The Road to Alaska - Part 1
Do whatever it takes to seize the moment and turn your dreams into reality. Because doing so IS AMAZING!
That's my take away from the trip to Alaska. For so many years I've dreamt and imagined what moving myself and my team to Alaska would be like. Over the past 6 months those dreams turned into plans, and the plans finally became reality.
I kept a diary of the trip as we went, and will split that diary into 3 blogs as there's so much to share!
The morning hours were a hazy rush of packing last minute things, moving dogs to drop chains on the trailer, pulling stake out posts and swivels, removing dog dishes from houses. Multiple friends dropped by to help out and to deliver goodies for the road, as well as to drop off 2 pups that we were transporting to Minnesota. Lara Renner, who will be helping me all season in Alaska, arrived at around 10:30 AM with the 3 dogs from her kennel that we are taking and her remaining gear.
The dogs were absolutely crazy to get loaded because they know the trailer usually means something exciting for them. In fact, Opie broke away from the person trying to take him to the truck and ran right over and into the trailer. When I snagged him by the collar he pulled me off my feet and I landed hard on one wrist, which turned into a nasty bruise by later in the day. Injury #1.
Despite the craziness we were ready to go by noontime as I had planned. I took one last walk around the yard to say goodbye to the pups and dogs being left behind in Megan's care. By the time I got to the 2nd to last yard I was in tears. Saying goodbye to my babies was one of the hardest of all the goodbyes I've done, even though I know they're in excellent hands. Thankfully I will get to see them again at Christmas.
Before sticking the key in the ignition I turned to Lara and said, "Let the adventure begin!"
About a half hour into the trip I pulled over into a closed gas station in Canaan NH so that I could double-check on the temperature in the trailer. As I exited the trailer I accidentally stepped into a pothole and twisted my ankle, scraping my little toe on the pavement. Injury #2. I thought briefly about slapping a bandaid on it when I got into the truck but decided it was too small of a cut to bother with.
A few hours later when we stopped to walk the puppies I saw the error of my ways: my flipflop was soaked with blood. Luckily it'd stopped bleeding by then so I just cleaned things up. By the next morning that toe and side of my foot were various colors however.
The dogs were super stressed for most of the day, but by the time we dropped them for dinner they were starting to settle into the road trip. We dropped them about every 6 hours for a potty break and for water and/or food.
During the late afternoon I started getting messages from another musher who was also traveling to AK, a few days ahead of us. He warned that they had had issues crossing the border at Sweetgrass MT (where I intended to cross) because they didn't have health certificates on the dogs. I also did not get health certificates - can you imagine how much that would cost if I had? On 25 dogs? Plus I've never needed them to get into Canada and although the State of Alaska's website does claim you need them for the state I have heard from other mushers entering Alaska that they weren't necessary. This added some additional stress to the trip, worrying about hitting the same problem.
When we dropped dogs first thing in the morning I noticed that Mousse was sniffing a lot at Ryne and she was flirting with him. She was just in season 3 months ago but perhaps was coming in again? Nobody had been interested in her yesterday and we have been dropping her and Praline next to males because neither girl can be trusted around other girls, so if she was coming into season she had to be right at the start or not yet in. Or Mousse was just being a flirt. To be safe, I swapped dogs around and put Praline on one side of Ryne and a neutered male on the other side.
As we started to load up dogs a short time later I came around the trailer to find Ryne and Flint, who was two spots over from Ryne, in a tie. Seriously, I think I could put a plexiglass box around my females and the males would still find a way. Well, this is one litter that is NOT going to happen if I have any say on it, even if she has to be spayed.
The majority of the day's drive was flat & boring. And hot. We stopped frequently to check on the temperature in the trailer and as the day progressed and temperatures rose we hooked up a fan near the front of the trailer to circulate air more. Frequent stops to check on dogs plus unexpected road construction traffic put us well behind my planned schedule so we didn't wind up arriving at Nature's Kennel in Michigan until after 8:30 pm. We dropped and fed dogs then Laura gave us a quick tour of the kennel as she fed her race team. What a great setup they have! Huge thanks to Laura and Ed for housing us and the dogs for the evening; we enjoyed visited with them!
After breakfasting with Ed and Laura and giving the dogs their breakfast, we hit the road around 9:30 am. The UP was very smokey from wildfires out west, and super dusty from lack of rain, but thankfully the temperatures were already cooler than it had been the previous day and predicted to stay that way. I told Lara that we would stop at a hotel that night so we could get showers - I don't know about her but between the heat of the past 2 days plus the dust I was tempted to throw myself into Lake Superior, had it not been a bit too chilly for that!
Almost all of the dogs decided to blow coat on the trip. If they weren't already shedding when we left they began in the first couple of days. Every time we dropped dogs I was pulling handfuls of loose fur out of the trailer and some boxes were so full of fur it looked like they had a bed in there.
