News-Miner copy desk chief Julie Stricker is on the trail of the 2006 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race as a handler for her husband, Rod Boyce. Handlers have endless hours of downtime as they follow the race and Stricker will fill some of that time keeping readers posted on the pack of supporters, volunteers and interesting characters who follow the trail. Send Julie questions and comments.
It’s weird looking at the race standings and seeing two groups of mushers in the same checkpoint, but heading in opposite directions–especially when the front-runners are probably at least a day ahead of their trailmates. And speaking of front-runners, Hans Gatt’s team doesn’t seem to have left its get-up-and-go between Eagle and Dawson.
The top three mushers are on their mandatory eight-hour layover in Stewart River, en route to the finish line in Dawson, while those closer to the back of the pack are still facing another 300 miles of trail. It must be hard on the morale of those further back.
That brings to mind another important part of being a Yukon Quest handler: keeping your musher’s morale up. Something always goes wrong for handlers–the truck breaks down, the pipes at the house froze, the cat you thought was male is about to have kittens, the U.S. vice president shoots a hunting partner. Whatever it is (depending on your politics for the latter), the handler shouldn’t tell the musher.
As far as the musher is concerned, everything is OK. He or she has enough to worry about just staying healthy, keeping the dogs healthy and moving down the trail. The handler can deal with it. It’s part of the job. The rest of the world can just wait until after the race.
And a reminder, the race isn’t over when the first musher crosses the finish line. The 2006 Yukon Quest isn’t complete until every musher has crossed that line.
After the mushers leave Dawson, the handlers have a break of two or three days while the mushers travel through “the black hole.” This is the 200 miles of trail between Dawson and Pelly Crossing without any resupply points or road access. The trail runs through a thickly wooded area called the Black Hills. It includes some pretty steep terrain.
Communications are poor, and with only a dog drop at Stepping Stone and a “hospitality stop” at Stewart River, it’s difficult to judge just where the mushers are on the trail. This year, the black hole will be doubly long, since the mushers will emerge from the trail in Pelly Crossing, only to turn back around and drop out of sight again en route to the new finish line in Dawson.
As I write this, Lance Mackey is leading, with Hans Gatt and William Kleedehn dogging his trail, according to the Quest Web site. Mackey may truly be in the lead, or Gatt and Kleedehn may be camping just outside the checkpoints to keep their running schedule a mystery. This is when speculation runs rampant among race watchers.
One person asked me what had happened to Gatt’s team between Eagle and Dawson. He had a couple hours of lead time out of Eagle, but lagged behind Mackey and others going into Dawson. I overheard Kleedehn saying Gatt’s team had burned out. But Kleedehn knew people — and the media — were probably listening in. He may have been telling the truth, or he may have been blowing smoke. I’m not making any bets. In the meantime, speculation is running wild.
Healy musher Regina Wycoff and Yukon musher Kyla Boivin left Eagle together early Friday en route to Dawson. Boivin has been suffering from serious back problems since the start of the race and said she has been treating herself with Algyval and DMSO, both canine liniments, although she has been laughing through the pain.
Wycoff, a rookie, and Boivin are both irrepressibly optimistic, and should be entertaining travel partners. If only dogs could speak.
The news Friday that the trail was being drastically rerouted didn’t come as a huge surprise. All the way up the Klondike Highway, we talked to residents and some of the Canadian Rangers who put in the trail. They all said the conditions were terrible and they had been busy rerouting the trail, filling in holes and cutting through ice and drifted areas.
One guy at a bar in Dawson blamed the conditions on global warming. He predicted that long-distance sled dog racing would die out in a warmer world. Another person at another bar said he thought the climate had been going through a blip, similar to one that occurred in the warm and dry 1930s, but was turning and we could expect a return to more wintry conditions. Who knows. If I could predict the future I’d be playing the lottery right now.
Whatever the reason, the poor conditions were obvious this year. The trail from Pelly Crossing to the dog drop at McCabe Creek runs along the road for several miles. It consisted of an icy snowmachine track with patches of grass and brush poking through. There wasn’t enough snow to hold trail markers up.
Dawson City is where the handlers take charge. It’s one of the reasons they are so important in the Yukon Quest.
After mushers leave Circle in Alaska, handlers jump back in their trucks and drive to Dawson. It’s our 1,000 mile race because we have to get to Dawson to set up camp for the dogs before the dogs arrive. In all, I figure handlers will put at least 2,000 miles on our trucks, and the price of gasoline in the Yukon is almost twice what it is in Fairbanks. The exchange rate isn’t helping us this year, either.
