It is about 17:00 and I am sitting near the cozy warmth of my Kifaru Parastove inside my Kifaru Paratipi. Pam and I have just played with the stove and she has learned some of its capabilities. It is pleasantly warm in here while the outside temperature is probably somewhere in the mid-20s with little wind and a gentle bit of snowfall (small flakes) falling down. We've been here for a bit over a day and a half and have had a pretty much fine time the whole time.
It could have gone completely differently. Joe and Michele did not make their Ann Arbor appearance until just after 21:00. That is many many hours after I was initially expecting them to arrive. It would not have been so bad if they had been able to give me an accurate ETA but alas they could not. We actually drove out of Ann Arbor a bit after 22:00 after filling the van with my stuff, some gas, and then some air for the tires. Driving with those two is always an experience in quirkiness. They're just that way. You have to accept it and go with the flow - or else go nuts. I choose the former route. Joe, after considerable urging from Michele, relinquished control of the car and she took over a couple hours south of Gaylord. He curled up in the back to get some sleep. We rumbled on passing the time chatting (mostly Michele did that) and just trying to enjoy the drive. When we eventually reached Gaylord it was creeping up on 03:00 and it was time to stop. We had managed to let Pam known what was up so hopefully she did not worry about us. At the suggestion of the friendly lady working in the Holiday gas station we parked in the parking lot at Glen's (24 hour grocery) and waited for Arlene's Diner to open. We would try to get some sleep before having breakfast. As we waited guys in their snow ploys made circuits around the lot. Over and over. More times than was clearly needed given the amount of snow that had accumulated and was going to fall. I suppose they were just making as much money as they could.
We had breakfast (I’ve had better) and then continued on our way reaching Black Mountain Recreation Area perhaps around 10:00. The day had turned out to be a partly sunny day, crisp, fresh, a fine day. We found Pam waiting for us and we learned we would not have to set up our camp deep in the woods. A nice park ranger had said we could stay at the trailhead parking lot: which we are doing. I spent a good long time setting up the Paratipi. I set it up and then with Joe's help we pretty much did it all over again with deadman anchors instead of stakes (first time the snow has been deep enough and soft enough to ever require their use.) When properly setup there is a lot of useful space in here. It's spacious with plenty of headroom. Comfy. The stove takes the edge off when lit and you have a nice shelter. The jury is still out on whether it's really for me. Also there are certainly easier large tarps to pitch. The Megamid is a generally faster pitch I think.
The day wore on and we lingered around camp enjoying the crisp winter day. Enjoying each other’s company. Enjoying the dogs. The dogs are great. Pam brought 10 dogs with her and they're sweethearts in all sorts of ways. Just pretty animals with their own personalities and needs. We helped, a little, with that end of things but mostly we just did our thing. There wasn't going to be any big sledding today for us: just for Pam.
Dinner was spent around a roaring campfire that Michele insisted upon. She is our resident pyromaniac. It was a cozy fire maybe not ideal for cooking beyond doing marshmallows but a fine fire nonetheless. However, by 20:30 we were all ready for bed. Sleep, for me at least, came very quickly.
Morning came, as it so often does, with a bite in the air. I'd gotten up twice during the night to answer nature's call and neither time felt as chilly as it did at around 08:00 (judging from the historical weather data from for that day I believe this feeling to be quite accurate.) The heating fire from the Parastove again took the edge off but the two thirds-three quarters of a liter of water I tried to heat up never did reach a boil (outside temperature was probably 0-5°F).
After dealing with morning chores disaster struck. I tore my Arc Alpinist on my stove’s spark aerators and there is now a gaping hole in the fabric where the down is escaping. We managed to patch the bag but the repair is temporary and I am not at all happy. A stupid mistake on my part. Just plain dumb.
