Wyoming Part III-A, January 23, 2022
Jackson Hole Iditarod to Granite Hot Springs in Bridger-Teton National Forest and back
On some rivers, rafting customers have the luxury of warming up and learning how to coordinate their paddling through some easy, inconsequential rapids. On the middle Ocoee, however, guests are faced with a challenging class 3+ rapid that requires them to paddle in synch with the guide’s instructions as soon as they leave the launch ramp. It turns out that leaving the kennel yard to go mushing is a lot like putting in at Grumpy’s on the Ocoee.
Our shuttle driver arrived earlier than scheduled Wednesday morning, so Ian and I had to hustle out of our rooms to make it outside by the Antler Inn office in time to load up for our trip to Jackson Hole Iditarod. After picking up the remaining guests from town, we began our 47 mile drive south to Granite Creek Road. Ian surprised me by sitting quietly for the duration of the drive. I expected him to buzz with excitement as we were finally in route to the experience he’d been building up in his mind for months. And then I realized that he had been building this up so much, that maybe the reality wouldn’t be able to match his expectations. What if he found the entire experience anti-climatic?
We could see the dogs as soon as we turned off the highway and swung into the kennel yard. Ian clearly itched to get out and cuddle with them, but we were immediately ushered into the main office by Frank Teasley himself. He had a very serious conversation with all the guests and shared his expectations for our behavior and participation on our trip today. Even the children were expected to pay attention and understand the seriousness of the rules, not only for our safety, but for the dogs, our guides, and other trail users. Mr. Teasley had us remove our footwear and handed out gigantic, heavy, and delightfully warm black boots to each of us. We laced up, and then were shown outside for our guides to come and meet us.
Most of the guides were assigned four-five people for their team, depending on weight of the customers and the size of the family. Annie was the lucky musher who was assigned to guide Ian and me, as well as Selene, a lone customer whose friends didn’t make the trip. We followed Mr. Teasley’s rules and tried to stay out of Annie’s way as she showed us our positions on the sleds, even though we all really wanted to take dozens of photos of the kennel and our furry engines. But rather than breaking rank to go pet dogs, we remembered our instructions to wait on taking selfies with the team until after they had run for a couple of miles as they were fired up at that point and only wanted to run.
Our equipment for the day consisted of two wooden sleds, one directly behind the team, that Annie would be driving, and a second sled quite a few feet back from the first. Annie explained that she would need someone to stand on the runners of the second sled throughout the day to slow it while coming down hills so that it wouldn’t run up on top of the first sled. Unfortunately she wanted Ian to sit in the basket of the sled for the first part of the trip as the dogs would be taking off strongly and she didn’t want to risk Ian falling off the runners. “No worries,” I found myself answering Annie’s request for one of us to jump on the runners. “I’ll be happy to take a turn back there.” She assigned Selene to sit in the basket of her sled for the first portion of the trip, with promises that we could change out after the first few miles. Ian and Selene climbed into their baskets, and I moved to the back of the second sled, assuming I would simply be a passenger clinging to the handle slightly above my waist. But then Annie came back and starting briefing me on my duties.
“As we leave the yard, we have to climb a small hill, then we’ll go down a hill and around a turn. You’ll need to step on the drag mat as we leave out to slow the dogs, then really put weight on it as we start down the hill.” Wait… I have to do actual work? And then she started showing me how to distribute my weight on the runners so that I could balance the sled going around turns. Next was how to work the brake, and then last was the set of snow hooks that had to be pulled up and hooked onto the sides of the sled right before we took off. And then we were off and running into the Gros Ventre Mountains!
When I tried to describe the trip to Sheryl the next day, I told her it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. This was true, but then again, it was also like so many other things but all at once. The initial takeoff almost felt like being pulled by a ski rope out on the lake. You hold tightly to the bar in front of you while trying to stay upright. It was also a lot like leaving the ramp at the Ocoee and having to immediately coordinate movements to navigate through a series of obstacles. And then at the same time, standing on the runners was like sliding down the mountain on a set of snow skis, but there were no bindings to keep me attached to my equipment.
