What does a musher do on the sled for hours?
What does a musher do on a sled for hours at a time?
Well, 16 dogs ahead of you keeps one occupied watching all those guys working hard. You have to be always attentive to anything developing as to health issues, orthopedic or soreness problems, equipment staying together, what is up ahead on the trail, how long you have been traveling, what to do at the next stop, what you did at the last stop, when did I drink last, do I have to pee…
Watching the dogs is obviously a huge deal and there are clues as to problems developing. The way the dog normally carries itself is burned into your brain so you know their gait, each individual dog, each foot. How they carry their ears will tell you if something is starting to develop; if they start to hurt, have a sore belly, etc. their ear set will change. How they carry their tail is also a “flag” to an impending issue, be it minor or major. You can over read this, but these are good hints as to what “pupil” is raising their “hand” (ear or tail) in class, to more or less ask the teacher a question. At least that is how I anthropomorphize it. Catch it early and sometimes you can head it off at the pass, more or less.
As to lameness identification, or which leg it is affected, here is the way to do it. Think of the dog/person wanting to go away from the pain. So, if you put your leg down you tend to wince away from it. Same with a dog. They put their left front leg down and if it hurts, the head bobs up; the head goes up on placing the sore front leg down. If it is a back leg they will go away from the pain as well, but with the head bobbing down. Level line along the dog and the head bob up or down tends to tell you which leg is sore. Make sense?
Besides watching the dogs gait and mannerisms you are always on poop duty to see what is coming out of said steads in your charge. This can give you indications of over all feeding success, gastrointestinal disturbances, stress and the like. A scale of stool quality is subjective but you get the drift. How ever you would like to grade it-soft serve ice cream, a number, oatmeal consitency, your mothers’ pudding. It’s all about the poop.
The trail ahead is a good thing to stay aware of as long as you can stay awake on the sled. After hours of working on the dogs, being on the runners and very little sleep at a checkpoint it is easy to doze off only to find yourself being drug behind your sled with a rope connecting you to the sled so they don’t go off with out you after you fell off asleep. Quite an alarm clock. We try to avoid that with lots of coffee and 5 hour energy drinks. Need to be on your toes in many stretches of the trail as it does require some skillful maneuvering of your sled to avoid trees that are very hard in the winter, rocks, open water and the occasional other team that needs to be passed.
In between these moments of excitement can be hours of thinking and pondering about life. That can be good, that can be bad, depends on your psyche as there will be huge emotional ups and downs in this race. Some will listen to music, some listen to audio books, some just to the sound of the sled runners and the dogs feet. Books I find pretty entertaining these days as I have listened to music for years and this is new to me. So much easier than having to turn a page in the book which requires much too much effort on my part plus I can do many other things at the same time. Reading is not something a multi tasker enjoys but listening to a book and still multi tasking is very rewarding. Plus I can learn about something very important like why Jason Bourne is a spy, Dave Barry is funny or Tom Bodett is just off.
Eating is another part of being a musher that gets lost in translation with all that don’t immerse themselves in this sport. See, at anything below 32 degrees F everything freezes, including food. Candy bars are solid metal, meals are encased in ice, water becomes icebergs-all very quickly. So, keeping or getting these warm can be a challenge. Good thermoses, putting hot water in first to warm them up and then the important stuff, etc. Heck, toothpaste freezes solid. Often, with the food we will vacuum pack our pre cooked meals(shepherds pie, lasagna and beef roast are some of my favorites) so they can be placed into the water boiling for the dogs meal and get thawed so I can eat after the dogs are fed. The other food items need to be in pockets in my parka to stay thawed or I break my teeth. Nuts, raisins anything easy and as fatty as possible are all looked on favorably. I may go through 5-6000 calories a day, personally, when it is very cold. Keeping human weight on is a real challenge and once I lost 13 lbs in one race. And then after the race you are hungry for a month and eyes will lock on anything fatty-very carnal and you feel like an animal. And fun.
We won’t speak of normal human bathroom breaks except to say never face in the wind and it is very entertaining to come around a corner to find a bare bottom behind a sled doing due diligence. Some of the tattoos I have seen…
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