by Joel Kersting
An article about a sled dog event that takes place in northern Minnesota every year.
On Saturday, December 14, 2002, five mushers and their teams met at Jamie Nelson's kennel in Togo, Minnesota, for the third annual Moccasin Run. The mushers were Art Gloor, Anna Chapman, Terry Miller, Jamie and myself. The Moccasin Run is a training event conducted by Jamie intended to help a musher prepare himself or herself and their team for a distance race such as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race or the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. It can also be done as a 200-mile qualifier for the Iditarod. Our veterinarian for the event for the third year in a row was Margy Terhar. Margy has served as the head vet for the Yukon Quest for the last several years. We consider ourselves lucky to have her join us. Ken Nelson, Jamie's husband, was our head cook, and we really appreciated having him join us.
The event started with a workshop on packing drop bags for a long distance race. The workshop is a real give-and-take sort of affair. Since we all came prepared for a 200-mile run, we shared with everyone else how we had packed our bags. Everyone commented on things they found had worked well for them and problems they had encountered. Jamie made suggestions based on her vast experiences running the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, and Margy made suggestions of items to carry in the first aid kit. In this way we could all learn from each other. Jamie often says, "there is not only one way of doing something".
Saturday afternoon JR Anderson and Jim Miller, both sled builders, arrived to show us their innovative sleds. JR spent some time designing and building sleds with Rick Swenson in Alaska. Now he and his brother build sleds at there home in Ray, MN. Jim owns Prairie Built Sleds in North Dakota. The sleds they showed us were impressive, and the afternoon was definitely a learning experience for this amateur sled builder.
In the evening, Margy led a discussion on caring for sled dogs and how to keep them healthy on a long distance race including remedies for some of the problems that might arise. With such good company and interesting and informative discussion it was hard to call it a night, but eventually we retired to the bunk house for a good night's sleep.
In the morning after Ken and his daughter-in-law, Amanda, stuffed our bellies with one of their great breakfasts, we prepared to depart. Since the Great Spirit had once again neglected to bless us with an abundance of that white fluffy stuff, we were doing the run on four-wheelers. Running dogs with four-wheelers may be a controversial topic, but most of us were happy to be doing the run on four-wheelers, because it allows us to run larger teams; therefore, we get more dogs trained. Team sizes ranged from 12 to 19 dogs. The four-wheeler also gives us extra control which makes it easier for training to take place. I remember Doug Swingley saying once that when he switches from the four-wheeler to the sled the training stops for another year.
We released the brakes and left Jamie's dog yard about 11AM. Margy rode along with Jamie for most of the run. For about the first eight miles Jamie had another passenger, Elizabeth, her four-year-old granddaughter. Our first run was our remote part of the run, which meant we would have to carry everything we would need for one stop. As it turned out it was also probably our toughest run. The trail was mostly unbroken snowmobile trail covered with a few inches of wet snow. It was very slow. About 42 miles and a little over 8 hours later, we stopped and camped along the Tim Correy snowmobile trail. We dipped water from a creek to water and feed our dogs and cook our own meals. Then we crawled into our sleeping bags for a few hours of sleep.
About 1:15 AM we hit the trail for the Franklin Lake cabin which would be our headquarters for the rest of the run. We would pretty much stick with this 8 hour run/6 hour rest schedule for the remainder of the run. When we arrived at the cabin about 9:30 AM, Ken was waiting for us. He had the cabin warmed up and started cooking breakfast as soon as we pulled in. When we were done feeding dogs we came up to the cabin for breakfast. Jamie and Margy were especially ravenous since they had mistakenly left their dinner back at the dog yard. Ken's cooking really is one of the highlights of the Moccasin Run for me. I like to eat almost as much as I like to run dogs, and with Ken cooking I get more time to concentrate on the dogs. It is evident by the care Ken puts into preparing a meal that he really enjoys cooking.
After breakfast I did a check of all my dogs. I decided I would boot four dogs on the next run since they were showing minor wear to their pads. Other than that they were looking great. There was no evidence of lameness, they appeared well hydrated, and their body weights were holding up well. After the first and second run, no dog had missed a meal. A ground mink mixture was the basis for all of my feeding. It consisted of ground mink mixed with a little Red Paw Extreme 35/30, a small amount of Canine Red Cell and some National Premium Fat Blend. My feeding routine included a snack of the mink mixture immediately after each run. A golf ball sized portion was dropped on the ground in front of each dog unless they ate it from the spoon before I had a chance to drop it. After the snack I prepared a meal for each dog consisting of the mink mixture, to which I added a handful of Red Paw Musher Kibble 32/20 and a scoop of warm water. Any dog experiencing soft stools received a pinch of a natural fiber laxative consisting of psyilium husk. The psyilium fiber absorbs any excess water in the system and does a remarkable job of firming up stools. I stuck with this feeding schedule for the entire run and was very pleased with it. I did not have a dog miss a meal the entire run.