The long trek to Dawson is also a reason a lot of handlers have a love/hate relationship with their dog trucks. We live out of our trucks for almost two weeks. The dashboard is littered with empty Coke cans and coffee cups, with a thick carpet of candy bar wrappers and potato chip bags (health food nuts, we are not). Sleeping bags and dirty socks are stuffed behind the driver’s seat. I drive a 1995 Ford Ranger with 208,000 miles on it. It’s a good, reliable truck (knock on wood) but it gets a bit too cozy after a few hours.
Once the handlers get into Dawson, we make sure all of our musher’s gear is there and start setting up camp, which is in the government campground across the Yukon River from the checkpoint. The dogs get their own tent, which is the biggest blue tarp available tied up between two trees. It has to be open-ended and unheated, according to Quest rules. The handlers set out picket lines to keep the dogs safe and separated from each other and spread out two bales of straw to keep them warm and comfortable. Then the handlers will set up a tent for them, hopefully heated, and move in.
Then the waiting begins. When a musher finally gets in, a handler will meet him/her at the checkpoint and ride the sled back across the river to the campground. The dogs are unharnessed and fed and checked over. The musher gets a ride back across the river to the hotel or billet, where they will spend the next 36 hours eating, sleeping, showering (hopefully) and getting ready for the next 450 miles of trail.
The handler stays at the campground, which is dark and quiet except for the crunch of boots on the snowy road, the scratch of a plastic sled sliding by or an occasional bark. There’s usually a breeze off the nearby river. And although Dawson is only a mile away, the lights seem very distant. The dogs are fed about every six hours. They’re massaged, walked, petted and praised and their feet cleaned and doctored. Most of all, they rest.
When his layover is done, the musher repacks the sled and the rejuvenated team heads back down the trail. Then the handlers get to clean up camp, go into town and find a beer, or three. Our job is over, until the next checkpoint.
It’s about a 20-hour drive from Fairbanks to Dawson, Yukon–if the roads are good. Thankfully, this year, they weren’t bad. We drove to Whitehorse on Wednesday and spent the night and drove the rest of the way to Dawson on Thursday.
On the way, I figured out that handlers on the Yukon Quest put about 2,000 miles on their vehicles. Thank god for iPods. Disco is alive and well in my house, so Donna Summer and the Bee Gees, as well as Rod’s eternal affection for Kiss, AD/DC and Aerosmith kept us awake for the trip. At least I don’t have to worry that any of my music critic friends will want to bum a ride anywhere.
The Yukon territory is awe-inspiring. It’s a wilder, leaner landscape than Fairbanks. The bones of the earth are much closer to the surface than in Alaska’s Interior and Klondike Gold Rush history is around every corner.
Dawson is a fascinating place. It’s a small, quiet town, with wooden boardwalks and dirt roads backed by blocks of century-old buildings drunkenly surrendering to gravity’s pull. The checkpoint is in the visitors center on the street facing the Yukon River. One corner is given over to the media, while mushers, handlers and volunteers mingle, munching on goodies from the bake sale in the back room. Author John Firth, who wrote one of the definitive books on running the Yukon Quest, was in town Thursday night.
The Quest is a good excuse for a party in the middle of February in Dawson, not that this town has ever needed an excuse to have a good time.
After watching the first part of the race from the back of the pack, I’m heading off to see it from the front.
Rod and I are getting ready to drive over to Yukon to pick up the food and gear in our drop bags that the Quest shipped over for the second half of the race. That way we’ll at least recoup a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff and our dog food bill will drop to almost nothing for the remainder of the season.
How much does it cost to run the Quest? We don’t know. We’ve never added it up because the total would terrify us. We have terrific dogs and they eat very well and we are on a first-name basis with half the veterinarians in town. However, our roof leaks, our truck has over 200,000 miles on it and we’re burning wood this winter because we couldn’t afford to fill the tank with heating fuel.
I’m looking forward to getting back to the trail, even as a spectator. I missed going to Central, which is my favorite checkpoint on this side of the race. I’ve been there almost every year as a handler or just as a spectator and I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere in what is now the Steese Roadhouse. It’s a little diner and bar at the intersection of the Steese Highway and the spur road to Circle Hot Springs. When the race passes through, the place is packed, loud and smoky and the hospitality is wonderful. You can sit in a corner and hear three or four mushers talking about the trail and their dogs. We always planned for a night at the hot springs, but the hotel has been closed for a couple of years now. I still haven’t seen the ghost there.
