Postponing Disney.

This was due to be  posted a few weeks  ago, but I  just managed to get my photo uploader sorted out so it’s late.

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If all had gone according to plan, we would be somewhere in the Carolinas today; maybe even Virginia or somewhere in Pennsylvania, slowly making our way back to Ontario from a ten-day vacation that would have included a trip to Disneyworld and nights spent camping on beaches along the Eastern coast, watching sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. But all didn’t go according to plan.

Despite our restless nature – the kennel name “Nomad” was not just chosen on a whim – we have never been on an extended trip together. The timing has never been right, the finances have never been available, there has never been anyone to take care of our dogs and, for the past few years, we have always had some form of livestock in the summer. This spring, however, we made the decision to forgo the livestock and to take a trip instead. Jenn spent at least a solid month booking hotels, planning the places we’d visit and mapping out the route we’d take; after all, why fly when, as they say, getting there is half the fun.

We were supposed to leave on a Wednesday. By Sunday, our bags were packed and at the front door; passes, hotel conformation numbers and tickets were on a shelf with our passports; sunscreen poked out of every almost-zipped compartment; the groceries had been done for the house/dog sitter; the kitchen floor was swept and the living room was vacuumed. We were ready to go.

Monday evening came, one full day left before we were supposed to leave, and I was outside with Hunter. I had some last-minute welding to do and she was playing in the yard. I had just set up my work pieces and was about to tack them together when I felt more than heard a loud thud and then the scream. I flung my welding mask one way, the welding rod another and ran to the sound that came from the other side of the truck only thirty feet away.

At first, it didn’t look that serious. It looked like Hunter had fallen a foot and a half off of the trailer and was more embarrassed than hurt. But I remembered the heavy ‘thud’ and the scream. This was not embarrassment. I ran over to her and lifted the heavy tailgate of the trailer off of her. Her leg was pinned between the ramp of the tailgate and the ground. I scooped her up and carried her to the steps where we sat down.

Normally, I try not to coddle her too much; I try to divert attention from cuts and bruises rather than make them worse by over reacting to them. But not this time: this time she was really hurt, probably scared, and definitely in need of attention. I held her tightly and tried to get her crying to stop. She managed to get herself under control enough to hear me. I tried to get her to move her foot a little, asking her if it hurt. It did. Lots. Already it had started to swell. My heart sank: it looked bad. I ran into the house to get some ice for the swelling, saying to myself the whole way “please don’t be broken, please don’t be broken…”

As soon as I had wrapped her leg up with the only suitable thing I could find – a bag of last year’s frozen blueberries – I lifted her into the truck, fastened her seatbelt and took off to get Jenn from work and then go to the hospital.

Hunter was in pain the whole ride in – thirty minutes and I was not paying much attention to the speed limit – but she scarcely said a word. Jenn was sitting between the two front seats helping hold Hunter’s leg still and comforting her. At this point, we thought it was badly sprained. The swelling was held in check a little by the blueberries and we had the leg elevated with all the crap we had left in the truck. Thank goodness we can’t seem to keep our truck neat.

At the hospital, the triage nurse moved Hunter’s leg around, rotated her foot and had her push against his chest with her foot. If it hurt her, she never complained. He took her temperature and fitted her with an ID tag and sent us out into the waiting room. It was now six o’clock.

The waiting room was full of people in various stages of pain and suffering. Some were sick with a cold, some were wheeling around IV bags, others were losing blood at a worrisome rate and yet, not many seemed to be paid any attention. We all had to sit on uncomfortable chairs and for anyone in a similar situation as ours, with a kid who isn’t comfortable unless one leg is elevated, this proves to be a challenge.

I could make this post about our seriously understaffed, over-administrated hospital, or wait times, but I won’t. I will leave it at this: we were finally called to the examining room at 02h30, a full eight and a half hours after our admittance. The people beside us with an infant suffering from severe bloody diarrhea waited equally as long. When we were finally called to the examining room, we waited a further half-hour. We still thought that Hunter’s leg was sprained because the swelling had gone down and there was no bruising at all. Jenn and I, amid our frustration earlier, had debated going home but since we were headed to Florida in a day and a half, we thought it best to stick things out and make sure.

It was well that we did: the x-rays that were finally taken at 03h00 showed a break in Hunter’s leg. Both bones, just above the growth plates. The balloon of excitement for our trip lost all of it’s air at once because with a cast on her leg, Hunter would be in no shape to run around Disney or frolic on the beaches. Our trip would have to wait.

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The first x-ray of Hunter’s leg.  As the technician said: “There’s a reason it hurts.”