The drag mat and I became intimately acquainted quickly, and I soon learned to watch Annie’s feet on her runners to try to match my own as we went into turns and over slopes. The biggest difference (to my uneducated self) is that Annie glided her feet from the drag mat to both runners, or sometimes both feet to just one runner. When we started up a steeper hill, she stood with her left foot on the right runner, and used her right foot to help the dogs by pushing her sled up the hill. As I was nearing expert musher level at this point, I decided to try as well. I mean, how hard could it be? I successfully drove the rear sled out of the yard without crashing into Annie, and I didn’t get slung off into the snow, so obviously I was a mushing prodigy. You know what was the best part of being the last person of the entire group? No one saw me when I stumbled onto the drag mat as I tried to move both feet to the right runner. Nor did anyone see me fall forward and hug the handle bar with everything in me when my first attempt at pushing with my right foot nearly sent my left foot into the snow. It turns out that I’m not actually a gifted musher, and in reality, I’m pretty lucky I didn’t spend the entire trip sitting in the snow by myself at mile one, waiting for the group to return home! So nobody should worry, I remain the same, uncoordinated person you’ve always known.
After we glided along the snow for two miles or so, Annie called out for the dogs to whoa so she could rearrange some of them in their position on the gang line. I graduated from the drag mat to the main brake, then Annie showed me how to set the snow hooks. Now we were invited to come meet the dogs and take as many pictures as we wanted. Ian was excited to help Annie with unhooking and re-hooking the dogs, but he wasn’t big enough to help with moving them as they were still awfully excited and ready to run some more. While he waited on Annie to walk them up the line, he got some great fluffy hugs and started learning their names. Then Selene had his full attention as she pulled out a drone so she could take aerial pictures! After Selene landed and packed her equipment away, Annie invited us to change positions. Selene elected to continue riding in the front basket, but Ian was ready to get out and experience the runners. Annie suggested he stand with me rather than by himself, so we positioned Ian in front of me, and then we were off!
Having Ian in front made me nervous. I was afraid to try to move around much as I didn’t want to slip or stumble and risk knocking him over. We rode maybe a half mile or so before Annie pulled us up again to make another minor adjustment. At this point, Ian asked if he could climb back into the basket. At first I worried that he wasn’t enjoying mushing as much as he’d hoped, but then I realized that standing completely still with his mom was a total buzzkill. Annie invited Ian onto her runners for the rest of the trip to our halfway point, and Ian’s outlook instantly improved. Rather than forcing him to stand with one foot on each runner and holding on tightly, Annie stood on the left runner and let Ian have the right. She showed him how to use the drag mat and the brake, letting him engage both when needed, except a couple of times when the dogs needed a bit more weight on the mat. Ian learned to stand with his left foot on his runner and used his right foot to push up hills (with greater success than me), and to also lean around his turns. He quickly learned to mimic Annie and move like a ballet dancer on the rails, and then we whizzed past a tree with branches sticking out into the right side of the trail. Fortunately Annie had her arms around Ian and kept him from getting knocked off the runners.
We mushed through some amazing country. Mountains surrounded us on all sides, as we worked our way up and around them. Sometimes we went through wide open areas, where we could see snow machine and ski tracks coming down the hills. Other times we went through forested sections of trail. My favorite section was the spruce forest that the guides affectionately called Narnia. Annie admitted that she has never read C.S. Lewis and experienced Narnia for herself! Oh well, I guess no one can be perfect. This serene section of trail reminds me so much of a section of the trail behind my grandmother’s house where we take the horses. At Grandma’s, you enter a pine section of forest where the trail narrows, leaving the hardwoods behind as you find older growth.
