by Susan Carr and Bradley Muir
At 8 p.m. on a cool Thursday in February, 1998, 16 mushers and
some 160 dogs left the city lights of Prince Albert bound north
for La Ronge on the first leg of the inaugural Cameco Northern Lights
Challenge Dog Sled Race.
The icy course ran adjacent to Highway No. 2, which parallels
the historic freight-haul trails between the southern and northern
parts of the province. The first leg wasn't timed, but mushers from
the Northwest Territories, Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan had
to make the 270-kms (167 miles) trek to La Ronge in 40 hours to
insure a starting position in the timed portion of the race back
to Prince Albert that began Saturday. On the return leg, each team
had to take mandatory rest periods totaling eight hours at four
checkpoints. Veterinary inspections of all dogs were made throughout
Susan Carr, of Christopher Lake, started the race with a team
of nine dogs. It was her longest race in three years of mushing.
Her husband, Bradley Muir, acted as her 'handler', an integral part
of the team who provides the only physical support the musher and
dogs are allowed.
Their parallel, first-person accounts of this dog-sledding marathon
offer an intimate glimpse into the challenging, emotional and fulfilling
world of mushing.
Brad: Our team is comprised of Alaskan Huskies, lithe and
sporty dogs with a wide variation in breed, build, coats and overall
appearance. Their common denominators are stamina and exuberance.
They live to run. They're working dogs, not pets, yet the distinction
is not exclusive.
Susan: The dogs are Lightning, Lobo, Mike, Tome, Mindy,
Joker, Taiga, Steel and Bruce. Lightning, my 11-year-old veteran
and leader taught me everything I know about covering long miles.
When I didn't know any better, Lightning would rein in an enthusiastic
team and slow them down to conserve crucial energy. I let her pick
most of the trails because she was more attuned to the subtle differences
in snow and ice conditions than I. Lightning always brought me home,
on the northern trail with nine dogs in harness
Brad: The dogs' capacity for revitalization is unbelievable.
They patter 30 miles with barely a stop. Chugging up and down hills.
Nine of them, in a rhythm that can almost be described as floating.
Tens of thousands of trotting steps and then, at a checkpoint, they
consume a pound or two of pork fat and ground beef, wash it down
with fish broth and then curl up on a bed of dry straw. After three
hours of sleep we rouse them. A few stretches, another slurp of
fish broth, and they are in harness again. Barking, excited, ready
for another 30, 40, even 60 miles!
Susan is the second team to start out of Prince Albert. The others
begin at two-minute intervals behind her.
The race route travels first through open country of fields and
forest bluffs, an area which less than a hundred years ago was a
continuous mixed-wood forest. Once past Christopher Lake, the forest
hugs the road's edge. The jagged spires of spruce trees silhouetted
at sunrise and sunset speak to me of this northern or 'boreal' forest.
That tree-lined horizon is imprinted somewhere deep in my mind,
even though I grew up on the prairie. I find it familiar and friendly
- like it's wrapping itself around me, sheltering me.
Susan: We arrive safely at the Lakeland Art Gallery, the
first checkpoint located 30 miles up the trail, after a nearly disastrous
incident near the start of the race. My team got spooked by spectators
and cars, and ran onto the road. I have a cracked wooden bow on
my sled to attest to the impact with the bumper of a van that managed
to stop just in time. These are the unexpected challenges.
Brad is encouraging. He tells me what a fine meal he's planned
for the dogs and how, once we get them fed, watered and into their
boxes for a rest, we will take our sleeping bags and foamies and
crash in the heated tent provided for the race. A few other teams
have arrived, calling for their handlers amid the confusion. Before
I know it, we are bedding down.
. . . We oversleep our alarms at Lakeland by almost an hour. It's
2 a.m. and we stumble outside to discover the parking lot is empty
except for one other vehicle. It is a sickening feeling - we try
to overcome the fear of being left behind. We wake the checkpoint
official, who's sleeping in his truck. I sign out. Now I'm battling
the feeling we're at the back of the pack.
We're alone. The spectators that crowded along the highways to
the Lakeland checkpoint have long since found their way to warm
beds. The night is black and still and we have three or four hours
ahead of us before our next checkpoint at Timber Cove.
