting a little banged up and dented in the process felt good.
Almost Race Time
It was time to move over to the right side of the road where the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association has its staging area, clubhouse, and groomed trails.
It was time to register, decorate the sled, draw a bid number and get ready to do this.
Oh, and choose a racing name.
Shepard helped me out with that one: In honor of the Bundtzen Burner Kennels owned by my training musher, Shepard suggested Afterburner Amy. We kept the first half and gave me the nickname of Afterburner Editor.
There was the usual milling around that happens when one is waiting for an event to start. People kept asking me if I was nervous.
Nah, I said.
Freaked out just a bit might have been more truthful.
Yes, I was stoked to do this. But I also knew it was time to be “all alone” with the dogs on the two-mile track. That was where what I had “learned” would be put to the test. That was where we would find out if I had created enough of a trusting relationship with those three amazing dogs for them to actually obey my commands.
So, for those of you that stop reading here: The answer is well, um, no. Nope. Nah, they had figured out that obeying me was not part of the deal. Lol. I still love them.
Yes, okay, okay, the CMDA had plenty of folks along the trail watching out for those of us in the fundraising race. But there still were plenty of lengths of trail where not another human was in sight.
I was the fifth musher to be released from the starting gate in this race that would be timed to see which musher completed it the fastest with the dogs still under his or her control. Cross the finish line without the dogs and you get disqualified.
Okay, got it.
Hang on to the sled. Don’t lose the dogs.
Oh, By The Way
As we approached the start area, Bundtzen got a grin on his face that in retrospect should have told me something might be up.
“Just so you know,” he said somewhat off-the-cuff, “when I train with them on this trail, we usually go sort of right and straight down to the Inlet where you are going to have to go left. They might want to go to the right so you might have a little trouble there.”
Those were my thoughts.
Thank-you, Mr. Bundtzen. I know you are looking out for me.
“Good luck,” he said. “You will be fine. You are next.”
Sure enough, I was next.
And suddenly I had to go pee so bad. But that was not going to happen.
It was time to race.
Before I knew it, this really tall man was standing to the left of me holding the stanchion to help keep my dogs from taking off before it was my turn.
He is talking to me and suddenly I realize it is Jim Cantor, Susan’s husband.
My family got to know them a bit a decade ago when our sons were in the same Cub Scout Pack.
I look over at him and say, “Oh thank goodness, it is you, Jim. I feel so much better.”
The countdown was down to five and very soon it was time to go.
Hike, Hike, Hike Puppies
Dart, Venus, and Wrath pulled forward and I thought to myself, yikes, Amy, what have you gotten yourself into now?
That thought was gone two seconds later as the joy of being pulled along by three dogs that have finished the Iditarod and many other mid-distance races took over.
The race was going pretty good for me right up until about the half-way point.
That’s where that turn Bundtzen spoke of came into play.
Go Left Puppies
If it had been up to me and if the course had gone to the straight and sort of right, I would have dearly enjoyed a jaunt down to the Inlet. I’ve hiked that a few times. Always liked it.
But that wasn’t part of Saturday’s plan.
Dart, Venus, and Wrath had not gotten that memo.
As we approached, I was relieved to see a barricade there and assumed that they would respect that and go to the left.
We all know what happens we assume things.
Having learned a little mushing lingo, I began telling the dogs, “Haw, haw, haw.”
That means go left.
I would like to say they just didn’t hear me. That would make my ego much happier.
In reality, they heard me, but they knew I was a major novice. They knew they could get away with not following my command because, in reality, they were in complete control of this adventure.
We kept heading “Gee” or right as I kept yelling, “Haw,” to absolutely no avail.
Had anyone been watching this spectacle, they had to get a good laugh out of it.
At what seemed to me to be the absolute last moment, the dogs did go “Haw.” They were just slightly off the trail in a small clearing with snow about four to five feet deep.
Oh, nuts and bolts, I thought. I am going into snow much deeper than some I ended up successfully getting out of on training run number three.
My attempt to steady the sled was futile.
