Day seven began with hopeful yet anxious anticipation. Hopeful because I felt confident that we’d make it to our finish in Greenville some forty five miles distant, across the wide expanse of Maine’s largest body of freshwater, Moosehead Lake. Anxious because I was not sure if the night’s wind and cold had been enough to harden the overflow. My greatest concern for the day; how far would I have to travel south before I found hardpack, or at least some trafficked snow?
After feeding the team, Jeremy the videographer and I took the long walk up to Norm and Whitney’s cabin, where fresh coffee, hot pancakes and dog talk awaited. Norm Lewis, the owner of Seboomook Wilderness Camps, is a retired K9 Maine Game Warden. His son, John Lewis, who had accompanied his father out to camp to meet us, is a K9 policeman in Norway Maine. Both of them had their work dogs with them. Between the three of us there was at least 60 years of working dog stories to tell, and tell them we did. They aren’t mushers, but they are true dog men.
Every sporting camp that had hosted me had been so kind. Seboomook was no exception. Whitney went out of her way to make Seboomook as welcoming as possible. They weren’t open for the winter. They’d come out here just to host our team.
During the preparation of the trip I asked Whitney where I could mail the supplies so they could haul them into Seboomook. “Just give me a list and we will buy the stuff we can here.” When I asked for a total price of her purchases for reimbursement her reply was “It’s our contribution to the expedition.” And their fellowship was as sweet as their generosity.
As with other places along the trail, I felt my time with them should have been longer. But the uncertainty of the day nagged at me. I tried to just enjoy the breakfast and the conversation, but my mind kept wondering to the unforeseen challenges of the final day.
I hitched the team and took off. “Woah! Haw!” Realizing that I’d left some gear back at the cabin I turned around and went back. I set off again and just before the trail reached the lake I reached for my ski pole and realized that I’d left it at the cabin. Norm, who was standing by, ran back to the cabin to fetch it for me, so I wouldn't have to turn the team around a second time.
This rough start served as an harbinger of the coming day, unfortunately.
The moment we left shore onto the snow and ice of the lake, my greatest fears for the day were all realized. The recent snowfall had buried any hopes of finding old trailpack. And the driving winds piled snowdrifts atop overflows. This meant that whenever I got off to push or wade through the snowdrifts, a wet sticky surprise waited for me and my dogs just underneath the surface of the snow.
This morning was, without exception, the most physically trying portion of the expedition for the dogs and myself. And that on the final day, after six days of work.
To give one an idea of the morning’s difficulties, I offer this illustration. An hour after slogging our way south and stopping out of sheer exhaustion, I turned into the wind to look behind. There I could see where we started that morning. Less than a mile away.
My leaders, Druid and Frost, were losing confidence by the minute.
Sleddog leaders follow trails. And they are adapt at discerning the best packed trail undiscernable to man. The problem with having leaders like this- leaders that are always thinking, always trying to figure out the path of least resistance- is that, when there is no path of least resistance, when no course is easier than another course, they wonder from one direction to another. Trying to do the job they are trained to do in an environment that makes their job of trail finding impossible. “Barn Broke…” I muttered to myself as I placed Sawyer into the basket and the leaders chose another lake house as our next azimuth. Barn Broke is what we southerners call a horse that will always steer toward the barn when given their reins. Since there was no path, my leaders took to picking a man made object on shore- like a camp or summer home- and working towards that. I would redirect them from the east to south, only to have them swing fully west. And when I tried to correct them again, they would overcorrect from south to east. There was nothing left for me to do but to lead the team. I knew they would follow me, without having to connect myself to them. So off I went, marching in calf to knee deep snow and overflow- my leaders never far behind. In this way we traveled for another two hours. It took us three and a half hours to travel just seven miles. “I can’t keep this up for 45 miles…” I said aloud. Suddenly, the team stopped and perked their ears. They heard something I didn’t. It was a lone snowmobile traveling north on the lake. Would he come near us or pass far to the east? We were not so fortunate as for him to pass by us, but he did come within three hundred yards of us. “We have ourselves a path, kiddos!” I said to the team, as we cut from a south to a southeasterly direction to pick up the sled track. “Godsend!” It didn't help much with the snow depth. The machine had been moving too fast for that. But it gave my leaders something to follow. No more arguing over direction. The wind tried to cover the tracks right away, but Druid and Frost kept with it for the time being. Over the next eight to ten miles, it became even more clear that my leaders were burning out. I moved Frost back and replaced her with Vodka. Druid continued thinking “the grass is greener’ on the other side of every snowdrift. So I moved him back as well. For a while Vodka was in single lead and kept us moving forward. But by the time we began our approach to Mount Kineo, she too succumbed to the mental pressure of leading in such conditions and began breaking for the nearest shoreline at every opportunity. Moun’t Kineo was beautiful. I was supposed to pass Kineo on the west where the videographer would catch me coming by. But I misjudged the shoreline and islands and ended up approaching on the east side. While this was unfortunate for the documentary, it was a welcome surprise for me to see that the east side was the most dramatic and most majestic side of the mountain.