Entirely too soon we came upon a sign letting us know that we were close to our destination of Granite Hot Springs. The miles had literally flown by, and we were already reaching our midday rest stop. It was getting close to noon at this point, and our bellies were starting to grumble just a little bit. Not much further and we pulled into a wide clearing with picnic tables and propone grills waiting on us. While we were mushing our way to the springs, Mr. Teasley had driven on ahead of us on his snow machine to carry out all of our lunch supplies. While our guides settled the dogs in for their break, we grabbed our bags and headed up the hill to luxuriate in the hot water.
At the top of the hill we found the famed pool of the Granite Hot Springs. All the mushers tromped up the stairs to undress and leave our clothes and boots behind in the heated changing rooms. Selene and I eased our way into the warm water, but Ian jumped straight in. I started to sink in, but remembered that if I let my hair get wet, it could be a mighty cold trip back to the kennel! I feel like I should have the most to share about our swim, but I’m finding myself at a loss for the right verbs and modifiers to fully describe swimming in 100 degree fresh water flowing out of the mountain side. Snow covered the rocks and peaks surrounding us, with a brilliant blue sky overhead. I drifted around, floating in the warm water, while Ian cannonballed into the water, swam around our legs, and perfected his handstands. After a group of snowmobilers left out, we learned that the warmest spot was right against the rocks where the water flowed out of the mountain. Ian continued to swim and play, occasionally checking in, while I watched him from the hot spot. We met some great people from all over the country and enjoyed comparing our vacation experiences.
After an hour of soaking, one of our mushing guides came up to let us know that they had finished preparing our lunch, and we could come down to eat. After pulling on dry clothes, re-braiding my hair, and helping Ian retie his giant boots, we eagerly returned to the clearing with our bellies growling at the aroma. Each family was ushered to a waiting table, which held baked brie with sliced apples and crackers. While we tore into the brie, our mushers took our drink orders for hot tea, cocoa, coffee, or cider. Next they brought around hot corn muffins, and then steaming bowls of meaty chili with all the fixings. Ian enthusiastically tore into his muffin, and managed to also eat half of mine. Then, when chocolates came out, he ate both his and mine. Obviously hunger improves the taste of any food, and we were all pretty hungry after a long morning in the snow, but this meal would’ve tasted just as amazing even if we hadn’t been mushing and swimming. I count this as my second favorite meal of the trip.
After we finished scraping our bowls and the last apple slice was eaten, our guides began breaking down our al fresco diner. Table cloths were folded and packed into gear bags along with cooking equipment and left over food. Tables were folded and stacked under trees. Gear was loaded onto our rear sled since we were the smallest group and our dogs had the lightest load for the trip home. Annie hooked the dogs back to our sled, and we enjoyed one last look around the area before stepping into our places. Selene was ready to try her hand managing the rear sled, so I got to take a turn in the basket of the front sled while Ian once again rode on the runners with Annie. We enjoyed all the same views in reverse, and found that we were gaining on the other teams since we had a lighter sled, and it wasn’t long before we needed to pass one of the other families who were part of our tour. Annie explained that as guided tour dogs, her team doesn’t have as much experience passing as racing dogs, so she felt more comfortable standing in between the two teams and having them pass with her there to physically direct traffic. She stepped off the runners and moved up the gang line, leaving Ian behind to drive the team by himself. She let him call “on by!” and he stood steady on his runners until he stepped onto the brake as Annie called for the dogs to “whoa!” once they made it past the other group. At that point, I knew for certain that the trip had delivered everything Ian could’ve ever hoped for and he was hopelessly addicted to this sport.
I feel very grateful that Ian was paired up with Annie, as she was a very experienced guide who patiently shared her knowledge with Ian. Last year, she worked in Alaska with Brent Sass and helped developed some of his yearlings who this year were on his winning team for the Copper Basin 300 race! We asked 3 million questions, and Annie answered each of them graciously. When we returned back to the kennel, Annie let Ian help her with removing harnesses and returning dogs to their houses. I think there’s a chance that Ian possibly enjoyed the handling as much as the driving! You can catch some of our views from the trip on Ian’s YouTube video.