It was nearly minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit when I woke up on day three. I went out to feed the dogs.
Druid was already pacing in circles, like a fighter shadowboxing to warm the muscles and burn adrenaline before a big fight. "He truly is tireless." I thought to myself throughout the entirity of this expedition. If I had a team of Druids, we would be a force to reckon with in any race.
Second only to Druid, Kyra seemed inexhaustible throughout the entire expedition. A yearling (just shy of two years old) and the newest addition to our kennel. I could not be more pleased. When you get a pup from another kennel, you never really know what youre going to get. But Deer Creek Seppala Kennels did me right in this deal.
Frost, my command leader and mother of Druid, while older than half most of the team, seemed to be in good spirits.
Vodka, the other white, blue eyed, female leader, half Frosts age and her arch enemy (after all, who really loves the younger stronger version of ones self?) had a hearty appetite. While not as trustworthy in lead, she will often pass Frost from the point position when going downhill. When the need is speed, Frost moves back and Vodka moves up.
The other four were not so charged.
Olav the wheel dog was not drinking or eating anything but meat. And he was only nibbling on that. And he had diarrhea, so I had to be careful. He is by far the biggest and strongest dog on my team. If he goes down, we go down.
Zoe, the 2 year old that had ridden the last 5 miles in the sled the night before was eating well, but didn't seem to enthused to get moving.
Bear, the workhorse of my team, as old as Frost, had no interest in standing up, or of eating. But again, it was almost minus 20.
Finally there was Sawyer, my blind dog. He had little interest in eating, and no interest in getting out of his straw bed.
Was this just the cold? Or was this the beginning of the end of the expedition?
Would their appetite pick back up? Or would they begin to lose energy? Should I press on? Or should I take advantage of the help I have here at Jalbert camp and pull out before I get even further into the remote wilderness?
As I pondered these things God spoke to me. See, I don’t believe in chance. I believe my steps are ordered by the hand of Providence. And this morning, Providence had a message for me.
My cell phone, that hadn't had coverage in two days, buzzed. There was a message on the lock screen. It was the Verse of the Day, from my Bible App. And you arent going to believe what the day’s verse read!
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness… - the prophet, Isaiah
A smile came to my face and I reentered the cabin, where Andre Landry had ham and eggs and home made bread on the stove. But God wasn't through speaking to me.
“You know” Andre started “I have run Jalbert Camps as a safety station for the Can Am Crown Sleddog Race for years. I can always tell when someone is going to scratch. I can see it in their eyes. And when I saw your dog in the basket when you came in last night, I looked in your eyes, and the spark was still there. I knew then you weren’t going to quit. Youre going to finish this expedition.”
And God was still not through speaking to me!
Patrick and Jeremy came to the table for breakfast.
“Patrick” I said to the Fort Kent Boy Scout Master and my old University of Maine College buddy, “Would you pray over breakfast?”
“Heavenly Father” Patrick began, “Thank you for giving us all the opportunity to be here. And I pray that you will help Jonathan to see the great inspiration he and his dogs are to so many during the pandemic we are facing…”
I must admit, I didn't hear the rest of the prayer. I was blown away.
“In the mouth of two or three witnesses, let every word be established.”
Ok Lord, I thought within myself. You've convinced me. Now you have to convince my dogs.
As i sat at breakfast, I pulled out the map, and looked at Andre.
“Another 45 miles. And more big hills to pull. Can you give me some good news?”
“Yes!” Adre quickly replied. "The Allagash runs south to north. So you've been going up hill as you head south. But about 20 miles into today you will have reached the Maine Highlands. Everything from there on out will be an equal give and take of elevation. Anything you climb will mean an equal decent.”
That's what I needed to hear. I would push on to the highlands. By then I would know if my dogs are crashing or settling into a new normal.
Now it was time to tell the team my plan. To my relief, when I brought the dried harnesses from the stove-side outside to the sled the excitement spread like a virus from the younger dogs to the older dogs, until every dog was barking at me as if they were concerned I would forget to harness them and take them along.
We were on our way. I wove the Cynthia through the mature pines and onto Round pond. Two miles across the lake and we were enveloped by the forest again.
The first 15 miles out of Round Pond, traveling southwest, was the most technical and punishing trail of the expedition. It must have been hard enough for Patrick and Andre to get their snowmobiles through the brush and switchbacks. But a long string of dogs threading such a path meant we were in for a beating.
First right, then left, while up and down. Through brush. Curving around massive trees with a fully loaded slow moving sled in soft snow meant plenty of dumps and crashes. But as I expected, the Cynthia weathered the storm without malfunction.
I remember at one point, I'd lodged the sled into the wrong side of a tree. My internal grumbling was quieted, however, when I heard the sound “zzzzrrrrrrrrrrr zzzzzzzrrrrrrrr”
I looked up to see that it was the sound of the primary remiges of a broad winged hawk cutting the air just over my head.
This too, I was sure, was God’s way of reminding me to be thankful for the opportunity to be where I was, doing what I was doing.
Being so engaged, the morning passed quickly. Soon I was turning onto the unplowed McNally logging road. All the dogs were performing well.
It then dawned on me.
“Im in the Highlands! From here on out, what goes up must come down.”
Although I was only in the middle of day three of a seven day expedition, I felt this was the tipping point. I felt sure that I would succeed now.
