Yesterday, I woke up to 9 fresh inches of snow. The snowmobile clubs were up early grooming the trails, and the plow trucks usually take a day or 2 to reach my roads. So I was at a crossroads on whether to do rig or sled yet again. Even with the groomed trails, I wasn't sure there was enough packed snow to hold a hook. But there was way too much snow for the dogs to get through a run pulling my rig.
Ultimately, I decide to go sled since I could hardly pull my rig myself. Hooked everyone and everything up, and off we went. When we approach our usual entrance to the snowmachine trail, it wasn't groomed. I ask the dogs to go haw onto it, but Zeus wouldn't go into the powder. Legend even tries to go gee into the ungroomed snowmachine trail on the other side of the road crossing, but the leaders wouldn't go haw no matter how much I ask. We are on a plowed section of road, so I couldn't even try to hook down and point them on the trail myself. So I decid to go another hundred feet to the next opening to the snowmachine trail - the new one they put in this fall, so it is groomed. It's a hairpin turn onto the trail, so it took some convincing but the dogs went down that trail eventually.
That first half of the run is magical. I think to myself, man, this is why I moved up north. Frosted trees, silence except for my dogs panting and snaps jingling.
We passed one of the groomers on our way past the second road crossing, and I start keeping an eye out for the turn off into the loop since I knew it was in this section of trail. We were taking a new route today - after studying the satellite maps, I picked a 9-10ish mile route with a loop at the end of it to turn us back on the snowmachine trail. We come on an entrance to an ungroomed trail and I stop the team, stand on the brake, and pull out my phone - checking the satellite, yep, this is the entrance. I ask the dogs to go haw but they had no interest in leaving the ungroomed trail. No big deal, we can just go to the other entrance of the small loop and try again. Maybe that side will be groomed. We come on another trail entrance, stop, check my satellite, yep this is it. This time I was determined to make the dogs take the trail. I set the hook after a few tries, catching it on something hard and frozen under the snow. I walk forward, pull Zeus and Legend onto the ungroomed trail. "Haw," I tell them. I let go and take a few steps back towards the sled and they swing back onto the groomed trail. I try again and again, until finally I make it back to my sled with them still pointed towards the loop trail. I pull the hook, and call, "Let's go!" And what do you know, but these stubborn dogs swing right back onto the groomed trail and zoom past the trail entrance.
I take a few moments to gather myself and stop the team again, preparing to turn the team around. I have been trying to plan loops avoid turnarounds like this because I can't always get off the sled or rig lately - parking brake options have been limited with a rig instead of ATV and low snow conditions - which is an issue both because turning around often makes a tangle, but also because Crow is the one who is best at it and he is on the bench right now. But more importantly, Crow is so used to turning around at the halfway point that he sometimes does it when I just stop the team for a break; so I have been removing turnarounds all together to try and train this habit out of him. It can be dangerous, especially with his grudge towards Venture further back in the team.
I stop the team, and try to set the hook to my right so the sled wouldn't roll over the hook when we turn around left. But my team, who are so good at staying to the right side of the trail like I have taught them, have my sled right up at the edge of all the groomed snow and I can't set the hook securely in the powder to my right. So I set it to my left instead - again, after a few tries. Once I am confident the hook will hold, I walk up to my leaders and start walking them around to the left. Legend knows what is happening and is enthusiastic, Zeus is just a big beefy boy happy to be moving forward, and Venture knows what's happening and starts turning around from wheel, trying to cross paths with the leaders. They pull me off my feet but I hang on and they don't actually take off. I walk my way back up the line, holding them back as best I can, but because the snowhook is now turned around backwards, it isn't holding them back anymore. They start trying to go before I get back to the runners, so I hang onto the side of sled tight, and they stop after a few feet, my body creating too much drag for them. I climb onto the runners and the dogs are off again, anxious to get going after such a long time stopped. I look down, trying to locate my snowhook, and like I feared, like I tried to avoid, the snowhook line was caught under my left runner, with the hook itself under my body, pointy ends up. I try to fix it while we are moving, not gonna happen. I stop the team again, coaxing them to be calm, and lift one runner, leaning down to pull the snowhook under and out with one hand. But the dogs take off again, not understanding why I keep stopping them, and I slip and start dragging. My one gloved hand slips off the handlebar and in a panic, I try to grab the handle of the snowhook but it slips through my fingers. Off goes my dogs and my sled, bouncing merrily on the snow, zooming fast now that it is relieved of weight, snowhook dragging under a runner uselessly. I get up and yell, "LEGEND!"
