I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the River Runner 100 last year.
The 130-mile race between Whitehorse and Mendenhall was the longest I had ever participated in. The idea was crazy, thrilling, exciting and most definitely scary.
I got myself organized, though. I found a dedicated handler to help me through the experience, and dogs to complete my team. I had been training those dogs for months and felt as ready as I could be.
The day of the start brought a different reality. It was cold and the winds were gusting. Standing outside was a performance on its own. I was so focused that I did not have time to worry about the alarming conditions.
Out of 18 mushers signed up for the event, seven dropped out before the start. Some experienced mushers did not want to take any risks only a few days before the Iditarod and inexperienced ones did not think it would be a fun experience for them or their dogs.
Alexandra Rochat taking part in the 2011 Twister race last December PHOTO: Nicolas Dory Photography www.nicolasdory.com
I was one of the inexperienced mushers. I was in a rush to get my team ready for the start and did not want to lose any time. Someone mentioned I should not leave without dog jackets to protect my dogs from frostbite… I had not thought of that at all.
Fortunately Michelle Phillips, who had cancelled her participation, lent me some dog jackets shortly before the start. We were good to go!
We were the second team to leave the starting chute. I was running eight dogs when most teams were running 10. I felt safer with eight dogs as I was not very experienced driving large teams.
Our start was epic. The dogs were highly excited, not bummed out by the weather at all. It would have been impossible for me to stop them at the starting line if I hadn’t had help. They were eager to go and I got more stressed.
Off we went … but my leader, BigBear, refused to follow the trail set up by the race organizers. He followed the river bank instead. I could not make him change direction and could barely slow the team down.
When it seemed he was heading off the river to the road, I thought the race was over for us. I was scared, frustrated and disappointed we had only made it so far.
But BigBear is a great – although stubborn – leader, and he got us back on the trail. He was just going the easy way along the river bank where it is protected from the winds. We were still in the race!
The 20 kilometres on the Yukon River were cold and windy. Side hills and icy patches made it very challenging for me to stay upright. When we reached the Takhini River, the winds suddenly stopped and we were back into a more peaceful world.
I was afraid I would freeze, standing six to seven hours on the sled, but I was well bundled up and never got cold.
The trail there was nice and smooth. We came across a few sections that I was worried about, due to the trail report. Fortunately those sections never got me worried. The dogs trotted along and were pulling the best they could.
Closer to the Mendenhall checkpoint, as we went along the Alaska Highway, BigBear missed the trail and took me down a frozen driveway. I had a hard time getting the eight powerful dogs back on the trail. I was afraid I would lose my team if I walked in front of them.
We managed to get back and, in the meantime, a couple of teams passed us. We arrived in Mendenhall shortly after midnight. Our run from Whitehorse took us over seven hours.
Alicia, my handler, seemed worried but was relieved to see that the dogs were happy and that I did not freeze out there. Nicolas, my boyfriend came to surprise me there too. It was nice to see all the familiar faces.
The dogs were fed a fattening meal and bedded down with lots of straw. They all ate well except for Bounce, a young female who was probably impressed by our special day.
I got three hours of sleep, and we were ready to take off to return to Whitehorse. The dogs were crazy to go again in the morning. The return was partly in daylight, and it was nice to actually see where we had been mushing the night before.
Halfway to Whitehorse, one of my dogs, Suomi, injured her shoulder running on the river. I loaded her into the sled right away. She was fine at first, but quickly expressed her feelings about wanting to go back in the team. Suomi finished the race in the sled.
The return was otherwise uneventful. As we were coming close to the finish, BigBear left the official trail again and was heading to the road. I got worried because the team was dragging me across glare ice and Suomi was trying to jump out the sled at the same time.
We were so close to the finish, I could not take any more adventures at this stage!
BigBear was so determined, he managed to drag us to the finish line via the most challenging part of the river. When we crossed the finish line in the afternoon, the weather had calmed down. We were tired but very happy with our experience.
This year I signed up for the race again. I have gained experience and will be running a 10-dog team. I am looking forward to racing again. I feel more confident and I know it would be hard to beat last year’s weather conditions.
Editor’s Note: This year’s River Runner 100 sled and skijoring race will leave Shipyards Park at 3 p.m. on Saturday, February 25. More information is available at http://dpsay.wordpress.com/rr-100-dog-race/ or by emailing [email protected]
Alexandra Rochat is a veterinary technician who moved to the Yukon in 2008 from Switzerland. She has been running her own dogs since 2009.