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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.

Susan with Lightning
courtesy Elaine Tomkins
Susan with Lightning

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 the race.

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, never complaining.

Susan on the northern trail with nine dogs in harness
courtesy Brad Muir
Susan 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 I sleep."

A moment of personal hygiene. Brushing teeth at a checkpoint.
courtesy Brad Muir
A 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 their hydration.

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 sluggish.

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.

Indestructible Mike, the leader.
courtesy Brad Muir
Indestructible 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 me.

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.

An unidentified team prepares for the mass restart at La Ronge.
courtesy Brad Muir
An 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 forward momentum.

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 this race.

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 me.

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.

Susan, the woman who runs with wolves, and Lobo.
courtesy Elaine Tomkins
Susan, 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."

C'mon you guys. What's holding you up?
courtesy Evelyn Paul
C'mon 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 this race.

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 thing."

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.

Re-packing gear at a checkpoint.
courtesy Brad Muir
Re-packing 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 down.

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!"

Kissing the red lantern or blowing it out?
courtesy Elaine Tomkins
Kissing 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 eyes.

Brad and Susan now operate Sundog Sled Excursions, specializing dogsledding tours.

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