I pulled out the satellite phone and made a call to my wife.
“Whats wrong?” she asked.
“ I just wanted to call and tell you, that I've finished all the heavy climbing. We’re gonna do this, babe. Im going to finish this expedition.”
Throughout the remained of the day the day, the dogs performed well, with the exception of Bear. He was developing a slight limp. Was it due to the treacherous section we had just gone through? Would he be better with some rest tonight or would it just be worse tomorrow?
I eventually came to McNally Camp in the Allagash Wilderness Preserve. There I rested the dogs before coming down onto the river. But a storm was blowing in, so i decided it would be best to push on after a short break.
I came down onto the frozen river, but something didn't look right. My internal gps as sounding an alarm.
I knew that I was on the west side (or the left side on a map) of the Allagash. This means, that when I came to the Allagash i needed to turn right, or south. But everything about the topography told me I needed to turn left.
By this time it was already snowing and, at times, I couldn't see more than a hundred yards. I pulled out the map. Just as I had remembered, I was on the west side of the Allagash. I needed to turn right (or south) onto the waterway. So I pulled out my compass. And my compass said left was south, not right. "That's was not possible." I thought. So I dug into my sled and found a second compass. It too told me that left was south. Not right.
Believe it or not, I wanted to trust my map reading ability more than both compasses at this point. But that would be crazy, right?
I ran a real risk here of getting lost in a snowstorm.
“Jon, both compasses cant be wrong. You have to turn left.” I said to myself. So left it was. And thank God I did. Because within a tenth of a mile I realized that the Frozen river I was on was a tributary to the Allagash, the Chemquasabamticook. McNally Camps is not noted on the map, and because it is within the federally protected waterway, I assumed it was actually on the Allagash, and it wasn't.
This incident serves as just one example to those who would compare this expedition to a 250 mile dog race. For us there are no trail markers. No trail crews. No groomed trails. No intersection steward that makes sure barricades are up on the wrong side of an intersection, and that every team makes the proper turn. Fewer dogs. More miles. More weight. Without my map and compass, I would not have made it to Umsaskis that night, And in a snowstorm on frozen rivers, a mistake like that could have been deadly.
Coming onto Long Lake, I heard something ahead through the increasing snow, that I hadn't heard in since day one- a snowmobile.
But who would be all the way out here, in the middle of the week in a storm?
It was the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Ranger, my friend Trevor Oleary. He has a device called an “In Reach” which is a satellite texting device. Apparently he had made the mistake of giving the number to my wife, and she had persuaded him to keep an eye out for me.
“Good to see you” we both said to one another.
Trevor continued, “Im going to head down to the Realty Road to meet, Jeremy.” Jeremy is the videographer following the expedition.
“Ill snowmobile him into your campsite on the ledges so he can film you coming in tonight. I think he has some supplies for you?”
This was good news. By this time it had become clear to me that the dogs were only eating meat. And since they weren't eating much kibble I was burning through the meat quickly. Id asked my wife to try to reach the videographer and shuttle out some more meat.
I also wanted him to bring in my ash basket sled. It weighed half what the Cynthia did. I had been pulling heavy over steep inclines for three days. I figured having the option of switching sleds would be good.
As night came on, the snow fell faster. I traveled the last two hours in darkness. Compounding the darkness, the storm ensured that my headlamp would not penetrate any further than my leaders. And i could only see their reflective harnesses and lines. So I was completely at the mercy of Frost and Druid to keep me on track.
When I reached the Realty Road, Ranger Oleary informed me that the videographer hadnt made it. We were fearful that the storm had held him up on the hours long logging roads somewhere.
“Ill bring him out to your camp site when he arrives.”
When I reached the ledges, where I would be setting up camp for the night, Ranger Oleary- Trevor- had dug out the fire ring and had even started a fire for me. While I didnt stand around the fire much, I cannot say just how positive an impact on my psyche having that fire there was.
Now Trevor is a true woodsman. Not only is the Allagash Ranger, he is a Maine certified hunting and recreational guide. He also hunts with hounds, so he is a dog man. Trevor is also a native Allagash Irishman. As such, he is not prone to giving out compliments. For all these reasons, it meant so much to me when Trevor offered a compliment. He was standing silently in the darkness by his snowmobile while I bedded the dogs down and fed them the remaining meat and energy balls we had made for them and me, assuming resupplies would be coming. The storm continued to fall.
“I must say, Im really impressed with you and your dogs, Jonathan.”
That was it. He didn’t say more. He just returned to silently watching. Coming from Trevor OLeary, that meant a lot.
Trevor left me there on the ledges for the night. “If Jeremy gets here, Ill give him a ride out to your camp. If not, Ill check on you tomorrow.” he concluded.
I pitched my tent, thawed a frozen can of Vienna sausages on the fire and made a call to Cyndi Robbins, the sponsor of the expedition.
“You know you don't have to finish.” Cyndi said.
“Thank you for saying that. And I knew you’d feel that way. But I’m confident that I will finish.”
After the call I took off my wet clothes and climbed into the -30F sleeping bag provided to the expedition by the Nureck family. I whispered a prayer and drifted off to sleep. Join me here again next time as I share my day of travel from Unsaskis Lake to Chamberlain Lake.
And please consider donating to the erection of the Togo monument at the State HOuse in Poland Spring Maine by clicking on the link below.