Velcome to da UP, heh! For the Copperdog 150 the Yoopers rolled out the red carpet and showed us the warmest of yooper welcomes! My dad’s side of the family hails from this part of the state and so I am particularly fond of this area, the people and their unique culture. It is just one more part of what makes this race so special to us.
The pre-race meeting was upbeat and there was a huge turnout of folks. The race served pasties, a specialty of the upper peninsula. Being of Finnish descent I grew up on these things and when you make them, you make a ton of them because they are so labor intensive. A pasty is pronounced Past-ee and not Paste-EE. Folks these are two completely different things. A Paste-EE can be found in a nudey bar. A Past-ee can also be found in a bar, but only in the upper peninsula and everyone is clothed. It is basically a turnover made of pie crust and filled with ground beef, pork and rutabaga, carrots and potatoes. You eat them with ketchup. It is a hearty meal and just perfect for this event as many go without substantial food until darn near dinner the next day. These things are hearty, homey, gut bombs and a major part of the culture here.
That evening the crowds turned out to the race sight in excess. I heard rumors there were 6-8000 people at the start and boy was it a sight to see. All the way down main street for ½ mile you could see the chute and the throngs of people. The music was blaring, the bonfires were burning and the vendors were kicking out some great smells. The atmosphere was one big festive party and the yoopers had come out of their winter cabins to party in the snow. I was drawn to the hoopla and had to take a stroll so I could be amidst all the excitement. I found myself dancing publicly to the great music; haven’t done that since my bar days. Scary! I boogied my way to the long line of folks ankering to get their hands on a Vollwerth hot dog. These dogs are made in the area and are simply the best. For good luck I ordered a Lead Dog; a vollwerth smothered in sauerkraut and mustard. I boogied back to the truck scarfing my vollwerth and amused at the excited people turning out for the event. The crowd was joining in the excitement with crazy chukes (hats) and choppers (mittens) and all the local teams had their mascots there so I was boogying side by side with a giant husky and a variety of other enormous critters. It was a riot.
The temps on Friday were in the teens and the snow conditions were awesome. The area had recently been bombarded with snow and there was more than the trail crew knew what to do with. However, Mother Nature threw some warm weather in to help out and the trail settled down beautifully into a hard fast trail. Bruce led with Pepper, Sik SIk, Cora, Sedona, Sparrow, Durbin, Puff, Perry, Prince, Drift. They just tore out of there in blazes. Later someone came up to me and said, “Ya, da hooker told me dat dere Bruce’s team was da most powerful one dey hooked all night, heh.” I chuckled in total appreciation of the Yooper accent, which I am so intimately familiar with and then laughed at how ridiculous this might sound to a stranger. For those of you not in the know, a hooker is the person that hooks your team into the cable at the starting chute. This race always has a few hookers at the start. LOL!! I guess we can say that Bruce left the hookers speechless!!
Unbeknownst to all of us watching he was going for the ride of his life. Ok, mind out of the gutter, we’re talking dogs now and not the Hooker. He told me later that he couldn’t slow them down and for the first time ever, he was actually a little freaked out. I couldn’t help, but giggle a little as it was liberating for me to hear that he got to experience what it’s like being me on the runners behind that freight train. He had moments when he wished he’d only had 8 dogs. Dem damn hounds were croosin! He was on the pad as hard as he could with everything he was worth to keep them under 15 mph. On this leg not being able to slow your team is a frightening dilemma to be in as there are multiple road crossings to contend with. It is a very wearing stage on lead dogs. The volunteers were out in droves and the fire department was present at all the major crossings and as safe as this is, it can be stressful on your dogs and musher. Several teams had mentioned that the crossing took a toll on their leaders. Jerry Bath struggled and lost significant time after they got freaked out at one crossing. JR Anderson’s team went flat on him; which, unfortunately, turned out to be a problem for the remainder of his race. I know they are researching hard as to the cause and they will figure it out.