The picture I took does not do it justice. In order for one to get a sense of scale you must note that those tiny black shrubs at the base of the cliff are not shrubs, but rows of ice fishing cabins and snowmobiles.
An eagle gilded on the thermals over the ledge. I am told the endangered Peregrine Falcon has also taken residence here during the summer.
Under this very same ledge, Henry David Thoreau and his Old Town indian guide camped more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
I sat for a moment on the sled with my map. Factoring my location. It was here that a passing snowmobiler told me that I was no more than ten miles from Greenville, when the map clearly showed I was about twenty-two miles from my destination.
It was here too that Vodka could not overcome the temptation to head toward any fisherman or snowmobile. Every time I yelled “Hike.” Id have to immediately follow up with a “Woah! No!” And redirect the team.
I thought to put Bear in lead. Bear is a strong large white male that I use as a leader when we are taking out multiple teams on a following team. I don't use him as a primary leader because he always overpowers Frost or Vodka when I give a directional command. Bear doesn’t like turning. He likes going straight. Always straight. Could that come into effect here?
Yes! Shortly after I moved Bear to the head of the team with Vodka, she tried to pull us from our southerly progression but nothin’ doin’! Bear yanked her back on course. Again she tried to turn right and again Bear yanked her back South. Bear was not fast. I was having to keep the team slow to keep him in front. But Bear was ensuring we made progress. South.
After about an hour of stopping the team several times to keep them from overtaking Bear, a novel idea occurred to me.
“What if I put Frost in lead next to Vodka? Why not? It can’t be any worse than what Ive been dealing with all day.”
In order to understand the risk of this move you must understand that Frost and Vodka despise one another. Frost is my eight year old wiser white, blue eyed female leader. Vodka is my four year old, faster, white blue eyed female leader. In other words Vodka is Frost protege. Her replacement. And Frost knew it.
Vodka and Frost issued threatening growls to one another as I put them side by side in lead.
“Here goes nothing.” I said as I ran back to the sled in hopes of starting the team before a fight broke out.
They started out slow. But each of them wanted to be in front of the other. So they moved faster. And faster. Eventually we were flying faster than we had at any point during the expedition. That competitive spirit.
Well, that worked, so why not try it again. Sawyer had been harassing his teammate Kyra. She is longsuffering, but it was distracting the entire team.
What would happen if I put him next to his nemesis?
I moved him back beside my no-nonsense workhorse, Bear.
“Hike!” The team took off again. Blind Sawyer tried to play games with his new teammate, but a quick snap of a rebuke set him straight. And then we went faster. And Sawyer held his tugline taut for the remainder of the run.
By the time we passed between Deer and Sugar Islands, the temperature was dropping. The trail was hardening. And there were more snow machine tracks to follow. All of this meant we moved quicker.
The sun was setting over by Big Moose Mountain. I had landed on Big Moose in a helo a decade ago on assignment from the Forest Service to remove the oldest firetower in the nation on its peak. Back then the mountain was called “Big Squaw Mountain.”