Time to hit the road. We should get to Dawson about the time the front-runners do.
There seems to be a lot of debate in the mushing community about the rescue of the Yukon Quest mushers from the storm on Eagle Summit.
As the wife of a musher who was lost for nearly a week and was widely thought to be dead during a race a few years ago, my perspective is obviously skewed. I was happy to hear that Quest officials called in the National Guard to rescue mushers stranded in Sunday’s storm on Eagle Summit. I don’t want anyone to have to go through the ordeal I had.
From secondhand comments I’ve heard from some of the rescued mushers, they’re darn happy to be alive and out of the storm too, despite also being out of the race. I don’t know if they all feel that way. One friend I talked to Tuesday said he wondered if they were given a chance to refuse the rescue, or if they knew they’d be withdrawn for accepting outside assistance.
Some mushers, including Quest and Iditarod veterans I talked to, are saying the Quest shouldn’t have rushed to the rescue, that the mushers should have been able to hunker down until the storm passed. Or that the mushers should have just stayed in the checkpoint until the trail over the summit was safe.
Still others have said Quest officials should have “frozen” the race for everyone, including those already over the summit and heading for Circle, until conditions were safer.
Of course, we weren’t on the scene and don’t know all the calculations that went into the decision to call for help. It was truly a horrific storm, and I’m grateful no person, or dog, was seriously hurt or killed.
Monday morning quarterbacking is generally futile, but I think some good questions have been raised. I also am grateful that all of the mushers who were caught in the storm are alive and in good condition and can add their voices to the debate, if they wish.
Sunday’s storm on Eagle Summit highlighted a perennial issue on the Yukon Quest trail. Although everyone is entered in the same race, on the same trail with the same rules, they are often competing in two different contests.
First are the front-runners, the mushers who are going for the victory and the purse. These men and women are world-class mushers and athletes. And, although the Quest is relatively unknown outside mushing circles, compared with the Iditarod, anyway, winning the what is often billed as the toughest race in the world is a notable feat.
Then there is most of the rest of the field, which is just aiming to cross the finish line. For the majority of these mushers, money isn’t the object, although that can be said for just about everyone in the Quest.
This year, the storm put a clear dividing line between the front pack and the rest of the field, not to mention the fact that it knocked nearly a third of the mushers out of the race entirely. While mushers in the back of the pack were facing life-threatening conditions that prompted a major rescue effort, the front six or eight mushers were still heading down the trail to Whitehorse with their eye on the big prize. It was jarring juxtaposition on the Quest Web site.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog was because I knew Rod was going to be running toward the back of the pack, which generally gets overlooked in media reports because all eyes are focused on the horse race. A friend of ours, Brian O’Donoghue deplores the focus on the front-runners. He says the slower mushers often have better stories to tell because they’re out on the trail, in the elements sometimes for days after the winner has crossed the finish line, taken a long hot shower and had a long sleep in a warm bed. Brian would know. He’s the only musher to have won the Red Lantern given to the last-finishing musher in both the Quest and the Iditarod.
As of tonight, the Quest field is down to 13 mushers, from a starting group of 22. Healy musher Regina Wycoff is a good 20 hours behind the next-to-the-last musher. She made it over the summit in the storm. When she finishes the race, and hopefully she’ll make it to Whitehorse, she’ll have some tales from the trail that I want to hear.
Hurrah for the race supporters. In the midst of his concern about the mushers stranded in the storm Monday, Rod told me about some of the highlights of the first 150 miles of the race. People were lined up along the river for miles along the course. Many of them handed out food and drinks to the mushers. Rod said he got cookies, a hot dog, a couple of sloppy joe sandwiches and a bottle of water. Other mushers said people offered them a beer and everyone was smiling and waving the racers on.
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Rod also found out that one of our leaders, Slug, is happiest when running in single lead. She pulled the team up Rosebud Summit, a nearly vertical portion of the trail outside Angel Creek.
Another dog, Barney, developed some respiratory problems and a fever on the way into Mile 101. The vets diagnosed him quickly, we put him on antibiotics and kept him in the truck cab overnight. Today, his fever’s gone and he’s running doughnuts around his house, giddy as ever.
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In my previous post, I mentioned the ham radio operators working out of Mile 101. The group, the Arctic Amateur Radio Club, has worked with the Quest and other local races for years. The radio operators are an invaluable part of the communications over some very remote parts of the trail. They say the race helps them keep their skills honed in case of an emergency. Kudos to them for doing a terrific job in some tough situations, especially this year.