. . . It's early morning now and I haven't eaten since lunch the
day before. I know my mind needs a calorie boost even if the thought
of it sickens my body. Very tired. I stop the team and hunt through
my sled bag for a smaller bag containing two raisin dutchies that
Brad stuffed into it a few hours ago. I find the bag and stick it
into my coat pocket. I pull out one and try to wolf it down. Nothing
on the trail ever tastes good to me.
I polish it off and we resume our course.
It's around 5 a.m. and Brad has just passed us with a friendly
honk. I watch as his taillights slowly disappear around a corner
and I set my mind to the next checkpoint. This is the only contact,
between checkpoints, that I can have with my handler. He cannot
slow down, or talk to me, as that can interfere with the race and
confuse the dogs.
I'm trying to remember that Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods
on a Snowy Evening.
". . .The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises
to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before
moment of personal hygiene. Brushing teeth at a checkpoint.
Brad: Susan's team is coming into the Timber Cove checkpoint
75 miles (125 kms) north of Prince Albert. Fatigue and unfamiliarity
dilate moments of minor confusion into what seem to be endless tangles
of ropes, tipping sleds, frantic dogs and hollering drivers. One
of the first, best things a musher learns is to absorb these moments
and maintain his or her composure. I think it is one of the greatest
gifts that dog sledding has given me so far.
Already our bootie supply is low. We started with five sets, 200
booties in all. Booties protect paws from the rough surface we're
running this race on. Snow conditions have been poor all winter
and today is no exception. We usually can get nearly 100 miles out
of a bootie but after 30 miles, every bootie on every dog has a
hole blasted through it. We toss another 100 into the garbage.
Susan: Brad concocted a soup, very popular with the dogs,
by boiling up gutted suckers and whitefish then freezing the meat
chunks, bones, eyeballs, and all. At each checkpoint, he prepares
the soup for the dogs' arrival by adding three to four gallons of
hot water. It's the best I've ever seen the dogs drink. It's critical
to keep them hydrated since they won't get any fluids between checkpoints,
other than the snow they bite on the run.
I'll stop to give them a snack sometimes; ground pork fat we pre-formed
into fist-sized balls. The fat has a high water content which aids
Over the course of the race I come to recognize that the individuals
in my team will respond differently to the offering of one of these
snacks. To my yearling, Taiga, food is morale; he will always cheer
up when offered a treat. My wheel dogs will almost always refuse
the snack. My leaders may eat, but shortly thereafter they'll become
We leave Timber Cove after sunrise on Friday morning. Travelling
in daylight is a luxury. The trail is fairly flat along this next
stretch, with only a few river crossings on the Waskesiu, the Crean
and the McLennan.
The dogs settle into a sustainable trot where only their feet seem
to move - chuk chuk chuk chuk - while their bodies are held relatively
motionless. Over the course of this race, each dog will take several
hundred thousand of these steps.
Brad: The trail runs along the highway's ditch and the road
is well-travelled. It would be easy to quit and get picked up. Perhaps,
in spite of the superficial ease of the trail, we are determined
to plumb the challenges of the race, to challenge ourselves in an
albeit 'semi-controlled' situation. How challenging can it really
be out there?
Then I remember how many teams have already quit. Good teams with
lots of miles under their runners. The experienced mushers are admitting
it is a more difficult trail than they expected. You don't notice
the long, hard pulls up the hills when you pass by in a car. But
the dogs and mushers do.
Susan: We have entered the Thunder Hills gorges, narrow
gullies up to 50-feet deep where a creek meets the trail at right
angles. We hit one that drops suddenly. At the bottom, the trail
crosses a beaver dam with a 10-foot drop to open water. I hold my
breath and pray that we hit it cleanly. We begin to skid sideways,
but before we drop we clear the dam and climb the steep bank on
the opposite side.
It is late afternoon on Friday when we finally see the sign telling
us the Weyakwin checkpoint is near. We're two-thirds of the way
to La Ronge - we've travelled more than 100 miles from Prince Albert.
I give my usual two-mile warning to the team: "We're almost there,
guys. Just two more miles!" Their ears swing up and back and their
pace quickens instantly. I don't know if they know what this message
means, or if I've just interrupted their "auto-pilot" state.
Mike, the leader.
We reach Weyakwin around 3 p.m. on Friday. My spirits are low.
