Living with an Autoimmune Disease – Part II: How an unplanned camp out on a frozen river may have saved my life.


Living with autoimmune disease: How an unplanned camp out on a frozen river may have saved my life

In Part I of this series, (click here for the story) I shared the symptoms of an overactive thyroid I ignored in the fall/winter of 1996 – 1997. I left off with my dog team and I heading out onto the Little Bay De Noc on Lake Michigan in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, after an accident that cracked three stanchions on my sled and fortunately not my ribs! Today I will share how an unplanned camp out on the frozen Ford River with my dog team was the precursor to an emergency room visit a few days later. That camp out may have saved my life. 

After my little accident coming into the checkpoint, Mark and I made sure all the dogs were in good health and not injured as the next checkpoint of Gwinn was 90 miles away by trail, with no place to drop a dog for the handlers if they were tired or sore. Carrying a dog in your sled is never fun, let alone for a long distance! I left the Escanaba checkpoint with a full 10 dog team in the late afternoon on a sunny Saturday. For the first 10 miles after leaving the checkpoint, teams travel across Little Bay De Noc on Lake Michigan, before turning inland on the long and windy Ford River. One nice thing about traveling on river, it is only 150′ wide in most places. On the Ford, there is no place to get off the trail easily, so I could relax a little and enjoy the scenery as I didn’t have to be keeping a close eye out for trail markers. A couple of hours into the run, just after dark, I stopped along the river to give my team a nice snack. They were still pretty hyped-up as while I was feeding them, friend and fellow competitor Vern Schroeder came along and passed me while I stopped. The dogs went ballistic seeing the other team passing them, and Vern commented on how great their spirits were. After getting my cooler loaded back in my sled, I pulled the snow hook and we were moving back down the trail.

Something Seemed “Off”

(The video above was taken during a fall training run on the ATV to give you an idea what it’s like to run a dog team at night. The best
part about being on snow…it’s quiet!).

After my snack stop, it seemed like the dogs were no longer in their groove. For most of the race I had a sense of not really jiving with my team, and thought it was because I hadn’t spent much time on the runners with them, the Varsity Team. For most of that season I was training and running with the “JV Team” focusing on keeping track of who is standing out in the team in case they were called up to the main crew. An hour or so later, I started to notice a little “hitch” in one of the swing dogs (the two dogs right behind lead). Little female Sox was an incredible cheerleader who could lead the dog team without being in front, and was always on point. I thought maybe she just had a little kink that would work itself out, but after a mile or so, the little hitch, turned into a full-on head bob. After stopping the team to check her out, I was bummed to find she had a sore front wrist and needed to load her into the sled. She gave me the “sorry mom” look and reluctantly settled into the nice little nest I made for her inside my sled bag. I gave her a little kiss and pat on the head, zipped her in my sled and pulled the hook. From that point on, the nine remaining dogs in the team REALLY seemed off. More than once one of the dogs in the middle or the back of the team would seem like they were trying to make a beeline to the riverbank going around a bend, but the leaders kept marching along, keeping the team going forward. That didn’t give me a good feeling, as our team was known for being happy and nice-trotting in those days, but I chalked it up to the soft, punchy trail and tried my best to keep a good attitude.

On the trail with a 10 dog team

This is me a few years later with a 10 dog team in a race in Northern Minnesota.

An Unplanned Camp Out On a Frozen River

With each bend in the river, my sensing the team was trying to head for the riverbank grew stronger and stronger. Even tried and true, hard-head lead dog, Butthead (there is a reason why he was named this, lol), started to slow down around each corner and seemed to be losing his interest in seeing what was around the next bend. I stopped a few times, trying a new dog in lead with “The Butt”, but it kept getting worse with each mile. Finally, somewhere along the frozen river, Butthead gave in and the whole team made a beeline for the riverbank. I tried numerous combinations of dogs in lead, including some that had never been there before. This is where great lead dog legends have been born, but not in my case that particular night. I had a couple of mushers come along and stop and ask if I was OK, which I was, I sent them down the trail, knowing there were a few more teams behind me based on who I left in front of at the last checkpoint. After grabbing my sleeping bag out of my sled, I snuggled up with Sox (who had been resting comfortably ON it inside my sled, lol) under the arctic weight bag. Not long later, the trail crew came along by snow machine and stopped to check on me. I told them I was giving my team a little rest and would try to get them going again soon. They headed up the trail and said they would check in with road crossing volunteers in a couple of hours to make sure I made it to the next road crossing. A while after snuggling back in, good friend and fellow musher Ward Wallin came along and pulled his team next to mine to make sure I was OK. I told him the bank – diving story and said I was fine as I knew there were more teams coming along to send a message to the trail crew. However, Ward gave me the bad news that he was the last team to leave Escanaba, the rest of the teams scratched and headed home! It looked like Ward’s team was maybe starting to get a little too comfortable hanging out with mine. I quickly packed my sleeping bag and Sox back in the sled and sent him down the trail to see if my team would follow his team. If not, I told him to keep going and to send the trail crew back for me.

