Updated: Mar 7
When my 17 year-old son, Caleb, started down the shoot of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dogs Race yesterday morning, I could never have imagined that his race would end with his mother and I on our faces of Can-Am Crown Central pleading with God for our son’s life.
Caleb is a tenacious and rugged boy, one that hates the word “quit.” Our team is the strongest it has ever been. We are not sprint fast. But we are getting into a respectable distance groove that we hope will cary us into longer distance races in the future. Caleb was proud to be mushing our team into it’s first 100 mile race, after our 281-mile dogsled expedition last year. As the team coach and musher dad, I knew the trail condition and knew how our dogs would respond under these temperatures. “We will take 6 hours to get to Allagash. We will be there 6 hours. We will be 6.5 hours on the return trip.” I had been saying for a couple days leading up to the race.
Our team pulled into the Allagash checkpoint right on cue. The dogs were stepping high and Caleb was in good spirits.
After dinner with our Allagash friends, George and Cheril Turner, we headed straight to Can-Am Central to keep up to date on Caleb’s progress toward the finish.
When we got there, I expected to hear some updates from safety station 8 and perhaps 9 concerning his progress. They had none. Maybe one checkpoint failed to report him passing? Or maybe he’s running a bit behind? So I took a nap.
When I woke, Caleb had been on the trail for nearly 6 hours. He still had not reached safety station 8, which is approximately half way back from Allagash. I immediately went to the race officials.
“Something is wrong. I know this team and something is wrong. Maybe he turned onto the 250-mile trail?” But there was a more personal fear pressing on me: “Or maybe it’s another moose?”
Caleb and his team had been attacked by a moose just three days prior. The 45 minute standoff with the rampaging moose had not stopped until Caleb shot it. This story had already gone viral. Field and Stream Magazine had interviewed him. The Governor posted a a picture of herself with Caleb "the hero" the night before on her social media.
So I continued, “I asked race officials in Allagash if Caleb could carry a firearm and they denied the request. If this is another moose attack and he had no firearm, I won’t be happy.”
On my word, they sent out two snowmobiles to search for him. Another half hour passed and I began to hear chatter from the radio room about medics needed. Then a race official came out of Can-Am Central. “Jonathan you need to come with me. There is a problem.” We went into the headquarters just in time to hear the worst words I could ever have imagined, come across the airwaves. “Musher 16 has been located. Found lying in trail. Unresponsive.” Medical evacuation was requested. “We need trailers brought out to collect the dogs.”
I ask any parent reading this to tell me how those words would have registered with you? His mother turned to me with eyes of anger that seemed to speak for her, “He mushes because of you. He is gone and it is your fault.” Or maybe she was saying, "Don't just stand there. Fix this!" Which ever it was, she emphasized the message with a backhand to my chest. Then she collapsed into her husbands arms, crying.
I managed to hold it together for only a few minutes more than she did. “I need to know how he is.” “Cold and unresponsive. That is all we know.” In a flash of emotions I knocked some phone chargers off the counter. “This is my son!” I yelled. “That is not good enough!. Is he dead or alive?”
“We don’t know.” At these words I too collapsed and began to weep and plead with God for my son.
For nearly half an hour, until they could get medical staff to him, this is all we heard over the radio:“Found laying in the trail. Cold and unresponsive.”
Every time we heard it our panic grew. The president of the Can Am, Dennis Cyr, came in. Just before our update. His calm confidence calmed us, and braced us for a possible confirmation of our worst fears.
All the while, Tammie, kept assuring me, "It's going to be ok." When I had awakened her to tell her to tell her search parties were out for him, she said she had a dream that he was sitting frustrated in the woods. So when the dark news of what could be his passing reached us, she kept saying that she felt in her spirit that he wasn't gone- because she had seen him in her dream- awake but frustrated.
Then it came. “Musher 16 is conscious but disoriented.” At these words our prayers of pleading turned to prayers of thanksgiving. Dennis, and Larry and Jason- all veteran mushers- reasoned with me to keep an open mind, and not to assume the worst. Sure. I thought. I can do that now.
But “Found laying on the trail. Cold and unresponsive.” When that is all we knew for nearly half an hour- what was a parent to think? They were evacuating Caleb and his team to the nearest road, where an ambulance would pick Caleb up. They did not want us there. This was not comforting. But it didn’t matter. He was alive. No news seemed bad after that.
