Busted Axle Road
CopyrightÂ© 1993, 2001, 2010
"I'm still not too sure about this," Mark said as he and Josh rode down the highway outside of Camden, a hundred miles south of Spearfish Lake, the following Saturday morning. Mike, Tiffany, and the wives were in Mike's car, behind them. It was a nice day to be out, clear, with a gentle breeze. It was still cold, but showed promise of warming up.
"At the worst, we're bound to learn something," Josh said. "Face it, everything we know from Jim is from thirty years ago, or longer than that. Everything else is from books or TV."
"I don't know," Mark said. "I mean, our dogs have done pretty well for us, but how are they going to stack up against real dog teams?"
"That's got to be the place," Josh said, changing the subject. "Mike said the guy said Evergreen Golf Course, right on the west edge of Crestone."
"Sure aren't many vehicles around," Mark commented.
"We're still a little early. According to Mike, he said set the course about ten, meet at eleven, start racing after the meeting. It's only 9:30 now."
Even as they pulled into the parking lot, they weren't sure they were in the right place. There was a car and a van with an enclosed trailer. It wasn't until they noticed a dogsled tied to the top of the trailer that they were sure there was supposed to be dogsledding around. They parked the truck and got out; Mike pulled the car in next to Mark's truck, which had the dog box on the back, the two sleds on top, and five canine heads poking out the holes each side of the dog box.
They no more than got out of the truck when a man about Mark and Mike's age, a little shorter and solider than either of them came over from the van, where there were three Siberian huskies tied on a picket line between the van and the trailer. He had a head full of black hair and a big black beard, both shot with gray. "I don't know you," he said with a big grin, "So, you must be from Spearfish Lake. I'm Greg Mears."
"Pleased to meet you," Mike said, sticking out his hand and introducing himself, and the rest of the group.
"Glad you could make it," Mears said. "With you two, this is going to be the biggest field we've had in years. There's not a lot of us, so we have to stick together."
"We're still a little surprised that there's more than just us," Mark said. "You guys keep a low profile."
"Well, it's not from the lack of trying," Mears said. "For a while, we were down to just four of us that would get together, but it's picked up in the last couple of years, especially since Libby Riddles in '85, and then Susan Butcher last year. We get together once a month in the winter for a little racing and a hot dog roast, and we had six teams last month. You guys are going to make eight."
"That's all?" Mike asked.
"Well, there's a guy over in Bismarck that has a recreational team, but he doesn't race. We think there's a few people that get out now and then and screw around with a couple of dogs, and there's got to be a few people skijoring that we don't know about. Actually, most of us have pretty much recreational teams that race a little, because it give us an excuse to get together. So when we heard about a hundred mile race, and a big spread in the press with some people we'd never heard of, it surprised us a lot."
Mark relaxed a lot; Mike did, too. Maybe they weren't going to look so silly, after all. "Look, we've never done any racing, except for that deal last weekend," Mark said. "And, we sort of set that up to suit what we wanted to do, anyway. You're going to have to run us through the drill."
"It's pretty casual, like I said on the phone," Mears said. "We keep the course short, since we have to trade dogs around a little to make up the larger teams, and that means some of the dogs have to run the course twice so everybody can get a run in. Our main events are the five dog races, since we can usually put together a five dog team without a lot of switching. We do run a seven dog event, and it takes a lot of switching. We also run a three-dog, so everybody can run their own teams without switching around. Everybody kicks in twenty bucks, so we can pay the gal that owns the golf course something, and have a few bucks left over for trophies."
Both Mike and Mark reached for their wallets. "Not this time," Mears said. "You guys are my guests this time."
"Daddy, can I run a race?" Tiffany asked.
"I don't know," he replied, and turned to Greg. "What do you think?"
"You must be Tiffany," Mears said. "You raced those dogs last weekend?"
"I finished for Daddy, after he got sick," the little girl confirmed.
"Well, you proved you know how to handle a dog team," Mears smiled. If it's all right with your Daddy, it's all right with me."
"How about the three-dog race?" Mike said. Agreeing to have Tiffany finish for him last weekend had come at a point of near-delerium, but she'd done so well that he couldn't deny her the chance. Maybe with three dogs, she couldn't get into as much trouble.
"That'd be neat, Daddy."
Mike turned to Josh. "You want to run, too? That way, we'll all get a chance."
Josh smiled. "Of course, I would."
"We can either diddle the teams around and let you run in the five-dog, or you can run the seven-dog," Mike suggested.
"Whatever you guys decide," Josh said.
Mark smiled. He knew Josh had taken some ribbing at school from letting the ten-year-old girl beat him in the race the previous weekend. Maybe this would make it up to him. "How about if we pick up where we left off last weekend, with five dogs, and let you run the seven-dog?"
"Fine with me," he smiled.
"You ladies like to help out?" Mears said to Kirsten and Jackie. "Like I said, there's not a lot of us, and it works better if everybody pitches in. My wife, Vicky, could use some help with the timekeeping, and there's plenty of other things to do."
"Sure, I don't mind," Kirsten said. "Better than just standing around in the cold."
"Yeah, me too," Jackie agreed.
"Glad to have you," Mears said, and turned back to Mark and Mike. "Do your leaders take commands real good?"