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The hastily applied cast that Hunter left the hospital with.

 

Hunter’s leg was put in a cast that left Jenn and I wondering if this was the doctor’s first day at the hospital or perhaps their last. Finally looked at, diagnosed and treated, we left the hospital at 03h45.

Jenn spent the following day in the hospital, waiting for the orthopedic surgeon to reset Hunter’s leg and put on a proper cast, which ended up being a three quarter length, fiberglass cast, ending mid-thigh. Even with an appointment at 09h00, Hunter wasn’t fully finished until around 19h00 at night. She and Jenn spent the night in the hospital and were finally released mid-afternoon on Wednesday, forty-two hours since our admittance Monday night.

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Hunter’s x-ray after being set and re-cast.

 

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Hunter and her new cast.

 

It has now been just over two weeks with Hunter and her cast. She has found her mobility in a wheelchair quite well and is managing her walker with ease. She goes in to see the orthopedic surgeon on Thursday to see if everything has set well enough to have the three quarter length cast removed and a shorter one put on in its place.

Once things had sorted themselves out, I managed to find out what happened with Hunter and trailer gate. She had pulled out the only pin holding the gate upright because she thought it would make a great drawbridge for the game she was playing. I can’t begin to explain how bad I feel that I never bothered to replace the second pin for the gate.

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*UPDATE on the kid: Hunter’s leg is healing well, according to the orthopedic surgeon. Her long cast was removed and a shorter one below her knee was put on. Next week, the doctors will have another look at Hunter’s leg and then decide if she is ready for a walking cast.

 

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Hunter’s leg after two weeks of healing.

 

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The new cast.  (and a tiger drawn on the other leg – she ran out of room on the old cast.)

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My first Beargrease, part VI

I am having trouble with my photo uploader, so I don’t have any photos to insert in this post. I will try and get them uploaded and then edit this post if and when I am able. This is – unbelievably, it seems – the last post for the Beargrease. Thanks to all who have stuck it out and slogged through what is likely some pretty tedious reading.

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Bruce had left the start chute looking strong and eager for first place. His plan was to stop at the first checkpoint and rest his dogs a bit – even though they would not really need it – before continuing on. Besides, the rules of the race say that each team has to accumulate twenty eight hours of rest so getting a head start on the rest count seemed to be a good idea. As handlers, Shawn and I were going to have to get the checkpoint ready: drop lines set up, food for musher and dogs ready, quiet, out of the way spot for resting ready, straw for sleeping on ready, fresh booties ready, foot treatments on hand, and so on. We had to make it so that Bruce could pull into the checkpoint, leave us the dogs and instructions and go get some sleep. This wouldn’t be necessary for the first checkpoint, but it would become increasingly important as the race went on. A lot of people think that it is speed that wins these sorts of races but, more often than not, good, quality rest is equally responsible for a decent finish.

Despite the checkpoint being a relatively short drive up the road, Shawn and I left from the starting area as soon as we were packed up. We wanted to make sure that we were all set up for the first rest stop well in advance of Bruce’s arrival.

Checkpoint One: Two Harbours

The checkpoint was a large, flat area at the end of a road, much like a cul-de-sac, surrounded by a sloping bank. It appeared to be a gravel pit or something similar but, covered in snow, it was difficult to tell. There were a few trucks ahead of us that had already parked and begun their preparations; they had all parked as close as they could to the trail so that their teams wouldn’t have far to go. Shawn, however, opted for a spot farther away from the trail and farther away from the potential commotion of teams coming and going. Our plan was to use the contents of the truck to form a barrier between the dogs and the rest of the world so that they could eat and sleep in peace. I set about getting the outriggers and drop lines ready while Shawn built his walls. We warmed up water for food and thawed out some food for both us and Bruce. Then we waited, satisfied that all was in good order, for Bruce to arrive.

Half an hour earlier than expected, Bruce and his team arrived at the checkpoint. He caught us off guard and it was lucky that I was at the trail talking with an official when he pulled in. The race trail bypasses the checkpoint – it does not run through the checkpoint – and each team needed to be led to their truck. I took Bruce’s leaders and directed them to their truck where Shawn, who had seen us coming, was waiting. All three of us stripped off booties and took the dogs to the drop line. Bruce ladled out food and watched to see who was eating and drinking and who was not. As they ate, we put coats on the dogs to help keep their warmth and once they had finished their food, we lay down straw for them to sleep on. The key is to not lay the straw down too soon or else they will want to sleep rather than eat. Most of the dogs settled down to sleep. Some, mostly the younger, inexperienced dogs, stood and looked around, not knowing that they’d be heading out on the trail in an hour and forty five minutes.

