Real mushers do it on the snow.

I can say that now.

It's something I never thought I'd do. It seemed so tricky and so scary. Only happens a couple of times a year in Australia. And the dogs were getting old. And we sold J's sled.

Then last year, a race started up at Mt Baw Baw, where I have many awesome childhood memories. We went and spectated and had so much fun!

This year, a friend said, "you should try this, I think you'll love it" and offered me a sled and another dog. It took him a bit to talk me into it; discussions about getting early access to the mountain for some sled training, lots of talk about how similar riding a sled is to skiing, and a dry run (pun intended!) to see if the dogs would be well matched as a team.

Czar and Smudge, at SHCV Race 3

Czar and Smudge, at SHCV Race 3

Friday afternoon, SB and I took Smudge and Czar and the Pink Sled, out into one of Mt Baw Baw's cross country trails to have a go, the day before the race.

A sled is both simpler and more complicated than a scooter. Steering is just a matter of shifting your weight, same as skiing. But braking comes with choices, which I just found confusing. There's a drag mat, which sits between your feet and you stand pigeon toed on it and vary the pressure with your heels. To lift the drag mat up you have to reach down a pull a cable near your knees. There's a claw brake, which punches holes into the snow when you stand on it, and bounces back up when you take your foot off. And there's a snow hook, or two, which you have to unsheath and drop, making sure you don't hit your own knees, or toes, or a passing musher... Just sayin' HK, it could have been worse!!

Anyway, I had a short burl down the slope to get the feel of it and managed not to crash or hit a tree. So we hooked the dogs up and went down the practice track. SB rode along behind me, which was very weird because the sled felt quite weightless so it was a little like having a disembodied voice in my ear. After a little bit he hopped off and left me to it. It was magical. All the instructions flew straight out my head and I just concentrated on shifting my weight as we swished along the winding trail. 

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When it came to my actual race the next day, things started off hectic. We had a minor glitch with the child care arrangements and I ended up running late to get to the start chute. At Mt Baw Baw, all dogs must be kept at Carpark 2, and the walk from the car park to the start chute was quite a bit longer this year, compared to last year. As I was meant to be the first team out for the Novice/Touring class, I had no extra time. The wise race committee had realized that teams were likely to be caught short and had insisted that no competitors would be penalized for being late to the start chute. They arranged for me to go out at the back of the class instead. It was the perfect amount of time to get the dogs hooked up, get my helmet and googles on, gloves back on, and move through to the start line, but no time to turn on the Mushometer or the Go Pro. Fortunately, a friend captured an awesome video of me almost falling on my bum right at the start line!

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Last year, the start and finish lines were on a trail called Home Trail, at the corner of the village's Main Street. This year, the mountain management had asked if we would run the chutes through the centre of the Main Street, to make a big spectacle for the crowds. Some of the teams were very keen to stop and say hello to the people lining the race track as it crossed the Village Bowl, but I was very proud of my boys, who took off strong (so strong we pulled a mono off the start line!) and ran straight through, across the Bowl and started to climb the trail up into the hills beyond the Village.

The trail looped around a hill, winding through the trees and constantly heading up and down the little ridges and gullies that made up the sides of the hill. It was very difficult to find a consistent pace. On each short down hill slope, the sled and dogs would start to rush down, and I'd try to find the drag mat with my heels. As soon as I did, we'd be pulling uphill again and I'd be struggling to get my feet past the drag mat to run, rather than hold the dogs back. The trail constantly changed from deep, heavily chopped snow to brown, slushy little rivelets. Large rocks poked out and I fought to steer around them, trusting the dogs to pick their best lines. They did, thousands of years of instinct and breeding, keeping us moving along the trail.

We came up a rise to find a Corner Marshall directing the team ahead of us to take the right hand fork. The driver, our friend HK, was too close to the edge, fighting to stay out of the ditch and I soon understood why, as the angles of the trail tilted us into the same spot. Czar and Smudge were keen to say hello to Shaker and Pop, so they crowded over too. I struggled with the sled and barely managed to avoid running over HK, a very ungraceful pass. I didn't realize at the time, but as I brushed past I knocked her, and she fought again to keep her balance and stay out of the ditch. She's been teasing me about it ever since!

We moved on a little more, climbing and falling. Suddenly I crested yet another short ridge and the drop in front of me was much steeper than previously, with a sharp bend at the bottom. I struggled to control speed and direction and crashed at the bottom, tipping the sled onto its side and fighting to keep one hand on the handlebars, lying with my elbow in the snow. HK saw my predicament and fought to find a better line around the corner. I picked myself up and we took off after her again.

We travelled up and down for a bit further, and then I realized that Smudge had stepped over the neckline between the dogs. I called them to a stop, braking and was so please when they stood to wait for me to walk up and untangle them. Czar looked a bit confused when I called them to hike while still standing next to him, but did as I told him. I let the line run through my hand and then grabbed the handle bars and swung myself between the runners as the sled came past. We were off again, between the snowy trees.

We caught back up to HK as we finished looping the hill. Her team took the left turn back to the Village Bowl beautifully but Smudge was keen to say hello to the Corner Marshall standing on the right. We stopped and I called them round, but they were intent on begging for pats. The Corner Marshall grabbed the neckline and steered them back into the trail.

We sped down the slope into the Bowl, with crowds calling "hike!" (Points to those who knew this is what we say, not "mush!"). The boys were keen to catch HK, and I tried to pull around them, but one of the Marshalls shouted a suggestion to come in one behind the other. Feeling like the trail was icy and slippery underfoot, I thought it was better not to fall and make a fool of myself in front of such a crowd, so we pulled in behind HK and travelled quick and safe up to finish line. Such an awesome feeling!!!

Enormous thanks to the RGO who put on an awesome race, dealing with many challenges with grace and competence. Thanks to J and the Wee Monster and his many wonderful babysitters, especially his Uncle and Aunty who came along for a weekend at the snow and got sucked into all kinds of errands and dog handling. And especially thanks to SB, for the inspiration, encouragement and wherewithal to get out there and compete at this new level. 

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