Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tobacco Trail 2012 - Part IV - "The First Leg to Övre Soppero"


The start by Jukkasjaarvi Ice Hotel went smooth and the kids launch forward with a greatly coordinated speed and energy. 

With my excitement and adrenalin, I miss a race marker that commands us to turn right on the lake and we follow the trail for the tourist teams. I notice that almost immediately, seeing friend and competitor Jonny Näas ahead of us, following the left tracks. I command the leaders to go right, but they get confused and still full of adrenalin, so I ask them to turn around, we reach the spot where we took the wrong side, and I call them to go right. Now they really don´t understand what I want from them. The team that starts after us is catching up by now and is headed the wrong way as well, so I wave at the musher to go left.

Back on the right track, we finally settle to a nice and smooth lope over the Torne river and I can enjoy the beauty of the setting sun. 

I ride the drag brake and tell the kids to go "easy" the entire first leg. I feel the temperature is sinking, the trails are hard packed and fast, not only on the river, but also on the marshes and woodland we run through.

As the dusk falls upon us, two yellow glowing large balls appear above the trees to our right. It gives a feeling of being watched by some alien settlement. Later on I learned they are the towers of Esrange Space Center. We are passing their A-Zone - the impact area of their sounding rockets. We were lucky that their attempt for the most recent rocket launch had been successful, just few days prior the start of the race, so there will be no re-routing or other changes of plans for the Tobacco Trail and I am sure the organizers must feel a great relief.

For a while, we run within sight of Jonny Naas and Bernhard Klammer, but we steadily get into our own pace and eventually it is just my twelve best friends and I on the quiet arctic trail. 
It takes a while before another team catches up and passes us smoothly. By now it´s dark and hard to tell who is who, bib numbers and faces are unrecognizable.

This is a fast and very smooth, uneventful run. After two hours I stop to snack the kids, couple of the boys don´t want to eat, but I am sure their appetite will settle and improve as the race progresses and their focus from girls in heat will change into the race mode.

Birgitta, running also siberian huskies, catches up with me right after the kids finished their snacks, but when I ask her if she wants to pass, she says she´ll follow. 
From time to time, I check back to see how far she is behind us, she drives about a kilometer behind, sometimes I see her and sometimes I don´t. 

A group of teams appears behind and we get once again ready for passing. The first is fastest, and smooth. The second takes a while before they reach us, then their lead dogs start sniffing my sled instead of passing. I stop the team and pull the other team´s leaders by their neckline forward. They stop. The musher tries to get them passed my sled a few times, but his dogs perhaps smell my girls and lose focus. I offer help, anchor my team, help him untangle his guys and lead them pass my team. The musher politely thanks us and off they are. It makes no sense now to get going again, I decide to wait for the last teams of that group to pass us. We are in no hurry, we want to have a steady, controlled and stress free run on this first leg.
As one of the teams passes us, I  notice one of the swing dogs being quite caught up in the lines and shout at the musher "you´ve got a tangled dog there". She probably doesn´t understand me and soon enough I hear the dog scream and whine, she stops and needs help of the other team to untangle him and sort it out. Now my guys are finally getting impatient. 

Finally moving again, Birgitta catches up with us once again and this time passes us. We follow her all the way to the checkpoint.

Village lights appear on the horizon and we drop onto another river ice, where we drive for couple of miles before reaching the first checkpoint. The first leg took us 4 hours and 35 minutes.


The checkpoint is set up directly on the river. Two lit up torches mark the "entrance" to the staging area and I can see the busy buzz of mushers taking care of their teams, steam from trail cookers, and all the typical checkpoint atmosphere. Many dogs are hyper and bark, not being tired at all, after this fast and easy run, including my guys. As soon as we get navigated to our post and a checker helps me by putting my anchor around the birch pole in the ice, the dogs start to whine and bark - they want to keep going. That sure makes me smile.