The odometer on my four-wheeler had clocked 202.1 miles by the time we returned to Jamie's at 4AM on Wednesday in a steady soaking rain. We were certainly happy the rain held off until our last run. I had slept on the ground next to my dogs for the entire run. The weather was pleasant, and my new forty-below sleeping bag was down right cozy with the temperatures staying above zero. Now with the dogs tucked up in the dog truck, Jamie's warm and dry bunkhouse felt nice and secure.
At breakfast in the morning we recapped the event. Everyone felt the event was a definite success. Margy reported that the dogs had held up well. Every dog that started the run had finished. One dog experienced a slightly swollen flexure tendon, but no lameness was experienced; the dog was wrapped and continued the run with no problem. Two harness rubs were administered to and did not present a problem. Margy stated that the dog care was good, the dogs were kept well hydrated and their body weights were good. She particularly appreciated the opportunity to study the dogs' gaits. She said it is really hard to learn a dog's gait when you only see it for a few seconds at a time, as she usually does as a vet at a race. Riding on the four-wheeler allows her to study the gait for a longer period of time, and she felt that was very helpful. Margy's only complaint was a sore butt from all the miles on the back of Jamie's four-wheeler.
Art said this was the first time he had done a long run with no problems. After 200 miles his dogs were eating like pigs, they experienced no diarrhea and had no injuries. When asked what he thought made the run a success, he said it was the slow speed. Jamie commented that under these conditions there is no reason to run fast. Art is hoping to do the Iditarod sometime in the future.
Anna laughed about how she was happy to just have survived the run. Anna was preparing for the UP 200. She also said she was happy to have Terry along on the run because they ran together quite often.
I think Terry's dogs were the hit of the event. Scott and Terry Miller run Inuit dogs, descendants of the dogs the Eskimos used to use. They are a beautiful breed of dog. In recent history though, they have been bred to look pretty rather than to work; therefore, it is not known whether they retained the ability to work. After seeing Terry's dogs perform I say "yes" they did. Terry said she never intended to do the whole 200 miles. When we left on our third run, Terry was planning to do a shorter run and give her dogs a little extra rest. That was the night she says her dogs decided they were Iditarod dogs. They led the pack for much of that night. I was particularly impressed with the way her dogs ate with enthusiasm. Everyone within miles knew when Terry was feeding. Terry explained to me that this is a genetic trait inherent to the breed. Some people call it a "genetic hunger memory". In years past these dogs would be kept on an island all summer and only fed once a week; therefore, it is supposed they really learned to appreciate food. Terry said if one of her dogs doesn't eat, it immediately goes to the vet. These dogs also tend to fight more than other breeds, and Margy was impressed that Terry's dogs didn't fight. Jamie commented that these dogs do so well because Scott and Terry have put several years of hard work into them. Terry was grateful for the encouragement she received along the way and happy to have finished the entire run. This was the longest run Scott and Terry's dogs have done.
Jamie's team as usual was the strongest team around. When Margy decided to ride home in the pick-up with Ken on the final run and stay dry, Jamie could no longer hold her team back. She got home and had her team fed while the rest of us were still sogging through the rain. She told me later that her team, after eating similar to Terry's Inuit dogs, started dragging the four-wheeler away without her. Jamie was definitely pleased with her team.
Jamie was really happy that all the dogs were able to complete the run. She said in her view you run a race for all of your dogs. You run to the ability of your weakest dog and don't plan on dropping any dogs. She believes it is acceptable to run a race to finish rather than to win.
I felt my dogs finished this run in better shape than any long run we have done to this point. My dogs had no injuries. I was extremely pleased with their 100% eating habits.
Ken said he enjoys just being out in the woods. He also reported there weren't any fussy eaters on his team.
My congratulations to all the successful mushers at the 2002 Moccasin Run. I hope to see you and more of your friends at the 2003 Moccasin Run.
Happy trails until next year.
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