St. John Valley Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Allagash: Tied hands and heart

by Andrew Birden

ST. JOHN VALLEY- Her voice comes across the radio, hesitant and tired, "Spook was the straw that broke the camel's back. I had to bag her." The radio emits a little musical cadence, and a voice replies, "You're in no hurry. The dogs will look great after a couple of hours of sleep." The second voice, came out across the airwaves like the unbreakable cord tied to a lifebouy, continues to reassure the owner of the first voice, a woman who just finished 150 miles of the most brutal terrain on the planet.

John Osmond continues to reassure his partner of 27 years, Amy Dugan, striving to keep her calm and focused, trying to smooth the rough edges of despair that creep into her voice. Soon Dugan is sounding more confident, and ready to accept the sleep her body craves after 30 hours running behind a dogsled. As soon as she can sleep, she can escape the, anxiety this world-class race casts upon those who participate.

But Osmond's day is still going. As a veteran musher and former contender in the Can-Am Crown 250, he knows exactly what Dugan is feeling. But that's not the half of it. For soon, the newest addition to his household, a girl he has come to regard like a foster daughter, 19-year old Ashley Simpson, will awaken.

Simpson has been in Maibec for several hours, where Dugan has just fallen asleep. Simpson is running a tightly contested third place in the 250. She is using nine of Osmond's and Dugans' dogs, and in less than an hour she must wake the dogs up and prepare them for the 57-mile run to Allagash.

It is 3:00 in the afternoon.

Osmond arrives at the Two Rivers Lunch Cafe around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon. He comes in, nearly unnoticed, and checks the stats board to see how his ladies are doing. Around him, radios are murmuring, voices are giving orders, and people are moving around with nervous energy. Even though John Osmond is not a large man, he moves with the steady inevitable attitude of a grizzly bear. He watches things out of the comers of his eyes, and then allows his head to slowly turn so he can look at the object of his scrutiny with the full force of his attention. When race officials hold conversations near him, he stands, or sits, motionless, perhaps not even breathing as he weighs what he heard and how it might affect Dugan and Simpson.

He says of his radio conversation with the elder of the two women, Dugan, "When you're sleep deprived, the team looks terrible. When you've had some sleep, they look great."

Of the two women, he says, "Both of them can handle a sled as well as me or any other man."

When asked why the women were racing, he thought for a moment before saying more words than he did most of the afternoon and night, "You're challenging yourself. You're challenging the outdoors. You're challenging your skills. You answer the question, better than anything else, how much can you take and still keep going."

Despite the obvious pride he feels for Dugan and Simpson, the strain inside the small restaurant is nearly physical. But the only outward sign of it is a little more stillness when Osmond listens to the radio.

Simpson is running late.

Scenes of disaster torture Osmond as he imagines what young Ashley is facing as she moves across the frozen wilderness, cut off from any communication until she arrives at the checkpoint. And the scenes are all the more real because he has seen them actually happen to his own sled team.

He envisions lame dogs riding in the sled, whimpering with each jouncing lurch across uneven ground. In his mind he sees Simpson's sled, cracked and split with shredded nylon fiber and supplies trailing back to the hazardous tree that seemingly jumped out in front of her. He sees dogs, injured, confused, and yelping when one of them inadvertently steps into a moose-hole" and breaks a leg.

He says, "It's mentally easier being out there." The other mushers tease Osmond, knowing he is worried and understanding., all the reasons why.

He goes next door and checks the thermostat in the bunkhouse where Simpson will be sleeping after she arrives. When he comes back, the radio reports that spotters saw her pass a checkpoint about 12 miles out.

He goes out to check the lane out back, made from excavated snow, where Simpson will park her dogs and her sled. Then he moves around front and waits for nearly two hours before Simpson's flashlight wavers in the distance.

It is nearly 3:00 a.m.

Simpson slides up with her dogs, and the animals are still pulling strong. The small huskies are exhausted and hot. They roll in the snow as race officials give Simpson brief instructions.

"I've got to rest these dogs," she says.

And Osmond says his first words to her, "That's why you're here. You got them in here and that's the number one thing."

He knows what Simpson is experiencing, and an observer can see the frustration in his clenched fists as he watches her fumble a multi-tool with her cold fingers as she tries to open the, bags. of dog food that volunteers bring to her.

Simpson sets out food and straw for the dogs. She searches her supplies and finds a tube of salve to keep the blood flowing into the dog's feet.

"Now you're on the right track," Osmond says.

"It was brutal," responds Simpson. "You have no idea."

"Trails from hell," she adds.

"Good job," he responds.

He talks to her and reassures her, giving advice on what to feed the dogs, where to put the female that has unexpectedly come into season, offering support to this person that might just see herself as riding alone across the cold and unforgiving landscape.

Soon Simpson will fall into dreamless exhausted sleep in the bunkhouse. In five hours she will leave for the final leg of the race to Fort Kent.

At about the same time, Dugan will be pulling in to Allagash and Osmond will have to go through the whole thin again.