In the past 24 hours, I've slept only four hours. I am dreading
the next leg of our journey, a full 60 miles to La Ronge. At this
pace, it will take us over eight hours to make it. I'm worried that
the dogs might quit part way, forcing me to camp along the trail.
A local family has gathered beside the truck and the children are
asking questions. I have to really dig deep to keep trying to answer
their questions. I'm battling a chill now and just want to get into
some place warm and go to sleep.
The family starts to talk about their sled dogs. Brad introduces
Redmond Fox, his wife Alvina, and children Rocky and Roxy invite
us to their house to see their sled dogs, and out of nowhere they
invite us to have a shower and sleep a couple of hours if we'd like.
First, Redmond showed us his homemade canvas harnesses, constructed
in the traditional bush style for running dogs in single file. He
had hand-sewn the canvas neck yokes and stuffed them with caribou
hair. Brad asked him if there were many caribou around here. East
of the village, close to his wife's trap line, the forest was full
of caribou, he said.
Redmond explained how he hoped his kids would learn the old ways.
He wanted to teach Roxy and Rocky the ways of mushing and trapping
and hunting before he was gone. We admired this quiet man's determination
and obvious love for the land and its life. Much more was communicated
in the way he spoke than in the words he said.
The Foxes told us they would be away all day visiting neighbors,
but we were to make ourselves at home. We couldn't imagine our good
fortune at meeting this generous family.
Brad: Our brief but comfortable rest is over. The Foxes
have come to see us off. When Susan sees them she spontaneously
burst into tears and hugs each one of them. Theirs was the sincerest
meaning of hospitality. I give my souvenir race cap to Redmond,
knowing it to be an inadequate gesture, but one given with warmth.
Susan: It's 7 p.m. on Friday and time to leave Weyakwin.
Brad rides the back of the runners to get us over the few blocks
that lead back to the trail. We point out to the officials that
we have left a dog behind and are now down to eight. I sign out.
It is a tearful goodbye to my handler here as we head off alone
into the darkness.
. . .We're approaching Air Ronge, just south of La Ronge, and it's
a long downhill through a narrow archway of willows.
It's 2 a.m. on Saturday, and the headlamp on my sled reveals that
some young artists in the community have taken the time to decorate
the trail with homemade posters. It lifted my spirits immediately
when I saw these cheery messages, after having spent the last eight
hours alone in the dark.
When we arrive at the end of the first leg, I call out in triumph:
"We're still alive!" The dogs are frisky, wagging their tails and
waiting for all the good things Brad has prepared for them. I give
each of the dogs a big hug and thank them for bringing us all this
way. Lightning deserves special praise. I know she's been starting
to stiffen in the last hour, so I spend extra time giving her a
full massage before putting her to bed.
Brad: We sleep until 9 a.m. as planned, feeling well-rested
even though we've still only had six hours of sleep.
Susan: It's time for Saturday's restart in La Ronge, and
some 200 spectators have gathered to see the beginning of the timed
portion of the race. Lighting will also watch us leave. She is too
tired. I will run with seven dogs.
unidentified team prepares for the mass restart at La Ronge.
The starting flag is up. The noise level skyrockets as the dogs
start barking and lunging into their harnesses. They've obviously
forgotten how tired they were earlier this morning when we arrived.
When I am exposed to this, I've learned to enter into a deep sense
of calm to counterbalance what's happening with the excitement of
the dogs. I stand on the runners and begin my routine of deep breathing
and a few stretches.
The team is poised, ready to burst out of the starting gate. Unspeakable
din of a hundred barking, yelping canines. The flag drops. We're
off. Instant silence as the dogs energy becomes channelled into
We're a few miles out of La Ronge and there are still quite a few
spectators lining the highway. I try to wave to as many as I can.
One little girl, perhaps five years old, is standing with her father.
She returns my wave excitedly and calls out loud and clear: "You
can do it!". I smile and call out "Thanks!". Right about then I
had been wondering whether we could or not. I had plenty of doubts
until now. But when she said that, I knew I would have to finish
We go about a block further and I turn around to see whether I
can still see the little girl. There's a sea of people now and all
the faces are turned away to watch the other teams coming up the
trail. All the faces but one. There she is, her face illuminated
by the early afternoon sunshine. I wonder, can she still see me?