The teams run 50 miles into a little town called Eagle Harbor. I think there is one motel and one restaurant. We all park on the side streets of the little town around the local ball park and the finish line is right at the ball park. The handlers and crew were all in the community center hovered around the interactive map trying to figure out when our teams were coming in only to be misled a few times. I decided I didn’t need to know. It would be what it would be. Bruce’s team came in and they were happy except I learned that he had to really shut them down to protect two dogs. As I went through them I discovered one had a sore wrist and the other a really bad split on a front foot. Everyone else looked good, but you could tell the hard trail beat them up a bit so they all got massages and we boxed them. This stage is tough as the teams rolled in around midnight and then you have a 9AM start the next morning. We drove ½ hour back to Calumet to get the dogs away from the noise and so we could sleep in a bed. It was on the ride home we learned that Bruce had come in first place.
The feeding on this race can be tough. Our dogs are accustomed to coming in and being watered and then they get boxed and fed two hours later. However, with such a short rest on this one, our typical routine is not conducive to the race schedule. We starting setting the dogs up the week before the race and moved their feeding up an hour each day so that on race day they got their full meal at 8AM on race day. We watered like normal prior to the race. Then when they came in they got gylco cubes and water. After working on them and driving back they weren’t ready to get out and eat, but they took a light meal of beef and water in their boxes. We then watered them like normal before the re-start on day two. Sounds easy enough, but in actuality this turned into a major mushing marital blowout. I will spare all of you the gory details, even though it would be fun. You can picture two people standing in the back of the motel with their dogs having loud words and one of them sending the other one to their room. I have learned that a strong mushing marriage is one that has no memory of these events. They happen, you get past it and later you laugh about it. We were total idiots that evening, but in the long run it paid off. A fight worth having 😉 Dat Swede is a stubbern bastardi, but dat Finn she’s nuckin futs!
Day two we dropped the dog with the sore wrist as I was unable to get it back in that short amount of time. Everyone looked great and the only change we did in line-up was to put Sparrow up in lead with Sik Sik. We discussed that Bruce should be conservative for a while to let them warm up as the hard trail the night before has its consequences. He did that and the team didn’t seem as powerful, but when he’d check his GPS they were just cruising at about 14 mph. The trail was nicely set-up for the majority, but there was about 5 miles of really punchy snow. This section also had the steepest climbs. Bruce shut them down to about 8 mph in this area knowing that coming off that hard stuff in to the punchy snow could cause injury. Bruce caught Erin Redington about a 1 ½ miles from the finish and when she saw him she just let it rip. Bruce was on the pad at 15 mph and Erin was tearing up the trail. She later told him that, “Her goal for that leg was to absolutely not let Bruce pass her!” She succeeded!!
The temps were in the twenties, but the sun was hot out on the trail. The team came into Copper Harbor happy and looking good. We had some sore feet, but nothing major. The vet team checked out the team thoroughly and they passed with flying colors. The punchy part of the trail took its toll on several teams. Ryan Redington, who had already been asking the morning of day two what the minimum number of dogs required was for day three, was very concerned after day two. We got to see the placements really jump around after this leg.
The rest of the day in Copper Harbor is relaxing and low key. Most of us went to dinner and waited for the results. We were excited to see that we had pulled off another 1st place finish. HOLY WAH!! (Yooperism) We had a shot at winning this thing. Let the stress being…..”another beer please!”
During dinner our friend Jerry Bath started cramping up, which is extremely painful and he had to excuse himself from the table several times. Then later that evening in the motel room he came out of the shower and it looked like he had slaughtered a cow. He had the first of what would become a never ending nose bleed. He made it through the night and then that morning the bloody faucet turned on and someone throughout the handle. His handler, Al-Jo, was in full handling mode cutting up tampons for him to stick up his nose under the strict requirement that she cut off the string! The stringless tampons were not working as they were soaking through faster than she could produce them. At this point, Jerry contemplated scratching, but decided at the race site to continue after agreeing with himself that he would scratch on the trail if it got worse. So they soaked a bunch of tampons in iodine and he stuck those up his nose. With his nostrils on fire he left the chute in a blaze. He was later seen by several on the trail with a Santa hat, tampons up his nose and iodine and blood all over his face. I’m sure there are children all over the U.P. that are now mentally ruined after seeing Slaugherhouse Santa.