Bruce, Shawn and I then sat around and discussed strategy. Bruce was not tired yet and probably a little to wired from the start a few hours earlier to sleep, so we discussed how things ought to go for the race and what sort of quirks we should expect from the dogs. Soon enough, we were bootying dogs, hooking them up to the gangline and leading them to the outbound trail. Bruce opted to keep the jackets on the dogs since the temperatures were falling rapidly. I watched as Bruce signed out of the checkpoint and rounded the corner of the trail into the murky light of the descending night.

Checkpoint two: Beaver Bay.

It is now night, about ten o’clock, and -29 F. Shawn and I are digging out a trench in a bank of snow for the dogs to sleep in. This will help contain the straw so that it doesn’t spread out too much and it will keep the dogs from being too disturbed. We are not expecting Bruce for another hour and a half. Although we were not the first to arrive, Shawn has managed to find us a spot right beside a hospitality tent: chili, coffee, hot chocolate and a pair of woodstoves are inside. We unload the truck and then drive it down to the staging area below as this is a truck-free checkpoint. We are set up for Bruce’s arrival so Shawn and I go into the tent for chili and coffee. While we are in the tent, we overhear two race officials talking of a musher who hasn’t been spotted for a while, who has failed to cross a particular road and is presumed to be on the wrong trail, heading away from Beaver Bay. We also overhear that this musher is from Ontario. Shawn and I look at each other: could it be Bruce? It had better not be… We are about to go and ask for more details when we hear more from the officials: there are two mushers missing and the one from Ontario isn’t Bruce. It is hard to describe the feeling you get when you find out that it’s not ‘your guy’ but there are still mushers lost out there.

We leave the tent and wait for Bruce. The trail crosses a road and continues on into the bush, but in order to reach the checkpoint, mushers have to turn off onto a hydro line that parallels the road. Teams run down the hydro line for a few hundred yards, sign in with the checkers and then continue down the hydro line and re-cross the road to be led up into the checkpoint proper. Not sure when to expect Bruce exactly and wanting to make sure we don’t miss him, Shawn and I stand out on the windswept, frozen hydro line with a few other handlers, the checkers and a woefully small fire. The checkers announce that it is now -41 with the wind chill.

Over the checker’s radio we hear that Bruce has passed the final road crossing before the checkpoint. A headlight grows brighter as it makes its way down the trail and finally comes to a stop beside the checker. Bruce has made it to Beaver Bay. There is no time to chat and we guide Bruce up to the area we have prepared. We tend to the dogs. Of particular concern is one dog who seemed to be favouring a leg when he arrived that the last checkpoint. But, after having slept and rested, when Bruce checked his range of motion for soreness, he seemed fine. Bruce decided to give him one more run to see how things were with the dog and it appeared that whatever was bothering his leg wasn’t going away. He was going to drop him from the race. I went looking for a vet to register Bruce’s decision with while Shawn and Bruce made everything ready for Bruce’s departure four hours. I came back to the area and took Bruce to the truck so that he could get some sleep. Shawn and I fed and watered the dogs. They laid down almost immediately after eating; Shawn and I covered them with straw, blankets and spare parkas. While we were watching over the sleeping dogs, our host for the past few days stopped by and asked how things were going with Bruce and his race. We chatted about different things Bruce might want to try and he suggested that we remove the dog from the team before Bruce got back so that he wouldn’t have to see the dog leave the team. “It can be very demoralizing” he said. So, when I went down to get Bruce from the truck, I took the dog with me and loaded him into his box on the truck before waking Bruce. A very tired and not entirely awake Bruce followed me to his team.

The stars were out and bright, clouds were kept at bay by twenty mile an hour winds and the temperature was around -38 F or so without the wind chill. Bruce donned an extra layer and packed extra mitts, just in case. The dogs, coaxed awake a ten minutes earlier, had eaten their snacks and were anxious to be underway again: they were all straining at the gangline to move the sled. Bruce pulled the snowhook, the dogs took up the slack and we headed back to the checker’s post and the outbound trail. Bruce left at two in the morning on his way to Sawbill, a checkpoint that does not allow handlers. Bruce would be gone for at least twelve hours.