It was good to see the mountain again. And this time with a better name, even if it’s silhouette no longer sported a firetower.
And to my west a magnificent full moon was rising. Very far in the distance, I could see the white alpine cap of Mount Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine.
We were cruising. The darker and colder it got, and the more trafficked the lake was, the faster we moved.
A snowmobiler approached.
“There’s a bunch of folks gathering in town to see you come in!”
“Bill? I asked. It was Bill. It was good to see him. He sure does get around these parts on that sled! I asked how far I was from the east cove of Greenville.
“GPS says eight miles. The mayor of Greenville wants to know what time you think you will arrive.”
“Can you tell them I will be there in about an hour?”
“Will do.” Bill said, and he was off.
The moon lit the way so that I really didn't want to use my headlamp. But so many snowmobilers were coming out from this tourist town to see me that I kept it blinking red. At one point there were seven snowmobilers accompanying me.
The dogs felt my energy and they were coming in strong.
I was excited to see my family. I was excited to accomplish my goal. But another part of me was sad this was over.
I'd grown so much as a musher over the past seven days. My team and I had grown so much closer.
Although I've been mushing for more than two decades, this week was the first time that I can truly say that my life, at times, was dependent on my dogs performance. And their performance was dependent on my care. And that symbiosis brought me to another level as a musher. Brought us to another level as a team.
I also would miss the “Now” of the trail. In our daily lives we often get so caught up in the anxiety of the future. The remorse of the past. But out here there was no place for that. Mushing through the wilderness by dogteam demanded that I be present. Maneuvering the sled. Monitoring the dogs. Caring for them. Caring for myself so I could care for them.
I knew that, tomorrow, all the battles I’d left behind would be waiting for me, with a weeks worth of compounded interest. But perhaps I was bringing to them a revived Marine’s ability to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
I could hear people cheering. Then I could make out the individual voices of my wife and daughter. Then the faces of others came into view as my team drove me up onto the shore at Thoreau park.
The mayor of Greenville was there to officially welcome me. Many well wishers were there to congratulate me. But it felt strange. All of it. I felt like I did when I was eighteen and my mother and sister went to hug me after six months of Marine training. Like that, I knew the affection was good, and I was grateful. But it felt out of place.
Seven of my eight dogs could have, with a day's rest, done the return trip to Fort Kent. And part of me wanted to turn the team around and rejoin that Holy trinity of Man, Creature and Creation. I tried to attend the dogs while I was bombarded by questions from reporters and onlookers. It was fine. I like sharing my passion about my dogs with others. But it felt like a lot. I was tired. "Feed the dogs. Load the dogs. Get to the hotel so I can take a shower and sleep next to my wife." "Jonathan, Id like to retire Sawyer with me at Poland Spring Resort. I know we tried last year, and I said he was too much of a handful, but I know what to expect now." I was taken back by Cynthia Robbins words. "He probably should retire... Sure... OK... I can deliver him to you in a couple weeks and we can try it out again on a trial basis?" "I'd love to take him home with me tonight." Cyndi interjected. I went and say beside him. Hugged him. And walked him to her car. "Ill bring him by your hotel in the morning so you can see him again before you head north." "Ok. I'd like that. Thank you." It was poetic, I later reflected. Sawyer retiring to the same mansion, the same fireside, that Togo retired to almost 100 years ago. The descendant of Togo would take his place as the mascot of the resort.
The trip was over. I'd lost eight pounds. I'd almost lost my pinky toes to frost-bite. I'd lost Sawyer to his retirement home. But I’d gained respect for my team. They were honest dogs, that would always give me everything they physically could. I'd gained peace, focus and a renewed belief that any God given vision is possible when faith is married to actions. It’s true, “Faith without works is dead.” But faith married to action can move mountains. I hope you've enjoyed joining me on this trip. I want to encourage you to also join us in building a statue in Togo's honor at Poland Spring by clicking on the link below. https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/expediation-to-raise-funds-for-togo?fbclid=IwAR0dcjsyhrXUIcz-D9SaJiP06BFzxdhqtRWIZKp2kQBVvG-LAf6oMgvPbyE