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Snow pack

When you're a musher in Montana's grueling Race to the Sky, dog is your copilot.

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At our next break, Sima refuses water and food. I pull up a fold of his skin and let go, observing how quickly it bounces back. He's clearly dehydrated. I realize I should have started him on anti-diarrhea meds sooner. Another rookie error.

We rest for a full hour rather than the normal 20 minutes so I can see if he will drink. He doesn't.

I rearrange the gear—a royal pain—and make a spot in the sled bag for Sima to lay down. The seven dogs remaining will now be hauling his 45 pounds along with me, the gear and the sled.

But they're game. We arrive at Seeley Lake at 4 p.m., 20 hours after we first set out. The run took longer than I'd hoped, but given all of my mistakes, that's okay. I won't hang for at least another day. The dogs and I settle in for a nice nine-hour rest before starting the final 72 miles to Lincoln.

Huckleberry Pass looms at the end of the race like a final exam before summer. The trail ascends 1,600 feet in about six miles—not too steep by hiking standards, but after about 330 miles it's Everest for a dog team. I want to reach the summit by noon so we can avoid the predicted warm midday temperatures while climbing. Forty degrees might be comfortable for a musher, but it's hell for sled dogs.

Sima's dehydration and diarrhea force me to drop him from the team at Seeley Lake. He's drinking and eating again after his rest in the sled, but racing's out of the question.

The remaining dogs and I start the last leg in total darkness, just after 1 a.m. They hesitate a bit at the start. Some of them aren't pulling, but they eventually warm up, work out the kinks and find their rhythm.

When they spot a snowshoe hare, the team breaks into a full run to chase it. I haven't seen more than an easy lope out of them since the stretch from Lincoln to White Tail Ranch two days ago. It's good to know they have something in the gas tank.

As we pass White Tail Ranch, at the base of the long climb up to Huckleberry, I glimpse another team ahead. With the possibility of overtaking them—or helping them if they're having problems—I push the dogs hard. We move at a good clip, but I never see the other contestant again. I find out later it was a random musher who wasn't in the race.

The hard push, however, helps us summit before noon. "Hey, guys, it's all downhill from here," I tell the dogs, happily. But I'm wrong. Several small climbs follow and the afternoon sun hammers us. The warmth makes the sled runners stick in the snow, and the going is painfully slow.

I'd expected the last 15 miles to Lincoln to be a smooth, easy downhill. In fact, my mind had been fixed on it. Sensing my frustration, the dogs get distracted. They try to check out every sound in the woods, hoping it's something they can hunt; they stop and examine spots to mark. The lousy snow continues to grab the sled runners, which at times brings them to a halt. Each time, I pull their butts up by the tug lines and yank while shouting, "Hike!"

The dogs are working too hard for me to actually get angry, of course. I insist that we keep moving but apologize for telling them we were done climbing. They might not even vaguely understand what I'm saying, but telling them out loud makes me feel better, and seems to make them feel better, too. When I yell out the hike command, I see a bunch of tentative tail wags.

We muddle forward in fits and starts. Finally, after what feels like 600 miles, we reach the marker that tells us to turn off the snowmobile trail onto a track that's packed down for the race. The last five miles of trail into Lincoln is just wide enough for a dogsled or two as it winds through the trees. We slip in and out of shadows, trotting easily toward the finish line. Everything is good. Spent but relieved, I even say to nobody in particular, "I'm enjoying this!"

I feel like I've scaled a mountain. Just like on a hard climb, the tension only lets up when a safe return is assured. And we've made it. The dogs and I managed to wipe off the inevitable bird shit and keep going, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Only a few miles of forest trail remain, like those last easy steps into camp. Mushers call this "sacred ground."

Jake has the lead. Otter and Shoshone are next. Then Jag and Gonja. Finally, Tanner and Tok follow at the wheel position. Jake still can't keep himself from looking off to the side of the trail for something to hunt. But entering the homestretch, he steps up and the others pull behind him.

I am totally in awe of these guys, my team.

We're all exhausted when we reach the finish. A couple of the younger dogs seem interested in continuing, but I surely am not. I get congratulations from the few staffers left to check my team and the one other that finishes behind me. My handler, Aaron, starts taking dogs off the gang line and attaching them to tie points on the truck. I help give each of them a bowl of cold, clear water. We load the gear and sled, and finally put the team back in the kennels. Happy in their boxes, the dogs drop off to sleep. And as Aaron drives home, so do I.


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