A Headache Like No Other

Tired Mary just off the trail

You don’t always look very pretty when you get off the trail.

After once again trying what seemed like hundreds of combinations of dogs, I finally gave up and conceded my race was done. The dogs curled back up on the soft snow and I once again pulled out my sleeping bag to rest while waiting for a “tow” to get my team to a place where Mark could get the truck and come pick me up. While laying on my sled my head started to pound. I realized it was from not having a cigarette for hours. As mentioned in Part I, I was a pack-a-day smoker back then, but rarely had any with me while I was racing. While I lay on my sled I remembered seeing a bottle of Ibuprofen in the first aid kit Mark had packed in my sled. Since my head was pounding like a MOFO, I took all three remaining pills and laid back on my sled. My headache continued to pound, and a half hour later, help arrived in the form of the chief judge on a snow machine with one of the trail crew. I knew Joe from other races and he did everything legally possible to help me get my team going, before finally conceding my race was done and giving me assistance. I knew he smoked, so before we got the team up, I bummed a smoke from him…and my headache was relieved! It took some major coaxing to get my team away from the riverbank, but finally got them heading toward a manned road crossing after I led them for a few yards and hopped on the back of the snow machine to have them follow me, with Joe driving the dog sled. We had tried numerous times the other way around, but the dogs wouldn’t follow Joe! The one good thing about that incident: a week later Joe quit smoking as he thought he was going to have a heart attack with all that running!

The Land of The Little People and an “AHA Moment”

We got to the road crossing and I was surprised to find three other teams there waiting for their trucks to come pick them up too! Ward Wallin, the last person had stopped there and the other “Marys” in the race: Mary Lambirth and Mary Gilbertson were camped there too. This road crossing is known as “The Land of the Little People”  is filled with hundreds of people early in the race, as locals bring down old couches and recliners, set up a full bar and even bring a gas stove down on the river to cook pasties to give to the mushers as they pass by! By the time I got there, the only people there was the checkpoint coordinator, the trail crew and the other mushers who were scratching from the race. We all sat around a fire talking about the trail, our dogs and more while waiting for our trucks to find the remote road crossing in the middle of the night. While waiting for Mark, I asked Chief Judge Joe how long he had been involved with the race and found out he was there in 1993 (four years earlier), the year I had my first back surgery and we had our friend Brian run our team while Mark was at home with me during my recovery. I asked Joe if he remembered where Brian had camped on the river for 12 hours with our team and I was none too surprised to find out it was in the same area my team made a beeline for the bank! I was running all but one different dog than Brian had four years earlier and they remembered where they were!

Ibuprofen That Wasn’t Ibuprofen

After Mark and our handler got the dogs and all my gear loaded in the truck, we made the long, dark drive on lonely back roads to our hotel in Marquette. On the ride we analyzed every part of the race; my lack of being able to hold the team back, the team not jiving with me, and my camp out. I mentioned to Mark the Ibuprofen in the first aid kit must be really old as it did nothing for my headache. My jaw dropped when he told me “um those weren’t Ibuprofen, they were Isaac’s pills”. Isaac was one of the dogs in my team with an underactive thyroid! No wonder my headache wasn’t relieved. During our tired stupor, I mentioned something to the effect “maybe I should call a doctor when I get back to the hotel”, but by the time we unloaded, fed dogs and dropped on the bed, we both completely forgot about the Isaac’s pills incident.

Sled dog race finish

While I didn’t get to finish the 1997 UP200 Sled Dog Race, I fortunately had many more years of racing fun after being diagnosed with Graves Disease!

Coming up in Part III:  Swollen lower legs, sky high blood pressure & resting heart rate and a late night emergency room visit found me going into congestive heart failure from an extremely overactive thyroid due to Graves Disease. I was lucky, someone else might not be. Taking those dog pills by accident, MAY have saved my life. More to come in Part III (Never, I mean NEVER put another medicine in an empty Ibuprofen, or any other medicine bottle without labeling clearly what is inside).

Please share this article with someone you know who may be having some of the symptoms I was having. In explaining the whole story of how I ended up with a now 20 year uphill battle of the after-effects of not having a thyroid and untreated auto-immune conditions due to losing my thyroid, my hope is someone will recognize their symptoms and get the help they need sooner than I did.

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