Friday, December 10, 2010

Lead Dog Gone Loco...

Tuesday brought a surprise dump of significantly more snow than forecasted, so Wednesday had Max, Zorro and I itching for some powder.

Remember now, this is only our second season of skijoring (with Max still a young 3 years old and Zorro a baby 2). To date, we have stuck to intermediate trails in the backcountry and only groomed expert trails. We have already been out on the trails 6 times this year, leading me to utter the phrase that has probably sunk many a musher or skijorer, "We have been crushing it on the trails this year, I am ready for more!" More meant we set out to Crystal Lakes in the Colorado backcountry - a series of backcountry expert trails with a ton of fresh powder waiting for us. See pictures below; but first the tale of our adventure...

It started out wonderfully, heading up a very steep Crystal Creek Jeep Road toward Francies Cabin (one of the Colorado backcountry huts). We skied up 1,500 feet in just under 2 miles, following the clearly visible path of others, until we reached Francies Cabin. At Francies Cabin the "visible path" ended and we were on our own to blaze the trail to Lower Crystal Lake. Again, this proceeded beautifully as we trekked through 1.5 to 2 feet of fresh powder, onward and upward. And then it happend, my lead dog went loco!

As we skijor, Max is my lead dog (he listens to all directions) and Zorro is my wheel dog (he listens to everything "faster" and wants to pull). View it as Max is the steering wheel and Zorro is the (sticky) accelerator.

As we left Francies Cabin in our rear view, we transitioned from 1.5 to 2 feet of fresh powder into 3+ feet of fresh powder. As soon as the powder got 3 feet deep, Max lost it! He buried his head deep in the snow, he rolled around like a goofy puppy and started a "snow wrestle" with "the happy to wrestle back" Zorro. I started calling to Max: "Max Forward!" (this has always got him back in line and on the path), "Max Let's Go!" (this has always served to speed up the forward direction). "Max Max MAX Foward!", "Let's Go!", "MAAAAAAAAX FORWARD!" - repeat, repeat, repeat. Nothing! My lead dog had gone deaf. So, here I was waist-deep in powder on an uphill incline I never would have attempted without my (now stalled) Siberian engines to propel us. I used the gangline as a rope and rappelled myself up to the snow wrestling twins. After separating the lunatics, I was on my knees between them and had a discussion about skijoring and reminding them they were supposed to be good at listening (especially you, Max!). I reset the pair, got up on my skis and told them to continue on.

10 feet forward (at most) and Max dipped his head in the snow, flipped some at Zorro and jumped into a Siberian snow wrestling ball with his brother. Same as before: "Max this", "Max that" - nothing, zero - my lead dog gone loco! Another rappel to separate the wild pair, another heart-to-heart discussion about skijoring & listening and we reset to go again. 3rd verse, same as the first: 10 feet and a cloud of Siberian wrestling powder. I did the unthinkable and gave up on Max and elected Zorro the lead dog. "Zorro Forward!", "Zorro Let's Go", "ZOOOORRROOOO FORWARD!" - nothing, zero again... Another rappel to the front, another separation, another heart-to-heart (which I realized was really a heart-to-wall), another reset and another start. 4th time, same as the first: 10 feet and a cloud of Siberian wrestling powder. Sunk to my knees in powder midway up my chest, I was about to give up all hope on my partners as I let out a big sigh. The noise caused them to pause and, Zorro on his back with four feet in the air with Max sitting on his chest, both looked back at me with the joint happy expressions of, "Hi Dad, this is great, we've never had so much fun!" - and then it dawned on me...

Max and Zorro had never been in 3+ feet of powder in any mode other than "play mode". All of our skijoring to date had been in 2 feet or less (e.g., in powder shorter than Max). Every encounter with 3+ feet of powder in Max and Zorro's young lives had been a play party - dive in the snow, tackle your brother, roll around like a goofball - they had never been asked to listen and work in this setting. The change from 2 feet to 3+ feet must be it. So I reverted to puppy-mode training. We progressed forward not more than 5 feet with me hollering as excited as I could, "Good Forward, Good Forward!" and then we stopped and hugged & licked. 5 feet forward again, excited congratulations, hugs and licks. Then 7 feet, then 10 feet, etc. etc. We did this short, puppy-mode training and celebration for roughly 400 feet and finally we were skijoring again!

We actually progressed in a forward fashion through 3 feet of powder for a short distance and then we hit a wind-blown meadow with the path between the drifts back to a comfortable 1.5 feet of powder. As we came over a hump there was a small dip below the wind and then an incline again. This next incline was back to 3+ feet of powder - luckily I noticed! As we began taking on powder I picked up my "Good Forward Max, Good Forward Zorro" calls with an excited tone. Once the powder was clearly over 3 feet (significantly taller than a husky) Max & Zorro magically unified into synchronized "dolphin like" swimming through the snow. Like watching dolphins swim across the top of the ocean - graceful in/out of the surface water as they progress forward - here was Max & Zorro in a synchronized up/down glide through 3-4 feet of powder. We had arrived, my lead dog was no longer loco and the wheel was churning forward!

Sorry, I do not have any pictures of the "3+ foot incidents": most of the time my pocket was too far down in snow to find the camera, the rest of the time I needed both hands to keep balance and help propel forward (believe me, I tried reaching for the camera once and will not try that again ;-)

Francies Cabin - one of the Colorado Backcountry Huts (yes, this is one of the nicest of the "huts", most are much more hut or yurt like). The trail continues to the cabin, our venture to Crystal Lake took us left at this point.
Our path after Francies Cabin - 100% pure, untouched powder. Just beyond this beautiful, gentle stretch started the uphill in 3+ feet of powder with a loco lead dog.
A wind-blown high point approaching Lower Crystal Lake. Max & Zorro made the indentations in the snow in the foreground - as you can see, within 5 minutes these were wind-blown to the point of looking like "old tracks", not fresh tracks. On the path down, our "up tracks" were completely blown over and invisible in places.
Approaching Francies Cabin as we came back down from Crystal Lakes - the powder is finally shallow enough that I can spare a hand to get my camera out and snap a shot.
The Route: Spruce Creek Winter Trailhead to Crystal Creek Jeep Road to Francies Cabin to Lower Crystal Lake (the "powder loco" stretch) then back to Francies Cabin down an unnamed Forest Service Road to Spruce Creek Jeep Road up for a scenic mile or so on this intermediate terrain and then back down to the Spruce Creek Winter Trailhead. Approximately 7 miles.

The Vital Stats: 7 miles total distance, 2.5 hours total time with about 1.75 hours of moving time and 45 minutes of stopped time with the Siberian Wrestling Locos & Deep Powder Training Episodes. Total elevation gain about 2200 feet.

The Key Lesson: The lead dog is not loco, the musher was misinformed - you ALWAYS told us to play and wrestle in 3 feet of powder before, stupid!

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