Day Four. Umsaskis to Chamberlain. Togo 261 Solo Memorial Dogsled Expedition
What I'm about to share with you is embarrassing. In fact, it's taken me a few days to write this entry because I debated whether or not to include this self deprecating story. But I want to take my readers on this adventure with me in every possible way, so I have decided to share everything, which includes the embarrassing moments. Therefore, Before I tell you the story of day four, I must backtrack to share the events that transpired after I climbed into my sleeping bag on night three. If you will recall from the journal of day three, I was hopeful to meet up with Jeremy the videographer, because my dogs were not eating kibble, and I'd fed them all their meat. He was supposed to be bringing me a resupply.
I also mentioned in day three, that I reached the ledges over Umsaskis Lake and Jeremy was not there. He had been held up by the storm I'd been mushing through. So, before I went to bed, I fed the dogs all my supply of human food. All my homemade beef jerky. All my homemade Keto Balls. Everything. They ate it all, willingly. This was good. If they didn't eat, we didn’t move. I was glad to give them my food for all they’d given me that day. What this all means is, I had not eaten anything. I had not drank anything. And I had pushed myself hard physically. Yes I was hungry. But I was more tired. And I hoped that Jeremy would get to me before I departed the next day. Shortly after I retired to my tent for the night, I was awakened to the sound of a snowmobile. Trevor, the ranger had brought Jeremy the videographer out, as promised. I was tempted to say my greetings through the tent and remain in my bag for the night. But I realized that Jeremy had made great effort to reach this remote portion of the route for the purposes of the documentary. With this thought, I dutifully put my wet clothes back on and emerged from my tent. “Were you able to get my resupplies out here?” I asked. “Yes. They're right behind your tent.” Behind my tent I found grocery bags full of ground beef, steak, and smelt for the dogs. A tote was sitting beside the bags of meat. But I could tell the moment I glanced at it that it wasn't my cache tote with my supplies of personal food items. I opened it and it was full of camera gear. He had accidentally grabbed the wrong tote. I opened a couple containers of smelt and fed a few to each dog before joining Jeremy by the fire. I was pleased to see that he had brought that incredibly smooth bottle of Scotch that had been gifted us in Allagash. “Jonathan, I want you to sit here by the fire, with the snow falling, and let's do a long form interview about Togo, the expedition, and your connection with the breed.” Jeremy explained as he handed me the bottle of scotch. He and I both took two, maybe three, sips and then put the bottle away. “This will help loosen my tongue and get me flowing” I thought. I want to pause here and say that I have only ever been drunk twice in my life. Once was on the night of my divorce ten years ago and both times it was intentional. I generally have a high tolerance.
That said, I was already punch drunk from an exhausting day. Add to that an empty stomach, dehydration, and no more than 6 hours sleep for about a week, and the inclusion of any alcohol was a recipe for disaster.
Within what seemed like only five or ten minutes, the world began to spin. I'd forget Jeremy’s question within the first sentence of my reply. I tried to push through, but it was apparent to even me, that I was completely incoherent.
“Well Jeremy, for only the third time in my life, it appears I am inebriated. I am going to try to get to my tent without falling in the fire and go back to sleep.”
To give one an idea of how fully out of my head I was, I remember my last thought as I wrestled with the sleeping bag zipper. “ I have to zip this up all the way for protection. Jeremy may have poisoned the scotch and may be trying to kill me.”
This brings us to day four with full disclosure.
I woke up with remorse. Remorse for my splitting headache. Remorse for failing to give Jeremy a good interview after his great struggles to reach me. But most of all, remorse for failing my dogs. “They need me to be at 100% so that I can be the ninth dog. They need me to be at 100% to care for them, so that they can give their all in return.” I thought within myself.
Before I departed Trevor the Allagash ranger pulled up on his snowmobile. He brought a bag of “Pigs in a blanket” that his wife had made for him, so that I'd have something to eat.
I ate a few and gave the rest to the team. I apologized profusely to Jeremy for my poor judgement the night before. He assured me that something from the interview would be salvageable.
And with that we launched out onto Umsaskis Lake. After crossing the lake, we had a few more forest miles. First ascending and then descending to Churchill Dam.
Here I made my first of two course decisions that cost me time and energy on the trail. The ranger had intended for me to follow his fresh tracks around the light ice of the dam, through the woods, where I was to descend a few miles down the lake. Instead I turned onto Churchill Lake immediately after crossing the dam.
This was when the reality of the next two days of lake travel trumped my hopes of easy travel.
In addition to the fresh snow from the previous night, the temperatures had risen significantly. Where Id been mushing in sub zero temperatures in the mountains, the mercury was now rising to above freezing.
Rather than two days of easy lake travel as Id predicted, I was met with 35 degree temps- which are too hot for the dogs- breaking trail through fresh snow, and worst of all, overflow.