I wave one last time. A tiny hand goes up. She's still watching
Brad: Eight hours later, back in Weyakwin, I stare down
the trail. The team is overdue. I spot Susan's bobbing headlight
and as she approaches, I see that our dog Bruce is riding in the
sled. Bruce had been a bit dehydrated at La Ronge. Fortunately,
he drinks and eats very well here. He will be back in the team for
the next leg.
Later that night, in one critical lapse of focus and determination,
I begin to doubt. Can I get enough food and water and rest into
this team to keep their spirits up and their bodies healthy? Can
Susan pull herself through it all? Will the dogs quit on her somewhere
before the next checkpoint?
I shed my sleeping bag, pull on my parka and boots and begin walking
the streets in this northern village of Weyakwin at 2:30 on Sunday
morning. I try to let the doubts slip away. It has been a challenge
travelling all these miles, and there is still so much ahead. I
look up. It's clear. An emerald band of northern lights waves across
the sky. I interpret the lights as personal guides, arriving to
sweep my mind clear as I take in their beauty. It works, and I thank
them. Just as for the rest of this land of forest and lakes, I am
thankful for their benediction.
the woman who runs with wolves, and Lobo.
Susan: It's around 4 a.m. Sunday and Halfway House checkpoint
should only be an hour down the trail from here. It's clear the
dogs' humor for the sport is waning. We are plodding. I start to
do something that I probably shouldn't do at this point, at this
pace: Math. I'm calculating the distance we have left and the pace
at which we're covering it. The finish line closes at midnight tonight.
Can we make it in time?
Brad: As I drive between the Weyakwin and Halfway House
checkpoints I am calculating and recalculating the approximate speed
of the team and their estimated time of arrival at the next checkpoint.
Somewhere in the dark out there my headlights will catch our team
off the edge of the road. Or maybe not. Maybe they'll be in the
bottom of a creek or behind a copse of willows when I drive past.
I try again to figure out a time for their arrival, but I'm too
tired and the numbers don't come out straight.
Susan: It's around 6 in the morning on Sunday and the dogs
have been resting here, midway between Halfway House and the next
checkpoint at Timber Cove. "Ready guys?" No response. Only Tome
stands. My new leaders, Mike and Lobo, have decided to make their
own rules. If they quit now, there's no way we'll make it across
that finish line in time. I leap off the runners and run to the
front of the team. I grab the leaders' neckline and pull them off
the ground. "You call yourself sled dogs! There's no way you're
going to quit on me now. Let's go!" I'm pulling and running backwards
down the trail. "Let's go, that's it." They walk along pathetically,
barely keeping up to me.
Once I feel they've got a little momentum I run to the back of
the sled and start pushing and shouting: "Let's go! Let's go!" They
begin to slow down again. "Oh no you don't! LET'S GO!" A second
time, I run to the front of the team and pull them faster. Finally
satisfied they're at least putting one paw in front of the other,
I return to the sled runners and start pedalling continuously. "Alright
you guys, it's time I started acting a little more like a member
of the team. Now it's my turn to earn my keep."
Brad: Susan pulls into Timber Cove at 8 a.m. She's been
remarkable. I've seldom seen her so determined. I applaud her. But
should I give her the bad news? At the rate they ran the last leg,
they'll never finish before the midnight deadline tonight. At least,
that's what the numbers say. Will this be an 'out' for her? How
much faith has she in her dogs?
Susan: Brad tells me the bad news. He showed me his page
of scribbled times and mileages. "I don't think you can make it,
Sue. They've slowed down a lot. There's not enough time left."
We talk it over while we sit in the truck eating breakfast. "I
can't quit now, we've come so far."
"All I'm saying is maybe you should think about just making it
to the Lakeland Gallery checkpoint. You're already winners for coming
this distance. You've proved yourselves a dozen times over."
you guys. What's holding you up?
I start thinking about what I'd been hearing the other mushers
saying: "Do the math. It can't be done in the time they've allotted.
Not on these trails."
I did the math. Then I decided the math wouldn't help us finish
I don't consider myself a religious person. Spiritual sometimes,
but not religious. But there I was praying. Praying for a miracle.
That's what we needed now. "If I've got any connections up there
at all, dear God, I'd like to ask you for this one thing today.
We've worked so hard for this. Can you just bring us safely across
that finish line before midnight?"