Before I knew it, the sled was tipped to its side. One of the runners whacked me just under the chin and I was sliding not just through, but actually under the snow. It was going up my nose and down my throat and I was still chanting, “haw, haw, haw.”
But I held on to that sled.
It was indeed a victory.
Never mind that snow was dripping off my face and my warm coat.
Once the sled hit the trail again, the dogs stopped. Turns out, I had involuntarily put my right arm down on the brake.
Mildly stunned, I got back up again and told the dogs to stay. I fumbled around for the big hook thing that one puts in the snow but discovered it was under the sled.
“Stay,” I said again.
Dart, Venus and Wrath turned their faces around and took a look at me as if to say, “yah, what is your problem, lady?”
I still adored them even though I am pretty sure they looked at each as if to say, “novice.”
I got my bearings about me again and said to myself, “rocking awesome, Amy, you can do this.”
Rocking awesome is something I say to myself a lot.
Yep, I Am Okay
By then a volunteer had come to my rescue asking if I was alright.
Oh, yes, I assured him or her: Sorry I was too disoriented to register gender.
I had a race to finish. And I was determined to take a video on the trail with my cell phone.
The dogs got going again and we were moving through a fairly smooth spot at a decent clip when I pulled the cell phone out with my right hand while hanging on with the left.
Pretty soon I was recording but realized that the phone was upside down. So I had to start over.
Nonetheless, one of my main goals of the race was to get some video. It happened. It is a great little clip of me talking about crashing.
The other goal was to cross the finish line with me on the sled runners and the dogs in front of me.
I will say we kinda trotted in.
Again, those dogs knew who they had in back.
It doesn’t matter. I loved every second of it.
One Final Oopsie
But there was time for one last crash of the day.
I tried to stop in the field where racers de-escalate, but someone with more authority than myself caught the attention of the dogs. They went right and I was off the runners again sliding on the slippery surface laughing to my heart’s content.
Bundtzen caught them and all was well.
I enjoyed helping unhook them. I enjoyed praising Dart, Venus, and Wrath and thanking them for the day’s fun with a few pats.
Of course, Bundtzen wanted to hear how things went. There were a few folks gathered around – including Shepard, Melinda Munson, and some other participants – as I giddily told the story of that left turn. Bundtzen smiled.
I helped life the dogs up in their puppy caves in the back of Bundtzen’s truck and noticed how roomy that space actually was. With the straw bedding, it looked darn comfy.
It was time for the awards ceremony and Shepard and I hung around to get a photo of the big winner. That wasn’t me, lol.
Mushing folks from all walks of life were in the clubhouse celebrating the morning’s sprint races and encouraging those of us in the business person’s fundraising race to consider the sport.
Little did I know, I was about to get the thrill of the day.
Red Lantern Time
When announcing the results of the fundraising race, they started at the bottom.
Turns out my race with Dart, Venus, and Wrath had the slowest time of the day for racers that crossed the finish line with their dogs.
It was red lantern time and it was being given to me!
“Oh, rock on,” I exclaimed. “Oh, super yes.”
For those of you that might not know: The red lantern award is given in the Iditarod for the musher that crosses under the arches last with his or her dogs. It is sort of a “we’ll keep the light on for you,” tradition that honors every musher that completes that grueling haul.
It has always been one of my favorite parts of watching Iditarod. I love that encouraging mentality; that sense that every musher matters.
It was with pure delight that I accepted that adorable little red lantern with its round applique on the top with the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association symbol and title. I saw a smile on Bundtzen’s face.
In a few minutes, it would time to bid him farewell. Perhaps I will take him on the offer to train me further.
He is one terrific person. The Anchorage community is blessed to have him around. He is a private practice doctor specializing in infectious disease. He will be on the front lines should this area ever experience any sort of outbreak. I enjoyed talking with him about his work and I feel a bit more comfortable that while the Anchorage area is the crossroads of the world, much work has been done to keep its residents safe from what may come along.
If you’ve never tried mushing, I highly recommend it.
As it turns out, I was under the guidance of great mushing hands and excellent paws on March 18.
Author’s Note: Check out the activities of the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association online at www.chugiakdogmushers.com and at the club’s Facebook namesake.