They say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Well, who ever said that was, most certainly, never a musher. That’s because, more often than not, crap is always broken in our world. Our motto is more like, “If it ain’t broke, you’ll be screwed soon so get ready!”
There have been times when I wondered why we didn’t choose a sport that required less tools; like ice skating. Oh gawd, imagine the stress of a broken skate lace. Do you remember when Tanya Harding broke her lace at the Olympics and was crying with her leg up on the side of the rink? Puleeze, that was some drama. I’m tainted and cold; I just can’t empathize. When a musher breaks his/her sled, if he/she survives in one piece, they better get creative real fast or they are usually stranded in the middle of nowhere with some very rambunctious teammates threatening to break some more shit even if it means bones. Yep, that’s something to cry about. Can you imagine a musher dragging into the checkpoint then throwing their sled up on the table all whilst crying hysterically and demanding someone to fix the problem? This horrific scene, which would certainly be the end of the sport, would be followed by having to watch the musher’s coaches scurry around trying to fix the sled to get them back on the trail. Nope, I can’t imagine this either. I prefer our reality of seeing sleds arrive in checkpoints with a wide assortment of broken parts repaired MacGyver style with duct tape, string or wire and an assortment of miscellaneous items that proved to be useful in the repair. We are the true MacGyver’s; the real deal. The TV MacGyver is practically a hack compared to many mushers I know. We are forced out of necessity and limited funds to tap into our ingenuity to make things work. This is not on an occasional basis, this is on a daily basis. I would have loved to see Tanya duct tape her skate together; now that would have made for some good TV.
Have you ever heard of a figure skater being behind in training because of a broken skate lace or a golfer that fell behind because his golf cart broke? Nope, never heard it. Have you ever heard of the ice rink not freezing? Me either, but holy hell if that Zamboni breaks! I have heard that there was no snow on the ski hill before, but then they just made some …. boo hoo! I’d like to see them work that snow machine on our 50 mile trail. Wouldn’t that be sweet! Certainly, I’ve heard of the ski hill being icy, but that just makes them better skiers; ask any Michigander! I’ve never heard of the slope being ruined because the cat hunters drove their trucks up and down it and if they did; they’d just pull out the snow machine maker and big groomer. I’d love to see them ski on some of the conditions we are forced to take a dog sled on. Nothing more exhilarating than running a trail rutted 12 inches deep with frozen ice, mud and minimal snow being pulled behind a team of maniac dogs that don’t really comprehend “Whoa” even though you’re screaming it! Speaking for myself, I am not capable of making a video like Jeff King produced of last year’s Iditarod. Mine would have been more like, “Oh shit, Holy Shit! F’n Whoa! Oh my gawd, f’n stop …. STOP….. I said, fricken STOOOOOOPPP!
You little mother f’rs I SAID F’N WHOA!!” You would then probably see me dragging face first, muffled (thankfully) and then the camera would bust and go black. Yep, that video would have been really edgy; you would have felt like you were there dying with me! Nope, not ashamed to admit it either! Just being real.
In mushing, even our clothing breaks! I’ve never seen a golfer’s game affected because he had a broken zipper on his fly (would be entertaining, but not game threatening), but I have seen where a broken zipper on a parka in below zero weather can be real problem. I own a jacket that cannot be unzipped. You pull it over your head; problem solved. Have you ever seen a gymnast show up with duct tape on her body suit because she had a tear? Nope, never seen it. However, many of us mushers are walking patchwork quilts of duct tape and glue; it adds character, especially when it’s your boots!
Character, now that is something that evolves when your vehicle breaks. When the hockey team’s bus breaks, they either get on another one or they get off and wait while it is being repaired. Not such an easy task when you have 36+ dogs traveling with you. You just can’t tell them, “Guys, we have to send the truck to the shop so grab your gear, disembark and entertain yourselves for a couple hours.” No, that typically doesn’t work. To make matters worse the dog truck almost always breaks just as you are leaving for the race or, better yet, during the race. This is when you learn true patience and the art of staying calm. No bigger punch in the gut than that sound of the engine trying to turn over when it’s -26F and all you get is WHIIIRRRRR, WHIIIR WHIR COUGH SPUTTER …… SILENCE. Nope, that sucks. We’ve seen teams have to disembark their truck and get on someone else’s to make it to another stage/checkpoint etc. Talk about a chaotic nightmare. Rarely, do the hockey team mates come off the bus bloodied because they had to sit next to a different partner in a strange bus. No, this rarely happens, but it does in mushing!
I’m hard pressed to think of a team sport where the competition doesn’t continue even though a team mate is broken. Football players are broken all the time; they just pull in an alternate and the game goes on. However, when a musher is broken or the only gee/haw leader in the kennel is broken or the main handler; it’s likely you’ll not be going anywhere. On the bright side, our sport hasn’t resorted to bashing in our competitors knees with crowbars; which we’ve seen in the violent sport of figure skating. Mostly likely because the sport is silently violent by its pure nature.
What does silently violent mean? Well, the most common and least discussed type of “broken” in mushing is when you have a broken musher or a broken handler. This occurs from a long laundry list of activities required in the sport and the last being actual racing. The sport is designed to tear the body up. Unfortunately, the sport doesn’t allow the luxury of sitting on the bench and taking time off to heal so rarely do we stop working unless we are somehow monitored and forced to do so. Nope, we are a collection of hunchbacked, bruised, fingerless and gimpy athletes that just keep on ticking. You see, the hockey team still gets fed when the captain of the team is benched, but not in mushing. Try feeding 20+ dogs when you’re bed ridden from the flu or when you have a bulging disk; now we’re talking fun! I can’t think of a sport where your teammates drag you behind a rope on a road either or where crashing into trees is a regular affair. We are a chiropractor’s dream. My chiropractor thinks I’m just the bomb. He told me I was the subject of their family holiday discussion! “Holy crap, your shoulders are so tight; have you been wrestling elephants?”
Now you can imagine how mentally tough it can be when everything that you require to be successful at your sport is broken. This is what leads to broken attitudes. We start out optimistic and we ride the slippery slope to desperation and despair and sometimes land in bitterness. If someone doesn’t throw you a lifeline before you hit bottom, you’ll likely get out of dogs. Hence, the high turnover in our sport. It’s a tough gig mentally and sometimes you just want to punch Polly Perky in the ole chopper! Most of us have that energizer bunny problem though and we just keep ticking with jaws dragging on the ground until we get that next brief uplifting moment that carries us through to the next mental beating. It’s the little things that get you through; trust me.
We’re getting through this year with the thought that we have all the broken stuff behind us. The tally of broken crap at our kennel this year was as follows: we had two broken ATV’s, a broken snowmobile, a broken groomer, a broken truck, a few broken (injured) dogs, broken refrigerator, broken freezer, broken doors on the trailer, broken hooks on the trailer, broken window on truck, broken vent on trailer, broken wiring on the trailer (several times), a couple broken handlers, a broken plow truck, some broken snow hooks, but the worst was the broken internet (a necessity for working mushers). Whew, and this was all before the racing season started!
On the bright side, we managed through all of this without a broken marriage (believe me this happens)!