The truck had begun making a whining sort of noise just before we reached Nature's Kennel the night before and it started up again this morning. It sounded almost like a belt issue so I figured on finding a place along the way that could maybe take a look at it. As the day went on, however, the noise got louder and more alarming. Everything appeared to be working fine but by midday the ABS light went on. I started getting concerned, but so far had seen nowhere that looked promising for speedy service either.
As Lara drove I began doing an online search for a place for us to get our COVID tests, which were required within 72 hours of crossing the Canadian border. I had tried making an appointment with Walgreens in advance before we left but they did not allow you to schedule one more than a few days out. I had tried a few times the previous day to do it but kept losing service on my phone (and thus the hotspot) so I got nowhere with getting an appointment.
Unfortunately I was getting nowhere on this day too. It seemed you could not schedule same day appointments, and I could not find a single Walgreens with an available appointment anywhere along our route the next 2 days. Every location was fully booked. Since we were going to be passing one of the Walgreens in Michigan I decided we'd just try and get walk in tests.
We had a really nice dog drop along the way at one of Michigan's super great pull offs/rest areas. Since it was fairly deserted and the weather was very pleasant we spent some time there walking some of the dogs to get them a little exercise.
Around 2 pm we got to Walgreens and went inside to talk to the pharmacy. We struck out however as we discovered that they can ONLY do appointments online, no walk ins for the IDNow tests that the border requires.
I got back in the vehicle, took out my computer and went on a serious hunt for where we could possibly get a test. I spent the next 3 hours frantically and fruitlessly searching for someplace to go. I looked up urgent care places, drugstores, I searched the state websites. Nothing. I went to the Walgreens site over and over and finally scored an appointment for the next day just slightly off our route, but I could only get one appointment there. As we approached Superior Wisconsin later in the afternoon I finally found another Walgreens that had 2 appointments for the next day, but the problem was that they were in Ashland Wisconsin, an hour and a half backwards on our route. Since we had planned on getting at least a few hours past Duluth that evening, backtracking to Ashland and staying until the next morning would essentially put us at least 18 hours behind schedule, not to mention the additional gas involved.
There was one place we could get tests done close to the border but they charged $175 per test, whereas Walgreens was free. I finally decided the best plan would be to use the single appointment I had made for myself the next day in Hibbing MN and then pay for Lara's test near the border. So after meeting up with the person who was picking up the pups in Duluth and feeding dogs, we continued west.
Around 8 pm as we approached Hibbing I spotted a small bar & grill called The Thirsty Moose and suggested we stop for dinner. It was a small place populated with mostly locals and sporting tons of character, such as the sign on the wall that said, "Hot Beer Lousy Food and Bad Service" and the ceiling filled with dollar bills stuck to it. Despite the sign their food was delicious, and the Corona I got was welcome after a semi-stressful day. I posted a photo and a little mention on Facebook that we were having dinner there. I kept thinking "I swear I have a Facebook friend in this town somewhere" and hoped that maybe someone would make a comment to that effect. Sure enough, Karen Hill replied "I live about a mile from there!"
The hotel I planned for us to stay at was only another 5 or 8 miles down the road from there, but when we pulled in I discovered they were fully booked up despite listing available rooms only a few hours before when I had checked online. We got back in the truck and looked up where the other hotels were - there was one across the street: a Marriott that looked super pricey, but all day we'd been looking forward to being in a hotel and having showers and getting clean.
However, they too had no vacancies. And the clerk at the desk said the other hotel in town was fully booked as well, and so was the one in the next town down the road. Back to the truck to do another search online; but now there wasn't a single hotel in reasonable driving distance with availability. So much for that shower and a comfy bed.
I was so angry with myself for not booking the hotel back in Duluth. Since we needed to stay in the area for my COVID test the next morning and it was already 10:30 pm, the only option I could see was to sleep in the truck & trailer somewhere. We did a search for nearby truck stops and google maps claimed there was one 8 miles down the road. So off we went, but 8 miles later we discovered Google had the wrong information. There was a gas station but it was by no means a truck stop and there was no place we could park the truck & trailer for the night.
By this point the truck was sounding quite horrible. I was tired and discouraged and having mental flashbacks of the time my truck's transmission blew out on the way to the Defi Taiga race, stranding my boyfriend and I for days with a team of dogs while we waited for the tranny to be rebuilt. What the hell was I going to do with a trailer full of dogs in the summer and no hotel reservations if we were stuck here for awhile? I also know that mechanics are super busy right now and getting the truck fixed the next day might be impossible.
I drove us back to Hibbing and found an empty parking lot of an obviously closed down medical building. It was now after 11 pm. After dropping dogs one more time Lara got set up to sleep in the dog trailer and I crawled into the back seat of the truck. Elsa seemed to sense I was super stressed as she curled up against my chest with her head on my pillow and for once just fell asleep cuddled up with me rather than constantly pawing me for attention. I had a tough time relaxing enough to sleep and kept waking up frequently throughout the night.
To be continued....