The checker asks in Slovak (Slovakia and Czech Republic have been united in the country of Czechoslovakia for many years, our languages are very similar and we can talk to each other and perfectly understand) how our trip was. That is a very neat and uplifting surprise, to meet someone from almost my home land this far above the arctic circle. I learn that Pavel lives in Kiruna and is a boyfriend of Rebecca, who is in charge of the race office and updates of the race´s trail blog.
We have a brief chat as he hands me a paper with the time we can earliest sign out. There is an obligatory rest of 2 hours here plus for my team another 30 minutes of time differential leveling. My race plan is to rest the kids here for 3 hours, give them a light soup and take it easy on the second leg to Saivomuotka as well.

Galena and Rapid - the girls in lead, are curiously watching me as I work with the straw bale. They know the campout routine well. 
 As soon as we get into our "parking position" and the kids get a proper rub, I remove their booties and go grab my shiny, beautiful new and easy to recognize blue dogbooties.com drop bags from the depot area. Jachym is here to give me a quick welcome hug and he takes a few pics of the dogs as he hangs out in the staging area. What a difference this is comparing to the Polardistance race. Although the handlers are not allowed to help us in any way at all, it is so much friendlier, letting them take pictures of the teams and chatting with the mushers, and nobody is sending them away, threatening with the musher´s disqualification.

The kids get their arrival fat snack that Rebecca and I made to try out, and they really like it. 
I then move on to my checkpoint routine - spreading straw and cooking water for their light soup. 
The temperature at the checkpoint is -25°C, so while the water cooks, I decide to throw a blanket over each dog who doesn´t have a coat on. They fuss quite a lot and it isn´t easy to keep the blankets on them :)

This is an excellent and super efficient trail cooker.
While I take care of the team, the dogs are curious about our neighbors who were just fed and bedded for a rest. It´s interesting to see how other mushers work with their dogs, what kind of equipment they use, what are their routines.

Thankfully everybody ate the light meal I made of Vom og Hundemat meat, Troll Ekstra Energi canned food and a bit of kibble.

After the kids had their dinner, they finally settled down a bit, still not really tired. Because Magpie and Snowy were in heat and the dogs weren´t tired, I put cable resting necklines on them all before climbing up the river bank to get some food myself, change my clothes and rest a bit before we head out again.

The checkpoint building is a home of Per-Nils and Britt-Marie Päiviö, a Sámi couple who with their family operate Min Eallin outdoor adventure company, offering experiences of the Sámi culture and every day life. They have reindeers, horses and sled dogs and work hard to make their living.
They opened their home to all the mushers, handlers and race staff, offering reindeer stew and traditional home baked bread with butter and cheese and coffee. The large dining area, decorated in the traditional Sámi way, is full of people eating, chatting, someone is warming up by the open fire place and couple mushers are stretched out on a bench by the window, taking a nap.
There´s a fantastic homey and friendly atmosphere in here. Jachym told me they let him plug in the headlamp battery charger, which is much faster than the 12V one we have in the truck. 

After I have devoured two bowls of the soup and drank some tea, we head out to the truck, where I need to change most of my layers of clothes - the change between twenty five below, then taking care of the kids, going indoors and outdoors again, make everything damp and not suitable for the 77km run ahead of us.

Within minutes we are ready, Jachym made me new set of warm drinks for the way and we head back down to the river and to the resting team. They curiously watching all happening around them and they are all rising up, happy to see their musher and excited to see what´s next. All signs of them being fresh, in good shape and not tired at all. A good thing to see! 

It takes me just a few minutes to put booties on those who need them, take the blankets off and re-hook the team into their tugs. Just to stuff all up back into the drop bags, quick good bye to Jachym and off we are, into the night. It´s 23:40 pm and we have stayed exactly 3 hours and 5 minutes. As the team passes a few other resting teams, I notice our siberian husky competitor Birgitta is just getting her team ready as well. We might get a company on the night run over the mountains.

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