The drive to Trail Center, the next checkpoint where we were going to see Bruce, was a long one. It was about an hour and a half drive and we talked about the most mundane of things in a effort to stay awake. We were going on twenty hours of sleeplessness and cold and work and sitting in a truck with the heat on was making us…very….sleepy. It seemed like the scenery was a roller when we turned onto the Gunflint Trail road. A winding road and snow covered conifers seemed stuck on repeat outside our windows. When we finally made it to Trail Center I walked the dog we had taken out of Bruce’s team while Shawn readied his bed, which was half of the front seat of the truck. I followed suit after putting the dog back in his box by unrolling my sleeping bag and stripping down to my long underwear. I fell asleep shortly after Shawn. It was -41 F.

Fourth checkpoint: Trail Center.

I woke up cold. My sleeping bag was pulled up close to my face, my touque and eyes being pretty much the only thing poking out of it. My feet were resting on the dash and the toe of my sleeping bag had frozen to the windshield. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get out of the bag and into my warm clothes, even though I had been smart and taken a few layers inside the bag to keep warm. I pulled on what I could inside the bag and then just dealt with the rest, standing outside the truck while pulling on bib-style pants and my warm coat, gloves and boots. I walked the dropped dog and fed him, checked out his leg and gave him his remadil as prescribed by the vet.

The restaurant at Trail Center was finally open so we went for breakfast. The log cabin-style building was an ecclectic collection of Northwoods memorabilia: old license plates were nailed to the walls, fish and stuffed animals poked out here and there and traps hung from the log rafters. Maps and pictures of forests and lakes took up what wall space was left over. It looked like a place I wish I lived closer to. Breakfast was great and the non-stop coffee was even better. To be honest, I felt a little guilty enjoying bacon, eggs and coffee while I knew Bruce spent the night at an unassisted checkpoint and would have lukewarm food at best to eat for his morning meal. I tried not to let the thought sour the taste of my coffee.

We went all out setting up camp for the dogs and Bruce: we had a tent that we set up, a generator to run a heater with (which, combined with the tent would be not just a good spot for Bruce to sleep but a good spot to dry some clothes, too), a propane cooker to boil water and several different kinds of food that he could choose to feed his team when they got here. After a few checkpoints, we were getting good at setting up camp, even though the tent and heater hadn’t been necessary until now.

Satisfied with the camp set up, Shawn and I went back to the restaurant for more coffee, some conversation with other handlers and to check the race stats. We were elated when we saw that Bruce was in second place and that he had already left the checkpoint and was on his way here. He had dropped another dog, which was unfortunate, but not uncommon. We speculated on his arrival time and more or less made ourselves comfortable at the warm, inviting, restaurant.

We had just returned to the truck to take the dog for and to give him his medication when a handler came up to us and said that they had heard Bruce had scratched from the race. I looked at Shawn and he at me. “Can’t be,” we said. “he’s in second place and on the trail. We just saw the results an hour ago.” But we still wondered: telling someone their musher scratched isn’t a small thing. Nobody jokes about it. And to confirm the rumours came the race officials. They rounded the corner to our encampment and were met with the same heart-sinking feeling that must go through everyone when they receive bad news.

We were informed that Bruce had, indeed, scratched; that he was parked at the last road crossing on the trail here but that no reason was given for the scratch. And just like that, the coffee that was so delicious ten minutes earlier turned bitter. A hasty decampment followed and Shawn and I left down the Gunflint Trail careening around corners to get to Bruce as fast as we could. We couldn’t believe that Bruce had scratched – we feared for the worse.

After just over an hour of driving, we found Bruce and his team pulled far off to the side of the trail. Bruce looked dejected and devastated; the few volunteers at the road crossing were talking with him, but I imagine it was a very one-sided conversation, Bruce being lost inside his head. We asked him if he was alright while we unharnessed and loaded the dogs into the truck. Some seemed tired but most seemed as though they were ready to continue on. There was not a lot said. Bruce crawled in the truck tired and disappointed. Neither Shawn nor I was about to ask what happened with his race; we knew it would come out eventually. All Shawn asked was “Are there any dogs that need attention?”

“No.” Bruce said. “We just have to pick up two dogs in Sawbill on our way back.”

And so we did. And then we drove to Wisconsin, to our host’s house where we slept the night.

We did our normal dog chores in the morning and were on the road bright and early with me taking the wheel. I drove to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and the Husky gas station on Hwy. 17 before Bruce took over. During our trip, Bruce confided that he had scratched because his dogs “came up short.” Some, it seemed, just didn’t have the stamina, despite very successful fall and winter training runs. Two weeks later, after being home and having the vet check out the dogs, it turned out they had Giardia, or ‘beaver fever’. Bruce treated them all with a course of antibiotics and they are all back to normal.

And that was my first John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.