That morning we dropped the dogs and one of our younger dogs that was fine the night before was suddenly hobbling around and a total mess. Are you kidding me? The mysterious night time injury maker had come to visit. There was no way in less than two hours I was getting this guy on the trail and at 65 lbs it was not worth any amount of risk. Bruce would be leaving with 8. The temps were to be in the twenties, but the sun was going to be out in full force.
We had less than a 15 minute window to win this thing. Folks kept telling us that was a huge lead and we just kept recalling the miraculous 3rd leg we had run last year making 20+ minutes up on JR Anderson. We knew it was possible and that we needed to race all out to the end. The team had some sore feet. Most were in a great mood with the exception of the two leaders. They were both down and mopey and this was concerning. I had a moment where I considered switching leaders, but we both agreed to leave as is. They didn’t fire out of the chute. Bruce said this leg was agonizing. He switched out the leaders almost immediately before the climb up Brockway Mountain. They still wouldn’t get rolling and that leader was giving him issues. He kept moving him in different positions and calmly suggesting that he was going to finish the race out of the bag. Bruce made the decision he had to just keep quiet and let them get in the groove. Very, very slowly they got rolling. Meanwhile Bruce was watching his GPS and freaking because he hadn’t caught anyone. By mile 23 they were rolling and he was on the pad trying to keep them under 16 mph. I was back in the parking lot getting all these people coming up and telling me stuff. “He lost 5 minutes. He hasn’t passed anyone. He switched leaders. No one has seen him cross. Fraboni is flying. Laboda is flying.” I was near puking and finally had to tell some folks I didn’t want to hear anything. Then here comes Dennis Laboda screaming into the finish! They looked great and I could see they had fire. Wow, what a run and what the hell is he doing here so fast? He told Bruce before the start he was coming after him and damn if he didn’t give it everything he had. I started watching my watch.
Then I hear them call Jake Golton and I’m pacing and muttering, “Come on Bruce, come on BRUCCCCEEEE!!” Almost immediately I hear Fraboni’s name called. Now I’m wearing a divot in the snow. “Damn, where in the hell is he?” I walk over to get a better look down the chute as it was thick with people and you couldn’t see and barely hear and I see two blue jackets. I realize it is Bruce right behind Fraboni. I almost screamed out loud!! I was pretty confident we had it. I knew we had it over Jake and Ross, but we needed to see the official results to be sure of Dennis. I was relatively confident, but not enough to start celebrating. Finally, we got the official results and the tears just came. Holy crap, we did it. We finally F’ing did it. Our first really big win and it felt good. It felt good to know that we could do it. We are so proud of those dogs. They ran hard and gave it their all.
It was a great race. This RGO is phenomenal and their hard work is so evident. They keeping raising the bar and it just keeps getting better and better. They had one of the most competitive fields yet and I’m confident that there will be more in their future. As for the community, they are simply the best. There were several visitors here from outside of Michigan and many told me they just couldn’t believe how friendly everyone was. They were just overwhelmed by the Yooper hospitality and they cannot wait to come back. The banquet was fabulous with awesome mid-west cooking that just felt like home. The sense of family and community was really strong. There is only one other race I’ve ever felt this and it is the IPSSSDR. Kudos to Copperdog on being able to achieve this as it makes you want to come back over and over and over and you always leave with that good vibe.
As always we loved competing with so many of the teams that were there. Nothing beats being able to have a “friendly” rivalry with another professional and at the end of the day still remain friends. We were really excited to see so many of our Stage Stop “family” in our neck of the woods and leave with smiles after experiencing a great race. We hope they make it a habit to put this one on their race schedule. Then I must quote one of our good friends who said, “This is so cool. We got three rocks going south of the bridge.” This was a huge highlight for us as well. The Magnussons, Fortiers and Papkes, who I believe were the sole representatives for Southern Michigan, each took trophies back to the land of sun, rain and challenging snow conditions!! I’m thinking, “Dem trolls under da bridge dey ROCK”, no pun intended!!