Finally the word came. He was in route to the hospital by ambulance and our handlers were free to come get the dogs. Well, I was the handler- and the father. Thankfully, fellow musher and friend, Tara Crossman, and her mother had stayed to see Caleb come in. Caleb’s youth pastor, Mylon Beiler, was also there. They graciously offered to retrieve our dogs for us in our truck and bring them to the hospital. We still knew nothing of his condition, except, “Found cold and unresponsive.” And then, “Conscious, but disoriented.” But conscious means alive. And we were anxious, but assured. Caleb is a fighter.
So what had happened? Our team was in better condition than ever before. We’d borrowed two Seppalas wheel dogs from our good friends and our sister kennel in Ontario- Rejenn Kennels- to fill out our ten-dog team. The recent retirement of our two most trusted, but slow leaders, Frost and Bear, from the team had not only created a leadership crisis in our race team, but opened up two spots in our ten dog team. We are grateful to Ralph and Jenny for the lend.
When Caleb pulled into the 50 mile checkpoint in Allagash, he said he was sure his return speed would only improve with the colder temps, if he dropped Aklack- one of the borrowed dogs. The other- Journey- he said, was performing superbly. We had another small issue. Two of our females were in heat. One, Kyra, was in a full blown 5 alarm fire of a heat. For the entire three hour layover, our males were so obsessed with Kyra that none rested. A veteran distance racer would not have hesitated to drop her from the team. But she had not caused significant problems on the trail thus far, so I did not counsel Caleb to take her off.
I was his coach. He could have dropped her and still had 8, undistorted dogs. He would have still been able to finish in our predicted time. I should have counseled him to drop her. I didn’t. . The fault of that is not on my rookie checkpoint musher- it was on me.
What I later discovered was that our main leader, Druid, had become obsessed with mating Kyra. No matter where Caleb put him in the team, Druid made his way to her. And he wasn’t the only one. Shiro, Olaf- Even Hatchet her son- were trying to tie with her at every chance. When he passed the first safety station 7 miles out, they reported he was “working it like a puzzle.” Trying to find a combination that would get his team moving again. In retrospect, there are a few things he could have done. Move her to a male that you dont mind her breeding with and let them breed. Putting her in the bag for the remaining 40 miles. Etc. it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback it. But he tried every combination of dogs. Nothing worked, except being the lead dog himself. Which he did for several miles. But humans can’t run like dogs. And eventually he was covered in sweat.
We also have since wondered- this was the first NIGHT run since the moose attack on the dogs. Perhaps running them in the day did not thoroughly diagnose how well they had gotten over the incident.
“I remember thinking, Dad would tell me ‘It’s okay to rest Caleb.’ I knew then my race was over. So I curled up with the dogs to wait for the trail sweeper and fell asleep.” He slept for an estimated 3 hours before the searchers fond him “laying in the trail. Unresponsive. Cold.” The few minutes that lapsed from when the ambulance pulled into the hospital, until when they called his mother and I back, seemed like an eternity. “In this room” the nurse directed- pointing toward a room with a drawn curtain.
We walked in and the bed was empty. “He isn't in here?” I asked. “He is using the bathroom.” The nurse responded.
His mother and I burst into a laughter of relief. We didn’t say it, but it was because we knew he was ok in that silly sentence. If he walked to the bathroom unassisted, then he is ok! Caleb was treated for minor hypothermia and released within the hour. I tucked him into bed this morning around 5:30AM.
The race website says he scratched at Allagash. That isn’t accurate. He did nearly half of the second leg of the race- nearly 75 miles- before deciding that, this time, retreat would be the better part of valor.
We love the Can Am Crown. It is an exceptional organization. We are amazed by the number of amazing people that volunteer to make the race happen on the professional level that it does. There are a couple things I think we can learn from this though. Why wasn't there a trail sweeper for more than 5 hours after the last team? Could the safety checkers, just sweep their section after the last racer passes?
That said, we are indebted to the trail crews. We are grateful to the safety volunteers. We admire the great professionalism of the Can Am Crown. It is our hometown race. We also want to say thank you to Native Dog Food, for recommitting their support for next year, despite our scratch.
And lastly to my wife, Tammie, who loves my children as fiercely as if she birthed them. Thy feel it. And know it.
The name Caleb means tenacious. It suits him. Within the first 5 minutes I was reunited with me, he looked me in the eyes and said, “I want bib number one next year. I’ll train harder. I’ll be smarter. We will complete it next year.”