For those who may not know, overflow is a condition of lakes or rivers where the downward pressure of heavy snow actually pushes water up from under the lake ice to flood the surface of the ice. Depending on the depth and weight of the snow the overflow can be as little as a couple inches or as much as several feet.
After an hour of lake travel produced no more than two miles of distance covered, my imaginings of quick easy days on the lake were shattered. These two days of Lake travel would prove to be more taxing on myself and my dogs than the mountainous trails had been.
I will save the reader the long descriptions of the blow by blow. Suffice it to say that day four and day five would best be summed up by deep, slush and snow- often to the dogs chest and to my knees, and slow arduous miles. But my team had found it’s second wind. They had accepted our daily travel as the new normal with great resolve. All except Sawyer.
Sawyer is our blind Seppala Siberian. He lost his sight during a bout with lymes disease some four years ago. His loss of sight had not equated to a loss of drive, however. In fact, Sawyer is the team cheerleader. It is typically next to impossible to get a picture of our team that doesn't include Sawyer with all four feet off the ground, slamming into his harness and screaming to go.
This intense passionate driven energy has kept Sawyer’s place on the team. Its what we have come to expect from him. We tried to retire him last summer, with the owner of Poland Spring Resort, but the first week he was there he broke out of the house, scaled a wall, and got 5 miles down the road. Blind! He made it clear to us that he was not yet ready to retire.
But breaking trail and wading through slush for hours on end took the confidence out of our blind Sawyer. He couldn't trust to just lunge forward onto an untrustworthy trail. So when the going got tough, Sawyer would shut down.
While I needed his strength and drive desperately, I could not blame him. He is blind after all. So I would take him off the team at the first sign of stress and place him in the sled basket. I would redeploy him when the conditions improved. This is how Sawyer traveled the lakes. He spent the hours that we needed him most, adding weight to our heavy sled, as the remaining dogs and myself, slogged through the slush.
Two thirds of the way through day four I had a monumental moment awaiting me. The moment I would pull off Eagle Lake onto the Portage between Eagle and Chamberlain Lake. Why would this be a monumental moment? Because there I would see the famed Ghost trains of the north Maine Woods.
In 1927, the same year Leonhard Seppala brought Togo and the rest of his team to Maine to establish Poland Spring Kennel, these tow massive steam locomotives were brought by massive teams of oxen, to the North Maine Woods, to haul lumber from one lake to the other across the portage.
Also, like Seppala’s sojourn in Maine, they were only active for a few years before they were retired and abandoned. Again, just as Seppala retired Togo and left him at Poland Spring Resort.
These similarities were poetic to me.
The other reason I was excited to reach the ghost trains, was that I had traveled to them by dogteam two years earlier. But from the south, where I'd traveled into the woods from logging roads and then harnessed my team for the 50 or so mile round trip to the trains. Nevertheless, in my mind, This marked the point where my journey into the North Woods ended, and the journey out of the North Woods began.
Pasing Farm Island, and then Hog Island, on Eagle Lake, I knew I was close. And then I heard the buzzing sound of a drone overhead. For the second time on this trip, Jeremy had sent out his camera drone to film me. It would be, over the course of the trip, a sort of welcoming delegation from evening camp. But here it was deployed to film us coming up to these historic behemoths left to rust away in the wilderness.
I greeted the trains with a smile, as old friends. I rested my team there. Four of these dogs had rested there two years earlier and I could tell it was familiar to them. I too greeted Trevor and Jeremy, who had traveled in and out from Chamberlain Lake by snowmobile to meet me.
There I snacked and rested the team. Several photos were taken. After about an hour, the team was ready to travel again. Only 12-14 miles more and we would be at the Historic and scenic Nugent’s Hunting Camp on Chamberlain Lake.
Onward we trudged through the slush and snow until darkness joined itself to us as a traveling companion. When the sun set low, the temperatures dropped. The slush hardened and our speed increased.
I saw some dim lights from what I assumed would be Nugent’s Camp and then the familiar sound of the drone hovering about us.
When my creature crew hauled our ship ashore we were greeted by the owners of Nugent’s camp, Rob and Stella. I could tell immediately that they loved dogs. They asked permission and then doted over each of my dogs, as I spread straw for their beds and prepared their meals.
After the dogs were cared for, I was pleased to discover homemade mac and cheese with bacon awaited me in the cabin for dinner, courtesy of the proprietors.
Jeremy and I sat at dinner, discussed the days trials and tribulations, and poured over the following days map.
Since I am telling self deprecating stories, I have an embarrassing story from after I went to bed on this night as well. But enough for this installment. I’ll tell it on Day Five.
I hope you are enjoying the narrative of my expedition. If so, please partner with me in helping raise funds for a Togo Statue at the State House here in Maine, by clicking on the link below.