Pam harnessed up the dogs for the first run of the day. The skies were overcast with uniform light clouds that sometimes almost parted enough to let the sun peak through. She attached a team of six dogs to two sleds that would be pulled in tandem. She would ride the back sled controlling things; and the other person would ride on the front sled going along for the ride. If that makes it sound as if that person on the front sled does nothing strike that idea from your mind. Mushing is hard work. I got to go first and learn just how hard. These dogs want to run and they know they're going to when they get harnessed up. They don't care what is behind them. They are not going to stop if you fall off the sled so you must not fall off or if you do fall not let go. Now and then you have to help the dogs up a hill by kick-stepping or running and then getting back on the sled; other times you need to brake the sled a bit by dragging a foot; and you have to ensure the pulling lines remain taught and if not act accordingly. And, of course, you have to stay on the sled adjusting your balance as the sled rides the twists, turns, and moguls of the trail. It is physically and mentally demanding work. It is impressive. It is inspiring. It is fun.
We took off and were on the trail quite quickly. We made a turn where I had to brake and I didn't get back on the runner properly. I slipped. I held on to the sled with my left hand trying desperately to regain my footing as the dogs dragged the sled, me, and several yards behind Pam along. I managed to get to my feet and gain the safety of the runners and all was well again. What a rush. I don’t think Pam ever said a word. I don’t think I did. I didn’t say anything after getting on again. Over the bumps and smooth spots we rode - perhaps traveling about 8 miles-per-hour. It was great. The wind was crisp and the dogs were in their element. Pam called out instructions to them and I did my best to help out (I did so-so). We hit a big uphill and I had to run behind the sled (still holding on mind you) to help the dogs power up the hill. God, that was tiring work. I bet Pam got a smile out of that. I ran, well chugged, and then stepped on the runners for a second or two, jumped off chugged more, got back on for a moment to catch another breath, and then off again. At the top when I got back on I was leaning forward resting my weight on the sled’s handle - nearly, it seemed at the time, spent. Mushing is hard work. A musher in a race, or any other time I wager, is not just hanging back on the sled giving orders. That musher is an active participant. Later, on the return journey I fell again and this time the sled was jerked from my hands. Pam anchored her sled and ran to catch mine. She got clipped by it as it went by and I got run over by her sled as it went by me (it’d been pulled free of it’s anchors.) I got up, ran to catch up to Pam and brake my sled so she could get her sled back. The dogs just wanted to continue running. It's what they do. It is a remarkable way of getting around. It was great fun.
The dogs who pulled me are: Tony and Siler (lead), followed by Rubin and Coffee, and at the wheel (closest to the sled) position Kirby and Willow.
I want to write more about the dogsledding but am not quite sure how to express my feelings. At one point where the trail was gentle and I could relax I was able to just watch the scenery go by and watch the dogs move. I was surprised at times by how seemingly slow the dogs were moving but how fast we were actually going. I suppose the illusion here is caused by the smoothness with which the dogs run down the trail. Their motion was smooth and powerful and I was gliding behind them. Of course, such segments did not last long. I am sure I should have kick-stepped and braked with my foot more than I did. Probably should have done that on most of the moguls. I can see how a deep relationship must evolve between the musher and her (his) dogs in order to create a successful team.
Pam took Joe out later in the day and I got to help a bit with that run. I waited for them at the left-hand turn that leads into the trails to the group campsite and ski/snowmobile trails. The dogs' inclination was to go straight down the road. They wanted to do that with Pam and me too. When they got to me they did not make the turn in time as Pam had requested. I took a hold of the lead dog's strand and moved him (or was it a?) in the direction the team was supposed to go. As soon as I had them headed in the right direction I scurried out of the way since they were ready to take off immediately.
During the latter part of the afternoon we all spent time around camp. It was a languid overcast afternoon. Michele and Joe kept talking about going cross-country skiing but they never did. Dinner around another large (white man's) fire included brats and smoked sausage. Then we all retired to our various shelters. Joe and Michele took refuge in Joe's van while Pam and I returned to our respective tarps. I tried to get my wood-stove lit but could not. Despite what Joe claims I could not get the Fat Logs to light and I did not feel like tracking down some fire cubes to use as kindling so I went to bed without a warming stove fire (the idea to light a fat Log on Joe’s tiki lamp that was merrily burning a dozen feet away did occur to me, but I was too lazy to do that.)