We were five miles out. And I was a mile from the last road crossing. Nothing to do but start walking.
I called all my neighbors and nearby friends in a panic, hoping someone could catch the dogs before they got to that last road crossing with the hairpin turn - the trail shoots out to the left, towards the highway, when you have to turn a tight right to go to my house. I even hoped that groomer I passed by earlier might catch them - but I got to a crossroad on the snowmachine trail and my heart sank when I saw the groomer had gone on to groom another part of the trail and was long gone, no longer behind us.
20 or 30 minutes later - I really am not sure how long it was - I finally reach the road crossing. One of my neighbors was waiting there in his truck, waiting. I hop in and we zoom off, checking the second road crossing. You could see the runner marks - they had made it through that section of trail and kept going. We head towards the second road crossing, the adrenaline finally catching up to me and my throat starting to catch with fear and worry. Before we reach it, we see another neighbor out on the road walking in front of my house, and decide to pull up to her to see if she had seen anything. She immediately informs us, the team ran back to my yard, but one of the dogs is down the road loose. My heart stops. I couldn't believe it. Immediately we gun down the road, and when I realized it was Panther that was loose, i cursed and my stomach dropped. Since Panther is so new, and since we are still building trust, I didn't know if she would come to me.
I roll down the window and call, "Panther!" She slows to a trot and looks around, recognizing my voice. I call again and again till she turns around and passes the truck. I get out, get on my knees, and call her again and again. Her harness is all bunched up around her neck. She comes a little closer but won't come all the way. I slowly come forward and she backs up a little. I coax her more and she crouches down, ears down and tail wagging submissively. She stays like that until I can creep up and grab her collar. She is completely uninjured, 100% ok.
I scoop up her little body and bring her into the truck cab with us. We drive back to my house, and since my plow guy hasn't gotten to my house yet, I can see that the tracks going back in to my house came from the other side - the dogs must have passed my house, tangled and opened snaps, left Panther on the road, and ran back towards my house. We had never gone that direction before, I was floored they knew where home was.
I walked Panther up the long driveway since it was too deep of snow for my neighbor's truck, and to my shock, there they were - my sled and a tangle of dogs right in front of the entrance to the dog yard. I got closer and counted one, two, three. Someone was still missing. Holding Panther's collar, I see Venture got himself loose too and grab him by the harness to lead both dogs back towards the dog yard. Legend and Zeus, still hooked to the sled, follow behind me. I put each dog on a tether, preparing myself to go back out and look for Radar. I am looking down, hooking Zeus into the tether, when POOF, Radar appeared under me! I couldn't believe it. I was so relieved. She must have been in one of the doghouses.
Not a single dog was injured, no lines were chewed. They just had an adventure, while I had a nightmare. I am beyond thankful everything happened as it did - that this community rallied so quickly for me, that Panther came when I called, that the dogs ran home. But my PTSD is making me replay it over and over and over. In the moment of crisis, I keep my cool really well, but once all the dogs were safe, I couldn't stop replaying the past few hours in my head. Even writing this sets my heart pounding and my anxiety spiking. Falling asleep that night was difficult.
I am taking a few days off running because I need the time, mentally. But the anxiety grips me still. What if I try again and that trail isn't groomed, and the dogs won't take the loop? Would it be better to use my rig on plowed dirt roads until there is a better base to set a hook? Even though with my rig, I still can't get off and turn the dogs, the turns are at least more obvious to the dogs and there are more options for other routes in case we miss a turn. I have been leaning on Zeus heavily for turns since he is decent at them, and Crow, my other command leader, is off the team until he heals fully from his dog fight injury. Legend refuses to take turns and none of the other dogs are reliable leaders yet, so I worry about the dogs just not taking turns to be able to make it back home safely.
Both times I have lost a team, it was after we had turned around and were heading back home. My biggest fear is losing them going outbound, and they won't know to turn around and go home. I can't shake the anxiety now that it has happened again. I still want to run and race but I am even more paralyzed than before, with the struggle every time to get out the door and actually Do The Thing.