Deborah Bicknell has been mushing dogs a long time - ever since she hitched up her Saint Bernard, Pavlov, and won a junior sprint race in northern New Hampshire in 1957. But who said you can't teach an old musher new tricks?
Bicknell, now a 57-year-old grandmother from Juneau who has an artificial left knee and a surgically rebuilt right knee, has been mushing dogs off and on for more than 45 years. Her career includes highlights such as being the first female to win a world championship race in New England, and two starts (and one finish) in the 1,000-mile-plus Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
As part of her training to run her third Yukon Quest - which starts on Sunday in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and will finish about 10 to 14 days later in Fairbanks - Bicknell decided to enter the Copper Basin 300, one of the state's premiere mid-distance races. It was Bicknell's first attempt at the Copper Basin 300, which starts and finishes in Glennallen.
"I should have done the Copper Basin three years ago," Bicknell said by phone last week from her training camp in Tagish, Yukon Territory. "I learned so much."
Bicknell was one of 44 mushers to start the Copper Basin 300 in mid-January, and she finished 21st.
But more valuable to Bicknell was the chance to watch some of the top distance mushers run their teams. Not only do some of the top Yukon Quest mushers use the Copper Basin 300 as a training race, but several of the best mushers from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race use the CB300 as a way to prepare their teams for their 1,160-mile trek.
Bicknell was able to watch how the better mushers managed their teams in checkpoints and was able to note how they alternated running and resting time to keep their dogs fresh on the trail. She said she hopes to put that knowledge to use in the Yukon Quest.
Deborah Bicknell's personal Web site
The official Yukon Quest race Web site
"I'm going to try a strategy where I go four hours, then rest four hours," Bicknell said. "It's going to be a long race and it's hard for sprint mushers to learn how to run a distance race."
Bicknell ran the Yukon Quest as a rookie in 2000, winning the Red Lantern Award as the race's last finisher (in 21st place). After taking two years off to train and develop a string of younger dogs for her team, Bicknell entered the race again in 2002 expecting to chop about two or three days off her 2000 time of 15 days, 4 hours, 54 minutes.
But luck was against Bicknell last year, as her main leader, Rocky, developed a fungus infection called aspergillosis that got into his nasal cavities and almost killed him before it was diagnosed a couple of months before the Quest started. Then, shortly after she started the race, several of Bicknell's female dogs went into heat at the same time. Without Rocky to guide the team through one of its iciest and hilliest stretches, Bicknell decided it was best to scratch so her dogs didn't get hurt.
This year things have been better, other than a lack of snow for proper training. Bicknell feels much as she did before last year's race, and still says she will drop a few days off her 2000 time. The top 15 finishers in this year's Yukon Quest - the 20th running of the race - will share a purse of $125,000, with the winner taking home $30,000.
"No more red lanterns," Bicknell said of her chances. "There are really some competitive teams here. But I think I can get down to 10, 11 days, not counting the (mandatory) 36-hour layover in Dawson (Dawson City, Yukon Territory). I'd like to be in the top 10, but I think I can be in the top half if I do things right."
Rocky has regained his health, although he does have a hole in his nose from where the fungus ate into his sinuses. Rocky will be joined by a few other dogs that can lead - his brother Enauk, son Peaches and daughters Raven and Feather. Bicknell said her team's average age is about 3-3 1/2 years, although there are a couple of dogs, like Rocky, as old as 7 years old.
As for the snow, or lack thereof, it's affected just about all of the state's top mushers. Other than the Copper Basin 300 and the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel, all of this year's major mid-distance races were either postponed or canceled because of poor snow conditions.
Bicknell said the lack of snow also has been a factor at her camp in Tagish. She and neighbor Thomas Tetz, who took second in the 2000 Yukon Quest, have had to train using four-wheelers, a common summer training method. Instead of pulling a sled, the dogs pull a four-wheeler while the musher or handler rides the ATV (Bicknell's handler is Mike Cranford, who used to work in five-time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson's kennel). She said her team was able to run 25-27 miles at a time with the four-wheelers, but wasn't able to get longer runs in.
In order to find snow, Bicknell, Tetz and defending Yukon Quest champ Hans Gatt of nearby Atlin, British Columbia, had to drive into the mountains along the South Canol Road. But even that old Yukon pipeline road had snow problems. It wasn't until she got to Glennallen and found four feet of fresh powder that her team really got to run on snow.
"We have to drive 50-60 miles to get there and we went up about six times," Bicknell said of the South Canol Road trek. "We usually run to Quiet Lake and stay about six hours. Usually there's snow there in October, but it was mid-November before there was enough. There was lots of snow at the Copper Basin. We had no real problems with snow there."
When there were worries the Yukon Quest wouldn't have enough snow, Bicknell said her husband, Sandy, ordered her a special prairie sled. The new sled has stanchions that raise the bed of the sled off the ground about 6-8 inches higher than Bicknell's usual toboggan sled. She said the new sled should help her get through some of the exposed brush she'll encounter due to the snowless year.
Since finishing the Copper Basin 300, Bicknell has been focused on preparing for the Yukon Quest. She had just a couple of days to get her food drops ready so they could be taken out to the various checkpoints along the trail, and she had to take her dogs into Whitehorse this past weekend for their veterinarian checks.
Bicknell said packing the food is especially tricky, since she has to estimate how fast she will move along the trail. Most competitive sled dogs only weigh about 40-50 pounds, but they must consume 11,000-12,000 calories a day to keep from losing weight - about four or five times what most sedentary 180-pound humans need in a day. Bicknell said her dogs eat meals about every six hours, plus she gives them snacks every two hours when they're running.
Mushers are allowed to start the Yukon Quest with as many as 14 dogs - they have to finish with at least six still running - and Bicknell said she carries about 25 pounds of food per meal for her team. She carries several types of meat - horsemeat, beef, fish, etc. - and each dog gets a pound of grain per meal. She also carries vitamin supplements and rice for the dogs.
As for her own meals, Bicknell said she sent out a selection of Magic Meals - a brand of camper meals that heat themselves in their own container. She also sent out yogurt, which is easy to digest with her touchy stomach, potato soups, Power Bars, tea, cocoa, and even some good water. She said she hopes to do better than she did in 2000, when she lost 30-35 pounds during the race.
"Nothing tastes good out on the trail, and I'm really sensitive to some foods," Bicknell said.
Bicknell said this might be her last attempt at the Yukon Quest. She said age and bad knees are slowing her down, plus she misses being with her family in Juneau during the winter when she heads to Tagish to train her team. But she might have one more long distance race left.
"I've got the Quest this year, then I'm thinking I might do the Iditarod next year and I'll be done," Bicknell said. "I'll do the Iditarod next year if I do well in the Quest and my legs hold up."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.