"We like to think so," Mark replied. "We don't know how that compares to anyone else."
"Do they take Gee and Haw out in the open pretty good, off a trail?"
"They do now," Mike said. "It was a hell of a lot of work getting them there."
"Well, what we do to set the course is we rig up a big dog team and run a groomer around, rather than using a snow machine," Mears said. "It usually takes ten or twelve dogs, with two or three guys riding the groomer. If you'd like to give your dogs some excercise, we can take them, maybe hook a couple of my Sibes into the gangline. That'll give you guys a look at the course."
"Yeah, why not?" Mike agreed.
"They'd like getting some exercise," Mark admitted. "We didn't have them out much this week, since we didn't feel up to it. Josh and Tiffany got them out for a while a couple of nights after school, though."
They started getting the dogs out of the dog box on Mark's truck, while Greg went over to the trailer and got out a funny looking box, that looked sort of like the thing that someone might mix a small batch of cement in, with a handlebar attached to the front, at about waist height. "What's that thing?" Josh asked.
"This is the groomer," Greg explained. "It really doesn't work too well. The miracle is that it works at all." Josh went over to help him carry it over to the front of the truck, while Tiffany laid out a 12-dog gangline. They began hooking up dogs; with that many hands, it didn't take long. Last to be hooked up were two of the white Siberians, running in wheel.
"Those sure are good-looking dogs," Josh commented.
"They're purebreds," Mears explained. "I like showing dogs, and I like Sibes. I got to thinking that it was a shame that they didn't pull a sled once in a while, and the next thing you know, here we are. I don't get them out as much as I'd like to."
They were good-looking dogs, with nice coats, immaculately brushed and gleaming, and they stood out at the end of the long line of the Spearfish Lake dogs, a few of which looked a lot like huskies, but more of which didn't look like much of anything.
They were just getting everything hooked up when a pickup truck with a cap wheeled into the parking lot. A medium-sized, balding man got out. "Didn't think you were going to make it, Woody," Greg said to the new arrival.
The new arrival shrugged. "Figured I'd better," he said. "I don't know when I'll be able to do this again. You had any luck?"
"Not really," Greg told him. "A couple of nibbles. We'd better get the course set, and then we'll get a minute. By the way, this is the gang from Spearfish Lake I told you about." He made introductions.
"I read about that," Woody said. "You guys had a real good trip. I'd have liked to have gone with you."
"Yeah, me too," Greg agreed, then turned to the Spearfish Lake group. "OK, we gotta get some butts in the groomer, to weight it down. If one of you guys wants to drive the team, the rest of us can sort of squeeze in there the best we can." Mark wound up behind the handlebars, while Greg and Mike and Josh squeezed together on the floor, Greg with an armload of flags on little plastic stakes. "Get 'em moving," Greg said, "Then go right as soon as we're out of the parking lot, and I'll tell you where to go."
"All right," Mark said, then called to the dogs, "Gravediggers, UP! Beatle Hounds, UP! HIKE! HIKE!" The groomer bounced heavily across the ice at the edge of the parking lot, then smoothed out as it climbed up onto the snow. It wasn't moving very fast; the groomer with four people on it had a lot of drag. A few seconds later, Mark added, "Cumulus, Ringo, GEE! GEE!"
"Hey, nice clean turn," Greg said, sticking a flag into the snow on one side; the groomer left behind a trail of snow, packed down several inches. "You've really got those leaders trained. Go down, oh, fifty yards or so, and then bend it to the left a little. We're gonna lay out a short course and a long course."
"You're running this thing," Mark said.
"Hey, you guys wouldn't happen to know of anybody that'd like a team that's all up and running, would you?"
"Might be," Mike said. "We've had several people in Spearfish Lake tell us they'd like to get started, and one guy in Warsaw. He'd probably jump at the chance."
"I would, if I could," Josh said. "Dad wouldn't mind, but we'd have to talk Mom into it. What's the deal?"
"Woody, there. He's got a five-dog team, one of the best we've got. His damn company transferred him to Houston, of all the damn places. He's gonna have to live in an apartment. No place to keep the dogs, no place to run them, so he can't keep them. Damn shame. He's willing to give the team, the sled, all the gear, to someone that'd keep them together as a team, and run them. We haven't been able to turn up anybody, but maybe we can split the dogs up among the rest of us."
Josh shook his head. "I'd love to do it, but there's no way I could keep the dogs at home."
"Well, we can give Fred a call when we get home," Mike said. "He sounded real interested last weekend."
"I'll tell Woody we've got a possible when we get back," Greg said. "He seemed pretty down. Maybe that'll make him feel a little better. Glad I mentioned it."
It took perhaps half an hour to lay out and mark a couple miles of race course, in kind of a lopsided, crooked figure 8. Mears explained that the three dog and five dog heat races would use the short course of about a mile, and the finals would run the long course, about twice as long. There weren't any heat races for the seven dog race; since there weren't enough teams to make a qualifier worthwhile, and that race would use the long course. "We could stand a little longer course," he explained, "But this is only a nine-hole golf course, and there's only so much room." Over the course of the half hour he managed to draw out much of the story of Mark and Mike getting their teams, and running the race to Warsaw. "You guys did good," he told them. "You've got a bunch of good dogs, and they're really well trained."