I couldn't tell Brad that I intended to finish this race no matter
what time we crossed that finish line. We were going to go the distance
and we didn't care if it meant stumbling pathetically across that
line hours after the deadline. I would drag us across that line
if I had to. There was no letting go of this now. "You can do it,"
that little voice whispered in my head.
We suited up and departed to Brad's reminder: "You're going to
have to run hard in this next stretch if you want to finish this
Run. Run hard! I ran and pedalled the entire 30 miles from Timber
Cove to Lakeland Gallery. We didn't even stop for a break for fear
of losing momentum. Our energy was picking up. Could the dogs sense
we were getting close to home?
I love this part of the trail. It's familiar ground, next to Prince
Albert National Park, where I've made my living for the past 15
years. Rolling hills, little beaver ponds, boreal forest. The sun
was shining now and I was two layers overdressed for the job. But
I didn't dare stop to make adjustments. I unzipped my coat and the
sides of my snowpants, threw my hat and overmitts into the sled
bag and continued pedalling.
I see the gallery sign along the highway now. I look at my watch.
It's approaching 2:30 p.m. For the first time in the race, I am
finally almost certain that we will make the finish line.
Traditionally, when a musher was out on the trail, a red lantern
was lit to guide him home safely. Today, a red lantern is lit at
the beginning of distance races and left burning for the entire
race. The last musher to cross the finish line gets to blow out
the lantern and take it home as a souvenir. I realize now that the
red lantern is within our grasp.
gear at a checkpoint.
The vet checks the team. O.K. We feed, water, then take the mandatory
four-hour rest with perhaps the greatest anticipation since the
race began. As soon as our synchronized watches strike 6:26 p.m.,
I pull the slip knot anchoring us to the truck and we snake out
the short path leading back to the trail. Everyone seems a little
slow, but after a mile they loosen up and strike a unified pace.
Brad: The race marshal has told me that since we are the
last team on the trail it will be all right if I pass our team and
watch them clear the approaches safely. But I find the volunteers
are doing it for me, so I go ahead and drive down a side road about
a half mile then walk back toward the trail. I wait about a hundred
yards from the trail and say nothing as Susan and the team pass.
I go completely unnoticed in the darkness, a few snow flakes drifting
Just as when I watch my child asleep, safe in her bed, I am filled
with a sense of intimacy. These few seconds witnessing the team
and trail as a 'ghost' are unforgettable.
Susan: The dogs definitely know we are on the home stretch.
Their pace is incredible, considering all that we've been through
over the past 74 hours. We seem to be getting faster and faster
as the lights of Prince Albert approach.
Brad: I'm bubbling with enthusiasm. It's almost euphoric,
but I bridle it. Overconfidence can be a terrible thing. "Balance,"
I remind myself. I think these thoughts even though absolutely nothing
I do will now affect the outcome. My part is over. But I can't shake
superstitious thoughts that cross my mind.
Susan: I can't contain my enthusiasm: "You're doing great!
Look you guys!"
We pass under the first street lights of the city. Five miles to
go. We're home free. "Oh my God, we're going to do it! Home stretch!"
We can see the banner stretched over the finish line. "This is it!"
the red lantern or blowing it out?
Brad gives me a hug. We're both crying. He says to stay right here
- he's got a special treat for us. He returns from the truck with
raw filet mignon for each of the dogs. They gobble them down whole.
I wonder where mine is. Elaine, the race coordinator, takes me over
to the red lantern which I happily extinguish. In some strange way,
the end is a little sad. Running tonight felt so good. We would
have gladly kept going. . . .
Brad: Only seven of the 16 teams finished the race. First
place went to Jessie Royer, of Montana. She was here nine hours
ago. But we don't care. We win, for ourselves and the dogs, by finishing.
Susan and six dogs crossed the finished line at 10:10 p.m. on Sunday,
March 1. Her team ran the last leg of the trip with the second fastest
speed of all the finishers. Lobo and Mike, in lead, brought them
in. Tome still had his tail up. Steel, Bruce and Joker were bright-eyed
and smiling; I believe they can smile. The lean, bright red beef
steaks provided at the finish line and so eagerly devoured, along
with big hugs, were understatements of our appreciation. Maybe they
sensed the meaning of the lumps in our throats and tears in our
Brad and Susan now operate Sundog Sled Excursions, specializing dogsledding tours.
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